Sunday, November 10, 2019

Enter Colton. Or How a made-up renegade scientist dropped into my manuscript and broke through my writer's block

Last summer I was suffering from an acute case of writer's block.

It was a combination of being preoccupied by things Not Related to Writing (selling and buying a house, working a new job, having our college graduate daughter home for a few months) and things Writing-related. The writing-related part was that I'd finished revising a book after working on it for two years and realized that it still hadn't come together.

But just the thought of going back into the revision--  or starting something new felt paralyzing. 

My writing partner Natalie suggested that I try something completely different. A lot of my problem, she said, had to do with over-thinking and worrying about the stuff that was beyond my control (ie Publishing, or rather, in my case, Not publishing) and the end result was that writing was no longer bringing me joy.

Oh, she was right about that. Joy? haha. All I felt when I tried to sit down to write was dread. 

But Natalie, God love her, was not going to give up on me. She gave me an assignment. 

Each day for two weeks she wanted me to send her a pitch for a potential book. These could be any kind of book. Romances, thrillers, mysteries, whatever. The common denominator, however, was that these would be books I would never write. The point was to fool around, with no pressure. The more ridiculous the idea, the better.

I dutifully followed this advice, getting a little perfectionist-y about the first few pitches, but then relaxing and having a little fun with the assignment, despite myself, as the days went by. I was never going to write these books, I reasoned, so who cares. 

Example, Day Four, when I threw together this doozy:

The Seed Vault

When Maura snags an internship in London the summer before her senior year in college, she’s overjoyed. It’s a part-time position at a non-profit environmental agency that manages a seed vault, nothing too demanding or stressful, which should leave her plenty of time to explore and soak in European culture. 

But the moment she arrives in London, Maura finds herself caught up in an ever-growing climate-change-triggered nightmare. A record-breaking heatwave with temperatures soaring past an unheard of 115 degrees has turned Europe into a hell-scape. 

And then the rains start, at first welcomed as a relief from the heat, but then, feared as the entire continent begins to flood. 

It’s all hands on deck at the environmental agency, the staff frantic to protect the vault, one of the few places on earth that contains a sample of every seed, but with excessive flooding around the containment zone, the task seems impossible.

Enter Colton... 

He’s a renegade young scientist who’s been ostracized from the scientific community for his unorthodox views of climate and food production. Colton knows there is a way to save the seed bank, but it will involve blowing it up first. The others are skeptical, of course, but Maura finds Colton’s solution strangely compelling. That, and his piercing blue eyes. 

Together, Colton and Maura race against time to save the seeds… and the planet from destruction. 


Yeah. So the idea is ridiculous, of course, but it made me laugh. Suddenly, I really was having fun with writing-- even if I was only writing ideas for books I would never write. For a lot of these, I'd set up some crazy premise and then shake things up by Entering Colton, putting him into more absurd situations each day. 

But something interesting happened as I kept going with these pitches. A few of them didn't need Colton. A few of them were not completely silly.

And two were ideas that I could see myself actually developing. I wrote a potential first page for each one. 

And then I wrote a potential second page. 

Now, two months later I have written over 98 pages in each book, and no sign of slowing down yet. Thanks Colton! (And thank you, Natalie, for getting me back into my groove.)





Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Model Librarian

The best part about working at the library, (besides being around books/touching books/smelling books/helping patrons find books) is hanging around with the other people who work at the library-- the research librarian and the youth librarian who helped me with my writing projects are now my coworkers!--but I've also made some new friends.

LaNesha and I share front desk duty most days, and in between checking in books and checking out books and helping patrons get their library cards or work the fax machine, we've gotten to be good friends. LaNesha's a librarian, who also happens to be a model, a fascinating combo of careers that I am immediately curious about.

So of course I have to ask her:

Me: What came first, librarian or model?

LaNesha: I have always wanted to model ever since I was a little girl, but I never had the confidence. And I was very shy. My first modeling experience was during my Junior year of college. There was a modeling troupe putting on a fashion show and I decided to try out. I got such a good response from everyone and that encouraged me to keep going.

Me: And you were pursuing your library degree at the same time?

LaNesha: Not exactly. I initially majored in Chemistry. I wanted to be a pharmacist. But when I began my studies, I was so discouraged. It wasn’t interesting to me in the least and I was drastically failing chemistry! So I called my mom and I cried. I told her that I didn’t think this was the right fit for me and that I wanted to change my major. She told me, “If you find a job you like, you’ll never work a day in your life."

