Friday, May 27, 2016

Mommy's Building a Playground: Adventures in Fundraising

Today, I watched a construction company begin the demolition at our elementary school playground, to make way for the Cornerstone PlayLab, which is an ADA accessible outdoor play and learning environment for pre-K to 4th graders, including those with special needs, at our neighborhood public elementary school. I've written previously about our successful fundraising campaign here.
So many people have provided encouragement along the way, and I want to say thank you, to all those who donated time and money or just gave a pat on the back when it was sorely needed. I have always volunteered in small ways, but I have never been part of such a large-scale, multi-year project. I had never done any fundraising before this project. Without the encouragement of so many friends, acquaintances and strangers, I probably would have given up on it. 
Let's do this!
And I also wanted to thank the haters, to all those who said it wouldn’t happen, to the one who said it wouldn’t be built in her lifetime, to the one who said we couldn’t hope to raise the money, to the one who said he’d make damn sure we didn’t, to the one who thought it was a good idea, but not for this state/town/public school/kids like these, to the one who said the very idea of it was against the better interest of the entire community…thank you...because each time one of these negative encounters occurred, we were motivated to raise even more money, to build something even better. I'd guess, by my rough estimation, each of these fine individuals helped to indirectly raise a quarter of our total.
My husband recently asked me what I've learned through all of this. I started writing it down, and it became a long list. Here ‘tis:

Only say “yes” to projects you are completely passionate about.
Your community is full of amazing people you haven’t met. Expand your circle.
While expanding your circle, realize you may not agree on everything, but if you agree on the project, that’s what matters.
The amount of people out there who are good-hearted and generous vastly outnumbers the people who aren’t.
For every 100 people, 99 of them will love ice-cream and one will not. There is no explaining this. Stop trying to get that one person to love ice-cream!
You have no time for the constant complainers and whiners. You have important work to do. Buh-bye.
If there is a nugget of truth to the complaints and whines, you must examine it and think of a solution.
If you can imagine it, it might just be possible to do it. Dream big.
No one wants to support a C-level project. Design the most ambitious thing you can think of, your A-project, your dream project, and others will see your excitement.
Take the proper time to lay the groundwork for a campaign’s success. It’s much easier to get a donation from someone who is already familiar with, and loves, the project. PR is everything.
You might get to your target goal faster with a half dozen major donors, but it’s much more meaningful if you get there with a few bigger donors and lots and lots and lots of smaller ones.
It takes time to meet with people and explain your project, but the details can be just as important to the $10 donor as the $10,000 one. Ownership is everything. Let everyone feel a part of it.
Anyone who would attempt to de-rail a worthwhile project such as this has problems that probably have nothing to do with you or the project. Try not to take it personally.
If someone feels the need to de-rail, it means the project is gaining momentum. Keep going.
You can never thank the people who helped you too many times.
Don’t expect to be thanked yourself, but take a moment to enjoy it when it happens.
Remember who you’re doing this for.
Recognize and be grateful for what the project has done for you (community service brings greater personal happiness).
Listen and learn from all the people who have done this type of thing many times before you.
Don’t be afraid to speak up when you think the advice of those people might be wrong.
When in doubt, ask the lawyer. Always, get it in writing.
Build a strong enough team so that any one person can take a mental health day (or week), and the project won’t fall apart.
Some people take longer to see the light. If/when they do, try not to hold a grudge.
Someday, probably soon, you’re going to look back on this hard work and miss it.
You’ll not have a chance to do this particular project again. Make it spectacular.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Sparking Joy, in The Closet

There’s been a lot of organizing talk on the old Internet lately, both fawning and less-so, regarding the bestselling book, “Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo. I have not read it. I’ve never picked up a book on organizing because I feel like I was hardwired to do it, no instruction manual needed. 

Nothing makes me happier than an area that is both beautiful, and functional, a place for everything and everything in its place. And yes, I realize this type of behavior can make others crazy, and can make me loony bins myself if I take it too far, so I regularly allow myself to create messes, and live with them, as practice for being a normal person.

