Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Surviving the Holidays Through Writing

It’s not that I dread the holidays, not completely. I’m fresh off a weekend of merry-making with the hubs and progeny. Cutting down ye olde tree, decorating while Brenda Lee rocks out in the background, baking gingerbread, for Cripes’ sake! Clearly, I am not a person who poo-poos Christmas.

The part of the holidays that make me breathe into a paper bag is the part where I get thrown into a roomful of people so different from me in so many ways that I may as well be speaking Urdu. My family. And I’m not adopted. I once thought, maybe, but we look so darn much alike.

Today, I’m sharing ways to survive these family get-togethers without large quantities of your mom’s secret stash of amaretto. All those angry feelings bubbling up at the dinner table? Those might go into a journal, if you keep that type of thing. I’m not so much a diary-writer anymore, but I am an idea-gatherer. I’m a fan of the freewrite. I do this on my computer (because my handwriting is atrocious, and I sometimes can’t read it). If something happens to me that I can connect to something else, bigger than me, I might have an essay on my hands. And so I write those thoughts down.

The notes might be raw and hurtful and contain multiple expletives. Now, we don’t show these notes to anyone, right my dearies? No, we do not. That would be the equivalent of drunk dialing, and it is bad. We simply sit on the notes until the moment passes, days or weeks, or a decade, later, then we take a look and see if there’s anything worth writing about more formally. If not, there’s a little thing called the “Delete” key.

But, there’s something even better to do with difficult people. Make them into fictional characters. Just be sure they are different enough that no one will recognize them. If you’re writing about a man, take a tip from Anne Lamott in her fabulous book, “Bird by Bird,” and give him a “teenie little penis” so he won’t ever sue you.

I digress. The point I really want to make is that it’s incredibly hard to see things from another person’s point-of-view. For me, this becomes especially obvious this time of year. It’s something I struggle with on a daily basis, as a person. But as a person who is also a writer, I’m not half bad at it, and getting better. The first novel I wrote is about a woman who, when I started the project, seemed to have very little in common with me, but, through the years of crafting her story, I can tell you I understand her. I love her even, though she and I don’t agree on many things.

I’ve lived in her skin. I have found more similarities between us than differences. I have to. For a character to be successful (and not just the stage-hogging protagonists, but every minor character as well), she or he must be well-rounded. That’s a big old writing workshop term, but it’s true. No cardboard characters, please. They must be complicated. My character changes her mind about certain things that she never thought she’d change her mind about. She refuses to budge on others. She is…human.


And in creating her, I’ve found myself opening my mind to opinions like hers. I don’t need to adopt those opinions, but I recognize that characters, as well as flesh-and-blood people, arrive at their personal beliefs through such very twisted paths.

What a gift, writing. Though it hasn’t brought me fame or fortune, what a gift to sit down and create a world and populate it, to live as another person for a portion of the day. Real people will always be harder to understand, but writers are lucky because when things get to be too much to bear at the big family get-together, we can always retreat to the guest room and dive into another universe. The trick is, to not remain a hermit (I know, this from someone who writes in a closet…) but to exit that room more open to understanding the real people around you.

 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The $10 Dresser DIY


What could you do with a few bucks, a cast-off dresser and a whole lot of swearing?* Why, you could create a fabulous DIY project!
So, a friend of mine took off and moved to Texas, and I’ll never forgive her, but as a lovely parting gift, she gave me her daughter’s dresser because, you know, when you’re moving to fancy-pants Austin, you can’t be bothered with such un-cool things as old orange dressers from Ohio.

Note: When anyone offers me old furniture, I pretty much say “yes.” Friends also call me on trash morning to report various items out by the curbs. Yes, when friends think of trash, they think of me.

But back to the dresser. I had begun a beautiful bedroom renovation (full photos to come, someday, keep your pants on), and knew I needed a dresser, having recently sold our hideous, Tuscan-style bedroom suite on Craigslist for a price I posted with hilarious laughter and then actually received. I knew my dresser had to serve double-duty as both a holder of clothing and a nightstand because I had eaten up a chunk of the room's available floor space by adding a seating area.

I loved the lines of this dresser. And that adorable little drawer on top? People have asked if I added it, but nope, it was there all along. The narrow second drawer would be perfect to hold bedtime reading. There's room for a lamp. Solid wood, dovetailed drawers that still slide without too much difficulty. Loved it all, just not the paint.

