Sunday, October 23, 2016

Walking While American

Yesterday I was walking around my town, knocking on doors and pondering my own patriotism.

It's something I rarely do. Contemplate the fact that I am an American citizen.

Now that I think about it, the few times in my life when I did think about being American were when I was out of the country.

A trek across the Canadian border when I was nineteen and a sudden (scary) realization that I was no longer on American soil. A week in Barcelona, Spanish and Catalan being spoken all around me-- and other languages too, German, Polish, French-- tourists strolling or sitting at nearby cafe tables-- my ears were tuned into every small snippet of spoken English. When I heard a person speaking with an American accent, I'd want to run over and introduce myself, shake hands, say: Hey! I'm an American too! How the heck are ya'?

After 9/11 I felt a rush of patriotic feelings so profound and overwhelming that I got a lump in my throat every time I saw an American flag. And flags were everywhere in the days after that attack. Like a lot of Americans, I didn't know what to do with these feelings of solidarity and pride in my country except hang my own flag.

But mostly, I don't think about it. There aren't many ways to express patriotism except flag-waving. Or singing the national anthem, hand on your heart, pretending you know every word and can sing those insanely high notes.

And here's a question: Why do we only sing that song at sporting events? I'm not much of a sports person, so I rarely attend games. It's weird that the only time we show our love of country is right before a bunch of guys on a field are about to tackle each other. I know people will say that a sports event is a great place to sing the anthem because of all of the people gathered in one place.

So why not sing before a movie? Or a play? Or a concert?

Schools don't sing the national anthem. This is not a new thing. When I was growing up, we saluted the flag and said the Pledge of Allegiance and then we sang "My Country Tis of Thee" or "America the Beautiful." I visit a lot of schools all over the country, and students still do this.

As adults we don't pledge to the flag every morning. There's not much asked of us, really, as citizens. We can vote (although many of us do not do that). We can serve on a jury (although most of us try to get out of it). We pay taxes (and most likely bitch about it).

But what is more patriotic than contributing to the infrastructure of our society? Our schools and libraries and fire departments and police departments and military--our Government--the people we elect to serve us.

Like most Americans, I am tired and worn down by this election. Dismayed by the vitriol and anger and fear I've been hearing. I've been so disgusted that I have been tempted to turn off all news and social media, just wait the days out until election day is over.

Instead, I voted early.

And I signed up to canvas a neighborhood in my town on behalf of an election campaign. I have never done this before, and honestly, I was not looking forward to it. The idea of knocking on strangers' doors and carrying a clipboard seemed... blucky and totally out of my comfort zone.

But I walked over to the campaign headquarters with a friend and we picked up our clipboard and our flyers, and off we went.

After the initial blucky awkwardness, I felt strangely patriotic. I am not getting all political with you. I am not telling you who I voted for or what campaign I am representing. (If you know me, you KNOW.) What I want to share with you is how nice it was to walk around on a brisk sunny day, to greet people I knew and people I didn't, to feel a part of something bigger than myself, to know that I while I was doing a very small thing, it was better than sitting in front of my laptop and stewing over Facebook post comments.

I wasn't waving a flag or singing the national anthem but showing my patriotism even so. Speaking out about who I think will best lead this country and urging my fellow citizens to do their part too.

Monday, October 17, 2016

On Cakes and Celebration and Community

Last week, as I was putting the final bloody touches on a severed finger cake, I started thinking about writing communities and how I would not be where I am today without mine.

I was making the cake as a centerpiece for my best friend Natalie's book launch party at the local bookstore Cover to Cover. Another writing friend and I drove over early to help the bookstore owner, our dear friend Sally, set up for the party and greet the guests at they arrived, local authors and librarians, friends and relatives, and fellow members of our children's writing group SCBWI. 

Not too long ago I didn't know any of these people.

I'd never heard of SCBWI, the international organization for writers and illustrators of children's books.

I knew approximately one writer, Marsha Thornton Jones, who was my boss when I was working as a teacher in Lexington Kentucky. Turned out she was the best-selling co-author of The Adventures of the Bailey School Kids series. But we never talked about writing in the early years of our friendship.

