Thursday, March 31, 2016

April. Otherwise Known As the Month In Which Martha Presses Her Table Linens and I Scoop Monkey Balls out of My Yard

I didn't know until the April issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine came in the mail that Martha Stewart and I have a lot in common. 

Side note: I am not typically a Martha Stewart Living magazine reader, but a few months ago my husband got an email from our credit card company announcing that if we didn't use a bunch of accumulated points, we would lose them forever, and the only thing that we seemed to be able to use the points for was ordering magazines, and so now we are receiving Martha, Self, Dwell, and Us Weekly in the mail. Side note two: My husband threatened to order more magazines but I told him that four is plenty (see: my recent de-hoarding obsession), and he was forced to order Cigar Aficionado, Wine Enthusiast, and Guns & Garden for our friends, possibly now our enemies. 

But back to Martha. I was joking before when I said we have a lot in common.   

And nowhere is this more starkly clear to me than on page 2 of the April issue which has a feature called Martha's Month: Gentle reminders, helpful tips, and important dates.

Martha's Month

I read this page with interest, thinking that maybe I should put together a calendar page for myself too, and write out my own gentle reminders. I have that vague naggy feeling that April will be a busy one, a mish mash of the writing project that I'm slowly picking my way through, a handful of writing workshops to plan, organizational stuff for my new SCBWI Regional Advisor position, and all of that sandwiched around general housekeeping and yardwork that must be taken care of, ASAP, most importantly, my vegetable garden.

But before I can even begin work on my vegetable garden, my husband and I have to deal with the mud bath that is our backyard. 

(Our backyard, last year, after a rainstorm. This was the
day that my husband and I crafted a shark fin
out of cardboard and set it afloat upon the surface of
our new mudpond, which just goes to show how
artsy-craftsy we can be. Take that, Martha.)

Over the past few weekends, dealing with the mud bath that is our backyard has involved digging a fifteen-foot long ditch and lining it with stones so as to create our own dry creek bed for excess water collection. 

Next up on the To-do list: scooping up piles of dog poop left behind now that the snows and waters have receded. 

And collecting the monkey balls that dot our muddy lawn like landmines. 

Monkey balls, as I am sure you know, are the sharp edged fruits that drop from the monkey ball tree. (I just looked this up for my own edification and because I was wondering if they are really called "monkey balls." Weirdly, the answer is yes. Officially, the tree is the American Sweetgum and the fruit, in addition to being fondly referred to as monkey balls, is also known as "bommyknockers" "sticker balls" and "gum balls."

Whatever you want to call them, I highly recommend that you do not step on them with bare feet.) 

Anyway, what I am trying to say is that, according to our calendars, while I am "picking up monkey balls" and "navigating piles of dog poop," Martha will be "making fresh ricotta" and "going for horseback rides" and "baking homemade treats for the dogs" and "visiting Maine for the weekend."

It should be a fun month for both of us. 

three fewer bommyknockers to pick up


Friday, March 25, 2016

Because It's There. Also, a word about SCBWI

I can't remember the mountain climber guy's name. But a reporter asked him why he wanted to climb Mt Everest and the guy answered: "Because it's there."

Side note: I just googled it and it was George Mallory. Side note #2: the George Mallory story is fascinating. In 1924 he tried to climb to the top of Mt Everest and died on the way up, and for 75 years people wondered if maybe Mallory had made it to the top and died on the way down (which would've made him the first to reach the summit, as opposed to Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953). In 1999 a team found Mallory's body and hoped it would settle the question once and for all. But it didn't. You can read all about that controversy here. Side note #3: I know the guy who was on one of teams in 1999 who went up Everest to search for Mallory's body. Andy Politz. (you can read all about him, here)

But I don't want to write about climbing mountains. I want to write about Writing, specifically, my relationship to Writing and why I am in that particular relationship.

I met Writing as a kid, pretty much at the same time I met Reading and discovered that I could use Reading to escape my not-so-happy little life. Writing, kindly enough, gave me the same joy and pleasure as Reading, but with a side dish of power. When you write, I quickly figured out, you not only get to fall into a story, you get to create the story you're falling into.

It was a nice romance for many years. Writing and Me. When I was a kid, a teen, a young adult, I spent a lot of time with Writing. I got good at being with Writing. I was praised, more often than not, and that made me want to keep writing. But mostly, I enjoyed writing for Writing's sake.

Then I went to college and grad school and Writing and I hit our first rough patch. Reality. And reality meant criticism and analyzing and studying and revising and most of all, Writing meant Work. We had a pretty solid foundation though, the two of us, me-n-Writing, and the relationship felt like something I wanted to work on. So I did.

