Thursday, April 30, 2015

Musings on a First Criticism

I received my first negative review of something I'd written when I was in tenth grade.

Up to that point, I'd gotten lots of lovely gushy praise. It helped that I wrote mostly for myself and rarely showed my pieces to anyone else. Teachers, when I was growing up, did not assign creative writing in class. Anything I wrote for them was extra credit. They didn't mark up those papers. They'd scrawl the word Nice across the top. Or, Good. 

So, I had many years to feel positive thoughts about my writing and that encouraged me to keep doing it.

That is, until 10th grade. My English teacher that year was a nun who was big time into grammar. We learned the hell out of the parts of speech. Lots of underlining of the subject once and the predicate twice.

I was the only kid in the class who enjoyed that. Sister taught us how to diagram sentences, and I was awesome. She would throw the most complicated sentence at me and I could break that sucker down.

My love for Sister wavered when she introduced prepositions. It was her belief that prepositions could not be taught. The only proper way to learn them was to memorize all of them in alphabetical order. She pointed out the list in the grammar book and told us that our assignment was to memorize the list. In a week, she'd have us recite it in front of the class. If we made one mistake, we would get a zero.

I raised my hand and explained that I understood what prepositions were and I felt that I could identify them without going through this memorization exercise.

Sister smiled and told me I was wrong.

When class was over, I went to the guidance office and asked to be taken out of the class. The guidance counselor was sympathetic. She putzed around in a file cabinet (no computers then) and informed me that I'd been mistakenly placed in a lower tracked English class. I should've been in honors. Unfortunately, there wasn't much that could be done to change the schedule.

Luckily, Sister taught both English classes. The solution was that I would keep going to my class, but meet with Sister once a week to do the honors level work. Weirdly, I was okay with that. Sister gave me a list of novels to read and a packet of work, and I kept diagramming sentences and underlining predicates. I also failed the preposition quiz. Proudly.

One of the assignments for the honors class was to write a story. I had never written a story for school before, but I was excited about it. By tenth grade I called myself a writer. I had been keeping a journal for years. I had written two full-length novels and a stack of shorter things, some finished, some not.

I wrote a story that I was sure would wow Sister. It was literary and complicated, heart-wrenching, with allegorical overtones.

The story was called "I Am the Lamb" and it was about a girl who grew up on a remote farm in Iowa (I laugh at this now because I had never been to Iowa and knew absolutely nothing about farms, but whatever.) The girl had a hideous birthmark on her face, a birthmark so gruesome that her parents kept her isolated on the Iowa farm. They said it was because she was special, but the girl suspected that the parents might be ashamed of her hideousness. One day a white sheep on the farm gave birth to a litter? group of baby sheep (I wasn't sure on the lingo) and one of the lambs was black and the mother refused to nurse the lamb because it was different. The girl was given the task of killing it.

In case you don't see the parallel, I helpfully pointed it out at the end of the story when the girl makes a moving speech to her parents about how SHE IS THE LAMB.

The day I met with Sister to discuss my story, I was eager to hear her thoughts. We met in a small office with no windows. I sat down and Sister stood, and I waited for her to gush about my brilliance and creativity.

Instead, she yelled at me.

My story, she said, was wrong. No parents would ever treat a child the way the parents in my story did.

I walked out of the room, embarrassed and ashamed.

The rest of the year was full-blown crappy. I kept reading books on the honors list, but my heart wasn't in it. Diagramming sentences had lost their luster. The kids in the grammar class asked for my homework and fought to sit next to me on test days so they could copy my answers. I let them.

I didn't write a story for a teacher again until college. I never looked at the Lamb story until a few weeks ago when I unearthed it during a recent purging of my house. I was almost afraid to read it. I felt sick just looking at the title. I assumed it was a terrible story.

I read it the way I might read any student's work. The Iowa farm. The horrible birthmark. The story itself, surprisingly, wasn't as terrible as I remembered. Nice set up and character development. Dialogue. Description. Very few grammatical or punctuation errors.  If the writer was my student, I might praise all of that. Maybe ask a few questions. Like, why'd you write about farms and lambs when they're, uh, not something you know that much about?

