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)

Miles To Go Before I Sleep

Lake Eaton 12-30My older son is a senior in high school and he recently chose a quote to accompany his photo for his yearbook. I was impressed that in the midst of his friends choosing quotes from SpongeBob episodes (not offense to the Sponge!) or rap lyrics, he chose something sincere. Similarly, when I was a senior in high school many of my friends wrote abbreviated messages to one another rather than actual quotes. When I think about it now, that space was like a Tweet, allowing a specific number of characters that resulted in messages that only a select few could decode: "NB LM JS nvr 4get. Srs rule! luv ya 4eva!" In fact, I remember that my boyfriend at the time was offended that I didn't mention him in my quote space. The truth is that it hadn't even occurred to me to mention him or any of the five girls I considered my best friends. To me, that space was intended to share something of yourself so I chose the last three lines of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

On the verge of ending my high school experience and leaving my hometown for college in a big city, I was seeking new experiences. I hoped to do something with my life other than what may have been expected of me. To many, it may not appear that I took the road less travelled. I am married with two children and a dog. I no longer work outside of the home. I volunteer at my son’s school and at my church. Sounds pretty ordinary.

But when I think about the way that my life has unfolded, it doesn’t feel ordinary at all. It feels pretty spectacular. And when I walk in the Adirondack woods near our cabin with my husband and my dog, it’s a different Robert Frost poem that rings in my ears. Sometimes I wonder about continuing to pursue a dream that doesn't appear to draw any closer to my fingertips. But pursuing dreams well into adulthood is a form of taking that road less traveled. And I think I have a long way to go before I sleep.

In that vein, I’ll leave you with Frost’s words - along with my wish for something extraordinary for you in the New Year.   Dusting of Snow

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

BY ROBERT FROST

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1923, © 1969 by Henry Holt and Company, Inc., renewed 1951, by Robert Frost. Reprinted with the permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Source: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays (Library of America, 1995)

Sometimes 2+2 ≠ 4

whitevanThe first thing you should know before reading this post is that my house has been robbed not once, but twice. The second thing you should know is that I have a wicked imagination. I arrived home around 12:45 pm today to see a white van parked across the street from my house. This was exactly the sort of white van that you imagine a terrorist or a serial killer might use (though the one in Silence of the Lambs wasn't white).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z29nAyq3JcI

An Asian woman sat in the driver's seat and she was staring at my house. Staring at it like we had an appointment and I was late. But I didn't have an appointment with anyone, white-van driving or otherwise.

It didn't seem all that likely to me that there was an Asian female crime team in my neighborhood, but like I say, I've been robbed before. When our neighborhood was robbed around that time, there were a couple of men posing as handymen. If no one answered, they'd break in and steal gold and leave within three minutes, before the police could respond to an alarm. Who's to say that there couldn't be a female-led crime team? I'm a feminist!

My back door was locked (as I'd left it) and when I entered the house, our dog lay on her bed, barely offering a glance at me, and my laptop remained on the kitchen counter where I'd left it. Maybe that woman driving the white van was part of a cleaning service that was leaving fliers on the doors of the houses in my neighborhood. I checked the front door for a flier, but there was none. There was, however, an old red flip phone on the welcome mat in front of my front door. And the van was gone.

Obviously, the driver's cohort had dropped the phone in haste after realizing my house was locked. I flipped the phone open to check the contacts. I'm not a police officer, but I play one in the movie of my life. Alas! The phone was deader than dead and would not yield her secrets. No worries, though, I have enough cords in this house to revive any phone, flip or not.

While the little red phone charged, I sat down to some lunch. I figured that it wouldn't hurt to find out if there had been any robberies in our area. It turns out that there have been! Several, in fact. And one within the week that was just a couple of blocks from me.

Now it seemed imperative that I do my civic duty and alert the police department of the suspicious van and the very suspicious cell phone. (I mean, who has a flip phone anymore? Very suspicious.) The police officer arrived with his very important hat and his very big gun and all of those important, but unidentifiable accoutrements attached to his belt. I immediately felt safe and also a bit embarrassed to be a bother. Surely, he had other things to do than talk to a stay-at-home mom.

