Monday, December 11, 2017

Dis-ordered



"...I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder..." 





Sometimes you stumble on a book and find the words you need when you need them,

and apparently, I needed to hear the words of Joan Didion.

Joan Didion, if you don't know-- and I didn't-- is a novelist, essayist, journalist, memoirist, the author, more recently, of the acclaimed National Book Award winning The Year of Magical Thinking, but also the author of many pieces written in the 1960's and 70's and 80's, about the counter-culture and the Manson Family, about music and wars, sex and violence, grief and death-- pretty much the whole shebang of human experience.

I just happened to be browsing in the essay section of the library and opened one of her books and read the bit about disorder on the very first page and thought, yes, THIS, exactly.

The book, called Slouching Towards Bethlehem, alludes to the poem "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats.

You might recognize the lines from the poem:




Things fall apart; the center cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

and if you're like me, a former English major with words like these rattling around inside your head,

you have been thinking a lot about that poem lately, because it is about the end of the world, or what feels like the end of the world.

Yeats wrote the poem in 1919 after World War I had ended and it probably did feel like the end of the world then, to him and to a lot of people. (They didn't know, of course, there'd be another huge war twenty years later, and many many wars after that.)

But back to Joan Didion.

She wrote the lines above, the lines about coming to terms with disorder, in the 1960's. The Vietnam War was raging and Americans were watching it on the nightly news, the battles and blood overseas, and at the same time, watching battles and blood here, at home, as black people marched for their civil rights and policemen sprayed fire hoses at them and attacked them with clubs and vicious dogs, and cities were burning and teenagers were running away from home and dancing like loons in muddy fields.

Probably, it felt like the end of the world to Joan Didion, and to a lot of people.

She went to San Francisco and moseyed around the Haight-Ashbury district and wrote about the hippies and the anti-war protesters, and also happened to take note of their copious drug use and the sad fact that their toddlers were wandering around in diapers and occasionally dropping acid when their hippie parents weren't paying attention.

My point, and I do have one, is that Joan Didion reminded me what I once knew from William Butler Yeats, that there has always been disorder, that human beings, by nature, are disordered, and one of our tasks, while we are here, is to figure out how we are going to deal with that fact.

Some of us, I suspect, will drink too much or burrow into our Candy Crush games or watch funny You-Tube videos of cats, and some of us will fight and hurt each other and add to the pain of others, and some of us will pray to God to save us, and some of us will pretend that it is not happening because it is not happening to us, and some of us will resist and protest and make angry phone calls to our apologists-for-pedophiles congressmen,

or maybe we will do a combination of all of these things or maybe we will do none of them

or maybe we will write a poem or an essay or a blogpost about it to remind people in the future, that while we may be disordered, and it really does feel like the end of the world,

it isn't. 








Monday, December 4, 2017

Some mornings I wake up enraged...

okay, MOST mornings. It happens first thing, when I look at the news headlines on my phone, a long list of headlines that send a surge of adrenaline coursing through me when I learn about the men in charge disparaging the poor, the sick, the refugees literally running for their lives,

when I hear about the latest politician or director or comedian--grown men who think it's perfectly A-OK to waltz through a room of fifteen year old girls changing backstage at a beauty pageant or masturbate in front of a woman at work or take a photo of a sleeping woman while they grab the woman's boobs because ha ha, isn't that funny?

the first example, of course, is the president of the United States and half the people living in this country are perfectly fine with this and some of these people are my neighbors and family members and friends, now former friends, because I can draw one stupid line in the sand, but everyone else I am stuck with and so I have to look at their faces and wonder what they can possibly be thinking and what would they say to me when I was fifteen?

But the thing is, I know what they would say to me when I was fifteen because when I was fifteen, when I was thirteen, when I was eight years old, I heard people say it:

You are making a big deal out of this
You need to let it go
Oh, Jody, will you just stop?

The thing is I don't know how to stop waking up angry.

That was my problem when I was eight years old and when I was fifteen, and now, today, this morning. So, if you have any advice I am all ears.

Well, yeah, the obvious. Stop reading the damn news on your phone first thing in the morning.

DONE!

And so I have been reading poems instead. And this morning I clicked on my phone and listened to this one:

https://soundcloud.com/poets-org/june-jordan-poem-about-my-rights


And that is why I am angry today.






Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Three Wishes

It's usually fun to buy these gifts. 

We shop with the lists we are given by the charity. The child's name. The age and gender. Her hobbies. His favorite show. The Wish-- something like: a doll or Legos or an arts and crafts kit.

The trick is you have to keep it under forty dollars. 

Which makes it hard if the wish is a bike or an expensive computer game, but my husband and I take this directive as a challenge. For example, one year a child wanted a winter coat, and decent coats under 40 bucks aren't easy to find, but damn it, we found one. And last year, a little girl wanted a specific brand of doll and none of the Targets and Walmarts we visited had the doll for an African American child. We had to rush deliver it from the company website. 

Also, we don't want to buy only one item for these children we shop for. We always buy what they wish, of course, but we try to tuck in a few other odds and ends. Stickers. Mittens. A book. 

We like to imagine the kids at the holiday party, lining up when Santa comes, waiting for their names to be called, the packages and bags given out, the moment of anticipation before they tear past the tissue paper, hoping they will open what they wished for.  

This year one child will be disappointed. I already know this and I have no idea how to keep it from happening. 

We drew the names of three children and we wandered around Target the other day, scooping up wishes for two of the kids. A slime kit. A tablet. This year the challenge-- to keep it under 40 bucks -- was upsetting instead of motivational. The girl who wanted the slime kit also wished for clothes and shoes, but the people who run this particular charity didn't list what size the little girl is. How do you buy clothes and shoes for a kid when you don't know her size? 

We bought her a pair of slippers, in addition to the slime kit. The kid who wished for a tablet was pushing the 40 buck limit big time, but we found a doorbuster sale at Microcenter, leaving us with a small cushion to buy a cute winter hat for her too. 

We bought a cute hat for the third kid too. The information sheet we've been given has been stuffed in my purse for a few weeks. I am hoping for inspiration, but I know I am not going to get it wandering around Target or at some store's doorbuster sale. 

The child is an eleven year old African American girl. Her favorite movie is Beauty and the Beast. She likes to dance. Her favorite cartoon character is Hello Kitty. 

She has three wishes:

A safe Christmas
Feed the Homeless
A house

Tell me, please, someone, how we do we make her wish come true. 










Thursday, November 23, 2017

Musings on Gratitude


It's become something of a family tradition, a five mile trek through our town Thanksgiving morning, the annual Columbus Turkey Trot race.

We don't race.

We walk at a leisurely pace, admiring the more serious runners, the couples pushing strollers, the people dressed in turkey costumes or wearing drumstick hats. If you complete the race, you win a pumpkin pie. Every year we get in line to collect our pies and then we get into the line to donate our pies to a food bank.

We walk home and make our feast.

The first Thanksgiving in this town, we'd only been living here for three weeks. I still needed a map to find my way to the grocery store. It was a lonely day. Most years I cooked the big feast and we'd have 15 or 20 people around the table. An assortment of family members, friends and neighbors. But this particular year it was just the four of us. I made the full blown meal, anyway, out of habit, the giant turkey and all of the casseroles and fixings.

The four of us ate the meal in fifteen minutes.