Now if you’ve read about any of my other projects, you’ve noticed a theme; I love paint. It’s cheap, it’s fast, it’s entirely transformative. And it really never goes out of style. The techniques do, of course. What I might have sponge-painted in the 90s, I might ombre now (my current powder room re-do will feature this technique), but there is always something amazing you can do with paint to match whatever style you’re going for.

I used the same white paint I used for the trim in the room (Sherwin-Williams Harmony, Extra-White). I didn’t bother priming it, since this paint covers pretty well. But I did scuff up the dresser first with some sandpaper, and I used two coats. Oh, and make sure you remove the hardware first, duh. I spray-painted the hardware with my trusty can of silver spray paint, which is kept in my holster at all times.

Now, I hear you asking, but what is that pattern on the front, without which this is just a painted dresser and I’m moving quickly on to surf cat videos… Ah, that’s the greatest part. That pattern is a $2 roll of contact paper from Big Lots. Now, I won’t kid you. The contact paper thing was a PITA (look it up), but the results are so pretty. The little notches at the two top corners were actually carved into the original dresser. I just went with that and cut the paper to match it.
You have to measure really, really carefully here and cut and stick, and reposition and reposition until you get the piece of contact paper just right on each drawer. This is where the swearing comes in. And because I’m dealing with a continuous pattern (probably not wise, for a first-timer), I didn't have room for much sloppiness. My mistake was thinking that if it was just a little too long, I’d cut the rest off once it was on the drawer. This did not work well. The paper started to tear, leaving some jagged bits that are still there and will haunt me for the rest of my days.

It's not perfect. I found a paint drip on the side. Things like that bother me because I am kind of a freak. But I did not sand it off and repaint, because I am not that kind of a freak. Also, I have to hear the little scratching noise of the paper when I open two of the drawers because it hangs over a half a centimeter. But I suppose I’ll live. And while removing the hardware, one of the handles broke, and so I opted to buy new glass knobs for the top drawer, which I actually really like as it sets that drawer apart. Happy accident. These were $4 each, which brings the total project cost to 10 bucks.
Turns out that little top drawer is perfect for jewelry. And while we’re talking about saving money, there are tons of plastic contraptions you can buy to compartmentalize your jewelry in a drawer. I’ve seen very small dividers on sale for more than $20. But, hey, since no one sees it but you, why not pull out a couple extra ice cube trays? They’re perfect for earrings.

p.s. My friend’s daughter has a very cute new room in Austin. She even let me sleep in it when I visited. And I forgave my friend for moving, sort of.

*swearing optional

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Do You Write for Children?


So I found myself chatting with my neighbor lady the other day, who is a very awesome, nearly 90-year-old (and the only grandma in my little, rural Midwestern town who wears a nose ring) and she asked me a question. First, she asked what I was doing with myself now that my youngest child started kindergarten. Somehow, in all our conversations, it never came up that I’m a writer. So, when I said I was working on a book, she quite innocently followed up with, “Oh, do you write for children?”

And while that blood vessel behind my right eye went all twitchy, I smiled pleasantly and said I did not. “I write for adults.” Blank stare. Then, fearing she might think I write for adults, as in XXXADULTS, I backpedalled. “I write fiction, for grown-ups, you know, novels and also, stories, and also sometimes essays, non-fiction in that case, plus the occasional poem.” She looked unconvinced, and I babbled more incoherently, wondering if I should just go into the house and get my CV. “Did you know I had a poem on all the buses in Cleveland?” (This is true, but is also the equivalent of waving a bright, shiny, distracting object in front of her face. Ohhh, what’s this? Pretty! Pretty! What were we talking about?)

There are so many, many questions you should not ask writers (e.g. What do you do all day? When will you be on the best-seller list? Don’t you agree print is a dying form?) But for the love of Jehovah, do NOT ask a female writer if she writes for children. You know why? Because nobody asks a male writer this. For a male writer to be asked this question, I believe he would have to be strapped, front and back, with a Baby Bjorn and even then, the asker might assume that if he’s a writer, oh he must be a serious journalist covering workplace equality.

Because underlying this question is the assumption that a mother couldn’t possibly know about anything beyond children. The asker forgets that writers, especially the fiction-y kind, make ample use of something called an imagination. The assumption is also that writing for children is easy, so easy that even a woman--even one with other things on her mind like caring for children, or, I don't know,vacuuming the drapes in a dress and high heels and wondering when Ward is going to come home from work, and whether the pot roast is going to be too tough--can do it.

