Tuesday, September 18, 2018

On Kindness, Friendship, and Rage: Three Books I Love This Week

Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse, by Marcy Campbell, illustrated by Corinna Luyken. 

Adrian Simcox tells everyone who will listen about his beautiful horse, but classmate Chloe knows that he's lying and she sets out to logically prove it, only to realize that she's hurt Adrian in the process and that he may have a horse after all...

This book reminds me of the old classic The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes, which depicts a similar dynamic-- a poor, imaginative girl trying to fit in with her disapproving, mean-girl classmates. I read that one over and over as a kid, feeling the sting each time when the girls learn the truth and are rightfully ashamed. 

Something nice about the ending of this one: the shame is softened by the possibility of a friendship. 

Friendship is at the heart of Kat Yea's The Way to Bea; specifically, it's the loss of friendship and all of the confusion and heartbreak that go along with that familiar rite of middle school passage. Seventh grader Beatrix copes by writing haikus, listening to her playlists, and reluctantly (at first) joining the school newspaper. There she meets a quirky boy obsessed with mazes.

Lots going on in this one about the awkwardness of growing up and growing apart, some hints at parental neglect (Bea's parents are preoccupied with work and expecting a new baby), the power of words and books, and a fun (and somewhat scary) side plot about getting lost in a maze. 

(Don't worry, it all works out) 
It does not all work out in Courtney Summers' new novel Sadie.

This book pretty much killed me. I read it in two nights, filled with growing feelings of rage and grief. The book begins with a podcast about a dead girl and her missing sister, Sadie. What follows is the story of Sadie's quest to find her sister's killer, alternating with updating segments of the podcast. 

I have to admit that I was skeptical at first that this structure would work, fearing that the podcast would interrupt the flow of the narrative. 

I was wrong. Sadie's story builds with such a ferocity, I found that the podcast gave me a chance to catch my breath. 

And you need to catch your breath with this one. You know how there's this thing lately in the news where suddenly, as a society, we are arguing over whether or not to believe women?

Well, guess what, I do believe women, and I am enraged that we are still even having this discussion. If you are one of those skeptical people who wonders what all the fuss is about, read Sadie. 

And then get back to me. 

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The roof is higher than it was the last time

I was up here. I have a thing about ladders. Going up isn't so bad, throwing your leg up and over. It's the climbing down that gets me. I have to brace myself. Look straight ahead. Imagine myself already on the ground.

In the meantime I stay low, inch my way up to the roof peak and down the other side, keeping in the narrow strip of shade. Did I mention we've picked the hottest weekend of the year to paint the house? Why did we decide to do this again? my husband asks.

(Because we never hire people to do things we can do ourselves)
(Because we're cheap)
(Because we're idiots)

I like this paint color. Brownish gray. Once I get over my initial terror on the roof, I settle into a rhythm. Dip the brush into the can, scrape off the excess, smear it onto the house. I can see all of my drippy mistakes from the last time I was up here ten years ago,

when we'd only recently moved here and the house was royal blue. We went for a more muted tan color, priding ourselves on wrapping up the entire project over Labor Day weekend. This year, I can already tell we won't hit that goal. Ten years from now...

yeah. We're probably going to hire out.

I can see my garden from up here. The asparagus plants I planted on a drizzly cold spring day, my son watching from the porch, laughing when I told him that it might be seven years before we'd have a good crop of asparagus. But I'll be in college by then, he said. I don't know about him, but I couldn't imagine that. Now

he's been through college and out. He lives on the opposite side of the country, not here to eat the asparagus, which truth be told, never took root or spread how it was supposed to. I planted sixteen plants and today there's only two left.

Recently, I cut one perfect stalk and ate it standing right where I'd plucked it. Stretched out around me were the raised beds planted with food that grows way better than asparagus. Lettuce, for example, which is set in rows, now hiding the spot where my daughter once practiced hitting a tetherball.

The spring I planted the asparagus she was obsessed, wanting to master the game the kids at her new school were playing. But it was a brief obsession. By fall, when she started middle school, my husband took down the tetherball pole and built the raised garden beds. I do this a lot

flip back and forth in time

see myself digging asparagus holes in raw drizzle, hear my son's laugh and my daughter's smack of a ball, and me, on a roof, painting over the past, bracing myself for the climb down.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Battling through Writer's Block

I hate to use the word battle. 

I want to be the kind of writer who takes joy in the process and approaches the day's writing as Play. The Julia Cameron Artist's Way writer who pampers my Artist-Child Within by taking myself on solo dates to museums and collecting pretty stones and making collages of exotic travel destinations and  setting up altars to my Dreams and decorating my work space with objects that bring me happiness.

(For the record I have done all of those things.)

And it makes sense on some level that treating your work as play can quiet the editorial voice in your head and counteract your innate perfectionism, 

the perfectionism that ends with you writing and rewriting the same sentence over and over, treading water in the same scene for weeks, unable to move on because it's not RIGHT and what if you can't finish this revision and what if you can't write anymore period and who cares anyway, and

what is the point of this story again? 

