Friday, November 22, 2013

Carve that Tofurkey! A Writer Approaches the Grown-up Table



November has been kind to me, even after I went around publicly bad-mouthing it (I’ve pledged myself eternally to October), and given the season, I feel the need to say thank-you, to the editors, fellow writers, family and friends who indulge me in this creative endeavor. This month, I had fiction published in The Rumpus, which has been high on my list of places I would give my left arm to get into (it’s okay, I’m right-handed). The very same week, I had a humor piece published in The Awl, and a couple agents and a couple indie publishers both requested a look at my first novel. (I’m currently working on a second.)

I hear the word “luck” a lot in reference to the publishing biz, mostly by people who are not involved in it or are still newbies. I’ve been around publishing too long (and have the rejection letter stack to prove it) that I don’t believe much in luck. I believe in working hard to constantly improve your game + meeting up with opportunity = something that looks like luck.
"Tony Danza is a Turkey" Tacky Ugly Thanksgiving Sweater Vest - The Ugly Sweater ShopWhen I was starting out, I’d think, oh, all those writers in those big magazines must know somebody. They’ve got an “in” that little old me, in the middle of rural America, with no contacts in NYC doesn’t have. The hard truth is, years ago, I wasn’t getting in because my work wasn’t good enough. But, I just kept writing, because, newsflash, I enjoy it! Seems obvious, but there are many people writing with hopes only to get published, and when they realize how hard that is, they quit. (In the case of The Rumpus story, I’d already gathered 30+ rejections on it over several years, but I kept learning from those and rewriting the story.)

Now I’m not completely na├»ve. I know there are ways to get attention that are based entirely on relationships. If a writer has a relative in publishing or has an MFA prof who recommends her to an agent, for example, then sure, she might get her work looked at more quickly. But the fact is, once you get invited to the dinner, once you’re in the door wearing a vest with an appliqued turkey on it, you better have a seriously good squash casserole if you want to be invited back.

As my publications get more frequent and higher up the perceived chain (meaning the amount of literary cachet that the particular journal or magazine has, not necessarily the number of readers), I’m thankful I’ve been given some great new writing mojo. It feels like I may have finally left the kids’ table, you know the folding table with the wobbly leg out in the hallway? I’d been there coloring on the paper tablecloth with a crayon for a while. But now I feel like I’ve moved into the dining room and taken a seat with some of the writers I’ve admired for a long time. Now, sure, it’s a verrry long table, and I’m way at the end where I can’t really hear anything. And those yummy crescent rolls will all be gone by the time the basket gets down here. And writers who are much more established than me will make me wash the dishes, by hand, because, Grandma’s china. But, I am so thankful for the chair!

This kind of feeling allows me to take even more chances, writing anything I want to, when I want to, without worrying about what will happen to it, whether it will get published, who it’s going to piss off. The pieces I published this month were written with one audience in mind, me, and I wrote them because I enjoyed it. I think at the kids’ table, I was scared of interrupting the grown-ups, of committing some social faux pas. I didn’t want to reveal any of the inappropriate things that I really wanted to write about. The irony is, when a writer just throws all her passion into a project, no matter what it is, that passion finds its way through to readers, and they connect with it, whereas lifeless prose (lifeless because it’s the safe choice, because the writer thinks it’s what she should be writing, not what she wants to write) just can’t connect in that same way.

It’s a little early for resolutions, so let me say my Thanksgiving Motto is: Screw It. What’s the worst thing that can happen if I keep writing any crazy thing that comes to mind? An editor won’t like it? She’ll say No?” Been there. Still here, writing. So, Screw It. And Pass the Potatoes. Please. This kind of recklessness might just lead to even more, and better things. I just might publish that first novel. I just might finish the new one. Hell, I just might drink milk that expired yesterday! But I’m going to write, and I’m going to be ever thankful to the community of writers, past, present and future, who have provided the opportunities, to match up with the preparation, to equal my luck. Someday, maybe I’ll move to the head of the table and carve that Tofurkey myself.

 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

How Marcy Got Her Groove Back or…what I learned at my writing retreat


Late on a Sunday afternoon, after a nearly eight-hour drive, I arrived at The Porches in Norwood, Virginia. I met my lovely host, Trudy, got the tour, unpacked my stuff, opened my laptop and stared out the large window in front of my writing desk, which overlooked a porch, and beyond the porch, the mountains. It was then that I noticed several strange, faint noises: a slight breeze rustling the tree leaves, the low hum of my ceiling fan, crows calling in the distance and, somewhere in those endless trees, the low rumble of a train. This glorious quiet—so different from home, filled me with excitement, but also something else…fear. You see there was nothing to do here but write. I’d come all this way, and now it was time to, well, put up or shut up about never having any time to work. A part of me wanted to hop in the car and drive back to Ohio. But I didn’t. I made a cup of tea. I unpacked my milk crate of background reading on topics related to the novel I was here to outline, and I cracked open the first book.

Now nearly a week later, I can’t believe it’s already time to pack up, despite there being so many moments when time went so very slowly. Just this morning, I’ve been watching a leaf katydid on the wicker chair directly outside my window.