I can't imagine mentioning the over-the-top symbolism and drama. Fifteen-year-olds sometimes write stuff like that.

It's interesting how the voice of your first critic worms around the voice in your own head, twists and winds, until the voice becomes one voice, and that voice whispers in the back of your mind: You can't write about this. 

This is wrong. 

The book I am writing now is full of things that would make Sister cringe. It's dark and edgy and weird. Fantasy bleeding into reality and the other way around. Characters doing cruddy things to each other. Parents hurting their children.

I've been writing the book on and off for 13 years. For a variety of reasons, I could never get it "right." Some days I work on a passage and I hear what I'd always thought was my editor voice, whispering: No. This is wrong. You can't write this. 

Lately, I've been shaking my head, telling the voice to shut up. Guess what, Sister, This is my story and it's not wrong. 

Watch me. I'm writing it. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Throw Your Clay with Great Force and Don't Wait 20+ Years to Follow a Childhood Dream...

A couple of weeks ago my good friend and fellow YA author Natalie D. Richards invited me to come along with her to a ceramics studio.

Nat's latest work in progress features a character who makes pottery or maybe he welds stuff (she's not quite sure yet) but she heard about this place where you could play around with a pottery wheel, and she thought that since she'd never thrown clay before, it might be a good idea for her to check it out--for research purposes. (We're doing a welding class next week.)

Anyway, I was game for it. I'd never thrown clay either. "It's supposed to be kind of difficult," Nat told me on the way there. And I could imagine that would be true. All visual arts seem difficult to me. 

Painting. Sculpture. Photography. Any kind of craft. Whatever. I'm fascinated by artists and visual arts but if there is a gene for that kind of thing, I don't have it. 

I am trying to stop saying that about myself. 

Over the past few months I went through the Artist's Way course again (see here for a fun intro) and it's been a major help in getting me through a difficult revision. It's also turned my life and house pretty much upside down. I had been sharing some of my breakthroughs and epiphanies with Nat, and I guess I got her intrigued enough that now she is going through the course and having her own fun breakthroughs. 

One of the things you do when you are going through the AW, is list things -- things you want, old dreams and new dreams, stuff you always wanted to try but maybe were afraid to. The author of the AW, Julia Cameron, is big time into artsy craftsy things. Doesn't matter if you can hardly draw a stick figure, she will have you painting and decorating and making totems and God jars. Weird as it all seemed to me at times, I just kept going through all of the tasks and exercises, because as JC likes to say, your child artist needs to play. 

The ceramics studio is called Clay Space and the artists running the class couldn't be more cool about beginners trying things out. Each student gets her own wheel and five big bagel sized hunks of clay (but we could have more if we messed stuff up, which, they assured us, we would.) I was the doofus asking five million questions, and the instructor Todd answered every damn one of them. Plus some questions I didn't ask. 

For example, did you know that "throwing" clay comes from the German, which means turning? Yeah. Me neither.   

(Nat is not Patrick Swayze or Whoopi Goldberg)

Todd sat at one of the wheels and showed us step by step how to throw the clay. You do it with great force. And there's important information about how to center it. And lots of instructions about how to place your hands and anchor your elbows and have bad posture, and what to do with your thumbs, and I can't speak for anyone else in the class, but all of those instructions flipped right out of my head. 

Art, when it comes down to it, is not something you can take notes on. You have to do it. 

When it was time to do it, I had no idea what to do. I couldn't remember one damn thing about throwing or centering or where to put my thumbs. But I was channeling Julia Cameron and playing. Also, I was drinking wine. I forgot to mention, you can bring a bottle of wine with you to Clay Space.

Nat was sitting next to me at her wheel and I was getting a kick out of the whole thing, making jokes about Patrick Swayze and Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, and watching my clay collapse, or one time, fly the hell right off the wheel. 

