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What’s in Your Writer’s Shrine?

Welcome to my writer’s shrine.

We all need hope, faith, and love as writers. We all need to believe in the power of our words, even if everything else in our life is telling us “nah.”

Talismans, symbols, icons, saints.

Gifts from friends who love us well.

From the ether and in the electricity of the unseen, the great Cloud of thoughts, something’s got to manifest.

I cling to these somethings.

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Filed Under: faith, hope, love, Uncategorized  

Say My Name

In the last season of “Breaking Bad,” the character of Walter White, a genius chemist gone rogue to the meth business, tells a fellow dealer, “You know who I am. Say my name.”

“Say my name,” represents the ultimate victory of Walter’s runaway ego. It represents his id gone wild, where Walter’s demons have fully conquered his love of family and any prior moral compass. He wants to rule the world as “Heisenberg,” the man who cooks the purest meth on the planet. Demanding his name be said celebrates the evil he has fully embraced.

The Iagos, the Hitlers, and the shooters get a lot of press. Anderson Cooper tells us so from his outpost in Connecticut right now. He explained why CNN would not give the shooter’s name tonight.

I read the names of the children and adult victims of this most recent mass murder and I want us to say their names with reverence, with silence on either side, with prayer. I want to take these names in and not forget them.

I see many classic names on this list, names that have crossed centuries. I see a name I’ve never seen before. I see names from many cultures. I see names from the Bible.

I sought comfort and looked for quotations by Dr. King. In my search I found a blog by California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who remembered Dr. King less than a year ago in the wake of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her constituents being shot. Ms. Waters also held up the names of those in her community who had recently suffered another outbreak of gang violence.

Aaron Shannon Jr., 5
Kashmier James
Taburi Watson, 14
Lewis Smith

When there are no words, only silent prayer where the soul cracks open, speaking a name can be something sacred and selfless, not at all about ego. There must be something higher, the Soul says, when tragedy tries to turn us hopeless or believe the world is only full of demons. We return to the departed and their names and say, We won’t go there. 

As Fred Rogers told us, Look for the helpers. Here are more words to help us talk to our children right now.

I will look, and I will listen. There are so many beautiful names to say. Let them ring. 

Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Rachel Davino, 29
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7
Ana M Marquez-Greene, 6
Dylan Hockley, 6
Dawn Hocksprung, 47
Madeline F. Hsu, 6
Catherine V. Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Jesse Lewis, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Anne Marie Murphy, 52
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Lauren Russeau, 30*
Mary Sherlach, 56
Victoria Soto, 27
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison N Wyatt, 6
*Some news organizations are spelling the victim’s last name differently.

Filed Under: demons, hope, loss, sorrow, tragedy  

NaNoWriMo: Stands For…?

Image found here

N is for Not Doing the Laundry and Writing Instead
A is for All the Decaying Food in the Fridge Looks More Tempting Than Writing
N is for Never-ending Licks from a Grooming Cat Who Insists on Shoving Your Laptop Off Your Lap
O is for Obnoxious Cat Who Scratches Your Chair While You Write
W is for Why Am I Doing This to Myself?
R is for Resentment of All Those Who Are Making the 2500-Words-a-Day Goal
I is for I’m Not Up for This
M is for Mentioning Your Pitiful Word Count Too Many Times on Facebook
O is for Opportunities, Dreams, and Hopes That This Month Fosters

If you’re a writer, what’s the best part of NaNoWriMo? The worst? If you’re a teacher of writing, what can a day of NaNoWriMo teach you–and remind you of what we ask our students to do weekly?

I’ve begun a new novel, THE CHASTITY CLUB, part of a NERD GIRLS series of books with Wendy’s story as the inaugural tale. I’m 6,500-some words in, with a good 3,000 written prior to NaNoWriMo, but who’s counting?

Meanwhile, I’m still querying agents for HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT and weighing my self-publishing options.

If NaNoWriMo stands for anything, it’s the belief that fuel my writing mission: Fall 8 times, stand up 9. Just keep writing, seeking, trying.

For more prompts on NaNoWriMo, visit my 2011 post.