It has taken her three hours to move her body into a position from which I believe she might be getting ready to lay eggs. I don’t know much about leaf katydids, though I know she is one, based on a photo in one of my daughter’s books. It’s taking every ounce of my discipline to keep working and not Google leaf katydids, though at some point I probably will, and I’ll learn something new.

Here are some other things I learned during my week of writing solitude:


·         Writing my day’s goals on a notepad with a picture of a fluffy white kitten holding a large ball of yarn makes those goals seem less daunting. (However, I never did accomplish all the daily goals I set out to. That’s okay. Better to aim very high and fall a little short than the alternative.)

·         Silence takes a little getting used to, even for someone like me who really enjoys it.

·         Having a big soft bed just a few feet from my writing area pretty much requires a brief afternoon nap. Naps are underrated. I wish you, and me, and everyone, could incorporate them into our daily lives, no matter what line of work we’re in.

·         Being away from the kids, the hubs, the dog! for more than one night makes me miss them terribly. Then, that feeling goes away, briefly. Then, it comes back. Then, it becomes a sharp ache in my chest when I hear their voices (not the dog’s) on the phone.

·         It’s good to switch roles once in awhile. I now have a better understanding of what it’s like when my husband travels and calls to talk, but I can’t because dinner’s on the stove, the cat just choked up a hairball and the kids are having a swordfight with my best candlesticks. It’s good for the hubs to have the chance to be in that role of traffic controller and witness the challenges of single parenting. And it’s good for my kids to see that mommy, too, loves her work and devotes time to it. I show them essays and stories I’ve published, but they’re a little young to really understand the job of ‘writer.’ They’re also not astute enough to pick up on the fact that it’s kind of weird mommy writes in a closet…

·         Time is relative. An hour or so into my first evening, I realized there was no clock in the room, no clocks anywhere to be found. I like clocks. I have a lot of them at home and as a type-A person, I look at them, often. Of course, my laptop has a clock and my cell phone, and I’d brought my watch, though didn’t plan on wearing it. It’s not as though I couldn’t find out the time, but the fact that it took some effort meant I was free to work with my own internal rhythms rather than the world’s, and this was ultimately rather amazing. When I got tired outlining, I’d switch to reading, then I might send an email (my goal to stay off the Internet was broken within hours…). When I was hungry, I ate. When I was tired, I slept. At home, everything runs on such a tight schedule. At The Porches, it was liberating to follow my own instincts, and so conducive to the kind of free association I was doing with my new book, chasing down ideas to see where they might lead.

·         To piggyback on that idea, here’s perhaps the most important thing I learned—time spent looking out the window is time well spent. Because I have very small chunks of time to write at home, I often feel like I must “accomplish something,” must be able to cross something off my list before time’s up. That works for some projects (e.g. drafting a scene once I already have a tight outline), but it simply does not work when I’m in the planning stages of a big project like this new book. At home, “daydream about possible scenes for the new novel” never made it on the list. There was laundry to do, and that seemed like a better use of my time. Here, daydreaming is encouraged and in fact expected. My mind can come up with all sorts of crazy ideas when I allow it to wander. Also, daydreaming helps that tricky brain of mine to continue working on my novel when I don’t even realize it. For example, after returning my fingers to the keys after watching my friend the katydid for twenty minutes, I found that I’d somehow solved a major plot issue. Miraculous.


Next writing retreat already scheduled—spring in Austin.

 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

My Boss is a Bitch


I’ve just arrived in my writing closet. I’ve got a nice cup of coffee. I’ve pushed hubby’s shirts to the side to give me a little breathing room and positioned my laptop in the center of the TV tray, which serves as my desk. This morning, I plan to add to the document titled “Freewrite-New Novel,” now at 60+ pages. It’s time to start turning my notes into a workable outline so I can get to the really fun part of all this, the actual writing.

The little clock perched on my closet windowsill is ticking loudly (I find this soothing; I’m weird that way). I have two hours…make that one and a half hours…until I pick up the tot from preschool. Time to get seriously to work, and yet there are a lot of other things I could do today.

I can't see it from the closet, but I know there are three loads of laundry on my bed waiting to be put away. The kitchen sink is full of dishes. The dog is looking at me, and his face seems to be saying, if you don't take me for a walk this instant, so help me God I will find your new, expensive running shoes and I will SO tear them into itsy bitsy pieces you will not even recognize them when I’m done!

The dog doesn’t care if I write today. Nobody does, really, not even the people who love and support me. They just want me to be happy. If writing makes me happy, they want me to do that; if not, I should do something else. My goals are mine and mine alone. I'm the CEO, and the sole employee, of this here shoestring operation.



Being accountable to no one has its advantages of course. I can skip out on work entirely. But I know that writers who really make it, who rise above that "emerging" category I'm currently floating in, are the ones who balance their bouts of lazy procrastination with an extreme case of motivational drive. We can take a rejection letter, feel the sting momentarily, and then fire off another submission. We can face that blank page and know that we'll fill it with something, anything, and that, eventually, it will be good… or the boss will kill us. My boss is a bona fide bitch, but at the end of day, I want her to be happy, and so I write.








