Saturday, December 11, 2010

Allison, the mice and the mushroom

When I was a teenager, I accompanied a friend to an arts fair in our hometown of Saranac Lake, where she had rented table space. She brought an assortment of mice intricately crafted from construction paper and made durable with a clear coat of something that appeared to be shellac.
The mice were posed in various occupations with the instruments of their trades, but the one that impressed me the most was the rock band. She sold that set to a local music store that displayed the rocking rodents in its window. Not bad for a teenager with a bunch of construction paper.
But that was her.
Always creating.
I reconnected with my friend, Allison Moore, on Facebook last year and was thrilled to see that she had pursued art as a career. Allison lives in Seattle now, where she is a tile designer and a potter/sculptor. Her work is amazing. She makes a variety of detailed, high-relief clay images using intricately designed plaster stamps. Some of her designs require a good deal more scuplting to bring them to life and most of her pieces are one-of-a-kind functional art that is dishwasher and microwave safe.
They are original, just like Allison, and she was the first person I thought of when I recently experienced an art emergency.
It happened like this:
My sister had hosted a family reunion at her home outside Kingston, N.Y., this summer. She had lots of artwork on the shelves in the living room and my 3-year-old twins were immediately drawn to the ceramic elephant collection. By the end of the weekend, one elephant had lost its tail. The elephant had sentimental value. It had belonged to my sister's mother-in-law, a wonderful, kind, intelligent woman who died too young more than a decade ago.
There were other young children at the reunion and some of them possessed the same kind of destructive curiosity as my boys, but I think it would be a pretty fair assumption that one of my guys broke the elephant, given the attraction.
No, wait.
Knowing them, they probably broke it together.
My sister was wonderful about it.
She didn't get upset and she didn't ask for compensation.
Still, I felt bad.
I could not replace that elephant and the memories it triggered.
But I wanted to give her something that might someday hold equal sentimental value. I immediately thought of Allison. I told Allison that my sister has a backyard garden that she would like to fill with little surprises -- earth-tone creatures and faces peeking out from behind trees, from around rocks and from within beds of flowers. I wanted to give her something for that garden, something different.
Here is Allison's creation:

The mushroom is 13 inches high and 11 inches in diameter. She even made it extra heavy, so it won't tip. Allison just recently shipped it, so my sister hasn't seen it yet. Hopefully, it will arrive before she views the photo here. I'm guessing I got a friend rate because her work is worth far more than I paid her.
I feel like I did that day at the fair almost 30 years ago, like I am experiencing someone on the verge. Like something exciting is going to happen any moment. Maybe it is, in part, because she is a friend. Maybe it's because I am particularly drawn to her style. Maybe it's because I sense the complexity of the mind that could create such things, but that's what her art does for me.
For me, Allison and her work will always be on the verge.
And, in my opinion, that's a wonderful place to be.

Here is a little more information about Allison:
Allison is a member of the Moshier Community Arts Center in Burien, WA . Visits and order pick-ups by appointment. Allison is a crafts vendor at Seattle's Pike Place Market and also a 10-year member at the Redmond Saturday Market, which runs from May 1st through the end of October. New website link will be available at; Send request to the above email address to receive email notifications of show dates. Photos of her work are also avaialble at Please include note indicating interest in her ceramic art with friend request.
Many thanks~ Allison

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Success: a goal achieved

I did it!
I met my goal for National Novel Writing Month mom-style and I exceeded it by 2,319 words.
My total for the month: 27,319 words.
I even got a little Christmas shopping done on the side.
And thanks to my awesome husband, the house has not fallen completely to pieces. (He cleans. I am fortunate in that.) It's garbage day again tomorrow and I've already remembered to put it out. I've gotten the kids to school on time every day and they even still know who I am.
That's all far more than I anticipated.
Now for the next step.
I hope to finish the first draft of this novel by the end of January, but I want a better balance.
I want to exercise at least three days a week. I want to keep the house in a relatively orderly state. I want to spend some time playing games with my kids, giving the puppy the attention she deserves (So she won't destroy any more leather furniture) and just hanging out with my husband.
So here we go.
On to December.
About 27,000 more words and a life.
That's all I ask.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Focused and flying

That's how many words I have written since I vowed to write 834 words a day through the month of November in celebration of National Novel Writing Month mom-style. I am 5,866 words ahead of schedule so far.
It's been exhilarating.
But it's also been draining.
I've barely slept, the house is a mess and I have failed in my exercise goals.
I don't care.
It can all wait.
The deadline pressure helped me realize that I wrote the first two acts of my work-in-progress (mystery/suspense) the same way I read any novel of suspense. I wrote it in a huge rush to find out what happens.
I hurried to get to the end, or rather to the climax of the action.
As part of this project, I have refused to go beyond the climax. All additional writing must come in the chapters before. And as I wrote, the villains changed. The literary part of the plot grew, but not too much. The novel became slightly more complex in, I hope, a good way.
I am still struggling to incorporate another 15,000 words into the novel before the climax and I think I can do that. I think I can do that well. I believe that I can because ever since I made this vow, the novel is on my mind night and day.
My poor kids have heard enough of it.
The two oldest simply rolled their eyes the other day when I asked what Dorothy should do with her gun.
My husband has been traveling a lot this month and that's probably a good thing. I've interrupted enough conversations with questions for him about plot and character. I need him as a beta reader and if we spent too much time together this month, I would most certainly turn him off.
I probably should empty the garbage though.
And get some groceries.
And feed the kids.
In a minute.
When I'm done.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

My boy, the poet

I am so proud of my son that I had to share. Riley 10 years old. He had to write a poem for his fifth grade class. Here it is:


You are the wind that blows
and the snow that froze
the night.

You are the lakes
and an earthquake that shakes
with might.

You are the mountains touching the sky
and the clouds so high
so bright.

The animals you embrace
the people of every race
held tight.

You may delight.
You give me comfort through the day.
I hear you silently calling for me to stay.
Show me the way.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

NaNoWriMo mom-style

November 1 marks the beginning of NaNoWriMo, an acronym for National Novel Writing Month. The idea is simple: start with a blank screen or a fresh sheet of paper and write 50,000 words by the end of the month. The effort has its own website with forums and everything. It doesn't matter whether the words are coherent; Everyone who reaches 50,000 words wins.
I can't do that.
There's no way, not with four young kids, a freelance article due in early December, Christmas shopping, a century-old house that needs lots of TLC and--oh, yeah--not without further neglecting my own physical health.
But something happened today that got me thinking.
I was talking with my agent about the progress of my next novel. When I got off the phone, I felt a rush of creative adrenaline. In less than 45 minutes, I wrote another 1,000 words--solid, strong, plot-moving words. It was the thrill of deadline pressure that had motivated me, even though it wasn't real.
My agent made it clear that he didn't want to rush me, but I can't resist a challenge, even an imagined one. In my 11 years as a full-time newspaper reporter, I never missed a deadline (though I've made some editors sweat). I thrived on the breaking news, the kind of stuff where targeted reporting, fast writing and just the write amount of clarity and creativity could land my story on the front page.
So why not put that to use.
I can't write 50,000 words in a month, but maybe I can write 25,000 words. That's less than 1,000 words a day, 834 words to be more precise. I don't want to start fresh, not when I'm already one-third of the way through my next novel, so I can add to that instead.
I won't officially join the NaNoWriMo effort either. The forums and emails are too distracting. I have trouble enough with Facebook, other writing forums and the twin parenting forums I frequent. I'll be a loner unless some other busy writer out there wants to join me in some parallel word play.
Instead of answering to NaNoWriMo officials, I will answer here on my blog. I will provide updates in the middle of the month and at the end. And I will remain choosy about my words. No junk pages. No ramblings. Nothing expendable.
Though the stream-of-consciousness writing can be helpful for newer writers who are intimidated by the length of novels, I find it's too much work to sort through the yucky stuff. It's easier just to write well to begin with.
One last thing.
I won't wait until November 1.
I'll start right now.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Short Story America: the future of short fiction?

