Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A year in the life
For us Westerners who follow the Gregorian calendar, these are the final days of 2010. As such, our human need for closure leads to endless lists: celebrity deaths, top ten tech fads, top movies, worst gaffes, etc., etc. A year in review is supposed to somehow make sense of the preceding days, or not.

I’ve been working so hard to learn not to dwell on the past, where I’ve been mired emotionally for so many years, that even reviewing 2010 is a shift. That’s good I suppose, shows I’m making progress, but I still can’t resist at least a little year-end summary.
- We bought our first (and last?) house – yikes!
- I finished my master’s degree and for the first time in five years did not start classes in the fall. That was disorienting in itself and may prove to be a poor decision when the student loan payments hit next month.
- Geo built a geodesic cold frame greenhouse in the backyard and is immersed in plans for a new woodshop. At work he’s moved into management, something he never anticipated or sought, so 2011 will be interesting in many respects.
- Our daughter took up pottery, spindle weaving, rapier fighting and a new beau, not necessarily in that order. Her association with the Society for Creative Anachronism is expanding her world.
- Our son has taken the bold step and become the first family member in three generations to move out of state (except for my dad, and military service doesn’t count, because Ohio is always home). He’s in Chicago with his landscape-architecture-grad-student girlfriend waiting for admittance to law school in the fall, working for a bank and loving the big city.

And that’s enough looking back; looking forward is more productive, even though I need to keep reminding myself to live in the moment so I don’t miss out on life (perpetual goal number one). Since I can’t expect to meet a goal if I don’t know what it is, I have to have some idea what I want to accomplish in 2011.


- eat better
- meditate daily
- walk outside daily, weather permitting, or on the treadmill for 15 minutes
- read at least one book per week
- find a new, local community service outlet so I can give back


- weekly blogs on something more than life inside these four walls, although I love the life and the walls, that may attract more than six followers
- find an agent who believes my writing is worth marketing to take on novel #2
- rewrite and edit novel #1, which served as my thesis and is waiting to be polished for publication
- finish novel #3
- continue writing and submitting short pieces on a regular basis (not very specific, I know, but it’s all flexible)
- find that elusive non-fiction topic that will lead to a viable book proposal


- all those new homeowner things we’ve never experienced before – seal the deck, repair the driveway, replace the screens on the porch, clean out the pond, paint the entryway wall
- regular ‘us’ time when we turn off technology and just be together, talking, walking, biking
- maintain and improve connections with those who are important to us, no matter the physical distance
- open our home to friends and neighbors at least once a month for a meal and conversation

Is any of that worth blogging about? Probably not in the grand scheme of things. I’ve always wanted this to be more than a journal; I have a real hang-up on the whole concept of journaling since I stopped writing a daily diary when I was maybe fourteen.

So my resolution is that this will be the last lame blog post I will make. In 2011, I will find a compelling, recurring theme that stretches my writing brain and also communicates something meaningful to those readers who click in.

Suggestions? What makes you return to a blog regularly? What can I offer you?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Okay, all you pet lovers. How exactly should I deal with a snoring dog? Chi’s bed is too far away to prod her with an elbow, she sleeps through any scolding, and if I do happen to wake her up to silence the din, she just wants outside, no matter how dark and frigid. She is by far the loudest snorer in the room – no debates here about who else may or may not be in contention for that honor, please.

Barkley doesn’t snore; he ‘talks’ in his sleep. He whimpers, pants, woofs and grunts, all while his feet twitch and his nose sniffs out whatever he’s chasing across his field of dreams. Fortunately, his nocturnal excursions are short-lived.

But Chi can snore for hours, or at least it seems that way after being awakened for the umpteenth time. We can’t relegate them to another room. They whine and scratch at any door that separates us, day or night. I suppose earplugs are an option, but if I’ve adapted to hubby’s snores (sorry, said I wasn’t going to mention that, didn’t I?), I should be able to deal with the dogs.

I know, I know. If we had trained them properly when they were pups, it wouldn’t be a problem to bed them down in another room. But that’s history, and a philosophy of pet ownership that doesn’t fit our lifestyle. Chi and Barkley are part of the family; this is as much their home as it is ours. Sure, that causes problems at times, like when Chi sprawls across two-thirds of the couch, or when Barkley decides that bowl of cookies on the counter must be his dessert. Overall though, we co-exist wonderfully. They know when they can share our bed (afternoon naps only) and when they can’t. They know we will feed them and exercise them and always come home again when we leave them alone. And we can count on an ecstatic greeting after we’ve been gone, even for a few minutes. A warm puppy in my lap, their unconditional love, can overcome just about anything.

Except for the snoring.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Who was it that first said, ‘You can’t go home again’...Odysseus? Of course he arrived home after an epic twenty year absence to find his home occupied by interlopers wooing his wife. And while that thought never echoes more strongly than after a visit to the parents, it’s not that I feel I’ve been replaced by an interloper, rather by a shadow of who I once was.

My mother (northern Ohio), father (Florida Panhandle) and in-laws all live in different residences, several times removed, from where my husband and I grew up. He and I have moved three times since our children went off to college (yes, we gave them forwarding addresses). In our increasingly mobile society, home is not realistically a place for most of us, but an emotional link. “Wherever we’re together, that’s my home,” sings Billy Joel, and that sums it up for me and the hubby.

But the parental ‘home’ concept is different, somehow more fraught with peril and complexity. There’s an immediate temporal shift when we walk through the front door, into ‘their’ space, and we’re kids again, subject to all the guilt-inducing burdens of being a ‘good kid.’ Meet those parental expectations:
"You need a haircut.”
“Growing that scruffy beard again, huh?”
“Putting on weight are you?”
“How’s the job? Get a raise yet?”
“Still driving that beater car?”
“What do you mean you voted for xx?”
“Why aren’t you going to church with us?”
...or be relegated to the kids table on the back porch while the adults carry on important discussions about NASCAR and pro football, the latest American Idol, the always enlightening organ recitals, and who got married/divorced/had yet another child with that good-for-nothing SOB.

Maybe the kids’ table isn’t such a bad idea after all.

But back to ‘home again.’ At what point do we graduate to being treated like adults with valid thoughts, decisions, and lifestyles? I love my parents and in-laws. And I’m sure the parental inquisition is not an intentional disregard for our feelings. In all likelihood they are as confused as we are with our evolving relationship. Throw in a generational shift or two as the younger set moves into adulthood, and things get even more dicey. I’ve never been the mother of grown children before; I’m constantly adapting to the shifting paradigms of our nuclear family status. And now Mom and Dad have not only their own grown offspring to deal with, but the idea that the grandchildren they fawned over for so many years are moving into their own lives. Change is always difficult, and when we feel out of control, it’s that much more frightening. Clinging to the status quo offers a sense of security, a ‘we’ve always done it this way’ that means one less new decision to face in our uncertain world.

When it comes right down to it, I don’t want to go home again. Most of my childhood was not a time I care to revisit. What I’d really like is to find that those adults I’ve looked up to for so many years are now my friends and partners on this journey through life. My dad and I are getting there, probably easier than it will ever be with the others because he didn’t raise me. We don’t have a lot of the parent/child baggage to shed as we age together. But even with him, it’s tough at times to be taken seriously, to be treated as an adult.