I "knew" a couple of bookstore owners. But these were bosses too, Karen Davis and Thelma Kidd, the entrepreneurs who started the string of bookstores in Tennessee called Davis-Kidd Booksellers. I met them, briefly, at a company Christmas party when I was working at their Memphis store as a grad student.

The librarians I knew were co-workers, lovely people who talked books and reading with me, but who never knew that I dreamed of being a published writer.

Back then the dream wasn't something I told anyone. It was something I could barely acknowledge to myself. I mean, who the heck was I to imagine my name on a book?

But for years I wrote anyway-- dozens of stories, four novels-- always working on my own--  trying to puzzle out the impenetrable publishing industry, submitting and collecting a growing pile of rejections, celebrating my very few successes with family and close friends, and mourning the many more failures.


And then in 2005, I signed up to attend a Highlights Foundation writing retreat. I went because I'd gotten a brochure in the mail and it seemed like a cool idea to have some uninterrupted time to write. What I hadn't counted on was stumbling my way into my first writing community, meeting fellow writers all on various stages of the journey, from relative beginners like me to multiply published authors.

I was star-struck that first morning smearing cream cheese on my bagel as I chatted with one woman (I'd read her book!!) who had an agent and an editor and a looming deadline, but who also seemed like a ordinary car-pooling mom like me.

If this person could do it, why couldn't I?

The other writers were friendly and welcoming too. That week they shared success stories and failures. Book deals and rejection collections. Writing and revision tips and industry secrets. They inspired me to keep writing and to put myself out there. They made me believe that my dream was not some crazy thing but something entirely possible.

That one retreat led to other retreats. I heard about SCBWI from someone along the way. I started attending workshops and conferences. I made more writing friends. I found my long-time critique partner in a line for a port-o-potty at another Highlights retreat. I found my first mentor.

It took me eight years from that first retreat to see my first book on the library and bookstore shelves. And since then I've become a part of-- and a creator of -- more writing communities. I have mentors and mentees. Critique partners and too many writing friends to list here. I lead the Central and Southern Ohio chapter of SCBWI and speak at their conferences.

Sometimes I forget that I was once struggling along alone.

Writing is such a solitary activity. Every day it is just You, at your lap top or sitting with a notebook, facing a blinking cursor or a blank page. The publishing industry-- oh man-- it will eat you up alive and spit you out. The rejections never stop coming. The bad reviews can derail you. Book sale numbers, deadlines, marketing pressures....

Failure and success. Self-loathing and elation.

But I am not alone.

The other night I baked a bloody severed finger cake and brought it to my best friend's book launch party.

I took a seat surrounded by my friends and we all celebrated, together, the success of one of our own.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Camping Stories from Hell (also known as A Review of My Friend Natalie's Book)

It must be said that I have a love/hate relationship with camping.

Okay, mostly hate. When I was a kid, my family went camping. A lot. The summer I turned six, we lived in a tent at a campground. On sunny days my younger brothers and I went swimming in the lake and played on the playground. I think?

Mostly, I remember the never-ending, boring rainy days, sitting at the picnic table under a tarp, coloring in damp coloring books. The nights in the tent, my sleeping bag bunched up and slipping off the inflatable raft I used as a mattress.

Skunks. The constant terror of tics. Flies dive bombing my Kool-Aid, their drowned bodies drifting around on the orange surface. The middle of the night stumbling up the road to the bathroom.

After my father died, my mother joined a single parent support group and the fun family activity was spending weekends at campgrounds. And then, after she married again, my stepfather bought a pop-up trailer, and later, a much nicer camper with all of the bells and whistles—stove and sink and TV and even a bathroom, which seemed like a real upgrade from the middle of the night stumbling. But for whatever weirdo reason, we were never allowed to use the bathroom, so. Yeah.  Fun times in the middle of the night.

Now I am trying to remember where the love part comes into it. Oh, um, I liked the campfires. Also, the roasting of hotdogs and marshmallows. Boat rides and floating on my raft mattress on the lake. The loveliness of the woods.

