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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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Are You My Mother?

“While I don’t believe in heaven, I do believe in energy, which is neither created nor destroyed. My mom’s molecules still vibrate in this present universe, dissipating into the soil as we speak; still swirling are also her breaths. And it probably doesn’t hurt that Erin Connelly Christopoulos was a force of nature; the universe doesn’t just forget someone like that.”

— Minerva, in How Minerva Mae Set the Record Straight

Today, Mother’s Day, I’m thinking of all those who miss their mothers very much.

Minerva, the 13 year-old protagonist of my current novel, lost her mother at age 10. Through my writing, I’ve tried to imagine what this is like. Today, in my forties, I still get unconditional love and support from my wonderful mom. So not having the personal experience, I’ve witnessed the bravery of friends and tried to walk in their shoes, to try to begin to understand what this must be like.

I’m blessed to know several strong women who’ve lost their mothers and who navigate health, child-rearing, marriage, and work challenges without motherly advice. They press on without the counsel of someone who’s seen you at your best and worst, who can remind you that this moment you’re suffering doesn’t have to define everything past, present, or future. Mama and Me

When Minerva’s best friend chooses new friends and leaves her alone to navigate the first days of high school, Minerva turns to nature. She hikes up a trail behind her house, seeking the trees and plants her mother once loved. Minerva’s more of an indoor girl, but she knows if she’s going to find any peace, she needs to head outside. She’s on a mission to commune with nature’s energy where she believes her mother still resides.

Out of nowhere, Minerva hears guidance in the breeze. She hears the words of someone else’s voice, but she can’t interpret the message. It won’t be till she suffers some misadventures at the hands of her own hubris that she can interpret what her intuition (or is it her mother’s spirit) tried to tell her. Those words will suddenly make all kinds of sense.

I have a delightful friend who lost her mother very young and still embraces this world and all its crazy with resilience and joy. In fact, she jokes about her “Mom complex” and how it drives her to seek advice from certain grumpy old ladies, ones who makes it their mission to put people in their place. There’s something comforting about being told where to go and what to do by someone with lots of surety. Moms know, and they know best. Whether you lost her young or old, it fits you would seek her again and again, wherever you might find her, and that you’d be drawn to those teachers, coaches, colleagues, supervisors, and other female authorities who can set you straight on the rules of life. Thanks to my mom’s gracious and wise guidance, I know I gather around me those who remind me of her energy and presence, who give you that peace of being known in a particular way.

This same friend is like several others I know who are mothers of a different sort–the mentors, the aunts, the teachers, the friends, the principals, the supervisors, and the neighbors who help raise other people’s children.

I am also thinking today of those who grieve the mother who never was and yet who carry love and light to the world despite the lack.

By a certain age, we all become parents to this world, like it or not. We are all keepers of the village. I lift up those who share their best selves in the face of great loss and who still help mother this fragile place.

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Me and Minerva Mae

Writers don’t talk about how we’re constantly living with a couple lovers in our heads.

You know I mean characters, right? The figments we create, the protagonists and antagonists, Frankensteins we piece together to make a walking, talking body so readers will believe the very aliveness.

As I’ve slogged through my second novel in the Gifted, Weird, Wise Girl series, I’ve pursued Minerva, my teen narrator, trying to understand her heart and soul.  The obsession is not unlike crushes I had on guys when I was a teen, the ones I only caught glimpses of in the halls.  I’d overhear a conversation, get an accidental glance, then make a feature film out of those details. I crush on every one of my characters, dying to get to know them.paper-pen2

When you fall for someone, you see that person everywhere. Minerva haunts my commute to work and songs on the radio, she comes to mind when I’m reading a seemingly unrelated NPR story, she flickers through the pop culture drivel of the E Channel updates. Minerva, Minerva, Minerva—how can I help people see all your beauty?

