Thursday, February 4, 2016

Not the Party I Was Planning

Dear readers, I must confess something: I’ve been moonlighting, stepping out of my writing closet to work on something much bigger than my novel, bigger than any of my writing projects.

I’m building a playground.

Let me take a step back. My two kids attend a public elementary school with a woefully inadequate playground. I’m involved in the school’s parent-teacher organization (PTO). When teachers approached the PTO for help with the playground, a friend of mine stepped forward to investigate things. Soon, I and another friend, hopped on board. That was 2 ½ years ago (or, according to a misprint in a recent article, 212 years ago…and sometimes it feels like that).

I’m not going to give you all the details of this project, but suffice it to say, it has turned into a huge undertaking involving committees and proposals and construction drawings, and wine, and crying and laughing, and throwing things, and embracing, and more wine, eventually resulting in the plan for an outdoor learning and play environment like no other. If you really want to know more, we have a website for that:

What I want to talk about is the party we had last week, because it was an incredible party. We were
People talking and laughing and eating cheese
celebrating the successful fundraising campaign ($600K, almost entirely from our town of under 30,000 people) and the imminent construction of the PlayLab this summer. It was a party I’d been anticipating for a long time, almost since I first became involved. This is what we call putting the cart before the horse. Guilty, sorry. There’s precedent for this in my life. I’ve done the same thing with my novel.

You see, at random moments while writing, I would sometimes imagine the epic bash I would throw when it gets published. I even started a guest list (Are you on it? There’s still time.). It was an incredibly pointless way to waste writing minutes, but it was fun. I may just dig out the list today and add a few names, because I’ve met an awful lot of new people during my volunteer work on this project. 

Me listening carefully to our
speaker and also wondering if there's
any Havarti left.
Writing is lonely, folks, especially when you live where I do with few other writers around. When my youngest started school, I planned to throw myself into my work full-time. I found this was not possible. I quickly learned I didn't want to live inside my own head for seven or eight hours a day.

This project gave me something to be passionate about, entirely outside my writing work. It gave me a community of like-minded people focused around a goal. And there was intrigue, mayhem, double-crossing (sometimes it was a damn Parks and Rec episode). I know, you may be thinking, it’s a playground, but then you may not know small-town politics like I do, or like I do, now. And I also know about fall zones and pea gravel and site drainage and all sorts of things I may never need to know again once this project is done, but who can say? Maybe I’ll write about it. Odds are good.

This blog is about creativity, and thus far, most of my posts have been about writing, and sometimes painting random bits of cast-off furniture, but there are so many ways we’re all creative in our everyday lives, figuring out how to work together, coming up with solutions, even when the solution involves something as seemingly unimportant as the width of a slide. It’s important to someone. It’s important to many someones in the case of our playground.

I’ve been mentally planning a book launch party for a lot of years, way before “Happy, Indiana,” way before the book I wrote previously (which was cast into the proverbial drawer). But this PlayLab party was everything I could have hoped for and reminded me there are so many more ways to be successful, way beyond my narrow, writerly focused ideas of success. 

And you know what else? Helping other people makes you happy. I’ve read stacks of research on happiness for my novel, and I can tell you the findings there are quite clear. So, more helping people! More parties! More wine and cheese!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Starting Early...on a Love of Books

There was a minor Book Club kerfuffle in our house this morning, not with my book club of 12 years, but with my kid’s. It seems their elementary school has instituted an after-school book club, divided by grade, meeting once per week (an awesome idea!).

My 1st grade son got an “invitation” to join the club in his take-home folder yesterday. My 3rd grade daughter did not. Oh, the humanity!!! The letter made clear that kids were selected by their homeroom teachers to participate, and then it's up to them whether or not they wish to do so. When I asked my son, he gave a casual shoulder shrug. “Sure,” he said. (He’s been cultivating a cool-kid image that means he can’t get overly excited about most things, though he loves to read just as much as his sister.)

Meanwhile, his sister was beside herself wondering why, oh why, she didn’t get an invitation. Does she not read books for hours each day? Does she not talk incessantly about books (and many other things) to the point of wearing out her poor mother’s eardrums?

An email inquiry revealed all: her invitation is in tonight’s take-home folder. Crisis averted.

Now as I sit in this quiet house, getting ready to work on revisions to my novel, I’m feeling very warm and fuzzy, thinking about that passion erupting, all over the opportunity to talk about books. I don’t think our kids’ love of all things literary is an accident. My husband and I both love to read. There are books on every flat surface of our house. Given a moment of downtime, we usually have one in our hands. When the kids want us to read to them, the answer is yes. (When they were in the womb, I'd often read aloud, not kids books, just anything. I thought they might be lonely in there;) When they want to buy books, the answer is almost always yes.