Me: I love that advice.

LaNesha: I know, right? It's stuck with me, and at the time, I realized that the one thing I loved since I was a child was reading. So I changed my major to English Literature and fell in love with books all over again. This was also around the time I started working in the library of my university. It changed my life and I couldn’t have been happier.

Me: What were your favorite books as a child?


LaNesha: Dr. Seuss books. My mom read them to me every night. Green Eggs and Ham was my most fav! And now my daughter loves this book so much too.

MeWhat do you like best about being a librarian?

LaNesha: Getting to see all the new books before everyone else does! But honestly, I love the impact libraries have on the community. This place inspires and creates a new generation of thinkers and I’m glad to be a part of that… to help shape the community into what we dream it to be.

Me: What about modeling? Because I have to say that the first time I met you, I was struck by how beautiful you are, but also, how very soft-spoken and reserved... and modeling seems like a career where you'd really have to put yourself out there.

LaNesha: That's what I enjoy about it. With my modeling I get a chance to be myself, freely, and in the spotlight. It’s kind of the direct opposite to who I am on a daily basis: an introverted bookworm who hates crowds.

Me: An introverted bookworm who loves clothes...

LaNesha: I do. I love mixing things up. Old things with new. Vintage shirts with skinny jeans. Bell bottoms with lace bodysuits. Not that I would wear that outfit to the library! But what's fun is expressing myself through fashion.

Me: This is all very fascinating to me because I could not be more opposite when it comes to fashion. Also, I hate shopping.

LaNesha: I love shopping. But I rarely shop in the mall. I mostly online shop. (This is where my introverted personality kicks in). My favorite online stores are Fashion Nova.com, BooHoo.com, and Misslola.com. If I do happen to go into the mall, I’ll maybe shop at Express or H & M. As for jewelry. I love anything gold and elegant.

Me: And make-up. Your make up is always gorgeous.

LaNesha: Thank you! I love playing around with it, mixing a bunch of colors together and coming up with a great new look. My favorite is cat eyes. I love cat eyes! It’s my signature look, I guess. Like Ariana Grande and her ponytail.

Me: I am proud to say that I understand this reference. Okay, now I have to ask you how you balance all of this-- librarian by day, photo shoots by night and on weekends? Plus, you have your little daughter. What's your typical day look like?

LaNesha: Whoa! – Do we have that much time? But seriously, here's a basic outline of how my day would go if I had a photo shoot and also had a shift at the library:

5:45-6:00 am : Me trying to wake up after I’ve pressed the snooze button four times already.
6:00-6:30 am: Start my makeup.
6:30-7:00 am: Chase my daughter out from under the table so that I can do her hair.
7:00-8:15 am: Finish makeup and hair, get dressed, head out for work.
8:30 am-5:30 pm: WORK …. (w/Jody! Yay!!! 😊 )
5:30-6:15 pm: Drive home, change clothes for shoot, refresh makeup
6:45-9:00 pm – Shooting for modeling
9:00-9:20 pm: Driving home from shoot
9:20-10:30 pm: Playtime with my daughter and then bath, stories, and bed.
10:30-12:30 am: Quality time with Clarence (my boyfriend).
5:45 am: Wake up with Sam’s Club size bags under my eyes and repeat!

Me: This is making me exhausted just reading it.

LaNesha: It's a good thing it's not every day.

Me: You forgot to include all of the time when you're reading. I know you've always got a book going.

LaNesha: I normally read three at once. Right now that's The Chain by Adrian McKinty, The Escape Room by Megan Goldin and Animal 3 by K’wan. Pretty dark stuff, I know...  And while I'm reading, just so you know, I'm wearing a cozy sweater and leggings. I love to dress up, but when I’m home, nothing feels better than a cozy sweater, no makeup, leggings, fuzzy socks, and a good book.

Me: We have this in common! One last question: What is the Instagram modeling contest you're competing in right now?

LaNesha: It's through Vogue. They're putting together a special Winter Issue with photographer Youss Foto and recruiting models via an Instagram contest. I sent in a few headshots, not thinking I would even be close to getting selected. To my surprise, I learned that I’d been shortlisted. How it works is the photographer is posting photos and people can vote for their favorite. There are lots of beautiful models on the shortlist, but I’m keeping my hopes high and my fingers crossed!

Me: I am going to check that out right now. And side note to my readers, if you're on Instagram and want to vote for this model librarian, see: @youssfoto. LaNesha's photo should be posted soon. In the meantime you can also follow her here: @unmistakablebeauty712

Thanks, LaNesha, so much for chatting with me today. And see you tomorrow at the library!



