Monday, April 27, 2009

TGIM - Thank God It's Monday

Thank God it's Monday.

I never thought I see myself saying, thinking or writing that. I usually long for the weekend. I spend my weekdays in my office slaving at the computer, storytelling, and I really enjoy turning my brain off on Friday. However this weekend...yeesh.

It all started Saturday afternoon.

Actually, to tell this story properly, I have to give you a little backstory. I'll try to keep it short because, well, I don't want to lose my reader. Nevertheless, setting and history is important. Here it is: We live in Oklahoma. Oklahoma has snakes. Lots of snakes. Poisonous snakes. Scary snakes.

My background: I grew up in Indianapolis. Hardly any snakes. In fact, at the Indiana Dunes near Michigan City, IN, they hand out a pamphlet on What to do when you see the elusive, Indian rattlesnake (this is a real animal): 1) Determine your location, preferably via GPS; 2) Call the local park hotline and let them know where the snake is; 3) try not to scare said snake.
Reaction by Oklahomans to above description about what to do when you see a rattler in Indiana: Bursts of uncontrollable laughter.

Husband's background: He grew up in Germany. No snakes. Well, okay, there is this one thing that's like a snake that lives in Germany, but it's more like a lizard, slow, sweet, entirely harmless.

End of backstory.

It all started Saturday afternoon. The family had just finished our first heavy yardwork day in the flowerbeds. My husband and I were sitting on the front steps, nursing our sore muscles and drinking a beer. My kids were instantly bored.

Kids: "We're bored."
Me: "Go see your friends."
Kids: "Nobody's around."
Me: "Play with each other."
Kids: Glares and pained expressions.
Husband: "You can go to the creek."
Kids: "YEAY!!!!!"
Me: Refrain from killing husbad. I hate the creek. Houses that back up to it and that have pools regularly have water moccasins. Don't get me wrong. I went creek stomping as a kid, but I never saw a snake in a creek until I moved to Oklahoma, and they've all be water moccasins.
Me: Not wanting to scare children witless but maybe dissuade husband. "They have to take a phone in case something happens." (Important: our kids don't have cell phones).
Husband: Unperturbed. "They can take your phone."
Me: Refrain from walloping husband on head with beer bottle. There is, after all, still beer in it. "It was your idea. Give them your phone."
Husband: Fatal error number 1. "Okay."
Me: Fatal error number 2. "Fine."
Kids: "YEAY!!!!"
Kids take off to creek with dire upon-pain-of-death warning that they are not to lose said phone or go into creek with phone. Kids swear up and down on each other's lives they will follow this one little rule.
Fatal error number 3. We believe them.

7:15 kids lose creek.

We of course don't know this until Sunday morning after spending hours at the creek both before and after dark wading through water, rushes, tall grasses - with all the water moccasins and God knows what else - looking for said phone. I found it the next morning as I'm having my daughter retrace her steps, step for step, along the bank and then jumping from rock to rock in the middle of the creek (she's 10, she could have known better, I think). It was lying in the middle of the creek bed still shorting out.

Needless to say, the creek is now off-limits until adulthood for them (secretly, I'm relieved. No more snakes). We are paying for our stupidity by having to buy my husband a second phone (it was an iPhone, the lost one). My kids had the scare of their lives because they had to tell us they lost the phone. The oldest, the one who actually lost it, is grounded from technology of all sorts until her birthday, her 18th birthday (okay, not really, just her upcoming one in May). They both spent Sunday grounded, which means I had to stay home and finally got a chance to relax. And I've learned how to extract water from a phone. There's this nifty little trick that involves a plastic bag, phone and rice (or coffee beans), and/or a dryer with a drying rack you can put in the middle of it. Didn't work, but hey, I could share nifty information.

What a weekend. Thank God it's Monday (TGIM).

Friday, April 24, 2009

You Might Be a Writer If...

Rousseau cautioned in his writings that the way to true happiness was to walk the middle path, virtu, not too much of one or the other.

