Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Don't forget to live

I was proud of myself.
All four kids were fed and appropriately dressed, and we had made it to the high school recognition night on time. We'd even picked up my mother-in-law on the way. That was a huge success for me, considering all I had tried to juggle that week.
So I was smiling inside and out as I made my way to the table full of cookies, veggies and cheese with crackers.
Until I looked at my feet to determine why my gait felt funny.
I was wearing two different shoes -- both black, both ankle boots, but one with a slightly higher heel than the other. I made the best of it, pointing out my error my family and to the women serving the food. We all had a good laugh.
But I knew it wasn't a good sign.
Summer was quickly approaching and I wanted to enjoy the time with my kids. Stress was threatening to make that impossible. Something had to give. So I examined my priorities.
There were people who needed me: the kids, my husband, my mother-in-law and my father. My sister was terminally ill and lived a state away. I wanted to be available if she or her family needed me, too.
I wasn't willing to push the people in my life to the sidelines.
That left two possibilities: my health or my writing, and I had already vowed to improve my health.
The timing was perfect.
I had just finished one novel rewrite and was almost done with a second. My agent would need time to read both. I emailed my agent and told her I planned to take the summer off. She agreed to read the manuscripts over the summer and start the submission process in the fall.
So here we are.
I've had wonderful summer with the kids, though it never seems long enough. I was able to be there for my sister's husband and children when she died. I visited my father in the nursing home weekly and helped with my mother-in-law's care as she recovered from a heart attack.
My husband and I shared many-a-coffee and glass of wine on the porch, watching the deer.
School starts in less than a week.
I began to prepare about two weeks ago, organizing my notes and my thoughts. As I sat there, I got thinking about the advice so many writers hear and take to heart, that we need to write every day, that daily writing is essential to the craft.
And I got the urge to type.
I wrote a blog post.
The post was picked by a magazine that is well-read by fans of my genre.
I wrote a short story.
The story was accepted in an anthology that will be released next year.
I'm writing another blog post now.
I'm sure daily writing schedules work for those who can do it, but I've never had the time. I am fortunate if I can write for a few hours twice a week. Yet it hasn't hurt me. I've completed  four novels and I have an agent who believes they will sell. I took two months off and immediately placed two pieces in publications. I plotted out my next novel during swimming lessons, long walks and long drives
Of course, we all need to practice our craft to improve, but what we often forget is that sitting at the keyboard is only part of the process. Thinking, experiencing, and thinking some more is just as essential.
For two months, I produced no writing, but I wrote in my head, collecting experiences, analyzing those experiences and letting my imagination roam.  My creativity did not fade during my time away from my laptop. Rather, I would argue, it was enhanced.
My advice to aspiring writers?
Write, but don't forget to live.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Inside Sing Sing



I had expected a journalist’s tour when I visited Sing Sing Correctional Facility in July, the kind where I’d meet hand-picked inmates; visit only clean, curse-free cell blocks; and encounter corrections officers who were instructed to wear only their sternest and most focused expressions.
But this was a tour for mystery writers and no one seemed concerned we would rush back to our laptops, type up secret memos crudely written on napkins and passed to us by inmates of the maximum-security prison with stories of mistreatment, conspiracies or trumped-up charges, and then publish them, inciting public outrage.
I had no responsibilities and no power to persuade.
My status as a fiction writer gave me freedom.
It was a relief.
I came to Sing Sing seeking the realism that is critical to good fiction, and I got it.
Well, okay. So they didn’t open the doors to the isolation cells, take us through the psych ward or allow us to fan out in the recreation yards to mingle with the inmates, but I’m cool with that. And I fully understand the presence of Superintendent Michael Capra throughout our tour led to a wee bit more politeness than we might have experience on our own.
I’m cool with that, too.
With so many imposing gates locked behind us and in front of us, it was comforting to know we were accompanied by a man who could make the inmates’ lives even more hellish should they attempt anything at all.
Like many Sing Sing newbies, I got lost trying to find the entrance to the prison, which is located in Ossining 30 minutes from New York City. I was steered to the huge sage-green bars that protected the main doors by two kind strangers who lived in Sing Sing’s shadow. Its cinematic appeal is immediately obvious. The prison, with the skeleton of its oldest buildings mixed among its newer, yet still quite ancient facilities, sits on a hill overlooking a wide section of the Hudson River.