Saturday, October 26, 2019

Writing out loud

It's not often that I am surprised by a new writing technique. I thought I had heard them all, tips and tricks for writing through a first draft, breaking through writer's block, tackling a revision, you name it. I love hearing how other writers Do This.

A few years ago I was on an author panel with the lovely Edie Pattou, author of East, West, Ghosting, and Mrs. Spitzer's Garden. Edie hand-writes all of her novels, drafting in notebooks in the mornings and typing out her work in the afternoons. This idea was fascinating to me because I'd never hand-written a book. Even when I was in middle school I banged out my stories on a typewriter. 

But something I've learned over the years is that if you're stuck, it never hurts to try another way In. Hand-writing in pencil in a plain composition notebook, inspired by Edie, was just the trick I needed to break through a particularly painful revision. 

Unfortunately, this method didn't work for me on my next project. Another thing I've learned over the years: each book may want to be written in a different way. I know writers who figure out their process and they stick with it forever and God loves those people, but many writers I know have to try a new strategy every once in a while. 

So, if this is You, and you're stuck, I may have just the ticket:

Dictate the story to yourself. 

This gem comes straight from my friend Kristy Boyce, a YA author AND psychology professor AND mom. At our last meeting with the local SCBWI group (where Kristy is the Social Media Coordinator) she mentioned that because she is very short on time, how she writes her books is "Walking while talking into her phone." 

In one hour, she says, she can "write" 1000 words. 

How it works is you go to your Notes feature on your phone, start a new draft of a note, click the microphone icon and talk away. What you say is transcribed (sometimes not quite accurately, so be careful with that) and then you can email the transcribed file to yourself, a file that can then be copied and pasted into your Word doc. 

When Kristy explained this to our group, I was immediately excited about trying it. 

Cut to: Me, the next day, walking the dog. I looked around to make sure no one was in earshot, and off I went, "telling" myself the scene I was working on. Dialog, description, even pointing out where to add punctuation. A twenty minute walk gave me 300 mostly usable words to work with later. 

I admit I did feel a little strange doing this. And very self-conscious. But there was also something weirdly natural about it too...

And then it hit me why this idea did feel so natural. I used to write this way! Way way back when I was eight, nine, ten years old and kind of a weird little mess of a dreamy kid, I used to tell myself stories. I did this when I was walking to school and home, alone, whispering or maybe not whispering to myself. I have a vivid image of talking in third person, describing what my made up people were doing and saying. I think I waved my hands around while I was talking too, so I am sure if anyone happened to be driving by, they would wonder what the heck that strange little girl was doing. 

I wrote some of these stories down, but mostly, they were for me. 

And after all, what IS writing, anyway, but telling ourselves a story? 


Wednesday, October 16, 2019

In my younger and more vulnerable years

my father gave me some advice I have been turning over in my mind ever since. "Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the same advantages that you've had."

I didn't write these lines.

But if you're an American literature geek like I am, or someone who was mildly awake during a high school English class at some point in your life, you might recognize where the lines come from. It's the opening of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I know these lines (and the last lines of the novel, as well as several other passages) by heart because I have read the book at least fifty times.

The first time was my junior year in Mr. Fay's English class at St. Thomas Aquinas High School.


Look! That's my copy from that class and the same copy that I read the 50+ additional times.When I was a high school English teacher, I taught the book to my classes of 11th graders. I just now thumbed through it and saw both of my children's names written on the inside cover below my name, their notes from their time reading the book in school, scrawled next to my own notes as a sixteen year old and later as a teacher.

When I was sixteen, I think it was the romance that drew me in, the obsessive love Gatsby had for Daisy, but more, it was his yearning, his dreams, his desire to make himself over into someone who would be worthy. And the tragedy of it all when we find out that it none of it was enough.

Still, all of that striving was worth something regardless, right?

That's how Mr. Fay taught Gatsby anyway. We also had discussions about the class system in America, corruption, wealth, the American Dream, and the Jazz Age. And then we watched the kinda dumb movie with Robert Redford, who was too pretty and polished to be Gatsby and Mia Farrow, who was too drippy and blah to be Daisy. Or maybe not. Daisy was at the core fairly drippy and blah.

