Saturday, November 2, 2013

Personal Drama Makes the Best Stories


You predict that running into the other woman will be traumatic, catastrophic, a ripping of the sandy earth beneath your feet.  You’ve studied enough Jerry Springer reruns to know that a millisecond of the meeting might prove exciting, the pulled hair and a nervous energy that drags you into actions you’ve never felt capable of before.  Your body will instinctually discern how to throw a punch, fingers curled into a fleshy puppet bent on exacting revenge.  Time will slow to a crawl while you savor every word you say, every inch of respect you reclaim. 

Except when the moment happens, nothing you expected plays out.  It is sickeningly comical how mundane the incident is.  The apartment, his apartment, smells like dust and mildewed soap.  The other woman hangs back behind a spare bedroom door, because there is no bravery or excitement present.  There is, in fact, a distinct lack of passion.  When you walk into the hiding room, you realize that you are the only passionate being present.  Everything else fades to a milky white.  You want to laugh except it will seem out of place.  Both of them deserve the silence they’ve created for themselves.  You have your daughter in your arms, and when the two of you leave there will be laughter at home.  You save your laughter for the places that deserve it.

And all of the fears, that she would be prettier or exotic, disappear and you understand that she isn’t even a person.  Rather she’s the physical embodiment of all the ugliness your soon to be ex-husband was hiding in the corners of his body, beneath his pillow at night right after he whispered I love you.  She is tangled vines and drooping intentions wearing a smirk that could be blown away with a cool puff of breath.  One word whispers behind your ears as you turn and descend a staircase actually carrying you upward.


Saturday, October 26, 2013

Writing Prompts Just Because

I never blog enough.  (No, that's definitively not the prompt...although if it works for you, go to town.)  But after two requests to post something new, I realized that even if a few people get something out of my blog, I should make a dedicated effort to write at least once a week.  Today's an insanity day - yoga, whirlwind trip to Philly, serving on a new writing committee, meditation, dog walk/cardio/dog spazzing at squirrels - all before 5 p.m., so rather than try and be witty or deep, I'll post my top ten favorite writing prompts all stolen from places that probably stole them from other places.  I keep these in my writing toolbox on the days that I run dry.

1) Stick a kleptomaniac smack dab in the center of a packed crowd and see what he or she takes.

2) Create a character who hates a holiday and make them live through it.  (Opt for the holidays less traveled - Valentine's Day is too easy.)

3) Think Warm Bodies and craft a creature who defies the norm (a girl scout who refuses to sell cookies, a doctor who takes lives, a poet who can't spell.  You get the idea.)

4) Chronicle a day in the life of a secret admirer who falls out of love right when the crush falls in.

5) Screw with your character's brain.  Make him or her go colorblind or lose the ability to count.

6) Have siblings fight!  It's been done, but if done right, it can always work again and play with ages.

7) Take your favorite song and find a gorgeous line.  Write it at the top and bottom of the page.  Fill in the blank space.

8) Frankenstein the following words into a story: arithmetic, gypsy, typewriter, cinnamon, concrete. (Any five random words NOT of your selection will work.  Pester creative friends for suggestions.)

9) Take your favorite vintage character and make a modern version.  Use a new name and all that good stuff, but he or she should have the same traits and flaws as the original.

10) Start your story with 'I need you.'  This is my favorite, and while I've never actually kept this first line, it brings about the best results.


Saturday, August 24, 2013

My Cup Runneth Over...

With coffee.  And other things, but lately I've rekindled an already pretty strong love affair with Starbucks despite all of the posts about their questionable 'loaded gun in store' policy.  The socially conscious part of my brain is rioting while the biochemical need I have for their coffee is sated twice a day.  But that's not really the cup I want to talk about.  Instead, it's the professional one.

Around my birthday (in the 30's, no specifics!) in June, I decided that my writing career had become stagnant.  I was still attending conferences and working on novels and stories, but a timeline was lacking.  A missing urgency.  Instead it felt like projects were completed at random, and my work was suffering.  So I turned to good old-fashioned goal setting and made a list.  A list I didn't share with anyone, a list that felt both reasonable and ambitious, but a list nonetheless.  At the time I told myself I should be writing and it was a procrastination tactic, nothing more.  