And now it’s the holiday season, when going home again is all but mandatory. Instead of dreading and bemoaning the next few weeks (and the past few, actually) as I generally do, I think I’ll look on those trips ‘home’ as my gift to the parents. If it makes them happy, even for those frenetic, too-short visits, to treat me like a teenager again (any younger than that and we’ll have to negotiate!) who doesn’t know how to drive in the snow or who can’t be trusted to contribute anything more than paper plates for the Christmas dinner, then so be it. I’ll focus on the ‘home again’ of hubby and me and we’ll get through it together, as we always do.

Do our children feel this way when they visit us? I certainly hope not.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

This afternoon I’m huddled at my desk watching the shimmering cold back yard, the oddly-still frozen pond, the stubborn orange beech leaves contrasting so beautifully against the white backdrop of snow. Sipping my fourth (fifth?) cup of tea, trying to stay warm and wishing the frenetic stress-inducing holidays were over and it was spring.

But it’s not. It’s early (can’t even stretch that to ‘mid’) December, and winter hit with a vengeance as soon as the calendar page flipped from November. Bone-chilling cold, icy sidewalks, blowing and drifting predicted for the weekend. So many of our fellow mammals are spot on with the whole hibernation thing, what was evolution thinking taking us past that lovely notion?

I must make the best of it, brew another pot of tea, pull on another layer of fleece, crank up the heating pad on my aching muscles, and keep my numb fingers moving over the keyboard. A book review to write, an essay to polish and resubmit (after four rejections, but we won’t go there today), a novel to finish editing, and a blog to update. My own personal deadlines, sure, but goals are important no matter the source, right? And another deadline down is another day closer to the end of winter.

I just realized all three of my novels, each at a different stage of completion, take place in warm weather, April through September, prime baseball season, with the occasional thunderstorm to cool the air. Nary a parka, mukluk or snow shovel in sight. My characters bike and swim, they don’t ice skate. I have one brief flashback scene that takes place along the Lake Erie shoreline in January. It’s bleak, depressing, and I shiver every time I read it. Sure hope that means it’s good writing and I’m not simply projecting.

It’s been said that all fiction is at least marginally autobiographical, albeit often idealized. In my case, that’s certainly true when it comes to the weather. And while I heed Elmore Leonard’s advice and never open a book with the weather, it is always at least a minor character, reflecting the internal tempests of my protagonists and the battles they face. Like me, my heroine is gloomy on dark, cloudy days; on edge – or in bed with a migraine – when the barometer drops and storms threaten, and more likely to be cheerful and productive when the sun shines and temperatures hover in the mid-seventies.

But I’ve lived in Ohio all my life except for a brief four-year stint in Wyoming where the weather is even more volatile, if that’s possible. I survived the Blizzard of ’78, among others; you’d think I’d have this winter thing down cold – pun intended. Alas, every year it gets harder to face the impeding winter, and I refuse to attribute such reluctance to my advancing age. I’m simply more willing to own up to my feelings and stop pretending to relish the changing seasons. I’m all for the circle of life, for plants regenerating in the frozen earth to burst forth again in the warmth of spring. I just wish I could join them and sleep until the ice is gone.

Now where did I put those open-fingered gloves my wonderful daughter crocheted...

Monday, November 29, 2010

I don't believe in frettin' and grievin';
Why mess around with strife?
I never was cut out to step and strut out.
Give me the simple life.

I’ll dive right in by saying I am not a fan of the holiday season...at all. Get the ‘Bah, humbug!’ out of the way and hear me out. I don’t like any Hallmark holiday, and an ultra-condensed six-week (we can only wish it were that short!) phantasmagoric overload of tinsel and twinkle and tinny rehashed music is just too much to bear.

I don’t need a date on the calendar to remind me to be thankful for my family and friends, for the life we share. That internal gratitude is all that keeps me going in the face of the often petty and spiteful society we find ourselves immersed in. Yet every November, we cram upwards of twenty of us into one medium-sized home (no McMansions in our family), juggle paper (or worse, Styrofoam) plates full of high-calorie food we avoid the rest of the year, stuff ourselves to uncomfortable condition, and then far too often scurry off to the other side of the family for round two. The too-short visit and the crush of bodies are not conducive to any real connection, no chance to catch up on events since the last get-together. We barely get past the when did you cut your hair...how’s school...are you still working at XX and it’s time to hit the road, especially for those of us who dared move out of town away from the family fold.

Hallmark, Hollywood and television would like us to believe holidays are a picture-perfect wonderland of love and tradition. Expectations are set impossibly high, stress levels rise to match, and exhausting efforts to recreate that Currier & Ives scene take over. If you buy into the hype, the whole thing can be nothing but a disappointment on at least some level.

Which is why I prefer less fuss, less hype, and smaller, simpler gatherings on more frequent occasions. We’ve started our own tradition of birthday dinners out, just hubby and me with our kids and their significant others, or with our parents when we can work out the logistics. On a good year, that gives up eight or more chances to share a nice meal that doesn’t destroy healthy eating habits in one fell swoop and to stay up-to-date on more mundane, but ultimately more important, topics of life. We stay connected. And we are thankful.

Don’t even get me started on Christmas...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Communicating with food

Following is an essay I wrote for Anthony Bourdain’s Raw Food Challenge to explain ‘Food Well Done.’ It didn’t win – didn’t even make the top ten! – but I thought it came out well and I don’t want pass up the opportunity to share it further. Writing is all about communication, yes?

Food – a gift from the gods that sustains life. Food well done transcends mere sustenance and elevates life to that of the divine. Fresh, simple, prepared with care and attention to the innate qualities of each morsel, there is no more universal way to nurture the mind, body and spirit.

Breaking bread together appears in humanities’ earliest traditions. It is a sign of hospitality, of communion, of an end to hostilities. Whether presented as a state banquet, a wedding feast, or a family dinner, sharing a meal brings people together. It offers a time to pause from the frantic pace of everyday life, a time to share not only food but thoughts and ideas. It’s been suggested that early man started eating in groups to make sure no one took more than a fair share, and while that may be true, it’s a good bet the joys of simple camaraderie overtook greed as supplies became more secure. Food well done satiates the senses. It breaks down barriers, dissolves our selfishness, and reveals our largess.

From the early Roman sculpted grapes of Bacchus to Cezanne’s Still Life with Fruit Basket to the sensuous morsels in Chocolat, food is often the focal point of art. Whether in painting, literature, or music, food is commemorated because it is central to our existence. We begin our lives suckling and, if we are fortunate, our passing is celebrated with a joyful wake of good wine and comfort food for family and friends.

On a more immediate level, food well done can effectively communicate, nourish, seduce and placate. It is a sublime method of personal expression. Each nation, each culture, each individual has a unique way of selecting, preparing and sharing the food indigenous to their locale. Similarities abound and serve to highlight our global connectedness, yet the subtle differences and regional adaptations emphasize the individual needs and tastes of each community. Whether as Indian naan, Middle East pita, Mexican tortilla, or any of another thousand variations, man has found ways to combine simple grains and local spices into a staple recognized around the world. When everything on the plate is strangely exotic, go for the bread.

Food well done defies convention and dogma. It crosses boundaries in ways few other things are able. It is beyond description, and beyond compare. We know it when we see it, and when we taste it. It just is.

