Wednesday, July 27, 2011

“Follow wherever your writing energy leads you.”*

Writing energy is in short supply for me these days, at least for any extended period. After the wonderfully overwhelming week at Antioch Writers Workshop, I came home eager to write, but thoroughly exhausted and lacking in any kind of energy. It took a few days’ recovery, and time spent absorbing the lessons learned from the morning sessions, before I could write anything.

And lo and behold, I turned to non-fiction.

For months, I’ve been working on an essay reflecting on my undergraduate studies in the World Classics curriculum at Antioch McGregor (now Antioch Midwest). Unfortunately, the program made such an impact on my life that the essay grew to nearly 9,000 words, far too long for nearly any publication I could hope to have accept it. It was also disjointed, unwieldy, and in serious need of editing. I just couldn’t make it happen.

After AWW, and some wise words from fellow writer and blogger Lisa Kilian, I finally did what I’d been resisting – I tore the damn thing apart, all but started over (still couldn’t bring myself to toss quite all of it), and ended up with just over 2,500 words of a much better essay. It needs a bit more fine-tuning, and my beta-reader for this project, while agreeing I needed to put back the personal commentary I cut out during my slash-and-burn session, asked two very pointed questions: who is my audience? What one specific point do I want to convey? With his encouragement, and push in the right direction, I’m more optimistic about actually finishing this piece than I have been since I started.

So where does that leave my fiction? I’m heartened by the fact that writers such as Orwell, Hemingway, and many others also wrote essays (not that I’m putting myself in their class by any means), but there are only so many hours in the day, and I have only so much writing energy.

Besides the essay, I have a novel in progress, one I’m shopping, one that needs heavy rewrites and two fragments, plus I have a book review due in a week. I have short stories out on submission, and a few that need edits before I can send them out as well. But I also have an insistent idea for a non-fiction book that I’d love to continue researching.

And like it or not, life, and family, require time and energy. I realize now, every day, why my writing languished while we were raising children. I simply can’t do it all.

Fellow writers, especially those with small children, how do you manage to keep your writing energy replenished, and directed to the proper outlet?

I keep picturing juggling torches or spinning plates…

*Matthew Goodman, author of The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York, etc.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

My first guest post is up at Lost in the Writing, a blog by fellow writer Lori Lopez. Stop by to read about my experience filming a video lesson for high school students and stay to check out Lori's work. Good stuff!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Seems to be quite a few dog stories in the blogosphere this week…we have so much to learn from our canine companions!

Even though we’ve shared our home with several dogs at various times over the years, we’ve only recently taken up dog training. For most of our canine companions, once they were housebroken and learned the trash can was not a buffet, we pretty much lived together in genial chaos. But two weeks ago, with the addition of dog number three, our son’s five-year-old beagle Indiana on long-term foster care, we realized we had to get serious or go insane.

Barkley, our five-year-old English Springer, has begun acting out since Indy arrived, responding more aggressively to unexpected guests and perceived threats. (my apologies again to the kind gentleman who interrupted his evening walk to tell us about car lights left on!) I can only assume he’s trying to establish dominance over the newcomer. Either that, or standing guard so no more dogs invade his domain – look what happened last time he let down his guard! We’re holding regular practice sessions, knocking loudly on the front door at unexpected times and teaching them the proper way to respond. It’s a slow process, but it seems to be sinking in. Us, 1; dogs, 0.

The kitchen trash is another thing entirely. Barkley has taken a cue from Indy and now they share the fun of tipping the can and strewing its contents while we’re gone. I’m pretty sure eight-year-old Chi watches from across the room, unwilling to face the Wrath of Mom. We try bribing them with Kong balls and treats to keep them occupied when we leave, but so far the only solution seems to be removing the temptation entirely. Us, 1; dogs, 1.

Meals were a bit of a challenge. Chi and Barkley were content to watch while I filled dishes and carried them to their dining spot near the water bowl. Indy, not so much. It took some convincing to teach him patience, but I believe he’s following their lead on this one. No fighting over each other’s bowl, and no more attempts by Indy to claim Chi’s dish by marking it in the usual male-dog manner. At least he’s enough of a gentleman to wait until she’s finished eating to hike a leg in her direction. Us, 2; dogs, 1.

Bedtime is a round of musical chairs. Chi starts on the loveseat at the foot of our bed, then moves to the floor next to my side. Barkley starts on our bed until Hubby dislodges him (no puppies in our nighttime slumbers!), then takes either the loveseat or the actual doggie bed on the floor near my desk. Indy came with a bed our son insists he loved more than anything, only to find he’s completely uninterested in sleeping there. He moves from our bed, to the back cushion of the loveseat, and more often than not ends up in Hubby’s desk chair, where he’s elevated enough to keep watch on all of us. We’ll give that one to the mutts, although the bed remains ours. Us, 2; dogs, 2.

For the past year, our wide fenced yard has been sufficient to contain Barkley and Chi. Not for Indy. Since his arrival, on more occasions than I can count, he’s found openings just large enough for him to wriggle through and head out to explore the neighborhood. We fix and patch and replace fencing, but he’s very resourceful. Then Hubby had a brilliant idea: attach Indy to a long lead that allows him to reach the fence, maybe even get through, but not go any further. That way, as he finds an escape route, we can block it without chasing him up the block first. One by one, as he locates the gaps, we’re right behind him closing them up. Until we’re confident enough to let Indy run free in the backyard without running away, I’m calling this one a draw.

Stepping back, however, to look at the big picture, I’m not sure who is training whom. We’re engaged in a not-so-delicate pas de deux; they learn the behaviors we expect, we learn patience when we’re disappointed. They figure out what they can get away with, we decide how much we’re willing to tolerate, and bribe. We’re coming to understand most of their actions are simply what dogs do, whether it be chewing or barking or loudly wrestling with each other when we’re trying to work. Like when we were raising our children, we need to curb our expectations with reality, setting reasonable limits, and working to make those limits understood, all while taking into account individual personalities, theirs and ours.