What I should have said to my neighbor, what is the actual truth and something I think most writers understand, but many non-writers, especially non-parents, might not get, is this: I AM NOT GOOD ENOUGH TO WRITE FOR CHILDREN!
I bow down before the masters who are capable of winning over the most discerning of audiences—kids! They are honest little buggers. If they don’t like something, they toss it aside. I’ve tried scratching out a couple picture books, and have put them back in the drawer, returning to my novel-in-progress, which, at a likely 300 pages full of plot twists, is actually easier to write than a 100-word rhyming book. Try it!

It’s one of those things everyone thinks they could do, but it is so very, very hard to do it well. Marketers take advantage of this. There are ads in all the kids’ magazines. Take this writing test! Do you have what it takes to send us $29.95 for our writing course??? On a related note, could your artwork be on display at the Louvre? Draw this turtle to find out! For now, I’m sticking to grown-up fiction, but someday, if I get really, really good, maybe I’ll try and write for kids.

p.s. I know I haven’t blogged in months, so apologize for getting back on the bandwagon by jumping on my soapbox, to mix a few metaphors. Pretty pictures of an awesome DIY coming next.

p.p.s. Check out the Clarice Bean series by Lauren Child. Love, love, love, this author’s voice so much that when my daughter fell asleep, I kept right on reading. And if you have kids and haven’t read every single Magic Tree House, then what the hell is wrong with you?

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Writing in a Voice Not My Own (aka I am not a dude)

Someone recently told me she loved the "voice" of my blog. I thanked her, but I'll admit, I was a little taken aback. In the writing textbooks I studied, as both student and teacher, the concept of voice is all mixed up with several other things, like a writer’s unique way of writing (e.g. her syntax, rhythms, word choice) and with the unique voices of each character, which is of course bound tightly to the story’s point-of-view. All of these things become “voice.”

In this blog, and in the personal essays I’ve published, the “voice” is mine, by which I mean it’s the real me, the way I think and the way I talk with friends. So, having a reader say she liked it made me feel a little bit self-conscious, and saying thanks made me feel a little arrogant, as in, why yes, of course, I have a very nice voice, and have you also seen my elbows? (Hint: They are HOT!)

So, yes, dear reader, here on this blog, this is me, take it or leave it. But, fiction is another beast. Fiction gives writers the chance to try on the voice of someone completely different. At first, this can be a bit scary. Whether you’re a professional writer or not, you’ve probably heard the rule, “Write what you know.” This particular rule stifles a lot of student writers, and they end up writing about other writers, who mostly sit at the computer and gaze out the window (Fun Fact: This action encompasses 3/4 of my own writing time!). They also write characters who drink a lot of coffee, usually in coffeehouses, usually while gazing out the window.

Here's a photo of me on Halloween, as the Publishers' Clearinghouse
Prize Patrol, but don't I look a bit like Alex Trebek?
I think the adage would be better changed to: “Write what you want to know.” Good writers tend to have outsized curiosities. We scrape the surface of a lot of topics in our quests for knowledge, gathering an Alex Trebek-ian list of facts that serve our purposes for a particular scene. Then, we impart this knowledge via our characters.

My two most recently published short stories feature first-person narrators. One, titled “The Adjunct Track” (published in The Rumpus), features an adjunct teacher of English composition who is male and about fifteen years younger than me. Now I, too, have taught comp, and I have been fifteen years younger, but I’ve never been a dude. Another story, "Useful Skills," which you can read here in The Santa Fe Writers Project Journal, features a man with a marketing business who is trying to patch up relationships with his wife and father. The only similarity there is that I had previous jobs in marketing.

In a lovely rejection letter (the lovely ones sometimes break your heart the most...) that I received from a publisher considering my story collection, the editor was impressed at how well I wrote male voices. My first thought was maybe I should look into boosting my estrogen. But then I took the comment for what it was, a compliment, the highest kind, really because it’s much harder to write about someone who's different from you, to inhabit his or her fictional world so completely that you, as author, disappear. Stories like that transport a reader.