Just like a crush out of reach, a character is that unfathomable mystery you hope to crack by the book’s end. And after you paint the glowing portrait, much like a propaganda dance in that first draft, you find good friends to bring you up short with a reality check. Thank God for beta readers. They’ll help you back off the obsession, put your stalkerish needs in perspective, and start editing to make the character more than a Sleeping Beauty or a Prince Charming—a real-life, flawed kid that makes the reader flip a page.

Minerva wants to take over the world as a journalist and be Christine Amanpour. She is disheveled with wild curly hair, and whenever she speaks, abrasive and always spouting big words. She challenges her teachers and her peers. And she wants to exact revenge on her bullies since childhood: girls whom she’s named The Bitches on Behalf of Carli. Minerva adores her best friend, Diana, the one who saved Minerva from lonely misery in seventh grade. Now it’s ninth grade and Minerva is poised to remedy the past by making a mark on the school with her words—and fighting back should the Bitches dare mess with her again.

Because I was so obsessed and somewhat blind while writing the first draft, I missed the fact my girl was too vengeful in the first act, never mind somewhat cold. I forgot to show depth and range of her loyalty and passions. Funny how devotion can look hard as metal and passion, dark and ugly. As I’ve walked with my character through the second phase of life, my love has deepened to something more mature, a relationship where I still adore despite the flaws, and still fight to the end for her rights.

I realized my deep love for Wendy Redbird Dancing when after three years, this hot mess of a girl and I were still friends and she, stronger in fiction than I’ve ever been in real life. She’s made bigger mistakes, taken greater chances, and survived more trauma than I. My heroine, my touchstone, my pal.

There are many strategies out there to get to know your character, and I’m a fan of list-making brainstorms and also Elizabeth George’s methods of character building (see her book Write Away). I think one truism that writers don’t want to admit when starting a novel is, It takes time. Lots of it. Just as you don’t really know a friend or a a spouse until it’s been a year or so—and even then, that’s truly just the beginning!—you don’t know your character till you’ve wandered in the woods with this person a good nine months. Of course I chose that symbolic gestation time; we can now switch to metaphors of birth and such.

Sorry, Relentless Era of Instant Gratification: you can’t know a character till you take that time. We may wish we could author books just like machines, but the laws of writing physics don’t move. There must be the ups and downs as there always are in the relationship rollercoaster, and ugly truth must surface as much as pretty epiphany.

The fact is, I’m in a relationship, and I’ve committed to this girl for life.

 

 

 

When Other People Get Good News

The other day, I rejoiced for several hours at someone else’s good news. It was fantastic and well deserved. A friend who has labored long and hard got his brass ring: a publishing deal. His humor, wit, and intelligence have finally been recognized by gatekeepers who know what can sell. I had some flashbacks to our shared misery over the last five years while we both strived after agents, publishing contracts, and our work to be known. Recently he told me he wasn’t sure he could survive another slew of rejections. Now with an advance in hand and a two-book deal, he can finally say he’s arrived.

As the joy has faded, I’ve felt twinges of wistfulness for the road I hopped off and what it might have offered me if in 2012 I’d said, “I’ll stay the course.” I wonder what it would be like to work with distributors that could get my book easily to brick-and-mortar stores. I’d love to give a publisher’s name to ensure a book signing. I’d love to have a marketing team set up interviews, conferences, and events.

I chose a different route. I decided after 14 months with an agent to blast myself into the self-pub universe. I’ve had nothing but fun and autonomy doing this, with a lot of blessings from good friends, family, and strangers who took the chance to invest in my work. I assemble a support team for all projects and make all the decisions. I’ve got a great website, good reviews, and a monthly newsletter. I have a beautiful book trailer. I’m blessed with the remainder of my “advance”—a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation—that allows me to plan to self-publish my next book.

My sales remain small and occasional because I rarely promote. With a fulltime job and a family, I only have time to write my next book. I have a 10-year plan, one that involves writing several more books, playing with prices to give my readers good deals, and hiringa publicist in order to increase my reach. All in good time, I keep telling myself when vaulting ambition threatens to flagellate me and when others’ good news makes me wonder if I’ve chosen the wrong road.