But all of this nonsense was leading me into the same dead end place that it's always led me. Exhaustion. Crankiness. Self-pity. Plus, it's boring. 

So, after a while, I realize again what I always realize, which is that I write because that is what I do and sometimes thinking about it as Play (and palm tree collages and glossy stones and coconut scented candles in the office) is just not going to cut it. 

No. Some days it is a battle. It is a War of Art.  It is you sitting down for your day's work. No excuses. No whining. No fiddling or procrastinating. No striving toward perfection. 

And not getting up until the work is done. 

(For the record: I have reworked 20 pages of my manuscript this week. And today I will rework 5 more.) 

Friday, August 24, 2018

Last week I drove my daughter to college

well, okay, she did all of the driving. It was her car and I had an awful head cold, basically plunked in the seat beside her and blowing my nose through an entire box of kleenex.

It's a nine-hour drive to Memphis where she goes to school, and where I went to school once, and I was feeling foggy and discombobulated about the trip, wanting to be there for my daughter as she moved into her dorm her senior year, but also reeling a little, to be honest, at how fast the time had flown by since my husband and I had driven her down to start college, at how fast time had flown by

since she'd started high school
and middle school
and elementary school
and preschool for crying out loud,

and if we're being honest here, since before she was born, because I'd spent the nine months of my pregnancy with her in Memphis, and I have vivid memories of myself waddling around downtown when some random guy walked up and asked if I was about to give birth any moment because it was painful to look at me.

Sorry, random guy for being pregnant and out in public. But I digress. My point is that the passage of time was hitting me, possibly compounded by my head cold, but I was trying to rally, keenly aware of the precious time ticking away, those hours, in the car, chatting with my daughter

about her plans for the upcoming school year and her friends and her boyfriend, all the while blowing my nose, my daughter's playlist playing in the background, an interesting blend of music I'd never heard in my life interspersed with songs I loved when I was in college thirty years ago.

That night my daughter and I uncharacteristically indulged ourselves by staying at a touristy overpriced hotel downtown, the Peabody, an institution in Memphis, a place I'd been many times for parties and to do the touristy thing there, which is to see The Ducks. (These are real ducks that live on the roof of the hotel, and every morning they come down the elevator and march up a red carpet and swim around in the fancy fountain in the hotel lobby.)

Twelve years living in Memphis and I had seen the ducks march and swim many times, but I had never before stayed the night in the hotel or sat in the lobby and had an over-priced drink. But that is exactly what my daughter and I did on the night before she started school, me, with a clump of kleenex in my hand and her, just-turned-21 and suddenly so grown-up.

We perused the menu and ordered frou frou drinks and feeling loopy on cold meds, I asked the waitress to throw in an order of a two-dollar plastic duck, which was served, looking very adorable, on a nest of bar snacks.

The next day, I helped my daughter move into her dorm and it was pretty clear she didn't really need me there. She and her roommate knew how they wanted to arrange things, and later when we went grocery shopping and to Target, I ambled along beside her, a strange feeling coming over me that some kind of transformation had occurred in our relationship,

still mother and daughter, because we will always be that, but what is it when your child becomes an adult in the blink of an eye, and in the next blink becomes

a friend?

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

I wrote a book about Elvis once

It was the second book I tried to write.

I wrote it how I used to write short stories when I was in college. Take something true and twist it. In this case the true thing was my father died and I spent a lot of my childhood and teen years trying to understand why. I was seven when he died and he was thirty-four. He was sick my mother told me, and for some reason, I heard the words Heart Attack.

How Elvis came into it was a weird coincidence. He died on the same date three years later. This was big news even in Connecticut where I grew up. The cause of death was said to be heart failure.

I didn't find out the truth until I was older, that Elvis died of a drug overdose in his bathroom and my father died of an overdose in our living room. I don't know about Elvis, but my father's death was deliberate. That was the thing I was trying to understand. I was mad at him for a long time. And then I was sad. After a while it was a confusing mix of both. I didn't like telling people. I didn't like watching them struggle to come up with an I'm sorry.

Anyway, I wasn't grieving for my father. I didn't know him. If I was grieving, I was grieving for the loss of a father in my life. I had a stepfather, but that's another story. I just wanted to move on from it, but then the date would come around again and there'd be stuff on the news about Elvis dying and I'd end up thinking about my father and wondering why all over again.

This got more annoying when I lived in Memphis. Every year in that city there's a big lead-up to the day. A whole week called Elvis Week, culminating in a candlelight vigil at Graceland where mourners light candles and file past Elvis's grave. The people in Memphis jokingly call the week Death Week.

Somewhere along the way I started thinking there was a potential book in all of this. A girl whose father died the same day as Elvis, set against the backdrop of Death Week. Of course the climax would take place at the candlelight vigil.

The book morphed into something more than I'd envisioned when I started it, as books tend to do. Turns out the dead father had been an Elvis impersonator. No one could explain why he killed himself and the girl spends a lot of time dragging her best friend around to talk to her father's family and friends (conveniently at Elvis Week locations around the city) and with each conversation she comes away with new, conflicting information about why he did it.