And here’s the winning entry, if you care to compare…comments always welcome!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Not by bread alone...

As I’ve mentioned before in these ramblings, I bake all our bread. Twice a month or so, I break out the bowls and measuring cups, loaf pans and cooling racks, and have at it. It’s a form of therapy, almost a meditation.

Recently I’ve noticed how much the process of baking bread is a reflection of my writing life. I’ve studied the cookbooks (how-to writing books galore) from Betty Crocker to Great Breads and more. I know the recipe by heart (words, grammar, punctuation), which ingredients need to be treated with extra care (character development, dialogue) and how everything fits together in order to obtain the desired result (sentence structure, plot arc). I know I can be successful (published); I’ve done it many times.

So why do I always face that moment of self-doubt as I dump the soggy batter (first draft) onto the mat to begin kneading the dough into shape (editing, rewriting, still more editing)? I haven’t ruined a batch of bread in longer than I can remember – knock on wood! – but I worry, every time. Did I get the liquid too hot and kill the yeast? Too cool and not activate it? (too much dialogue/narrative descriptions, not enough action, or vice versa?)

After I’ve kneaded the dough for five minutes or so, it always comes together just fine, as do the words in a manuscript. But now what about that chilly draft in the kitchen (less-than-receptive writers group)? Will the dough rise properly (satisfying dénouement)? And then there’s the baking – too long, and the loaf is dry and tasteless; too short, and it’s gooey and unpalatable. How much time do I invest in rewriting a story? Too much, and I can edit the life right out of the best plot; too little, and the rough edges may frustrate a reader.

Sometimes there are occasions which require a different kind of loaf, something a bit more elegant than my usual oatmeal wheat bread (fiction). My specialties are banana bread from my grandmother’s recipe and a pumpkin bread (long-form essays and the occasional book review ) I stumbled across a few years ago. Each calls for a special set of ingredients (academic vocabulary and style), a different technique (introspection or objectivity). They are a welcome change of pace, and when I’m really daring and try my green chili baguette, a challenge (a full-length novel).

Whichever form I choose on any given day (or week, or month), the bread bakes, and the story is finished (eventually). The bread feeds and nourishes my family, a tasty addition to our meals. I can only hope my stories do the same for my readers.

Monday, September 27, 2010

“They're talking about banning books again! Really subversive books, like The Wizard of Oz... the Diary of Anne Frank...” ~ Annie Kinsella in Field of Dreams

Banning books? Seriously? In my field of dreams, we as a nation, as a global community, have moved beyond such narrow-mindedness. But then, I still believe in an inherent altruism of humanity…at least most days.

This recognition - I can’t call it a celebration - of Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read (according to the American Library Association), is one of those things I dream of outgrowing, like the Tooth Fairy and a superstition of black cats.

I was telling my daughter last week about an incident from her high school days. My husband and I chaperoned the marching band spring trip to Baltimore/DC. Two charter buses of 80-some hormonally charged teenagers for four days. What were we thinking?! But I digress.

En route, to keep everyone entertained and to possibly preserve some of the chaperones’ collective sanity, the busses were equipped with DVD players and the kids watched movies. PG or PG-13 only, the band director was not a fool. But even that was not good enough for one overly-protective mom. When she discovered her precious (precocious?) teen had been exposed to the subversive Sixteen Candles, she went ballistic. The next Band Boosters meeting was taken up with a dreadfully serious discussion of how best to prevent such a travesty from reoccurring. She did not take it well when I told her she was not authorized to censor my children’s viewing habits.

Censorship at any level frightens me. When we surrender our responsibility for critical thinking and decision making to those in some perceived position of authority, whether it be a school board, a church or a government, we surrender ourselves. If you don’t like a movie, don’t go to the theater. If a book offends you, don’t read it, and tell your child why you find it offensive. Labeling anything off-limits, be it a book, or sex, or alcohol, without a reasonable explanation of why only serves to make it more alluring to a curious, growing child. Parents do a disservice to their offspring and to the world at large by denying the development of a fine-tuned discernment of crap.

These are some of the more egregious titles listed as this year’s challenged
  • Captain Underpants (offensive language, sexually explicit, anti-family)
  • Lord of the Rings (Satanic)
  • Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary (contains the term ‘oral sex’)
  • Fahrenheit 451 (about censorship)
  • Harry Potter series (occultism, Satanism, violence, anti-family - #1 on ALA’s most-challenged for 2000-2009)
  • Grapes of Wrath (obscenity, embarrassment to the region)
  • Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (wrong Bill Martin – long story which displays the censors’ ignorance even more tellingly)
  • James and the Giant Peach (magic, disobedience, violence)
  • American Heritage Dictionary (39 objectionable words, including ‘balls’)
  • Grimm’s Fairy Tales (violence; misuse of alcohol in Little Red Riding Hood)

…along with the usual selection of classics like Brave New World and To Kill a Mockingbird


To quote Annie Kinsella again: “Who's for burning books? Who wants to spit on the Constitution of the United States of America, anybody? Now who's for the bill of Rights? Who thinks that freedom is a pretty darn good thing? Who thinks that we have to stand up to the kind of censorship that they had under Stalin?”

I proudly join Natalie Monzyk’s list of bloggers standing up to the censors. Won’t you join us?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Wisdom of my elders

After an hour (okay, maybe forty-five minutes) of polishing an essay (see previous post) and thirty minutes trying to reread a book for which my review thereof is very nearly past deadline, I felt the overwhelming urge to ‘rest my eyes’ – yikes! I’ve become my grandfather.

Every evening after dinner, while perusing the daily Toledo Blade, Grandpa would be found tipped back in his recliner, paper over his face, snoring gently into the newsprint. Any disruption that suggested he was sleeping was soundly denied. “I’m just resting my eyes,” he always insisted.

Now I understand. When the eyes demand rest, they close. Period. No amount of will power or dodged determination can overcome the need for a break from constant input. Caffeine, splashes of cold water, or a walk around the room only stave off the inevitable. The eyes are the brain’s gatekeeper; when input overload hits, sleep will out.

That ten-minute ‘rest’ has refreshed me, and my eyes. I’m back at it…until I hit that saturation point again.

If only it didn’t happen quite so often these days. Just how old was Grandpa when we teased him?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Much-appreciated critique

Kind words from Clarissa Draper at Listen to the Voices today as she reviewed the first chapter of my second WIP, Forty & Out. And boy, did I need that today! Now I have motivation to keep working on the rewrite of the ending for this book. Thank you, Clarissa!
The paradox that is writing commercial fiction

An agent I met at this summer’s Antioch Writers Workshop, who was gracious enough to request a full copy of my work in progress, Ties that Bind (now posted on Scribd, if anyone is interested) has responded. Not, as she so perceptively noted, with what I wanted to hear necessarily, but with much of what I needed to hear. I’ve spent the past two days since her email mentally defending my work, railing (again, still!) against the inconsistencies in the ‘rules’ of writing. Rather than re-engaging that battle too strenuously, I’ll quote an earlier post from 043010:

“The most difficult part of all this learning-the-craft process is that as soon as I think I’ve got a handle on the rules, occasionally breaking them judiciously only to get slapped down for it, I pick up a book or literary journal that does exactly what I’ve been told not to do. Learning which of those ‘lessons’ to heed and which to ignore is mind-boggling. And all too often it depends on who the reader is at any given point.”

and move on…mostly.