Dog training. People training. It’s a toss-up, but as long as we don’t insist on a zero-sum game, we all win.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

…with my apologies to Charles Dickens!

After four intense days of being ‘on’ with the fantastic community that is the Antioch Writers Workshop, I’ve reached a saturation point. My introvert self craves solitude, and quiet, and a few minutes alone to write something of my own. But by the time I get home from my workfellow duties, even when it’s mid-afternoon and I miss out on the opportunity of faculty lunches and the incredible workshopping sessions, my mind is numb. I can’t recall the words that buzzed and popped during the morning instruction or during the hallway conversations and quick chats while commuting. I’ve drained my energy reserves.

It’s encouraging to see the talented Nancy Pickard shares my need for quiet when I find she escapes the throngs of adoring students for a few minutes alone. And Matthew Goodman, whose work I admire tremendously, offers the caveat to all the novice and not-so-novice writers in attendance: get used to being alone. That one, at least, is not a problem for me.

The trials of being an introvert seem to be a common thread at AWW. Many of us grudgingly wear that mantle, wishing it were otherwise, knowing it’s useless to fight it. While we can leave some of the gatherings energized and motivated, too much community time is exhausting. I love the sharing, the discussions, the common struggles and shared triumphs. I soak it all in and yearn for more, but my mind rebels by shutting down.

When I fight the inevitable crash, my frustration grows and I berate myself for my weakness. Futile response, of course, and certainly not healthy, but it’s an ingrained habit I’ve only recently learned to recognize. Now that I’m aware of it, I gather the few remaining shards of energy and gently dissolve the negative emotions, resting instead in the powerful camaraderie of the writing community that, in smaller doses, gives me the strength to continue putting words on paper every day, no matter what the outcome.

A tremendously supportive spirit surrounds me at AWW, from the generous personal sharing of the faculty, who give of themselves far beyond any contractual agreement, whether it be in training classes, one-on-one critiques, or pitch sessions, to the gamut of students from published authors to those who are only beginning to dare self-identify as a writer. This is my third year in attendance, and I’ve learned that Tuesday/Wednesday is my breaking point, when my brain is full, my emotions overwhelm and I must back off, regroup, and focus on the important things to be gained from this highly charged week.

Balance. Time together, with fellow writers who understand the journey we’ve chosen; and time alone, to ponder, and imagine, and refill that energy reservoir.

I truly have the best of both worlds, if I can only remember to approach them with the proper mindset, in the proper time.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

A weed is a plant that is growing in the wrong place. ~ unknown

Garden mavens, you may want to stop reading now.

When we moved into our new home last July with its beautifully landscaped garden, I promised to learn how to tend the lush vegetation and I’ve tried, really I have. In the fall, I hesitated to pull and discard much, not knowing what was planted where, and as green shoots appeared in the spring, the wonder in watching the yard explode into color in first this patch, then that one, was a delight.

Now it’s mid-summer, and the early flowers have died off. I need to learn which to cut back, which brown stems to pamper a little while longer, and which to pull up and compost. “Eww, that’s a weed – get rid of it!” my more experienced gardener friends point out.
I’ve never understood that. It’s green, it grows nicely. Some even produce delicate flowers. What makes it a weed, something to be eradicated with the vengeance of a Navy Seal?

As I was clearing the yard of downed twigs and branches in preparation for mowing, dutifully yanking up and discarding the nasty weeds, mourning a bit each time I tossed a lush green clump onto the pile, it hit me. Those “weeds” are the common folk. They’re prolific, don’t need planting or cultivating or nurturing. A little water now and then, which Mother Nature kindly sees to if we’re lucky, and they’re happy. No one needs to watch over them when we go on vacation or get too busy to attend to yard we might prefer to pay someone else to do.

And somewhere in the murky mists of time, a gardeners union realized they couldn’t make money off those pesky common folks. They were everywhere, in the village square and the castle garden and everywhere in between. Nurserymen couldn’t charge a fee to tend to such defiantly independent plants.

The entrepreneurial spirit being what it is, the commoners were renamed “weeds,” the undesirable. If they weren’t rare and fragile, how could they possibly be valuable? Isn’t that why diamonds are considered precious? And since everyone who was anyone would rather have diamonds than limestone, those savvy gardeners could now make money eradicating the pests.

A handful of the more popular weeds, those with the brightest, most attractive blooms, were labeled wildflowers and seeds for them now appear on the home supply store shelves where dollars can be earned. But they’re still commoners, tossed into a stray, inaccessible corner or that last strip of soil near the alley.
No more! I have a new cause. If the Lorax (hubby’s alter ego) can speak for the trees, I’ll be the defender of weeds. Unless it’s a noxious plant that causes skin rashes or sick dogs, it’s welcome in my garden. The only criteria for me is aesthetics (on my subjectivity…okay, and maybe hubby’s), not monetary value, scarcity or official imprimatur. I’ll trim a bit here and there, thin things out and keep the plot within vague boundaries so we don’t lose the dogs in the tangle. But no more wholesale destruction of volunteer greenery. In my yard, weeds have been rebranded.

The lazy gal’s garden? Maybe. But I bet I’ll enjoy our patch of green just as much, if not more, than those who wage an unending battle to defeat the hardy common folk.

There’s a life lesson in there somewhere…

Saturday, July 02, 2011

My latest book review for was posted this week: The Buddha and the Borderline - a heart-breaking personal story of surviving with borderline personality disorder.

Thanks, MetaPsych, for sending me fascinating books to read, and caring about my opinions on them!