Over a decade ago, I went to a dear friend’s baby shower that happened the same week as another dear friend’s wedding. In a weak moment, I confessed to one of them, I feel you all have moved on. It felt very childish to admit at the time, but I couldn’t help myself. Sometimes, a lot of change hits all at once, where you think everyone else is grown up while your own future stays blank and unscripted. There are moments where you not only can’t predict the future, you sometimes think there might not be one to get excited about. My friends’ news didn’t leave me wanting something different for them, just for me to join them in the same headlines.

The self-pub lifestyle is a lot like being single: in order to survive it, you gotta build your own tribe. Just as I left these celebrations and got back on Match.com and made plans with friends, today I have to hire editors, graphic designers, filmmakers, book formatters, and web designers so I can publish a book. In the same way I couldn’t magically expect a social life to appear, I can’t expect a book to be born on its own. I can’t feel sorry for myself if sales don’t happen; I need to regroup, strategize, and keep working.

I never would have predicted that three years after the wedding and the baby shower, I’d be married at 37 in a boots-and-jeans wedding12wedding with a pig-pickin’ to follow. I couldn’t imagine that my beloved friends would suffer sorrows I’ve never had to bear. During that week of celebration, I could have told you they had a better deal than me, with a case of grass-is-greener kind of sadness. I can tell you now, I was foolish to focus on what I didn’t have and believe others had their happiness set.

My friend’s good news meets me wiser today than I was in 2002, when I believed there was a timing and momentum in life that I must follow or else I was somehow less than. My friend’s great news assures me there is justice and reward for some who keep trying at the traditional route, and that good stuff does indeed make it into print.  My friend’s amazing news gives me hope that legacy publishing might be a route for me to someday try again, that perhaps could get me the agent who is that awesome advocate, brilliant negotiator, and savvy adviser. This event in someone else’s life reminds me to stay my current course with persistence and integrity, check my gut when necessary, and never say never to self-pub or traditional success.

I trust in the rightness of what is right now. The joy I have for my friend mirrors the joy I feel when I open the file to my manuscript in process. Isn’t this fun, my whole body says. For in this moment, I get to write.

 

 

 

Racism Is Over…Right?

What bothered me a bit with the world building was I just felt like the school Wendy attended was racism central. I know that racism is a huge problem is some places, but it just felt a bit over the top in the beginning of the book. Luckily, about a third of the book in, the over the top racism thing stops, and the world building becomes more believable.

— from a review of my novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought.

How well did my novel capture race relations in a North Carolina high school? An author can fail at making a setting real or at making readers care about a character’s situation. The reviewer didn’t buy my portrayal of a world where white girls at Wendy’s school would say:

“This place has gone goth, ghetto, and Mexican.”

“I don’t see race. I think the people who always talk about it are the racists.”

Also unbelievable to the reviewer is an English class that would debate whether the n-word should be censored from a Huck Finn text—or debate whether the school itself is racist.DSCF1143

Perhaps the issue is characters talking about race too much. Maybe the reviewer’s point is that racism can be seen and heard but not necessarily discussed with the frankness or detail my novel uses.

Perhaps the issue is subtlety. The argument this reviewer makes against my fictional school, “racism central,” is that I should have captured the more subtle ways racism plays out.

But is it subtle if it’s your race that feels the discrimination? I’ve had few experiences with prejudice, and 99% of the time, it’s not been because I’m white.

Read Chapter 2 of my novel and see what you think.

Then ask yourself: What was the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic composition of honors classes at your high school? What happened in your class when you talked about any literature where race relations were depicted? Which authors did you read in English class?

Who got suspended at your high school? Was it a mix of genders, races, and economic classes, or did it tend to be certain groups?