A cool thing happened today.
I got a call from Tim Johnston, publisher and co-editor of Short Story America. I had submitted a short story to his site less than a month ago and he wanted to publish it.
Even cooler is the site itself.
Short Story America is a start-up with a unique business model. My story, "Balance," will appear as the Story of the Week beginning Friday. When its run is over, it will be moved to the Contemporary Library with all the other formerly featured stories. At the end of the year, Tim and his co-editor, Sarah Turocy, will compile those stories into an anthology, which will be sold in book format. At some later point, all the short stories will be available as audio downloads.
I get $100 for the story plus 15 percent of royalties on all audio downloads. I will share 15 percent royalties with the other authors in the anthology. All royalties will be calculated after publication and marketing expenses. A little different, but I'm okay with that since all the start-up money is coming out of Tim's pocket.
That's not a lot money as far as royalties are concerned, but I can't think of many other short stories publishers who offer royalties at all. In fact, I can't think of any.
Short Story America keeps permanent nonexclusive rights, which might be a dilemma for career short story writers who plan to publish collections on down the line. But not for me.
I am primarily a novelist. If publishers so desperately want to compile my short stories into a collection, they are still welcome to use "Balance." If they don't like the deal with Tim, I'll write another one to fill the slot.
Coolest yet is the look and feel of the site.
Short Story America uses flash technology to make the stories look like real books with illustrated covers, bios and all. Readers click and drag, or just click on the page corners to turn them and it makes a sound like a real page flipping.
My kids had a blast tonight just playing with the pages.
Readers must be members to access the stories, but membership is free.
Personally, I'm thrilled just to be part of this new venture. Some folks are critical, of course, but the short story market must evolve somehow and this seems to me a different and interesting way to do it.
I wish Tim, a short story author himself, and Sarah the greatest of success, not just for my sake, but for the art of short stories and its the survival in this ever-evolving technological world.
They might just have something here.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Meet Dee Garretson, author of Wildfire Run

My 10-year-old son is an avid reader and a tough critic. So when I received a copy of Wildfire Run, a debut middle-grade novel by Dee Garretson, in the mail I went to him first. I’d barely gotten through the first chapter when he ripped it from my hands and said, “Leave me.” I had to slip the book out of his room when he wasn’t home to finish it on my own.
Even I had trouble putting it down.
Wildfire Run is the story of Luke Brockett, the President’s son. Just once, Luke would like to be normal, to hang out with his friends at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, and maybe even do something slightly dangerous. But Luke can’t do that. Not with Secret Service agents watching his every move.
Then an earthquake hits, triggering wildfires and other disastrous chain reactions that injure and possibly kill several adults, including those assigned to protect him. Luke and his friends, Theo and Callie, are on their own, trapped in Camp David while wildfires roll in from every direction. They must escape a place designed to keep the worst of terrorists out while also saving those who were supposed to save them.
The result is a novel packed with suspense, but still grounded in the normal struggles among tweens and their friends. Somehow Dee Garretson manages to create a main character who, despite his high-brow status, is no different from any other kid. And while doing all that, she offers a book that is “teachable.” It is filled with historical references and other information about the presidency that makes Wildfire Run appealing as classroom literature.
As a writer, the novel left me wanting to know more about Dee, her writing and Wildfire Run. So I asked and here is the result:

Originally from Iowa, Dee lives in Cincinnati with her husband and two children. She has a bachelor’s in international relations from Tufts University and an associate’s in landscape horticulture from Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. Until she decided to commit to writing full time, she worked as a landscape designer and taught landscape horticulture.

The trailer for Wildfire Run.

Me: At what point in your life did you discover that writing fiction was your passion, something you wanted to pursue as a career?

Dee: I have to say I don’t think of writing as a passion for me. Reading is, but not writing. Writing is more like an intriguing puzzle to me, something I have to solve. I love to make up stories in my head, but the writing down of them is hard work. I wrote stories as a child and a teenager, stopped in college, then started again when my now fifteen year old son was a baby. I was at home with him in a town where I didn’t know many people, and I needed a way to keep my brain occupied. I can’t pinpoint when I decided I wanted to write as a career, but it was about five years ago that I decided I was going to pursue it with all the energy I could spare. That was also at the time when my daughter started first grade and I had bigger blocks of time to write.

Me: Why middle-grade fiction?

Dee: I had spent years working on mysteries and was very discouraged that I wasn’t getting enough interest in my work. My son was at the age where he was reading middle grade and he was so excited about some of his books that he wanted me to read them. I did read some of them, and really enjoyed the mix of adventure and humor I found in them. I like to write in a lighter style, more plot than character driven, and that’s another aspect of middle grade that appealed to me.

Me: What was the inspiration for Wildfire Run?

Dee: Way back when Jimmie Carter was president, I remember hearing all the criticism of his daughter, Amy, for reading a book during a state dinner. All I could think of at the time was that would have been me. It made me aware of the strange lives presidential children lead. I didn’t think much about it again until the presidential primary races in 2008. There were several candidates with younger children or grandchildren, and it led me to again wonder what life would be like for children in that situation.

Me: You have this amazing combination of traits. You are artistic, yet you also seem to be methodical and practical. You wrote this wonderfully creative book with a suspenseful plot, well-drawn characters and vivid descriptions, yet you also know your audience well, researched the details thoroughly and acquainted yourself with the ins and outs of the publishing world, particularly in your genre, before you even sent out your first query letter. Is this approach learned from experience or is this just the way you do things?

Dee: I have you fooled! It is true that I had come to understand the publishing business before I sent out the first query for Wildfire Run, but that is only because I spent all those years before that attempting to get other works published. I learned so much during that time, especially the importance of studying successful popular books to understand why they appeal to readers.

Me: Among the most notable techniques you apply in Wildfire Run is the use of minute detail to advance the plot and build suspense. How did that develop? How did it become part of your writing? Was it conscious or did it just make sense to you and start flowing?

Dee: I’m a big fan of thrillers (those written for adults), and when I decided to write this story, I knew I would need to use those techniques to give the reader the sense of foreboding that the main characters only gradually come to feel. It’s a fun technique to work with, because it gives more options in terms of imparting information to the reader.