I wonder sometimes if his advice was self-directed. I mean, he was a writer and a philosopher, the double whammy. The likelihood of falling down Alice's rabbithole for forever and ever is pretty big. Did he know that? Is that why he tried to warn all future writers? Beware the rabbit hole???? Or was he trying to remind himself?

We writer aren't the best at nirvana-esque living. (If you think I'm exaggerating, see - Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, the list goes on and on and on ). I blame it on the chosen profession, writing.

You might be a writer vacillate wildly between "did I eat today?" to "I'm regrouting the shower for the fifth time."

The writing muse is a jealous lover. When it takes hold, the world falls away and I can't remember if I've done the most basic things, like eat. I have to stop and think. My stomach isn't any help. It sort of falls away too. There's no grumbling. No hunger pains. It's like I become one with the pages I'm working on and existing physically is there only so that my fingers move over the keyboard. Until I practically pass out, that is.

Now the other extreme is when the writing muse won't come out and play. Hugh Grant said in the film "Music and Lyrics": "Inspiration is for amateurs." Yeah, okay maybe, but it's a slow grind between days when it's there and when it's not. (And yes, I am using Hugh Grant logic and Rousseau-an wisdom in the same blog. You never know where enigmatic truths will rear their elusive heads!)

So what is a writer to do? There is that tempting window just to the left of my desk that I have pondered many a time throwing my computer through.

And then there's the kitchen floor that needs regrouting, the flower beds that need weeding, the grass that needs mowing, and the eternal pile of laundry that needs washing. The household chore list is endless. You can tell when the writing "thing" isn't going so well for me because the house really sparkles. Glows even.

And my kids are outside. My mood has a tendency to head south when I'm flummoxed in a piece. Writer mood swings are a whole different "you might be" piece in itself. That and self medication for said mood swings.

But I digress.

Writers swing back and forth passionately between falling down Alice's rabbit hole to not even knowing where the hole's hidden itself. We'd love for the entrance to imagination and storytelling to be open all the time, wide open, flowing with ideas open, but it's a fickle entrance. I've heard supplicating offerings, like chocolate, help. You can use the harder stuff. Hemingway, I think, used Scotch. Whiskey even. It worked for him...until he shot himself. Yeah, like I said, writers don't tend toward the middle path. We try. If only that damned door weren't so obstinate and mesmerizing!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Shout Out to Earth Day

I'm a little ahead of the rolling current this week, which is something. I'm usually trying to swim to keep up with it. Not this week. This week it's Earth Day. That's a big day for my kids. They go to a Montessori school, which hopefully explains A LOT.

Earth Day is a major event at their school. They make Earth Day shirts. They make art from recycled materials. They sell plants. They learn about the earth and how to nurture it. And then they pass it me.

Who, in proper academic fashion, researches the matter to death and then sits on all that information. Now that I have a blog, I finally have an outlet for it!

So here it comes - what is Earth Day. Hold onto your Birkenstocks. It's one helluva green ride. Actually, I should say hippie ride.

Yep, Earth Day flowered in the 60s, the late sixties. 1969 to be exact. According to popular lore (or the Santa Barbara Community Environmental Council): "The story goes that Earth Day was conceived by Senator Gaylord Nelson after a trip he took to Santa Barbara right after that horrific oil spill off our coast in 1969. He was so outraged by what he saw that he went back to Washington and passed a bill designating April 22 as a national day to celebrate the earth."

Yep, a senator did it. Senator Nelson. See, they do do something there in Washington.

He chose April 22 for strategic reasons. He wanted Earth Day to be a teach-in at universities across the U.S., and to have that, he wanted a day that didn't conflict with Spring Break, religious holidays like Easter or Passover, or exams. School needed to be in session, and the weather would be halfway decent. He chose, April 22, 1970. (The UN actually celebrates on the March equinox. I'm not exactly sure why, but it's a fun bit of trivia if you're, say, ever stuck in a elevator or LA traffic.)

Of course, someone had to see a subversive plot in there somewhere. Time ran a feature saying that some believed the whole thing was a Communist plot. It was the middle of the Cold War. Kruschev beating his shoe against the podium and all. As fate would have it, April 22 happens to be Vladimir Lenin's birthday. Word has it the FBI had surveillance up during the first Earth Day demonstrations. The Daughters of the American Revolution, bless their patriotic souls, protested the first event.