 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Is your cat being naughty? Send him packing in this suitcase-turned-pet-bed!

Suppose you like to cruise Ebay for vintage suitcases, as pretty much everyone does (No? Just me?). Well, I found this beauty and knew it would work as a bed for the alpha cat in our household, Mr. Fudge John Lickins III, Esq. (not sure where he found the time to get that law degree...).

You see, Mr. Lickins (aka Fudgey) has been feeling a bit down since we adopted a dog. I thought a new bed might cheer him up. Besides, he'd been sleeping in a blanket-filled cardboard box, which didn't contribute much to the design aesthetic of my living room.

Enter the suitcase-turned-pet-bed! I will not claim credit for this idea. I'd been seeing versions of suitcases, and small tables, turned into pet beds around Ye Olde Internet for awhile now. I'd been waiting to create my own version.

I read several instructions for this project that involved sewing a special cushion (I don't sew) and installing a couple of cut 2x4s into the bottom of the case to serve as a solid base to screw in the furniture legs. This sounded like an awful lot of work.

My lazy-woman's version took hardly any time at all. I simply removed the top of the suitcase (I have young children who may have taken great delight in closing the cat in had I left the top attached). I found a couple small throw pillows in a closet and wrapped a spare piece of pretty flannel fabric around them for a cushy nap spot. For the bed's legs, I purchased four bun feet from Lowes and painted them dark brown. The suitcase is made of fabric covered cardboard, so I just made pilot holes with a screwdriver and mallet and then screwed the threaded feet into the holes.


Of course, I could not convince Mr. Lickins to lie in the bed for a photo, so here he is, fully rested from a night in the bed, and ready to fight dragons (alas, he's not finding much work in the legal field).



 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Balto, he's not.

It happens at least a couple times a week while I'm out walking my new dog. Someone asks where I got him, I reply "The Humane Society," and they say, "Oh, so he's a rescue dog."

This puzzles me, as that phrase makes me picture heroic dogs from history, a parade of Baltos carrying diphtheria medicine to kids in Nome.

Now that's a rescue dog. We've had Turtle for four months, and he hasn't rescued much of anything, though he has liberated several perfectly good watermelon rinds from the compost pile, and freed an errant tennis ball that rolled under the raspberry bushes (he paused only briefly to gently pluck and eat the ripest berries).

But I know that the well-meaning commenters aren't thinking of Balto. What they mean is that we rescued Turtle, in which case, we simply have a semantics issue: Turtle as a rescue-d dog, not a rescue dog.

This puzzles me, too, mainly because it pins an act of heroism where it doesn't belong. Our family had been talking about getting a dog ever since our daughter was two years old and first asked for one. Both my husband and I grew up with dogs. We loved them, but felt our hands were full with her, plus her baby brother, and the four stray cats we'd already adopted. We told her to wait until she was six. Guess what? She remembered that conversation. And so just a couple weeks after her sixth birthday, we had Turtle. We chose him; we bought him from the shelter. Entirely serving our self-interests. I realize we could instead have gone to a breeder or one of the unfortunately ubiquitous (to our area of Ohio) puppy mills, but that was never an option. We're just not a pure-bred type of family; only mutts for us.

I recently saw a bumper sticker of a picture of a dog's paw that said, "Who rescued whom?" It made me smile, knowing the power of animals to help lift people's spirits. All the writers I've known, myself included, can be prone to mood swings (it's hard walking around with all those characters' voices in our heads...). But you know who isn't prone to mood swings? Turtle. If I want his attention, I have it, and I don't have to bribe him for it either, like I do with my cats who often seem just to tolerate me as their litter-box cleaning servant.

Without getting into the whole dog vs. cat vs. gerbil thing, I will say that Turtle has added an element of chaos to my life that wasn't there with the cats, and that this is actually a good thing. As a rather rigid type A person, I've been forced to change my schedule to suit the dog's needs (he might need to go out while I'm in the middle of writing a perfect paragraph, he needs daily walks, etc.). Turtle looks at me and seems to say, "loosen up, chick," and I thank him for that. My writing thanks him, too. I've found that the more playfulness in my life, the more in my writing, and playfulness leads to new discoveries.

Now, back to that rescue designation.Could a dog named Turtle, a lab mix who's scared of the water, really rescue anybody? I hope we never have to find out, and yet, he has already bonded himself firmly to our family. Plus, he's got the nice shiny white chompers to defend us, assuming there are no raspberry bushes to distract him.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Quick! Get my tinfoil hat!

There are moments when paranoia grips my throat so tightly I can't breathe...when my mind is paralyzed with the thought that someone else out there...someone else laboring alone in her own, similarly sized and ill-equipped writing closet is writing about the very same thing I am! But I had the idea first! Didn't I? Not fair!

Here's my interior monologue for these moments: Oh, why bother? Someone who probably has an uncle in the executive suites of a major publishing house has already signed a deal on the exact same topic...I'll just refresh my Facebook page, or check out a montage of all -time funniest Rodney Dangerfield* clips on YouTube whilst donning my tinfoil hat to prevent those other writers from reading my mind and stealing any more of my ideas!