After taking my statement on one of those tiny pads, he walked the perimeter of my house to look for anything out of place. By the time he returned, the phone held enough charge that it turned on. I was secretly very excited. After all, I was on the cusp of helping a police officer identify the all-female crime syndicate terrorizing our neighborhood, right?

The officer began to scroll through the contacts. Maureencell. Mariecell. Rogercell. Right away, it was obvious that this was not the cell phone of an Asian crime boss. The officer clicked the emergency contact. (What self-respecting crime boss would have an emergency contact?)

"Oh," I said, a bit crestfallen. "This is my neighbor's phone."

"You sure?" the officer said.

"Yup, that's her daughter's name. I know them well."

He chuckled and left the phone on my counter. "Well," he said as he left. "If you see anything else suspicious, give us a call. You never know if it could help." With that, he took his important hat and all of those unidentifiable accoutrements on his belt and he left.

It occurred to me after he was gone that we have new neighbors and that the women in the van were probably working at the house. Then again, maybe there is a female-led Asian crime syndicate. I guess we'll never know.

**UPDATE: When she came to pick up her little red cellphone, my neighbor surmised that she'd dropped the phone somewhere between our two houses and that the woman in the van placed it on my welcome mat to ensure that someone would find it. And that is why she was looking at my house. My neighbor's interpretation is far more plausible and it demonstrates a lovely faith in humankind. (But my interpretation was much more intriguing, don't you think?)

Gemma Chan and Al Weaver in BBC's Sherlock

(suspicious white van image from cedrig.com. Sherlock S1;E2 "The Blind Banker" image from buddy2blogger.blogspot.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.)

Writing Around It

thHow do you write about nothing when there's something? How do you write around the thing that occupies every waking moment when the people closest to it need privacy? When driving home, I need to remind myself what a green light means and when I arrive home, I double-check that I put the car in park before I get out. Writing fiction feels impossible, let alone useless. Running is not an option. That sounds like a euphemism. It's not. I've bullied my Achilles tendon to the point that I'm in a boot. Reading has long been an emotional refuge, but after reading the same paragraph five times, I push the book away. Instead, I attack my bathroom with bleach, cleaning out the space beneath the sink like I'm clear cutting a forest because life's too short to have so many half-empty bottles of conditioner, worn down eyeliners and gauche shades of lipstick.

While walking the dog, a soccer ball clangs against the chain-link fence and I jump like it's a gunshot. Loud music and laughter is shrapnel in my ears. I try the news, but I can't digest the stories of war and death and discord and I can't look at this computer screen for another minute, so I pull out the hose, the bucket, the sponges and that cleaner that smells terrible and I scrub the porch furniture even though it's half-past September and the season for sitting outside is pretty far gone.

When a snatch of peace arrives, I sit on my back porch in one of those portable fold-up chairs that you take to watch your kid play soccer. My dog lies content in a patch of sunlight. A single bird sings. And I know that though I've been changed permanently, I will be okay. We all will be. Eventually.

(image from alisonlongstaff.blogspot.com)

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.

59234-o

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

Unexpected Visitors

We’ve had our lake house for three years now. We love being up in the middle of the Adirondack Park on a cool lake framed by mountains. It suits us. But one thing we’ve joked about is the fact that we rarely see any wildlife. In fact, I’ve seen more wildlife on my early morning runs in suburban Philadelphia than I’ve seen in weeks of time at our camp. Last week I saw two foxes and one hedgehog — or maybe it was a groundhog. I’m really not clear on the difference. Anyway, this week at the camp, the lack of wildlife changed. While sitting on my deck, typing away at my laptop, I heard my husband exclaim from dock, “Laura! Come down here! Bring a camera!”

Not wanting to miss whatever he’d seen, I scurried down the steps sans camera. Beside the dock, three little heads bobbed in the water.

“Beavers?” Tom asked. Our neighbor had seen beavers. He’d also seen a bear meandering our property while we were not there.

“I don’t think so,” I said. Though I don’t recall ever seeing a beaver up close and personal, these guys didn’t have those famous buckteeth. The three made a clicking noise and then dove beneath the water with the grace of a selkie, dark pelts gleaming wet in the sunlight.