I was looking out the front window at the gray sky, the unfamiliar lawn. The huge oak tree was dropping leaves and it was cold outside and I knew we were going to have to rake later. The kids were bored and homesick for our old town. We thought about seeing a movie but we weren't sure where the nearest movie theater was.

And then we heard the sound of a lawn mower. A stranger chugged by on his riding mower and we watched in amazement and gratitude as he scooped up all of our leaves. I almost started crying.

Turns out he was our next door neighbor. The next year we invited him and his family for dinner. They've come every year now for the past ten years.

Over seven thousand people run or walk in the Turkey Trot race. This morning we walked at our usual leisurely pace. It was 37 degrees and we were bundled up, laughing already about another of our traditions, how my daughter and I run up to the mile marker signs and my husband takes a picture of us.

Before we left for the race course, I drank a cup of coffee and a smoothie. Not even a mile in and I was anticipating the Porta potty, usually found around Mile Marker Two...

But alas, someone at the Turkey Trot organization let me down big time this year because there was no Porta potty. The rest of the race I was consumed by thoughts of my full bladder, while my daughter and husband made jokes about how I could dart off behind a mile marker sign and do my business, and no one, probably, would even notice.

To keep from killing them, I planned my dinner menu in my head. I watched the people walking around us, the other leisurely-paced people, the bundled up babies in strollers and the sweater-wearing dogs. One girl in front of us walked the entire way on crutches. She was wearing shorts. She was not wearing a hat or gloves. She had one leg.

I was amazed by this girl. I wanted to give her my hat and gloves. She was busy moving along on her crutches and chatting with the people beside her. I couldn't bear it anymore. I asked her if she wanted my hat and gloves and she laughed and said no.

I realized I hadn't thought about my bladder for a while and I was filled with gratitude.

We walked to the next marker and took our silly pictures. We walked across the finish line. We walked home, (okay, I ran like a maniac and made a beeline toward the bathroom).

Now I am basting the turkey between paragraphs, musing on gratitude, thankful for warm houses with bathrooms, grateful for family and friends, the ones here and not here, the enormous meal soon to be eaten, the sunny lawn through my front window, this place, this now familiar town, our home.







Friday, November 17, 2017

Dispatches from a Broken World


The world was always broken, but I forgot.

Here is what I once knew: The people in charge are busy being in charge. When you tell them you need help, they don't listen. They look the other way. And you wonder: did they hear me? Did I speak?

If you're lucky, you learn: You are on your own.

But, as I said, I forgot.


The world is beautiful too, and I forget this daily.

Here is what I once knew: stories read to me at bedtime, songs played downstairs on a piano, the notes drifting into my dreams, a yard with a tree to climb, a friend I loved so much that when I pushed her away, I missed her laughter for years.


In June when I was in Venice, I walked one afternoon alone through the winding narrow streets.

A huge church rises up, how churches seem to do in this place, so that one moment there is an alleyway and the next, there is a large courtyard, a statue, a massive building.

Some of these churches you have to pay to enter. If you are a woman, and you have bare shoulders, you have to cover yourself. But you won't know until you open the door. I walk toward this particular church and freeze when I turn the corner and almost run into an old woman.

Old woman doesn't accurately describe her. This woman is shrunken and wrinkled, her face like the shriveled up face of an apple doll. She is dressed all in black. Her fingers, when she reaches out to me, are gnarled twigs. Honestly, she looks like a witch in a fairy tale.

I brush past her, anxiously, thinking what I always do when I am faced with broken-ness, with hunger, with poverty, with illness, with difference-- that I have to get away from it. And then there's the immediate next thought, the one that comes from the world-- the one that says: This is a scam. She's a thief. Pretend she's not here.

These are the thoughts that make me feel better about not helping her.

I go inside the church. These churches. Oh my God. The walls are covered in priceless paintings. Sculptures. Stained glass. Ornate fixtures and candles. They are monuments to human achievement and beauty. Symbols of brilliant engineering and architecture, art, music -- the very best of what we humans can create.

You have to pay in this church. I stand in a line waiting to step up to the cashier. I am looking around for the cost of the ticket. I am gawking at the massive paintings on the walls. A woman says sternly, "Senora. Senora!"

It takes me a minute to realize she is talking to me. The cashier, clerk, whatever you call the people who take your money when you want to look inside a church. She rolls her eyes and mutters something under her breath. I am the stupid tourist in line who doesn't know it is my turn next. The one who doesn't speak the language or know the rules.

Publicly shamed, I pay the entrance fee. Any joy I had being inside the church is gone. The art on the walls is just art on the walls. More paintings of Mary holding Jesus. Saints, many of their faces modeled after whoever paid the artist to paint the painting. I am thinking of the old lady outside begging in her black clothes in the heat and scaring the crap out of tourists. I am thinking of the woman who just yelled at me. I am arguing with her in my head. I mean, what kind of customer service is that, yelling at tourists. In a freaking church.

This church, like a lot of churches over here, has altars and candles. If you pay a coin, you can light a candle and say a prayer. Usually I like doing that, my old Catholic school upbringing coming back to me. People kneel at the kneelers and bless themselves. They leave pictures behind of sick and damaged loved ones. You can feel their desperation, their faith. I don't need to know the language to know what they are begging for.

Help.

Please God, hear me. Help me.

But now, in this church, my hands around the unfamiliar coins, I don't want to light a stupid candle. And why should I have to pay to say a prayer? Why should I give any of my coins to this church when right outside the door, the oldest human being I have ever seen, stands in need?

I pull every coin out of my pocket. I have no idea how much money it is. I never know what I am carrying over here. It could be two bucks. It could be twenty. Whatever. I walk past the paintings and statues and stained glass. I walk past the rolling-her-eyes-at-the-dumb-tourists clerk. I walk outside into the blazing sun.

I look the woman in the eyes when I give her my money. They're watery and white and I don't know if she can see me, but she says, Grazie.

I sit in the courtyard and watch tourists going into and out of the church. I watch the ones who freeze when they nearly run into the woman, the ones who brush past her, the few who reach for money.  A crumpled up newspaper rolls across the courtyard like a tumbleweed. A teenager reaches to grab it before it falls into the canal.

She misses, and an older woman nearby smirks as if to say, why did you bother? Who cares? A little girl shrieks and clutches her father's hand. "Did you see the witch?" she says.

"Shh, don't say that," says her father. He smiles apologetically at me.

The little girl laughs. She lets go of her father's hand and chases the pigeons around the courtyard. A gondola glides by the crumpled newspaper in the water. The church bells ring.


Here is what I know, what I have always known--

The world is broken

The world is beautiful







Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Confession: The other day I was a mean girl...

I was at a book festival, a place where I am typically not a mean girl,

there to hang out for the day with a writer friend, and while my friend and I were heading toward her book-signing table, she stopped abruptly and gasped because sitting on the floor was a cat--

alive, it seemed, from where we were standing, but on closer inspection,

dead.

I think the technical term is taxidermied?

Anyway, my friend snapped a picture and we laughed and speculated with some of the other writers nearby what the dead cat was there for. Swag for the book display, something eye-catching to draw customers over? (This is a thing, by the way, that writers do on the Book Festival Circuit with bookmarks, candy, fun stickers.)

Maybe the author signing at this table was promoting a book about cats? Or taxidermy? We didn't know, but the general impression was that it was sort of creepy. And funny.