Something strange: Nat kept making these bowl shaped things and I kept making longer vase shaped things. When I tried to make a bowl, it turned into a vase, and when she tried to make a vase, it turned into a bowl. I have no idea what that means about our respective personalities. 

(Bowls, by Nat)
(Vases, by Jody--with LOTS of help from Todd)

This all seemed to go on forever, and I hate to say I kind of got bored with it, but I guess I kind of got bored with it, so I took a lot of pictures with my phone and followed Todd around and probably bugged the hell out of him with questions. 

(a garden of broken pottery pieces)
Later, Nat and I sat at a table and she painted her bowls and I painted my vases. We walked outside and I went nuts over a garden of broken pottery pieces. Somehow I had not seen it walking in. I was all silly from wine and playing with muddy clay and I didn't notice at first that Nat was misty-eyed. 

"I loved that," she said. 

"I loved that too," I said. 

"No," she said, "I really loved that."

She was crying a little and I felt like a ding dong for not realizing it sooner. "What?" I said. "What's going on?"

She smiled and said that when she was a kid one of her cousins had gotten a pottery wheel as a present and she'd always wanted to try it but she never did. And here it was 20 something years later and she'd put it on her Artist's Way list, and now she did it. 

"Huh," I said. "Why'd you wait so long?"  

"I don't know," she said.  


Tune in soon for Part Two: Jody and Nat Weld Things 

Happy Nat is Happy 



Thursday, April 16, 2015

Everything but the Kitchen Sink-- Also known as Trying Every Trick in the Book... To Write a Book

It's weird to write a book.

I've done it more than ten times, and I still think it's weird. I know how it works, how to do it.

[NEWS FLASH: you sit on your butt and you pick up your writing implement of choice, and you write until the book is finished.]

I can give you all kinds of pointers about how to start, where to find ideas/use ideas/develop ideas, how to plug along through a first draft, (and a 2nd draft and a 10th draft), how to outline or not outline, how to reread what you have and reorganize it and revise it, how to plot and develop characters, how amp up conflict, how to edit and polish and blah bi di blah blah.

I can also give you strategies for working through Writer's Block.

[NEWS FLASH: you sit on your butt and you pick up your writing implement of choice and you write--even though you hate what you're writing and hate writing and probably hate yourself. Do that for 20, 30, maybe 56 days, and I promise, you'll break through Writer's Block.]

Yeah. So I KNOW ALL THAT. And yet, apparently, I must bow down humbly before the Muse and admit that I KNOW ABSOLUTELY NOTHING when it comes to writing a book, specifically, the book I am writing now, which is technically a revision, my fifth or sixth complete time through it.

It's a strange complicated dark expansive personal story that seems to get bigger and more complicated every time I pick my way through it.

I heard the brilliant writer and teacher Jane Resh Thomas speak at Hamline University when I visited the MFAC program in January and she said that when you write a book, you are not the same person you were when you started it. You're exploring parts of yourself--some parts, that maybe you would rather not explore. Because I have basically been writing this story for more that 12 years, let's just say that I am doing a lot of exploring of the dark and dusty recesses of myself.

And here's one thing I figured out:

All of my old strategies for writing a book-- the word counts and the daily goals and the typing on my lap top and the index cards-- none of that seems to be working with this one. So I decided-- what the hey?-- why not try something new?

Forget the damn laptop. I've been writing by hand. With a pencil. I'm filling up composition notebooks, something I haven't done since I was twelve.
(two of many notebooks. Plus a to-do list
with the first item:

I hand write in the mornings and type and revise in the afternoon. I take a lot of breaks. When I'm stuck, I clean something in my house or throw something out or clean something and then throw it out.

This book takes place partly in a forest and every time I get to a place where I have no idea what the characters are doing or thinking, I start describing trees. I have hundreds of pictures stored on my computer. Types of trees and leaves and fruit and bark. I have pieces of bark on my desk.