Yet neither my husband nor I came from bookish families. Aside from a set of encyclopedias, there were less than a dozen books in my entire childhood home. They sat on a shelf next to our fireplace, and I can still picture their spines, if not their titles. One was a nonfiction book about Canadian Geese. One was a 1950s era book for women on dieting and beauty. There was a farming memoir, and a 1970s book of Guinness World records. I recently found the Guinness book in my parents’ basement and brought it home. I recognized nearly every picture, though I hadn’t looked through it in 30 years. It’s just that, as a kid, I'd looked through it so often, having few other options.
This is our living room coffee table/library cart my dad made
out of a wooden electrical cable spool. He added dowels
and casters, and I gave it a shabby-chic paint job.

Fast forward to last week, when I had to sit my daughter down and explain that she was bringing too many books home. Able to select from a wide variety in her classroom, she was lugging home way more than she could read in a week, or even a month, and her backpack was crazy heavy. I suggested she stick to two or three at a time, but she wasn’t able to choose. 

“I love all of them!” she wailed. What could I say? I know, I know… 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Asking for Help, or, How I Quit Being an Idiot

I’ve just printed out some notes on my recently “completed” novel, “Happy, Indiana,” and am getting ready to dive into some “light” revisions. I say “completed” because this thing is really not going to be done until it’s published. I say “light” because the changes I’m making are minor compared to the multiple, major, revisions this book has gone through in the past year or two.

I’m actually quite excited about working on the book again. I had set it aside for a few months, having taken it as far as I could at the time. But last month, I reached out to a fellow writer, a woman I’d met eons ago at a conference and re-connected with online, to see if she’d be willing to read the book. Not only was she willing to do that, but she also organized us, with the addition of another writer friend of hers, into a weekly critique group. And so I’m sitting down with their notes on my opening chapters, and I’m so, so grateful to have their insight.

This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t asked.

The focus groups I held over the summer with an earlier draft? All I had to do was ask. Now, sometimes people say, “No,” but my experience has been that the majority of people will help you, if you ask politely, and maybe offer them lunch.

Duh, you’re thinking, you’re just figuring this out? Yes. I am. I’m a slow learner, in this arena anyway.

I didn’t show my first (eventually shelved) novel to hardly anyone. I was…scared? Of what they’d think of my subject matter, or my skill as a writer? I was scared they would say the book needed a lot of work and that would throw me into despair, and I’d just give up? Or scared they’d say it was wonderful and then I’d have to curse the world in general for not agreeing? I was scared they’d say, “No?”

I used to have a job in public relations, where it took an entire team to get a two-page press release out into the world. I may have been the primary writer, but there were notes initially about what the focus of the release should be. Then, after I drafted it, there were multiple levels of review and revision, both internally within the agency, and externally with the client. There was strategizing about timing and placement. And by that point, we’d look at it again, and make more revisions, or find the typo that managed to pass a half dozen sets of eyes.

Yet I somehow thought I was going to figure out, for the first time, how to write a killer 300-page novel all on my own? I think it was pride, too, not just fear, that made me think this. The feeling that I had a graduate degree and experience and publishing credits, and I should be able to do this novel-writing thing.

With the writing of “Happy, Indiana,” I finally believe I’ve been able to toss off this image of the lonely, struggling artist. Okay, yes, I write in a closet, but the door is open, there’s a window on the world (or at least my street) and I exit it frequently to talk with friends and fellow writers. It feels good to have a community.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Turn, Turn, Turn

There’s gorgeous, fluffy snow covering everything this morning. The kids hurried through breakfast so they’d have time to play in it before walking to school. My husband (who actually enjoys shoveling, go figure) happily donned his trapper’s hat and set to work on the driveway.

I’m smiling as I write, and thinking, “Well, it’s about damn time.” It’s January 12, after all, and this is the first serious snow we’ve had (I live near Cleveland). It just feels wrong. When neighbors exclaimed on Christmas Day, “Isn’t this nice? It’s so warm!” I could barely hear them over the grinding of my teeth.

No. No, no, no. We go sledding over Christmas Break. That’s what we’re supposed to do. There’s a season for all these things that we do, and the weather is messing with it. I feel the urge to break into that song by The Byrds, but first let me explain that the restless feeling in our house brought on by the lack of snow has been matched these last few weeks by a restlessness in my writing closet.

I finished a novel in the fall, then immediately set about writing both an essay and a picture book that I’d been wanting to write for a long time. Those are done now, too. And though I have computer files of “ideas” and scraps of things, there’s nothing that has a big neon sign pointing to it that says “Do this next.”

I’m finding that there are seasons to book writing, and I’m back in the idea generation season, the time when I just let myself read widely and wildly, go places, explore and decide what I want to write my next book about (because I’ve decided, as challenging as it is, novel-writing is a challenge I want to keep pursuing).

It should be a marvelous season, one in which I wake up every day and realize how lucky I am, and I do, sort of…but…I’m really only happy when I’m actively writing.

So, I’m making a decision, right now as I type this, that there can be no black and white “seasons” to writing, or at least, the seasons have to overlap. The warm air may come in next week and melt all this snow, only to throw us back into some freaky ice storm the week after. And I’ve got to keep my writing seasons jumbled as well.