Cut to:

We were all eating lunch and several writer friends came running into the lunchroom to ask if we had seen the dead cat, which got me talking animatedly about it, laughing and speculating and pulling other people at our table into the conversation,

until my friend nudged me and whispered under her breath that the author-owner of the dead cat had just sat down on the other side of me.

Mortified, I hung my head, wondering if there was a way to teleport out of the book festival and taxidermize myself.

There is a mean girl inside of me.

She tends to come out when I am feeling uncomfortable. When I am telling a story and find myself the center of attention. When I realize that I am making people laugh.

Years ago, when I was in college, I took a geology class --the "easy" lab science taken by non-science majors-- and not really all that easy. The hardest part of the class, we all agreed, was that we had to go on a weekend rock-hunting trip.

Probably the professor did not call it a rock-hunting trip, but whatever she called it, it was a road trip from the college in Memphis to Hot Springs, Arkansas, in a school van, with lots of little stops on the way to investigate rock formations.

None of the students wanted to go except for one guy-- we'll call him, John-- who intended to be a geologist and therefore took this trip seriously. The rest of us grumbled about having to leave campus for a weekend and sleep in tents and ride around in an increasingly sweaty smelly van with a bunch of people we didn't really know except through this irritating class.

Also, it was raining.

But there we were, making the best of it, riding in the van and trudging out into the rain every few hours to look at rocks on the side of the road. With the exception of John, who would leap out of the van to really really look at the rocks, and at one particular stop, John was leaping so excitedly, that he slipped in the wet leaves on the side of the road and did a flip in the air and landed upside down in a ditch.

I am not proud to say that I laughed.

Or that later, at our campsite, all of us warming our drenched frozen bodies around the campfire and chatting awkwardly, I began to tell the story of John leaping and flipping and everyone laughed and I kept going, enjoying myself for the first time on this dumb trip, and not noticing that everyone had stopped laughing and there was John, suddenly standing next to me.

I can still see the look on his face.

It was the same as the man's at the book festival.





Is it too late to say that I am sorry?










Monday, October 30, 2017

On Staying Focused

I used to do this thing whenever I was stuck working on a book, where I'd click out of the file and open a desktop solitaire game. One game, I'd tell myself, and I'd start playing, watching the cards flip, half zoning out as the suits matched up and aligned,

until I won or lost,

and then I'd play again. And again. Until a half hour went by. Or an hour. Or more, even, and each day I'd tell myself, I AM NOT OPENING THE SOLITAIRE GAME TODAY and then I would open the solitaire game because there was the little colorful icon smack dab in the middle of my computer screen

and I was feeling lazy and crappy about myself

until one day, I deleted the game from my computer. 

The End


....until

lately, I've been doing this thing whenever I'm stuck working on a book, where I click on Facebook and then click on Twitter and then click on Yahoo and scroll through the headlines, gasping sometimes in horror, and back onto Facebook and Twitter to share my outrage, back onto Facebook to read the comments and onto to Twitter to see if anyone's retweeted me, half zoning out, 

half zinging with rage, until a half hour goes by or an hour or more,

and each day I promise myself I WILL NOT GET ON SOCIAL MEDIA OR READ THE YAHOO NEWS HEADLINES and I open my computer and there are the icons splayed across the top of my screen

and I feel lazy and crappy about myself, alternately enraged and powerless, knowing I need to stop but then feeling

guilty, because shouldn't I be a good citizen and know what's going on in the world, and who am I to turn off social media and retreat into a quiet safe bubble, and isn't that just so privileged of me to get to do that when other people don't have the luxury

click click click click click 

until it hit me that I am playing solitaire again, 

but a million times worse, because there is no end to this game and sitting here in front of the screen, eyes glazed over, is not helping anyone

Plus, I'm not even getting my writing done. 

It's time, I know, to delete the game. 

So, last week, I took the necessary steps. I deleted my social media apps from my phone, and had a momentary flare-up of panic, and then I laughed, because I was remembering this time maybe fifteen years ago when my son's school sent home a paper saying it was Turn Off the TV Week and I told him and his younger sister that I thought we should try it, and my son argued with me and his younger sister literally flung herself on the floor and had a tantrum, and I stood looking down at the two of them, thinking, Hmm, some people are addicted to watching TV. 

My son, now grown up and working at Facebook of all places, and my daughter, away at college and super adept at managing her social media, both gave me pointers for limiting my usage, such as

turning off all notifications and setting up Do Not Disturb on my phone and OH MY GOD MOM why do you have Yahoo News as your homepage??!!

and I stumbled upon an app on my own called Stay Focused, which is awesome, because it's free and you can block sites and set up parameters for yourself and when all else fails and your finger's getting very itchy to click,

you can detonate what they call The Nuclear Option, which shuts down all websites and it's a beautiful beautiful thing

just as pleasing, if not more so, than deleting that silly solitaire game all those years ago. 

The End












Thursday, October 26, 2017

I want to write about my grandmother

and how she always had something cooking on the stove when I dropped in to see her,

which was rarely, even though she lived in the same town I did. How what was cooking always scented up the place, in a good, home-cooking-Italian way, so that you could smell the spaghetti sauce or the chicken noodle soup simmering when you were walking down the hallway of her apartment building, before you even made it to her front door.

I want to tell you about how tiny my grandmother was, under five feet tall and less than one hundred pounds. How she always had reddish brown, perfectly coiffed hair even though she was old, and how I always thought that was her real-colored hair until one time I mentioned to my mother that Grammy was the only grandmother I knew who didn't have white or gray hair, and my mother laughed and said,

oh, Jody, that's a wig.

I want to talk about how whenever I went to visit my grandmother, she'd reach up and hug me, rocking me back and forth and squeezing me tighter than you'd think a one-hundred pound old lady could squeeze. How we'd sit at her kitchen table and she'd feed me the spaghetti or the chicken noodle soup and tell me about her latest health ailments and show me all of the medications she was taking, pointing out what each one was and what it was for, before moving on to describe her various projects, all of which involved cleaning. 

Dusting out the cabinets or scrubbing the bathroom tiles or disinfecting the inside of the communal washing machines in her apartment building. Cleaning was one of my grandmother's favorite hobbies.

That, and watching soap operas. 

She called them her stories and when I was visiting, after I'd eaten, we'd sit together on her couch and watch whatever show was on until it was time for me to go and we shared another round of bone crushing hugs. 

I want to write about how happy my grandmother was on those visits, even though her world was shrunken down to a very small world, it seemed to me, of food and perfectly coiffed hair and medication schedules and cleaning projects and TV programs. 

I never knew what my grandmother's political views were, if she even voted; although, once she told me that Italians should be forgiven for supporting Mussolini. He made the trains run on time! she said. And I nodded, cluelessly. 

We never talked about religion either. She was Catholic but I have no idea how devout--or not devout--she was. Probably more on the devout-ish side, considering she had a little altar set up in her apartment, on the top of a dresser. A picture of Jesus. Photos of dead family members, my father's picture always in a prominent place surrounded by burning candles. 

My grandmother never told me who she was afraid of or what she worried about, unless it had to do with her health. Or maybe one of her children. One uncle of mine was always in and out of jail, which my grandmother referred to as college. As in, "Ah, well, your uncle is away at college again."

 (oh, Jody, said my mother, she means prison.) 

Once my grandmother told me a story about how when she was two years old, her family went to Italy for a visit. Her parents had been born in Italy and several of her older siblings had been born there, but my grandmother was born in America. When the family was coming back into the country, they had to pass through Ellis Island, (I'm a little confused about the reasoning for this now) but anyway, there was a moment when an immigration official wasn't going to let the family back in.

