Open to the Magic (in Whatever Form it Comes)

SAM_3568Periodically, as we traveled around Iceland in July, we’d see small houses—elf doors—built up against the side of slabs of volcanic rock. They’re built for the elves—the huldofolk or hidden people—who live in the rocks. Because in Iceland, even if you don’t believe in elves and fairies outright, you likely don’t want to take the chance that they’re hidden somewhere close by—and that you haven’t treated them with your very best manners.

I was mesmerized by these little elf doors and by the idea that the huldofolk might be hiding in plain sight, if only you had the gift to see them. We even went on an elf tour to see some of the hidden folk’s favorite hangouts while we were there. When our tour guide told us that some people could actually hear the elves at one large rock, my kiddo and I immediately put our ears to it to see if we could hear anything. Because you never know. As my husband put it, we had no idea if we could see or hear the elves yet. And who doesn’t want to be open to the possibility of magic?

As an editor and a writer, you have to be at least a little open to letting magic in. There is something, call it what you will, about reading a pile of submissions and finding one that sings to you or persistently putting words down on the page in the hopes that these might be ones that work. And as a parent there’s a certain level of magic built in, too. We play and imagine, paint and create, write and laugh.

But it’s too easy to set aside the magic and get mired down in the more mundane details of life. I’ve tried my best to embrace the hygge this winter, but it hasn’t always been easy. There are still deadlines and stress, clutter and chaos, grief and loss no matter how many candles I light at night. The feeling of coziness can slip away all too easily.

Last night, I worried that it was slipping away again. With a kid getting over a stomach bug, our New Year’s Eve plans went out the window and we were home together on the sofa as if it was just any old night—which it was, after all. Then we made some decisions. I picked up some fancy cheese to munch on. We watched a live stream of Reykjavik’s fireworks and celebrated the New Year on Iceland time before our tired kiddo went to sleep. My husband indulged my love of the X-Files by watching some of the first season with me for the first time as we drank mulled mead and ate tarts filled with apple butter I’d made myself. It was a nice night.

Magic can seep into life in so many different ways. For me, it can be a book that sets me on fire, or watching the new Star Wars movie on opening night with a couple of hundred of other crazy fans. It can be my kiddo giving me two albums she hates for Christmas (Frank Turner and One Direction) because she knows they’ll make me happy. It can be a bowl of porridge and a cup of tea on the first morning of 2016.

What matters isn’t when the magic slips away, but the decision to keep trying to let it in, in whatever form it takes. So, as my little family welcomes this new year, I’m determined to keep putting my ear to the elf rock—and to try to be open to whatever I might hear within it.

 

In Which Storytelling and Character Defeat the Dark Side

Seriously, though, would you mess with Leia?

My husband has, on occasion, told people that our greatest failing as parents was our inability to get our kiddo interested in Star Wars. For her, it all seemed to boil down to: parents’ love of the movies + stubborn resistance to things parents love = disinterest in Star Wars.

Fair enough—we’ve all been there with our own parents and our own personal Star Wars.

But this past weekend, we finally sat down and watched Episode IV: A New Hope. The next day, I got a request to doozy up her hair in Princess Leia buns. I’d love to say this was a parental victory, but it had nothing to do with us. In reality, the conversion happened because of the power of story and character.

It was an interesting exercise watching the movie through someone else’s fresh eyes—and through the eyes of the person who matters most in the world to us. It also was interesting talking to her about characters like Han Solo, who seems like less than a good guy at first (and who maintains that delicious edge of scoundrel even later on)—and about Darth Vader, whose back story my kiddo doesn’t know and whose role in the story remains mysterious. It was amazing to hear things like, “Don’t mess with Princess Leia!” afterward and to see how this character captured my kiddo’s attention just as she did mine when I was a girl.

Because who doesn’t get caught up in a bold, brave, problem-solver like Leia—someone whose dedication to her cause is unstoppable, but who is completely human (and more than a little sarcastic) at the same time. Or Han, who is more than he believes himself to be. Or Luke, who yearns to do something important and change the world. And don’t even get me started on the layers upon layers that make up Obi Wan.

So, it wasn’t dedicated Star Wars parents who changed my kiddo’s mind—it was the story and the characters. And it served as a good reminder that these two things aren’t just to be found in books. They’re on television and in movies, in video games and in plays—and they’re important in all forms. So as much as this one movie opened my kiddo up to new possibilities, she (and the movie) reminded the die-hard book person that I am that my chosen story format isn’t the only one. Star Wars: blowing my mind since 1977.

Just don’t get me started on episodes I-III….

Which Online Quiz Should You Really Take?

The Empire Strikes Back
Do I belong among the clouds? Only if Lando Calrissian wears that cape for me.