He Gets Me

Now the road I want to travel’s a little driveway made of gravel
On a shady Piedmont hill in Caroline
Where the trees sway in the breeze whispering sweet melodies
It’s the closest thing to heaven in my mind

from “Coming Home,” by Greg Hawks

When I met Gregory Lewis Hawks in February of 2005, I’d just stopped a traditional line of work–teaching–and taken a risk to do freelance curriculum work and write my novel. Not an eyebrow was raised from my suitor on the topic of pursuing my art, as my husband-to-be, a country and bluegrass musician, had one album to his credit and another in the hopper. When you marry an artist, here are some things you never have to explain:

  • I need to be alone with my art. (In his line of work, it’s said Alamance County-style, as in, “I wish everyone’d just leave me alone so I can pick.”
  • It isn’t right! There isn’t enough time in the world to get this right! (In our house, a Saturday morning is happily spent facing the demons of a wayward song or manuscript.)
  • I’m crazy to be an artist. Why am I an artist? (When certain bills come, we shake our heads and then remind ourselves we’d not be able to sleep at night if we took a job just for the big money. Not that anyone’s offering that, but you have to console yourself somehow as you’re paying bills in an economy where wages are stagnant and artists never made much anyway.)
  • Nobody cares what I do! (When you spend years making a piece of art, you start to lose it somedays, thinking that no one will ever hear it, read it, care about it, nor understand why you took so long to birth it.)
Of course, someone does care what I do–a lot. That’s my husband who believes in me, who’s patient with my artistic frustrations and moods, who gives me my own verb (“are you deadlining?”), and lets me face the process, day after day, in my office alone, with writers’ groups, with an expensive coffee and sweet habit. 
Besides understanding my need for space, Greg thinks like I do, in ideals, possibilities, arguments, wishes, and dreams. He makes art because he wants life to be better, sweeter, more blessed. Life is a rhyme and a pun and a lyric; it’s an image, a snapshot, a line of verse. Our conversations about people and politics and ourselves all spring from this artistic view–a spiritual view that claims man was made to create. I never have to explain the passion so consuming. I never with him have to shelve the dream.
It’s rare in this life to find soul mates–friends, family, or lovers who let you be exactly who you are. When we find them, we need to celebrate them, every day. What I have I didn’t always have and won’t find everywhere. 
Thank you, my sweet husband, for building this artistic haven with me and giving me all your love every day. Happy anniversary.
Writing Prompts:
  • Who gets you and your dreams? How do they give you license, space, and support?
  • Write that person a love letter, a thank you card, a poem, or a lyric of thanks.
  • Whose dreams do you support? How
  • If support is lacking in your life, visualize the people you need and want in your life. 
  • What is the biggest need you have right now in order to pursue the artist’s dream? What are 10 ways you can fulfill that need?
  • In your writing, are your characters pursuing their dreams, or are they stymied? Why? How?
  • If your characters lack dreams, give your protagonist and a secondary character each a goal that is an impossible dream, something they gave up when they were 16, 25, or older. Why did they give up such dreams? What were the obstacles? Is there any way they might try to get back to these hopes?

How Do You Do It?

“I don’t know how you keep track of it all.” — from a colleague in reference to my workload

I like being a chef with multiple burners heating multiple pots, simmering full of somethin’ good.

I’m a concrete and a random worker, moving easily off one project onto another then to another, then back to the original. I’m also good at hanging in for the long haul. A writing workshop leader once told me I was an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs Inventory, which is a good profile for finishing a novel. Today’s writer can’t just be the lone warrior in the garret if she wants to be published. And while I’m not an extrovert who gains energy from others as much as I gain energy from being alone, I have just enough “I” to labor late over my writing tasks and starting early every morning.

Here are the six sections of my to-do list:

NEW NOVEL IN PROGRESS (REALLY, THE OLD ONE, PREQUEL TO ST. MICHAEL)
NOVEL CONTESTS, ST. MICHAEL (2ND NOVEL)
SHORT STORIES
NOVEL QUERIES
GRANTS
MARKETING

Each has at least two if not four bullets of tasks.