It would make an excellent site for a plush resort.
Our group of 20 members of Mystery Writers of America stood outside chatting until the officer at the gate had taken each of our licenses through the bars and then admitted us a few at a time. We emptied our pockets (I had to give up my gum! Apparently gum is useful for disabling locks.), stepped through metal detectors and got our hands stamped with that invisible ink that shows only under ultraviolet lights.
Sing Sing, New York State’s third oldest prison, is home to about 1,600 inmates and most are serving time for murder. With a ratio of one correction officers for every 60 inmates, they don’t mess around. Yet, despite the intimidating atmosphere, three inmates in green jump suits were allowed outside the gates to haul boxes down the steps we waited on. They were cautious and respectful, and the officers who oversaw them did so with a wary kind of trust.
As I watched them, I understood they were probably among the minority – the inmates unlikely to return, the ones who took advantage of college and vocational programs in hopes of succeeding when they are released. About 95 percent of Sing Sing’s inmates will someday experience freedom again, Superintendent Capra told us. That gives them hope, which is an important motivator for better behavior. The biggest challenge for Capra and the staff is getting inmates to recognize and embrace that hope so they never come back.
The superintendent began our tour with the auditorium and worship areas, where Sing Sing offers rooms for people of any and all religions. Like much of the prison, the auditorium is made of aging concrete and the rooms lack good ventilation. It feels and smells of an old, leaky basement, a good reminder that the people who worship there have major sins to address. Many years ago, an inmate lured a female officer to the adjacent chapel with a false phone call, the superintendent told us. The inmate raped and killed her where we stood.
Another good reminder.
Next, we toured the 88-cell honor block, where the cells are unlocked for most of the daylight hours and inmates can wander outside to work out, play volleyball or garden; play games or read on the picnic tables in the hallways; or venture to the basement to cook meals or do laundry. They also hold jobs and sometimes do paperwork for administrators.
The aroma from the basement was enticing as we descended. An inmate was making some kind of spicy pasta dish with food he’d bought from the commissary. Further down the hall, two inmates were doing laundry just steps from the shower area, where, unlike in the rest of the prison, inmates can sud-up behind curtains, enjoying a little privacy.
As the superintendent talked with the group, I chatted with an inmate about cooperation among the honor block residents, how they help each with laundry and meals. A corrections officer, with a hint of panic in his expression, ended the conversation after just a few minutes. Despite my curiosity, a part of me was grateful. Twice during my 11-year journalism career, I was lunged at by inmates, and both times it came out of nowhere.
It was good to know the corrections officer had my back.
The honor block, where feral cats feed out of dishes placed in the stairwell, can be deceiving. As Superintendent Capra reminded us, it is home to only a small percentage of inmates who have proven themselves over the years. Their living quarters are in sharp contrast with A block, where inmates stared down at us from four tiers of 8x10 cells (600 cells in all) either still locked up for the noontime count or on their way to lunch, cramped on the fenced-in catwalks that couldn’t have been more than about eight feet wide.
My plotting mind imagined what it must be like for a corrections officer, carrying only a baton (Guns are not allowed inside.) who must walk from one end of the catwalk to the other while the inmates are moving out of their cells. Corrections officers never know when they might get punched, slashed, spit on, covered in urine or hit with feces. One-third of the officers are females, who have other issues to deal with. It is not a job I covet, but it is a job I greatly respect, even more so after seeing first-hand the crowding on those walkways.
Our walk-through ended with an indoor recreation area with a basketball court, gym equipment and tables for gathering and playing board games. Days are divided into three parts for inmates. They must be active for at least two of those parts, working jobs for money toward commissary purchases, hanging out in the recreation yard or attending classes. No baggy clothes allowed during recreation. It’s too easy to hide weapons in clothing or blend in after an incident. No milling around in large groups either.
Then we talked about what we didn’t see – crisis intervention teams that track gang formations, counselors who wander among the inmates to study the culture and keep threats at bay, the inmates who are liaisons to the administration, offering ways to keep their fellow residents busy and out of trouble while also relaying expectations to the general population.