“They can’t be seals, right?” he said.

“Otters!” I said, as they surfaced again and dove once more. “They’re otters!”

Then they were gone. Disappeared beneath the dark waters of the lake leaving us with nothing but wonder.

otter

The next day, as we started a late morning run, I was startled to see a brood of wild turkeys waddling down the road like a gaggle of women shuttling children home from church. They paid me little mind before returning to their walk. Of course I didn’t have a camera that time either. Later, I remembered that my friend, Linda, met up with a few wild turkeys in a different mountain cabin far from here. She was smart enough to have a camera.

Yesterday we went for a long hike and I wondered if our wildlife luck had change enough to give us a glimpse of something interesting on our hike. I brought my camera just in case, but the most we saw were three tiny frogs, each smaller than a quarter and the color of autumn leaves, hopping across the path. In retrospect, that’s probably for the best. I’m not anxious to meet mountain lions, coyotes or bears while walking in the woods. Instead of wildlife, I’ll leave you with the view from the top of Owl’s Head. (River otter image from mylonglake.com, view from Owl's Head my own.)

View from Owl's Head

 

In Between Times

I’m sitting at my writing desk watching dawn arrive over the lake on a cold, rainy morning. Almost an hour ago I said good-bye to my mother as she headed for the airport with a driver. Dawn on the lake is rarely a peach-colored glory (at least where we are on the lake) and today it’s even more timid than usual. The dawn begins as a faint glow that intensifies until the lake is no longer a black nothingness, but a rippling, living thing. The rain whispers against the windows and trees shiver. Fog cloaks the mountaintops. This weather is unseasonable for August. I think it is, anyway. We’ve been here for about three years and I’ve never seen it so rainy or so cold. I should be packing or doing laundry or getting dressed for the long drive home, but instead I’m relishing this in between time when it’s no longer night, but not quite morning.

The other evening, while driving home from dinner and a movie, the rain (finally) stopped and the clouds parted. Perhaps dawn isn’t a spectacular event, but the sunsets are something to behold.

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Accidental Trail Run

81 The other day I was scheduled for a long run, the longest of this training season so far, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. I’m up at the lake and as beautiful as it is up here, there are few quiet shaded roads that go for miles and miles. Not to mention that there’s nothing that remotely resembles flat. It is, after all, the Adirondack Mountains.

After plenty of procrastinating, I set out and cobbled together several miles on some of my favorite roads and then resigned myself to running the second half on Route 30, a major road traversed by logging trucks, RVs and motorcycles. A little more than a mile on Rt 30, I saw the entrance to a park where we’ve cross-country skied in the winter. I trotted in, worked my way past the many campsites and found the snowmobile trail. The sign, with an arrow and bright orange trail marker, told me that the trail ended near a familiar trailhead. Running the mileage calculations, I figured that the trail, plus the run home from the trailhead, would get me to my goal.

I didn’t give a second thought to embarking on the trail because I knew that if it seemed dicey, I could simply turn around after a mile or two and complete my run as planned. Once I’d gone beyond the two miles and I was committed to completing the trail to its endpoint, I admit to feeling a bit nervous to be running on an unfamiliar trail with no phone and no one aware of my location. While that’s not the safe way to go — everyone knows that the first rule of hiking alone is to let someone know where you’ll be and when you plan to return — the risk was small (weather forecast was good, the route was short). After skimming the nervousness off the top, waiting like a kid on Christmas morning, I found exhilaration, bringing to mind that Eleanor Roosevelt quote about doing things that scare us.

Right away, I realized is that running on a new trail is tricky – at least for me. While keeping my eyes on the trail to avoid rocks and logs, I wasn’t keeping my head up to watch for trail markers. Several times, I paused, nervous that I’d lost the trail and reminded that I had no phone and no map and then I’d see the bright orange marker and I’d continue on. The mountains must have gotten quite a bit of rain in the days previous. At first, picking my way around the sloppy mess, I worried that I’d reach a part so flooded that I wouldn’t find a way around it, but eventually I was committed come hell or high water. The route was almost all flat, bursting with ferns, and much of it ran alongside a lake. Even in my imagination, I couldn’t have dreamed up a greener, more peaceful environment to complete that long run. At one point, my foot landed in a mucky soup of mud and I found that when I slowed to a walk, deer flies found me delicious, but that was the worst of it. When I landed at the trailhead and the road that I run on most often, I experienced a swell of pride. I’d tried something unexpected and it ended up even better than I’d hoped.

