Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Writing Wizards

They are better writers than I was at their age. They come into class with entire worlds in their heads, casts of characters, sequels.

Some of them already know about story arcs, three-act structure, internal vs external conflicts. Did I tell you they are in middle school? I'm not sure what I can teach them. I stand at the head of the room, looking out at the expectant faces and fiddling with my powerpoint, wondering if I'll have to adjust this lesson.

Write Your Book!

The exclamation point makes it seem more exciting than the reality.

The reality is it's just you and the page, day after day, one word following another, nevermind the deleting, the two steps backwards for every one small step forward, the slow slog weeks that seem to add up to nothing,

and most disheartening, the finished pieces that may float forever in virtual file folders on your old computer.

But I won't tell them any of this. I'm supposed to inspire them! Share my secrets! Impart wisdom!

The funny thing is that I do feel somewhat inspiring and wise as the class goes on. I show them pictures of writer work spaces, snapshots of author writing processes. The post-it notes and index cards and scrawled papers tacked above laptops. I tell them how William Faulkner wrote out the outline of one of his novels on his bedroom wall. I mean, how else do you keep all of the movable parts of a book straight?

What I want them to know, what I wish I'd known, is that there is no one way to Do this. And if a particular method worked for you before and doesn't seem to work anymore, it's okay to try something else.

Look at me. Over the years, I've set word count goals. Scene goals. Time goals. I've written straight through fast, sprinting through a draft without revising, and later sifting through that mess, pulling out the few decent pieces and starting all over again from page one.

I've revised as I wrote, battling each sentence into perfect submission before allowing myself to move on, and later deleting pages and pages of pristine prose.

I once wrote an entire book in pencil. I've outlined beforehand and outlined after-hand.

This year the book I'm writing is happening in 120 minute-per day increments. For some reason I've been lighting a candle before beginning. Now, the strike of the match means it's time to write. I burned through a cranberry-scented candle before Christmas and moved on to other flavors-- rose, cinnamon, vanilla, throwing the discarded matches into the empty containers.

As the class goes on many of the students admit that they have never finished writing a book. They work out their stories in their heads. They type out big chunks and then lose interest as newer, shinier ideas take hold.

What's the secret, they want to know.

And I wish I could explain it. There is no secret. Just, a few minutes a day. One word tapped out after another. A match burning and tossed into a spent container.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Close Encounters of the Human Kind

I like it when the little kids toddle in, their snowy boots, their hats slipping over their eyes as they peel off their mittens.

I remember those snowy days with my own kids, how hard it was to get them coated up and out the door and car-seated into the minivan. All the stuff you had to carry. Diaper bags and wipe-ys and tissues for runny noses. The dolly toy my daughter sucked on so fiercely she lost her face. The dolly. Not my daughter.

The kids kneel down in front of the mice holes first and I kneel with them because I like to point out the teeny blue paint brush the mouse is holding and the paintings he's been working on and the mess he's made, but that's okay. He's an artist. Sometimes the mouse is a she. 

Is she real, they ask me. 

And when I tell them, yes, they believe me. 

Outside the bookstore the world is awful and growing awful-er or maybe it's always been like this and I only know it more now because the news scrolls out of my phone endlessly. 

Did you know a man hated his ex-wife so much he killed their two children when he was on the phone with her? They executed that man last week and his wife watched him die and I wish I didn't know this and I am sorry I shared it with you. 

My favorite book in the bookstore this week is a book called Ball. It's the story of the most darling adorable dog and how he keeps trying to get someone to throw him his ball. This favorite book is tied with the books How to Put Your Parents to Bed (hilarious) and After the Fall (the story of what happens after Humpty Dumpty fell and how he conquered his fear of heights. It's an inspirational tearjerker. I'm not lying) 

(And don't miss the sequel: Treat)

The other day two pre-schoolers gathered up every stuffed animal on the book shelves and lined them up on the couch and read books to them while their harried, apologetic mother nursed a baby sibling. 

Eh, whatever, I told her. Don't worry. I've been there. 