The first Earth Day also occurred smack dab in the middle of a huge debate and concern about, get this, GLOBAL COOLING. Wow. How times change.

Zero Population Growth was the catch phrase of the day. There was a major move underway to get nations to regulate and bring under control their population growth. The only one I've ever heard of getting on board is China.

Either way, a mass of people showed up, and that first demonstration is now clearly tagged as the beginning of the modern environmental movement. In the words of anthropologist Margaret Mead: "EARTH DAY is the first holy day which transcends all national borders, yet preserves all geographical integrities, spans mountains and oceans and time belts, and yet brings people all over the world into one resonating accord, is devoted to the preservation of the harmony in nature and yet draws upon the triumphs of technology, the measurement of time, and instantaneous communication through space."

What's it all mean? I supposed that depends on who you're talking to. Some, like bright green environmentalists, say "earth day symbolizes the marginalization of environmental sustainability" (I'm just quoting here). In other words, it's the duck and cover approach to the environmental disaster looming over us.

Me? I like it. It's a good reminder for the average Joe who is not BRIGHT green but willing to try and make a difference. We all want their to be a world for my kids, our grandkids, and their kids. I'm idealistic enough (and unnerved by Lois Lowry's The Giver) to say I secretly harbor the hope that we somehow get it together so that there to be polar bears in the wild, tigers in Korea, and the lynx in Canada. I'm trying my best. I recycle. I teach my kids about how to be kind to the environment. We hug trees. We save spiders. We turn off the water rather than letting it run.

It's the little things that count, as well as the big ones. These are things I can do. They are things my kids can do. They are things we all can do.

So here's my shout out to EARTH DAY 2009. Hug a tree if you get the chance. Pick up trash. Whatever. Give the earth a little love. She's a great planet.

Friday, April 17, 2009

You Might Be a Writer If...

Where do you get those ideas? Wide-eyed, mouths open, kids ask me this at least five times a day at a school visit. Let's face it, so do my friends. Until they read my books. My friends, that is.

The answer I give? Ideas are all around us. You just have to listen and choose the ones that speak to you.

The truth?
You might be a writer if, well, pilfer.

I'm not talking about stealing. That's called plagiarism. Okay, some authors steal, but then they also get caught and, say, outed on national television to such burning shame that they slink away never to be heard of again...or go off and write an even better, non-stolen book under a pen name. It's a toss up.

But what's all this pilfering about, you ask?

Ideas. Characters. Quirky personality traits. Settings. Mannerisms. Colloquialisms. Everything.

We authors are the worst. Like a magpie or a pack rat, we'll nick just about anything that catches our eye. My office cubbies are stuffed full of them. They flow out in reams across the floor of my study. These shiny baubles mesmerize me. I must have them, and once I do, I don't like to part with them. Ever. Until I need them in a book. And then, whoa Nellie. Get me some glue and a bedazzler. I'm going to work to add the sparkle.

Let me give you a few examples I have filched over the years.

Goofy way that third cousin of mine looks, the one I can't believe I'm related to = the way I describe the oddball member of either the squid, shark or dolphin family when I'm presenting at schools on my aquatically themed picture books. Believe me, we all have that goofy cousin, even squid, if you can imagine that.

My kids trying to kill each other with pointy pencils? Okay, first I removed pencils and made sure all eyeballs were still in functioning order, scolded for at least five minutes on how they shouldn't try to kill each other with pencils, and then guiltily snuck away to my office to write that idea down and used it in my latest middle grade novel which has twins who are major rivals.

Kid in daughter's class who has normal, everyday name, but insists the world call him Boo!? Oh yeah, totally appropriated for future use.

The list goes on and on and on and on.

Reactions from friends and family that find parts of their lives, their mannerisms, their pet dogs in my work?

Varied. Mostly, though, it's pretty positive. That's because we authors don't just use these things as is. We change it up. The baubles are hunks of coal waiting to be crunched, smashed, chiseled, shaped, molded, turned inside out, upside down and formed into something entirely new, alluring and very sparkly.