I've taught creative writing courses and in my experience, there's always a student in an intro class who pulls a little trick in his short story, thinking he's the first to do it. The narrator was actually dead all along! It was all a DREAM! These students are crushed when they find out they are not so very clever, that in fact those tricks have been done so many times they've made the top ten list of cliches to avoid in your writing. I know they're crushed to hear this, because I was one of these students a long time ago, and I committed BOTH of these embarrasing mistakes.

That big-reveal ending? It's nothing new.

 
Personal example: I recently penned a little food review, hoping to get it into McSweeneys, my favorite humor site and a place where I've published previously. After not hearing anything back after a couple months, I logged on to their site to find...are you kidding me?... a review of the same exact product, some tasteless vitamin-packed cookies. Out of all the foods in the world? Someone else chose the same one as me for a mock review for this particular magazine? After following up with the editor, he admitted he hadn't read my review yet, and ended up publishing it anyway. (click link, then scroll down a bit)

It's hard enough to realize you're being scooped on brief pieces like this that might only take a morning to produce. Much harder to think that after years of working on a novel, you may be told, oh, I've seen too much of this lately. Writers have to put all this out of their minds to get the work done. We have to sit down every day and write something we're passionate about, ignoring the current marketing trends, which will surely have cycled through to something else by the time we're finished. On some level, we're all just muddling around, building on the same basic ideas over and over, the same story lines. Perhaps you've heard that there are only seven universal plots (The Quest, Rags to Riches, etc.)?

Of course there's plenty of debate about this, but when I consider that tiny number, it gives me pause. I become less concerned with thinking up the next best thing, less concerned with protecting my thoughts with tin, and more concerned with telling my story, whatever story it is I'm working on, in the only way I know how, infusing it with details only I can. If I'm not going to be the first to do something, I can try to be the best. Maybe my story will indeed fall into one of those "universal plots," but my goal is to make it seem fresh to the reader. I can save my tinfoil for something else. Baked potatoes, anyone?




*not actually very funny
 

Friday, May 31, 2013

It can't tune in Helsinki, but it can hold my Cuisinart.

It's so much fun to take something that's not getting much use and turn it into something both practical and beautiful. In my dining room, I'm currently using vintage test tubes as flower vases. In the living room, an antique shadow box explaining the tadpole to frog life cycle does a turn as our end table. And in the kitchen, I've just completed the transformation of this 1930s radio into an island.



I have a thing for old radios. Maybe it's my fond remembrance of writing up the news for a station in Winona, Minnesota, during my college years. But whatever the reason, I always stop to admire radios when I go antiqueing. I bought this one almost 10 years ago. Sorry to say, I didn't take a before picture, but the piece had a poorly done stain job, and I always meant to refinish it. It never actually worked as a radio, and I had little desire to learn how to fix it, but it was a decent piece of furniture in our living room for many years.

Then, we moved, to a house whose small kitchen has SIX! doorways/doors. I wanted more storage, and also a place where the kids could sit and have a snack or work on something while we're cooking. I shopped around. Nothing was the right size or price. Then, my eyes fell on the radio I already owned. If you've never opened one of these things up, you'd be amazed how much space there is inside, once you gut it. There's a huge main compartment where the speaker was, another compartment where the tubes were, a pull out drawer which used to house the record player and a cubby for holding records (now wine).

I painted the whole thing in a chocolate brown, then dry-brushed black over top. I couldn't find butcher block at a good price, so we bought an IKEA solid beech table, tossed the legs aside, and attached the table top with some glue and screws. Decorative brackets added a nice touch, as did the fabric I attached to the piece of plywood that used to hold the speaker. The old diner chairs are from a local thrift stop.



I love, love, love this island! And now I'm eyeing all the other stuff in the house and thinking about what it could become. Hmmm, the dog is about the right size for an ottoman...

 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Write Like a Mutha


Ah, Mother's Day Eve.

Tomorrow, after the kids climb into my bed smiling those sweet little grins when they present me with a plate of French toast they helped prepare, I will hug them and thank them, and feel thankful for them, and then I will shoo them away for a few hours to work, likely some much needed freewriting on my second novel.

What? you ask. Aren't you spending the entire day basking in the adoration of the fruit of your loins? Nope, sorry. I bask every day, you see. I get plenty of basking around here. Recognizing that I need a little time to be creative, and demanding that time for myself (within reason) is what gives me the strength to be an okay parent. When days go by without any writing time, I am a cranky mommy indeed. How can the kids say they love me? By playing nicely and quietly with Dad while I do something I love.

I recently applied for a grant specifically for writers who are parents of young children. That such a grant even exists filled me with joy. And it seems more such programs are being added all the time, programs that recognize it's difficult to be creative while assuming full-time parenting duties, whether from a monetary standpoint, from the standpoint of not-enough-time, or just from the emotional standpoint of giving yourself permission to care about someone else (often fictional people, in my case!) very deeply and with the kind of attention that you usually reserve for real, flesh-and-blood family members.

As part of my application, I had to write about how being a parent informed my work. What an impossible question that was! How could I tease apart my life as a mom from my life as a writer? Was it even possible? And would I even want to? I know I couldn't have written my first book if I wasn't a parent.