Speaking of messes, take a look at this before shot of my closet. Does this look like the closet of an organized person? I never meant for it to get this out of hand. It's just that I’d been throwing stuff in there as I worked on re-doing our bedroom, and once stuff gets thrown somewhere, it’s oh-so-easy to throw more on top of it, in a grand mess-begetting-a-mess-begetting-a-mess, until you can’t see the floor. This is a closet where a person might hide behind the clothes eating Hostess Twinkies under the dim light of the bare bulb (not that I’ve ever done that). In a word, this closet is scary.

Once my bedroom was re-done, I decided the closet needed major help. So, what did I do first, in my attempt to create an organized, beautiful closet? Friends, I took off the door. No door meant that when I woke up every morning, my face positioned such that I was looking directly at the closet, I felt terrible. This is tough love, people. I basically shamed myself into a closet re-do.

Once the door was off, I cleared everything out, repeating to husband and children one of my favorite mantras of organizing: "it's going to get worse before it gets better." I handled every item and decided its fate: "Keep" or "Donate." Marie Kondo tells readers to consider whether an item "sparks joy." My rules weren’t quite so esoteric. They were:

1. Do I like it?
2. Does it fit me right now (not would it fit me if I lost ten pounds?)

Simple enough, right? I gave away six garbage bags full of clothes. Then, having whittled my options down considerably, I painted the room--ceiling and walls in a light tan, and fresh white trim. I got a pretty, vintage-looking glass globe to cover that bare bulb. I replaced one short hanging rod with a very cool antique cabinet containing many shelves for folded items and baskets of small things. I replaced some ill-fitting metal shelving units with two rods (a shorter one beneath holds skirts and pants) on the other wall. The shelf, I painted and kept.

Here’s a tip for those folded sweaters. I know from experience that no matter how neatly I stack things on a shelf, they will eventually tumble over. You really need a divider, but bonafide closet shelf dividers are crazy expensive (try upwards of $40 for two). They are basically pieces of metal. You know what else is metal and heavy and keeps things in place? Bookends. I bought two pairs from Staples at $8 each. They work great.

There’s a hanging shoe pouch in the back for the heels I rarely wear (there’s just not much call for formal wear for work-from-home writers). An IKEA step stool tucked under the clothes helps me reach the top shelf. A cordless shade from Lowes and faux fur IKEA rug add a nice touch. The only thing missing from this closet re-do is some new clothes! And I will say this, my new closet definitely sparks some joy.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Filling the Well


“Filling the Well” is a phrase I first encountered many years ago in Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist’s Way.” It’s a concept for writers that's quite simple to grasp, harder to accomplish. It simply refers to having new experiences, getting out into the world, seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting new things so that you can write about them.

It’s a great thing to do in that down-time after finishing a major project, oh, like say my novel, “Happy, Indiana.” Of course, another great thing to do in that downtime is a whole lot more writing. I wrote a picture book and I’m working on a trillion essay ideas because I’ve learned you have to constantly keep writing, otherwise, a rejection comes in, and you crawl back into bed, when what you really want to happen is--the rejection comes in and you’re all nonchalant, like oh, what are you even talking about, agent/editor person? That old project? Why, fiddle dee dee, I’ve almost completely forgotten about that because you see, I am so very, very busy with so many very exciting projects and prospects…
Selfie finishing the novel in my footie pjs.

But back to filling that well. Now, good writers read, a lot, and so new ideas are always coming in to the old brain that way, but there’s really no substitute for experiencing things first-hand. It doesn’t have to be hard, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. The last time I taught a creative writing class, I had my students seek out a new experience, and one of the young men went to a local yarn store (now, sadly, defunct) and explored around and struck up a conversation with the proprietress about various types of yarn and had a grand old time and, who knows, may feature some kind of crochet loving character in his next story.

In other words, we don’t have to spring for air fare to another country to fill the well. But, we do need to get off the couch/out of our writing closet. And this is hard for a lot of us, myself included. We like being alone in our closets with our words and our ideas, but the problem is, if we don’t get off our tushies, we develop flat tushies and, more importantly, run the risk of writing about writers, of writing scenes with characters in coffeehouses, of writing characters who spend a lot of time staring out windows (fyi—I had too many “She stared out the window…” lines in my novel and had to cut them back.) We’re generally a boring people, writers. Just boring people with outsized imaginations. But, like all monsters, imaginations have to be fed or they will turn on us.