You have to find the joy in each demand. You have to love starting a new project like revising my old novel as a prequel or taking on a brand-new novella for NaNoWriMo. You have to love binding up a manuscript with huge rubber bands for the Bakeless Prize or Dana Awards, and you have to love scouring Poets & Writers for the latest information on literary magazines. Give your all to every bit of the process.

In “Why We Write: The Pressure of Young Promise” (latest issue of Poets and Writers) Laura Maylene Walter shares her long, arduous journey as writer without reward. If you slog and struggle daily toward your writer’s brass ring, you must read this meditation and then see the inspirational Editor’s Note.

Just this week, my former student and current friend, Teresa Smith Porter, felt her spirits flag. She’s a successful photographer (My Friend Teresa Photography) who labors to get the best shot and make her clients shine. But it was one of those days when she was tapped out and struggling to see the horizon. Then she got the call. She had won 1st Place in the Wedding Photographic Society Competition, Photojournalism category. Then she got another call: to do a spread for a magazine. Now it was one of those weeks you dream of. She’d had weeks like this before, but in between for every artist is the labor, the unglamorous, exhausting, driving toil. Bleary-eyed and dehydrated, she has posted at 3:00 AM on Facebook out of the sheer joy of loving her work. Now that’s my kind of crazy.

Do you love it? Writing. Do you? If you do, then make your list and keep your head down. Your spirits will lift, I swear by it.

The Mother of Invention

“Throughout everything, my parents Stephen and Katherine Fairchild have been my biggest cheerleaders…”

— Acknowledgments, Teaching Julius Caesar: A Differentiated Approach

Growing up in California, I saw my mom prepare the earthquake kit. Underwear, graham crackers, five days’ worth of water: this plastic tub stowed in the most stable part of the house had it all. The ever-present kit never got tapped, even when the Loma Prieta quake struck in ’89 and houses in San Francisco buckled. But it didn’t matter. It was good knowing we always had it there.

That day in October, my mom felt the family home twist and turn on its axis, then come to rest. She stood in the doorway gripping the frame, wondering how those eternal seconds might end. Meanwhile, my dad dashed out of Candlestick from the World Series, beginning what would be a three-hour journey through the streets of the city. An hour away in the South Bay, I huddled with my classmates beneath a table on the second story of the Stanford quad.

Later that night I somehow broke through the snarled phone lines to tell them I was fine, crowded in a friend’s dorm with other homeless students, and to hear that they were fine, too.

Great parents are more than the granite foundation, because foundations can shift. Great parents are like the safety kit when foundations move.

Today when I pace across the floor, panicked my manuscript is a worthless endeavor, a voice of reassurance says, Everything’s okay. When I think, I lack the skill to get this thing done, there’s an internal nudge from a wise hand that knows better. When I question my writing obsession, afraid I’ve detoured down a narrow road too fast yet too late, I see that there’s still sunshine, still breath in me, and still tomorrow, whatever I choose.

This hope is my back-up and my safeguard. It comes from years of encouragement and belief my parents provided. It’s so fundamental that I never fully believe work I’ve done is worthless. What’s the point of thinking that? The point is, I tried. The point is, I struggle to be a good person and a good writer. And I know I do enough and that I am enough. My mother taught me that. She handed me this mental kit, this internal shelter to seek, and I can’t even name its price.

When you write acknowledgements for your book and give credit where credit is due, you are very blessed if you can mention your mother. If you can say, Thank you for teaching me the world is a safe place when you’re there…and that I belong in it.

I know many people who succeed in spite of their mothers. I believe I succeed because my parental foundation was so sure.

A writer friend once asked me how I could be so empathetic when I hadn’t suffered a horrible childhood like she had. I don’t recall my answer. But I do know that having this internal safeguard and the space that gave me to create makes a difference. I believe my empathy for others stems from a great start in life. I couldn’t write without empathy. I wouldn’t have time to care if my life had to be spent making up for what my mom had not done.

Thanks to my mom, the mother of my inventions. Happy Mother’s Day.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Note that these are mixed-age prompts this week.