How does being a parent affect my day-to-day writing life? Well, I could write faster pre-kids, right? The answer should be "yes," but it's not. I wasted a lot of time, surfing cat pictures on the Internet and whatnot... Being busier means I have to do a better job of prioritizing than I ever did pre-kids. It means I have to be better about setting professional goals, making deadlines and meeting them (as someone who answers, professionally, to no one but myself, this can be difficult...though to be fair, I've got a bitch for a boss;) 

Tonight, like many nights, I've got one ear tuned to hear footsteps on the stairs, the other tuned to the voices in my head. I'm writing like a mother, the only way I know how.
 

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Little Man Inside My Head



So, I've been having this problem with...um...with... (Hey! Is that a Chipping Sparrow at the birdfeeder?)...FOCUS. After a long (sometimes painful, sometimes exhilerating) struggle to complete my first novel, I'm ready to begin the next one. I have a bare-bones idea for the book, and I've been doing lots of background reading, but I just don't feel quite ready to type the words, "Chapter One." I want to know more about my characters and, especially, I want to know more about the conflicts that await them, the plot points that will make you, dear reader, want to continue reading.

Let's call this stage of the novel writing game, "pre-production." You might wonder, what does a writer do with her pre-production hours? Well, speaking only for myself, I can tell you I spend a lot of time staring out my closet-office window.

Don't worry; I've got a nice view from my closet. The pear tree in our front yard is in full, glorious bloom. And yet, you must understand that this is the hardest part of writing, for me, and so many other writers I know. Once I'm really grabbed by a project, once I know my characters and have a rough outline, the task isn't quite so daunting.

But now, my world of possibilities can send me into a panic on a bad day, or into pure space-out mode on a good one. Most days, I'm spacing out, while looking out my window, or worse. I've spaced out on a rare "date night." My husband knows the look, knows to stop talking while I eavesdrop on another table's conversation or try to decipher the waiter's tattoo. Somehow, something around us is connected to my story, and I'm trying to connect those dots.

Lately, nearly every moment I'm thinking about my story, a little man pops into my head. I call him Paul S. Don't ask me what the S. stands for; I don't know yet.

I also really don't know what Paul S. looks like. Sometimes, he's quite fetching. Sometimes, more like the clip art above. Until fairly recently, I've been too busy thinking about my primary character, Ginny, to worry much about Paul S., who was simply going to be a person Ginny interacts with at her job.

But as the days and weeks pass, as I freewrite and freewrite, adding stray thoughts and dialogue to one big computer file, a shocking thing has happened.

Paul S. got pissed. You see, Paul S. doesn't, apparently, want to be just a secondary character. First, he demanded equal time with Ginny. To appease him, I decided that it might be interesting to do alternating points of view (my last book had a single, first-person narrator).

But that didn't satisfy old Pauly. No one cares about Ginny, he whispers into my ear. Stick with me.

Now what's a writer to do when a little man keeps speaking inside her head, demanding to be the center of attention in her book? Anyone else might seek psychiatric care. But me? Sigh, sigh...Paul's beaten me. I'm going to let Paul S. have a go at this, if he thinks he's so freakin' great.

I may regret it. I may drop him quickly and go back to my original plan, leaving him a walk-on role at best. But if I've learned anything in the years I've been writing it's this: you must gives pages to those characters who will not leave your mind. They have something to say, and if they are so forceful about saying it, it's probably worth writing down. He probably has a story that people would like to read.

We writers like to think we're in control, but sometimes we're simply stenographers, transcribing the voices in our heads.



















 



Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Ghostly Story Comes Back to Haunt Me

Do you remember when you learned to read?  I remember being read to, and then sometime after that, I remember reading on my own. What happened in the middle is a little fuzzy. I remember, as a grade schooler, wanting to create stories that spoke to the lunacy of modern life, that illuminated what we've come to call the human condition (not really; I wanted to write funny things about my classmates).

One of my first creations, around 1st or 2nd grade, was a picture book about a snowball fight with my neighbor. I believe it was aptly titled, "The Snowball Fight," and the last page featured an illustration of two mugs of steaming hot chocolate. Alas, that book has gone out of print.

Later, I took to short stories, including this piece, which was quite popular in its day (approximately 1985): "The Drastic Days of the Gluebottle." Here's the premise: a ghostly glue bottle haunts an evil little boy. The boy, after refusing to learn any of the important life lessons from the glue bottle, is trapped alive in a coffin with him for eternity.





Yes, this is the original story. My mom kept all my school papers. This story now resides in a nostalgic file folder in my office of very old, embarrassing writing. Backstory: I did not get along very well with this particular little boy, who shall remain anonymous. I had the misfortune of sitting directly behind him, but this gave me an advantage. I threatened him once with a squirt of Elmer's down the back of his shirt collar, and after that he pretty much left me alone. I wrote the story for spite, which, for many writers, is as fun (and profitable!) a reason to write as any.

