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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Zombie Flower

Check out my Zombie Flower, back from the dead! I last planted pansies in this pot in Spring 2010. They withered from the summer heat and my general neglect. Then they got dumped on by brutal snowstorms all winter, and spit on by harsh spring rains. But this week, strangely, one has defiantly pushed up through the soil and rotting leaves to raise its head high. Mysterious! I thought pansies were annuals and weren't supposed to do that. This is one hardy pansy.

This morning I saw evidence that squirrels had rummaged around the pot. They left the Zombie Flower alone. It wields an eerie power.

I have to admire its pluck. If it's looking for care, it's come to the wrong place. I don't have time to water it or to deadhead its spent blossoms. Gardening is at the bottom of my list. Heck, it's not even on the paper. It's a postscript following an afterthought.

It shouldn't be. I come from a big gardening family. From people who actually think it's fun to weed for hours in the baking sun, and who eschew fancy irrigation systems for the joys of wrestling a hose. My people have lush yards, front and back, tangled and perfumed with thriving plants. They can throw a stick in the ground and watch it blossom into something extraordinary. My grandfather was a salesman for the Lily Seed Company, and a passionate, gifted gardener. He passed away over ten years ago, yet my mother, who lives in his house now, still finds the odd flower cropping up amidst hers, some persistent strain he planted so many years ago making its way to the surface. 

I often feel I lack the gardening gene. Maybe I just lack time. Maybe when I emerge from under my novel revisions, my family obligations, other work, and the many people and things that seem to demand my attention, I too will get to see the sun and try my hand at plants. It's an intriguing idea.

But more intriguing to me is the concept of a plant that thrives when untended. Kind of like an idea. Have you ever noticed how when you turn your back, or switch to some mundane task, the best ideas sneak up on you? Or a concept you had months or years ago suddenly explodes in your mind, and you have to drop everything and write it all down? This happens to me a  lot lately. It's why I keep white boards on my kitchen wall. Just as I think I'm stuck in my book, I'll go rinse off some dishes, or start fixing food, and bam! --  there's the insight I was looking for. I scribble it down, my hands dripping wet. I love it when I find an idea has been quietly developing all this time, beneath the surface, and suddenly pushes through. (Yeah, I guess I'm not much of a cook either. But that's another story . . . )

So I guess I am gardening these days, in a sense. I'm trying to harvest ideas and words. But I look forward to taking a break at some point to try my hand at an actual plant.

Meanwhile, I'll enjoy the Zombie Flower. Maybe I'll even throw some water on it this afternoon. Or, I don't know, tomorrow. I expect it'll hang on awhile longer without my doing too much.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Getting to Z

It did not hit me that my son's first year of preschool was really ending until yesterday afternoon, when I took his art projects and papers out of his cubby. There it was: the letter Z. I felt the floor drop away from me as I stared at that final worksheet. My hands actually shook. I marveled at how neatly my son had traced the dots to form the Z and then how he'd copied the letter beneath it. At the smiley face sticker to reward his good work. I thought back to A, B and C back in the fall. The wobbly lines, the tentative pencil. This Z, in comparison, exuded confidence. Z may be the last letter, and underutilized, but it should never be underestimated. It's fierce. Zounds.

I remember the middle of the alphabet, which hit in the dead of winter. M, N -- what awful letters. How to tell them apart? They're like close-in-age siblings who look like twins, dressing up in each others clothes, fooling people.  O is Okay, I guess. But  P, not so much. And Q  . . . Q! That maddening little tail! And don't get me started on R -- so hard to distinguish from its cousins B and P.

There were dark days this year when I didn't see how we would make it to Z. The end of the alphabet, like the spring, seemed elusive and receding. Even when W and X appeared in the cubby several weeks ago, I was in denial.

But here we are at Z. Even preschoolers get to enjoy a sense of completion and a sense that goals can be attained. They made it through the alphabet. They are LEARNING TO READ AND WRITE. This is big stuff, people. This is where it all begins. 