Me: Where did Luke come from, his character? Did he change from the beginning of the writing process to the end? Are there any characters who changed dramatically from start to finish or who shifted in importance as you wrote?

Dee: Being the child of a president or any extremely successful person has to be incredibly difficult. I’ve known a few people whose childhoods were overshadowed by their parents’ wealth and power, and it seemed to make it more difficult for them to find their way in the world. My initial concept of Luke did not change much throughout the writing process, but once I had written the external adventure, I went back and strengthened his internal journey. I’ve very concerned about pacing, so getting the storytelling right was important to do first. My philosophy for this kind of story is that if you can’t get the reader pulled into turning the page to find out what happens next, they won’t care about the characters’ internal struggles.
The character of Callie, Luke’s friend, did not change so much as have her story trimmed. I’m very attached to the character and I wrote some chapters focused more on her. Unfortunately, those had to be cut to keep the story moving forward.

Me: How difficult was it to research Camp David; the social and emotional struggles of a First Child and the Secret Service? How close to reality did you feel you had to come in Wildfire Run?

Dee: Researching Camp David and the Secret Service was extremely difficult because I wanted an accurate feel to the book, yet, of course, for security reasons there is not much factual information available. I read every nonfiction book I could find that had mentions of the place and of the Secret Service. I purposely stayed away from any fiction, because I didn’t want to be influenced by other writers’ imaginations. I admire anyone who chooses to be part of the Secret Service for their level of dedication to their jobs, without letting their own political beliefs interfere with the way they carry out their responsibilities, and I hope the respect I have for them shows in the book. I’ve always followed politics and the people involved, so the issues facing different first families were something I felt like I already understood.

Me: Do you intend to stick with middle-grade fiction or do you plan to experiment with other genres?

Dee: I will stick with middle grade fiction for the moment, but I also want to go back to my historical mysteries, and someday I’d like to tackle an epic fantasy.

Me: Is another novel forthcoming? When can we expect it?

Dee: I just finished a second middle-grade adventure, titled Wolf Storm at the moment. It’s about kid actors on location filming a blockbuster sci-fi movie. They get trapped in a blizzard and have to figure out how to survive all the things I throw at them. Plans are for that book to be released in winter 2011/2012.

Me: Any advice for other unpublished writers?

Dee: I could fill a book with advice for unpublished writers, but I’ll just stick with a few bits here. Read as many books as you can in whatever genre you are writing in. There are a couple of reasons for this. One, you don’t want to spend months accidentally writing something too similar to a popular book that’s already out there. In the last year I’ve read the manuscripts of two unpublished writers with that very problem. Because they hadn’t widely read in their chosen genre, they wrote stories no agent would take on because they couldn’t sell the work.

And that brings me to the second reason. You can’t ever forget publishing is a business, a very competitive one, and there are an amazing number of good books out there. It’s too easy to fall in the trap of being overly pleased with your work just because you’ve managed to finish something. Often a writer doesn’t go into the revision stage with a critically enough. Because you have a vision of the story in your head, it can interfere with your analysis of how the story actually reads. Your readers don’t have your vision, so if you slip up in the storytelling aspect of the story, you’re going to lose them in spite of how well written your work may be.

Me: How does it feel to finally see your novel in print?

Dee: I had a weird, unexpected thought when I unpacked my author copies. I held the book, which is relatively small and lightweight and I thought given all the years of work that went into getting to this point, it should weigh much more. It is a thrill to see it in bookstores and it’s even more of a thrill to see it in libraries. I love libraries and the idea that it’s going to be in some for a long time makes all the work worth it.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Doggy days are here again

No more dogs.
Never again.
That was my firm declaration more than three years ago after we re-homed Biscuit, our Australian shepherd mix.
Biscuit needed more exercise than we could give him after the twins were born, and he let us know by becoming more aggressive about doing his job. He slipped out the door whenever it opened and herded the neighborhood, once nipping a brawling basketball player in the calf.
We had no choice after that.
We gave him to a family who knew what had happened. The father was good friends with our veterinarian, who assured him that Biscuit had intended no harm. Biscuit was gone when the older kids returned from school one day.
They were devastated, especially our daughter who suffers from high anxiety.
I never ever wanted to go through that again.
But our daughter begged.
And her older brother begged.
And, I had to admit, I missed the distraction of a dog while writing. I missed the security of having an alert little creature at the foot of my bed whenever my husband was out of town. I missed the motivation to walk a mile or two regardless of the weather or the hour.
And then my husband admitted that he wouldn't mind taking a break from his work-at-home job every now and then to toss a ball around in the yard. What happened with Biscuit would not repeat itself, I knew. The twins were an unexpected surprise. We never would have adopted a dog had we known they were coming.
So I relented ... under one condition.
No dogs less than one year old.
No more potty training for me.
No way.
No how.
At 3.5 years old, one twin still struggles with the whole concept. I was tired of dabbing, soaking, spraying and steam cleaning. Tired of watching a young one's every move to ensure that he made it to the potty on time. Tired of always being on that kind of edge.
I was firm.
Yet here I sit with the soft, warm body of 7-week-old Clover curled up on my lap.
The worst part is that I was the one who insisted.
Clover is a Border collie/beagle mix, a mistake, according to her breeder. Two registered dogs accidentally ended up in a pen together for less than ten minutes. That 10-minute romp produced a litter of nine. We got the last one.
She is irresistible.
Welcome to the family, Clover.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Home is where the headstones are

With the twins entering preschool this fall, I decided it was time to reclaim my running legs. So I went for a walk/run the other day in my new town along a route recommended by my sister-in-law.
The route took me through a local cemetery, which was appropriate; By the time I got there, I wanted nothing more than to take a long rest.
So I walked.
I have run through many cemeteries over the years, but I haven't walked though one in decades. Not since I was a child. As a child, I would run from stone to stone, seeking out familiar names and looking for the grave of my sister, who died as a baby when I was only two years old.
I derived a sense of comfort from cemeteries back then even though I was generally terrified of anything involving death. The bodies that lie under my feet were those of relatives or the relatives of friends. They were people who were part of my history.
I felt, oddly, at home.
But I did not get that sense here.
Here, in this cemetery, in the community where I will live for the rest of my life, where we will raise our four children, where my husband grew up, was evidence of a certain status I will never achieve. I am an outsider. I always will be, no matter how deeply entrenched I become.
And that is okay.
I have my own hometown.
My own cemeteries.
I have another place that has fused within my core and will always be part of who I am.
But our kids don't have that.
Two were born in Arizona, and two were born in Cincinnati.
Their roots have easily come loose with each move, leaving little or nothing behind. (Well, not as easily for the older kids this time around. We had to tug a little harder and their leaves are still a bit droopy and wilted from the shock, but I am confident they will recover and flourish.)
I had never understood the need for the formalities of cemeteries before, for gravestones and memorials and family plots. My irrational fears dictate that I be cremated after death, and I hadn't given much thought to where my ashes would land.
My husband has strong feelings though, so I agreed long ago to his request that, when our souls are long gone from this world, my ashes will lie with him, wherever he might choose.
But on this day, I started to understand something. I understood that this isn't just about me. This is about our children and their children and their children. This is about that feeling, that sense of belonging.
Our hope is that this is the place where our children will grow roots so strong that no one and nothing can rip them out, regardless of where they settle in adulthood. This will be the place they can come home to no matter how long they have been away.
A sense of history and of their place within that history will help those roots grow thick, deep and strong.
Cemeteries provide some of that nourishment.
A great deal more than I realized.
And this cemetery, in particular, provided me with nourishment of a different kind. After passing all those gravestones-- lingering long enough to read the names and the dates of death and birth and realizing that they were often far to close together --I found the motivation to pick up my pace again.
It was hot.
I was (and am) horribly out of shape.
But I ran.
Just a couple of quarter-mile stretches.
But I ran.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Verizon and the secret phone number.