Someone was sick. Maybe they all were. None of them could speak English very well, but the parents pleaded with the immigration officials. The gist of their argument was that my grandmother, aged two, was an America citizen, and therefore they should all be allowed into the country. 

Apparently, it worked out.

My grandmother lived in a time before the internet and social media, before Fox news infiltrated elderly people's homes and told them what to be afraid of and which people they should hate.

Maybe I am doing that annoying thing that older people do, glossing over the past and saying: 

It was better back then!

when the worst thing a person could worry about seeing on TV was a ridiculously over-dressed couple rolling around together in bed, when we had no idea what our family members' appalling prejudices were, when a big secret meant someone wore a wig.

Now I don't know remember why I wanted to write about my grandmother. 

I think of her sometimes when I have sauce simmering on the stove or when I take medication or have my hair colored or on those extremely rare occasions when I clean my house. 

And always always when I reach up to hug one of my very tall children, when I squeeze them tight, when I let them go. 






Monday, October 9, 2017

An Interview with Kathy Cannon Wiechman

A few weeks ago I read Not on Fifth Street, a novel for children by Kathy Cannon Wiechman, and I am still thinking about it. I didn't used to read so much historical fiction, but lately I am drawn to it, fascinated by how people in the past respond to events, and wondering if we have learned the lessons history has to teach us.

The answer is often, sadly, no.

Not on Fifth Street takes place in Ironton, Ohio, 1937. It's the dark days of the Depression and the town is about to suffer through a record-breaking flood. The story centers around two teen brothers, the narrative unfolding as the rains begin and the river rises, each brother challenged by the crisis in different ways, believing what the adults have told them, that the water will never reach them

until it does.



I met Kathy Cannon Wiechman at a writers retreat several years and since then I have been following her career and her stories closely, and I am so happy to have her with me today, On the Verge.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Jody: First, Kathy, I have to tell you how much I loved these characters-- their relationship with each other and how they reacted to the same event and also their very different way of interacting with their father. I know from the author's note at the back of the book that these boys are based on people in your life.

Kathy: That's right. The 1937 flood was an event my father experienced.

Jody: Are all of your books inspired by family experiences? I imagine that you've heard lots of stories from older relatives about things that have happened to them when they were growing up. What makes you think: THIS is an anecdote that could be made into a novel?

Kathy: My books are usually inspired by an interesting event, like a steamboat explosion that claimed more lives than the Titanic (Like a River, 2015). When I hear about any event that makes me want to know more about it, I figure readers might be interested too.

Jody: Once you have that spark for a story, what do you next?

Kathy: Research. And I keep researching until the idea begins to gel into a possible plot. My next step is to create the characters I want to tell the story through. I can't begin the book until my main character is real enough for me to step inside his head.

Jody: Do you outline your books in advance?

Kathy: No, but I do make notes about possible scenes. Once I begin, I am not the kind of writer who writes a rough first draft all the way through. Each day, I read over, make changes, add details, and tweak what I wrote the day before. That puts me back into the flow of the narrative to continue from there. Some days I write a scene I feel should have been hinted at earlier. The next day I might go back and add that change before I go on.

Jody: So, lots of reworking as you go.

Kathy: Yes. My "first draft" is what one member of my critique group calls a "first-ish draft." When I am finished and have comments from my critique groups, I sit down for a serious and thorough revision.

Jody: You write historical fiction for children. What draws you to that genre? Do you see yourself ever writing for other age groups/in other genres?

Kathy: I began my writing life as a poet and my novelist years writing contemporary fiction. But contemporary fiction became out-dated too quickly. I loved reading historical fiction from the time I was a kid, but I was intimidated by the amount of research I would have to do to write it.

Jody: How did you get past that initial fear?

Kathy: At some point I realized I would probably enjoy that research. And I do!

Jody: When I met you at a Highlights Retreat, you were working on your first novel and my own first book was just about to come out. Both of us, I think it's fair to say, had been writing and pursuing publication for a very long time before snagging our first book deals. For me it was five novels and seventeen years. What about you?

Kathy: Between the time I first submitted a novel manuscript to an editor and the day I was offered my first contract, I wrote eleven novels--and thirty-nine years passed.

Jody: This business is not for people who give up easily! What advice do you have for writers like us--people are not beginners but who have not yet broken into publication and may be feeling discouraged?

Kathy: Learn everything you can about the business, read a ton of books, write every day, and love what you do. If I didn't love writing I would never have stuck with it for thirty-nine years. If writing is what you love, never give up.

Jody: This is so important. We can't control the end result. We can only control the time we give to the process. What are you working on now?

Kathy: My current WIP is another Civil War novel. This one takes place in North Carolina. I have 26,000 words so far in my first-ish draft, and am eager every day to get back into it.

Jody: And I am eager to read it, Kathy! Okay, are you ready for the lightning round?

Kathy: I am!

J: What are the books on your nightstand?
K: The Warden's Daughter by Jerry Spinelli

J: What's your non-writing-related hobby?
K: I spend time with family and organize our family reunions. I play cards and board games.

J: Do you have a family story that will probably never make it into a book?
K: My mother was brought to the US from Germany at the age of six to be adopted by her aunt. The adjustment was difficult for her. It's a story she always wanted to write, but never did. She's gone now, and I don't feel I know enough to do it justice.

J: Give me one surprising fact about Kathy Cannon Wiechman.
K: I have been a Type 1 diabetic since I was sixteen.

Jody: Thank you, Kathy, for chatting with me today. And readers, if you'd like to find out more about Kathy and her wonderful novels, see below.

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Kathy Cannon Wiechman is the author of Like a River: A Civil War Novel, which earned a Kirkus star and won the 2015 Grateful American Book Prize, and Empty Places, about life in a 1930s coal-mining camp in Kentucky.

She lives with her family in Cincinnati, Ohio, not far from where the story of Not on Fifth Street takes place.






Website: http://kathycannonwiechman.com
Facebook author page: Kathy Cannon Wiechman
Twitter account: @KathyCWiechman
Amazon
Barnes & Noble      



Tuesday, October 3, 2017

How to Make a Natalie D. Richards Book... (a story in four parts, as told by her critique partner. me.)

Part One opens at a haunted house. It's Natalie's brilliant idea to take a writing retreat in the most haunted town in Ohio--

a quaint, artsy town on the Ohio River, with darling shops and restaurants, an old railroad bridge spanning the river that we walk across several times. The loveliest of cottages to rent (which also happens to be haunted!) Oh, and on the other side of the street from the lovely cottage, a creepy barn with skulls peering out of the windows.

We are too freaked out by the events of the weekend to think much about doing more than praising the heavens that we survived it, but several weeks later, Natalie tells me that she has an idea for a new book...

well, two ideas actually:

Idea number one is that freaky bridge we walked across multiple times, the metal beams and the precarious-looking slats beneath our feet. The clusters of locks, each one etched with the initials of long ago romances.

Idea number two is a broken boy. "His name is Theo," Natalie tells me. "And I'm trying to push him away,

because I know he's not a parent-approved hero. He has ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Honestly, he's a bit of a mess. But he's breaking my heart, Jody," she says, "and I can't stop thinking about him. About the way people see him and talk about him, and never see the rest of who he is.