I wonder where this reviewer grew up and the demographics of the community. I wonder if there are any schools in the area that are desegregated but not integrated, where “separate but equal” lives on in its 2014 manifestation. Many schools are no longer Little Rock’s Central High School of the 1950s, but listen to today’s Central High students speak on the lack of integration:

Nearly Six Decades Later, Integration Remains a Work in Progress

A black side and white side of the cafeteria. If we aren’t truly integrated yet, what is the work left to be done?

When I read a book that touches on race, I might find my critique saying, Dear Author, Racism is still a real issue. Please render it more believably. I’m less likely to say, Racism is over. Please let’s talk about something else.

I see racism every day. Any racism is “over the top” to me. And as easily as we want to wish away a book’s portrayal of social injustice, I also wish it could stop so easily in real life.

Obama’s election didn’t solve racial hatred or resentment. It didn’t stop the fact that your grandparents survived Jim Crow or your grandparents helped keep it alive. It doesn’t change the fact that some institutions, run by certain cultures and genders, keep certain myths and prejudices alive. I’ve seen racism in my workplaces—white people confusing black people with one another, faces I can’t imagine could ever be confused. I’ve heard patronizing statements or questions asked about the education and competency of people of color, despite an excellent track record of performance. I’ve seen people make decisions–I’ve helped make decisions–that are ignorant of certain constituencies needs because I assume every grew up and thought like middle-class, white me.

Even last night’s playoff footage–the interview between black Richard Sherman and white Erin Andrews–can’t be seen without the racial lens all Americans bring. Why else would Twitter go wild with such racially-laden language that Erin Andrews had to step up and tone things down? Perhaps we could talk about football and sportsmanship only…but we can’t, because this is America, and we have a racial history in all things. I like how blogger Tommy Tomlinson takes a wider, athletic view of the landscape as he discusses the behavior–and context–of Richard Sherman, my fellow Stanford grad.

These small stresses every day—what is the long-term impact of these judgments and barriers on people reminded daily they wake up black or brown or yellow, not white? Does it become “over the top” after years of facing different treatment? I can look at the rate of heart disease in some communities and wonder how those trends happen. Is it purely genetics? 

The point is to ask.

Acknowledging white privilege is not about browbeating whites or white people’s self-flagellation. It’s not about lumping all whites into one box. As a grandchild of immigrants who struggled hard to survive in the United States, who escaped war and privation to reinvent themselves here, I have some opportunity for sympathy, to better understand stories of those families who had fewer choices or life-and-death choices. (You can read about Katherine Schlegel Fuoco, my grandmother, here.) I don’t empathize with enslavement, but I can try to imagine. Acknowledging both the points of commonality and the points of difference is where I can begin. I can face facts of my ancestral privilege and wonder why.

A white person’s job isn’t to sound the gong of how horrible whites are. My job is to resist prejudicial habits and grow sensitivity and empathy. It’s my job to examine the tape of judgment playing in my head when I recoil at something, feel superior to anyone with what King called “the drum major instinct,” or want to separate people into categories. Ask why, right away, and wonder if my judgments are sound. Ask if I would treat someone of a different gender or race or sexual orientation differently in this same case. Ask. Think. That’s a start.

Racism is over, right?

Racism is over? Right on. Thank you, Dr. King, for articulating so well that dream we pray one day shall come to be, this dream that needs time, love, and labor still.

See my other posts on the topic of race relations in America.

Thoughts on Seeing Dr. King’s Memorial

My Grandma is a Racist?

How The Help Helps

 

 

 

 

Faith, Hope, and Dad

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 13: 13

My dad thinks I’m awesome.Daddy_Lyn_June_2013

Before you question this narcissistic start to a Father’s Day post, bear with me. I believe there are two types of people: those who are successful with the help of their dads, and those who have achieved in spite of their dads. I am blessed to say I’m successful thanks to my father.

A male role model must be many things: forthright and honest, loyal and dependable, driven and persistent, and vigilant and protective. It’s a bonus if he is fun, kind, and excited about life. I got the complete Dad package.