We moved recently and my husband is working from home.
He needs a second phone line since he is telecomuting, so I ordered one along with another jack.
Unfortunately, Verizon, the only phone company in this area, arranged an entirely different installation date for the second line and neglected to tell us.
Here is my conversation with the customer service representative.
This begins after I was informed that the line will be installed the following week.
I had just one more question.
A simple one, I thought:

(Please note that I did not record this conversation. I had no reason to believe it would be worth relaying, so I didn't take notes either. In other words, I have paraphrased to the best of my recollection. But my recollection is pretty good. This, I could never forget.)

Me: So what is the number for the second line?
Rep: I can't tell you that. It's unlisted.
Me: But I ordered it.
Rep: Sorry. I still can't tell you. It's unlisted.
Me: Oh, so I'll find out when it's installed?
Rep: No. We can't tell you what the number is. It's unlisted.
Me: That makes no sense! I ordered the line. How do I find out what the number is?
Rep: You can make a call to another phone and find out from the caller ID.
Me (pausing, thinking about the probability that if the number is unlisted, it won't show up on caller ID): Can I request a specific number?
Rep: Oh yes. You can do that.
Me: And then I'll know what the number is?
Rep: Yes, then you will know what the number is.
Me: Okay then, how about 814-555-1212 (Note: the number has been changed to a fictional number to protect my husband's productivity.)
Rep: It looks like that's available.
Me: Then our second line will be 814-555-1212?
Rep: Well, we can't guarantee it, but since it's available, I'm pretty certain you'll get it.
Me: Okay then.
Rep: Is there anything else I can help you with.
Me: I really don't think so.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Helen Thomas: she didn't know when to quit

I was never thrilled about political reporting.
I did it when I had to and I covered politics to the best of my ability. But my heart wasn't in it.
Perhaps it's because I have a former lawyer for a father who could turn any discussion into a unwinnable debate. Maybe it's because I have a bunch of brilliantly braniac siblings who argue with far more knowledge and logic than I ever care to have.
I argue from my gut.
It's just who I am.
But still, the whole Helen Thomas thing makes me sad.
I respected her.
Newsrooms are sexist. I hated that about my former career. Most of my male editors and colleagues were more than fair and, generally. open-minded. But far too many were not. I could tell those stories here, but I will not. I will not because of female reporters like Helen Thomas, women who paved the way and gave me the courage to fight back.
I will not because of the male colleagues and editors (my husband included) who also respected female journalists like Helen Thomas (and me) and who listened and took action when I needed their help. (Rich Sullivan, I have to mention you here. You were my rock.).
I will not tell those stories out of fairness for those who are trying to create change.
Rehashing old hurts would only result in backward steps and threaten the accomplishments of women like Helen Thomas.
But, for all her accomplishments, Helen Thomas did not know when to quit.
Because of that, she stepped backward for all of us.
And she lost my respect.
As we age, most of us tend to become less tolerant of incompetence, of the views of others and of inefficiency. We become less able and less willing to exercise caution in our expression and, in journalism, that's when it is time to quit.
Helen Thomas probably knew that she had reached that point, but she had neglected something vital on the road to that front row seat in the White House press room. She forgot the need for a life outside the newsroom. Outside politics.
So when her time came, long after she lost her patience with the political world around her, she clung to her identity as a journalist. She continued immerse herself in a world that she found less and less tolerable, a world that began having trouble tolerating her.
This became publicly clear in 2006 when she referred to George W. Bush as "the worst president in American history." She is entitled to her opinion, but any good journalist knows that cautious expression of those thoughts is vital to credibility and so is the ability to rise above our own feelings and beliefs. Even the best columnists, those who are allowed to be subjective, back their opinions with evidence of some sort to lend themselves credibility.
Similar outbursts followed until this final unforgivable declaration, Helen Thomas' suggestion at a May 27th White House event that Jews should " ... get the hell out of Palestine... Remember, these people are occupied, and it's their land; it's not German, it's not Poland's."
Thomas then added that the Jews should go "home" to "Poland, Germany ... America and everywhere else."
She later issued an apology, but it was too late.
Helen Thomas resigned from her job with Hearst Newspapers at 89 years old on June 7 after most every other major organization she was affiliated with had already denied her and dropped her. Her resignation should have been a glorious moment, a celebration, a time to relive her accomplishments.
A toast to an icon.
Instead, it was a moment of shame.
It was shameful, not only because of her remarks, but because of it's broader implications for women. Her drive to prove herself as a capable woman in a man's world led to obsession, obsession with a career that has a natural ending long before life ends.
It left her with a singular passion.
And with nothing else beyond the end of that career.
It left her unable to quit.
It shouldn't be that way.
Helen Thomas is free to believe what she chooses about Palestine and the Jews. Like it or not, we Americans can't deny her the right to an opinion and as a retiree, she could have gotten away with it. Sure, plenty of folks would have been critical, but her words would not have carried as much weight.
But on May 27, she was a journalist.
I hope we can all put this into perspective.
I hope we can understand that this Helen Thomas is not the same Helen Thomas who made history as a White House institution.
I hope I can.
Then, maybe, I can salvage at least a little of that respect.