Gatsby's a good book to teach to high school students, for a variety of reasons, I later learned, when I taught it to roughly 800 students over the years. It's only 182 pages-- with nine chapters, something you can easily cover over a two week period in an average classroom. Also, to snag the attention of your students you can play up the mystery, the romance, the bling, the murders. Trust me when I tell you that in the classroom, in terms of keeping teenagers awake, Gatsby easily beats out The Scarlet Letter, another book I've read 50+ times.

And then there's the fun symbolism that all English teachers love: the green light at the end of the dock, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg, and what's the deal with Daisy crying over Gatsby's beautiful shirts? So many fun essay questions...

Oh, and the book holds up under multiple readings-- which is good for the teacher having to read it 50 times-- because there are always interesting details to puzzle out. The cuff links made out of molars, Myrtle's pathetic dog, the weird interlude with Nick and another man at a party, the shitty book that Tom's reading about white supremacy.

I can go on and on. And recently, if you've talked to me, I have been going on and on about it. There's a book out about Gatsby that I've been listening to on audio written by Maureen Corrigan. It's titled appropriately So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures.

Maureen Corrigan is a book reviewer on NPR's Fresh Air and for the record, she is my favorite book reviewer, mainly because I love her voice. It's not "full of money" (Gatsby fans will recognize the reference) but I would venture to say that it is "full of books."



Before I started listening to Maureen (can I call her Maureen?) talk about Gatsby, I wondered what she could possibly say to me that I didn't already know about the book.

Well.

I don't know who's left reading this blog post at this point, if there are any other people like me who are in the exact center of the Venn diagram of People Who Have Read Gatsby 50+ Times and People Who Love the Sound of Maureen Corrigan's Voice, but if You are one of those people, I beg you to please check out the audio of this book, so we can chat.

I will end this post with-- what else?-- the iconic last line of Gatsby:


So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. 


The End



Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Twenty six years ago today I was cleaning my kitchen

I don't remember if it was particularly dirty. All I remember is I had the uncontrollable urge to clean it. I am talking clean clean, the kind where you fill a bucket with sudsy, hard-core cleaning detergent and get down on your hands and knees and scour the corners. We had a big kitchen back then, bigger than any kitchen we've had since, come to think of it, so there was a lot to scour.

I was channeling my cleaning-obsessed Italian grandmother, scrubbing out the oven and emptying the cabinets so I could rid the dark edges of any dropped crumbs. And then I moved on to the bathrooms. It was a Saturday.

Every once in a while my husband would poke his head into whatever room I was presently scouring and say, hesitantly, So, um, are you finished yet?

At some point he dragged me outside to take a walk. We had a loop we used to do around our neighborhood. It started in our humble subdivision and reached up into a much fancier section that seemed like would be forever out of reach for us. Our habit after we both got home from work was to take this same walk. My husband was big into goal-setting and planning. He would say stuff like, What's our five year plan? What's the ten year? Twenty? Thirty?

I used to laugh at him. As much of an imagination as I had, I couldn't project out that far. We were twenty-six and twenty-five years old and had been married for three years and had just bought a house, things I couldn't have foreseen five years before. Five years before, I was, to put it plainly, a mess. The fall of my senior year in college I was in a dark place.

The truth is, I was suicidal. I mean, I was seriously thinking about how I would do it. The only thing that was saving me was that I was too tired. I remember going to bed one night and feeling like it was the end. I wanted only to stop the pain I was feeling. I wasn't afraid of death anymore and I couldn't imagine anyone would miss me if I were gone. Some part of me knew that this was an all-hands-on-deck situation because I started to pray. I am not a praying person, but that night I did. The prayer was a simple one:

Help. Help me understand why I should want to stay in this world.

The next morning I was exhausted and wrung out. I walked to class, stopping on the way to get the mail, how I always did, even though most days there was no mail. That morning there was a letter from my favorite professor. He was on sabbatical for the year and had never written to me before.

It was a strange out -of-the-blue letter. Basically, he said he'd been thinking about me and wondering if I was doing okay. He said, I hope you realize you have a lot in you that's wonderful.

After I read the letter it was like a veil lifted, and suddenly, I wasn't in a dark place anymore. I was outside looking in on myself, thinking very logically about my future, a future that the night before I could not envision.

I still couldn't envision it--at least not the particulars--but I knew with a weird degree of clarity that I could keep going. I could grow up. I could meet someone, get married, have a job, buy a house, have children...

Instead of dread and sadness and anxiety and fear, I felt curious. I wanted to hang around for the things that were potentially going to happen.