The one specific I will detail is this: one of the last pieces of Ties that I wrote is a three-page prologue. I’m not generally a fan of prologues, but the story needed some history for the main plot to make sense without lots of flashbacks, which I don’t care for either. I’m still not convinced it’s the best way to handle the issue, but that’s where the manuscript stands at this stage.

Here’s the paradox: I have one critique from another well-respected professional who loved the prologue and the opening scenes, specifically: “The prologue is fantastic.” The AWW agent mentioned earlier had this to say: “And worse, the story actually starts on page 12, chapter 2. That's the first place we really see any sense of tension and conflict. You lose 2600 words if you chop the prologue and chapter 1. Building word count isn't just adding words; it's adding the right ones. Like bulking up means adding muscle, not just gaining weight.”


This is even worse than anything in the oft-quoted Writers On Writing: Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle, by Elmore Leonard. I thought I had finally reconciled myself to ‘rules are made to be broken,’ since every one of those ‘always/never’ instructions is disregarded daily by best-selling authors everywhere. I know the rules; I truly thought I knew how and when to break them. Now this.

I am not entirely dissatisfied with the most recent critique. She offered several concrete suggestions on distance, being engaged, etc., that reinforced things I know I need to address. And I’m fighting the urge to frame her closing words and post them over my computer: “You're a good writer. You just need to write more!”

As I said in my response to her kind email, I need to trust my own instincts more and stop trying to please everyone, which is not an easy thing for someone who grew up as the family peacekeeper. But I will persevere.

Fellow writers, am I delusional, or just being my obstinate self?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Our new life

The waiting is over. The change has evolved to reality. The house is ours (and the banks, of course) and we are ‘Springers.’ Yellow Springs, that is, not Jerry’s dysfunctional crew. Although we’ve officially been in residence for just over a month, there are still mornings when I wake up wondering where I am, only to be awestruck at the beautiful surroundings that are now our home.

We’re still working out the kinks, trying to decipher the mysteries of the multiple filters needed for the water softener, reverse osmosis system, furnace, and learning to set aside a shared fear of really tall ladders in order to wash the seventeen-foot high clerestory windows which run the length of the house. Drywall, massive amounts of gardening, screen repair…the list is never-ending, but it is satisfying.

The dogs have adjusted well. Barkley patrols the backyard, getting lost in the vegetation so that often all we can see is his stubby tail, wagging furiously at the wonderful smells. Chi is more content to lie on the deck and watch the hummingbirds and butterflies, with an occasional roll in the sun-drenched grass. Sadly, we lost our cat Reese just two weeks after the move. At nearly twenty years of age, and with increasing physical issues finally slowing her down it was time. She died curled on the loveseat with me, dogs at my feet. The many memories of her years with us, from birth to death, and her ashes scattered in the backyard keep Reese with us forever.

Biking the almost seven miles to his office every day has Geo well on his way to fit and trim. I am constantly thrilled at being able to walk the short couple of blocks downtown to the grocery, drug store, a real hardware, the post office – and so much more. Yellow Springs is good for us. We’re entertaining old friends, and making new ones. I hope to be able to give back to our new community soon as well, as I search for just the right fit among the many volunteer opportunities available.

And now that I have completed my life in academia (for now) with a master’s degree from the final class at Antioch University McGregor (reborn as Antioch Midwest), I am writing for writing’s sake instead of to meet the requirements of a syllabus. Not as much as I would like, not yet, but it’s gradually becoming a larger part of my daily life as I’d always hoped. An agent from July’s Antioch Writers Workshop is reviewing my first novel; I’ll probably only get a critique, but that’s a terrific start. While I’m waiting (not so patiently, I confess) for her comments, I’m revising and editing novel number two. I’ve also had two more book reviews (Remembering Our Childhood and Student’s Guide to the History and Philosophy of Yoga) and a short story accepted for publication, and have several more pieces out for consideration. I’m working with not one but two writers groups, after years of solitary labor, and the support and encouragement offered is immensely gratifying.

So that’s my life these days, in a brief summary that can’t do justice to the joy and gratitude contained in every hour. Now it’s back to revisions, and submissions, and searching for new projects.

Maybe I’ll take a walk in the garden first…

Friday, June 18, 2010

“I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies”…or houses. And I’ve given birth twice. But we’ve never tried buying a house until now, and it’s almost as stress-inducing as preparing for childbirth and surviving labor. People actually do this for a living? Buying and reselling –‘flipping’ houses, or just moving every few years? Yikes! Not for me.

First, there’s agonizing over the decision to try getting pregnant. Okay, not everyone goes through that step, but bear with me. We discussed for months the possibility of buying a home, with my usual pessimism insisting it could never be done, Geo standing firm in his belief to the contrary. So we tried – looking at houses, that is. At our age, the baby train has left the station, thank heavens. And there it was, much sooner than either of us ever expected. The perfect home, in the town we dreamed of. How could we walk away?

A nine month gestation period has nothing on the hurry-up-and-wait involved in obtaining a mortgage. Endless inspections and financial disclosures, almost as intrusive as ob/gyn visits. Will the bank approve? What’s a mortgage underwriter? It’s a VA loan; what will the government say? Radon and termites…and more waiting for negotiations with the seller and mitigation of the issues.

And the cost! We were fortunate enough to have medical insurance for the hospital bills all those years ago. Now it turns out we pay for mortgage insurance. The numbers on the loan papers are frightening enough. Then we add interest, and taxes, and the insurance company wants how much annually? Add in the movers, and the carpet cleaners, appliance installation, painting…there goes the Caribbean cruise we hoped for, at least for the foreseeable future.

But just as the memories of an exhausting and painful labor and delivery faded into nothingness at the sight of our newborn’s face, so too the sleepless nights agonizing over this enormous financial burden will dim when we sign the library-sized stack of papers and take possession of our new home. It’s another lifetime commitment, not quite as emotionally charged – or satisfying – as the children, but close. Plumbing and electrical and exterior maintenance will replace braces and sports fees and college. Worthy investments, all.

One thing we’ve learned from being parents, and from the travails of normal living, is to be able to let go. As much as we want this house, as powerful as the pull is to have a place of our own, we remind ourselves daily of the suffering inherent in attachments to impermanent things. The house, the children, each other – all are temporal, all will pass away. We strive to appreciate (I can’t quite say enjoy!) this current stage in our journey, recognizing that what will be, will be. We don’t need a special physical structure. “Wherever we’re together, that’s my home.”

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Change – the only constant

Change is the focal point of my life these days, in ways I had no inkling of even a month ago.

On Saturday, we viewed the inside of a house in Yellow Springs that we have been drooling over the outside of for the past four months. We had barely stepped in the door when we knew we were home. Before my doubts and fears and m innate pessimism could take over, we submitted a bid.

On Sunday, the contracts were all signed. We’re actually buying a home, something I never believed would be possible.

On Tuesday, I submitted my thesis to finish my graduate degree, to end my formal academic life (for now).


My dream of making a living as a writer has taken a left turn as I realize that very few people have that luxury. I’ve had three rejection letters/emails in the past two weeks – two short stories, and one essay I really thought had a shot at publication. My thesis novel, while it more than adequately fulfills the academic requirements, is definitely not ready for prime time, and more often than not these days I wonder if it ever will be.