Friday, May 28, 2010

The fourth anniversary of that moment in the Starbucks bathroom

Four years ago today, I woke up feeling pregnant.
I tried to shake it.
It was silly, I thought.
I assumed it was my cynical nature kicking in: I was finally freelancing regularly for a magazine; I had started querying agents for my novel; I was editing a book for a well-respected graduate school; and, in a few months, our youngest would start kindergarten.
Something had to go awry.
But that pregnant feeling only grew stronger by the hour.
By mid-afternoon, I broke down and took a test.
And as I stood there in that Starbucks bathroom, watching that second line grow stronger, I also watched my writing career fade. I was 40 years old and about to have my third child (and my fourth, as it turned out!). I would never get this freelance/novel-writing thing going full force, I thought.
I was ready to surrender.
But my husband, a former journalist/author turned techie, wouldn't let me. He pushed me right back into the writing battle even though he just as shocked, bewildered, scared as I was. He made sure I was armed with a well-charged laptop. He made me face that Starbucks bathroom, the scene of my perceived defeat, once again.
But not right away.
Tom did allow me a sabbatical of sorts.
He had to.
I was horribly sick and tired that first trimester and beyond. I found out why during my 20-week ultrasound; I was carrying two little guys in there. Two beautiful, perfect and healthy baby boys.
By the time my stomach had improved, my belly was so big, I couldn't reach the keyboard. My fingers were too swollen to type anyway and I was on partial bed rest with two older kids to care for.
My husband didn't mention my writing much and neither did it.
The first few months after the twins were born were a sleepless fog of nursing, diaper changing and shuttling the older kids back and forth to half-day and full-day school and their activities. Tom was still traveling frequently then and we had no family here to help us.
It was all we could do to stay awake for another day.
But by that fall, things had started to settle a bit. The twins were sleeping better, my husband's travel schedule was less hectic, the older kids were both in school for full days. I was getting antsy and, I admit, somewhat depressed. And my husband knew it.
One night in November of 2007, he pulled out my laptop after all the kids had gone to sleep and showed me this site called Blogger. Just start a blog to keep your writing fresh, he said. No big deal, he pushed. Just do it for fun.
And I did.
My first blog, The Boys: Raising Identical Twins, stirred something in me again. That stirring inspired me to pick up the novel and give it a good overhaul. I was surprised by the insight I had gained by being removed from my manuscript for so long. I eliminated major characters, wrote new chapters and deleted others.
I started querying again and one, day, when the twins were two and a half years old, I got the email that led to the happy dance.
I signed with Roger Williams of The Publish or Perish Agency.
Now, four years after that second line appeared in the Starbuck's bathroom, my novel, Spring Melt, is under submission with major publishing houses; my first short story is due for publication in the fall issue of Aethlon, a journal of sport literature centered at the East Tennessee State University; and my second novel is well underway.
Yes, the twins did affect my writing career, but in a good way. Our entire family dynamic has changed since their birth. The older kids have become more independent and have shown a capacity for love and responsibility that blows my mind. The twins have taught us both to both prioritize and relax. Enjoy life more. (Right now, they are squirting hand soap all over the bathroom. So what? Half an hour of fun for $1.99.)
I have learned to write more efficiently and to concentrate on the projects that are most important to me: no more book editing. I have done all this and they are not even in preschool yet. I am 44 years old, I have three-year-old twins, a 10-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter, yet I am still writing, and I believe I am writing on a more mature level than I was before The Day of the Stick.
My creativity did not whither the day the twins were born, in part, because my husband encouraged me to nourish it.
So, on this day, on the fourth anniversary of the appearance of those double lines, I thank him.
I thank him for loving me, pushing me and believing in me.
(And I would greatly appreciate it if he would pick up some more hand soap on the way home.)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Good-bye Cincinnati

When my husband and I moved to Arizona almost 11 years ago, it was supposed to be a temporary thing. An adventure.
Our ticket to the life we had always dreamed about.
My husband, a former journalist, had been working from home as a programmer for a media software company based in Scottsdale. His bosses wanted him to move into management to help the company go public. That required a physical move as well.
Two years, they said.
That was all.
The company would pay for our relocation to Arizona and then move us back east when our time was up. We would earn enough from stock options to build a house on his parents' farm in Pennsylvania, something we'd talked about since we started dating.
I had to give up my newspaper job, but I was sure I would find work in Phoenix.
And, when all this was over, he and I would both be able to work from home while we raised a family.
We weren't counting on me getting pregnant before we even got there.
We weren't counting on the company going under.
We weren't counting on living in Arizona for five years, or in Cincinnati for six years.
But we went where life took us, always believing that things would work out in the end.
And they have.
In seven weeks, we will move to Pennsylvania with our four young children. We bought a house to live in while we build our final home. The house is in a burough of about 700 people, where the nearest mall is 50 miles away and the convenience store has hitching posts for the Amish.
And we can't wait.
For the first time, we will be near family and that's far more important than the convenience of 24-hour grocery stores, multiple fast-food restaurants and a selection of wi-fi coffee houses (Okay, so maybe I will miss Starbucks and Panera).
We will be able to help care for his mother as she ages and we will be free to travel to my parents' house when we have vacation time. My husband's sister and niece live within walking distance, and two of my sisters and my stepdaughter are only a short drive away.
My husband will keep his job.
His company has been gracious enough to let him work from home.
We will miss all the people we have come to know in Cincinnati, just as we miss those who we left behind in Arizona. Our older children have roots here. This is where they attended preschool, kindergarten and most of elementary school.
But both kids value family tremendously.
They are as excited as we are.
The twins will have few memories of their birthplace, but we will bring them back. We will remind them that  Cincinnati has been good to us. We have plenty of good friends here and lots wonderful memories. Best of all, Cincinnati gave us two healthy young boys.
Arizona was equally good. We left there with a healthy son and daughter; a greater understanding for Mexican/western culture; and an appreciation for a different kind of nature than we were accustomed to. We plan to spend many weeks each year of our retirement there.
And so it is that, with a sense of contentment and fulfillment, that we say this:
Good-bye, Cincinnati.
Good-bye and thank you.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Arizona immigration law: a lame attempt to preserve a lifestyle

Seth Meyers said it perfectly on NBC's Saturday Night Live last night:
"The last time I heard 'show me your papers' was in a WWII movie...and it was Adolph and his fascists. " Hilter's family, Meyers suggested, ought to get some kind of residual payment from the new Arizona immigration law.
The law itself is criminal and it will never survive constitutional scrutinty.
It can't possibly hold up.
Those who passed it had to know that.
So, it makes me wonder.
Just who supports this new law.
And why.
My husband and I lived in Arizona for nearly five years.
I gave birth to our first two children there.
Our time in the Wild West allowed me to make a few observations. Among them was the difference between those who honestly wanted to resolve the issue of illegal immigration, and those who wanted to keep the cheap labor flowing, but still look good politically.
The proposals from the first group involved such things as day visas and huge fences and tighter borders and more aid to Mexico and naturalization of those who had already illegally crossed into the United States. But these solutions pose a huge problem to second group.
You see, this second group relies on illegal immigrants for perfectly manicured lawns, clean houses, well-reared children, cotton harvesting, mining, truck loading, painting and all kind of tasks they decline to do themselves.
These people don't have to decide whether to hire a housekeeper or a lawn maintenance crew or a nanny. They can have it all because illegal immigrants will work for next to nothing, work as many hours as they can and never, ever talk back.
Most won't dare even ask for a glass of water.
But the folks in that second group can't come right out and argue that.
They can't say, "Keep the illegals coming and keep them oppressed. And don't give the legal Mexicans immigrants or the citizen Hispanics any power because they might want to protect their kind and wreck the whole thing for all of us."
They have to pretend to do something.
To protect their lifestyles and their reputations.
And this is it.
Under this new law, anyone who cannot prove citizenship will be arrested.
Do you think the cops will stop us white folks?
Of course not.
African Americans?
Maybe, but probably not.
The black population in Arizona is slim and poses no political threat.
And illegals tend to go where they have realtives or friends. They are no large populations of illegal Kenyans or Germans or Russians or Chinese in Arizona. What would bring them there? Why would a good cop stop a white guy or a black woman on suspicion of illegal status?
No, this law is clearly and openly geared toward Mexicans.
With this new law, the people of the second group can stand on their balconies and watch as the legal, illegal and citizen Hispanics who had the misfortune of taking their kids for a walk, running to the store or grabbing a bite to eat without their passports or naturalization papers or visas on hand are arrested and say, "Look. Look what we're doing. We're fighting illegal immigration."
And this is what they've done.
This is the reality:
They've made Arizona a threatening place to live for Hispanics who are legally living in the United States, reducing the chances that they will settle or remain settled in the state and, eventually, take political control.
They've given the appearance that they are tackling the problem of the immigration overflow when they know, full well, that nothing has changed on the border. Mexicans will continue to cross the border illegally at the same rate because it's still worth the risk.
Mexico is still dirt poor.
Mexican health care is still lousy.
Border security is no better.
The desire for a better life, for money to send back home, remains.
And so, most important, they've ensured that ...
their desert lawns will remain plush and green;
their tiled houses will remain dust-free;
their children will remain out of sight while they sip gin and tonics or glasses or merlot or marguaritas poolside under  misters.
Nothing will change.
They think.
But they've forgotten one things.
This showing of papers didn't work for Hilter.
We won.
And we will win again.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Twin moms and the psychology of rudeness

