Monday, November 23, 2015

The Perfect Clutch for the Bookish Gal

It’s a book? It’s a purse? It’s both! My book club met recently for a night of wine and crafting (we sometimes also read books!).

Under the expert tutelage of my friend Michele, we created clutch purses out of hardcover books. I used “Elements of Botany” by Joseph Bergen, Revised Edition (because only a loser would use the original), copyright 1906.

The first thing I did was slice right through the book’s beautiful cover, accidentally, while trying to gut the pages with a very sharp knife. This is an old, brittle book, but luckily it was nothing some duct tape couldn’t fix.

I won’t lie. This project was a bit complicated. It also revealed one of my key weaknesses. I don’t sew. I struggle with putting a button on. I use the iron-on stuff to affix badges to the kids’ scout uniforms. I really should learn. This deficiency all goes back to some very complicated baggage concerning my mother and admonitions to be an expert at sewing and cleaning and cooking or no man would ever want me (don’t tell my husband!) and I’d become an old crone. But let’s save all that for a future post...

So my friend did the sewing parts, and I did all the cutting and gluing, and unfortunately, the very key parts of the cutting and gluing came well after 10 p.m. and two glasses of wine.

Consequently, the edges are a bit wonky. But it’s still pretty cool. If you’re interested in trying your hand at this project, you can find full instructions on the blog, “A Beautiful Mess”

Now, I need to find something to do with the “guts” of this book, which are full of beautiful illustrations. Ideas anyone?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


In polls on well-being (aka happiness) conducted by the Gallup Corporation, “Community” is considered one of the five essential elements to a thriving well-being. (I read a lot of books on the topic when I was researching my novel, “Happy, Indiana.”) Community is quite simply the way we’re all taking care of each other. Specifically, Gallup’s surveys look at whether people consider their community a good “fit” for them, how deeply they engage in community activities and, especially on my mind today given all the fresh turmoil in the world, how safe they feel.

I’m writing this morning at a little table in my living room, set right against a large picture window overlooking the street. The sun is streaming in. A neighbor is walking his wife the couple blocks up to her office at our local college. Another is walking his dog. They can see me through the window and note that I’m still in my penguin pajamas (Hi!).

As I look out the window, I think how many neighbor's houses I could stroll into right now. Because I have their keys. They have mine, too. I'm thinking about the time when I locked myself out one freezing cold day, which I only realized while standing in front of the door holding a toddler in one arm and several bags of groceries in the other. The neighbor across the street noticed me out her window and ran my key over. I’m thinking of the couple who just moved in right next door and had our family over for dinner, rather than the other way around. They bought presents for my kids and attached a note that said they were excited to be our neighbors.

There’s a question on the Gallup survey that asks what would happen if you lost your wallet in your neighborhood (with your ID and some money in it). First, would you get it back at all? Second, would you get it back with the money still there? I propose a third answer: I would get it back, with all the money, along with a plate of cookies baked by the neighbor who found it, quite possibly snickerdoodles. Although…if it was found by the teenage neighbor who recently stole stuff out of my unlocked (I know, I know) car at night (Hope you’re enjoying that “Sound of Music” CD!), I may not get it back. 

No neighborhood is perfect. But this morning, at my window, sipping coffee in my pajamas, my overwhelming feeling is: I. Am. So. Lucky. I’m looking out at these people knowing they’ve got my back, and I’ve got theirs.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Book Fair!

I’m a PTO mom, and yes, I have a ponytail and yoga pants, but I don’t drive a minivan so there's that. My kids started school, and I started volunteering—helping in the classroom, baking the occasional cookie, leading the grandparents to the gym for the big concert—oh, and I’m also part of an amazing group of people building an awesome outdoor play and learning environment for our school, but that will be a post for another day.

Today, I want to talk about one of my favorite volunteer tasks—co-chairing our Scholastic Book Fair. I’m just coming up for air after our fall fair (we’ll do a smaller fair in the spring). It’s a lot of work, but I have to admit, there are moments when I’m positively giddy. When I arrive in the evening to set up, and all of those boxes are stacked on the stage (our fair is held in the school’s performing arts center), it’s such an anticipatory moment. I throw back the lids, revealing stack after stack of paperbacks and hardcovers, preschool picture books to middle grade novels. It’s like…oh, it’s something like Christmas, though of course most of the books will not be mine to keep; I’ll end up purchasing a half dozen for my kids, and the rest will find other homes or be packed away again at the fair’s conclusion.

As I stack them on the tables, positioning them just so, touching those glossy covers (is this getting weird? Tell me if it’s getting weird...). But, honestly, it’s all I can do to keep standing, and not just sit cross-legged in the middle of the room and pull down book after book and read. There are so many books here I’ve never read! And my head gets filled with ideas for children’s books I’d like to write, but, oh man, writing kids’ books is so hard! 

My absolute favorite fair ritual occurs after everything is set up, when I walk into the room alone the next day, getting ready to open. It’s a large room, with tiered, carpeted seating off to my left. On my right is the shiny, polished wood floor of the stage, where most of the books are waiting. It’s completely quiet as I walk to the panel of light switches and slide each lever up, taking the room from dark, to dim, to full brightness, the spotlights hitting the books on the stage, illuminating them like the stars they are. I want there to be trumpets, but it’s just my breathing. When I come back the next day, there will be a few less, and I’ll throw the lights on again, wanting to say, “Hey there, friends. Some of you will be leaving here today, but don’t worry, you’ll have a good home and people will love you.”