During a self-publishing journey, you need a lot of support. You need a cheerleader with faith and business sense. My dad has been at my side throughout this process, suggesting new ideas and sending me the latest updates from bloggers and industry experts, doing research, building Excel spreadsheets, and asking sales and marketing questions. He has my back in an enterprise that has no clear or “right” trajectory. There are some parents who might say, “Are you really sure you want to do this? Isn’t it a lot of work? Why don’t you wait it out another few years (never mind the three spent querying the industry and working with an agent) because the traditional path seems like a safer bet.” Instead, my dad captures all the confusing Excel data from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and Smashword and brainstorms how a developer needs to create an app to automate such a process. He compliments my writing efforts and sings my praises to friends and family. He loves to see me shine, and with that special Dad pride, he can make me look even brighter.

My father’s actions relay to me that no matter what I attempt, I can do it. A daughter needs that kind of optimism if she is to undertake an artist’s life.

My dad modeled risk-taking to me since my childhood. We moved from Southern California to Northern, to Belgium, back to Northern California to North Carolina as he pursued various opportunities with his work. I learned that new places hold possibility, that people of other states and countries have fascinating histories, and that there are good people and new friends everywhere. I learned that over time, one can adapt to new situations and discover new sides to oneself. My dad thrives on meeting new people, making new friends, and trying new foods. He handed down to me that same zest for experimentation and newness.

In the ed world, one will often here the phrase “lifelong learner” as a descriptor for a teacher’s ideal persona. Ever curious, open, and excited, this kind of teacher inspires his or her students to embark on the learning journey. That phrase fits my father perfectly. This is what he’s taught me: to treat each day as a new opportunity and an ambitious adventure.

My dad is a man of many gifts. He knows people the world over who are grateful for his leadership, mentorship, and business savvy. With all these talents he’s always been extremely humble and does not call attention to himself. He is the kind of worker right in the trenches with everyone else. It wasn’t until I was out of college that I began to appreciate all he had done and was pursuing. And he still thinks my little business enterprise is worth his time and attention.

Love is reliable and shows up every day, just like a good dad. It is consistent, persistent, and trustworthy. A great father’s love is full of faith and hope. I will be forever grateful for my wonderful father who has shaped me, my view of myself, and my happiness.

Writing Prompts:

  • What is a line your father often said to you, and when would he say it? Why do you think you remember it now?
  • How much are you like and unlike your father?
  • Have you been blessed by a good father, or challenged by a non-father? Have you survived a bad father? How do you know what good fatherhood is?
  • What are your paternal instincts, and how do you pursue them?
  • In How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, Wendy says, “Funny how the potential stepdad gives so much more of a damn than the biological mother, who can’t even remember I’ve got this project, much less any major exams.” Wendy is charmed by one of her mother’s boyfriends, Shaye, who seems to be the first with stepdad potential. She has no compass for what a dad’s behavior should be like, and so she is easily misled by seemingly dadlike behavior. What other charismatic ways does Shaye appear to have Wendy’s best interests in mind?
  • What do we know of any males in the story who might be father figures? What conclusions do you draw about this woman-centric, fatherless world Wendy lives in? Does this world have Wendy’s best interests in mind?

Shakespeare in My Heart

The Bard just shows up in my stories. I can’t stop him. He’s persistent like that.

All those teen years of re-reading the plays sealed the first set of words in my head: Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Hamlet. (Thank you, Ravenscroft High School, for giving me Angela Connor, teacher extraordinaire, and a play every year to capture my heart.) Getting the chills as I tried to speak Shakespearean, I couldn’t believe at age 14 anyone could pen words so beautiful, so lively, so incandescent.speare

Serving as an English teacher for over thirteen years was the second seal upon my heart: you can’t teach well if you don’t read along with your students. So the Bard’s pages got marked up yet again, highlighted with not only my impressions but tons of teaching ideas.

So whenever I’m writing short stories, the Bard’s words play along like a soundtrack in my head.