My drawing abilities have not improved one bit since grade school. (Note: the shaky writing of "gluebottle" indicates this story is super scary.) My story writing abilities, I believe (I hope!) have gotten better, but still, each year when I look back over my work, I'm hoping to see improvement.  I read things I wrote just ten years ago (not to mention 30 years ago), and I'm embarrassed. This is a wonderful thing, to be embarrassed by one's old work. It means I'm getting better, which brings me to part two of this post, my volunteer service at my daughter's elementary school.

Mondays, I sit on a wee, white bench and listen to kindergartners read, offering assistance with unfamiliar words, plus lots of praise, and a cookie for a job well done. There are 23 kids in the class, at very different strages of the reading/writing game. They're working so hard, and it's such a challenge, to do something we as adults don't even think about.

To any parent, the language acquisition process is an amazing thing to witness, but to a writer, it's just mind-blowing. I remember when my daughter, and later her brother, learned to make their first sounds...the da da da that eventually led to "daddy." My daughter's first word? "Didee" (translation-kitty). My son's? "Hi." It was a thrill for me to follow them around and hear what word they'd say next, to hear the crazy way they'd string words together or mix up words. At mealtime, my daughter always used to say, "I'm huggy."

And now she's a studious almost-six year old, reading and writing, turning her bedside lamp back on when she thinks I'm not looking to get a few more pages in before sleep. Yup, she's hooked on phonics, just like her dear old mom. Here's something she wrote last fall after a gymnastics class. (Translation: "How can you do that? Look at me.") Got to love the eyelashed "look" and the girl doing a handstand.


Will she be penning stories about her classmates someday? Who knows? I can't say I would actually advise anyone to be a fiction writer unless they absolutely cannot think of anything else they'd be good at (especially since I'd like her someday to be self-sufficient, capable of paying her own mortgage, eating, etc.). But I do hope she'll always retain the joy of devouring a good book.

I've spent the past few years struggling to write a novel, learning so much along the way, but often becoming frustrated with myself for not learning it better and, most of all, faster. It's good to look back, at my daughter's work and my own and remember where we all, writers or not, begin.



 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Was That Me Going Through Your Trash?

So, I've taken up running, though only when the weather conditions are optimal, and even then only to the end of my block. (Full disclosure--I used to run seriously, when I was a wee teenager, but I was a sprinter then and I'm certain I just don't have the right muscles for distance...it's something about fast twitch vs. slow twitch, right? Can anybody back me up here??). Anyway,even if I'm not yet getting that "runner's high," I am enjoying the act of eyeing the neighborhood garbage while running past on trash pick-up morning. People throw some cool stuff away, like these antique bentwood chairs.



Turns out these chairs were in the trash right next door, so I didn't have far to walk to take them home. Like most of my DIY projects-in-waiting, the chairs then found themselves nestled into my small garage (which has never actually contained a car) until I decided last week that it was time to give them a new life.

Now, it's true these chairs were down on their luck. The wood was splitting at the curves, and of course, they had no seats. They were paint splattered as well. When I told my neighbor that I had taken them, he'd said, "Good luck."

My two kids had outgrown their little toddler table where they do arts and crafts. One of their tiny chairs had finally succumbed to years of heavy use and snapped. It was time to get them a new, big-kid set-up. I'd recently spiffed up a round, metal vintage folding table I found at an antiques shop using some sunny yellow spray paint and adding a new vinyl top (perfectly wipe-able for kids' messy projects).

I sanded the trash-picked chairs and, with my dad's help on a recent visit, cut the seats from scraps of plywood. Yes, I used a jigsaw on this project! I have a natural, and healthy, fear of power tools, being that I need my hands to keep at my writing career and all. But, once I got going, it was kind of fun, in a white-knuckled, don't slip and take a finger off kind of way.

Upholstering is easy-peasy. Foam, fabric, staple gun. I'd recommend it to anyone who's looking for an easy DIY. Fresh white paint in a high gloss (for easy cleaning) and...new chairs. We had most of the supplies already around the house. I spent ten bucks on fabric, for both the chairs and the table.



Here's something I love about these little DIY diversions from my writing--a distinct before and after. It's sometimes difficult to decide when a writing project is "done." If my deadline is strictly self-imposed, I can fiddle around with a piece forever. Sometimes, it's nice to take a break from the nebulous fictional worlds I'm creating, and rev up some power tools, take a piece of wood... Hey, this was a square, now it's a circle, now it's a chair seat, now I'm sitting on it.

I'm looking forward to my next trash-to-treasure (I'm looking at you, broken printer cart!).

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Want a Pretty Postcard?

Loyal Blog Readers,

Are you behind on your correspondence? Is your Grandma still expecting a thank-you for that Christmas sweater she knitted? Are you dreading the necessity of penning a love note to that special someone for Valentine's Day? Do you long for the days when you got REAL mail?

Let me help! I have a set of beautiful postcards from the wonderful folks at HOOT Review. The cards contain an original flash fiction piece...by little old me. And it's not just any story, but one nominated for a Pushcart Prize! The story is paired with some wonderful black and white photography.
So, whether you want a haiku for your kindly landlord, a threatening note for the neighbor who kept your baseball when it landed in her yard, or just a pretty postcard to pin up on your own refrigerator, I'm happy to supply my own text (or yours) and mail to the address you supply, no charge to you, dear reader.