My point, and I do have one, is that while I’ve never gone camping as an adult, I do like hiking, and the allure of being in the woods was slowly coming back to me…

until I read my best friend Natalie D. Richards' book, ONE WAS LOST.

This book, which I have read four times (as Natalie’s critique partner), has viscerally reminded me of every damp day of my tent-living youth, the droney buzz of mosquitos, the peeling off of wet socks, the dripping moldy-smelling tent canvas, the fear of stumbling through the dark woods to find the bathroom…

And yet-- yet-- YET--  I couldn’t put the book down ALL FOUR TIMES that I read it.

So here’s the premise: a group of teens with lots of angsty baggage reluctantly sign up for a camping trip as a type of school-bonding-trip activity. A couple of nights in and it’s already turned horror show. Non-stop rain and the bickering stress that comes from hanging around people you don’t want to hang around with. And then a bridge washes out, and four students are separated from the main group. With no food. Wet, reeking tents. A teacher who seems cool but who knows.

The next morning they wake to find that it’s much later than it should be, their backpacks and phones have been destroyed, their teacher has been drugged... THEY’VE been drugged. And as they crawl out of their drippy tents groggily, they find that they’ve each been marked. 

Words written in sharpies on their arms:




And on our bristly heroine’s arm: DARLING

The next 300 pages are non-stop Whodunnit/what the heck happened/how do we get the hell out of the woods. Because this is a Natalie D. Richards' book there's also a bit of romance and a thought-provoking exploration of teen stereotypes and identity.

It’s Blair Witch Project meets the Breakfast Club, a breathless page turner with a super-charged warning:

Do Not Read at Night and for God’s sake, DO NOT READ IT ON A CAMPING TRIP!

Fun fact: Nat will be signing the book (and all her books) at Cover to Cover Bookstore in Columbus, Ohio, this Thursday, October 13 from 6:00-8:00. Come meet her!

For more on Nat and her books, see:

Friday, September 30, 2016

How Do I Love The Great British Bake-Off? (Let me count the ways)

1. It's a reality TV show and I typically HATE reality TV shows because they stress me out with all of the back-stabbing and cut-throat competition and snarky mean judges, but this show is NICE. The contestants are kind to each other. The judges are lovely--even when they are offering constructive criticism. And when a baker is voted off, everyone does a group hug to say goodbye.

2. It's a British show and everyone has varying degrees of English accents and you can't always understand a word they're saying, but they seem so happy and earnest when they're speaking that you just nod along in agreement.

3. The FOOD. This show will make you want to bake bread and pies and elaborate multi-level cakes and pastries with layers of butter, and biscuits (which in the British lingo are more like shortbread cookies). The contestants spend a lot of time describing in great detail what they are going to bake and there is an intricate drawn out version of the dessert helpfully shown on the TV screen so the viewer can see the plan... and how it sometimes falls short, which leads to

4. DRAMA. I never realized how nail-biting it was to watch people watch their oven doors until I watched this show. There's lots of watching of oven doors. Lots of desserts flopping and collapsing and burning and melting and tossing of failed desserts into the bin, and the most dreaded of all--

5. The SOGGY BOTTOM. All Great British Bake-Off fans know immediately what I am talking about here. The soggy bottom is the thing you DO NOT want to happen to your pie crust, and somehow there is always one sad bloke looking over his pie with dismay as the judge lifts the slice up to check, and says, "Oh dear. It's got a soggy bottom now doesn't it?"

6. Oh, these judges!! They are darling. First, Mary Berry, who apparently is famous in England for her dessert cookbooks. All of the contestants bow down to Queen Mary, hoping that she will call their recipes "Scrummy." Hint to the contestants: Mary is a sucker for booze-infused puddings.