Lest you think I have just come by this particular weirdness, let me explain that I have always felt this way about books. I remember sitting in the closet-sized library at my elementary school, and wondering if I could read all the books in a year’s time. The anal, list-maker in me wanted a print-out of the names of all the books so I could go about systematically crossing them all off. I didn’t want to miss anything! And spectacular libraries have always made my jaw drop. The first time I walked into the law library at the University of Michigan, I believe I started to cry; it was just so beautiful. I believe libraries do for me what churches do for some other people, filling me with a sense of reverence and awe. Books! They’re as close to a religious experience as I get.

But of course, I’ve got no time to dawdle at our school’s book fair. Kids will be coming each day at lunch, some with a check for $20 to purchase as many books as they can, though quite a few of the kids at our economically disadvantaged public school will enter the room with a Ziploc full of pennies or a couple quarters they have left from lunch. Unfortunately, they can’t get a book for that. All I have to sell for 50 cents is a pencil, a bookmark, an eraser that, ironically, looks like a twenty dollar bill. Still, the money we raise goes back into the school’s reading program, so every kid benefits.

One of my joys is when parents come in with their kids in the evenings, fresh off parent-teacher conferences, and the kids are pulling books off the shelves, holding them up like jewels to mom or dad, asking, “Can I have this???” And when the parent looks down and says, “Yes.”

“Would you like a bag for that?” I ask at the check-out, but I know the child wants to carry it. She wants to feel that book in her hands that same way I do.

My favorite memory from last week's fair was when I was sitting at the cash register, just after opening. A little boy ran past, on his way to the cafeteria.  He was heading to lunch and did not stop, but he briefly glanced inside the room as he went past in a blur, and I heard his voice echo in the hallway, yelling, “Book Fair!!!!” I know how he feels.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Killing My Darlings

 A lot of well-worn advice gets passed around a writing workshop, things like “Show, Don’t Tell,” and “Write What You Know” and “Hey, Brah, check out this crocheted hat I made.”

Students learn all sorts of “rules” about writing in their introductory classes, and then they get to ADVANCED WORKSHOP where they learn to forget the rules and trust their instincts, but the problem is, those instincts are as poorly formed as the clay bowls they made at the same local art center where they learned to crochet.

I’m old enough to have learned the rules, thrown the rules out, trusted my instincts, abandoned them, circled back around to some of the rules and found that a few are finally making some real, serious sense. The one I’m thinking about lately is the admonition, most widely attributed to William Faulkner: “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

The “darlings” referred to are those phrases, or paragraphs, or even whole pages, that you really think are the bees’ knees, writing that you pass right over during editing, because, why change that perfect phrase, that sentence that was clearly delivered right into your brain via a host of the angels of dead, brilliant writers?

Here’s the thing. Sometimes those phrases actually suck with a capital “S.” Only, you can’t see it, because you are in love with your own staggering talent. Such a thing happened to me with the first chapter of my recently completed novel, “Happy, Indiana.”

You may recall that I went away for a whole week, to a friend’s house in the way-too-hip-for-me city of Austin (where every woman is wearing a flouncy sundress and cowboy boots with a flair that says she just grabbed any old thing out of her closet, and I am wearing two blue things from Kohls), and I wrote my first chapter. First chapters of course are hugely important and full of so many must-dos. 

You must establish the voice and tone of the book. You must establish your main character’s motivation. You must establish the setting. You must give a preview of the main plot points, at the very least giving a hint at some struggle the character is going to have to overcome during the course of the book. You must have enough pacing so that the reader wants to read on to chapter two. You must do all this, if you are a literary novelist, with beautiful prose.

It’s not easy. And so that first chapter takes on a life of its own. It becomes almost a separate entity from the rest of the book, from chapters 2-25 where I really “told the story.” The first chapter becomes idolized and bronzed and set on a shelf. By the time I finished the first draft of the novel, I’d read that first chapter so many times, I didn’t even “see” it anymore. It’s like the basket of clean, folded laundry that almost always resides in my bedroom. I could put it away…but what basket? Where?

Once I starting showing my book to friends, I realized my error. They loved the book…once they got to chapter three. Chapter three is too late, folks. Harsh as it is, agents won’t read past chapter one unless they are hooked, and you need an agent if you want to publish in a big, or even semi-big way. And then you need to hook a publisher, and then, eventually, readers.

I rewrote my first three chapters, taking out anything that wasn’t essential. I seriously sliced and diced. I started the book right at a critical moment of action with my character already struggling with challenges. There’s no sitting on the on-ramp. You’ve got to merge into traffic, and fast, even for literary books these days. Everyone’s attention span is getting shorter and shorter, and I can clench my fists against that fact as much as I want, or I can accept it and work harder.

I had to work harder, to examine a bunch of paragraphs I loved and really ask, what do I love about this? Because if I only love the style, it has to go. If it doesn’t advance my plot, add something to deepen my protagonist, etc., it has to go.

There were way more darlings in that first chapter than anywhere else in the book. Enough that I’ve decided to make a new rule, and I’m writing it here so you hold me to it. From now on, with future books, I will craft a first chapter, but it will only be a place-holder. I will know, right from the start, that when I finish the book and have a much better idea of where it actually went (rather than where I thought it was going to go), I must take a hatchet to chapter one, knock down its door “Here’s Johnny!” style and leave no word unscathed.