Until I was out of school and long out of the practice of writing for my own pleasure, and without the deadlines and assignments and structure of school, and minus the joy of it, Writing and I broke up for a few years.

We started dating again, on and off. But the emphasis in our relationship had shifted from Pleasure to Work and finally to the Product of the Work, otherwise known as Being Published. After a few years of that, I was published. And that was cool.

But by then Writing and I had a love/hate relationship. It's hit me lately, as I've written four books since publishing one, that maybe Publishing is not the summit of my particular mountain. Which has led me to question:

So, what IS? And why should I continue to climb?

Several years ago I went to the SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in LA. It was a month before my book Thin Space came out. Reviews were rolling in and they were good. I was walking around in a glow-y daze of joy. At last my dream had come true and my book, MY BOOK!! would be on library and bookstore shelves and I was ON MY WAY, the culmination-- no, the beginning of my life as an Author-- with more books coming out and critical acclaim and money and fame and woo hoo hoo, etc.

I was happy, is what I'm saying.

One of the speakers at the conference was Matt de la Pena. He gave an amazing speech about writing and his childhood and his late discovery of books and all of the ups and downs in his writing journey. The part of his speech that snapped me out of my glowy daze of joy for a moment was when he started talking about his mission as a writer.

We have to figure out why we're doing this, he said, and he told a story about a kid in a hoodie sitting every day at a bus stop and how the kid was kind of rough around the edges, maybe even borderline thug-looking, and the people in all of the cars going by didn't look at the kid. It was like the kid was invisible. Matt de le Pena drove by every day too and he saw the kid and it made him realize why he was Doing This:

To give kids like that kid a voice, to tell their stories, and to get people to see those kids.

That was Matt de la Pena's mission statement, and he said all of us in the audience should have one too.

I scribbled that down, half thinking about it, but mostly, not thinking about it, because I had a Book coming out!! and that was the important thing to me that day.

Four years later and four potentially never-to-be published books later, I think I get it.

Publishing is not the summit. Publishing was never the summit. Writing is the summit. And I am writing because that's my mountain and it's there and damn it, it's what I do.

It's what I've pretty much always done. I know I will continue to do it regardless of the end product because writing is how I want to spend my time. It's work and joy. It's puzzling things out and sitting on hot painful stoves. It's challenging and maddening and fascinating and boring and heartbreaking and laugh out loud funny.

It gives my life meaning.

Over the past few years it's spread out beyond me as I've been talking at conferences and in classrooms and teaching writing classes and talking to other writers and seeing that they too are struggling with the same kinds of things I've been struggling with.

So this is a long, meander-y, roundabout way of saying I've figured out my mission statement.


And to that end, I am writing my way through Book Number 5 and finding it, as usual, challenging and maddening and fascinating and boring and heartbreaking and laugh out loud funny.

Also, I recently took over as Regional Advisor of the Central/South region of SCBWI. I joined the organization in 2005 and the group was there for me as I learned more about the craft and business of writing children's books and now I want to give back.

If you're a writer in our region, look for news and events going on in our area here. We meet at the library in Upper Arlington at 7:00 on the fourth Wednesday of the month (for Columbus area folks) and at 7:00 on the second Tuesday of the month at the library in Sharonville (for Cincinnati area people).

Hope to see you there.


Friday, March 18, 2016

Portrait of the Artist as a Self-Doubter

The first rejection derailed her. Maybe it was a sign from the Universe. QUIT, she imagined the Universe shouting. ORDINARY PEOPLE LIKE YOU NEVER BECOME PUBLISHED WRITERS!

(Although, she did reread the rejection letter several times-- true, it was the typical form letter This story does not fit our present needs...--but the editor had scrawled a note across the bottom Nice work! Try us again!...)

She waited six years before she tried again.

Sometimes she missed writing, but most of the time, she was too busy to think about it. She worked full-time as a teacher. She had a two year-old running around at home. Writing was something she'd done as a teenager and in college, but she'd grown up since then. She'd put away childish dreams.

A fellow teacher passed along a brochure about a writers conference in town. Wanna Be a Published Author of Children's Books? Come to our conference! Meet a Real Live Editor!

For an extra fee the editor would critique the first three chapters of a novel.

She had never written a novel. It seemed like a ridiculous idea. When would she have time to write novel?