So if you see a pasty looking misfit on the edge of your meeting on city zoning ordinances, it’s just a writer filling the well. If you see a weirdo at your craft fair booth rubbing the mosaic turtle you made, it’s just a writer trying to add to her sensory experiences. Just nod, back away slowly, and know you might be providing her the spark she needs for her next, great writing project.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Agent Querying in 12 Easy Steps

So, the agent querying process…it’s not fun. It’s full of both maniacally happy peaks and soul crushing valleys, often on the same day. I would rather do anything else. I would certainly much rather be writing. This is the main reason writers work so hard to get an agent. So they can focus on the work and leave the business deals to someone better equipped to handle them. The only thing worse than querying is being asked for the 10th time in a month, “You finished your novel? When will it be in stores?” I think this might be a new blog series: “Questions you are asking the writer in your life that secretly enrage her though you don’t even know it and you meant well.”

But, I digress. The wonderful news is that I wrote a little humor piece to get me through querying, AND it was published in the incredibly wonderful Electric Literature. I hope it might make other writers smile. I’ll admit I wrote it after reading some especially rude instructions, directed toward writers, on a few agent websites. Not as cheeky as my faux guidelines, of course, but then my piece just takes it to the next, logical level.

And before you start saying, oh, but surely there are rude writers out there, I’ll agree, yes! There are plenty of them who don’t follow the instructions, who call agents explaining they are the next Hemingway, who probably show up at offices unannounced, with cookies and query in hand, who send flaming rebuttals to rejections. All no-no’s, and writers who are professional and want to stay in this business don’t do such things, and agents who are professionals don’t perform large-scale, public put-downs of writers because without them, uh, there’s no work to represent.

It’s gotten so crazily competitive I’ve seen writers literally begging, in the comments section of agent blogs no less, to be noticed. And I’ll admit, with my first, never-published novel, I went down that shame spiral myself, not to the point of begging, but certainly to the point of feeling very anxious and worried that my writing career was dependent on whatever happened after I hit send on my next query.
I came out of it by focusing on my work. It’s all you can do in the end. You can’t control markets. You can write the best stuff you can and try to improve a bit each day. In fact, I have an essay about my different writing approach to my two books forthcoming in Salon (Salon, y’all!). Focus on the work.

But of course, because I’m still me, I started worrying that potential agents would see this piece in Electric Lit and scratch a little note in their mental rolodex saying Warning: Problem Client. But when I expressed this fear to the EL editor, she reminded me that any agent who couldn’t laugh at this is not someone I want a potentially lifelong relationship with. Of course, she’s right.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Word Girl

Marking the entrance to my closet office:



Now, if only I had a monkey sidekick...

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Resale Value

I’m kind of a real estate junkie. I get it from my parents who used to load me into the car for long Sunday drives when I was a kid. We’d drive out different rural roads or into little subdivisions, pointing out this or that feature in a house we really liked—an especially nice bay window, or Curb Appeal-worthy front garden. It was sad, though, too, because my mom was always looking for something else, something better (my dad just liked driving around aimlessly with the windows rolled down).

And this is where I break from my mom in terms of a love of real estate. I enjoy snooping around other homes out of curiosity, but I love my own. I love my neighborhood. I’m not going anywhere. And this is where we get to the concept of “resale value.” If you’re someone who’s planning to pick up stakes pretty soon, then the “experts” will tell you not to do anything drastic to your house. Only spend money on renovations that will dramatically increase your resale value (for example, kitchen remodels are worth it; bedrooms, not so much). And for God’s sake, keep your walls beige!

Now, this advice makes sense if you know you’re not going to live in a place very long. But what gets me is when people buy a house and live in it, for decades, and don’t make any of the changes they'd really like to make because they’re envisioning some potential buyer turning up their nose at those changes in some future time that may never exist. It's this conversation:

Me: It's nice that you put that huge basement into your new house. You could really use the space when people come to visit.

Other Person: Oh yeah, it would be really handy. It's all set to put a bathroom in down there and everything.

Me: So when are you finishing it?

Other Person: Oh, I don't think we will. Maybe someone who buys the house someday might want it to be something else.

Me: You just built this house. Are you planning to leave?

Other Person: Oh, no, we're never leaving this house. 

