Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Skeletal expectations

If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance. ~ George Bernard Shaw

Warning: if you simply love holidays, don't read this. I don't want to ruin your joy with my pessimistic realism.

It’s that time of year again, the dreaded, ever-longer holiday season, when the media overflows with unrealistic images of always loving families happily sharing generations-old traditions, mounds of (largely unwanted and unnecessary) gifts, and food. Lots of food.

I know I risk being labeled a Scrooge when I say it’s been many years since I’ve approached the holidays with anything remotely resembling joyful anticipation. The reasons for that are myriad, and they are often exacerbated by the demand for meticulously choreographed visits to several far-flung locations for too many dinners, all on the same tenuously hallowed occasion.

This year I’m trying to focus more on the intangibles, to reclaim some level of contentment by concentrating on family. As long as that term involves Hubby and our two children with their respective partners, we’re fine. Add in those special friends who have been with us through good times and bad and our world is complete.

The problem is those celebrations of oft-disputed origin force me to realize my reality doesn’t begin to jive with societal hype. The definition of “nuclear family” doesn’t coincide with my world. When the holidays arrive, “family” takes on a wider meaning that goes largely unnoticed throughout the year, although that is not by our choice. We have parents in three different towns hundreds of miles apart, siblings clustered in three states, and cousins we haven’t seen since our shared grandparents’ funerals. Yet we’re expected to rejoice in cramming too many people into a perfectly adequate but modest home to hear about the latest nephew’s first tooth.

My sisters and I have never been close, as much due to the age difference (five and seven years) as to my role as in loco parentis in their lives from far too early. When I see friends making vacation plans with their sisters, looking to those siblings before friends and sometimes spouse, I wonder how it feels to have such a relationship. And my brothers, even the one I spent six years in the same household with, are little more than familiar strangers.

Hollywood and Hallmark aside, I’ve learned over the years family is not necessarily defined by blood. My stance earned me a scolding from a cousin when she felt the need to remind me blood is always there for you, no matter what. Maybe, maybe not. But I didn’t argue. She’s family.

And that’s part of the problem. I/we don’t argue, or when we do, it’s to score points and puff up our own self-importance rather than resolve problems or share thought-provoking ideas. Because “blood is always there,” some relatives disregard notions of respect and civility, saying and often doing things that would never pass muster in polite society. Political and religious jibes, no matter how outrageous or hurtful, are fair game. How unfair, and how sad.

Because on the flip side, the elephant in the living room which we all ignore are the real issues that divide us, misunderstandings large and small that prevent us from truly sharing those Norman Rockwell moments. If we keep sweeping things under the rug, maybe we can stomp them into the floorboards and not have to face them. However, experience shows those hidden bombs eventually explode, with emotional shrapnel taking its toll on everyone in the family.

When it comes down to it, I think that’s why I dread the holidays. The ticking bomb is much more likely to detonate during frenetic periods of forced togetherness which are possibly alcohol-fueled and certainly overloaded with stress. I’m constantly on edge, waiting for the next scornful glance or hurtful comment, always hurriedly dismissed as “Just kidding!” People who take no interest in my life from January through November no matter how much I try to maintain contact – and I have tried, on many levels, and been repeatedly rebuffed – are suddenly in my world, force-feeding me theirs. Because of the chasms between us, emotional as much if not more so than physical, we shouldn’t expect to connect in any meaningful way around an overloaded dinner table twice a year.

But we do expect it, at least some of us, and society reinforces such unrealistic expectations.

How do Hubby and I survive? Deep breaths, lots of shared laughter, and regular reminders that, for all the difficulties, family is always there, maybe not for us in ways we’d prefer, but they’re part of what makes us who we are.

And this year we can visit Norman Rockwell at the Dayton Art Institute when it’s all over.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

My first 'author' interview!

Thank you to the generous and talented Ed Davis for the lovely review of The Moment I Knew posted today on his blog. While you're there checking out an amazing and humbling interview with yours truly, check out some of his other wonderful posts!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

NaNoWriMo mental tricks

When I planned out my writing activities for the month of November, taking into account the demands of National Novel Writing Month (yes, I do those things), I made sure I had my weekly blogs ready to go for the first two Wednesdays before NaNo started. This week I scheduled a NaNo update; next week (the day before Thanksgiving) will be my annual holiday rant (feel free to skip that one if you’re one who actually likes those events), with the last post of the month as a celebration of my anticipated NaNo victory.

Eh, maybe not so much. But I’m trying.

NaNo has been a struggle this year, but for different reasons than in my past efforts (2005, 2006 – both of which I completed successfully, thank you very much). As new homeowners with tons of yard work demanding attention before the snow flies, I’ve managed to do absolutely no writing on the weekends, which means I’m way behind. At this point, I should be over 25K. At the close of business Tuesday the fifteenth (mid-point), I was at 22,332. Not bad, but not on track for the win.

Back to the scheduling thing. Because I'm using NaNo to finish a WIP instead of the traditional new-book-in-a-month goal, I've found a different way to motivate myself. In addition to the daily NaNo word count, because I like round numbers (they’re comforting somehow), I can use the NaNo overall total as a marker. That also works for the grand total on the WIP. All told, I now have three different mileposts to shoot for; whichever one is closest to the magical zero-ending total is my carrot on a stick.

Yes, I'm a bit strange. You’ve just realized that? My son says I think too much, and he’s probably right.

Anyway, my mid-point NaNo effort stands at 22,332 words, with a grand total of 50,717 for the WIP.

I’ll call that a win. For now.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Moment I Knew

This is a modified replay of an earlier announcement of my most recent publication. The editor is sponsoring a blog roll during the month of November and I simply must participate as thanks for all her hard work putting this book together.

