To Mrs. Beal

When I was in sixth grade, my English teacher, Mrs. Beal, gave our class an assignment to write and illustrate a short story. I enjoyed stories quite a bit, and enjoyed creating them even more, so I dug right in.
I imagined a fantastical tale of Dr. Drake, the dastardly (female!) space villain who was forever eluding the hero, Dexter. In my mind I could see grand adventures, intrigues, cliffhangers, romance, and epic set pieces. I composed heart-wrenching, poetic lines of dialogue and evocative description in my head. It would be the Great American Space Opera, if only I could get it down in my Lisa Frank notebook.
In the end, the short story I turned in was about four pages long, largely filled with exposition about what it’s like up in space. I spent hours agonizing over an illustration of someone kicking a soccer ball (have you ever tried to draw a soccer ball?). On the last page and a half I threw in the scene where Dexter finally catches up to Dr. Drake—and learns that she’s a woman—in a harrowing climax. A few poetic lines, and violá! a true masterpiece.
To make it seem even more impressive, I added a subtitle: An excerpt from The Many Adventures of Dexter. I was proud of knowing and correctly using the word “excerpt” and doubly proud that my teacher would think I was so clever to have written a whole novel. Surely she would assume that the rest of my alleged book was just as compelling, just as brilliant, as this teaser I had casually pulled out.
Whether out of pity or irony (remembering her crusty sarcasm, I would guess irony) she gave me an A and added a note: “I expect you to win the Pulitzer someday.” I was a little pleased, but mostly confused. Puli-what? What was that? Who cared? What did she think of that brilliant line I had carefully crafted, when Dr. Drake realized escape was futile?
While I didn’t understand or fully appreciate her (possibly sarcastic) praise, it did give me confidence that perhaps I had some writing chops. Over the next many years of school, I fell hard for English and literature. It was intoxicating to realize the power of words, in just the right setting and just the right combination. I gasped in delight at the words of others. I yearned to make others gasp the same way.
These days I’m not aiming for the Pulitzer, but I would love the chance to get a book (or forty) published.
Mrs. Beal, be sure to look for your name in the acknowledgements.

Creation

This week I buckled down and sewed some new throw pillows for the couch. I’d had the fabric for nearly nine months, and it wasn’t until Wednesday that I made it happen.

Now I feel unstoppable.

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I normally consider myself a high-energy person. I’m interested in lots of things and I love the feeling of finishing a project, almost as much as I love beginning new ones. I’ve spent the last several years fighting mediocrity and feeling pretty good about what I’ve accomplished.

But if you’ll take a moment to scroll down to the previous post, you can read a fairly accurate summary of what the past eight months have been like for me – busy, discouraging, exhausting… Needless to say, I haven’t been nearly as productive and energetic during that time.

Until I sewed new pillows.

I feel as if a new world has opened up for me. Or perhaps an old world that used to be familiar, but I had lost sight of. Now I’m looking around myself, seeing possibilities and ideas, and making room in my life for creation and beauty. Considering that my day job is defined by tasks that don’t ever stay done, there’s something so good that happens in my soul when I can create something beautiful and lasting.

When I finish something, whether it’s a draft of a book, or a wedding cake, or new throw pillows for the couch, I feel like a powerful creator with enormous potential.

I feel unstoppable.

When Momma Ain’t Happy…

I have a bad case of the grumps today.

It’s a perfect cocktail of lack of sleep, deadlines, discouragement, busy kids, and the fact that we’re clean out of ice cream at our house (how did that happen?).

I’m still on track for finishing Old Hag by the end of the month, but this unexpected case of the grumps has derailed all my glorious visions of knocking out thousands of words in a single day.

When I do sit down to write, I see everything in my story through this grumpy lens. My protagonist is pouty. My world is bleak. My characters’ relationships are full of angst.

In some ways that can be useful, because it provides conflict. But the conflict in my writing should be intentional – not a product of my own personal storm cloud.

The solution: Write a navel-gazey blog post, get a full night’s sleep, get those %#$! Halloween costumes finished, enlist Darren’s help with the housework and kids, and keep plugging away at everything tomorrow.

That, and buy more ice cream.

Finding Inspiration

These days I’ve been going through the entire Avatar: The Last Airbender series. Again.