I have my own receding Z to look toward right now. The next stage of my novel revisions. Back to work I go, fueled by my son's amaZing final letter, now proudly tacked above my desk. 

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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Mysteries of an Attic

Here's a picture of my great-grandmother, looking on as I helped clean out my mother's attic last week. I can't tell if her expression is one of bemusement or horror. For decades, her portrait has been the silent guardian of family archives and objects, in a house that's been in my family since the 1920s. When my grandfather passed away ten years ago, my mother and stepfather moved in, having inherited not only the house but all the generations of junk -- er, I mean treasures -- stored upstairs. We then added to the heap -- uh, collection -- by moving our own boxes up there. My sister and I both packed up our entire childhoods very quickly. I'm sure we planned to sift through them. But we both moved out of state, traveled a lot, and never quite got around to it. Years passed, and dust snowed down on our boxes.

For as long as I can remember, this unfinished attic has been a massive repository for our family's memories. Among the keepsakes my grandparents stored there were furniture, stacks of old letters, vintage clothing, and assorted remnants of my great-grandparents' life in Norway (a violin, an old trunk, a giant gilded Norwegian Bible, various fading photos). There was also a marvelous collection of my mother's old toys -- tin wonders from the 1940s, paper dolls with stunning wardrobes, and fun board games like The Nancy Drew Mystery Game. There were volumes of children's books, mostly mysteries -- all the Nancy Drews, and other gems, like The Clue in Blue, by long-forgotten authors.

My grandfather used to take me up to the attic to choose a toy or a book to borrow. I would stare at the shelves in awe, while dust danced around us and sunlight leaked in through the one window that was not papered over. It was like time travel, being up there, and thrilling, as there was always a risk (I was warned) of falling through the floor, or tripping over boxes. The attic offered an endless scavenger hunt. I guess I thought someday my own son might experience a similar thrill, foraging for generations of old toys and books.

My mother, understandably, would prefer not to be the caretaker of everyone's memorabilia. The attic is enormous, and could be refinished. The ceiling needs insulating. It was time to start dealing with stuff.
I dove in to the boxes and found a few gems. My old record collection. All my childhood books -- the old Nancy Drews I loved to read, both my mother's and mine, and the horse books I used to devour. I found some disappointments, too, like toys I'd hoped to pass on to my son that had not aged well. (A family of mice had lived like kings in the Fisher Price castle; I found signs of nests in the turret). I discovered bizarre things,  like a high school boyfriend's skis. (Why?) Like someone's false teeth. (Whose??) The attic, as always, offered up intriguing mysteries, and items that had sifted together in bizarre juxtapositions.
(Pictured above: My grandather's fedoras, hung on antlers from moose shot by my great-uncle, next to an old boyfriend's skis. Too weird).
But the biggest mystery I found up there was the question of why we hold on to things so fiercely. I'm an archivist at heart, a lover of musty documents, ancient books, family photos, old maps. Also, as a writer, I know I tend to hang on to information -- especially books and documents and zillions of printed-out drafts -- thinking it will all become useful.

The Internet and digital storage have altered this need. I also live in close proximity to six libraries. This realization made it easy to throw out a lot of things in that attic, like all my college papers and notes. Am I really going to teach Romantic Poetry someday? If so, am I really going to refer back to my college lecture notes from the 1990s?

The other compelling reason to hang on to things is for the memories they evoke. Yet it felt okay, and got easier, to look at childhood mementos one last time and send them on their way. Do I really need to hang on to years of ballet costumes? A report on the Plains Indians? 3x5 index cards for an eighth grade speech I gave about wigs? (Yes, wigs. For the record, I got an A. And I'm sure the wigs can be found up there too, somewhere, if I look hard enough).