In my short story “The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future,” Ronalda is an unhappy small-town woman trapped in a complicated suburban life she can’t comprehend. It’s 1976, and when chatting with her neighbor, Diane, who quotes Shakespeare, Ronalda remembers the time her husband dragged her to see the 1968 Zeffirelli film, Romeo and Juliet. Ronalda doesn’t comprehend Diane’s love of books and words.

“You got a case of think-too-much.”

Diane says, soft, “O teach me how I should forget to think.”

“What’s that?” Ronalda sits Bradford in the high chair and rifles through the cupboard.

“Something I read.” Diane gets pink, grabs cups from the shelf, then looks hopeful. “You ever read Shakespeare?”

Ronalda pulls out a jar of applesauce. “They made us back in school, but I never could keep my eyes on it. Mama always said, ‘Books collect the dust.’ Traded all of ours except the Bible one time at the swap meet.”

“I been picking it up again—Romeo and Juliet? Kind of sounds like the Bible.”

Ronalda wonders whether that’s blasphemous. Instead she says, “Darryl took me to that movie one time, that Zepparella one. All I remember was it had naked bodies in it. Darryl took it so serious. I was teasing him and I said, ‘Look at you, all tore up’—but he just kept saying, ‘It ain’t right. No way out. Fate’s got us all screwed.’ I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.”

“He must have meant the Prince,” Diane says. “He’s the one who said, ‘All are punnashed.” She looks dreamy, like she might take off with those long legs, shoot into the sky like a Hollywood starlet, an Esther Williams riding fountains.

“Funny how they talk,” Ronalda says. “How do you keep it straight? And who has the time?” She wrestles with the lid.

 By the time this story of Ronalda’s day ends, one might say that all are punished.

In my debut novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, Twelfth Night and The Merchant of Venice show up. Sixteen-year-old Wendy has just been yanked out of a California life where she had the lead in Twelfth Night alongside her best friend, and Wendy might never forgive her mother for this sudden move to North Carolina.  There’s a ray of hope when she makes the acquaintance of two students in her English class, Andrew and Tanay, finding that she and Andrew can connect over the Bard. He’s returning her Walkman to her, one that a Mean Girl just tried to steal, and sees the cassette inside it.

He laughs. “Thriller. That what you listen to?”

“Yessir.”

“But you’ve got an iPhone.”

I shrug. It is none of his business, my retro philosophy of purity, simplicity, and innocence that was the 1980s.

“Can you do that zombie dance?”

I roll my eyes. “There’s so much more to Michael than little monsters. Give his lyrics a listen and you’ll see the light.”

His grin—a toothpaste smile designed to electrify teen girls—says I amuse him. “Oh, I know the word according to MJ,” he says. “How it don’t matter if you’re black or white. But the Bard, now that’s my boy. ‘If you poison us, do we not die?’”

“‘If you wrong us,’” I say, “‘shall we not revenge?’”

I look over my shoulder. Tanay’s face says she’s not too fond of this exchange.

By the end of the novel, race and revenge have played out their strange and horrible consequences in what I hope are redemptive ways.

This week as the terrible events in Boston unfolded, I was struck by the both depravity and heroism of humanity on view in the same moment. As reporters wondered who could perpetrate such a crime, as police conducted a manhunt, we shook our heads; then as we saw footage of people running toward the blast and heard more evidence of people opening up their homes and restaurants to help, we felt hope. Hamlet said it best:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in

reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving

how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!

in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the

world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is

this quintessence of dust?

Happy birthday, William. It’s been 397 years of beauteous words, illuminating wisdom, uproarious comedy and heart-rending tragedy, and transcendent rhythms. When you passed in 1616, you could have no idea how long you would live for us.