Me: ???????
Lime Green in the living room is not good for resale.
Also, check out the style mixing--the Art Deco mantle
(original to the house), plus the Craftsman sconces
I had installed, and the Victorian mirror? Big no-nos.

The first room I re-did in our house was the living room. Knowing I’d be spending a lot of time in there with the kids, I painted it my favorite color, lime green. Shortly afterwards, I hosted a book club and one of my friends exclaimed, “Boy, I’ll bet you can’t wait to paint over that horrible color!!!”

Yes, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It would probably discourage a potential buyer, but I’m not selling! I want to enjoy every minute of this house and that means making every room as wacky as I want to. I won’t get into the whole dance like nobody’s watching mantra, since you can buy that on a T-shirt, but honestly, if a bright purple front door (I did that, too) makes you smile when you pull up your driveway, do it.


Also, here it comes, the obligatory writing reference—it certainly makes sense to write whatever you want, too, markets be damned. Writing is too hard and the rewards so infrequent, it just doesn’t make any sense to pen something you’re not passionate about. While you're at it, paint your office, your closet, wherever you write, in a color that absolutely inspires you, even if everyone else hates it. They can close their eyes when they visit.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Essays and the Right to Write

This morning, I read some essays. I’m starting on a new one of my own and always find it useful to get my mind into that rhythm. Primarily, I'm reading through the work of one author who has written about relationships with children and spouses and friends and family, common fodder for the personal essay genre and similar to many of the topics I’ve written about. They were beautifully done; they made me think, about my own life and how my own views might match or diverge from the author’s. I was glad to have read them.

But then I made the mistake of clicking through to the comments and was so immediately offended, on behalf of the author and essay writers everywhere. Of course there were all the expected comments about how she shouldn’t have done/said/thought what she did. Some of these were fairly benign. And then there were the especially mean ones. For example, the person who lives in the same huge city as the author hoped he never meets her. Nice. I had a similar comment on one of my essays once, someone instead saying she was glad she lived far away from me… Thank you, and Ditto!

I’ve written on this topic of online trolling before, two years ago, when I made a resolution to write what I want, critics be damned. I’ve published several essays since then and don’t plan to stop (I have one in the editing stage with a major publication, stay tuned!). Back then, I decided I would no longer read online comments on my work, and I'm pleased to say I've kept that promise.

I’ve learned that no matter what the ratio is, of positive to negative, I’ll only fixate on the hate-filled comments, the kind words quickly forgotten. (There were a lot of kind words on her essays, too, but you see, I’ve already forgotten them.) Reading the negative comments to her essays brought on flashbacks to my own, a kind of PTSD, which was not fun.

So, new resolution: not only will I NOT read comments to my own essays posted online, but I won’t read comments on anyone else’s work either. Are we clear? Excellent. (Note to dear readers of this blog, this does not apply to comments from you; I always read those.)

But, before I sign off, I have to say there’s another thing that’s bothering me: So many of the comments I read today dealt with what I can only call the author’s basic right to have an opinion. Some commentors didn’t like that she seemed to be doing okay economically. That she lived in the suburbs. Had children. Etcetera and so on and so on. The basic thread was…how dare you even write about any problem you might have when you are xyz and know nothing about xyz. (Note: she wasn't writing about the problems experienced by any other group or individual, only her own.)

I’m seeing more and more of this, and as a writer I find it disturbing. In personal essay, the writer is talking about herself and, hopefully, making some larger connection to the world around her. She is not appropriating someone else's identify (in fiction, however, all bets are off). But in the comments there's a piling on of grievances, each one claiming to have more right to speak because more bad things happened to him/her. And sometimes I see essay writers laying out a list of woes before they even get into the meat of the essay, as though they need to make a case so they can get permission to write…from whom? The universe? Or just some especially angry, anonymous commentators, whose writing, by the way, seems limited to online comments?

Listen, before I get all worked up on this gorgeous, snowy morning, let me just say I’m going to keep writing what I feel like writing if it’s okay with you. If it’s not okay with you, I’m still going to do it. And if commentors have a problem with an author’s demographic profile, they should look at that before they read the author’s work, and not waste time with them and we can all build our little silo and fill it with people exactly like us who write exactly what we already think and then we can write in the comments that even though the author has a point, she is still fat/ugly/has bad hair and then we can all turn off our Internets forever, the end.

I'm going sledding.