Maybe it's messier or more difficult, but kids like Theo feel all the things other teens feel. They have hopes and dreams. They fall in love. I want to write him," she says, "because I can't not write him. I know his story deserves to be told."

So, I say what any good critique partner would say: Go write it!!

Which leads us to

Part Two.

Here is a fun thing Natalie and I do every single weekday morning:

She calls me on her drive in to work and after giving me an update on the horrific traffic and her daily fun swing through the Starbucks drive-thru so she can get a peppermint mocha, we talk shop. I tell her what's going on in my WIP and she tells me what's going on in hers. (Okay, we also talk about our kids, our husbands, our dogs, and the latest crap news we've woken up to and how we are supposed to write books in this world, but then inevitably we move our conversation back to writing because it is what we do.)

The book she's writing is called "The Haunted Bridge Book."

And it is stressing Natalie out. She's got the boy, Theo, in all his broken-ness, and messed-up-ness figured out, but she's struggling with the girl. Her name is Paige and she's got a secret crush on Theo but Theo's done something terrible to her. Not sure what yet.

And then, omg, Natalie knows what Theo did. And it's horrible. Will it work? Can she write this book? My guess: yes. Because Natalie, I've come to learn very quickly, is a master at writing books.

Not that they spill out easily for her. We spend the next few months in daily discussion about Theo and Paige. There's lots of anxiety involved, in the writing of it for Natalie and in the character of Paige, who, interestingly enough, is consumed by anxiety, about food, about germs, about her parents and their expectations for her, and especially about Theo and what he did to her...

We work through plot holes and structural problems. Character motivation. Roadblocks. What happens next? What the heck IS this book, anyway?

A moment of insight for Natalie when she realizes she is not writing a thriller, but a supernatural horror-- and supernatural horror, be definition, cannot be logically explained.

After roughly four months Natalie finishes the first draft, and--

Part Three--

she sends the file to me to read.

I LOVE being one of Natalie's first readers. I am a fan of her books and even though I have talked with her through the play-by-play, behind the scenes, piecing together of the manuscript, it's always cool to sit down and open her file for the first time.

I write comments as I read. Mark passages that are strong, and flag places where I am tripped up. There's a moment about two thirds of the way through, where I feel like we've mind-melded. I'm in her head and she's in mine. I see the book on the page as she's written it and I know the story that she's trying to tell. I sense where it's falling slightly short and I can pinpoint where she's hit it exactly right.

We have more phone conversations. We send flurries of emails back and forth.

She goes back in for round two. Round three.

Round four after she's gotten her letter back from her editor. And after she's gotten her copyedits. And after she sees her final proof.

Time passes, and the book is out of her hands, the publisher and book designer and cover artist and marketing people doing what they do. Natalie's writing another book. We talk on the phone. We puzzle through plot holes. We analyze possible character motivation.

Today, she's working through a traumatic kiss scene. The traffic into the city is bad. Our kids are worried about the state of the world. Forget the Peppermint Mocha. She is going all in on the new Maple Syrup Pecan Latte at Starbucks.

Today is also Part Four. 

Her book We All Fall Down is officially out in the world. In bookstores. In libraries. On Amazon. I still call it "The Haunted Bridge Book."

The cover is gorgeous, don't you think?



But here is what I picture:




------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Lifelong Ohioan, Natalie D. Richards, spent many years applying her writing skills to stunningly boring business documents. Fortunately, she realized she’s much better at making things up, and has been writing for teens ever since.

A champion of aspiring authors, Richards is a frequent
speaker at schools, libraries, and writing groups. She lives in Ohio with a Yeti, a Wookie (her dogs) and her wonderful husband and children.

Where to find Natalie:

Website: Nataliedrichards.com
Facebook author page:
Twitter: @Natdrichards
Instagram

Buy her books here:
Barnes and Noble
Amazon

And here's a teaser for We All Fall Down...


A new romantic thriller―with a dash of horror―from the author of One Was Lost and Six Months Later

Theo's always been impulsive. But telling Paige how he feels? He's obsessed over that decision. And it's time. Tonight. At the party on the riverbank, under the old walking bridge, site of so many tales of love and death.

Paige has had a crush on Theo since they first met, but she knows her feelings are one-sided. She's trying to move on, to flirt. A party at the river is just what she needs. Except a fight breaks out, and when Paige tries to intervene―Theo's fist lands in her face.

All Theo and Paige want to do is forget that fateful night. But strange events keep drawing them back to the bridge. Someone, something is determined to make them remember...and pay for what they each did.





Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Gift of an Aloe Plant

The other day someone gave me an aloe plant.

How it happened was this: Back in June, I wrote a blog post about a creepy Aloe Juice salesman guy, and a woman named Shari, a writer who had attended one of my workshops, commented on the post that she knew something about aloe plants, and we started corresponding, and Cut To:

she offered to grow me an aloe plant.

It took several months, with Shari updating me occasionally, to report on the plant's progress. One plant died and she had to start all over again. But eventually, she had a plant and she messaged me that it was ready for the hand off.

We agreed to meet for coffee. Shari chose a place that was five minutes away from me but quite a bit of a trek for her, and I realized as I rode over that I didn't really know this woman and what a nice thing it was that she was driving down to give me an aloe plant.

In the parking lot of the coffee place, she lifted the plant out of her car carefully. It was bigger and more gangly than I had envisioned. I was afraid to handle it. Was it okay to put it in my car while we had coffee? How would I take care of this thing? I know nothing about aloe plants.

But Shari gave me instructions and assured me that it would be fine, and if it died, she would grow me another. Shari has been doing this thing on Facebook called 20 Good Deeds in 20 Days x 2, a way to stand against hate, and I have been following her good deeds. I asked her if she was going to count giving me an aloe plant as her good deed for the day.

She said, she hadn't even thought of it as a good deed.

On September 11, I listened to an interview on Fresh Air with 9/11 first responder, John Feal, a man who was working on the pile a few days after the towers fell when an 8000 pound steel beam dropped on his foot. Feal almost died and in the months that followed, he realized that he did not have adequate healthcare to pay for his medical bills, and later he discovered that most of the first responders were in the same boat. Many of them died from injuries. many more (2000 people) began to die from illnesses traced back to their 9/11 work, leaving behind astronomical medical bills.

Feal began to advocate on behalf of the first responders, meeting with nearly every congressperson and basically being blown off by many of them. But eventually he prevailed, and a law was passed to protect him and others in the same situation. In the years since he lost his foot, John Feal has been to nearly 200 funerals. He's held hands with men on their deathbeds and promised to take care of their families. He donated a kidney to a stranger.

When the interviewer asked him why he did the things he did, he said: "I will never understand how we can be in a position to help someone, and not do it."

At the coffee place my new friend Shari and I drank our coffee and talked about writing. As I drove my five minutes home, my gangly new aloe plant sitting beside me in the passenger seat, and weirdly looking more like a new pet than a plant, it hit me again what a gift it was.

The idea. The long process of nurturing and raising. The drive down to meet me. And all of that for someone who was basically a stranger.

Like many people over the past year, I have come to realize that our country has become so divided. Maybe those divisions were always there, but now they are laid bare. 

We demonize each other. We scream at each other on social media. We don't take the time to listen. Even friends and family members have cut each other off. I have done this too, believing that the divisions are too great to bridge. And maybe they are.

I don't want this to be true.