The thing about Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote is that we find magic when we push past our comfort zones and the go beyond the familiar. I don’t believe, when she said that famous sentence, she intended that every day we must climb a mountain or leap off of a 20-foot ledge. I think Eleanor meant that each day we have the opportunity to take one step outside of what we know and possibly find out who we are. What could you do today that scares you a little bit?

(image from buymeposters.com)

Some Love for the City of Brotherly Love

On some July mornIMG_5819ings, the humidity and sun combine to envelope nearly every living thing in a syrupy stillness like that field of brilliant poppies in the Wizard of Oz. Yesterday morning was like that. As I ran one my usual routes down the Heritage trail and into West Laurel Hill Cemetery, waves of cicadas offered the only accompaniment to my labored breathing and rhythmic footsteps. The occasional bird called out a half-hearted song, but those were few and far between. I wended my way around humble granite gravestones, stately mausoleums with gem-colored stained glass, sharp obelisks piercing the sky and I reveled in the sleepy quiet and in the wonder that one day could be so different from the next – neither better than the other. On Saturday, by the time I dropped our older son off at Boathouse Row around 8 a.m. for his regatta, the whole area was already swarming with bikers, runners and rollerbladers — not to mention the hundreds of rowers readying themselves for their respective races. As Tom and I stood on the riverbank, waiting for our son’s event, I took in the countless boats working their way upriver, telltale oars identifying their boathouses. A freight train, the cars emblazoned with the ubiquitous CSX, rolled its way across one of the many bridges spanning the river and beyond that Philadelphia’s tallest buildings fought to be seen beneath clouds threatening a warm summer rain. That feeling hit me again, the feeling that was reignited during that first regatta in April and which continues to grow: I love Philadelphia.

Later in the day, I drove into the East Parkside part of Philadelphia to pick up folks for a church BBQ. The woman who is our contact in the community is nothing short of amazing, organizing events for children, helping men in a halfway house find jobs and planning meals for the sick and elderly. Playing with the kids and talking to their parents was great, but my favorite part of the night was hearing Miss Calla’s stories of growing up in Philadelphia. She got everyone laughing when she told us of the fish man coming through her neighborhood by horse and wagon, shouting: “Here come your fish man! Bring out your dish pan!”

As we were driving home, Miss Calla showed me her block, a lovely peaceful block tucked in from a busy main road, and pointed out the garden space that neighbors created as well as a very creative renovation of one of the row homes. And it hit me again: I love Philadelphia.

 

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When The Lights Go Out

photo 1 We were all standing around the kitchen after lunch on July 4 when, without a hint of warning, our power went out. Our power rarely goes out. When we had those insane ice and snowstorms over the winter, our power stayed on. And the year before that, when Hurricane Sandy blasted through, our power stayed on. On the rare occasion that we lose power — and I think it’s been years —it’s always back on within a couple of hours. We sort of shrugged went about our business.

Our older son’s approach to losing power was to use up all of the energy in his various devices, one after the other. The younger son decided to walk the dog and then hang out at a friend’s house where they had power (and video games, of course). Tom and I took a nap. By 5 p.m., the power remained off and the electric company estimated that restoration would take another 24 hours at least. We filled a cooler with ice and food to serve as our backup refrigerator and armed with our gas stove and gas grill, we prepared to make dinner. We figured it was a lot like camping inside our house.

By this time, our older son’s Kindle, laptop and phone were dead. He wandered into the kitchen looking for something to do and was psyched to learn how to cook on the grill. He followed that up with making some of the best guacamole I’ve ever had. The younger son, meanwhile, regaled us with tunes on his brand new piano. We ate outside, where there was still a fair amount of light. The wind was relentless, sending napkins flying and providing evidence to why the power had ceased to begin with.