Currently, I’m working on a novel with a biracial protagonist. When I started thinking about the book, I was filled with self-doubts about whether I had the right to speak for this character, but the more I thought about it, the more those fears diminished. Of course, there will always be people who say how dare you. I’m thinking here of some of the flak Kathryn Stockett got for “The Help.” But, the world of books would be very boring if writers only wrote about their own lives. Where would all the mysteries go? Do I have to be a murderer to write about one? An Abraham Lincoln re-enactor? A born-again, pro-life crusader? No. And I’ve written from all of their points of view. Can I tell you a secret? That's what makes this job so goddamn fun.

The most important question is not whether you ought to do it, but did you? Did you pull it off? Did you write a good book, or story, or poem, one that readers want to read? One thing I’ve learned over my years of writing is that no one is going to give me permission to pursue any project, to write in a voice other than my own. You simply follow whatever voice it is that leads you, and you tell that person’s story with as much honesty as you can. And, for those times when you really need to get into character, you keep a spare wig and mustache.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Have a Seat in the Naughty Chair!

It's about time I showed you somethin' purdy, don 'cha think? You can either take this post as an example of my latest DIY painted furniture project, or as a caution against getting high on the sweet, sweet halo of power fumes a person is exposed to at her local PTO meeting (I swear I didn't inhale).

So, there I was helping to decorate our neighborhood public elementary school for a Dr. Seuss-themed Right to Read Week, when someone pulls out a fancy cell phone and starts trolling for "ideas" and sees that someone once painted Dr. Seuss quotes and whatnot on a chair (damn you, Internets!), and I'm all like, "I can make you a chair," and someone's like, "Really?" and I'm like, "Oh, sure, why not," and then I realize that it's Friday night, and I haven't eaten dinner, and probably because I'm low on blood sugar, I promised a magical chair by Monday.

Saturday morning, coffee, and then it begins...

Thanks to a nice lady at a local thrift shop, who was willing to break up a set of dining chairs, I scored this elegant lady:

Then, I began studying it. The arms fairly screamed, well, arms. The indentations would make perfect claws. And why not paint the intricate woodwork on the back to look like a hat? I wasn't going to paint book quotes or scenes, as I'm a poor freehand artist, but Seuss would provide my inspiration.

The chair was lightly sanded and primed in day one. Day two started with the reupholstering of the seat, which was a dumb thing to do next, as will soon be revealed. Then, I spent the whole, carpal-tunnel inducing day painting. The red was looking especially streaky. This is the problem with red paint. I love the color, but loath the process of actually putting it on anything.

At this point on Sunday evening, hubs is in the background saying, "It's late, it looks fine," which is a dumb thing for hubs to say because he has known me since before I earned my driver's license, yet this is just this thing we do...hubs trying to urge me not to be a perfectionist and me rolling my eyes. So, I gave it another coat of paint.

Monday morning, I reminded myself that it didn't absolutely have to be there first thing. I really should give it a coat of polyurethane if I wanted the paint job to last (the idea was to use the chair for many years' worth of guest readers and students, not just for this special week). So, I did that.

And then, I looked at the seat, which I'd covered in a turquoise chevron. I had picked this out because I originally planned on a black/white/red color scheme and knew the turquoise would pop. However, after adding yellow to the mix, the cushion looked wrong. Also, why not use faux fur instead?

So, I tore the fabric off, bought new, re-re-upholstered, and screwed the seat back on. It was finally ready to go. And do you know what happened next?

I didn't want to give it away.

Truth is, I've not yet created anything that wasn't meant for my own home. My evil twin (the one who inhales the power fumes) started to whisper to me, tell them you didn't have time, what are they going to do, fire you? you're a volunteer, KEEP the chair..."Where would I put it?" I asked her, but she didn't answer. Even she had to admit I had no spot for this chair.

So, I took the chair to the school, and it provided a cushy seat for the tushies of local dignitaries, including the mayor and school superintendent. While it's awaiting its next important function, I heard it has found a spot outside the principal's office. I suspect there's not a more stylish "naughty chair" to be found anywhere.



Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The DIY Writing Residency


I’ve just returned to Ohio from wonderful Austin, Texas, where I completed a five-day “writing residency” at the house of friends. While there, I managed to draft the first chapter of my new novel, as well as spend much quality time with old buddies, eat empanadas from a food truck, buy a local author’s book from the fabulous BookPeople and soak up some desperately needed vitamin D.