The first time I watched it, I was impressed with the cohesiveness of the overarching plot, and the individual character arcs that spanned three series.

As I’m going through this time, I’m noticing the smaller details – subplot devices, character moments, foreshadowing, etc.

This heightened awareness of storytelling elements (not to mention being steeped in a rich world with a strong plot and dynamic characters) has sharpened my ability to recognize cool ideas, and the emotions behind them.

Emotion is, after all, what I love most about reading and writing.

As a result of having Avatar and storytelling elements on the brain, I’ve started seeing story ideas all around me:

A gorgeous and haunting song about a river, and blood-stained stones.

A news site article about a volcano.

The Book of Leviticus.

A dream staring the Ninth Doctor.

A painting of a girl in a hat on a dirt road.

And, of course, Avatar itself.

I’m still plugging away and making pretty good progress on Old Hag. But in the back of my mind, lightning has struck.

Story sparks are coming to life.

And I’m giddy with anticipation to see what these sparks turn into.

Do Not Feed the Internal Editor

I’ve heard it a gazillion times:

Turn off your internal editor.

Don’t try to make it perfect the first time.

Move on and fix it later.

Easier said than done, people.

After whizzing through several chapters in the past month, I seem to be hung up on this one.

I’ll struggle with something, conquer it, feel good, move on, and get stuck on something else two paragraphs later. Like I’m slogging through molasses.

As I’m staring at the word document and bleeding through my forehead, the temptation to line edit what’s already there is high. It gives me a false sense of progress, when I’m really just stalling while waiting for inspiration to magically appear and bail me out.

Unfortunately, inspiration won’t strike while I’m staring at the screen and tinkering with sentences. It comes as I buckle down and shovel words – imperfect words – onto the page.

I’m slowly coming to understand that my own personal brand of writers block usually takes the form of that pesky internal editor getting her way.

And look! What started out as a post about shutting off the internal editor turned into a lesson on working through writers block. Imagine that…

Hard Things

Pup is in his room, not sleeping.

I know he’s tired. I know he needs a nap badly. I know he’ll be happier for the rest of the day if he takes his afternoon nap.

But he fights it.

It makes me wonder if I’m ever like that. Do I ever resist things just because they’re hard, or because I’d rather do something more exciting? The obvious answer is a big neon yes.

I’ve been staring at the opening of my chapter 8 for the past six days. In the past month, six days is how long I’ve averaged for each chapter. And I’ve finished four chapters.

But here I am, at a rough spot – six days of blinking at that blank page, and closing the computer when I can’t figure out how to make it work.

Maybe I need to take some time to chew on it.

But more likely, maybe I need to just remind myself that this is a first draft. It doesn’t have to be perfect. I’m shoveling sand into the sandbox in lopsided heaps, so that later I can form it into a beautiful sand castle. (At least, as beautiful as a first-time novelist is capable of making.)

It’s hard, but so is everything else that’s worth it.

Time Optimism

Confession: I have a tendency to run late.

I’ve struggled with this for as long as I can remember. To Darren, it’s incomprehensible how this can be a struggle for me. Being on time to everything comes easily to him, so he looks at me and thinks, “Just . . . don’t be late.”

I wish it were that easy for me.

But I think I’ve finally figured out what’s at the core of this problem: I’m a Time Optimist. (Not to be confused with Time Lord.)

In other words, I severely underestimate how much time it will take me to get out the door. Usually my estimates of how long it will take to do certain things are based on record highs.

For instance, I have managed to be in and out of the shower in under five minutes, a few times in my life. So when I’m factoring in time for a shower, my mind automatically allots five minutes. I’m being outrageously optimistic.

In addition to assuming I can shower in five minutes, I look at the clock and think to myself, That means I’ll have ten minutes to spare! That’s enough time to throw together a dessert to bring! In reality, that task will take at least 20 minutes.

So I stack up all these things I want to get done, none of which I’m able to do in the time I think I can do them.

And then we’re late. Again.

(Let’s not even get into the complications of trying to get the kids out the door too.)

The solution that seems to work better than anything else I’ve tried is “leaving a margin.”

As I’m planning what needs to happen to get us out the door, I have to stop and consciously add a margin of 15 to 30 minutes. That way, when it takes me ten extra minutes to get dressed, fix my hair, and put on makeup, I’m simply taking time away from the margin.