But lo and behold it worked.

Two of my short stories were accepted for online journals.  "Encounters In the Park" can be found here, thanks to Literary Orphans.  And yes, that is absolutely my silhouette behind the story. (If you follow the link, you'll see why this statement is utterly untrue and vaguely hysterical.)  And flash fiction originally written for one of NPR's Three-Minute Fiction will show up in the Toasted Cheese Literary Journal next month.

Pair this with an acceptance to Lesley University's Creative Writing MFA program and a fantastic agent reviewing my YA novel as we speak, and I couldn't be happier with the summer's writing progress.  And I am one thousand percent certain that without those defined goals, none of that would have happened.

In part this post allows me to put the results into writing as a testament of what a few months of hard work can really do, but it's also a reminder of just how important the goal setting and planning are.  I fight this thought often, because writing has always been such an intimate, organic process for me.  Even forcing myself to write every day no matter my mood or the inspiration has been tough, but the lists and strategic thinking helped perform wonders with my writing routine, too.

My recommendation, perhaps a terribly obvious one, is as follows.  Think specifically about what you want to get out of writing.  Are you working towards a book?  Do you plan on publishing short stories as a hobby, or do you hope to teach/mentor other writers or just find your own mentor to move out of the amateur writing world?  Of course it's FINE to say 'I want to be a writer.'  But there are many different journeys implied by that statement, many exciting paths to pursue.  Defining that journey can only make it richer, and your success rate will skyrocket.  Break each goal into steps, translate those steps to an action calendar, and hit all of your checkpoints.  Hold yourself accountable.  I'm the first to admit that first and foremost you must be a good writer to get anywhere (except Stephenie Meyer, she's an anomaly), but once you've grown into your writing shoes, goal setting will take you to that next step.  

The Starbucks obsession, of course, is optional.

Good luck writing!  

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Little Talks

It's a little blog about little opportunities to write just a little bit.
The world of Flash Fiction is exploding and giving way to shorter mediums.  Some may pooh-pooh the abbreviated works, but I think it's a wonderful way to exercise your writing chops.  Below find brief descriptions and links to some unique opportunities to publish it...just a little bit.  (Corny reference to a 90's dance song, I know. :-)

Join Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a host of other cronies to draw a little picture, write a few words, and post/record your creation.  Also check out The Tiny Book of Tiny Stories, where they collected the best of the best and published them.

Six-Word Memoirs 

You must be living under a rock if you haven't heard about Hemingway's baby shoes tale or the magazine that turned stringing together six brilliant words into a genre.  Smith Magazine provides prompts and encourages a community to participate in developing six-word narratives and memoirs.

Three-Minute Fiction

In three minutes or less, what can you do?  NPR hosts a contest that recognizes a fair amount of folks.  Follow the prompt and your small story (read under three minutes) may end up on the radio or the website.  Their FB page also offers an interesting community of authors who give kudos and critiques. 


This monthly literary magazine finds its home on a postcard, containing only 150 words or less.  The competition is steep, but the medium is pretty innovative.

Safety Pin Review

Speaking of innovative mediums, how about someone wearing your story on a patch on their back?  I love this idea and tried it with my creative writing class.  Stories should be compelling and distracting.  Why not send them out into the world to grab unsuspecting victims, maybe even those who don't like to read!?

One Sentence

"True stories, told in one sentence."  Pick the most interesting moment in your life and describe is so the reader believes it's that important, too!

There are a slew of other little opportunities out there.  Feel free to add your own finds as a comment.  Most importantly, write write write!

Friday, July 12, 2013

For the Love of the Sport

Except I am miserable at sports.  (Those of you who shared in the torture of high school gym with me can probably attest to this fact.)  So perhaps for the love of the game might have been a more appropriate title for this blog entry.  And for me the game has always been and will always be writing.