The irony was too much.
I was reading a post on an online forum for parents of twins when my 3-year-old identical boys started watching Ni Hao Kai Lan. The theme of the children's show on Nick Jr. was politeness, always finding something nice to say.
The theme of the forum thread was how to avoid unsollicited advice from moms of singletons. Some posters were kind, but frustrated. However, a few expressed in many words that outright rudeness was not only appropriate, but the right of every twin mom.
One poster told of an incident in a department store in which she commented on someone's twins. The mother replied with, "Yes, they are twins. Now leave us alone." The poster was forgiving of her because the other mom didn't know she had twins herself.
When I responded that rudeness is never okay, I was shot down.
So I paid closer attention and this is what I found:
_ Some women enjoy rudeness.
_ Even more so, they enjoy bragging about their rude exploits.
_ Rudeness is addictive.
_ Rude people eventually drive others anyway,
_ Rudeness is like crack-cocaine: it is often practiced by people who are depressed, angry or have low self-esteem. It gives its practitioner an immediate sense of euphoria, but then it brings her crashing down. The only solution is to keep doing it and doing it over and over to re-live that euphoria, knowing that she will eventually self-destruct.
Twins attract a lot of attention, especially when they are babies or infants. So twins offer moms many more opportunities to be rude. Yes, it can be frustrating to walk into a store for a quick errand only to be stopped two or three times by people who oggle your babies, but that's why you build in "oggle time."
I always either gave myself a few extra minutes to run errands or reduced my agenda to only the most vital errands. More often, I hired a sitter for the important stuff or waited until evening when my husband was home.
And it helps to try to have some perspective.
Maybe even some sympathy or empathy for those who approach us.
Most are simply struggling to make conversation.
And most are in awe of twins.
That's a good thing.
I have healthy twins and two healthy older children.
I am forunate.
Very, very fortunate.
And twins seem to make people happy.
Why would I not want to share them with the world?
Why would I want to be rude?
There were times when I was tempted, like when the clerk from Dillard's kept jumping in front of my stroller and stopping me every time I tried to get around her; or like the time an acquaintance kept calling one twin "the fat one;" or like the time the older gentleman at the mall insisted over and over that my twins were not identical.
But I stopped myself.
What good would it do?
Another clerk finally helped me out of my Dillard's situation.
I haven't found a reason to speak with that acquaintance since.
The older gentleman? Well, what do I care what he believes? I smiled, told him I had to get going and walked away.
As for this whole thing about advice from singleton moms, what's wrong with it? Singleton moms have plenty to share about feeding babies, getting them to sleep, making baby food, the best diapers, milestones, etc. Why can't those moms just listen and pick and choose the advice that applies to them?
Why be rude?
Those women did not want to hear it when I wrote that rudeness was unacceptable. Perhaps, I took the wrong approach. Maybe what I should have written was, "Turn on your TVs. Ni Hao Kai Lan is on."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Distance and the evolution of friendships

A friend and I were chatting the other day when I mentioned a woman I had been close with for many years. First, I described her as one of my closest friends, a friend for nearly two decades. Then I corrected myself. We're not so close anymore, I said.
Not since I moved.
My friend's reaction: So when you move, they're not your close friends any more?
For a moment, I was taken aback. My husband and I are hoping to relocate in the near future and I certainly didn't want this woman to feel like I would place any less value on our friendship simply because of a geographical change.
Not at all.
But these changes in intensity have not been my choice.
They were, simply, an inevitable effect of moving.
It is a lesson I have learned over the past 11 years as we have dragged our belongings back and forth across the country from New York to Arizona to Cinncinati, where we live now. Each time we moved, I felt that huge void, that loss of the immediate physical presense of my good friends, the people I could count on when I was bummed out, excited or just plain bored.
And each time, I vowed to maintain that intensity from afar with phone calls, emails and occassional visits.
I succeeded at first, especially when we all had young children and craved that adult conversation. There is nothing like a good phone call with an old friend when you are cooing with a baby who cannot converse in return.
But then something happened.
Our babies got older and we were stuck in the house less often. They became little people, engaging us in fascinating conversations about bugs and dinosaurs and Swiper the fox. Suddenly, I noticed that my old friends had less and less to say. Uncomfortable pauses became more frequent. The time between calls grew. The calls were shorter and the emails less detailed.
The babies were one factor.
The other was simple logistics.
In my previous communities, I was just one among of a network of friends. When I left, I damaged those networks--some more than others--but the rest remained intact. I left my friends in the hands of other friends, in familiar surroundings with communities that were familiar to them, open and welcoming. Though I know they missed me, the gaps I left were quickly repaired.
I had left them with everything, but me.
But when I settled in my new communities, I was on my own. I had to cultivate new friendships from scratch, learn my surroundings, learn the cultural temperment of the areas and gain acceptance, in some sense, in the communities. I had to built a network from scratch or find a place in a new one.
It was difficult and it was, at times, lonely.
In the beginning it was easy to tap into those old friendships.
Too easy.
But it wasn't easy for my old friends and it wasn't healthy for me. Maintaining intense friendships from afar requires a great deal of energy and a denial of that which is physically present. If I focused all of my efforts on the old friendships, I left little for the people who were new in my life.
I had to reduce my dependence, especially since they had done that long before.
That does not mean that I love the old friend we discussed any less. I would still do anything for her, fly out there to be with her in a crisis, call her with news of any major event in my life. She still means the world to me and our years of "best" friendship can never be undone.
It means simply that we no longer share the details of our everyday lives, what I like to call the minor big things. I don't call her when all the kids are sick and I need to vent. I don't call her when my kids reach particular milestones, when I'm thinking about whether to cover my emerging gray, when I am annoyed about a particular situation in my life.
And I no longer get upset when she fails to share those things with me.
I did not lose friends. The nature of my friendships simply changed and I welcomed new people into my life, like her, the woman I was chatting with. And I have no doubt I will remain connected with this newer friend for many years to come regardless of the miles between us. We met through a mutual passion for writing, something that can be nourished from afar, no matter how quickly our children grow.