I managed to whittle down my section of the attic to just two small boxes, filled mainly with juvenile writings and art projects that predate electronic storage, and my grandfather's Coast Guard cap. I salvaged some  childhood books in good enough shape to enjoy with my son. Everything else went to the Goodwill or trash.

For a paralyzing few seconds, as I looked at the cleared space and the dancing dust motes, I felt I had thrown out twenty years of my life. But then I felt an incredible sensation of lightness. I have my own mental attic to visit if I need to rummage around for material. And I'd rather spend my time creating new memories and experiences instead of sifting through old ones.

It's easy to think our family histories and childhoods can be found in things, but I think they live on in our character and our values. And of course, in the stories we tell.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bookless in Seattle

For the first time in my life, I have nothing to read. Nothing! I'm totally disoriented. I'm twitching and hallucinating and muttering to myself. I'm visiting family, 3,000 miles away from my tower of nightstand books. I came here having hastily packed, with only one half-finished novel (which I read on the plane), thinking I would just buy new books while I'm out here. Because I'm not in the Middle of Nowhere. I'm in Seattle. A reading city, bursting with incredible bookstores.

But my time during bookstore hours has been taken up with family activities over Memorial Day weekend. My time has not been my own. I did orbit Third Place Books at a farmers market on Sunday, but had to help my parents carry vegetables. We had walked to the market, and had a big dinner to cook. I cast longing looks at the bookstore and experienced chest pains as I walked away. Radishes? Who cares about radishes? I am out of reading material, people!

I could have borrowed a book from my parents, but we have different tastes in reading (Death Begins in the Colon just isn't calling out to me right now for some reason). Besides, it's a new book I'm craving. An uncreased cover. The crack of a spine as I turn to page one.

I've never been in this situation. When I pack for a trip, I'm more likely to throw in an extra book than an extra shirt. I'll wear the wrong type of footwear all week but have an ample layer of words. Even as a kid, I'd look forward to picking out my special "airplane books" so I'd never be caught without reading material. Maybe it's a habit I picked up from my grandmother, who never went anywhere without a paperback mystery in a neat paper bag.

Yet here I am. Inexplicably bookless. I'm starting to understand the appeal of a Kindle.

I awakened early today, groping for a book that was not there. I looked at the clock. Three hours till the nearest bookstore opens. Could I dash there before visiting my grandmother? Squeeze in a book run before picking up my rental car and heading over to see my mother? One thing I love about my hometown is the abundance of drive-through coffee joints. Why don't we have 24-hour drive-through bookstores? (The Kindle. I know, I know. I'll think about it).

One hour and forty-two minutes until the nearest bookstore opens. Deep breaths. Deep breaths.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Shaking Up My Writing Life

For many years, I had no hobbies. Not a one. I pursued work, grad school, and, above all, writing, with gritty determination, leaving little time for anything else. I lived on little sleep, piled on the freelance work, and was generally unpleasant to be around. Around 30, I realized my life was way out of balance. I started carving out time for hobbies and recreation. Took up yoga. Tried knitting. (Which was hopeless -- sorry, Mom). Went back to ballet for a bit. Took up long distance bicycling with my husband and even did a couple of 200-mile charity fundraiser rides.

I've always been so stingy with my writing time, but I've come to find that devoting even two hours a week to something else, something that does not involve staring at a computer screen, is a wise investment. It gives me more stamina for sitting at a desk. I also encounter people who are not in my usual orbit. And when I leave my daily routine to become totally immersed in something else, my brain shakes loose new ideas.

A year ago, I found a new activity that made my heart soar: taiko drumming. A combination of martial arts, dance, voice, and percussion -- with a little Japanese language thrown in -- taiko is like taking five classes in one. It's also strangely addictive.