And after years of one foot in and one foot out, I'm making changes to put more energy into my writing career because without its presence in my life, everything else falls a little flat.  Of course this renewed dedication comes at a cost.  Laundry will take longer to get done or may walk itself into the washer on its own.  (Matthew's tennis socks, I'm speaking directly to you!)  And of course don't forget Mother's Guilt.  Yes my children will only be young once (read Leah Ferguson's sublime blog post about letting children go here), but then again I only get to be young once, too!  Or the fear of failure, a tremendous black shadow that literally climbs into my lungs and chokes me until I shut down the laptop, because I don't just want to write anything.  I want to write good things.  Meaningful things.  I recognize the buzz I feel in the pit of my stomach when I read an incredible line.  I tell folks about it.  I copy it in the corner of a planner or journal to savor because my life changes with the words.  There is an infinitesimal but important shift in my brain. All because an author wrote something good.

And to move forward in this dream that started when I wrote "The Cat and the Quilt" in first grade, I need a game plan.

Step One: Apply to several strong MFA programs.  (One has already written back, so no matter what I'm going somewhere. :-)

Step Two: Write more deeply.  I want to be a better writer.  I want to learn the craft as well as I humanly can, and to do this, I have to push myself out of the genres I tend to live in.  Explore new territories.  Read more variety.  Stretch myself.

Step Three: Advertise.  Not self-advertise so much, but if I announce my intentions to the big wide world, they have to happen, right?

Step Four: Take advantage of mentors.  I know so many phenomenal writers and professionals who often offer help, but there's always a reason I say no.  I'm busy.  I'm scared my work won't measure up.  I'm intimidated.  Nope, no more.

Step Five: Remember the endgame.  I write to write to write.  I do not write because I think I'll be the next JK Rowling or plan to see my face on a poster at B and N.  (I'm not saying those things wouldn't be cool. :-)  But the writing should always be the focus.  Often at writing conferences folks are hung up on social media, marketing, and self-publishing without a solid piece of writing or desire to learn the craft.  

Step Six: ENJOY.  I get to live a writer's life, along with my other insanely fun careers (teacher, wife, and mother).  Being a writer makes all my other jobs that much richer, and I'm thrilled that I discovered it in my life so long ago.  

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Writing Hurts...Literally

Summer is a time for relaxation, rejuvenation, and intense physical therapy!?  After a visit to the masseuse who referred me to the chiropractor who referred me to the back specialist, I'll be visiting a PT guru two to three times a week for a few months to beat two vertebrae back into line with the rest of my spine.  It's nothing dire, and summer offers me time to heal, but I have to admit I panicked when the thought of contorting like a pretzel rather than leisurely reading and writing all summer presented itself.  (Trust me, I'm getting to writing.  This isn't just a ranting session.)

My big question throughout the labyrinth of doctor visits and consultations was why.  Why had my spine decided to run zigzag?  Why were my shoulders permanently rolled forward?  Why did it hurt to hold onto a door frame and lean forward to stretch muscles that had decidedly clenched shut?

Simple.  I'm a writer. 

I hunch.  I lean.  I lurch.  My body is often curled fetal position style over my lovely laptop.  And when I'm editing, it's even worse.  I'll take a printed manuscript and lie on one side, crushing that shoulder, too involved in making red marks to consider comfort.  And this doesn't even address the reading, because inevitably writers are readers.  We crane our necks over the next best seller, often so lost in a new world that we don't necessarily stay in touch with our own bodies.  And this is all done in a sitting, sedentary position.

Each of the specialists peppered me with suggestions to improve my day to day physicality.  And at first I distinctly rolled my eyes.  Several times.  The advice ranged from a standing desk to reading nearly upside-down with arms extended backwards.  (Exactly who holds the book, then?)  And the lists grew.  At one point I started to tear up a little, because writing is supposed to be my absolute Zen space when I stop worrying about the rest of the world and focus solely on the story.  When did my achy body elbow into the equation?

And then I remembered something an incredibly wise friend mentioned.  He had been struggling with a phenomenal writing project but faced a multitude of rejections.  The author loved his antagonist and could not deal with changing him based on the same suggestion by critique partners and agents alike.  Until one day he snapped and came to the following conclusion.

"I was being an ass, when all I had to do was take a very deep breath, and fix the problem."