It's a big quest for the Truth, but with a sad twist, because with the girl's obsession of figuring out her father death, she misses all of the signals her struggling best friend is sending. The night of the vigil, the friend attempts suicide.

It seemed like a very big important book at the time I was writing it, and I was pretty much consumed with it for three or four years, writing multiple drafts, doing research about Elvis, including attending a candlelight vigil (an interesting experience to say the least), but it all ultimately came to nothing. In the sense that the book was never published.

Sometimes I wonder what the point is of a project like this.

But I already know the answer. It was this book that taught me how to write a book. My first experience with editorial feedback and rejection. My first disappointment at putting a book away and knowing it would stay tucked away, forever unread.

But also my first glimpse of how the creative process works. How you can take pieces of your life,  the dark things you don't understand, the questions that can't really be answered, all of the emotions at the core-- that confusion and anger and grief-- and push through until something new comes out on the other end.

A story.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Dude, where's my car?

I am going to blame it on the heat, a busier than usual weekend, house guests? But Saturday, I lost my car and get this...

I didn't know I'd lost it until Monday.

Hear me out. So, Saturday I drove to work at the bookstore. I don't usually work on Saturdays but a friend of mine,  Dr. Kevin Cordi -- writer, professional story-teller, OSU professor--was leading story-time and I didn't want to miss it. (Side note: he was amazing) and then some other author friends, Kristina McBride, Mindee Arnett, Lorie Langdon, and Natalie D. Richards showed up for their YA panel and book signing,

but first we all trooped next door for lunch, chatted about books and writing projects and the dark hole that is the publishing industry and foods we are allergic to and Natalie's daughter who might or might not be winning a ribbon at the Ohio State Fair because it seemed like she'd gotten a cruddy impatient judge, but Natalie wouldn't know for sure until later in the afternoon...

and back to the bookstore where the group did their panel and book signing and then it was only Natalie in the store, and she was heading directly to the state fair and could I please please please come with her, and of course I wanted to support her daughter and see her possibly win a ribbon and I had never been to the state fair

so off we went, in Natalie's car, to the fair where her daughter DID win a ribbon and then a quick swing through the crowded fairgrounds, sweating it out in the heat, past booths selling every-kind-of-fried food and barns filled with farm animals and quilts, and one exhibit depicting the movie A Christmas Story sculpted in butter

and then to my house for dinner

and the next day, which was busier than the one before because my daughter's boyfriend was in town for a visit and for some reason we'd all gotten it into our heads to drive up to Mansfield to tour the The Ohio State Reformatory (a former state prison and the site of the Shawshank Redemption movie and now supposedly haunted)

which we did (in my daughter's car) and I must say, the place was creepy, but not haunted as far as I could tell and I know haunted places,

then a drive back home, a quick dinner, and out, again, this time to see the latest Mission Impossible movie, which was only meh, although the meh-ish-ness of the movie may have been exacerbated by the fact that the air conditioning in the theater had broken down and we were all dying sitting there in pools of our own sweat.

Home late

and the next morning seeing off my daughter's boyfriend and then getting ready for work when I went into the garage to find my car missing,

and for a full three minutes, I literally had no idea why it wasn't there or where it could be until my daughter played the Where Did You Last See It game and I remembered.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

How to Write a Chapter in Six Weeks OR what to do after you get a seven-page editorial letter

1. Fiddle with the original first chapter for a while, holding on tight, allowing only for a shift of a sentence or two, a shuffling up of a paragraph,

because you spent so much time working and reworking those scenes and if you let them go, then what? A whole new chapter from scratch? no. way.

Set a goal to revise the chapter in a week.

(Maybe you can't do this anymore. Maybe the book's no good at the core. Maybe you should write a different book and forget this one.)

2. Realize you've got to let go of the first chapter. The first three chapters, I mean,

because when you set all of that up, you were writing a different book from the one this story has morphed into. Also, since we're being honest here, most of it is backstory anyway, stuff you had to figure out about your character, the things that made her who she is, never mind all of the other characters, the place, the voice.

Set a goal to write a new chapter in a week.

(Maybe you can't write this book. Maybe you don't want to write this book. Maybe books are pointless in this world.)

3. Complain to your critique partner, to your writing group, to David Levithan at a publishing dinner party. Nod along as they all basically tell you the same thing. Stop overthinking it. Just write. Play around for a while. Trust the process. (Although David Levithan admits that he has never received a seven-page editorial letter.

Thanks, David Levithan)

Set a goal to play around with the first chapter for a week.

4. Imagine an alternate reality for yourself where you quit writing. It involves selling other people's books and walking the dog three times a day and marching against injustice.

5. Imagine the reality where you keep writing this book because that is what you do who are we kidding here

6. Set a goal to write one terrible paragraph. In pencil. In ten minutes.

7. Write another paragraph

and another
and another
and another
and another
and another

until you finish Chapter One.

8. Take a breath. Time to begin Chapter Two.