Writing Prompts:

  • Have you re-read a line from a favorite book or poem lately? Go find it, read it, and hear your voice saying it aloud. If you like Shakespeare, let his words fall trippingly off your tongue.
  • Have you ever said, “Fair play,” or “foul play”? How about “good riddance” or “fight fire with fire”? Thank Shakespeare for coining these and any other eloquent phrases that are everyday idioms now. Try one of these phrases to start a poem, story, or essay.
  • Pick up a play or movie that has something to do with Shakespeare. Check out PBS’ great series, Shakespeare Uncovered. Write something in response to what you read or see.
  • Copy ten lines of Shakespeare and home in on a few words or phrases. What are all the possibilities in those words when you think about performing them? What ambiguities does Shakespeare leave available for us and actors to fill in the gaps? What does he teach about human nature that inspires your own good thoughts and perhaps writing, too?
  • Head to HappyBirthdayShakespeare.com and enjoy the tributes.

Talk, Talk, Talk

Days before the election, a lot of us are sick of “talk.” Talk that is lies, talk that is a twist of the truth or “white lie,” talk that is spin. My question for all who would lead us, “What have you done for us lately?”

The record, the resume, the latest legislation. The diplomatic visit, the executive order, the newly-created commission or budget cuts. What have you DONE, lately?

I know people who talk a lot about writing who never do it. I know people who talk a lot about working on the work but never work. They think they’re working, because their talk is cheap and flowing fast as raw sewage. To them it smells heavenly; to me, it reeks.

Can you tell I don’t like slackers?

So NaNoWriMo is a chance for writers to put their

http://writerunboxed.com/2012/09/25/rebuilding-my-optimism-muscle/

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Makers and Takers

Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.

Image found here

And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.

But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.

And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:

But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

— Luke 10: 38 – 42, King James version

Martha was a maker. She was preparing the evening meal when her sister Mary disappeared to go hang with Jesus.

And Martha got mad. The fish needed broiling; the fire sent sweat pouring down her face. Thank goodness she’d made fig cakes this morning, but would he mind bread a few days old? Well, it would have to do–but Jesus was no ordinary guest. While she slaved, Mary kept glancing over her shoulder, but no Martha, no Martha, no Martha. Finally she stormed into the room where Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, listening avidly.

“Make her help me!” Martha snapped, sure Jesus would see what was the Christian thing to do.

Jesus told Martha she only needed one thing–spiritual time, AKA reflective and quiet time–which is exactly what Mary had already figured out. Jesus told Martha that what Mary had would never disappear.

In other words, the “slacker” had it all figured out.

This parable always irks me because I’m a doer. In this story the doers lose. 100% Virgo, I waste no time getting about my business. Down time seems gratuitous; let’s just say I don’t give myself much time for daydreaming unless it’s permitted by schedule–a mind wandering during the commute, though I’d do better to listen to NPR; waiting in a doctor’s office, but I could be working on a short story. Every hour could be better used to get something done. Obsessed, workaholic, intense, I expect a lot out of me, every day.

I have spent many moons making this novel, and today, I have nought but another draft to show for it. (Nought is my character Wendy’s favorite word, so that’s a nod to her.) Do I have inner peace, though? That’s the real question. Do I have Mary energy or Martha energy as I move to the next phase of relationship with this work? The Martha energy–“careful and troubled about many things”–and in some translations “upset,” “fussing,” and “anxious.” The Mary energy? All we know is she’s chosen “the good part.”

At ease. At peace. Thoughtful. Dreaming.

I recently parted ways with my agent, amicably, because despite all my best efforts at doing, I could not create a novel that met the market’s formula. A certain profile of 16 year-old girl was my agent’s aim, and understandably so: many publishers need a story that sells easily, the “easy on the eyes” formula. And ironically, to get to that easy sale some of us must slave.

More irony: I actually think this draft is the best yet, but I haven’t taken time away to make a better judgment.

So, despite all my hard work, I can’t yet tell you what I have to show today. I wonder if the people I know who have less of an agenda and more of a dream are truly the winners in this life. I mean those who laugh and love and don’t stress about whether the goals are checked off on the checklist. If they show up fully present to each moment, they may gain more wisdom in an hour than I might get in a lifetime.