— You have just received an award or honor for great achievements. Write a thank you speech that acknowledges the people who “got you there.”
— If your mother was a plant, what kind would she be? If your mother was a building, what kind would she be? If your mother was the weather, what kind would she be? If your mother was a landscape, what part of the land would she be?
— Thank the mother in your life–whomever she is–with a list of thank yous. List all the things this person (or people) has done for you.
— Finish a paragraph that begins with this statement: She was the mother of my inventions.
— Finish a paragraph with this statement: My mom is normal, right?
— Finish this statement: When I’m a mom or dad, I will… or, As a mom or dad, I am…
— Write your mother a letter.

Filed Under: commitment, hope, inspiration  

How Much Genius Do I Need?

“To deny that Shakespeare’s plays could have been written by a man of relatively humble background is, after all, to deny the very possibility of genius itself–a sentiment increasingly attractive in a democratic culture where few harsh realities are so unpalatable as that of human inequality.”

— Terry Teachout

Teachout’s article, “Denying Shakespeare” in The Wall Street Journal, has my full attention. I’ve nurtured my own private theory for a while: that the naysayers to Shakespeare’s authorship dismiss genius residing in low-income communities. I have done no research on this topic; my expertise comes from teaching, where I’ve seen, heard, and contemplated brilliant children from all walks of life. It would not surprise me at all if a lower-middle-class guy from Stratford penned all those timeless plays.

Teachout is absolutely convinced that Shakespeare dunnit, and he leads us to James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare. I’m going to get a copy. Shapiro’s premise is to research this question as objectively as possible, and I’m further intrigued. But what does this mean for us authors? Teachout thinks people question Shakespeare’s authorship much more readily than any other author because “the world is full of innocents who sincerely believe in their secret hearts that they could write a best-selling novel if only they tried hard enough.”

Uh-oh.

So I can’t go off on American Idol here, can I, with the argument that everyone today wants to be a karaoke hero or a reality show star? Because every day I wake up to write at the crack of dark and tell myself, “You’re talented, but what you don’t have in genius, you make up for in sweat. The best-seller will come!”

Call me an innocent. I do subscribe to the Edisonian claim about the one percent of inspiration and the ninety-nine percent of perspiration. I looked this statement up, and apparently his full claim is this: “None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.”

Looking at the context, I wonder if what Edison is really saying is that great accomplishment comes from constant practice and commitment by a person who, we have to assume, has some skill and insight, never mind paradigm-busting ability.

I’m very clear on one thing: I am not a paradigm-buster. Shakespeare was, Virginia Woolf was, ee cummings was.

And I think it’s okay to want a best-seller that isn’t genius, but just very, very good. Maybe even great. There’s a place for good commercial fiction. And the ultimate goal is to make a living touching lots of minds and hearts…not to make a million doing so. That’s a robust, shiny, healthy American dream.

I don’t purport to offer a yardstick measuring skill and sweat. I don’t have time to worry if other authors are rich or poor or impostors. I am happy to have some skill and the will to hone it, and I choose not to worry if I have enough. That’s perhaps why a genius from the lower middle class doesn’t disturb me; he may have been a slacker or a workhorse, but this one guy, whoever he was, wrote incredibly well.

What I do resent is when audiences cling to an artist because of looks, stature, money; when audiences don’t have any idea what good art is because they’d rather watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians than read a good book; when artists step on each others’ backs to get ahead; when artists work for free because they don’t have to earn an income. I don’t believe Shakespeare had the looks or stature, because even his one portrait is disputed, and his biography is so thin as to almost guarantee he wasn’t a big kahuna. I don’t know if Shakespeare was a backstabber or not, but he sure didn’t elevate characters such as Iago and Polonius to great heights of respect. I’m going to guess that Shakespeare was what the records tell us; a working actor and playwright who needed every shilling, farthing, or pence he could scrape, since there were no such things as royalties on published plays.

The Shakespeare we honestly know so little about (see Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare — fantastic read!) left us great work. That’s enough. And those of like me who continue to dream about a particular work we’re crafting someday touching millions…Shakespeare doesn’t offer us hope to be an equal as much as inspire. His words are more than one percent needed to persist, because literature enriches, uplifts, transcends…and ain’t it fun to try and write it?