Long story short, I'm following the specialists' lists.  Across the board.  I am listening to my body as I write, and (gulp - swallowing the pride here), the writing is better.  So are my back and my neck, obviously.  If I don't feel well, inside and out, top to bottom, the writing is congested and not my best.  Duh!  

And I've taken a miserably long time to share a few useful tricks and tips to help keep the body as cozy as the mind while you're writing.  Pick and choose what makes sense, as long as you keep writing.  

*A standing desk!  (See my homemade ridiculous version below, since I can't actually build anything, but it works like a charm.)  When you write standing up there is a sense of urgency and purpose, and your tailbone is oh so happy to be up and wiggly.

*Yoga every thirty minutes.  NO MATTER WHAT.  Pick a simple, three-step routine but be consistent and focus on the areas of your body that tighten up during the writing process.

*Food every two hours.  Good foods, that is.  Your blood sugar stays regular, and it fights inflammation. 

*SLOWLY sip water every ten minutes.  It's not just hydrating, but it also forces the body and mind to shift for a second.  I've been infusing my own water, and it is so tasty.

*Put fresh flowers on your desk.  This isn't for physicality so much as a pleasant little jolt to the senses.  Good smells and good oxygen nearby.

*Meditate before and after writing.  Just for a minute or two to start you in the right direction and remember at the end where you've been.  This is also a nice time to notice if any part of your body feels out of whack.

*Write when your body is fresh.  All of you fellow mommies probably put work first (and even if you're a SAHM, you're still working!), then take care of the kids, and then finally write when your body has maybe two ounces of strength left.  One of the my critique buddies from SCBWI writes every morning from 5 to 7 no matter what, and she has three kids and a part-time job.  (And she's writing a ten billion word fantasy novel.  If she can do it, we can do it.) 

Take care of yourself as a writer.  Writing should feel good, body and soul.  If it doesn't, go back to the drawing board.  We may not all have the time or resources to go adventure with Natalie Goldberg on one of her writing retreats, but we can create a comfortable and inspiring spot for writing in our everyday lives.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Neil Gaiman Makes Insomnia Fun!

After a rough diagnosis from the chiropractor (nothing fatal, just a fair amount of PT ahead to get myself back to feeling right), I couldn't sleep.  At all.  My daughter has a cold and every cough jarred me.  The cool kids with REALLY loud cars kept whizzing down my street.  Even the AC switching on and off kept my brain churning, and not in the productive 'I can write' way.  Thankfully Amazon (aka my Santa) brought me The Ocean at the End of the Lane to make all the nighttime hours very worthwhile.

At first I planned to stay in bed and read until I drifted off except NOBODY drifts off when you're reading Gaiman.  Instead I moved from bed to desk to living room sofa back to desk with pen in hand.  I wanted to jot down a few inspiring quotations from the book, and then I had a not-so-startling revelation about his work.  While there are certainly notable lines, the man's story construct is masterful.  And I ended up giving myself a few reminders (that are most likely found in every writing book out there,) but when you see the rules in action, they set better in the brain.  Obviously I recommend reading his new book, but that's probably pretty evident at this point. :-)

At any rate, my simple notes from last night:

1) Find the moment that everything in your story hinges on and start exactly there. 

2) Don't embellish.  The fancy adjectives are nice, but an original metaphor is worth its weight in pretty words and will blow the reader away.  Every time. 

3) Make everything count.  Literally every detail ought to be purposeful.  Whether they find meaning in page one or one hundred, figure out their meaning.  (And I don't believe for one second that this just happens effortlessly or that you should sit and slave over every single page in the first draft stage.  Examine this after.)

4) Tap into universal feelings.  Your characters will be irresistible. 

I could go on, for pages, but these four facets of a powerful story showed up time and again throughout the narrative/myth/roller coaster ride.  Gaiman gets people.  He knows what terrifies us, what satisfies us, and he plays with those two things like a skilled puppeteer, fiddling with our strings until we're absolutely in love and can't put his books down.