An editor I met at a recent workshop posted this depressing statistic on Facebook yesterday: "7% of books published generate 87% of book sales. And 93% of all published books sell less than 1,000 copies each." So I have to have a ‘real’ job to support my writing habit. Teaching is always a possibility I’m told, with my almost-conferred master’s degree. But I’m not a teacher. Could I teach college freshman how to write a coherent paper, to understand and maybe appreciate literature? Probably. But good teachers have a calling that is not mine. My calling is to write. But I still need to help pay the bills on that beautiful residence.

Today (Thursday), I had a ‘pre-screening’ phone interview for a decent job that would allow me to bike to work from our new home.


Moving to Yellow Springs will make it difficult to maintain relationships and community involvement we’ve developed in Waynesville. That possibility already has some friends and colleagues on edge.

Leaving the home office where I’ve struggled for the past five years as a self-employed writer, web designer, graphic artist and computer admin support tech and taking a job in the outside world will be a huge undertaking. I’ll need to update my wardrobe (such as it is), find day care for the dogs, learn to make it through the day without the occasional afternoon nap…and deal with people. My husband has often fretted that I’ve become something of a hermit; he may be right.

Taking on the responsibility of owning a home, for all the wonderful benefits, is a frightening prospect that is already keeping me awake at night. How will I react when the first mortgage payment is due?


I hope I’m up to it all. One day at a time…

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Antioch naming debate

Much ado is filling my social network these days from Antioch University McGregor alums who are less than pleased with the proposed school name change to Antioch Mid-West. At the risk of alienating those people, all of whom I admire greatly and respect implicitly, I believe the first skirmishes in the battle they seek to wage were lost many years ago, when Antioch College formed what was then the graduate level McGregor School focused on business and management. The name change and mindset shift were set in motion at that time.

As I often do when beginning research on an unfamiliar topic, I turned to the oft-derided Wikipedia as a starting point and found this on Douglas McGregor, for whom the school was named: “management professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and president of Antioch College from 1948 to 1954. He also taught at the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta. His 1960 book The Human Side of Enterprise had a profound influence on education practices. In the book he identified an approach of creating an environment within which employees are motivated via authoritative, direction and control or integration and self-control... In the 1970s, the McGregor school, a graduate level business school, was founded by Antioch College in his honor.”

Doesn’t sound much like the Horace Mann ideals espoused by Antioch which led many of us to the school in the first place, does it? I did not come to Yellow Springs, to Antioch, to follow the teachings of Douglas McGregor. As is obvious by my need to Google the name, even after four years as a student at AUM I knew very little about him. I’ve learned more since then, thanks to the wisdom of an AUM professor, and I have come to appreciate Douglas McGregor’s neglected philosophy with its “emphasis on community and the processes for eliciting effective participation.”

Initially, however, I was drawn by the reputation of Antioch, and of Mann. Again turning to Wikipedia: “Antioch College continues to operate in accordance with the egalitarian and humanitarian values of Horace Mann. A monument including his statue stands in lands belonging to the college in Yellow Springs, Ohio with his quote and college motto "Be Ashamed to Die Until You Have Won Some Victory for Humanity.” That is my beacon and my anchor.

As long as the university remains “Antioch,” I am not too concerned with the tag lines that come after - at least at this point! I am an Antiochian. Some at the college may not agree, preferring to cling to that title as exclusively for their students, but that tradition is what brought me here, and that is the bond we share. In early 2008, in response to a debate circulating on campus over claims to that moniker, I wrote, in part: “In my humble opinion, an Antiochian is a seeker of truth, one who is not afraid to question authority at any level, and one who admits the limits of their own knowledge and learning. An Antiochian is at this university to learn and to grow and to be exposed to new thoughts and ideas, not to be further indoctrinated in those beliefs society has deemed acceptable.” My opinion in that regard has not changed, and it is not dependent on the “McGregor” or “Mid-West” surname.

During my tenure in the undergraduate completion program, many of us in the World Classics Curriculum groused over the move to the new AUM building. We lost many of the traditions held dear by Classicans for nearly twenty years – meeting under the majestic trees on main campus to debate the philosophical topics of the day, a rousing graduation march through the winding paths tooting on kazoos and singing rowdy songs – but as one of the many wise instructors in that amazing program noted, the move from main campus was the time for us to begin new traditions, to decide what was important to pass on to the next group fortunate enough, and brave enough, to be called Classicans. That creation of tradition, of carrying on the tenets we share into modernized forms that can overcome the materialistic world that threatens to overrun such seemingly quaint notions, is more important to me than any name the powers-that-be decide to add after our beloved “Antioch.”

I am far more concerned with the decline of the Classics program, with the loss of that unique and powerful curriculum which was literally life-changing for me. Its dedicated professors struggle to reshape it into something that still has a place in evolving university structure. I would rather expend my energies helping them make that transition than fight over a name. “A rose by any other…”

To my dear alums and colleagues, my fellow Classicans, I salute your passionate response to yet another assault on the Antioch tradition. I respect, and in large part share, your disappointment. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a parent, it’s to pick your battles. This one cannot be mine.

Friday, April 30, 2010

The voices in my head disagree...

So I’ve received my first rejection letter (email!) on my novel. Again with the point-of-view issues! Just when I think I’ve got it figured out and corrected, POV knocks me out. My grad program mentor offered her usual pointed advice, in the psychoanalyst question form: “Who is the narrator of your novel?...Writer and narrator are not the same thing…who is telling your story and why?”

Granted, she does offer more than just questions, but I’m still stuck. I thought I was writing third-person omniscient, but I’ve been told I waffle between that and what she calls “fly-on-the-wall” narration. I understand the concepts (I think); now if I could just figure out how they differ in the actual text.

The most difficult part of all this learning-the-craft process is that as soon as I think I’ve got a handle on the rules, occasionally breaking them judiciously only to get slapped down for it, I pick up a book or literary journal that does exactly what I’ve been told not to do. Learning which of those ‘lessons’ to heed and which to ignore is mind-boggling. And all too often it depends on who the reader is at any given point.

I’m waiting for a final read of my current thesis novel draft by my academic advisor. Which broken or misunderstood rule(s) will she hone in on? If it’s the same ones picked out by other readers, I guess I need to pay attention. But what of those oddities noted by one reader but not another? I have a number of those issues as well. I thought I had learned to be discerning in my acceptance of critique, but once again my confidence is faltering. I don’t trust my talent enough. I don’t give enough weight to the skill I’ve gained in thirty-plus years of writing. I don’t believe in myself, especially when someone whom I consider to be an authority disagrees with me. Even though sometimes, deep down, I think I might be right.

Who is the narrator of my novel? I thought I was, as the omniscient overseer of my fantasy world. If not, then the voices in my head have some ‘splaining to do…and I hope they do it soon.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Finale, and a new beginning?

It’s all over but the shouting. My thesis novel is on its way to my advisor for final review. After twenty months of intense concentration, my journey as a formal student of academia is nearing an end. I continue to nourish dreams of further study in philosophy, and possibly more in literature, but the aggregate of my outstanding student loans stops me cold. It’s time to leave my studies and face the real world, to find a job or sell a book so I can claim actual income which, as we all know, is the only measure of validity in our materialistic society.