(there are satyrs in my book too. Satyrs are from Greek
mythology and they have tails and they
like to chase nymphs. Look at the one I painted
with watercolors. Note: the privates are modestly
covered by leaves) 
I'm doing yoga again. (wearing yoga pants has inspired me.) I'm gathering stones and creating altars and burning candles and staying off social media and walking the dog multiple times and binge watching Supernatural and painting with water colors.

I'm terrible with water colors and I don't care. I also don't care about publication anymore. Or sales numbers or sequels or self promotion or marketing. I do some of those things, sure, but this book comes first. It may never be read by anyone except for a few close friends. And get this: I don't care. 

In the mornings I change out of my pajamas and into my yoga pants and I park my butt on the bed in my office/guest room where I've been working, and I pick up my pencil and write.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

In Which I Take a Much Needed Vacation and Remember I have a Tattoo

Last week I took a vacation with my family. We drove sixteen hours in one day to get to Port Charlotte, Florida, where my aunt lives in a lovely condo.

I guess I should mention that I have a hard time taking breaks, especially when I am in the middle of a writing project. The story I am writing now is intense and dark and sad and jabbing me in places I don't want to go, but recently I had reached some kind of understanding of It and myself, and I was sort of afraid to be away from it for a week. Through much floundering and angsting and cleaning out closets (both literally and metaphorically) I had stumbled onto a routine that seemed to be working.

Every morning I'd get up, change into my work uniform, suck down the first of many cups of coffee, settle in at my work place, and push my way into my dark story world. If I didn't have the dog freaking out about the secretly psychotic serial killer mailman every day, I might never come out of that world.

[*My work uniform used to be a bathrobe over pajamas, but during the course of writing this book, I have discovered this new kind of pajamas called Yoga Pants. Yoga Pants are awesome because while they are as comfortable as pajamas, they are more socially acceptable -- so when you open the door at 5pm for the UPS guy, with your dog jumping around you having a mini heart attack, you don't feel like a total pajama-wearing sloth.]

It's possible that I am a workaholic.

The schedule for writing this book-- as I have been writing it since the middle of January -- has been: Write all day, with a few brief breaks to eat, walk the dog, pick up my daughter from school, wolf down dinner (that my husband has been graciously preparing), and then go back In until like 9:00 or 9:30 until my brain is fried and my eyes are burning.

I do this on weekends too.

But I decided I might need to take a break. If only to prove to myself and my long-suffering family that I could

1. not write for a week
2. wear something besides yoga pants

Okay. I cheated a little, writing in the mornings while everyone was sleeping, but otherwise, I am happy to say that I enjoyed the vacation.

I've been finishing up The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. One of the hardest exercises for me is what the author calls Artist Dates. What you're supposed to do is take an hour or two each week, just for yourself, to pamper your inner child artist. This sounds ridiculous and new age-y to me even as I write it. It's the one task that I am most eager to skip each week and it is the one thing that I probably need most of all.

It's hard to write a book--at least my crazy way of doing it. At the end of the day I am wrung out. Depleted. Empty.

I have to fill myself back up occasionally. With a trip to a museum. Or a movie. With a walk around the block. Or a walk on the beach.

One day last week I was kicked out in my beach chair, digging my toes in the sand and I was looking at the tattoo of a foot on my foot. I'd sort of forgotten that it was there. It's been covered up all winter under my socks and my yoga pants.

It made me smile to see it.

Getting a tattoo is one of the crazier things I've done in my life. Crazy because it was so unexpected and not like me. And yet I did it, and now I have this symbol of spontaneity and fun and weirdness tattooed on my ankle. Forever.
Huh. Turns out I still have a tattoo.

It makes me want to do other unexpected fun things.

Paint my toenails orange because orange is a color I would never paint my toenails.

Dig a hole in the sand even though I am old and don't have a little kid parked next to me.

A beach hole. 

Eat food without gulping it.

Have conversations without my mind drifting over character arcs.

Sit at a pool and flip through a magazine.

Spend an entire afternoon sipping pina coladas with my husband.

Take a break once in a while and remember that I am a person.