All those days nursing my daughter, her three year old brother dropping books on her head or legoes or matchbox cars. He wasn't used to sharing me with someone else and my heart broke for him at the same time I was saying, Just a minute. Give me a minute. The TV was on and the news broke in: 

A shooting at a school. 

I watched a stream of teenagers fleeing a school called Columbine with their hands up and I turned off the TV fast and burped my baby and played legoes with my three year old, freaked out, thinking about my own teaching days (only a few months before quitting to stay home with my new baby) and never ever ever did I worry about a student shooting up the school.

Did you know that there were "11 school shootings in the last 23 days, which is more than anywhere else in the world, even Afghanistan or Iraq"?  

I don't want to know this and I am sorry I told you. 

A boy reads a book curled up on the couch. A father teaches his daughter how to play chess. A grandmother comes into the store with her grandchild and I show her the book How to Babysit Your Grandma and she reads it with her grandchild on her lap. A mom comes in with her son and I point out the book Dragons Love Tacos. Later I hear the little boy giggling as she reads it to him. 

Last week a father in Kansas, a professor, a respected man in the community for over 30 years was picked up by ICE as he was taking his young child to school. He's going to be deported back to Bangladesh as an example to other immigrants. (If the first thing that crosses your mind when I tell you this story is that the man should've taken care of his paperwork, please don't tell me. I don't want to know this cold-hearted thing about you.) 

Last week we hosted a bookclub at the bookstore and a dozen kids read from A Wrinkle in Time. It was my favorite book as a kid and I still remember the story. How it was a dark and stormy night and Meg's father had been taken away and she flew off to rescue him with her younger brother Charles Wallace. 

It was really bad where their father was being held. A dark place where evil had taken over and even good people had been sucked into it, and to make matters worse, It took Charles Wallace. In the showdown the once darling brilliant beautiful boy tells Meg he hates her, and she is horrified and enraged, thinking

there is nothing you can do to fight hate like that.

Oh my God so many girls took the stand last week and told the world how their gymnastics doctor hurt them, one girl after another, telling her story, shaking and crying, and even now there are men and women closing their eyes to it and saying it didn't happen or it wasn't that bad or why did they wait so long to tell or maybe they are lying and 

I could hate these people. 

Did I tell you about the teeny mouse painting a picture in the bookstore where I work? Did I tell you that the artist who created it is named Sharon Dorsey? She works at a place called Open Door Studio where she helps artists with disabilities create and sell their art. 

Did I tell you that the first time I read A Wrinkle in Time I cried? Not in sadness, but from relief and joy. 

It turns out there is a way to triumph over darkness:


and I am happy to share it with you.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The last time I worked at a bookstore

I shelved the books in the Romance section, which was the easiest section to maintain because there was only one way to organize those books-- alphabetically by author -- and I was a part-time bookstore worker. They were never going to give me one of the big, complex, multiply-segmented sections like History or Religion

or even Poetry, even though I was working on my MFA in poetry at the time. Everyone at that bookstore was an expert in something, and people all over the city would call our Information Desk line to ask questions about Whatever. What movie won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1936 or How many years did the Mexican American War last, and one of us would know the answer or we'd know where to find it.

We were basically the Siri of the early 1990's, when there was no such thing as the internet or Google and cellphones were as big as your forearm and only really wealthy and/or obnoxious people carried them around.

I wasn't always the best bookstore worker. I snootily looked down on the Romance novels I shelved and I secretly rolled my eyes at the people who came in looking for a book but couldn't remember the title or the author or really anything about it, except that it had a white and black cover.

(for the record, they wanted Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein)

Something people are often surprised to learn about bookstore clerks is that we were not allowed to read the books-- at least while we were on the clock.

I wanted to read everything.

But once I got over that rule, I loved working at the bookstore. I loved unpacking the new arrivals. I loved the smell of the storeroom, the wooden shelves, the rows and rows of backstock. I loved reorganizing books in the bookcases. I loved talking to people about books and asking them what they were reading and learning what was new in the book world and getting to meet authors at book-signings and fulfilling my mission

which was always to put a book into the customer's hands.