I mentioned the ivory tower dream in an email to a recruiter a few days; she hasn’t responded. I hope she understood my point. In writing, I am free to be whatever or whoever I am at any particular moment in time. It is my escape, and my salvation. But life demands more than personal fulfillment. We have rent to pay (or a mortgage?!), food to buy, the IRS to appease. So it’s time to face reality, and the dim prospect of finding employment in a depressed job market.

While my dream has long been to make a living with my writing, I am slowly learning that even stellar prose (which I hope mine will be considered, someday!) is not enough to attract an agent or publisher. Writers are now expected to be marketing experts as well. A friend and I attended the Mad Anthony Writers Conference in Hamilton, Ohio, last weekend (kudos to the conference team!), and while most of the sessions were entertaining and informative, several of them were downright depressing. A query to an agent or publisher is now expected to include a ‘platform’ and a marketing plan for how the proposed work will be sold, and to whom. Not that many years ago, it was enough to mention the expected niche market and identify potential readers en masse. Now it seems writers must provide websites, blogs, email distribution lists – the larger the better – and detailed plans for how and where their book will be sold. And I am sorry folks, but that is not my forté; I am a writer. That’s why I turn to agents, editors and publishers – the experts in those fields, or so I assumed.

But we all know where ‘assume’ gets us.

I understand the budget constraints of the industry; I really do. We’re all trying to do more with less. I have no problem whatsoever being a part of the team that sells my work. But I am at a loss when I come up against the current expectations I heard repeatedly at the conference (not to pick on Mad Anthony – I hear the same thing elsewhere these days). Consider this awkward analogy: would you hire a carpenter to build a house, bringing with her the necessary skills and tools to do the job expertly, and then also demand that she design the plans, obtain the necessary permits, provide the materials, and hold the open house? Of course not; those things are the job of a general contractor, i.e., a publisher or agent, in tandem with the craftsman.

If I were interested in self-publishing and all the marketing efforts required by such a move, that is the direction I would take. I am not. I know my skills and I know my limitations. I am not a salesman. I have no formal training in marketing and distribution. And it makes sense to me that, if a writer spends so much time developing that platform and maintaining a website and finding a market and promoting the final product, duties that one would think and agent and publisher would be doing, that said writer would have much less time to actually write the product that earns the income shared by all those participants in the long run.

I’m probably getting myself blacklisted all over the industry with this rant, but there must be a middle ground. Are there truly no agents or publishers out there who would rather see their writers at work on the next great novel instead of fumbling their way through marketing and distribution channels the agents and publishers already know – or should know? I mean seriously, isn’t that the area of expertise for them?

Let’s each concentrate on what we do best, whether it’s writing, marketing, publishing or selling. Yes, we should overlap and help each other out; that’s called teamwork. We can all accomplish more that way. But to ignore a well-written novel (or poem, or short story…) because it doesn’t come with a prepackaged marketing plan? Who does that benefit?

I don’t expect anyone to write my novel for me; in return, please don’t ask me to take on the job of the other experts on my team. Yes, I would love to remain in my ivory tower, toiling over the keyboard by candlelight (you know what I mean!). But when my book is finished, ready for exposure to the world, I will be out there with the rest of the team, following their expert advice on where to be and what to do to gain the most exposure for the product on which we all hope to earn a decent return. I am directionally challenged at best; please don’t send me out into the unfamiliar world of marketing and distribution without an experienced guide!

Friday, April 02, 2010

A week of procrastination ended with this from the Southampton Writers Conference
Back to work!

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Think on these things...

My mind can’t seem to let go of the issues raised by my last post. Why do authors feel the need to write, and readers the urge to read, stories of graphic violence, inhumanity, torture and humiliation? What is there in the dark recesses of the human mind that gravitates to such topics to the point that such stories make it to print, apparently to avidly-waiting audiences?

For many years I have pointedly avoided most ‘based-on-a-true story,’ made for television movies because of their single-minded focus on personal violation or pain of one sort or another. To me, that is not entertainment by any stretch of the imagination. I read, I go to movies, I watch television (albeit rarely for the last two) to escape, to be entertained or informed, to forget the horrors of real life that are paraded on 24/7 news channels. I don’t need authors or movie makers to tell me that mankind continues to inflict unspeakable horrors on other human beings, or on animals for that matter. I know that; I share the pain of that reality every day. Why does our society seem so intent on wallowing in such grotesqueness?

I love to read mystery novels, but pointing out there is a dead body in the next room is a far cry from the graphic close-ups of CSI and its many off-spring, each pushing to outdo the other with ever more violent and bloody means of dispatch. As I mentioned last week, I was half-way through Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, geek that I am rather enjoying his incorporation of computer sleuthing in the intricate mystery he was weaving, when I was confronted with multiple graphic rape scenes, horrific serial killings, and torture. I set the book aside in disgust for several days before forcing myself to try again to find a kernel of redemption in the story that would justify the accolades his writing has received. I found the same issue with Reggie Nadelson’s Artie Cohen mysteries – they are awash in graphic death, including dismemberment of children. Much of what comes out of Hollywood is no better. My husband and I tried to watch the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire and were horrified by the vicious torture scenes. We stopped trying to understand when they turned to the mutilation of children. This is quality film making?

What I find most disturbing about these and myriad other popular novels and movies, next to the notion that the audience for such material is apparently large and growing, is that they all begin with a writer who imagines such atrocities, creating those worlds of terror on paper. Language is too beautiful, too powerful, too all-pervasive to be used for such base means. Each of the novels and movies I referenced could have been told without the gratuitous and nauseating scenes, and the impact of the story would not have been lessened.

Lest I be accused of condoning censorship, that is not my case at all. My concern, as a writer, is at the creative level. I love language, the sound of words, the rhythm of a well-crafted phrase, the subtle twist of meaning in a skillfully constructed paragraph. I work very hard at my craft, striving to created stories that are intelligent, meaningful and entertaining. Where is the answer to this disconnect I face in relating to those who produce work that dehumanizes individuals, debases life, and glorifies violence?

Buddha said, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” I would extend that to the words we write and share as well. Why would I want to share anything less than beautiful?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Read On...An Excerpt from The Case for Contests by Jacob M. Appel at Gotham Writers' Workshops and WritingClasses.com

Read On...An Excerpt from The Case for Contests by Jacob M. Appel at Gotham Writers' Workshops and WritingClasses.com

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I attended a new writers group Tuesday (thanks again for inviting me!) and it was an interesting evening. It’s always nice to reconnect with former writing friends, hear what they’ve been up to since we last met. But the new acquaintances were most intriguing. Warning: the names have been changed to protect the innocent! As noted in a previous blog, I struggle with relating a story that is not mine alone to tell.

Samuel started the session with a wonderfully descriptive excerpt from a larger piece. The other members had the advantage of knowing the story from earlier readings, but we all agreed his writing is well done. I was impressed with his ability to provide physical, background description so vividly that the scenes come to life in my mind. That’s something I have never mastered.

Although to some in the group, such effort is overdone. Interesting that is was a gender divide. The women loved the language; the men felt it was unnecessary and detracted from the flow of action. As I’ve considered his work in the days since, and discussed it with other writer friends, I think I lean toward a division of personal preference, not sex. Some of us love visuals; others prefer action. No right or wrong here!