After dinner, as evening grew darker, we dusted off some old games and settled on Jenga by candlelight. When it became too dark to find the pieces that scattered on the rug, I suggested that we venture out to see fireworks. As the only true fireworks hound in the family, I sweetened the deal by suggesting the boys (including my husband!) could charge their devices while driving. The fireworks were okay, but sitting in a parking lot amidst huge bright lights doesn’t make for the best viewing.

By Saturday afternoon, the power was still out. Outside of needing a flashlight in our windowless powder room and the ice in the freezer melting and dripping onto the kitchen floor, the inconveniences were minimal. The high heat and humidity had broken on Thursday night and Saturday had brought even cooler weather. My husband I went to the swim club for showers and lunch (and to charge our laptops) and then camped out on the porch, our dog at our feet, hearing birdsong and not much else. The boys biked to the water ice stand and then down to a local trail.

The electric company promised that the power would be restored by 6 pm on Saturday evening, but I confess to having mixed feelings. Sure, I needed to do laundry and run the dishwasher. And yes, it does start to feel a bit disconcerting not to have power after about 24 hours. But I’ve loved seeing the boys use their time differently absent of the PS4 and their laptops and I’ve enjoyed hanging out on the porch with my husband. Not the mention the writing I’ve been able to crank out when there are no Internet or email distractions and I’m racing against the threat of the laptop’s battery dying!

Usually on Saturday nights, we watch movies at home. Not feeling optimistic about the power being restored by 6 pm, heading out for dinner and a movie seemed like a good plan. The only movie that we were all willing to see at a time that worked for us was in New Jersey. Over the bridge we went. As the trailers started, I received a text message that power had been restored. We settled in with our popcorn and candy, secure in the notion that when we arrived home, we would be greeted with lovely artificial light. After the movie, as we returned home via the Ben Franklin Bridge, we received our final gift of the power outage. Spectacular fireworks exploded from Penn’s Landing and sitting on the middle of the bridge, we had the best seats in the house to watch the grand finale.

Sure enough, when we pulled in the driveway, the power had been restored. My family knows that I sort of loved the break from electricity. In fact, my younger son is worried I might flip the circuit breaker and give us more non-electronic family time and my husband warned me not to follow these past couple days with a proclamation about the virtues of stepping away from our devices. I’ll try to play it cool. We’ll see.

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A Sport Like No Other

My older son has played many sports over the years starting with soccer at age 4, adding baseball at age 5 and swimming at 6. In his sophomore year of high school, he let go of soccer and baseball, kept the swimming and started Ultimate Frisbee. We’ve sat on various sidelines in rain and shine for many years cheering him in his various roles on those many teams. But none of those athletic experiences prepared us for crew.

This year, his junior year in high school, our son decided to join the crew team rather than return to his Ultimate Frisbee team. The decision was difficult for him; he loved playing Ultimate, expressing a sense of confidence he’d been missing in swimming. I was excited for him to try crew. He’s got a good build for the sport — not a ginormous heavy weight, but broad for a lighter guy — and I thought the sense of teamwork would appeal to him. When he finally gathered the courage to email the crew coach, the team was already well into their training season. Even so, the coach welcomed Zach, who started that same day.

Right away, it was apparent that this sport requires a level of grit that is not required in some other sports. He arrived home sweaty, tired and with hands plastered in blisters. For those first weeks, my husband and I couldn’t tell if he liked crew or not. He’s a young man of few words so we watched and waited. Finally, the day of the first regatta arrived. Our son was required to be at the river by 5:30 a.m. The rest of us followed a couple hours later in advance of his scheduled 9:16 a.m. race.

First of all, the scene down by the river is like a giant tailgate party, but without the booze. (I can hear some of you groaning with disappointment: What’s a tailgate without the booze? But I love a party atmosphere where there’s eating and talking and no worries about some poor drunk falling in the river.) My delight at the fantastic tent city that pops up for each regatta made me glow with Philly pride when I realized that about a hundred schools as far away as New Jersey and Maryland drive to our city to compete in these regattas every week. And the river is practically in our backyard. As the time for our son’s race drew nearer, we took our spots next to the river with binoculars and cameras at the ready.