Turns out that nearly thirty years later I still love doing all of these things. The bookstore where I have been working for the past few weeks is called Cover to Cover.  It's the reconfiguration of the original Cover to Cover (my favorite bookstore of all time, which closed a few months ago when the darling owner Sally Oddi retired), now reopened in a new space by the lovely Melia Wolf, a former art teacher, which is very apparent the moment you walk through the door. 

(LOOK!! a teeny mouse nook under the counter, designed by
artist Sharon Dorsey of Open Door Studio)

(The original Cover to Cover had a wall of visiting author
and illustrator signatures. The wall went with Sally but Melia
took photos and recreated it as tissue paper!)

I am having a blast unpacking boxes and moving the books around on the shelves. Struggling, a little, to learn the ordering and computer cash register system (yes, THIS has changed mightily over the last thirty years), but the smell of the books is the same, and I will never tire of talking about books with people.

(One of my first customers, Sally! at the grand opening.)

And my new favorite thing?

Kneeling down to put a book into a child's hands.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Something of a Radical

Last week someone called me a radical.

Okay, it was my husband, and I think he meant it in a nice way?

Because I march in the women's marches and make calls to my representatives? Because I've been to ACLU meetings at stranger's houses and talked to the person who is running for Congress in my district and met face to face with a representative at the Ohio Statehouse and told him my story about how Planned Parenthood saved my life? Because I parked myself at the Farmer's Market with a petition to end gerrymandering in Ohio and persuaded random people to sign it?

My husband may have a point.

The funny thing is I wasn't always a radical. When I was in college, I barely read the news. I didn't vote. When I saw kids protesting on campus, a small gathering of the fringiest of the fringe carrying signs against Apartheid, I hustled by fast, averting my eyes, thinking, What a buncha weirdos.

and then off I went to a frat party. Once, when I was home for the summer and working at a law office downtown, President Reagan came to speak in the town square. I hadn't known he was coming. My mother was dropping me off at the law office, and she had to let me out blocks away because the entire downtown was cordoned off.

I was annoyed, and then afraid, when I had to explain to the Secret Service that I was trying to get to work, and then having my purse searched and wanded with a metal detector. At lunchtime, in the law office, one of the attorneys said, Let's go hear Ronald Reagan, and I shrugged, but went. There was a huge crowd and I stood there bored, not listening to the speech,

and then I was mortified when the attorney, a young woman only a few years older than me but light years ahead in maturity and education, began to boo loudly. The people around us threw us both dirty looks and shifted away, and I shifted away too because that attorney was the radical.

Not me.

Except okay,  I did write a letter to the editor of the newspaper when I was fifteen in support of the Equal Rights Amendment, and another person wrote back and called me out by name, basically saying I was an idiot for wanting women's rights. It turned out that the person was my history teacher,

a nun at my school, and she berated me in class and said in so many words

I was a radical. So, maybe there is some truth to the label?

Yesterday I rode with a friend downtown and marched on the snowy wet sidewalk, carrying my NO! sign, shuffling along with hundreds of other people, old women and men, younger women and men, some of them pushing babies in strollers, the babies wearing adorable pink pussy hats -- and I still CANNOT BELIEVE I AM WRITING THAT WORD, or saying the word SHITHOLE, but here we are,

our country,

being led by a sick man, an emperor with no clothes, and who knew there were so many people too cowardly to confront him?--

But yesterday, at least, there were some of us marching to the Ohio statehouse --where our leaders have recently been passing laws that seem like a page out of the Handmaid's Tale--

all of us shouting and waving our signs, chanting my favorite chant, which seems like a radical statement these days, but that's okay because


I am a radical.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Random thoughts on January 15

When I was a kid, I always knew when it was Martin Luther King Day because it was the same day as my brother's birthday. In the 1970's in Connecticut, January 15th was a state holiday, so we always had off from school.

I liked Martin Luther King Jr. because he was the man who had a dream that black kids and white kids could someday be friends, and if you'd asked 8 or 9 or 10 year old me, I would've told you that it was a dream I fully agreed with. 