The most difficult reading of the evening was the final one, given by Fred. Again, the others in the group had heard pieces of the story before, so they had more of a context for what I found to be disturbingly graphic. We ran out of time for the extended discussion the piece provoked – and warranted – and some of the talk spilled over to our walk to the parking lot after we broke up. Fred seemed focused on, “But did it hold your interest?” He asked me that several times as my answers evaded a direct response. I’ve thought about this encounter quite a bit since Tuesday and think I am finally ready to offer a more nuanced answer.

Yes, Fred, it held my interest – much like a train wreck would. I was horrified, but compelled to listen, praying for some sort of redemption. Was it really necessary to tell that story in such painful detail? If so, if it truly serves the piece as a whole, if your intent was to shock the reader into paying attention to what will be a larger message of overriding importance, then I’m okay with that. I would not read it, but there are lots of literary works I will not read. I nearly stopped halfway through Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for that very reason; I plowed through, looking for that redemption, and found it – barely. I will not read the sequel. Again, personal preference, and certainly no right or wrong.

But if you wrote such cruel descriptions of disembowelment and violation simply for the ‘eeww’ factor, I would be heartily disappointed. Your obvious appreciation for the craft of writing is not well-served by such base motivations. Granted, we only met once, for two short hours, but I hold out hope that the larger message is there, yet to be discovered. I will make every effort to stay with you long enough to find it.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Mechanical priorities

What a roller coaster week! It started out with two rejections, one explicit, one by default (no news, in the case of a writing contest, is definitely not good news) which left me feeling pretty low. I spent the next few days struggling to prioritize my work and to find the motivation to tackle the necessary rewrites.

Rejection number one was a short story written several years ago and I thought it was pretty good. I revised it while in the midst of the adrenaline-rush after finishing last summer’s Antioch Writers Workshop and sent it out, with three other pieces, to various markets. Every one has now been returned. I’m left with confusion over how and where to resubmit, or if I even should. Toss these old things a file and move on to something new or keep trying? A couple of them are iffy, granted, but I see much worse items published every day. For now, I’m setting them aside.


A personal essay I had been so pleased with when I first wrote it last fall (rejection number two) benefitted from some trimming, some additions, and a general tightening of focus. It’s better now, I hope, but I’ve forced myself to set it aside for a few days before a final reading and resubmission. My AWW writers group has been very complimentary of this piece, so I have high hopes for it. The difficult part at this point will be deciding where to send it. Entry in a contest with a monetary prize and publication in a little-known journal, or a try for acceptance in a more prestigious outlet with a greater chance of rejection?


Then there’s my thesis novel. Yuck. I’m at the point where I don’t even want to look at it anymore. I’ve been ignoring it for several weeks now, waiting for a couple of new readers to comment on the completed draft, but it’s time to stop procrastinating. I went back through the chapter outline and realized what a mess it is. Scene flow, chapter breaks…the longer I look at it, the more confused I become. After a bit of shuffling, consolidation and deletion, it was better, or so I thought. I sent it to my mentor for review and she came back with a list of pointed – and difficult – questions about my characters that I’m having trouble answering.

Today, after making the adjustments I noted on the outline, I took out all the chapter numbers. I want to see where story wants to break, not where I think it should. My characters have shown me the way before; I trust they will do so again, if I will let them. As for the mentor questions, I’m going to sleep on it.



So after I posted the above, I realized my overly-active pessimism had taken hold and wiped out the memory of two very exciting opportunities which came my way today. I hesitate to say more at this point (see pessimism note!) but once everything is settled, I'll be happy share. In the meantime, just trust me and share my joy. Thanks!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Between a rock and a scary place

A writer friend and I agreed to enter the Cup of Comfort for Couples contest, writing a brief story about our marriages and critiquing each other before submission. We figured it would be a good exercise if nothing else.

What I found when I tried it was surprising. I started with a gentle humor, celebrating my husband, and ended up reliving emotional baggage that he has tried desperately to help me jettison for the past thirty-five years. Where did all that come from?

I also ran head-on into another issue that I’ve been avoiding. How do I write about myself, my life, without harming those I love, or at least those with whom I’ve come into contact? My story is not just my own; it is often theirs as well. There are parts of my life I will never write about, never share, because the other people involved in those incidents deserve their privacy. It is not mine to invade or to air publicly.

Ralph Keyes addressed this issue at length in his wonderful The Courage to Write. I disagree with many of the writers he references, including William Faulkner, who said, “A writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one.” Faulkner’s pointed comments, and others like them, weigh heavily. Is my writing dull and lifeless because I allow what he calls my “censor-in-chief” to edit my words for fear of offending? Am I being less than true to myself, and to reality, by shielding those stories from the light of day? Keyes admits he sticks mostly to non-fiction because of the fear that “fiction might lead me into dark caves I’m hesitant to explore.” So I’m stuck? Which is worse…avoiding sensitive topics out of respect for others or bad writing that ignores truth?

Fellow writers, what say ye?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Hard as it is for me to believe, I have made it all the way through my novel – rewriting, editing, slashing and adding – in just under a month. I’m not yet convinced that is a good thing. I am fortunate to have a dedicated core of writer companions who are prepared to read those 163 pages and give me an honest evaluation before I even look at the draft again. I’m still considering an additional scene with Gordon and Evelyn, and maybe another ‘Ah-ha!’ moment for Toni on the true definition of family, but for now, I need to step back.

The universe also very kindly provided me with a desperately needed Hungarian translator. I have a smattering of Hungarian dialogue in my book, mostly for effect, but the final revelation for Toni also depends on the language, and I want it to be portrayed accurately. Turns out a gentleman who purchased my Historic Warren County, and who has become a sort of email pen pal (is that possible?), is fluent in the language, has the proper equipment to type the foreign digraphs, and has been kind enough to offer to review my efforts. Synchronicity in action!

So for the next week or so (if I can force myself not to give in and return to the draft), I will work on other projects. Most urgently, I have a lengthy program evaluation paper due tomorrow (1/30) for my grad school program. I’ve taken on a publicity campaign for a new community park in Lebanon, Ohio, working with a delightful 90-plus year old woman whose family originally owned the land. I have several things outstanding for the Museum that I really need to spend some time on, and as much as I hate to think about it, it’s tax time. All those things, plus an extended break to read a few things from my waiting stack of books, should keep me occupied. Of course, I can always be interrupted if someone needs a lunch date…

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why I Write

In the course of an in-depth discussion on revision techniques, how many readers to have during editing stages, etc., one of my writers’ group friends asked a general question of all of us: Why do you write?

I write to tell a story, to entertain (fiction in general). I write to present and then solve a puzzle, to cause that “Ah-ha!” moment (mysteries). I write to evoke a mood, to share an experience, to vent, to argue a point, to persuade (essays). I write to share things I have learned, to offer fresh insight to age-old problems, to reframe old arguments into new ways of finding common ground (academia). I write to clarify my thoughts, to find my way through the maze of life, to find answers, or at least to better understand the questions (blog, journal, ramblings like this one). I write to celebrate language, the rhythm of words, the nuance of meaning, the exactness of a well-chosen phrase. And, yes, I write in hope of someday finding a publisher who feels my words are worth wider distribution and – ta dah! – payment.