Which is why it's pilfering, not stealing.

I think.

Although I have to say my brother's been giving a wee bit of cheek lately. He is with the military and travels all over the world for work. He generously brings me back presents from said corners of the world. Lately, I've started hitting him up for contacts in all those corners because these things he brings me are such sparkly pretties they've given me ideas for children's magazine articles. But my brother's not returning my emails. Hmmmm.......yet another way to drive my brother crazy.

Oh yeah. Filing that tidbit away immediately!

So there you have it, authors pilfer. Pilfer, filch, appropriate, snag, purloin, pluck, borrow, cop, crib, liberate (personal favorite in the taking without permission verb list), requisition, walk away with, snatch, snare and moonlight from the lives of those around us.

Be careful friends and family. The worst part isn't that we pilfer. We're also notorious recidivists. Can you love us anyway?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Shout Out to Lemonade Stands

The sun was out. The weather warm. And the flowers blooming. It was a perfect day for a lemonade stand on Saturday, and my kids were all over it. Over the last year, they've become lemonade stand pros. They have their own stand, their own company name, they even sell cookies to spice things up a bit.

It's been a great way for me to teach them about "business." I grew up in a family where my father and mother ran my dad's CPA practice. I ate, drank and slept small business USA ever since I could remember. One summer, Dad employed me. I was ten. I spent a whole summer shredding paper. I got a break every once in a while when I got to take out old pages in the tax books and replace them with new ones, but mostly, it was 8 hours a day of paper shredding. Which taught me something. By the end of that summer, I knew I SO VERY MUCH wanted to go to college so that I didn't end up spending my life shredding paper.

Being an author means I don't have the paper shredding to motivate my kids, but I do have the all-American entrepreneurial spirit. The lemonade stand is the one thing just about any kid can do that will, if they work at it, earn them some cold hard cash. What kid doesn't want that?

Mine check weather reports this time of year to see if Saturday is ideal lemonade stand material. They make sure we have supplies. They talk up the stand around the neighborhood a few days beforehand. Come Saturday, they have a booming business. Now, they usually end up having at least five kids working the stand/taking breaks to climb trees and play, which turns the whole business into a great way to spend the day outdoors. I'm proud of them. They always make sure and take out part of the profits to buy new supplies, and the divvy up the earnings evenly across all kids who work the stand. They've learned about profit and loss and supply and demand and neither is ten. And they didn't have to shred any paper!

Yeay, lemonade stand! I love lemonade stands!!!

Which made it all the sweeter when Kim Kasch nominated me for a Lemonade Stand Award for great Gratitude/ or attitude. Yippee!! Virtual Lemonade Stands. I love it.

To accept the award I have to share the Lemonade by --

1. Post the logo on my blog.
2. Nominate 10 blogs with great gratitude/attitude.
3. List and link my nominees.
4. Alert them of their nomination on their blog.

The 10 blogs I nominate are as follows --

1. Barrie Summy
2. P.J. Hoover at Roots in Myth
3. Becky Ramsey at Wonders Never Cease
4. Tressa at American in Norway
5. Joy at On Finding Balance
6. Christina Farley at Chocolate for Inspiration
7. Drunken Bee
8. Keri Mikulski
9. Sonia Marsh at Gutsy Writer

And, just to make sure Christina isn't alone on the other side of the globe,
10. Maureen Crisp

Shout out to lemonade stands both real and virtual. They are the best!

Friday, April 10, 2009

You Might Be a Writer If...

This week the weather has been all over the spectrum in Oklahoma. We've gone from low 20s to high 80s all in one week. And all while I'm in the middle of a work in progress. I wouldn't have noticed the weather swings if it hadn't been for the fact that they've made me think about what I'm wearing. Don't I usually at least think about what to put on each day anyway, you wonder?


You might be an author is not high on your list of things to obsess about.

It seems like each profession has its "uniform" of sorts. Businesspeople, lawyers, anyone in corporate America generally wears a suit. Teachers wear more comfortable clothing, kid friendly. Mechanics wear something that can get dirty.

But authors?