Maybe I am not the kind of person who will donate a kidney to a stranger. Or maybe I am. I don't know! But can I stop screaming on social media? Can I take the time to listen? Can I water my aloe plant.Take a cutting and grow another plant.

Give it to a stranger.











Monday, September 25, 2017

On a Good Writing Day...

I open my file and descend into my story, fiddling at first, and then moving in deeper-- sliding falling plunging-- into the scene, the characters transforming from paper dolls to three-dimensional puppets to human,

these characters I thought I had created, but now they surprise me by striding out of the scene and into a space I didn't envision, saying words I didn't imagine.

Time ticks by, but I don't feel it.

When I climb out, hours later, in a daze, squinting in the sunlight to walk the dog, the voices in my head keep chattering. Words wind out from beyond the trees. I rush home to write them down.

At the end of the day I am tired, like after a good workout, but without the sweaty clothes and sore muscles. I paste a silver star in my planner because I do that now, reward myself for good writing days.

The month of August I have one star. September I have four.

I wish I loved my book. No--
I wish I loved writing my book.

I wish I had no doubts about the futility of the endeavor, no guilt about being a writer in this dark world.

Because isn't it a frivolous thing--  some days-- most days-- to know that real live human beings are suffering and afraid, while I sit doing nothing to help them?

Instead of writing I should take to the streets. Cry out against injustice. Speak out. Stand up. Kneel down.

But how much easier it is, and lovelier, to escape (how I have always escaped) by burrowing into a story while the adults downstairs scream at each other.

And why do we tell stories anyway?
Why do make art or music? Why do we dance?

Why do we bother.

Sure, it makes us feel happy. Makes us feel sad. Makes us feel something, anything. Makes us pause, think question reconsider listen remember care. Hope. Reminds us that we are here, each one of us, alone. Together.

I open my file and descend into my story

today

today.

Today, I will have a good writing day.




Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Interview with Margaret Peterson Haddix

Several years ago, before I was first published, I went to a children's writers conference in New York City and was hanging out at the Saturday night cocktail party and feeling a little shy and out of place, when I noticed another writer standing off to the side, alone.

And then I noticed her nametag:

Margaret Peterson Haddix

I about fell over. Margaret Peterson Haddix is a giant in the children's book world, the author of dozens of best-selling and critically acclaimed books for children, an author of books I had read over the years and introduced my own children to, and also, it so happened, the author who was going to be the closing keynote speaker at the conference the next day.

Somehow I gathered up the nerve to walk up to her and introduce myself, using the very original "Hey, I think maybe we both live in Ohio?" line as my opener. Margaret could not have been lovelier, and we had a very nice conversation until other people began to murmur: "Isn't that Margaret Peterson Haddix standing over there?" and she was mobbed by admirers. The next day she gave a speech, that I still remember, about the power of children's stories in an ever changing world and received a standing ovation from a thousand aspiring writers.

Strange, happy plot twist: I am now in an author group with Margaret.

The end.

Okay, not the end. Because today, I've snagged the lovely MPH for an interview, using the "Hey, I think we are both in an author group together and why haven't I had you on my blog?" line.

And Margaret, lovely person that she is, said Let's do it!

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Jody: Hi, Margaret! First, let me say congratulations on the release of your new novel Children of Refuge, Book Two in the Children of Exile series. For readers (like me!) who haven't had the chance to pick the book up yet, will you give us a teaser?

Margaret: For the series as a whole, I usually just quote the first three sentences of the first book in the series, Children of Exile:

“We weren’t orphans, after all.
That was the first surprise.
The second was that we were going home.”

Children of Refuge, hmm. I haven’t actually done an elevator-style pitch for this anywhere. I guess it’d be:

“A twelve-year-old boy named Edwy disappears in the middle of the first book. In Children of Refuge, readers find out what happened to him.

And—what he makes happen, too.”

Jody: Ooh, I like this! I'm curious about the process behind this book... well, behind all of your books— from idea to drafting to revision. Is it the same process each time?

Margaret: Only in the sense that there’s an idea… and drafting… and revision for every book!

Probably the biggest variation has to do with how long I keep an idea lurking in the back of my brain before I start writing about it. With a few books, I’ve started writing almost immediately because I’ve felt like I can’t NOT write everything down as soon as possible. More often, the ideas are like toys I pull out and play with every now and then, and at some point—sometimes even a decade—

Jody: Wait. A decade?!

Margaret: Or even longer after that first burst of inspiration, and I realize I finally know how to write the thing, or at least how to start. The book I just finished writing (which will come out in 2019) probably set a record for me, because the initial idea came from a newspaper column I read almost thirty years ago. But until about a year ago I didn’t realize that that column was ever going to lead to a book; it was just about a topic that haunted me.

Jody: Isn't it weird how this happens? Where ideas come from... and which ones seem to stick with us. It's one of the coolest aspects of writing. And then comes the work!

What do you next—once that haunting idea snags your attention? Do you plan out the story? Or just sit down and write it by the seat of your pants?

Margaret: I like to think of myself as a hybrid combination of a planner and a pantser. I feel panicked if I don’t have at least some plan in place for where the book is going, but I tend to make up a lot as I go along.

Jody: And clearly, it's worked for you... Children of Refuge is your fortieth book! And speaking of this book, it is a dystopian adventure story for tweens, but I know that you've written for other age groups, both younger and older, and in other genres. Contemporary, fantasy, historical.

Is your approach to writing different when you are working on different kinds of stories for different audiences?

Margaret: It's not much different between YA and middle grades or even with early chapter books, which I’ve also done. (Though it’s been a while.) Certain ideas/topics just feel more appropriate for one or the other, and the age of the main character kind of naturally dictates how I tell the story. I tend to write older middle grades books and what is often viewed as younger YA, so usually I’m right on the boundary between the two. (And sometimes people refer to my MG as YA, and some of my early YA would definitely be categorized as MG now… I think the line is pretty blurry in general.)

Jody: Do you have a favorite age group to write for?

Margaret: I guess I like that general age span of 12-16, because kids change so much during that phase, and there’s so much room for growth and character development and eventfulness (and, sadly for them, misery as well.)

Jody: How about a favorite genre?

Margaret: I really like switching around between both age groups and genres. Lately I’ve mostly done middle grade science fiction, but my next book after Children of Refuge is a YA contemporary called Summer of Broken Things, and it was really fun to shift back into that mode for a while.

Jody: I'm looking forward to that one. I think one of my favorite novels of yours is the YA contemporary Leaving Fishers, about a girl who gets caught up in a cult. There was something so heartbreaking and real about it. I could feel the girl's struggle--what drew her into the group in the first place and how difficult it was for her to extricate herself from it.

This is a much earlier book of yours. I just looked it up. It was released in 1997, so you've been doing this, writing and publishing, for very a long time. Has your writing process changed over the years?

Margaret: In the beginning, I certainly thought that writing would get easier with every book. I thought I would finally feel like I knew what I was doing. But every book is an individual; every book is its own “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” to take Winston Churchill’s brilliant quote totally out of context. (I guess I’m saying every book is like Russia?) Maybe what’s changed most is that I’m a little calmer than I used to be about feeling it’s going to be possible to figure out my writing conundrums; I don’t jump to melodramatic despair quite so quickly.