I'd seen the film Roots at the library in weekly installments. It was clear to me that slavery was evil and all of the white people who'd owned slaves were bad. But that was all in the past. And in the South. We, in the North, were completely blameless. When I was a kid in Connecticut we didn't talk about race. 

And it was really easy not to talk about race because the town I lived in was nearly all white.

It was an old factory town, mostly second or third generation immigrants from Poland and Italy, and with a sizable group of people from Puerto Rico. Many kids I knew spoke another language with their parents at home. The Catholic churches in town still held masses in the language of the people in the neighborhoods. Polish, Italian, Spanish. 

Not that we were always nice to each other. I heard people openly talk about Puerto Rican people using derogatory language, and everyone said you should steer clear of their neighborhoods. But no one thought of themselves as racist. That was something that only happened in the South. (See Roots, above.) 

When I was thirteen, I met a woman from the South and I eyed her suspiciously for signs of racism, but the woman seemed really nice and we all thought her Southern accent was darling. Okay, there was one incident when we were walking in the park, and she suddenly whisked her young daughter away and made the remark that maybe all of us were used to seeing "that kind of thing" but where she was from they weren't used to it. 

I had no idea what she was talking about, but later my mother told me that what upset the woman was a couple holding hands, a black person and a white person. 

This was a confusing moment because the woman seemed so lovely, and I didn't know what to make of it, so I filed it under: Weird Stuff People from the South Say, and forgot about it

until I went to college in the South. 

My college roommate first semester was black, and I was eager to show her that I was Not a Racist by never having a conversation with her about race, and by acting as if I didn't notice that I was white and she was black, hoping that she could see how Progressive and Open-Minded I was. Anyway, this was the 1980's, and even though we were going to school in the Deep South, racism was a Thing of the Past,

especially at our forward-thinking liberal arts college,

which, okay, true, like my Connecticut town, this college was mostly white. 

Also, most of the female students joined sororities, and it was an unspoken fact that black girls didn't belong to any of the sororities because it was against the sorority rules, 

although the story was that one sorority had pledged several black girls a few years before, but half of the white girls dropped out that year, which killed their membership numbers, and now that was sort of the meh sorority on campus. Anyway, the very few black girls at the college didn't bother going through Rush after that, including my roommate.

I did though, and my roommate and I pretended to each other that she just didn't want to Go Greek. She dropped out of school at the end of the year and I never saw her again.

Here's something I understand now that I didn't when I was growing up: lovely people can be racist. Some of them can even be from Connecticut.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Goal Setting at the Edge of the Earth

It's January, a new year, my usual time for looking ahead, making resolutions, setting my writing goals and other goals-- projects to tackle around the house and in the garden, resolving to eat better and exercise more and volunteer and contribute to the community in a positive way, reading my poem a day and reading more, in general, and in a variety of genres.

I can go on and on with these goals, because I am a big believer in setting them, making lists, and tracking progress, all of which, I realize, lately, relies entirely on my faith in the future,

that I will be there, in the future

that there will be a future.

It's a scary realization, one that I haven't felt in a long time, but lately it's come back to me, how nothing is certain, how my fate-- how all of our fates-- are dependent on forces beyond our control, a feeling I understood instinctively when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old.

Back then I didn't have much faith in the future. I wasn't a big-time follower of the news, but a lot of it filtered into my head anyway, news about the arms race between our country and the Soviet Union, the Cold War amping up.

I watched the movies about nuclear war, The Day After and War Games, listened to music where rock stars wondered if the Russians loved their children too, read about downed airlines and uprisings in Eastern European countries, heard stories about nuns chaining themselves to fences outside nuclear weapons plants.

In the 1980's we were wise enough to know that if there was a nuclear war, no one was going to stumble out of it alive, and we mocked the deluded people of the 1950's who had disaster drills in schools, the kids told to hide under desks, as if cowering under a desk would save them.

I'm not saying I thought about potential total annihilation every moment, but it was hovering in the back of my mind, the near certainty that something really bad could happen at any moment-- on purpose or by accident--

and we would all be done for.

So, why bother studying for the SATs or doing your homework or making any plans, really?