We spend all of our time by ourselves in an imaginary world. My imaginary friends don't care what I wear, just so long as whatever I'm wearing doesn't keep me from focusing all my energies on them. Granted, there are moments when authors have to at least act as though they care about personal appearance, like, when we have to talk to large groups of non-authors, who might not understand the baggy sweatpants, oversized shirt, disheveled hair, coffee mug permanently attached to one hand, three pens in your hair secret author uniform, if you can call it that.

When I'm up to my eyes deep in a manuscript, even that can be a high functioning look. I just don't care how I look. It's awful! I'll wear the same clothes for a couple of days on end. Granted I change to sleep and run, but then it's right back into the comfy jeans or sweatpants and baggy shirt, and thick socks. Whatever. Whatever it was I picked out when I was still thinking about clothes.

When I was writing my dissertation, it really got bad. I wore the same pair of loose, ultra comfy sweatpants every day for a year. Okay, okay, I washed them! I changed out of them if I had to leave my writing cocoon and go into the real world - the library was an exception. I didn't change for that. Which probably explains why those pants became my dissertation. I couldn't write without them. I wore them all the time when I was writing, even when I was nine months pregnant.

Yeah, that was a little scary. I retired the dissertation pants when I graduated, but they still call to me (because I couldn't throw them away or recycle them). So far, I've resisted. But only barely. They are the most comfortable pair of pants I own, even if they knees are patched up and the color is fading big time.

Why, why, why are we writers like this? It's almost like keeping the clothing the same, keeps my mood the same, which means I can dive back into the manuscript a little more easily. If I change from one thing to the next, it changes my mood. Bright and cheerful to somber and dark, or heavy to light really affects my mood. And that affects my writing.

Nonetheless, I'm not ensconced in the ivory tower of graduate school anymore. I've got kids. I live in suburbia America. I have to change it up a bit; otherwise what will the neighbors think? Still, I do "secret" stuff like wear the same necklace every single day for a piece until it's done. It helps, but man do I miss those dissertation pants. Miss them...

Honestly, it's no wonder so many writers burrow away from the real world into almost hermit-like isolation. How else can we wear the writer's true uniform that enables one to write that heartbreaking work of staggering genius???

Monday, April 6, 2009

Shout Out to Spring Cleaning

Ah, it's that time of year again. Time to roll up my sleeves, pull out every cleaner known to man, and delve into the muck and grub that's accumulated over the last six months of wintry weather, as well as de-clutter.

Yes, it's time for Spring Cleaning. I never know when the mood will hit, or where. Neither does my family, which makes them a little jumpy this time of year, especially my daughters. They just don't ever know when I'm is going to come into their rooms with that gleam in my eye. The cleaning gleam. I've glanced myself at these moments, and gleam is, well, it's a little too kind. It looks more like an obssessed, bright green Hulkish glow. I'd be seeking out cover if I were a kid too.

The mood came on full force this weekend. There was a catalyst. It wasn't the frigid temps or the rain. It's the guests we have coming for the week. I get cleaning crazy when I have guests. As if somehow having a clean house will convince my guests I'm a decent person. Weird. Insane. Totally inherited, and yet I'm powerless to change it. So I clean. At times, I even contemplate painting entire rooms because of marks on the wall. Yeah, I know. Very OCD. I don't need an intervention yet. So far, my writing sort of keeps me in balance. Those WIPs sitting on my laptop whine and moan if they don't get enough attention, which keeps me away from the paintbrush. So far.

I started this weekend in the guest room doing the usual guests are coming routine - stripping the bed, cleaning out the closet - which is my only "throw it in here and hopefully forget about closet" - and the bathroom. My kids were relieved. No Spring Cleaning for them! Until I went into my eldest daughter's room to get the denim chair/sleepover bed for the littlest guest who is coming.

I pulled the chair back and...oiy! Pandemonium. Hide-it-quick Central.

A green haze came over me. My fingers began to itch. The next thing I remember, I was running downstairs to get a BIG black plastic bag. My daughter was running to take cover.