Or *sigh* perhaps I’m totally crazy and neurotic about the whole issue, and just need to chill.

And seriously, who am I kidding? I hardly ever do my hair and makeup anymore.

Allotment of Hours

I’m beginning to discover that I like a full plate.

Sure, I’ll talk about wishing for more free time, but when it comes right down to it, I feel the most alive and energetic when I’m busy pursuing a dream – the key word being “busy.”

The largest chunks of my time are devoted to kids and housework. That’s my day job, and one that I can’t quit, no matter what other goals I reach for and achieve. That line never gets crossed.

The little bits in between kids and housework are what’s up for grabs. Sometimes I fill it with writing, sometimes with baking and cake decorating. Now and then I’ll take a brief stint into music, sewing, gardening, or decorating.

But either way I slice it, I can’t fill those bits of time with nothing.

This is a good thing, because it means I’m able to accomplish things that a lot of other young moms in my stage in life generally don’t. But it also means that sometimes it comes around to bite me.

Right now, I’m teetering on the edge of deciding to audition for a local production of Fiddler on the Roof. This is one of my very favorite musicals, and one I’ve always wanted to be in. Darren has said he’s willing to support me in this. I’ve been whipping my singing voice back into shape, and I feel that if I do this right, I’ve got a good shot at a main role.

Problem: I have also set a goal to finish a first draft of my novel by the end of the year.

I’m not convinced that novel-writing and musical-acting are mutually exclusive, but with a limited number of hours per week that are mine in which to pursue dreams, I might not be able to make both fit. Or, I might be able to do one mostly well and the other only mediocre.

I’m not interested in ‘mediocre.’ Or even ‘mostly well,’ for that matter. If I’m going to do anything at all, it’s going to be my best work.

So I continue to play a mental see-saw game, doing the math over and over again, and debating with myself over opportunity cost vs. sanity.

Troubleshooting

I’m currently 2100 words into Chapter 2 of my current project (why is it so hard for me to come up with a working title?) and I’m learning all over again why reading and studying the craft of writing can never replace good, old-fashioned practice.

Chapter 2 has a lot of character development. I mean a lot. So here’s how my inner dialogue went today:

Me 1:   This chapter is boooring.

Me 2:   Hey, it’s character development. That’s interesting.

Me 1:   *Snore*

Me 2:   It’s not like you have to have something exploding on every page.

Me 1:   Right. But I’m bored writing it. Who on earth would want to read it?

Me 2:   People who are mature enough to handle scenes of character development. Is it really that bad?

Me 1:   Yes.

Me 2:   But character development isn’t boring!

Me 1:   It is if that’s ALL THAT’S HAPPENING.

That was my light bulb moment.

I’ve done enough reading and studying in the past several years to know that every scene in a given story has to do more than one thing: Develop character, advance the plot, and show the setting.

Develop character, advance the plot, show the setting. I could say it in my sleep. With both hands tied behind my back.

Of course my chapter was boring – I wasn’t advancing the plot or showing the setting. Yes, I was doing a great job developing character, but even the most fascinating character will lose your reader if plot and setting are ignored.

For some reason, it took me a long time to realize that that was the solution to my boring chapter.

Writing blinds me to my own weakness. Writing more shows me it’s there. Writing even more reveals the answer.

Practice, practice, practice.

When Not To Take a Photo

I made a lovely cake today.

It was a triple-layer dark chocolate cake, with Oreo cookie filling, frosted in vanilla buttercream, and topped with chocolate ganache that dripped decadently over the sides. High-contrast dark brown on white. And I put a couple of bright red strawberries on top.

Unfortunately, I was also racing out the door two seconds after I put it together.

I didn’t get a picture of it. The food blogger in me is ashamed, because that’s just what you do. You take pictures of what you make so you can post them up for people to ooh and ahh over. But I know I wouldn’t have had time to set up a good shot. You could argue that a poorly composed photo is better than no photo when you’ve taken that much time to construct a gorgeous cake.

On the other hand, no photo is better than a husband who is grumpy that we’re late to his grandma’s birthday party because I made him wait while I took photos for (arguably) my own vanity’s sake.

This masterpiece will have to live on in my memory, until I get a chance to make another one like it and photograph that. When that happens, I’ll have to make sure I’m not running late.