The superintendent treated us to lunch afterward in the administrative building and shared his views on the portrayal of prisons in fiction, both on screen and in print. For the most part, he said, the job of a corrections officer is not all that exciting, so he understands we have to spice it up a bit. Quite a bit. Historically, administrators have cooperated with groups that want to film at the prison.
He’s unbothered by it all.
But I found the reality truly intriguing and full of potential.
When the prison gates closed behind me and I stepped into the sun (with my gum once again tucked into my pocket ), my mind began swimming with possibilities – plots, characters, motivations, settings, the works – all stemming from what I had seen, felt, smelled and heard. The real stuff. Unspiced. Fresh in my mind.
Reality.
That’s what suspends disbelief.
That’s what elevates certain novels above the rest.
I'd most certainly gotten what I'd come for.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Oops. I grew as a writer, but so did my waistline.

Four months ago, my husband bought me a Fitbit.
We live in a large house with three levels on lots of land in the country.
I was sure I'd be racking up those steps in no time.
Instead, I looked at my wrist after a long day of writing, transporting children to school and to various activities, making dinner and putting kids to bed to find I'd walked only a little more than 3,000 steps.
Experts recommend 10,000 per day.
It was quite a shock for a formerly obsessive runner with six marathons in my past, but it forced me to face reality.
I've completed three novels over the past five years and I've gained an average of ten pounds per novel. (That's on top of the pounds I'd kept after giving birth to my twins eight years ago.)
Writing wasn't the only distraction from my health (We moved, built a new house, and our aging parents grew more dependent on us.), but it has been a big one.
And I know I'm not alone in this.
I've watched several writers grow with me during this same time frame. Some of us have ramped up our writing to distract ourselves from the painfully slow submission process. Others are newly published authors under pressure to get the next novels out.
We share an insatiable passion for writing, but we have one other important thing in common.
We are all parents of school-aged children.
It makes sense. When we parent-writers look at our priorities, we often find our own health is the easiest thing to put on the back burner. Our health affects no one but ourselves in the short run and we honestly believe the priority shift is just temporary.
We'll start eating better in a month or so.
We'll go back to the gym after the holidays.
We'll get more sleep once this latest project is completed.
But that time never comes.
The months pass as do the years and, as the pounds accumulate and the muscles whither, it gets harder and harder to muster the enthusiasm required to shed the weight and rebuild strength.
Writing is my passion.
It's my past and my future.
It's my greatest priority next to my family.
But those numbers on my wrist made me realize writing would have to share that second-place ranking from now on.
I miss running.
I miss being healthy.
I miss the way my clothes used to fit me.
I want to keep up with my kids.
So I started by focusing on my step goal.
No more nonstop writing.
Nowadays, I take breaks.
I walk our quarter-mile driveway to the mailbox. I walk the trails on the property. I walk the country roads. I walk laps around the playground while my youngest kids play. It's 2 p.m. now and I'm at nearly 5,000 steps.
My efforts have paid off. I've stopped gaining weight.
But that is not enough.
My daughter is running on her school's cross-country team this fall. She needs to build her endurance and I vowed to help her. To do so, I need to lose weight and get back in shape again. So, a few weeks ago, I started doing five minutes of floor exercises every other day and jogging a bit on my walks.
Last week, I ran a mile with her at the track and even did a little speedwork.
I jumped roped for ten minutes a couple of evenings and I swam half a mile the other day at the YMCA.
It's too soon to see any results on the scale, but something cool happened last night.
My husband and I were talking as we walked the quarter-mile hill that is our driveway at a fairly brisk pace. I realized as we neared the top that I wasn't short of breath. Not at all. Not even a teensy bit.
That had never happened before.
The feeling that overwhelmed me was much like completing the first quarter of a new novel. I know I have a long ways to go toward my goal, but I feel motivated. Invigorated. I feel like this is going somewhere and that each step brings me closer, just as each paragraph brings me closer to the end of a novel.
My productivity as a writer has suffered, but not nearly as much as I'd feared.