I attend the class at great inconvenience. The class meets on my husband's one late night at work. I have to arrange a complex trapeze act with a babysitter to cover the lag time, which also means added expense. I am frequently late or must miss classes due to competing demands on the home front. Yet I've kept at it, with the following thought process: "I just want to be strong enough to drum for twenty minutes straight. Then I'll be happy." Then it was: "I just want to learn the song Kokyo. Then I'll be happy." Then: "I just want to play in the winter concert. Then I'll bow out." Then: "I just want to learn this really cool, complex song, Hiryu Sandan Geishi. THEN, I swear, I'll hang up my bachi -- my drumsticks -- and retire, because this Tuesday night thing is a HUGE PAIN."

No can do. I just performed Hiryu Sandan Geishi with my class, in my second show, "Spring Thunder," and I'm still giddy over the fact that I successfully did this, despite missing some classes this winter and catching endless illnesses from my preschooler. And good news: the instructor said I can move up to a more advanced class this summer. This new schedule will solve my babysitting problems. But I'm also thrilled to move up because I watch the Styles class with awe, marveling at all they can do: the tricks and tosses with their bachi, their stamina, their energy. That little voice in me is still whispering. "I just want to take one session of the Styles class. Then I'll be happy!" Yeah, right.

Here are a few pictures from the Spring Thunder performance. (I'm on the right, front row).

I think one big reason taiko works for me is that it's an area of my life where I can see progress. If I show up, if I practice, if I commit to it, I get better. I'm sure this mentality translates to my writing too, but with drumming it's so tangible. If you miss a note, it's obvious. When you hit the drum right, it sings.

Also, I get to pretend I'm a real musician. Even better, I get to hang out with some truly amazing musicians, like the members of Odaiko New England, pictured below as they break in a brand new odaiko (drum):

If you're in the Boston area, Odaiko New England can be seen performing next at a benefit concert with two other local taiko groups on Saturday, June 4. The event, Artists for Japan, will support the Japanese Disaster Relief Fund and Japan Animal Rescue and Support. I'll be out of town, but drumming along with them in spirit! (Saturday, June 4, 2:30-5:30, Harvard-Epworth United Methodist Church, 1555 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge).

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Monday, May 16, 2011

NESCBWI 2011: A gem of a conference!

Spring brings showers -- for me, showers of new information and new friends and contacts. It's conference season, the time of year I like to put on actual clothes (as opposed to the pajamas I work in most days) and emerge from my cave. In years past, I attended teacher's and textbook writer's conferences; now, on a hiatus from teaching, I try to attend more events for creative writers. Earlier this month I attended Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace, and this weekend I went to the NESCBWI conference for the first time.

I'm relatively new to SCBWI (the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) and completely new to NESCBWI (the New England chapter). Why did I wait so long to join this amazing organization? I don't know. Maybe I just found the acronym intimidating, or had trouble typing and saying it. Now, after this weekend, it rolls off my tongue. I cannot say enough wonderful things about this group. It was exciting to spend the weekend in the company of 500+ attendees who are all passionate about children's fiction.

I could only attend two out of three days, due to a schedule conflict with a taiko drumming performance I was in (more on that later this week) and a desire to not completely abandon my child all weekend. Not staying on site also meant an hour's commute to Fitchburg each way. But my long hours on the road were completely worth it. Highlights included:
  • A workshop with Janet Fox on "Elusive Elision" -- deciding when to hold back and when to reveal -- a craft issue I thought about a lot during my last novel revision. Extremely useful. 
  • A workshop with Susan Raab on promotion strategies and finding your marketing voice.
  • A panel discussion with Tony Abbott, Elise Broach, and Nora Baskin on sustaining a long-term career as a children's author.
  • A sparkling discussion on multicultural fiction, with authors and illustrators of picture books, MG books, and YA books.
I also met up with four fellow Apocalypsies (2012 kidlit debut authors) for lots of shop-talk, and greatly enjoyed getting to know them in person. Email's great and all, but there's no substitute for a good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation. And it's always so great to meet other writers and hear about where they are on this journey.