I was in “residence” at a place other than my own home. I did “writing” (lots of it, and it’s not half bad). And so, by my estimation, I completed a “writing residency.” Unlike more traditional residencies, there was no application fee, no recommendation letters to procure, no statement to write about my “artistic vision,” no writing samples at all. And perhaps most importantly, no WAIT for a decision (for six months or even longer) from the esteemed panel of judges. There was also, thankfully, no form rejection letter explaining that there were thousands of entries for a handful of spots.

My residency came about with the realization that I had a hot-off-the-laptop novel outline and could really use some time to get myself immersed in the book, figure out the proper tone, and get the thing off the ground, so that, once home, I could just pick up with the next scene and be on my way. My prep work involved an email to friends I’d been wanting to see, followed by the purchase of a plane ticket. Total cost, approximately $300. Time wasted with applications? Zero.

Now before you think I’m all sour grapes about residencies, let me offer some background. I once completed a traditional residency, at the Vermont Studio Center. It was pre-kids so I was able to get away for a full month, and it was indeed transformative, in that it came at a time when I really needed to reaffirm my goals and status as a writer with other like-minded folks. But I didn’t have a good plan for my work while there, and so, although I ended up producing a lot of pages, in the end it was just a hundred page writing exercise. VSC offered me a fellowship to attend, not a full ride but enough to make it worth my while.

That was a decade ago. Today, I’m in a different place, with my life in general and my writing life in particular. I don’t like wasting time. I’m not interested in resume building, at least not in terms of listing residencies on a CV. I’d much rather impress people with my published work. As a busy parent and very part-time writer, what I most need is time. I know the precise moments during a project when I could use concentrated hours away from home. That’s one of the problems with applying for residencies that won’t happen until far in the future.

And that’s where the DIY residency comes in. Sidenote: Consider the odds of receiving a more traditional residency. The current talk in the writers’ Twitterverse is the “Amtrak Residency.” For those who haven’t heard, Amtrak recently decided to offer 24 writers a ticket for a multi-day trip in a private cabin. The small print explains that Amtrak will choose writers who already have a large social media presence, and those writers will then blog about the fabulosity of train travel. It’s basically free advertising for Amtrak and kudos to them, I guess, for seeing an opportunity, but what amazes me most is the number of writers who have applied (more than 9,000 as of this writing). It’s a train ticket, people.

Some writers might choose to buy their own train, or plane, or boat, or buggy (I live in Amish country) tickets, but that’s often difficult for writers strapped for cash, and most of us are. The DIY Residency doesn’t have to cost you anything. I’ve completed many of them over the years. It’s so, so easy. Just tell all your friends that you are available to house sit or water plants or give Mr. Fluffernutters his thyroid medication…for the use of their dining room table to set your laptop on. You can put a call out right when you’re getting to a critical juncture in a writing project, right when the work hours would most benefit you. Assuming these are local friends, you can spend a few hours, maybe a whole day if you can swing it. Maybe you can even spend a night.

Your friends? They will love that you are taking care of whatever they need taken care of. They will also like feeling they are “supporting the arts” without even opening their checkbooks. A long time ago, artists had wealthy patrons. Now, we have nice friends who give us spare keys. I have three such keys in my possession, and am always open to receiving more. In the past, I have worked in 24- to 48-hour marathon stretches at a house right around the corner from my own. If my family needed me, I could run home in under a minute. But they didn’t need me. And I got tons of distraction-free work done.

If this appeals to you, and you haven’t tried it, don’t wait! If, however, you feel you cannot write unless you have a cabin in the woods, at which, approximately noon-ish, someone will arrive at your door with a recycled paper sack containing your gluten-free, sustainably harvested lunch items, knock quietly, then disappear into the forest so as not to disturb your genius, then you need to apply for a traditional residency (writers…you know which one I’m talking about). If you can make do with much less, you are in luck. Your DIY residency awaits.

 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Cravings? What cravings???

Hi Friends,

Just a heads up that I'll be guest-blogging over at the site of best-selling author and psychologist Dr. Susan Albers (www.eatq.com/blog) for the entire month of February. It's all part of her Mindful Eating Chocolate Challenge.

Did you know yours truly has a HUGE sweet tooth? 'Tis true. Dr. Albers has given me a very large bag of chocolate, and my job is to eat 1 measly ounce per day, track my cravings, and write about it for her readers, and hopefully, for you, too.

Hope you'll follow along at the Eat Q blog. Thanks!