I always have a 'Gaiman hangover' when I'm finished with his latest.  I'm jealous because I want to write that well, I'm exhausted because I've managed to block out the rest of the universe while reading, and I'm delighted that I get to read it again for an inevitably better ride the second time. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Reach Out, Reach Out and Touch Someone

No, I am not advocating inappropriate touching.  But on the heels of a fabulous SCBWI writing conference, I'm reminded that writing in a vacuum - something I tend to do more often than not - is a dangerous and unproductive thing.  Sure, authors need a certain amount of solitude to execute the ten thousand ideas bouncing around in our heads, but without serious critiques, the stories just can't fly or at least we certainly can't become the best writers we can be.

I have a number of stellar author pals in my area, even a couple who are interested in swapping works, but the realities of daily house maintenance, a teaching job, a husband who travels, and two adorable little time leaches, makes connecting with others tricky.  Not to mention I certainly don't feel right handing off my own work when I have little time to offer back thoughtful critiques.

Enter the lovely Princeton SCBWI conference that forced me to sit down and give careful consideration to a few other delightful YA pieces while handing off my own baby for review.  And voila!  A serious issue I've been fighting in the first two chapters was solved.  Ok maybe not solved, but the lovely ladies in the group immediately identified a major problem that has helped me refocus and add much needed work.  The piece feels stronger already and will be in the hands of two agents by the end of June.  (And since I just typed the deadline into this blog, I am now held accountable to it.  Yikes!)

It takes a little push and pull to find the right folks, but with the internet and professional organizations who will speed date you through finding critique partners (and chocolate covered espresso beans to keep you up late enough to read all the goodness flying your way), there's really no excuse.  Step out of the vacuum and connect!

My personal plan is to hound my SCBWI critique group pals from time to time for more reading assistance while I work here in pretty old Central PA to build a network that suits me.  In that spirit, I included a few helpful links below in the hopes of inspiring you to do the same.  I've also just signed up for the Teachers Write! Virtual Summer Camp.  Happy writing. :-)

4 Ways to Make the Most of a Critique Group

Critique Groups: What's Right For You? 

How to Critique Writing


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

I Hope It's Raining Where You Are

This is a busy week for me.  The hubby is traveling, the marking period marches along, Spirit Week at the high school requires a fair amount of ingenuity and elbow grease, and I have until the 30th to upload part one of my current project for a peer critique in early June.  (I'm not sure I actually took a breath while typing that sentence.)

Mix in a demanding toddler, a pre-teen with a pre-attitude, a dedicated attempt to lose weight and I'm pretty sure it's the recipe for to the bone exhaustion.  I've been ending my days in a Sarah puddle.  Not to mention the blogging, the tweeting, the writing, the editing, and the other things I should be doing each and every day, right?

Wrong.  Absolutely wrong.  And I'm embarrassed to admit that my daughter Sophia figured this out well before I did.

"Mommy, stop."  Her voice was quiet at first, and I was too busy multitasking to acknowledge her.  "Mommy."  Sadly still ignoring the voice as parents often do when trying to be productive.  "Mommy stoooooooooooop," she hollered.  Her face turned red and her tiny teeth chattered.  "It's raining.  It's raining.  It's raining."

I need to listen to Sophia more often.  I put everything down, I leaned over the back of the sofa in our living room and gazed out the window with her at the rain.  I stopped thinking about anything that wasn't framed in the window.  Blooming trees.  Thousands of drops.  The rhythm against the house.  I haven't felt that good in days.  Possibly weeks.  And I didn't want to stop.

We live in a society hell bent on production, and being a writer offers added pressure.  We are not Hemingway on a boat or in a fist fight living life.  We are techno folks behind a screen developing images, typing words at lightning speed faster than our brains can think, reading blogs telling us to do better.  Be better.  We're liking statuses on Facebook, liking our own statuses - something I don't do but it drives me batty when I see it, and herding people into our virtual corral.  And this just isn't, in my humble opinion, what writing is all about.

Creativity loves silence.  Or if there is noise, authentic noise tends to hit the spot.  Real voices with intonation, thunderous applause at a concert or ripping a piece of paper in half when the writing on it doesn't work.  The glut of resources at our virtual fingertips can overwhelm and lose value.  Minimally I worry that it's too easy to forget what's real.  Watching life and living it are two distinctly different experiences.  And I know that I feel the most depleted when I've been sitting for too long as a spectator.  It's the easier choice to be one, but it's not the best.