I'm fine with that because when I do finally get published, I'd like to be healthy enough to enjoy the royalties.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A business revived; a passion reignited

Life was crazy when we made the decision to move from a Cincinnati suburb to rural and mountainous North Central Pennsylvania.
It got even crazier after we moved.
The older kids were nine and ten, and starting a new school for the first time.
We did our best to make it extra challenging.
We live in Pennsylvania, but we placed them in a neighboring New York State district. We pulled them away from the Museums Center, The Cincinnati Zoo, Kings Island and Newport on the Levee, relocating them to a place where the nearest mall was fifty miles away.
Then we gave them tiny rooms in a house with bats, a furnace that struggled and no air conditioning.
They needed me.
The twins were less bothered by such aspects of the move.
They loved the house, their rooms and the neighbors.
But they were three and, as adorable as they were, they were trouble.
They darted outside and in different directions whenever they got the chance. They used their fists, teeth and feet to relieve their frustrations with each other. They were impossible to discipline, yanking each other out of time-outs, tipping over high chairs when I tried confining them with the chair's buckles, and screaming in unison when they didn't get their way.
They were (and are) loving and good-natured, but they had caught the independence bug and they were on the move.
Constantly.
I'd left all my babysitters behind, so there was no one to take charge of the kids while I slipped away to Panera or Starbucks or a charming cafe to work on the next novel. In reality, there was no place to go anyway, no place with wifi, coffee and a corner table.
Only a deli that closed as night fell.
My husband did his best to help, but he was frequently on the road for work.
Something had to give.
That something was my online retail business, Exclusive Writer Gifts.
Financially, it was a minor blow, not even a scratch, really.
The business didn't net much, probably because I didn't advertise much. It was something I started, with my husband's help and encouragement, out of love and kept fueling out of love. It helped me keep a foot in the grown-up world, and it distracted me from the sometimes-depressing realities of my quest for traditional publication.
Money was not the object (though it was, most definitely, appreciated).
But there was no room in the house anyway for the note cards designed by my sister-in-law and printed by my brother-in-law, or the mugs and pens I had made especially for the business by Cincinnati businesses, or the scale or boxes or biodegradable packing peanuts.
We packed it all away and trucked it to the storage unit and my mother-in-law's barn, where we kept our overflow.
In time, the older kids adjusted and flourished, declaring they never wanted to go back, except maybe for a visit. They learned to appreciate their surroundings and their small-school atmosphere. They started to feel at ease in my husband's hometown, where, they learned, they are related to more people than they can count.
Every year, the twins became easier and easier to handle. They started to grasp consequences and they became eager to please, an excellent combination. They also started school, which gave me more time for my writing.
But last year was the big year.
Last year, we realized a dream.
We built what will be our final house, a timber-frame hybrid with air conditioning, a new furnace and no bats. All the kids' rooms are the same size: big enough. My husband and I each have an office and, we even have room for guests.
We no longer needed a storage unit or space in the barn, so we started moving the boxes we hadn't opened in nearly five years.
Just before Christmas, my husband lugged a case of coffee mugs inside.
Then he brought the boxes and the note cards and the envelopes.
We dug more until we found the scale and everything else I had packed away, all the remnants of Exclusive Writer Gifts, and that was when it hit me. The craziness had evolved into calm. We had plenty of room in the house.
I could bring the business back to life.
So I did (Well, WE did. I couldn't have done it without my techie husband who designs websites for fun, keeps inventory on Excel sheets, and creates templates for shipping labels, receipts and all sorts of other things.).
Exclusive Writer Gifts is reborn, and so is my enthusiasm.
My goal is to offer moderately priced gifts for writers that givers can't get anywhere else, gifts writers can actually use and enjoy. I've started with a small inventory, but I plan to add another item or two each year.
I still won't earn much.
Writers don't earn much and, often, neither do the people who love them (many of whom happen to be writers themselves).
But that doesn't worry me.
I have two novels under submission with publishers, another novel under review by my agent and a fourth entered into a contest. This writing and publishing thing is a game of patience, and sometimes we writers need a distraction beyond the next novel.
This, for me, is it.
I'm distracted, I'm excited and I'm having fun.