I write because I have no better way to express the churning thoughts which fill my mind. The blank page is my friend when I need to communicate. I don’t speak well; my mind too often goes blank when I’m in conversation, whether it be with one person or a dozen, and I can’t seem to follow my ideas to a logical conclusion. There is no ‘delete’ button when I talk, no find-and-replace for the mischosen word.

During my current graduate school program, where I am pursuing a master of arts degree in creative writing, my faculty advisor, my mentor, and at least one professor have asked me variations of that question: Why do you write? One of them asked, “If you were stranded on a desert island with a stack of blank paper and a pen, knowing full well no one would ever see the results, would you still write?” That brought me up short for sometime; my rote answer to the other unanswerable question in my life, “What will you do with your degree?” has been to make a living with my writing. But as I continue my studies, and my writing, I realize that while earning an income with my words would be wonderful, it is no longer the driving force behind my efforts.

I write because I must. It is the fulfillment of my nature, my potential. I am a writer.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Rough week - started really well, fizzled into nothingness.

I was feeling pretty good about my progress Monday and updated my Facebook status to read: “Well, 86 rewritten/edited pages, just under 25,000 words - not too bad for a week's work, assuming the words themselves aren't too bad! Onward...”

After dreaming about Toni and company all night, I went back to the manuscript Tuesday morning and ran a Find & Replace search on some problem words that came to mind. I found 23 occurrences of ‘finally,’ 38 of ‘then,’ and lots of things getting ‘dark,’ ‘darkening,’ and ‘darker’ while people keep shaking their heads. Far too many exclamation points, too – thank you, email/texting/chat/Facebook.

Wonder what other pet phrases I’m missing?

I’m gathering tonight with some dear gal pals for reconnection and inspiration. Here’s hoping for a better start and finish next week.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

“As far as how much you are putting into this story, you already wrote the manuscript...to my limited knowledge that is the hard part.....editing is the last road of the journey.”

Thought-provoking words from one of my strongest cheerleaders, my father, in response to my musings yesterday about the relative ease thus far of the long-anticipated rewriting. How does one explain the writing process to someone who has never experienced its highs and lows, its joys and frustrations? I’m going to make the effort, as much for my benefit as his. The unexamined life and all…

Contrary to his contention, telling (writing) a story is the easy part, relatively speaking. We all have stories in us that we love to share. Putting them down on paper requires the commitment to see them through from start to finish. The manuscript currently under construction was written in a month-long marathon. Not recommended as a practice, at least in my estimation, but the exercise had a purpose. The daily word count required to meet the deadline required me to turn off the internal editor that often impedes that initial process. Instead of fretting over the exact word choice or the most finely-tuned phrase, I was able to push through and construct a story arc, adding characters and settings, and ending up with a complete story with a start and an end. My apologies to the post-modernists who don’t believe such constructions are necessary. I don’t care for their creations any more than they would care for mine.

So, after the bare bones of the story are down on paper, the much more difficult process of rewriting and editing begins…if an author wants the story to be worth reading. That is the stage at which I find myself with this current novel. The characters are there; the plot begins, develops, climaxes, and ends (sort of). But it is rough, very rough, and inconsistent and jagged and deadly dull in parts. I need to smooth out those rough edges, tie up loose ends, bring dates and timelines and descriptions into a semblance of order and, with any luck, along the way add enough interest and tension and description and maybe a bit of humor to keep a reader sufficiently involved to stick with me until the end.

Is rewriting the easy part, as Dad suggests? Not really. But neither is the initial story line, if I am completely honest with myself and with my readers. It is dreadfully easy to get lost in a maze of minutiae that is incoherent and bland, with no plot to speak of and nothing to compel a reader to turn the page. Unfortunately, books like that get published – I’ve read them! My goal is to create something that Dad, and maybe someone with no sentimental attachment, will actually enjoy reading and, as any good author hopes, make them want to open the book and start reading again after savoring the last page.

Friday, January 08, 2010

And we’re off!

Seventeen pages of rewrites Wednesday, which sounds like an awful lot, until I realize those pages were all workshopped and edited and fussed over repeatedly in the past several months. They shouldn’t need much more.

But I have found a new story line that needs to be inserted, a couple of new scenes to write, and deleted two characters entirely, so I guess that’s progress.

Thursday: Only two pages so far, but it’s an entirely new storyline (sort of) in an added scene. Plus LOTS of distractions made for a short work day…I know, no excuse!

Friday: Twelve pages today, thirty-one pages for the week (ok, three days…) and nine chapters total. Two new scenes, a growing complication that also – I hope – explains Toni’s motivations. Not bad for the first week out, I suppose.

For some reason I feel strangely uneasy with my progress. Isn’t this supposed to be more difficult? Am I fooling myself, and coasting? Where’s the labored, “This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back in again,” variously attributed to Oscar Wilde and others? Not that it’s been a breeze. I still agonize over my word choices, second-guess my sentence structure and obsess over all the little critique comments I’ve received (…she sighed regretfully). But this rewriting/editing thing is actually moving along pretty well. Knock window, cross my fingers, jump over the crack in my desk – we’ll see what next week brings!

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk of many things. Of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings…”

After what has really been a lifetime of preparation, with a more intensely-focused period these past fifteen months, my time has come. Nothing quite as grandiose as Lewis Carroll’s “cabbages and kings,” but my time to create. I am ready to set aside all the books, all the studying, reading, researching and dissecting the words of others and immerse myself in a story of my own making. It’s time to write my thesis.

So many have asked recently, “What is your thesis about?” “How can you write that many words?” and the ultimate enthusiasm-damper: “Why?” In an effort to answer those questions, and many others often of my own making, I’ve decided to record my progress in this blog format. It will also serve as a journal of my work that will make my final evaluation of the process easier to write.

Because my graduate school program is in creative writing rather than, say, education or computer technology, I will not be producing a traditional thesis based on an in-depth study of the work of others with an occasional original thought thrown in to satisfy academia. Rather, I am writing a novel, literary mystery if one must apply a label. The initial rough draft was completed in 2005 during the masochistic National Novel Writing Month exercise. It’s been languishing at just over 50,000 words ever since. I resurrected the manuscript for last summer’s Antioch Writer’s Workshop and found, surprisingly (to me at least), that much of it is pretty good. A lot of it is pretty bad, too, but that is what I will be working on for the next six months.

The radical rewriting and editing will require all of the skills I have studied in-depth during the earlier quarters of this program. I have practiced writing dialogue and narrative, scenes and character sketches. I have read massive amounts of 20th century literature to compliment the two years I spent reading the Classics. And I have gleaned the rules of good fiction writing. More importantly, I have learned how and when to break those rules, as so many have before me, and I am eager to begin this next stage of my journey.

Yesterday, after a rough start, I began searching through my manuscript for character details and today I finished creating the spreadsheet which will serve as my roadmap. Every person is listed; the timeline is detailed; the settings are in order. This afternoon I pulled out all the comments from fellow AWW workshop participants (which I have deliberately avoided reading until this stage) and made notes, remembering the admonishment to take what works and leave the rest.

Tomorrow I begin writing. I’ll record my progress in these pages for those who are interested and as an assist to my overloaded memory banks. I may share a scene or two as the mood strikes. But above all, finally, I will write.

My time has come.

Saturday, January 02, 2010