I'm certainly not advocating sacrificing electronic communication or entertainment.  Obviously you're reading my blog right now, and I know I'll be watching Survivor at 8 and texting with friends later on.  Rather I'm suggesting that you make a simple pie chart of time spent actively living versus time spent as a spectator or voyeur.  If the latter overwhelms, ask yourself a simple question.  What is real? 

After careful reflection, the best part of my day (before the rain episode with Sophia) occurred in study hall with two students energized by an idea for a play that they're writing.  And while I did have my phone out playing Candy Crush from time to time, the best moments were the ones where I could almost see the ideas bouncing back and forth between the two of them.  I think that's why I relish teaching.  I witness inspiration like that every day.  And the best days are when it comes from an unusual student I would have never guessed had the tornado brewing in them. 

This evening I won't throw away all electronics and move into the yurt I so desperately want to buy for the backyard.  But when I think about the writing craft and creativity, I am definitively detaching all of the baggage I have lately muddled it with.  It's going to be me, a notepad, and a rainstorm.  Or a quiet room, or one where my toddler might be braiding my hair.  But at heart it's going to be just me and the writing.  Ridiculous expectations and chaotic noise, I'm just not that into you anymore.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Writers Rev Your Engines

There are some days that you just can't write. 

In an ideal world writers effortlessly sit each morning with a perfectly warm cup of coffee churning out  works of brilliance. 

And then there are the days that you just can't write.

According to the pediatrician, my daughter has contracted Flu B which is neither a lesser flu nor one exploring the alphabet.  It just means that she can get the flu twice.  (If there is a Flu C I am closing up shop.)  She also figured out how to climb out of her crib last night.  A sick, free range child is nothing to scoff at. 

My son, a decade older than Sophia, finally succumbed to all the nasty symptoms hanging about our house.  I'm sick too, and my sickness has manifested itself by making my lips swell to near epic proportion.  Think Lisa Rinna, and if you don't know who she is, I'm proud of you.  She's a dreadful actress. :-)  My husband is traveling and I can't in good conscience ask others to help and expose themselves as both of my children are darling, highly contagious Ebola monkeys.

So you see, I just can't write. (Stick with me, I promise I'm getting somewhere with this including writing goodies!)

Yesterday I read aloud my novel-in-progress to Sophia, alternating between blotting her nose and making chicken scratch marks where problems ought to be fixed.  I didn't fix them, mind you, but I made notations for later.  For a day when I have more free time, like 2020.  Don't worry, this isn't entirely a complaint blog.  There are many fun aspects to being sequestered to a house with sick children and no other adult eyes.  Pajama dance parties to Thrift Shop.  Hourly readings of Goodnight Moon and watching a near teen smile because he still secretly loves it.  Viewings of Labyrinth and David Bowie's package (do they even make spandex that tight anymore?), remembering Jim Henson for the visionary he was.

But I also humbly offer two suggestions on how to recharge your creative engines when they are near empty or broken down on the side of the road and you *think* you just can't write.  In other words, how do you get to the point where you can write again? 

Step one, read something you love and that you've read a million times before.  My son Matthew and I read The Hobbit back and forth to one another, and we even mapped out how we might turn his room into a hobbit hole.  He wants to use power tools, I want to use throw pillows.  At any rate my brain didn't have to wrap itself around plot or characters.  Instead I was just hanging onto the words, and each one spawned a tiny idea in my brain to be used at a later date.

Step two, head to the Internet with a strict promise to yourself that you will only look at positive and useful writing / artistic things.  (Facebook does NOT count!)  In the spirit of jump-starting your proverbial writing engines, I've assembled below a few favorite articles on writing and related topics.  I rarely make it through to the end of them because I'm itching to get to work.  Enjoy and save for a rainy or plague-ridden day.