Monday, March 29, 2010

When censorship can be a good thing.

When I started blogging nearly three years ago, I thought that the platform would provide me with a certain level of freedom. Finally, I would be able to express my thoughts, my opinions, my views on the world uncensored.
No editors.
No worries.
But that was not so.
Too many triggers for my passions are connected with indivuals, individuals I care about, people I don't want to hurt. Others are triggered by anger that, if expressed without proper evidence and purpose, could create some excellent lawsuit material for the offending parties.
Finally, there are bridges I cannot afford to burn.
Yet I see it happen every day.
Bloggers bash without consideration of consequence. They reveal private information that belongs to others without consent. They hurt other people and they hurt themselves. They forget, perhaps, that once words are distributed on the Internet, they are impossible to take back.
Twenty, thirty, forty years from now, they will remain.
One blogger in particular affected me deeply.
She wrote on an online forum about complaints from her children. They had pleaded with her to stop brutally ridiculing them in her blog for the sake of page views. She refused to stop, arguing that as long as her children lived under her roof, she had the right to reveal whatever she chose. Her blog wouldn't be funny without them, she wrote.
I'm betting that she won't be blogging the exploits of her grandchildren.
She won't be allowed to know them.
Another woman wrote honestly and humerously about the end of a long-term relationship. Her name and location were part of her profile. The blog was popular, so popular that it inspired her to write a book about ending relationships. Her book is selling well.
But she had to end the blog when strangers tracked down her ex-boyfriend and threatened him. The world is full of sick people, sadly, and many of them are addicted to the Internet.
So, I vent here and I write about raising our twins on my other blog, but I am always careful. My older children have declined to be included in any blogs and I respect that. My twins will decide what happens to their blog when they are old enough to understand. Until then, I write about them in a way that might help other parents of identical twins.
I am not free to write without care because I do care.
I am own editor.
And when I think about topics for my posts, I follow two rules: I must write as if everyone in the world will read it and I must ponder how it will play out several years into the future. Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing as long as we don't abuse it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Obamacare: for some, it's a lease on life

A friend of mine informed me the other day that she doesn't have to wonder how she will  die. The government and insurance companies will kill her, she said.
She has lymphoma, one of those cancers that never really goes away.
Four years ago, when she last underwent chemotherapy, she paid a $40 co-pay per treatment.
That was it.
But her coverage has changed since then.
If she comes out of remission now, she will also be responsible for 20 percent of each treatment. That would put her and her husband into thousands of dollars of debt with both of them nearing retirement. She also has to worry about the lifetime cap on their insurance.
What if she exceeds it?
What will happen to him?
She can divorce her husband and let Medicaid pick up the tab, but that's a gamble.
Sick people have to be divorced for a certain number of years before the goverment will  forgive the spouse of financial liability. If her cancer returned before the deadline, her husband would lose everything and, because they would be divorced, he would have no say in her medical care.
Sometimes, she said, she would rather just give up.
She would rather die.
This is the urgency that opponents to the health care bill do not understand.
Some people cannot wait.
While Republicans and Democrats were battling, people were dying.
Real people.
President Obama's health care bill might not be a perfect solution, but it's a step in the right direction.
My friend still has decisions to make, painful decisions.
But, at the very least, this bill alleviates two of her concerns: there will no longer be a lifetime cap on health insurance; and, if her husband loses his job, they will not have to worry that her pre-exisiting condition will leave them with no health insurance.
If it hadn't passed?
She would probably give up, believing it was the selfless thing to do.
For her husband's sake.
While politicians bickered, she would die.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Perspective: mother vs. mother-in-law

My mother and my mother-in-law both read the same book recently, a gift from me.
A New York Times best seller.
Both left the same message on my answering machine:
"I need to talk to you about this book."
I had just started the novel and had not yet formed an opinion.
"I couldn't even finish the last chapter," my mother said. "It just wasn't real."
My mother was disappointed by what she felt was an exaggerated plot with exaggerated characters. The main character, a 12-year-old girl, suffers emotionally after the death of her mother and abandonment by her father. My mother didn't find the traumas to be all that traumatic. She didn't find the resolution all that satisfying.
Great, I thought.
The author is a friend of mine.
What if I feel the same way?
Would I be able to face her?
Then I returned my mother-in-law's call.
My mother-in-law, a woman known for guarding her emotions, could barely contain her excitement.
She loved it.
She even cried when she read it.
"I never cry when I read a book," she said.
I was baffled.
Such intense, polar-opposite emotions from two women who are only a year apart in age. Why? I mentioned the conflicting reactions to my mother-in-law. She wasn't at all surprised. My mother, she explained, has an entirely different perspective on suffering.
Here I am. A writer, a journalist, someone who should understand audience.
And she was right.
I had missed it.
The problem is that I am also a daughter, and daughters can't always sympathize with the children their parents once were because we are naturally selfish. We want to be emotionally cuddled when we hit bumps on the road, to become objects of our parents' sympathy, recipients of their wisened advice.
We don't want to see that our parents are still vulnerable themselves, even as adults. We don't want to deal with their unresolved issues because we want them to help us resolve our own. So, sometimes, we are unintentionally blind.
Of course it wasn't real for her.
My mother grew up in Germany during World War II. Her father fled to Romania to escape recruitment in the Nazi army. She was taken from her family at 10 years old and sent to Youth Camps. From there, she was placed in people's homes, where she worked for her keep.
Her siblings were also taken away.
She saw her mother only occassionally.
She has told stories of beatings and hunger and loneliness, but she rarely goes into great detail. Instead, she often recounts her childhood with stories of her youthful rebellion. How she sneaked out windows to pick flowers, how she refused to stay in bed when sick, how she wandered through old castles and played imaginerary games.
If only some rich great aunt had swept her up at 12 years old and gently placed her in a mansion-of-a-home with a private bathroom for each bedroom, a maid who adored her and all the clothes and delicious food she could imagine. How could someone so lucky possibly be suffering to the extent that the main character suffers?
I picked up the novel a few days ago and started reading it with a new curiousity. The writing is beautiful. The author worked her entire life as a different kind of artist and her talents carry into her writing. The images she paints with her words stir all the senses. I see, feel, taste, smell and hear when I read. The experience is exhillerating.
But at the same time, I am guarded.
I am aware of my mother's perspective even as I am drawn in by this young girl's plight.
I feel sympathy for the girl, not because her situation is so horrible, but because of the way she endures it and because of who she is, the way the author has drawn her. I feel joy with her, not because she landed in a wealthy home with lots of love, but because of the way these unique and charming characters surround her and pull her out among them.
My mother's perspective and my mother-in-law's observations dimished my expectations of the novel ... in a good way. They reminded me to tear down my own psychological defenses, to read beyond the literal plot and to focus instead the author's portrayals and resulting portrait of human nature, of the nature of community.
And I got something even better out of it, better than I could have imagined.
The novel, and this experience with it, brought me one step closer to understanding my own mother.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Criticism: tough love for the ego