I’m convinced that stored inside our bodies there is some ancient DNA programming for us to recognize the wonder of rowing. Seeing a boat of boys pulling oars in concert with one another filled me with awe. The fact that it was my boy in his first regatta in a boat with three other novices as well as a novice coxswain and they finished 6th out of 24 elevated the experience even further.

What I take away from watching my older son move through this new experience is the reminder that hard things are hard, but also rewarding. That it’s okay to let go of the sure thing and reach for the unknown. That every new experience brings it’s own set of pain and challenge, but those don’t diminish the overall experience.

Tomorrow will be the boy’s last regatta of his Novice season on crew. We don’t know what the weather will hold, how the river will behave or whether the boys will be able to find their rhythm and pull out a strong race. At the beginning of the season, our son didn’t know if he’d like crew, if he’d be any good at it or if he’d row in any of the regattas. There are always unknowns so at some point we need to ask ourselves: would you rather stay on the sidelines and wonder? Or put yourself out there and be the source of wonder?

(Photo from psra facebook page)

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)

Handicapped versus Disabled

The other night, my husband and I attended a dinner hosted by Inglis House, a non-profit organization that provides long-term residential care to adults with physical disabilities. My husband serves on the board and he’d invited me to join him for the Annual Board dinner. Inglis House is an amazing organization that promotes living life to the fullest. Lauren DeBruicker, the Chairman of the Board and partner at Duane Morris, gave a speech that both moved me and made me think. Lauren is smart, inspiring, uber-competent and a lovely human being. To learn more about Lauren, check out this article. Lauren spoke about the distinction between the words disabled and handicapped. While those of us who are able-bodied may not immediately understand the difference, to illuminate the point Lauren, a wheelchair user herself explained: I cannot walk up steps. That is a disability. But whether or not the disability is a handicap is relative to my environment.

Lauren painted a picture for the audience. After she first sustained her injury, she explained, living in her parent’s home, a two-story colonial, made her disability a handicap. By not being able to walk up steps, she did not have access to her bedroom or the bathroom. But when she moved to an accessible dorm in college, her disability was not a handicap. There were accessible entryways and bathrooms and there was an elevator to take her up steps. When Lauren didn't need to expend energy worrying over how she'd navigate steps, she could focus on other aspects of her life.

Extrapolating from her experience to that of the resident at Inglis House Lauren shared the goal of Inglis House: “to give people the resources to define their own lives.” By providing accessibility such that the physical disability is not a handicap, an individual is free to pursue other dimensions of his life — to paint, to become a webmaster, to learn photography.

Lauren’s words encouraged me to think of other labels that define people: poor, unemployed, immigrant, learning disabled. By assisting people living below the poverty line with housing costs or providing a living wage, they can then make decisions for their lives that aren’t governed by whether to pay rent or buy the baby antibiotics.

By providing language instruction and support for acclimation, new immigrants can make choices that aren’t based on limited communication skills or a lack of understanding as to how things work in this giant country of ours.

By offering specialized learning instruction, a child who learns differently can be free to explore his passions and interests rather than worrying over whether he completed the homework assignment accurately or if he’ll have enough time to complete an exam.

By providing specific, targeted resources, people can define themselves in new ways. A person may always possess those other labels, but those labels no longer need to be the primary definitions by which they know themselves or are known to others. imgres

The ways that we define ourselves create pathways to what we become and even without any of the above labels, we can still manage to handicap ourselves. We place ourselves in situations that we know will undermine our self-esteem or we take on too many obligations and fail to manage all of them. Perhaps we strive toward an unrealistic goal and feel disappointed when we can’t achieve it.

For some people, these internal handicaps can feel as limiting as those steps are to a wheelchair user. But if the handicaps are, as Lauren shows us, dependent on the environment, what resources might help to eliminate them? What new pathways can you create that will allow you to strive toward your potential?

While surfing the web on redefining what's possible, I learned about this guy. Get ready to have your mind blown.

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(artistotle quote from idlehearts.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.