Along about my fifteenth book I can remember thinking, “Wow—I’ve now written about just about everything I’m capable of writing about; I’ve explored every situation I’m capable of exploring. Maybe I’m done.” And then a collection of really bizarre, unexpected things happened to me in my personal life, and I thought, “No, I’ve still got lots of material to work with. Whether I want it or not.” I think I’m more aware now how many sides there are to any story. That makes writing more complicated, not easier!

Jody: This makes sense and now I am wondering if you have a similar sense of how publishing has changed over the years. Is that gotten more complicated too?

Margaret: It’s changed massively, mainly because of the internet and social media. That’s good and bad. Authors can have a lot more interaction with readers, and they can have a lot more impact on their own careers beyond just trying to write the best book possible. And readers have more access.

Jody: But this isn't always a good thing.

Margaret: Well, it can all be a little overwhelming, and I wonder if there are great books that aren’t being written because the potential writer is too busy trying to, say, build a Twitter following. Some books just require a lot of quiet thinking time, and writers—like everyone else—have more distractions than they used to.

Jody: Is anything the same in your opinion?

Margaret: The publishing world then and now was/is full of smart, talented, interesting people who really care about books and the kids who read them, and that’s all wonderful.

Jody: And it's what makes this writing community we are a part of so wonderful too. Pinching myself here because who knew I'd be one day chatting with you about these kinds of things! So, what's up next for you? Book 41, 42, 43...

Margaret: The next book I have coming out is the YA I mentioned, Summer of Broken Things, which pubs April 10, 2018. Considering that I broke my wrist this summer, soon after I turned in the final version of SOBT, I’m tempted to say that sometimes I throw myself into my books a little too passionately. Or maybe I should be more careful about titles, if they’re going to become self-fulfilling prophecies!

Jody: Oh, yikes!

Margaret: Yikes is right. After that, Children of Jubilee, which is the final book in the Children of Exile trilogy, comes out November 2, 2018.

And what I am working on now is a brand new trilogy, Outliers, which I’m really excited about. The first book in that series is due out in early 2019.

Jody: Before I let you go Margaret, are you ready for the On the Verge Lightning Round?

Margaret: Yes!

J: What are the books on your nightstand?

MPH: My TBR pile isn’t on a nightstand, but it includes our mutual friend Erin McCahan’s The Lake Effect (which I wanted to read on vacation this summer, but that didn’t work out, so now the book will be my way of holding onto the summer in the fall), Emery Lord’s When We Collided, Cory Ann Haydu’s The Someday Suitcase, and Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys (which someone mysteriously sent me, and I have barely tiptoed into, but love so far.) Another book I’m excited to read, but don’t have yet because it came out the same day as Children of Refuge, is You Bring the Distant Near, by Mitali Perkins.

J: Name one of your non-writing-related hobbies.

MPH: Is walking a hobby? I love walking around places I’ve never been before. I could make it sound a little more exotic and call it “travel and hiking,” but it’s really just walking. And often I’m thinking about writing as I walk. I’m not sure I have any hobbies that don’t become writing-related in one way or another.

J: What's the most embarrassing thing that happened to you in high school?

MPH: Everything that happened to me in high school was embarrassing.

J: What's your best advice for a beginning writer?

MPH: Give yourself permission to be really bad at it for a while. Just write and have fun with it and look at how much you’re improving, not how far you have to go.

Jody: Thanks, Margaret! And now dear readers, if you'd like to find out more about Margaret Peterson Haddix and her forty published books, check out the information below!

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Margaret Peterson Haddix grew up on a farm near Washington Court House, Ohio. She graduated from Miami University (of Ohio) with degrees in English/journalism, English/creative writing and history. Before her first book was published, she worked as a newspaper copy editor in Fort Wayne, Indiana; a newspaper reporter in Indianapolis; and a community college instructor and freelance writer in Danville, Illinois.

She has since written more than 40 books for kids and teens, including Running Out of Time; Double Identity; Uprising; The Always War; the Shadow Children series; the Missing series; the Children of Exile series; the Under Their Skin duology; and The Palace Chronicles. She also wrote Into the Gauntlet, the tenth book in the 39 Clues series.  Her books have been honored with New York Times bestseller status, the International Reading Association’s Children’s Book Award; American Library Association Best Book and Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers notations; and numerous state reader’s choice awards. They have also been translated into more than twenty different languages.

Haddix and her husband, Doug, now live in Columbus, Ohio. They are the parents of two grown kids.

Visit Margaret's website Haddixbooks.com



Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Moments of Serendipitous Flower Arranging

Last weekend I went to a wedding.

I haven't been to a wedding in a while. There was a point a long time ago when I was just out of college that all of my friends were getting married, one after another, and my new husband and I attended what seemed like a bazillion ceremonies and partied at the various receptions, snarfing down the free hors d'oeuvres and clinking our champagne glasses and laughing on the dance floor as we did the Electric Slide with our friends' goofy middle-aged parents. 

This particular wedding was a new milestone for my husband and me because it wasn't our friends getting married, it was our friends' son, a boy-- 

okay, a man-- we've known since he was four years old when he played with our son at preschool. Our son-- also, apparently, a man now-- was one of the groomsmen. 

He flew cross country with his girlfriend to attend the wedding, and our daughter and her boyfriend flew in from out of state, and my husband and I drove in from our neck of the woods, and for a too brief, two-day period, our family was all together, celebrating the wedding of this boy, now man, we've known forever, and his new lovely bride, and our dear friends,

partying at the reception and snarfing down hors d'oeuvres and clinking our champagne glasses and laughing on the dance floor as we did the Electric Slide with

(gulp)

each other.

This could make me tear up if I think about it too much. How time moves faster and faster. How only yesterday I was picking up my son from pre-school while his baby sister toddled around my legs and I struck up a conversation with another young mom, also waiting with a little girl toddling around her legs. The two little boys playing on the floor with Legoes somehow morphed into the two men standing side by side on a church altar. The little girls tearing every single outfit of the closet to play dress-up, now the young women gracefully walking in insanely high heels and laughing as they leapt for the thrown bouquet. 

But I didn't think about any of this last weekend.

I was there, days early, to help my friend prepare for the wedding. I told her that I would do whatever was needed and what was needed was setting up tables for a rehearsal dinner and making a grooms cake shaped like a sailboat and buying plants at Lowes and baking garlic bread.

It also meant assisting her sister, a professional florist, as she created elaborate flower arrangements and corsages and boutonnieres.

I have never made an elaborate flower arrangement or a corsage or a boutonniere in my life. I don't even know the names of most flowers. I stood pretty much in awe the entire time as the sister florist built these creations, trying to be of help but most likely getting in her way. She would ask for a Something Something kind of a flower and I would tell her I had no idea what that kind of flower was and she'd point it out and I'd laugh and say, "Oh! the one that looks like a Horton Hears a Who flower?" And she'd look at me like I was a weirdo.

But later, when the clock was ticking down and there were still many more corsages to assemble, she'd call out, "Hand me a couple of those Horton Hears a Who flowers" and I'd get right to it. 

There is a task in the Artist's Way -- (Yes, I am reading the Artist's Way again because the joy of writing has once more slipped away and I am depleted and my creativity is sapped, probably due to the hellish political landscape we're all living in that has made writing feel pointless) but anyway, 

the task is to list, without thinking about it, five imaginary lives--five alternate reality choices for yourself if you could go back and start everything over. 

I wrote without thinking: Florist. 

The next task was to do something related to that Imaginary Life, and I chuckled to myself, because when in the world would I have the opportunity to be a florist? 

