Tuesday, July 31, 2018

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

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

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

Set a goal to revise the chapter in a week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, David Levithan)

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

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

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

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

7. Write another paragraph

and another
and another
and another
and another
and another

until you finish Chapter One.

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

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

News Detoxing

I've always been a news junkie. Even as a kid I pored over the local paper-- the comics, Dear Abby, the editorials. As a teen, I wrote letters to the editor, once getting into a dueling editorial argument with my history teacher over the Equal Rights Amendment.

(I said we should pass the ERA because women should be treated equally under the law. She said that the ERA would lead to unisex bathrooms, murdered babies, and female firefighters who wouldn't be strong enough to lift her out of a burning building.)

In college I quit reading the newspaper. No time, I guess. And the paper in the commons room was usually missing. Anyway, what was going on outside in the world seemed removed from what was happening in my little campus bubble. But after I graduated, I was back to paying attention. By then 24-hour news and CNN had become a thing. I was glued to the TV during the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings and the OJ Simpson-white-bronco-driving-down-the-freeway show and the subsequent trial.

That craziness burned me out for a while, although I still read the newspapers. But I was yanked back into TV news on 9/11.

A friend called to tell me what was happening and I watched the Twin Towers fall in real time, fully aware and sickened by the realization that I had just witnessed the deaths of thousands of people. In the months that followed I was addicted to the TV. Hearing the survivors' stories. Watching the firefighters digging through what they called The Pile. Freaking out over the anthrax attacks.

Until two things happened that woke me up.

One, my three-year-old child and I were outside playing in the front yard and a plane flew overhead and she asked me if it was going to fly into our house.

Two, I watched an interview on CNN where a reporter interviewed a dream interpreter about Bin Laden. I have no idea why a dream interpreter would be seriously interviewed on TV and I think even the reporter had that realization because she actually started laughing.

And that was when I knew that I had crossed some kind of line with the News and it was no longer about receiving information that might be helpful to me as a citizen,

it was now something absurd, something tragic and sad, a source of anxiety and hopelessness, nevermind, a huge time suck, and by watching, I was participating, the equivalent of every moment slowing down to rubberneck at a car in flames on the side of the road.

So I quit watching and I never went back.

But it's hit me again, recently, that I have reached the same point, but now, in a different form. Social media. Online articles. Screaming matches in the comments. Political memes. Whatever. Some days I feel like I am watching the Twin Towers falling over and over again.

But worse, because I am losing my capacity to feel shock, horror, empathy, and grief at the sight.

Children taken from their parents at the border. The president paying off porn stars (that's stars. With an S) Americans seriously arguing that it's okay for police to shoot someone because the person didn't obey orders quickly enough. A foreign country attacking our election. And it's only Wednesday.

Of course I do want to know what is going on in the world so I can be an informed citizen. I belong to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood and Mothers Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and those organizations send periodic emails about upcoming legislation and action that I, personally, can take.

Such as calling my representatives. Protesting. Voting.

But for my own sanity, I think it's time to pull my head inside the car as I drive down the highway strewn with burning cars-- (by turning off news notifications. Blocking political sites from my laptop. Removing myself from Twitter... ) and pay attention to the road.

I suspect it's going to be a long, bumpy ride.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Why I'll Probably Never Join a Cult

because I'm skeptical about pretty much everything.

The other day, for example, I got an email with my name and an old password in the subject line (which, okay, did freak me out momentarily) and then I read the email that basically said that I'd been doing something embarrassing online and they'd caught me on my computer camera and if I didn't give them three thousand dollars, they'd show all of my contacts, and don't go to the police and hurry up send the money now, the clock is ticking--

and I thought, Wait, 

what embarrassing thing was I doing? Did walking around in my office in my underwear count? To make a long story short, I forwarded the email to my tech savvy son who told me it's a new phishing scam going around, probably using hacked passwords from a data breach (thank you, yahoo mail),

so no worries, but maybe use this opportunity to change passwords on all of my accounts. Also, it wouldn't hurt to cover up my laptop camera. 