A few weeks later I met the man who would become my husband. Flash forward five years, and we are walking around our neighborhood where we've bought our first house. I've just finished scouring the entire place. "Oh, I understand now," my husband told me, "All of this cleaning. It's like the What to Expect When You're Expecting book says. You're nesting."

It turned out he and the book were right. That night we rushed to the hospital. In the morning we welcomed our first child into the world.

Tomorrow, he will be twenty-six years old.





Monday, September 30, 2019

The door in the garden

came from a prison. The old Ohio Penitentiary in downtown Columbus, or so the neighbors tell us. I don't know why someone would put it in a garden. People do strange things. I can see the door right now through my kitchen window.


When I first saw it, when we were thinking about buying this house, I didn't look carefully. I thought it was an old gate. Another one of those shabby chic things cluttering up this house. Broken mirrors and peeling-painted windows hung on the walls like artwork. We got rid of all of that. The prison door, though, it's stuck pretty good in the garden. 

It's a conversation piece, a friend told me. But all I can think about is a man sitting on the inside of a cell holding onto the bars. A murderer. Or some sad pathetic innocent person. I looked up the Ohio Penitentiary on Wikipedia and it’s an awful story actually. The prison opened in 1834 and operated until 1984. There was a fire in the 1930’s where 322 inmates died, some burned in their cells. 

Over the years a confederate general did time there. And the mobster Bugs Moran. The writer O Henry spent three years in the prison for embezzlement, and is said to have written 14 of his stories in the place. A sociopathic doctor in the 1950s did research on prisoners, injecting them against their will with cancer cells. 

The former prison was an abandoned building for a while in the 1980's. The city demolished it finally, in the 1990's. Today the area's the site of a shopping district and a parking garage. 

And now a piece of it is in our garden. 

But not for long.

FOR SALE: One prison door. Best offer. All proceeds will go to the Athens Books for Prisoners.








Sunday, September 22, 2019

In my old neighborhood I took the same walk with my dog every day

Well, actually, I took the same walk with her three times a day. One 15-20 minute loop around our block, past the same houses, the same trees, the same cracks in the sidewalks.

Three times a day the dog stopped to smell the same sewer cover. She sat down at the same corner to take her treat. We went in the same direction: turn right coming out of the house. Once in a while, if I was in an adventurous mood, we'd go to the left. I don't know why I fell into this pattern. I told myself it was for the dog. She gets anxious when we break our routine. But who am I kidding. I'm the one who liked following the same path.

Set me in motion, and I can go, hardly paying attention to my own feet slapping down. No need to look at the houses, the trees, the cracks.

And I was all ready to settle into a similar pattern in our new neighborhood. My daughter helpfully worked out the route for me. She was the one who took the dog for walks those first few days after moving in. She figured out a nice fifteen minute loop and pointed out the landmarks so I could follow it myself. The blocks in this neighborhood aren't perfectly rectangular. They loop and wind and double back on themselves. There are side streets and alleyways, forks in the road that split off in multiple directions.

The first few weeks I followed the route dutifully, but I kept tripping over the unfamiliar cracks, and I couldn't stop paying attention to the houses and the trees. There is too much to look at. This is a fairly old neighborhood-- the majority of the houses were built in the 1920's. Some of them are Sears kit homes and I am fascinated by this fact. And equally fascinated by all of the additions and personal touches the owners have done over the years.

Front porches and side porches. A bridge built over a dry creek bed. Glorious gardens. Around here they have vegetables growing in the front yards. Grass-less lawns filled with perennial plants and multi-tiered rock gardens. Those adorable little free libraries.

I can't stick to a pattern. I have to take the dog down every street, through every alleyway. One day we stumble upon a pollinator garden smack in the center of a street. Another day we find giant silver bulbs as large as beach balls hanging from a tree. A sculpture of a meditating toad.

meditating toad

silver bulbs

little free library


In front of one house is a bed of ridiculously large flowers, brightly colored and top heavy. They don't make sense. The blooms are too big for the stalks. They should be falling over, snapping themselves in half instead of bobbing in the breeze. I can't get over it. One morning I spy the owner and tell her how much I love those flowers.

absurdly large flowers


They're Cleome, she says. I tell her we've just moved into the neighborhood and how much I love it. She asks me where I live and we chat for a bit more and then the dog and I continue on our walk.

The next day I find a baggie of seeds hanging on our front doorknob. (Or rather, our front door faucet. Yes. All of the doorknobs in this house are faucets, no idea why.) There's a card. Enjoy!

I will.