I need different projects all the time, in different stages. I may need to schedule time to read those novels I have stacked by the bed, books that will get me excited and generate new ideas. But I also need to schedule work on a new essay, to try my hand once again at short stories (it’s been awhile…), to dabble at whatever pops into my head, but to definitely have a goal, to put words on a page, every day. If I don’t, I’m afraid I’ll just give up and go sledding…

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Living (and Writing) Dangerously in the New Year

I’ve just read a wonderful essay by Tom Spanbauer titled “Dangerous Writing” in Poets & Writers. It’s a fitting piece to contemplate as I sit here on this early January morning, the kids packed off to school after a long break, the Christmas tree looking sad in the corner in its nest of fallen needles.

When Spanbauer talks about dangerous writing, he doesn’t mean scenes of murder and mayhem, but rather, being the kind of writer who goes to the dangerous places in his or her own mind. He’s talking about digging really deep, writing with passion, writing what scares you. It’s not easy. It’s not supposed to be. But this is the kind of writing that gets to some real truths and sticks in readers’ minds long after they finish.

Personally, I’ve been doing more and more of this. I used to be very tentative, worrying about what people might think of my work, and, consequently, my writing at that time was fine…but nothing more. It skimmed the surface. I don’t write like that anymore. Maybe I’ve just gotten too old to care what people think, but I know I’ve also gotten too old to want to waste any time writing something I’m not passionate about.

A few weeks ago, I took an impromptu trip to Mexico where I met up with some girlfriends. This is very unlike me, very outside my comfort zone, traveling alone to an unfamiliar place where I don’t even speak the language outside of : "¿Donde está el baño?" The vacation was wonderful, but the traveling part, both ends of it, were full of anxious moments.

At one point, waiting for the agents to search my luggage, I watched all the other travelers speed on by, and envied them for their sure-footedness. They seemed to be taking everything in stride. They didn’t look stressed out at all. I had a little pity-party in my head, lamenting how I couldn't be all zen, like I was at the yoga class my friends and I took on the beach.

But then I had a sudden realization. The people who are stressed by this type of thing? They aren’t here. They’re not at this airport. I’m not seeing all the people who are anxious like me, because they all stayed home.

And so, too, with writing. Oh, if I had a dollar for every time someone told me, “I’d like to write a book, too.” But they didn’t. They aren’t. I traveled in 2015. I wrote a novel (and a picture book and several essays and put my collection of short fiction together), all of which required some mental traveling to dangerous places. I’d do it all again. I’m passionate about my work, and plan to stay that way, in 2016, and always.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

My Favorite Things—Fern Paintings

While in a check-out line this past weekend, I noticed the cover of Oprah’s magazine, which included a headline about her favorite things and how some lucky readers could win them. Now I’m old enough to remember watching her annual “Favorite Things” show in which audience members “went coco-nuts” (as my six-year-old would say) as Oprah piled gift after gift upon them, usually a mix of hot new tech items combined with comfy pajamas and cookware. By virtue of being featured on Oprah’s show, the gifts were christened the must-haves of the season.

In our little household, as Christmas approaches, we are having a hard time deciding what we “want.” Even the kids are struggling to give Santa a list. We watch all our TV on Netflix, so they’re spared commercials telling them what they must have. This is all fine with me. That’s not to say there won’t be any presents under the tree. There will be, some. But I'm also trying to cultivate a mindfulness, in myself first, and hopefully spreading outward to the people I love, about needs and wants. I want to spend more time appreciating that I have what I need, and also that so many of my favorite “things” are items I already own.

So this is the first in what I anticipate will be an irregular series of posts touring some of my favorite things in my house, things that make me smile every time I look at them. I’m going to start this little journey just inside my front door where I have a grouping of four paintings of ferns. These little beauties were hand-painted on chalkboard and framed simply in wood painted a chocolate brown. I found these tossed on a clearance rack in a booth at a large craft mall. They were $2 each. I couldn’t believe no one had wanted these pretty things, but then all the other crafts at this particular mall were of the college-football-themed-toilet-paper-holder variety, so I guess these poor ferns just didn’t fit in. Lucky me!

My favorite color is lime green, so they caught my eye right away. I love that the four species (Mountain, Royal, Long Beech, Maidenhair) are accurately presented, according to my botanist friend. And, I’ve just always been a sucker for ferns. I love finding a big grouping of them on hikes, love seeing the fiddleheads in the spring and later, those delicate fronds unfolded. Ferns are cool! These plants have been around since the dinosaurs roamed, we’re talking more than 100 million years ago! Look at any drawing of the Cretaceous period. What’s that stegosaurus chomping on? Yup, ferns.

Ferns make me happy, and I love that these pictures greet everyone who enters our home.

*In case you’re curious, the “gossip bench” was purchased at a local antique store for about 50 bucks. It was covered in white leather and filthy. Once I cleaned up the wood and recovered the seat, it became the perfect little bench for our very small foyer. The table contains an antique phone book from my town and a working reproduction of a vintage phone (though I don’t have a phone jack here, so it’s mostly the kids’ pretend phone at present). I keep thinking I should sit down on this bench and have a lengthy phone conversation devoid of multi-tasking. Haven’t done it, yet.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Perfect Clutch for the Bookish Gal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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