What is it with hiding stuff behind other stuff in a kid's room? I mean, why not throw it away? Why hide it? Because in the end, I end up throwing it away and they've completely forgotten they hid it in the first place. I found a whole panoply of oddities - bits of string woven together in a macrame that's supposed to be something but has been abandoned, the missing bottoms to her two-piece bathing suit, Valentine's Day candy, various started but unfinished drawings, love notes (acckk! I didn't throw these away of course, but my gosh, she's only 10, love notes???), clothes - worn, dirty and clean, and toys half-played with, half-cleaned up, and books. Okay, the books I don't mind. I just rearrange and organize. But the rest? Which got me to thinking as I sorted and cleaned: What is it with kids hoarding stuff?

Until I started to really sort through the stuff and saw some of what it was. Granted, there was a good deal of junk. But there were also some treasures in the trash - the Williamsburg day pass, the love note, and the Christmas picture from my youngest child made for her sister. Funny how it's the insignificant bits that warm the fondest memories. They are, to quote mastercard, priceless.

Despite the itch in my fingers to throw the whole lot away, I tread carefully amongst the memories. The leftover candy had to go, so did the dirty clothes, albeit into different piles. I think I can salvage the dirty clothes. The love note, well, it went back where I found it, behind the chair, safe. So did the day pass and the picture. One man's trash is another man's treasure. This was kid treasure.

My shout out today is to Spring Cleaning. Thanks to the cleaning craze, I got a walk down memory lane this weekend. A soft, gentle, warm one.

Friday, April 3, 2009

You Might Be a Writer If...

There is nothing scarier to a writer than an empty page and an incessant, blinking cursor. Well, except maybe one-upping yourself.

You're only as good as your last book, after all.

Yet, how far will a writer go to improve? We all go to conferences, sign up for workshops, even take online courses to refresh, renew and reinvigorate. But what about the mother of all honing exercises. What about (gulp) school?

You might be a writer go back to school to become a better writer.

Now this probably gets at what kind of writer you want to be. Do you want to earn a million bucks for your work (popular), or do you want to be read in one hundred years (literary)? It seems like, although by no means is this an all-or-nothing scenario, but it seems like those who are more literary in focus are the ones who end up in school. I mean, it's not the best place to practice or win popularity, at least it wasn't for me, which really outs me, but then I'm 40 and I'm going back to school. Maybe the second time around I'll be popular? I've lost the glasses, but I still play violin. I'm doomed, aren't I?


Nonetheless, I applied to the Vermont College MFA in Writing for Children and got in!! Very exciting. I know, I know, not very exciting for everybody. I mean, I'm going back to homework, reading assignments, deadlines for papers, papers!, lectures, etc, etc, etc. Then again, I really did love college. A lot.

My reasons for going back to school to get this MFA are pretty simple. I want to be the best writer I can be. I'm intent, driven - maybe even a little obsessed - with getting better. This is the first thing I've worked at where I don't feel like there's a limit on "better." As a runner, I know my legs are only so long. My lungs can only process so much oxygen. My muscles can only contract and expand so much. (And I'm not getting any younger, but let's not talk about that) I'm limited physically in what I can do as a runner.

But as a writer? We apparently only use 10% of our brains. That means, 90% is just languishing there, waiting for someone to find the key and unlock it. 90% Think about that. Could be lots and lots and lots of brainpower just waiting to be harnessed and put to good work. I know, I know, I could be way off. Nobody really knows what that 90% is all about. I may only be unlocking, say, defunct, primitive programming that has to be stored somewhere, or storage space, or gobbly gook, but I'm being optimistic and hoping it's extra brain power.

I'll find out come, July 9, when I'm off to Montpelier, Vermont, to start an MFA in Writing for Children. I'm still very bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about it. Excited to say the least. After that 8th think piece, I may be singing a different tune, but growing is hard work. Nobody said it would be fun. Then again, I'm going to be hanging out with authors, talking books, dissecting and understanding how some of the great pieces of literature were put together, and then using that knowledge to bring my own ideas to life. Just thinking about it makes me want to rub my hands together and break out into deep, effusive, Mad Scientist laughter.


Me thinks, I'm going to have fun...but what about my teachers???