But the thing is I did study for my SATs (not that it helped all that much since I was pretty dingy when it came to taking standardized tests). And I always did my homework. I applied for part-time jobs and filled out college applications. I moved forward as if the future would be there for me,

and, what do you know? it was.

Which I guess is my long way of saying that I did set my goals for the year 2018, because while I know there is no certainty that we'll all make it to the end of it, I am going to move forward as if we will.

For the record, my goals:

1. finish the revision of my middle grade novel
2. jump back into the adult novel I set aside last spring
3. write four blogs a month, plus one over at YA Outside the Lines
4. read a poem a day; read more, in general, in a variety of genres
5. eat better and exercise more (10,000 steps per day according to my Fitbit!)
6. paint the exterior of the house
7. expand my herb garden
8. volunteer and contribute to the community in a positive way (in Real Life as opposed to on social media)
9. take monthly dates with my husband
10. remember to live in the moment, which is all we truly have.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

In Which We Play All the Games (so you don't have to)

PREMISE: The day after Christmas and it's 5 degrees outside and no one wants to go anywhere and anyway, why can't we all just lounge around in our pajamas all day?

OBJECTIVE: Play all the games


Father - a lovable businessman who's recently visited Switzerland and India and enjoys working fun factoids about these trips into his conversation

Mother - distracted writer and cook (she will pop in and out of game-playing to prepare and clean up food)

Son - computer programmer from California and lover of history and games

Daughter - college student catching up on sleep and/or texting her darling boyfriend

Visiting Uncle - chessmaster and professional poker player; *he is the player to beat



Code Names

"We Didn't Playtest This at All (a completely ridiculous card game for 2 to 10 fun-seeking people)"

Trick Question



1. Kwizniac, because we can play and eat brunch at the same time. Basic gist of the game: guess the word on the card.

Challenge: The first clues are so vague, it's impossible to guess. Still, we all jump in with guesses anyway, even though each wrong guess means you lose five points.

We all lose a ton of points and move into negative number territory.

Winner, by a mile: Visiting Uncle

Consensus: decent game (after we change the rules and only take one point for wrong guesses)

2. Code Names

This game is a blur. I think I was making dinner during the rule-explaining? Something to do with guessing words based on a one-word clue? Also, I needed my reading glasses to see the words on the cards and that was annoying.

Winner: ??

Consensus: Everyone seemed to enjoy this one?

3. "We Didn't Playtest This at All (a completely ridiculous card game for 2 to 10 fun-seeking people)"

Disclaimer: I suspect this is a drinking game.

Gist: Everyone gets two cards. If you lose your cards, you lose the game. The stuff written on the cards is inane and often contradictory.


"Anyone who says the word "their, there, or they're" loses."

"If you play this card, everyone loses."

"Place this card in front of you. If a player doesn't say 'Ahh Zombies!' before playing a card on their turn, zombies eat their brain and they lose. Unless they have a banana."

I sneak into the kitchen and grab a banana.

Consensus: This is a drinking game

4. Trick Question

We team up for this one. Girls against the boys. Someone reads a question and the players grab an Us or Them game piece to decide who will have to answer.

The questions are logic questions and brain teasers and some people's brains are fried by now, (okay, MY brain is fried by now), so daughter and I decide on the strategy that we will always grab the Them piece and make the other team answer.

This works.

We win.

Consensus: Good game

5. Coup

I realize that I can't understand game directions when they are read to me, or maybe it's just been a long day of playing games and making multiple meals and cleaning up after multiple meals, because when Son reads the game directions for this game, my eyeballs literally roll back inside my skull.

The only solution is to play the game and hope to figure it out on the fly.

The gist: you have two characters and you're trying to kill everyone else's characters by lying and/or tricking people into thinking you're lying.

There's a long explanation for why this is so and yadda yadda ya Palace intrigue and influencing your rivals, but it doesn't really matter.

My strategy: Always tell the truth, which I am happy to say does work! I win!

Consensus: Fun game!

We end the day still in our pajamas, reading Kwizniac cards and eating leftovers.

Consensus: Great day