If you haven't heard of the HOOT Review, check them out. They are a "literary magazine on a postcard," featuring an original work of prose, which the editors then pair with original artwork, once each month. It's a cool idea, based on the premise that, if people can read a tweet, they can surely take time to read the equivalent of two tweets (the poetry and prose they publish is limited to 150 words) even if they claim not to have any time to read literature.

The editors also encourage people to plant the postcards for strangers to find. Imagine the pleasure of discovering a beautiful magazine on a postcard stuck to a chain link fence on your way to work instead of an ad for 2 for 1 buffalo wings. Anyone who plants one should send me a photo to put on the blog (and I'll share with the HOOT editors as well).

Interested? Email me the particulars at marcycampbell at hotmail dot com.



 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Writing by Walking Around


You've heard of Management By Walking Around, the MBWA? Today, I practiced the not as well known WBWA, Writing By Walking Around. No words were actually put on paper, but I considered it a good work day nonetheless. I spent a glorious two hours in the fiction stacks of my local library. I had no agenda, other than to fill my tote bag with inspiration. I ended up with a mix of authors I've never read, but always meant to, authors whose past books I've read and loved, and completely new names I pulled off the shelf based on an intriguing title and/or cover.

I sat on the little wheeled stool in the aisle flipping open book after book and reading first pages. I'd estimate in at least 75 percent of the cases, I put a book back because I wasn't drawn in by the language or voice. In many of those cases, I couldn't find fault with the writing itself. It just didn't appeal to me personally. What a wonderful and timely lesson! You see, I'm in the hand-wringing process of sending queries for my first novel to agents and indie publishers, in the hopes that someday I'll find my novel right on these same library shelves.

Querying is a process that can drive a writer crazy. So much uncertainly and anxiousness. Is the book good enough? Interpreting comments becomes a full time job, searching for meaning where none may exist. If they say I'm a good writer, I am. If they say the book's not for them, it isn't. But writers are of course trained to look at every word, every scrap of punctuation even, and parse it. I do believe seasoned agents and editors know this and have learned to keep replies short and sweet as a result...

The best cure for the aches and pains of endless waiting are to write the next thing. This is easy for some writers. Some just dive in with a single line one morning and set off on a new book. I have no problem flying by the seat of my pants, when I'm writing a short story or essay. I know my time investment will be minimal if it doesn't work out. And it's good practice. But a novel is a different beast. I've written one now, and so I can't claim to be unaware of how it will demand all my mental energy. No one wants to think, at the outset, that this time will be "wasted."

And so I'm trying to redefine, "wasted." Any time writing makes you a better writer. Can't argue with that. But if a writer knew, as she started page one, that a particular book would never be published, would she continue? If she had that crystal ball? When it comes to my first book, I have to give a tentative "yes." Writing the book drove me in ways I can't explain or understand. I couldn't do anything in my waking hours without my thoughts drifting to the book. I'd dream about the book. I'd wake up with fingers itching to get typing. But, I admit, I'd still be very sad if the book didn't find a publishing home.


Book two is still a scattering of ideas. My trip to the library was meant to swirl those ideas around and see what shakes out. I'm trying to find my way into the story, to decide whose story exactly it is, to narrow in on the conflict. It's an exciting time, but a scary one, too. You never know where the project will end up.  In the coming weeks and months, I'll be freewriting a lot, reading a lot, waiting for the moment that, even if I don't have the book entirely figured out, I'll have a firm enough grasp to start. E.L. Doctorow once said, "Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." Good advice.


 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Distraction Time-Bench DIY

I've been mulling over the responses to my article in The Millions (see previous post) and feel another post coming on regarding that, but in the meantime, I decided to busy my hands with a little DIY project this weekend.

I'm slowly learning to follow my creative impulses, wherever they lead, even when they don't lead to writing. I used to be such a stickler for working on my novel, and only my novel, whenever I had a free moment. I wouldn't even allow any cross-contamination from other genres (no essays, no poetry, etc.), not to mention entirely unrelated creative pursuits, such as gardening, baking, decorating.

I've loosened up quite a bit. In fact, I've published an article in the current (February) issue of The Writer Magazine on this very topic.

This weekend, I felt like tackling one small piece of what will be an entire bedroom design-on-a-dime renovation. (I've got a tiny, one-car garage full of "projects." No room for the car.) I started with something easy, recovering a bench. I've done this type of project before and find it very satisfying because it's (a) fast, (b) inexpensive and (c) makes a big impact.

This was a 10-year old Big Lots purchased bench. Cute lines, but nothing special. The white cushion was worn and stained.


My always industrious 3-year old grabbed his screwdriver and helped remove the old cushion. I took the base outside for a shiny coat of silver spray paint (I am never without a can of silver spray paint.) I had planned to re-cover it in faux cowhide just to throw that current hot trend into the room (kind of a Glam meets Kitsch, gets married, and has a funky bench baby), but I didn't like my choices locally. I really wanted browns vs. blacks, and none of the faux brown cow hides looked remotely real (I spent many years in 4-H, trust me on this).