The Moment I Knew: Reflections from Women on Life’s Defining Moments, is the second anthology in Sugati Publications Reflection from Women series and I’m honored to have my essay “Powerful Eyes of Love” selected by Editor Terri Spahr Nelson.

This whole process has been an incredible learning experience, from the writing through publication. The essay started as a challenge exercise with fellow writer Tami Absi, whose work is also in the anthology, and I expected it would be light-hearted look at one of Hubby’s goofy hobbies (doing doughnuts in the mall parking lot after the first snow). Instead, as the words hit the page, they dredged up emotions I thought were long healed and morphed into a paean to his love and patience over the years as I’ve struggled to overcome what he calls my “ghosts.” Maybe I’ve not moved on as much as I thought, but the new awareness I gained from writing this essay is helping the process. The eighteen months since I wrote the piece have been a time of amazing growth, and I’m thankful to Terri for finding value in my words and choosing the essay for this collection.

During the months between acceptance and publication, I found myself fretting over the intensely personal nature of my essay. What was I thinking, sharing such a story? How would family react? Hubby read it before submission, of course; I never share details about him without his approval. Same with our son and daughter. But that still left parents and siblings, some of whom I was certain would be offended. Was it worth the risk? At one point, I nearly contacted Terri to withdraw my essay. Thankfully, I did not, and my anxiety thus far has been groundless.

However, that sense of vulnerability, of exposure, is a chance writers take when delving into personal issues. Even fiction can be fraught with peril, with readers parsing every sentence looking for clues to the author’s life and meaning that may not exist. But still we write, and if we are brave – or foolish – enough, share what we have written. I’m sure many of the women who opened their lives and their hearts in this intimate anthology suffered the same pangs. Yet as our stories reflect, we persevere, in life and in writing.

Terri asked that this blog roll offer a review of an essay from the collection, but I’m hard pressed to pick one. Tami Absi’s touching story of singing to her father in hospice? Mimi LaFrancis’ debut publication honoring her husband’s loving smile, so reminiscent of my own story, and yet so different? Or Lisa Clark’s reminder that the decisions we make to not act are as telling as the actions we do take, and can haunt us just as relentlessly.

Sugati Publications says, “There are some moments in our lives that are so significant they become etched in our memories and they leave behind indelible imprints. These moments often change us in ways we never expected. We asked women around the world: Tell us about the moment you knew. The top thirty most intriguing, captivating and touching responses are featured in this women’s anthology.” In my case, not only the writing of this piece but the sharing and publication of it have left imprints as well.

Copies of this unique collection of thirty essays and poems from women in six countries are available online at, at independent bookstores, and through A significant portion of the profits from the sale of this book are donated to three charities that assist women: Women's Microfinance Initiative, the Nurse-Family Partnership Program, and Women Writing for (a) Change. If you purchase a copy online from Sugati, a greater percentage goes to these worthy organizations.

Again, my thanks to Terri and to Sugati Publications for the opportunity to share my story with the world.

Sugati Publications blog roll extras for the month of November:

Girlfriends special: Save 25% -- buy two books for only $22.00 (one for yourself and one for a friend) available only at Sugati Publications

Free shipping: discount code BlogSpecial (to use at checkout)

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Multi-cross-genre literary creative non-fiction fiction

A new connection on Google-+ (speaking of which, is there a new term I’m missing? they’re not Facebook Friends or Twitter Tweeps…Plussers, maybe?) is in the habit of asking pointed, sometimes thought-provoking questions of her writers circle under the hashtag #writing_ques:

What do you prefer to write - articles, poetry,
screen plays, flash fiction, short stories or novels?

My response: Novels, short stories, essays, articles, the occasional flash...

What are you working on now?
My response: Shopping novel #1, editing novel #2, writing novel #3, plus weekly blog posts, essays, and the occasional short story...oh, and tech writing, if I can find a contract

What is your ultimate goal for your writing?
I’m still mulling a response for that one, but her questions have given me pause on more than one occasion. Usually when someone asks what I write, I say mysteries; both of my finished (!) novels are mystery stories, not quite cozies, but not hardcore thrillers, either. And they’re as much psychological studies and relationship journeys as anything; does that make them “women’s fiction”? If I take inventory of my (thankfully) growing list of publications, I find true “mysteries” are far down on the list.

The mystery novels have yet to attract an agent and self-publishing is not for me at this point, so they don’t count in the final tally – yet. Of my short story credits only one, “Happy Birthday to You,” (I know, lame title – it was an early effort) is a mystery. Oddly enough, it served as the basis for novel #2 (and gained a new title in the process). The remaining five short stories fall somewhere between women’s fiction and literary (a whole other debate), although the latest, published in a terrific online journal, is just creepy enough for the Halloween season. But it’s not really a mystery, either – maybe psychological thriller?

Genre is so ambiguous and hard to pin down. I’ve seen a map that breaks out forty-two different possibilities, and I’m sure it continues to expand. In determining genre, writers are told to imagine where their work would fit on the shelf at the local bookstore. A talented author from my writers group takes that suggestion to heart. Every week before leaving our local Barnes & Noble after our meeting, he finds the place where his book would fit and makes a spot on the shelf for it. I should follow his lead on that practice, and several others as I can easily see him as the first of our group to publish a full volume.

It’s disturbing thought, this review of my oeuvre. My dream has always been to be a fiction writer, yet I’ve had far greater success in non-fiction, from Historic Warren County: An Illustrated History, through newspapers articles and book reviews, to a recent anthologized personal essay. Fascinating, really, how dreams and reality diverge.

Is this dichotomy normal? Maybe I’ll ask my new Google+ #writing_ques connection/friend/buddy to add that question to her list.