She paid the fee. She wrote the novel during her planning period. The conference was cool. She ate lunch with the editor who worked at Simon & Schuster and she told him that her toddler's favorite book was Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, which was published by Simon & Schuster. The editor told her that he'd just signed a new author and he was so excited about her and her book. It's called Running out of Time, he said. It's by a woman named Margaret Peterson Haddix.

I will have to check that book out, she said.

Later, she read the critique of her three chapters. The voice is strong and the dialogue is realistic and there is some real emotion in the chapters... but (and she knew now there was always a BUT) it is unclear who the main character is. It's hard to tell what the conflict is. Maybe you can try to-- 

Maybe she couldn't.

She read Margaret Peterson Haddix's book when it came out. It was so good. She read other books in the same genre. They were good too. Why did she think she could Do This?

She waited another four years.

Now she had two kids. Sometimes when her son was at pre-school and her baby daughter was napping, she'd work on a story. One of the stories was published in a magazine but she couldn't manage to sell another. To have something to do during nap-times, she signed up for a writing correspondence course. She wrote a book for the teacher, who enjoyed it.

She sent it out to publishing houses and it was rejected.

The Universe was shouting at her again and this time it was saying: THIS IS A SILLY HOBBY!

She sold another story. One day she got two pieces of mail: a check for twelve hundred dollars for the story, and a brochure for a writing retreat that cost twelve hundred dollars.

(the universe?)

She wasn't sure. Should she leave her kids for a week? She'd miss her daughter's birthday, which happened to fall during that time. Also, both of the kids took part in a zillion activities and she was the Carpool Mom. Maybe Writing was a thing she once did and maybe now it was time to let it go?

She went on the retreat. The first night everyone in the small group introduced themselves and talked about what they were working on. When it was her turn, she said her name. She said what she was writing. She realized it had been years since she had admitted this out loud to strangers.  

She felt shivery, shaky. If she was writing, did that mean she was a writer?

Seven years later she sold her first book.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Confessions of an Arrogant Amateur

She was resistant to criticism. Disdainful to those who dared to critique her. Hostile, even.

(Although, she tried to hide it, gritting her teeth, smiling, nodding.)

She was amazed and outraged at every rejection. Why couldn't these people see the brilliance of her work? The humor? The heartbreak? The perfectly constructed, gem-like sentences?

(In her defense she was armed with degrees and experience. She had majored in English, taught writing, had written and published several short stories. Less talented writers than she had snagged publishing deals. She'd read their silly books. If they could catch the attention of an editor, why couldn't she?)

Still, she had to admit that she might be overlooking something important. Perhaps there was some secret to publishing that she had yet to discover. Perhaps, there was an essential element missing from her work...

She said she wanted someone to tell her what to DO with her manuscript. Just tell me what to do, she would lament, and I'll do it! 

(She was lying.)

What she wanted was for someone to tell her that her story was perfect exactly the way it was. When someone pointed out a problem, mentioned an area of confusion, offered--gasp!-- a suggestion, she'd think: Well, obviously they have no idea what I am trying to do here. They haven't read it carefully. This is a complicated, difficult book. They don't understand it! Blah blah blah etc.

But years of writing and submitting and being rejected had started to wear her down. One day, close to giving up, she saw a brochure for a week-long writing conference. She toyed with the idea of signing up, but wavered. Her hesitance was centered around the price tag, two thousand dollars! and for what? Workshops on Setting? Characterization? Plot? She knew all of this already! She spoke to one of the conference organizers on the phone.

I'm not sure if this is worth it, she said. I'm not a beginner. I'm on the verge. 

But even as she was speaking, confidently (arrogantly), a small scared voice in her head whispered:

If you know all of this, why aren't you published? 

She signed up for the conference. This is IT, she decided. A final effort at pursuing a dream. One last outlay of cash, of time. If she didn't get her big break, well, she'd given it her best shot.

She sent the first ten pages of her latest manuscript to be critiqued. The assigned mentor would read it and be blown away by the story. What is there to discuss? the mentor would likely say. This is perfect exactly the way it is. 

They met the first day of the conference. Not surprisingly, the mentor complimented our arrogant amateur on her writing. But then she asked several questions:

Why does your story start with this particular scene?
What does your main character want?
Where are the hints of conflict?
What is the driving question?
Have you tried--
Do you think--
Could you--

Our arrogant amateur could answer none of these questions. She stumbled back to her room and burst into tears.

Reality was a wave crashing over her carefully constructed wall of delusions, and she had to admit, finally, that she had no idea what she was doing.

But she wanted to learn.

Portrait of a No-Longer-Arrogant Amateur
with her mentor