In the end, I chose this brown and white flannel. I had no idea flannel came in any patterns that weren't checkered or nursery-themed, but this goes nicely with the comforter, and the silver does add a bit of glam to the room. I've always really liked a bench at the foot of the bed. Great place to put on shoes in the morning and throw all those decorative pillows at night (Why are there so many pillows? I hear my husband asking, again).



Distraction over. Next post will be solely about writing, promise!











Monday, January 7, 2013

Friends and Fodder

Well, it's happened. I've finally been caught writing about people I know in a non-fictional way, and now I'm hiding in my closet in case anyone's mad at me. I was sitting around a few weeks ago, compiling the 2013 recommendations for my book club when I had an essay idea. Two days later (record time for me), I was sending the finished piece out. It was quickly accepted at The Millions.

So, what's the big deal, you ask? It's not like I wrote anything nasty about anyone. I love my book club, and the people in it. The essay deals with my experience being the only writer in the club and my observations of how our reading tastes have changed over the past decade, which doesn't necessarily bode well for my own fiction-writing career.

The fear over the essay's publication started only when I showed it to my closest friend/club member. She was surprised, nar I say, shocked! that I was not just a mild-mannered member of the club, but a bit of a spy. Here I am, participating in meetings yet secretly mulling over the things people say about the books we read, considering our discussions in terms of my own work.


And I was shocked right back! How could I leave my professional life at the door of our meetings, I asked? If you invite a chef over to dinner, does he not notice the food? But it really has gotten me thinking...

Perhaps I should have my poet-lawyer friend (everyone should have one of these) draw up a contract explaining that anything my friends and family say and do can appear in my writing. Everything's fair game. Everything's potential fodder for my work.

You know the disclaimers in novels that say any resemblance to actual people, events or locales is coincidental? Yeah, well, you know that's not exactly true, right? Dave Eggers famously skewered that phrase in "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." He writes, "Any resemblance to persons living or dead should be plainly apparent to them and those who know them..."

As a fiction writer, I'm continually creating characters, events, locations, yet how can they not draw in some way from my own life? Sure, the similarities may be minor. For example, a character might have the same nervous habit of shrugging her shoulders as a certain someone I know. But, otherwise, the character's nothing like her.

This is not to say writers don't have their own, passive-aggressive fun on the page. I admit I have taken real-life mean people, turned them into very thinly disguised fictional characters, and punished them in my stories. There was a particularly vicious girl who lived in my college dorm who made a cameo as a narcissistic mother in my debut novel.

In revision, however, I cut her. She was a one-note character and deserved to be cut, but oh, it was still fun, and cathartic, to write her in, however briefly. I work out a dozen emotions, sometimes daily, tapping away at my keyboard. Saves tons on counseling fees.

But I guess I do need to be a bit more careful now that my publications are increasing, now that I'm writing more non-fiction, and the venues where I'm publishing have a larger audience. I can't hide as easily, and that's a good thing, of course, yet I feel like my sensitive skin still needs a bit more toughening up to be exposed to critics, whether they be strangers or friends.

I think I just need to write, publish, not worry so much, and buy this shirt I saw on Zazzle.com. What do you think? A wearable disclaimer that will serve as my uniform. I'm starting a new book this year, so consider yourself warned.



 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

This Design Trend Must Go!



As you probably know by now, one of my (not so guilty) pleasures is interior design. I'm an HGTV junkie with a love of old homes in need of a little TLC. I have stacks of decorating magazines by the bed and subscribe to various design round-ups that are delivered to my email box each week.

There's one trend that appeared quite a bit amongst all these venues in 2012, one I really hoped was going to disappear in the new year. Yet, here is a photo that was delivered to my in- box today from HGTV.

Lovely, right? I agree. I love the way they made use of this rather challenging room (proportion-wise). Love the colors. Who wouldn't love that amazing window? Notice anything strange, though, in front of that window? Perhaps five, 10- to 12-foot high stacks of books? Yes, my friends, if you are new to do-it-yourself design, books are the new, (not really, though, since people have been displaying books since they've existed) low cost accessory. As a writer, I say, awesome! Buy books! Display them! Most of all...read them!

But, as a parent prone to anxious episodes whereby something heavy might fall on my little ones' heads, I beg you, designers, please stop already with the ridiculous book towers. I've seen nearly identical displays in photo spreads with toddlers in the picture. Who are they kidding? How long do you think it would take a toddler, or heck, an adult even, to have these books on the floor?

The accompanying article suggests that this is a great way to store your books, sans shelves, indicating that these are books you might currently be reading (not just display-only items). So, you know, if you really want that copy of Moby Dick, you'll find it at the bottom of that stack second from the left, the one that's going to crash into the window if you breathe on it. And your toddler? Well, I'm sure there must be a copy of Goodnight Moon in there for her somewhere. Let's just take that Fisher-Price bat and give all these stacks a good whacking.

Okay, this silly rant is almost done. But, let me just add that it's "trends" like this that keep parents from thinking they can have beautiful things and young children at the same time. I'm a fan of practicality, in all things, but especially in home design.

In 2013, and forever more, don't let this be your living room. Egads, just the sight of this makes me go all twitchy..