But the nagging Martha voice does whisper in my ear: what would Jesus eat if it weren’t for her? Who keeps those trains running.

I love this blog because it forces me, Martha, to sit still and reflect.

Questions for the Makers in This World: 

  • How can you get the job done without work dominating your days? 
  • How do you find joy in the moment and put your list aside for enough seconds so you can experience what’s dancing right in front of your nose? 
  • How do you not care so much about things that could be easily taken from you?

And for all the Marys out there, Takers taking in the best of the Jesus moments:

  • How do you live in the present without forgetting your obligations to others? 
  • How do you give in to the energy of now without becoming the kind of person who lives off others’ hard work? 
  • How do you know what is “the good part” to invest your time in rather than something that is illusory?

Right now I hear a lot of political rhetoric about the “doers” and the Makers–the “job creators”–pitted against the victims, the lazy, AKA the Takers, which is a false dichotomy last time I checked in with humanity. What strikes me most in this debate is that the sound and fury of busy-ness is a particularly American obsession and that some of the busiest people on the planet can be the ones doing the least important things. (Take a look at the shouting folks on the NY Stock Exchange floor and realize that they are moving intangible financial stuff at great risk to their heart health, and you have to wonder who’s really making or taking in that scenario.)

And beyond any assessments of American character and way of life, the fact is we can judge till the cows come home, whether we’re the cow chaperones or not, but you can’t live your life in harsh judgment of others. You can’t stay angry and bitter over who’s doing or not doing their fair share or whether you just did yourself wrong with all this flurry of activity for nought.

All I know right now is this: there can be no bitterness as I walk away from a long period of making art–perhaps unsuccessfully by market standards. Today there should only be sitting at the feet of Wisdom to figure out what the heck just happened.

What about you: are you consumed with Making something or Taking it all in today?

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Permission to Go Off the Grid, Sir!

 What I Did on My Summer Vacation:

Image found here

 What I Did Not Do on My Summer Vacation:

  • answer email
  • worry about writing goals 
  • worry about whether I will ever “make it” with my YA fiction (whatever that means)
  • worry about the CCSS or whether I am a decent educator or not
  • judge my worthiness by word count
  • care what others think

Note to fellow authors: I allowed myself 8 days of summer vacation. How about you?

Some wisdom to chew on from two authors, confirming thoughts in my own head lately:

I get asked this question a lot: What can I do to be a better writer?

I often answer:  Write more. Read more. 

If I have enough time, I add: And make sure you get out and do stuff. That’s how you’ll get new material, even if it’s riding a bus to your favorite bakery and eating too many eclairs. 

It’s true. You’ll hear people talking about things. You’ll see birds and trees and stuff. You might watch a garbage truck making its rounds, a businesswoman walking to lunch in a pair of sneakers, a man running his daily ten miles, a little kid flying a kite.

You will, I hope, gain respect for everyone you see because they’re out there doing what they do because that’s what they are doing. And if you’re holed up writing all the time, you will forget that there are people out there doing what they do. Living.

A few weeks ago, my good friend Drew wrote me a letter. He told me to have fun. He told me that I was allowed to go swimming and do back dives and shit. The minute I read the letter, I went to the pool and did back dives.

Sometimes we have to do back dives.

A.S. King, “Chop Wood, Carry Water”

I rarely hear anyone talk about mulling, thinking, musing, ideating. I remember reading how Tony Hillerman will often lay on his couch for hours with his eyes closed. That was the bulk of his work. I am much the same way, but instead of lying on the couch I take long walks, talk out my plots and ideas and characters, sometimes in prayer with God, other times just talking out loud to myself somewhere secluded where no one but my dog hears me (and he doesn’t mind). Toni Morrison has written about doing much the same, saying by the time she sits down to write, she’s done the hard work of writing in her head.  

C.S. Lakin, “Why Counting Words May Be Hazardous to Your Health”

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