An acquaintance once asked me to critique the first chapter of her work in progress.
I didn't know her very well and I was unfamiliar with her writing history, but I figured she had only recently contracted the writing bug because her work was so raw.
So I decided to tread carefully.
I started with all the good stuff.
I piled it on.
Then, I began to point out sections that confused me.
I had barely begun when she stopped me and began to explain. She explained not because she believed her words would elicit more advice or solutions to the problems within the work. She spoke up because she decided that, like everyone else, I "just didn't get it."
She would have to move on.
I was stunned.
She'll never make it.
Not with that attitude.
In college (both in undergraduate and graduate school), we were not allowed to speak while our work was critiqued. For a good 45 minutes, we'd have to sit there jotting notes and biting our lips while six or seven other people tore our work apart and analyzed it bit by little bit.
Sometimes I had to bite so hard it bled.
I doesn't matter what we intend to say with our words.
Readers can't stop, pick up the phone and ask authors what they meant.
The writing must convey the message all by itself and the critique I received in those workshops was invaluable.
It toughened my skin.
The rewrites that followed taught me how to sort through it all.
How to ignore some criticism and embrace that of others.
And, most important, I learned to recruit readers who would be tough on me.
I might not always agree, but I'll take what I can get.
When people offer criticism, it's like they're giving away money.
Some people gives us just a penny or two.
Others give us gold.
But why would we reject the pennies? We don't have to spend them, but it doesn't hurt to accept them and, when we gather enough pennies, we just might find that they are more valuable when combined than we once thought.
But, then again, we need to be careful that we don't waste too much time gathering pennies.
Don't request critiques from people who will simply be enthralled by the fact that we can write at all. Seek out the gold, the readers who read critically and, therefore, are most likely to offer constructive feedback.
It becomes less painful when we think of the work as a joint project, one in which the person giving critique is invested. The work has been created. Now it needs fine-tuning. Sharpening. The critiquer can sometimes see the flaws that we cannot see because we are too immersed.
The critiquer, or beta reader, offers perspective.
I feel sorry for that woman whose chapter I read.
She will likely waste plenty of time seeking out readers who agree with her.
With each honest critique she rejects, her dream of publication will become less and less vivid.
It's a waste.
But it's also a choice.
A choice that requires strength of character, humility and confidence all rolled together.
We all have it within us.
But, if we want to be successful, we cannot let ego rule.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Writing and rocks

My husband knew better than to ask "whether."
Instead, he simply asked me "when."
When could I teach my son's Cub Scout den about geology?
Then he gave me a list of possible dates.
I was leery.
It'd been a long time since I'd buried my nose in rocks, 25 years to be precise.
I had always had a passion for earth science, but I loved books and writing more. Still, when it came time to declare a college major, I couldn't bring myself to choose English.
I had moved out on my own at 17, during my senior year of high school. I had worked full time most of my junior year and all of my senior year while juggling sports and school work. I didn't want to work that hard anymore.
An English major, I thought, wasn't practical.
I wouldn't make any money.
Too much stress.
So I choose my second love: rocks.
Or, more formally, geochemistry.
That lasted one semester.
Remember when I said I wasn't willing to work that hard anymore?
Geochemistry is a lot of work.
So I drifted about as "undeclared," taking courses in English and in interpersonal communications here and there simply because they were fun. Next thing I knew, my "fun" courses became my dual major and I was working full time as a journalist.
I had made the writing thing work.
And I forgot about rocks.
Until our oldest son became a toddler.
He was fascinated by rocks and fossils, and still is.
As I helped him hunt fossils and identify a few minerals, I realized just how rusty I'd become. My knowledge was old. I was busy. I didn't have time to rekindle old passions, I thought.
But then this opportunity came along.
These kids, these Webelos Ones, are counting on me.
They want their badges.
I knew I couldn't just wing it.
So I dove back in.
It took me about 30 minutes of review to realize why I loved earth science so much. As a hobby, it's easy. No physics involved. No need to memorize world history. No calculus. Just me and a bunch of minerals. Minerals that might have been touched, walked on or looked upon by anyone from cavemen to Cleopatra to JFK.
My love for writing and my love for rocks are not separate passions. They stem from the same sense of curiosity, the same craving to imagine and create, the same appreciation for beauty and art. Rocks are, for me, a muse.
So next Tuesday, I'll hand three Webelos Ones paper plates full of clay. I'll watch as they smash chunks of clay together to create mountains. I'll pay special attention to their eyes as they discover the beauty of creation and evolution.
I might even smile as order them to clean up the mess (because they are sure to throw the clay at something or someone when we're done. How could they possibly resist?). I'll smile because I'll be thinking, thanks Tom.
Thanks for asking me "when."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

I used to be a better mom

I used to be a better mom.
My first two kids had my constant attention except when I was cleaning.
I got online when they were asleep.
I worked on my novel when I had a sitter.
They had it good.
Then came light-weight laptops and wireless networking.
Now, I keep my laptop on the kitchen counter most of the day.
When it's in the basement at my desk, I sneak down and check my email hoping my 3-year-old twins won't notice.
I let them watch too much TV. I don't read to them quite as much as I should. I let the older kids stay up an extra half an hour while I finish one last blog entry, a couple of emails and take a quick peek at my Web stats.
I have excuses.
_ I recently started working as a moderator for a popular online forum.
(I have to become more familiar with its culture--the posters, the topics and the general tone of the community. Right?)
_ My agent might email with an offer.
(Okay, so he'd probably call first. Enough already. These are excuses, remember?)
_ Some horrible ailment might befall a friend I haven't seen in 20 years and the only way I will know is if I check Facebook. (How will it look if I miss the wall post and fail to send a "get well" card?)
Yes, I have excuses.
But today, it started to get to me.
I wondered whether I was cheating the twins.
(I rarely touch my computer from the time the older kids come home from school until just before they go to bed.)
I looked at them.
They were feeding each other pretzels.
Five books were scattered across the living room floor, books I had read to them earlier. Books they had pulled out again and flipped through, pretending to read them aloud.
In the midst of the books was a length of railroad track I had set up for them this morning. Thomas was towing Annie and Clarabel. Diesel pulled a Troublesome Truck. They had played with those off and on for hours.
The television was off .
And they weren't bothered.
No, Matthew and Jonathan were happy.
And I was getting some work done on my laptop.
I had even cleaned the kitchen.
So maybe I'm wrong.
Maybe it's not such a bad thing, this portable, virtual world in my kitchen.
I am not glued to it.
I still get down on the floor with the boys several times a day, flipping them, lifting them and letting them climb on my back and shoulders. I still scoop them up and cuddle them individually for several minutes at a time. We do puzzles together. We count our fingers and toes. We color. We sing the alphabet song.
We dance.
We try to get out of the house for at least a few hours each day.
Perhaps the difference between the mom I was before wireless Internet and the mom I am now is that I am connected, connected with other adults and connected with my work. I am not going crazy for adult interaction or intellectual stimulation while I'm home with my children.
This time around, I have my laptop.
I have my email.
I have Microsoft Word.
I have it good.
But when I power down and take a look around, I realize this:
So do they.