"To Invigorate Literary Mind, Start Moving Literary Feet" - Joyce Carol Oates

"Becoming the Person You Were Meant to Be: Where to Start" - Anne Lamott

"Top 10 Tips to Get You Writing" - Everyone awesome, seriously Green, Chbosky and more

"Live Like You're Dying" - Chuck Palahniuk

"On Writing" - An Interview with Neil Gaiman

"How to Be a Writer" - M. Molly Backes (She's not as famous as the other folks, but I love her.)

"Inspiration? Head Down the Back Road, and Stop for the Yard Sales" - Annie Proulx

"You're such a jerk" - William B. Irvine (Not about writing but every time I read this the story ideas start multiplying like rabbits)

"Ten Commandments for the Happy Writer" - Nathan Bransford

"Ten Commandments of Writing for Children" - Upstart Crow Literary (You can never have enough commandments!)

"Seeing Nora Everywhere" - Lena Dunham (I can't read this and not cry a little)

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Space, The Final Frontier

The essential question for today: Why do I never, ever write at my writers desk?  (Teachers out there, I probably lost you when I volunteered an essential question.)

For as long as I can remember, I've always carved out a writing space.  The first was in my bedroom on a floral desk that looked like it climbed straight out of the 1950's.  And I lined the desk with pencils, pencil grippers, a trapper keeper, and a bin for my typed pages.  These were retro pages from a bona fide grey Royal typewriter with a burgundy lining.  I stored my white-out cartridge on the desk, and a stack of unfinished books I intended to read sat precariously on the corner.  (I'm not sure I ever finished all of them.)  It was pretty darn professional for a teenager before the time of computers and flash drives. 

But I never wrote there.  I balanced my feet on the edge and painted my toenails.  I lined up hermit crabs in obscenely painted shells and watched them race across the desktop.  I thought about writing.  But I never actually wrote there.

Flash forward to today.  My window looks out on a pretend busy road, but there are more trees and flowers and pretty things to watch than cars.  Three glass mermaids my mother bought me a million years ago live on this desk by the window.  At seven I used to rest the trio on the lip of my bathtub and pretend I could be one of them except I hated dunking my head under the water.  Sort of a roadblock for a mermaid wannabe.  I keep pens and pencils, scissors and the ultra cool Doane paper and traced handprints of my children on the desk.  I made a montage of beautiful notes my husband has given me over the years.  I even have a copy of the book my mother made for me when I graduated college.  She gathered all of my important stories and writings since I was five and bound them together.  I often look back at my Scholastic Writing wins (a national gold key, I have to add) and the very first story I wrote about turning into a cat.  Literally if great writing can't happen here, at this desk, well I just don't know where it can.

Yet when I sit down, my pen or laptop freeze.  It's quiet, too quiet.  I can hear the cogs in my brain grinding against one another.  Even when I look out the window there's an eerie sensation of watching a film with no sound.  I get little done.  I wonder what Sophia and Matthew are doing.  If our dog is eating crayons as he is apt to do.  He has an odd predilection for shades of red.  And after a few scribbles I realize that my best work is not done when I'm sequestered away from all of the bits that make up my life.  I know that many writers recommend, insist, that you must have a special place reserved for your writing and writing alone.  (See Laurie Halse Anderson's awesome video on the topic.  Her writing cabin would make any writer drool.) 

I've learned after years of writing, though, that I need the movement of life around me.  I'm fairly convinced that this movement invigorates my writing.  Ideas take form from the smallest things.  My latest story starts with an anecdote my husband told me about a former teacher of his.  Had I been sitting at my writing desk, it would have never happened.

Please do not take this to mean that Facebook and the evil internet are necessary requirements and should be blinking in the background.  I have been trying little by little to cut back on those things, tv too.  But I write better when my daughter is brushing my hair (violent toddler style!) or my son is telling me about middle school lunch table drama.  Sure I can't devote my full attention to my writing but I also find I'm sifting through everything playing out in front of me for inspiration.  And without inspiration, little gets done.

I'll certainly always keep a writing desk, but I know what works for me.  Don't ever be afraid to explore nontraditional spots to write.  In the end, you're in charge of what will inspire you to be the best writer you can.  Happy writing!