Several days later surrounded by flowers that I didn't know the names of, in service to a friend who was about to watch her only son marry, as I searched for greenery and poked stems in foam and pressed a spray of baby's breath against a white rose and pierced it with a pin, I remembered. 

The next moment the arranged flowers were on the altar, the boutonnieres on the groom's tux, on my son's tux...

Another moment and the ceremony was over, the hors d'oeuvres were eaten, the Electric Slide notes faded, the wedding guests departed, the flowers

already a memory. 






Thursday, August 31, 2017

How I Wrote When I Was Twelve

I didn't think about publication or readers. I had never been rejected; although, I did get the occasional Meh response from a teacher on a writing assignment.

But the Meh responses didn't bug me.

I wrote when I had a funny idea or sad one, when I had something important I wanted to remember, when I'd read a good book and wished I could keep the story and the characters going.

I didn't worry about what type of writing I did. I wrote short stories and novels. I wrote a play. A comic strip. Essays and poems. I even wrote songs. And taped myself singing them.

I kept a journal. I typed on a typewriter. I hand-wrote in notebooks or on loose-leaf paper. I illustrated my stories. I drew my own book covers. I didn't care that I wasn't good at drawing.

Most of the stories I never finished. A few of the stories, I revised. Over and over. But it never felt like work.

If I didn't feel like writing one day, or for a week, or for a month, I just... didn't. And when I pulled out my typewriter to write another story, I didn't wonder if I'd lost my ability.

When I was twelve, I wrote for myself.


And it was my favorite thing to do in the world.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

On Writing, Embarrassing Moments in Middle School, and Adorable Bulldogs: An Interview with Jennifer Maschari

One of the nicest things to come out of a writing retreat is the friends you make.

Several years ago at the Highlights Foundation retreat center in Boyd's Mill, Pennsylvania, I hit it off with middle grade author Jennifer Maschari. It turns out that Jen's from Ohio-- and lives only fifteen minutes away from me. Since then I've read her books and become a fan. Her latest novel, Things That Surprise you, is wonderful. Jen's got the gift for tunneling into the mind of the middle school kid and for crafting tightly woven, clever stories with heart.

Also, one of my favorite things: all of her books have a dog character!

I'm so pleased to have her on the blog today:

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Jody: Give me your elevator pitch for Things That Surprise You. 

Jen: Well, it's about soon-to-be-sixth grader Emily Murphy who uses the advice from self-help CDs to try to solve her friend and family problems.

Jody: I loved Emily from the very first page. Her obsession with a book series starring a magical unicorn. Her confession that she always peeks at the ending of a book before reading it. She doesn't like to be surprised.

Jen: No, she does not!

Jody: And then she's got all of these family and friend issues to deal with-- her older sister who is struggling with an eating disorder and a best friend who seem to be growing up faster than she is and pulling away. Where'd you get the idea for a book like this? Or I guess I'm asking how you do it-- go back into the middle school mind.

Jen: I have a lot of memories of my middle school years and also teach middle school. I often joke that I've never left it. I remember how hard those years were for me...

Jody: Do you ever think you'll write for other age groups? In other genres?

Jen: I don't know. I love writing middle grade. First, I think the kids reading it are the greatest. They are SO enthusiastic about books. I love doing school visits and hearing their ideas and thoughts and questions. Second, my voice seems to work well in middle grade. I love to read middle grade books, too. I could see myself writing chapter books or picture books. Chapter book characters are so memorable.

Jen: You and I have compared notes on our writing processes before and I know you see yourself as a slower writer. How long did it take you to write Things That Surprise You?

Jen: About about a year or so.

Jody: That's not too bad. A lot of revising?

Jen: Oh, yes. I did this one massive revision (based on my editor's very smart and kind advice) in which I rewrote the entire story except for twelve pages. There were subsequent revisions after that, but that major revision helped find the heart of the story.

Jody: That is an extensive revision. Did you have a similar process with your first book, The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price?

Jen: No. And I wish my book-writing process was the same for every book because then I would know what to expect! For Charlie Price, I wrote slowly and pretty much in order - from beginning to end. For Things That Surprise You, I wrote the second draft very quickly and skipped around from one scene to the other. One thing that stays the same between books, though, is that I make a list of scenes that I want to hit. This helps me form the shape of the story in my mind.

Jody: I do this kind of thing with index cards. I don't know how other writers can keep all of the scenes straight without keeping track in some way.

I have to tell you that your launch party for Charlie Price was one of the coolest and cleverest parties I've ever attended. I still remember the balloons and cupcakes and gift baskets. Any special plans for Things That Surprise You?

Jen: Thank you Jody! I had so much fun planning that launch party. Sadly, the bookstore where I held my launch for Charlie Price is now closed. Also, the day my new book comes out is the day before school starts (it's going to be a busy week!) So instead of just one launch, I'm going to do a couple of different events at some local bookstores over several weeks. Of course, I still plan on having balloons (unicorn themed!) and cupcakes.

Jody: I am relieved to hear there will be cupcakes! Speaking of launch parties, self-promotion can be tough for writers... how do you approach promotion? Any tips and tricks? Things you'd do again? Things you won't bother with this time around?

Jen: For middle grade, most of my promotion is concentrated on reaching out to teachers and librarians who are then able to buy the books for their own libraries and classrooms. One thing I did for Charlie that worked really well was a mailing targeted at school librarians and local public libraries. I included an information sheet about the book with some pull quotes from reviews, a synopsis, and a very short handwritten note. I think I sent this to about 250 schools. I mailed out some postcards, too. I enjoy receiving mail and sending mail so this was fun for me!

Jody: You have a website too, and I see you on social media.

Jen: Yes. I try to keep my website updated with events and book information and I do send out a newsletter but need to get better at sending it out more regularly.

Jody: You're busy! I know you're still teaching, and that's got to be hard, balancing a day job with a writing career. How do you it?

Jen: Not very well! I'm a person who needs to see a task through beginning to end, and I've found that when I have a bunch of tasks - teaching and writing and taking classes - that's not possible. I need to alternate working on several things. I'm working on putting myself on a schedule so I carve out that writing time, and I'm also learning (and reminding myself) that there's no perfect time to write.

Jody: What's up next for you? Can share any secrets about your current WIP?

Jen: I'm working on another contemporary middle grade. It's still in the very early stages so I don't want to say too much but the main character's name is Trina, and the story has another great dog. I also have a chapter book idea I'm playing with. It's a lot of fun and a bit lighter than my middle grade books.

Jody: Are you ready for the lightning round, Jen?

Jen: Yes!

--What's the best recent book you read?

I reread one of my very favorites: Summer Sisters by Judy Blume

--Non-writing-related hobby?

Hiking - I love being out in nature.

--TV show you've binge-watched?

Forensic Files (I seriously have seen almost all of them and there are a lot.)

--Most embarrassing thing that happened to you in middle school?

Oh goodness - a lot of embarrassing things! I feel like I've blocked most of them out. Supposedly, I fell up the steps in front of my classmates. At least, that's what someone wrote in our 8th grade memory book (which is maybe more embarrassing?!)

--And last, but certainly not least, will you share pictures of your dogs?

Of course! I have two English bulldogs: Hank and Oliver. They are such good boys.

Hank outside

Oliver outside
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Want to know more about the lovely Jennifer Maschari and her awesome books and adorable dogs?


Website: Jenmaschari.com
Twitter: @jenmaschari