7. But you won't get far trying to manipulate the other judge, Paul Hollywood. Paul is a renowned British bread baker who plays the bad cop to Mary Berry's sweet cop, roaming around the kitchen asking the bakers what they're making and raising his eyebrows skeptically whenever he suspects a dish is going to be a disaster. The worst thing Paul can say to you is "Good luck!" When he loves your dessert, (rarely) he shakes your hand. The rest of the time he sighs sadly and says something like, "The flavors just aren't there." But even that critical pronouncement is softened by

8. the hosts, Mel and Sue. Mel and Sue introduce each episode and narrate backstories about the contestants and the recipes. They also tell silly punny jokes and walk around the kitchen trying to lick batter out of people's bowls and swipe biscuits off counters when no one is looking. They give us the lowdown on which contestants are falling behind and in danger of being voted off

9. and share history lessons about British food by interviewing various Food Historians around England. Fun fact: there are a ton of Food Historians around England. Who knew?

10. And last but not least, the food. I have to bring it back around to the food again. I am not much of a baker, but since I have been watching this show, I have baked a scrummy coconut torte, ten perfectly formed chocolate biscotti, and one layered show-stopper cake shaped like a hamburger.

I imagine if Paul had dropped by he would've shaken my hand.


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

When a Friend Reads Your Book...

The hardest part is the wait. When will he open the file? How long will it take for him to finish? He might be putting it off. He's got a ton of other things to do besides scrolling through another mess of a draft-- something he's read once already

or twice.

You won't know exactly when he begins. What his thoughts are as he reads the labored-over sentences and the thrown together junk, the stuff you suspect might be awesome, the massive clunkers that blaze out like a neon sign flashing: THIS IS CRAPPY!!!!

"Tell me the truth," you tell him. "I can take it."

But what you mean is Only tell me the truth if you love it. 

No. I'm joking. Really. Tell me the truth.

Sometimes you get lucky. He'll text you somewhere in the middle. This is great! I'm really enjoying it so far. 


There's nearly always a but--

The but is the key word here because you know it leads to more work.

But the first three chapters are kinda slow...
But I don't understand what's happening in the middle...
But the ending is little confusing...

The worst response is the Meh kind. I liked it. Or,  yeah it was good. You can tell a meh response is coming because it's not easily offered. You have to ask for it, like asking someone what they think of your radically different haircut.

Hint: if he really liked it, he'd tell you.

And this isn't a haircut we're talking about. This is a book you worked on for a year, a book filled with funny lines that you hope are funny and sad stuff that you hope will break people's hearts. Words and images that churned up from some dark weird recess of your brain, your past. Secrets. Fears. Things you wouldn't dare to speak aloud in public.

But now it's all out in the open, laid bare on the page, a snatched butterfly splayed and pinned.

So what do you think of it? you are dying to ask.

What do you think of me?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

I am starting a new book today...

I'm tucked away in the loft of a barn at a writing retreat, curled up on a cozy chair, my laptop on my lap.

Ready to go.

I've got everything I need up here. A bowl of mixed nuts. A blank notebook. A glass of water with a slice of lemon. Three pens and one pencil. An inspirational book on writing that I found earlier gathering dust on a shelf. My reading glasses. A journal where I've been brainstorming.

The idea is hovering around the edges of my brain, not quite coming through, but I can feel it there, a naggy itch.

I went for a walk this morning. There are woods on this retreat. Hiking trails. A stream. Supposedly there are brown bears loping between the trees. I haven't seen one (thank God!) but I did see a snake. It crossed my path and slithered off into the leaves at the edge of the road before I even had time to be afraid.

It's a weird thing about walking alone. Especially when you've got a book flickering around in your head.

I kept looking for signs of it along my walk and then I stopped looking for signs and looked for snakes.

And bears.

Sometimes I am terrified of being in the woods. The quietness that isn't really all that quiet. The stillness that isn't quite still. How the moment you step in, the temperature drops ten degrees. The way the leaves on random trees flicker and twitch even when there isn't a breeze trailing through them.

I am the only one out here. But somehow, I am not alone.

The road bends ahead and disappears in shadow. Where does it go?

My sneakers crunch on the gravel. The woods surround me, dark and impenetrable.  I think lines from random poems. The woods are lovely, dark, and deep/ but I have promises to keep/ and miles to go before I sleep...

And weirdly, an old song from Girl Scouts pops into my head. Which gets me singing the song in time to my feet slapping the ground. I wasn't always afraid of the woods. I'm not afraid now. I'm not.