Saturday, January 12, 2013

When We Were Young

I'm not sure how we got on the topic, but my husband mentioned a few days back that when he was in middle school he absolutely loved the author Piers Anthony.  I'd never heard of him, and experiencing the insane urge that most teachers/writers/book lovers do to know every single author in the universe, I looked him up and even ordered the first book in one of his fantasy series.  (Thank you Amazon for the crack that you call Prime, literally getting me anything I want in two days.  Evil evil evil.)  We also found a super cool This American Life, "Show Me The Way" where coincidentally two young men discussed adoring this author, one so much so that he actually ran away to go live with Anthony. (Anthony politely but appropriately refused.)  I've only read a couple pages of A Spell for Chameleon, but the guy seems pretty cool.
This also spurred me to revisit all of the old books that drove my parents nuts when they saw me reading them.  Both my mother and father are academics, and if it wasn't Little Women or The Stranger, they were appalled.  I've read the good stuff, the beautiful stuff.  With sentences so perfectly constructed that they would make you cry.  But I thought it would be more fun this afternoon to reflect on the 'fluff' books that helped mold me into the writer that I am today.  I still maintain (and always will) that there's a huge difference between recreational books and garbage.  The books I'll be discussing have value.  They don't promote poor ideals or stereotypes of women and teenagers that shouldn't exist.  These books are just pure, unadulterated fun reads, and I enjoyed them as much as I enjoyed my first reading of Great Expectations.
(I still have every single one.  See below.)
We Hate Everything But Boys - Linda Lewis
Who isn't boy crazy in high school?  This one is great because the girls form a club, a secret club, hiding the very obvious fact that they are boy crazy.  Thankfully none of them lose their souls (sorry, only Twilight bash, I promise) or even their friends but instead do whatever it takes to find out who these objects of their affections like, even if the answers are crushing.  My absolute favorite part?  The protagonist gets the boy, things are resolved, but Lewis leaves her wondering what the heck happens when she heads to Junior High.  Shockingly getting the guy was not the only happiness or looming question in her life.  Good show, Lewis. 
Cassie - Vivian Schurfranz
Back in the early 90's there was nothing like today's Young Adult and Middle Grade book markets.  Little did I know when a friend gave me this book that it was not at all geared for my age group but was instead a Sunfire romance.  This particular gem was about a spunky Caucasian girl captured by an Iroquois family, learning to survive and assimilate with a perky smile and flowing blond hair.  This book (and many others in this serious that I completely devoured) all had brilliant pacing.  I learned so much about moving a story along with action, even if from time to time the writing was so cheesy it begged for crackers.
The Secret Circle - L. J. Smith
Never judge this series based on the short-lived television show of 2012.  By the author of the Vampire Diaries series, this town of witches is so, well, cool.  I am embarrassed to admit that this is also about the time I started buying into crystals.  Yes I very briefly thought there might be something to all that healing jazz.  I also became obsessed with Toad the Wet Sprocket's "Walk on the Ocean" and believed that these three things were somehow cosmically related.  I also loved the town that Smith created and started considering how a landscape might shape the characters rather than be just a static aspect of a work.
Facing It - Julian F. Thompson
I love this guy.  His books contain the quirkiest characters who all just exist in the warm spaces he creates.  This is actually the quietest of all of his books.  (The Grounding of Group Six is a better one to start with.) I specifically remember this one because I didn't read about many male protagonists, and Randy Duke captured my attention immediately.  His dialogue was spot on.  I even liked the way he dressed.  And I started considering how I would develop genuine male protagonists in my own writing.
Freshman Dorm (Book One) - Linda A. Cooney
This was of course required reading before I headed off to Dickinson.  I mean, I was sure everything in this book was absolutely representative of college life.  Actually I think that's why I loved this awful, awful series so much.  I knew college life couldn't be this insane ball of turmoil, so it was fun watching the trio of girls (in their blazers and leggings and Maybelline Kissing Koolers) take on freshman year.  I honestly can't think of one good writing lesson to draw from these except perhaps read what you love, and if it's a series more power to you because you get to visit and revisit the spot that makes you happy.
There are dozens more.  Feel free to add you own guilty reading pleasure as long as it is not Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight.  I suppose when it comes to the two of them, I am a book snob.