Since and Never: Where’s MY Final Four?

“There are two words when you compete that are interesting — ‘Since’ and ‘Never.’ I’m glad we’re in the ‘Since.’ Let me leave it at that.”

Coach Mike Krzyzewski

Duke’s in the Final Four and many a ticker on ESPN seems enamored with the fact that it’s been six years since Duke’s had a Final Four appearance. Many pundits point to this lull as a strike against Duke’s overall competence. No doubt, it’s a factoid other pundits use against many a team when they meet with success.

Coach K recently said, “There’s a reason why not many people win these things over and over again. It’s because it’s very difficult. You have a different team each year…Since 2004 we’ve still gone to Sweet 16s. We’ve won as many games as anybody the last two years. You’re not always going to win a national championship. You’re not always going to get to a Final Four. Those are difficult things to do. As long as we’re competing for it every year…So again, ‘Since’ and ‘Never,’ look at those words and see which category you’d rather be in. We like being in the ‘Since’ category.”

Interesting fact: Duke’s been to the Sweet 16 11 times in the last 13 years.

In a similar critique of the impatience and skepticism of our culture, especially the media, President Obama said yesterday, “Can you imagine if some of these reporters were working on a farm? You planted some seeds and they came out the next day. ‘Nothing’s happened. There’s no crop. We’re gonna to starve. Oh, no! It’s a disaster!’”

In the face of historic legislation, no matter what the verdicts centuries later will be, true wisdom advises: “Let’s wait and see.” Let things unfold in the now, and let the time for judgment come later.

So if my writing were held to the same standards as the pundits keep in politics and sports, I’d be told that it’s nice my next book (Teaching Julius Caesar) releases Monday, but, “Hey, it’s been THREE YEARS since your last book, AND that was with co-authors. So you’re telling me, you’re in your forties, and this is your FIRST book ever done solo?”

Why not instead, Wow, you’ve published three books since 2004, and, you tend to play well with others in order to get the job done?

It’s a flight of egotistical fantasy to claim I’m getting called on the carpet for anything. I’m no celebrity. But the voices in my head sound like the ones in the media. Those voices are eager to hate on any signs of success, and right now, no matter what your sports allegiances or your political affiliations, you can’t argue the fact K and Obama have been successful.

Perhaps my problem is that I keep staring at the nevers and not noticing the sinces.

If you knew from the age of seven your lifelong mission was to write stories, and your first one wasn’t published till you were 40, you might have some doubting voices in your head. See, I lead a dual life—my education writing and my fiction writing. The education writing brings great rewards, and while not an enterprise promising filthy lucre, I like to think my work helps teachers. I love to write lessons and constantly improve pedagogy. But fiction writing? A whole different beast. I work the craft daily, but the brass ring, the pot of gold, the Emerald City, it’s my Olympic challenge, and I’m not even Division 3 until after twenty-five revisions of a piece. Truly. I work for every word. And while I love, love, love the process, I sometimes feel many days that my sinces are slight and my nevers, overwhelming.

Even so, the writer must find joy in the moment. One must find the sinces and forget the nevers. The truth is, you can’t look outwards for reassurances of your competence, and you can’t look forwards with angsty impatience you may ultimately be a never.

I believe those who make it to the Final Four of writing are those who love the now and embrace what is.

And even if I had already written a YA series with the impact of Twilight, or a novel of the quality of Salinger, or how about literary fiction on par with Lahiri or Strout, the pundits, the critics, the haters would tell me it ain’t enough, and the echoing voices in my head would say much the same. Why else would those at the apex of society—celebrities of all stripes—struggle mightily with addictions? Maybe to escape all the voices?

Krzyzewski has 73 NCAA Tournament games—a record—to his name, and overall, 864. Then there are the three national titles and that little ol’ Olympic gold medal from the 2008 Games in Beijing. Even with all this, people still tell him his last few years are a lull, a dive, or a failure.

Us workaday writers, take note: shake off the inner and outer disdain. Look where you’ve been and where you are today. Love today. Don’t hate it. There are sinces to embrace, and if you really doubt, sit down at the desk, and start one, now.