There are lots of good people working hard to write and sell top-notch books for children. The seriousness of attendees struck me the most. Yes, we're all writing for children, and maybe (I thought, on occasion) we could lighten up at times. But I think we all have this great hunger for information on craft and promotion. When we get to a conference like this, we're greedy. We don't want to waste a minute. We want to write great books. We want to get them into the hands of readers. It's a fun job, and a serious business.

I'll be back next year at this gem of a conference, hopefully presenting with some colleagues!

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Monday, May 2, 2011

Inspiration at the Muse and the Marketplace

This weekend I attended my favorite writer's conference: Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace, at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. I've been going to this conference since its earliest days, when it was a simple one-day affair. Now it's exploded into a jam-packed two-day event that draws attendees from all over the country and attracts high-profile keynote speakers such as Ann Patchett, Chuck Pahlaniuk, Jonathan Franzen, and, this year, one of my all-time favorite authors, Ron Carlson. I love how the conference is true to its name, devoting equal attention to matters of the Muse (sessions focused on craft and inspiration) and the Marketplace (everything from acquiring an agent to promoting your published book).

The conference was more of a whirlwind for me than before as I could only attend on one day. I was a sponge during sessions, drinking in all the wisdom I could from workshop leaders and panelists, and then rather frantically trying to connect with old friends and meet people between sessions or bites of food.

Among the many highlights of the day:
  • Kidlit author Ben Winters led an energetic workshop on "Writing Funny for Young Readers." We analyzed a number of passages from successful and classic kids' books (Tom Sawyer, Anastasia Krupnik, Beezus and Ramona, among others) to see how tone, character, and conflicts can be vehicles for humor, and vice versa. We also brainstormed what's funny for kids, and how to be consistent. Some of the passages we looked at were from books I hadn't read since childhood, but instantly remembered -- and now, looking back through an analytical lens, could see why I loved them, what made them sing.The workshop was MG (middle grade) focused, and did not really get into YA (young adult) humor, so I'll puzzle over humor and the older market on my own time.
  • Acclaimed author Randy Susan Meyers  led a panel discussion with an in-house publicist and a freelance publicist to discuss how authors might leverage both to promote their books. I'm not yet sure if I'd hire an outside publicist, mainly due to cost, but I took away a number of tips for working with publicists when the time comes, and gained a new appreciation for the power of having a team of people involved in promoting your book -- and the importance of communicating well with that team. (Plus, if you have never heard Randy speak, you must drop everything and get to one of her book readings or talks ASAP. She is that rare combination of brilliant and funny. She could talk about anything -- publicity, her novel, broccoli -- and I would go hear her).
  • Ron Carlson gave an inspiring keynote speech. I had chills when he took the stage; I own every book of short stories this guy has written. (I've read one of his novels, but prefer his stories for some reason). I've been recommending his book on craft, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, for years, and it was great to hear him  give voice to some of the ideas expressed there, such as the need for the writer to "stay in the room" -- not to leave the room, desk, or scene when the going gets tough, because the best material usually arises when you stay and proceed ahead into the unknown, toward doubt.
  • Jenna Blum, Ethan Gilsdorf, and Jonathan Papernick gave a rousing "Hour of Power" talk at the end of the day: Guerilla Book Promotion. All three have engaged in innovative strategies to promote their own books. Jenna has visited countless bookclubs and chases tornadoes. Ethan scheduled his own book tour and finds unique book-related venues at which he can speak or give workshops. Jonathan (a.k.a. "Papernick the Book Peddler") hand-sells his books from a pushcart in New York City and appears at Farmers Markets (where, as he put it, he doesn't have to compete with the likes of Jonathan Franzen; he's just competing with vegetables). 
A full day, which I'm grateful I could enjoy. I'm ready to hit the desk again this week and finish Phase One of my revision. As always after the Muse, I'm in awe of how many writers come to conferences, how many of us are engaged in this zany and wonderful pursuit of putting words on a blank page, and how book culture and reading are alive and well.

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