I'm not.  

Around a bend, a farm. So that was unexpected.

And then back into the woods. No closer to figuring out my story. It takes me a year to write a book. It is a crazy-making level of commitment that starts out with good intentions -- to find balance and joy and trust the process and just write for the sake of writing and yadda yadda ya,

and inevitably ends with a manic stretch of ranting and never changing out of my pajamas and forgetting to brush my teeth and who gives a crap about vacuuming. Or making dinner. And disappearing so far inside my own head that some days it's hard to claw my way out.

It's no wonder I have to gird myself to begin. I heard the author Jane Resh Thomas speak once about what it takes to write a book.

Why THIS book? she asked. Why have you decided to devote a year of your life in service to this particular story? You won't be the same person on the other side of it, you know that, right?

Oh, yes, Jane. I know it.

My feet keep smacking the road.

Another dark windy section of forest. A stream somewhere hidden behind the trees, burbling over rocks that I can't see.

Boom, a cornfield. Also, unexpected.

Who plants a cornfield in the woods?

And then I am back in the woods. A shadow walking on the road. Searching for my story. Walking.




back to the barn

up the stairs

to the loft


I begin

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Sparks and Sticks and Who the Heck Knows Where Ideas Come From or How to Write a Book Anyway

A teacher friend asked me to speak to her creative writing class on how to begin a story.

Which got me thinking about how, exactly, I begin a story.

I can talk about craft, the writer's "toolbox" as Stephen King calls it. Throw out words like Hook and Inciting Incident. Stress the importance of the opening paragraphs, the creation of characters and conflict and setting. Dialogue and sensory details. Oh, I guess we should talk about Theme. Bluh.

But I suspect the students in the creative writing class have heard all of that before. They've read stories and deconstructed stories. Written book reports and analyzed symbols. Taken tests on What's the Main Idea? and List the supporting details.

All of this stuff is helpful to know -- when it comes to understanding how a story works (or doesn't), but I'm not sure how helpful it is for the writer facing a blank computer screen or gripping a pen against a notebook page.

How do you begin a story?

Where does an idea for a story come from? And once you have that idea, how do you go about developing it?

The answer, I am reluctant to admit to the creative writing students, is: I don't know.

The author Sid Fleischman has what he calls the Two Sticks Theory. Just as it takes two sticks to make a fire, it takes two ideas to spark a story.

The theory rings true to me. I can go back through stories and books I've written and trace the genesis of them back to two ideas-- or more. But that's clearer when I've already written in the story.

Before I begin, I just have vague strands and snippets floating around in my head. A barefoot boy. A Celtic belief in thin places. A girl moving to a new town. A ghost hovering over a bed. The crappy gray weather that is November in Columbus Ohio.

How do those strands and snippets wind themselves into a coherent story?

I'm back to I don't know.

There's the BIC philosophy of writing a book...

Where you, um, put your Butt In the Chair and write the book. For more info on how to manage this feat, check out the reams of manuals written on discipline and motivation, how to break through writer's block, how to beat back resistance and bang out your novel.

If those books sound too militant and hard core to you, check out the woo-woo-y books on inspiring your inner artist and nurturing your creative self and finding joy in your process and meditating (or walking or showering) your way through plot holes.

Ask any writer for a word of advice and you'll hear stuff like:

Write every day
Don't write every day
Write a shitty first draft and worry about revision later
What? Are you nuts? Outline that sucker first and then write!
Wake up early
Stay up late
Hand write

And I am back to I Don't Know.

Maybe in the end it comes down to finding the thing that works for you and doing it until it doesn't work anymore and then trying something else. You write because you have a story to tell and it gets rejected and you quit

or you keep writing and you get better. Your stories are published and they do well or they sink like stones and disappear, but you keep writing because what else are you going to do

and in a few weeks you'll start a new story and you have your vague strands and snippets bobbing around in your head and you're not sure what to do with them yet, but whatever, you'll figure it out.

First, though, you've got to change out of your pajamas! You're visiting a creative writing classroom in like, an hour, and you need to plan what you are going to say.