So, I did that, thinking about the people who might be right now freaking out for real and sending money to this joker, which got me thinking how I have never been one of those people.

Even when I was a kid I was skeptical,

like the time I received a handwritten chain letter in the mail from a friend instructing me to write out ten letters exactly like that one and send them to ten other friends, or the chain, which had been circling around the world for twenty-five years, would be broken and bad things would happen to all of us,

and halfway through writing out the first letter, I wondered if I really wanted to curse ten more people with such an inane task. And surely I couldn't be the first person to break this dumb chain in twenty-five years.

Around the same time I read a story about the Jonestown Massacre in a magazine and I couldn't stop looking at the picture on the cover, all of the dead bodies laid out in rows in the jungle, all of those people who'd followed a cult leader down to South America and then, all of them-- over 900-- willingly drank the poisoned kool aid when he told them to. 

Which stuck with me over the years because I couldn't get over it. What would make a person suspend all critical thinking and nod along as some mad man ranted and told you to kill yourself? 

Even as I kid I couldn't fathom being so gullible. 

Maybe because I was living in a house where bad things were going down and we all had to act like those things weren't happening, but I kept thinking, wait, no. This IS happening, and I told a bunch of people (who didn't do anything about it) but whatever, I knew what reality was, and no way was I going to act like I didn't. 

That kind of thing tends to stick with you too.

Something interesting I learned recently about the Jonestown Massacre is that all 900+ people did not willingly drink the poison.

Three hundred or so of that group were children and were given the drinks by trusted adults. Another 300 were elderly people, sick people, people who tried to resist but were made to drink at gunpoint by soldiers at the camp. 

Meaning that when people talk about crazy cults and use Jonestown as an example, it's important to note that only one third of the people followed the madman until the end. 

Still horrifying and impossible to understand, but better than imagining the entire group shuffling up together with their cups. And making me feel somewhat more hopeful about the state of the world this morning.

I guess what I'm saying is that if some present-day madman does end up shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, in all probability two thirds of his followers might toss away their kool aid cups.

If you want to know more about what happened at Jonestown, this book is illuminating:


Monday, July 9, 2018

I didn't notice her foot was raised

The one time I visited the statue was on an eighth grade class field trip. We took a choppy boat ride to the island and climbed the windy stairs inside. I wasn't thinking about the statue, the history, the symbols, or give me your tired and poor, I was thinking of my own feet on the stairs because those stairs were scary, steep.

Each step, a grate you could see through with no back to it, so it felt like your foot could slide out the other side. Only room for one person, climbing single file, and once you were on your way up, there was no turning back.

I gripped the railing, kept my eyes on the person in front of me, tried not to look down, but every so often caught a dizzying glimpse of the space around me, the contours of the statue's body, the dress.

I just wanted to make it to the top. I was imagining the spacious crown, the view of the city (my first time visiting New York even though my hometown was less than a two-hour drive away) but when I finally made it, it turned out the space up there was cramped too, the windows in the crown too small to see much of anything. As we filed past, I peeked out, caught a flash of a green arm, the one holding the torch, the rivets holding it together,

and then we were filing our way down, this time scarier than going up because the person behind me kept knocking his knees into my back, threatening to tip me over the rail.

We saw other things on that trip. The stock exchange. The UN building. A stroll around the roof of one of the Twin Towers. I think you could see the Statue of Liberty from up there. But still, I never noticed the raised foot. There's a new book about it, a kids' book that we've been featuring at the bookstore where I work, but one I hadn't picked up until the other day.

A fun story about the statue and who came up with the idea and how it was built, some facts I knew, and some I didn't, like, for example, that for the first thirty years, the statue was brown (it's made of copper and it took that long to oxidize); that the statue was assembled in Paris and stood there for a year before it was taken apart and reassembled in America. 

So, the statue is, in a sense, an immigrant, someone in motion, if you remember her raised right foot. The author of the book makes us think about why that might be so.  

If you stop by the bookstore, I will push the book into your hands. I will also hand you a tissue.