Long ago—in a whole other century, in fact—I remember pouncing on quizzes in magazines like Seventeen. Want to know if the boy you like is crushing on you, too? Perhaps even what kind of prom dress you should buy based on your favorite movies? There was a quiz for it. And I could never resist.

The urge to fill in a few blanks and have a simple quiz spit back something fun…or funny…or even mildly disturbing about you has its charms. Now, however, you don’t need to flip through the pages of a teenybopper magazine in hopes of finding these little gems. For lo, seemingly every day of my life, someone posts the results of some Buzzfeed quiz or other on Facebook. And I’m sorry to say that, like a moth to the flame, I’m helpless to follow the links, click away, and (apparently!) rediscover who I really am.

So, here are the things I’ve learned about myself through online quizzes in the last couple of weeks (yes, it’s embarrassing that I’ve taken quite so many):

What kind of dog are you? Great Dane. This is apparently has nothing to do the size of my body, but rather the size of my character (phew).

What city should you actually live in? London. Of course, I could have told Buzzfeed that without taking the quiz.

What fictional city should you actually live in? Yet another “duh!” I’d be hanging out in the clouds on Bespin with Lando Calrissian. I only hope I don’t have to make a deal with the Empire to secure the city’s safety!

What Harry Potter character are you? To my great dismay, I didn’t get either Hermione Granger or Neville Longbottom (love you, Neville), but Harry himself. Here’s hoping this is because of my deep and abiding courageousness and not because of some impending need-to-sacrifice-myself-to-save-the-world type scenario.

What ‘80s pop hit are you? Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Dance With Somebody.” I-I-I-I-IIIII will always love Whi-tnee-ee-ee-eee-eee-ee-eee-eey. Really. After her tragic death, I couldn’t listen to her music without getting sad for a long time. Plus, I have some fond karaoke memories of this particular song, so it’s all good.

What career should you actually have? Professor, it seems. I did love teaching during my brief stint at it—though I did wonder if editor or writer were even an option on this one. They’re just not the kind of jobs most people think about. Or maybe they were there and I didn’t get them? Are the internet gods trying to tell me something?

Which Jane Austen Character Are You? This one gave you the choice of discovering which male or female character you are, so naturally I took it twice. I got Elizabeth Bennett and Charles Bingley, though clearly this can’t be a scientifically sound test, or these two would not exist in the same plane (despite their appreciation for each other).

So, there you have it: my entire character spelled out in just a few short quizzes. What did our procrastinating souls do before the internet? Oh yeah—Seventeen!

 

On Hallowed Ground: Louisa May Alcott’s House

Louisa May Alcott's houseThere are two things that this blog makes clear that I love: Star Wars (original trilogy only, thank you very much) and Louisa May Alcott. Today, I’ll spare you my thoughts on the former and focus instead on the latter. This blog got its name from Jo March’s description of her writing in Little Women, after all.

So it was a special treat to recently visit Orchard House, the Alcott family’s home for many years, and where Louisa wrote Little Women—with a group of fellow writers and dear friends.

SAM_0608
My fellow literary pilgrims: Samantha, Karyn, Susanna, and Kerri.

Alas, the good folks at Orchard House won’t let you take pictures inside the house, or else I’d flood this blog with pictures of her writing desk or the drawings that her youngest sister May (who was the inspiration for Amy March in the book) created on the walls of her bedroom.

But I can tell you this: being in this house and stepping through the rooms where Louisa May Alcott lived and wrote is, for me, treading on hallowed ground. I realize that for most people the idea of a pilgrimage involves a journey that’s religious in nature. For me, it’s always literary.

Louisa May Alcott's house
Bronson Alcott’s small school house is on the same property on which the family lived.

Whether it’s sitting in Edith Wharton’s garden, pretending to be Anne of Green Gables on Prince Edward Island, exploring my first moor (HEATHCLIFF!), or walking down the very street in Bath upon which Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth finally, irrevocably, pledged themselves to each other in Persuasion, my idea of sacred ground is almost always tied to the books I love.

And Orchard House is no exception. So, I want to share these pictures of this lovely place—and the ladies with whom I got to share the experience—with you. I hope you enjoy them…and maybe even share some memories of your own favorite literary pilgrimages!

Louisa May Alcott's house
Did Louisa May Alcott once sit in this very spot? One can only dream….

 

George Lucas, Kenny Rogers, and the Trials of Revision

know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em

A wise man once sang, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. Know when to walk away, know when to run.”

This advice is as useful in terms of writing and revision as it is, one would assume, in terms of gambling (I trust Kenny).

But how do you know when to hold or when to fold them? How do you know when it’s time to stop revising something—even if just to step away from the story for a while—and when to make yourself put your proverbial butt in your chair and just keep plugging away?

I feel like George Lucas sometimes, not knowing when to stop. Sure, he could have maybe skipped the last Star Wars trilogy and the world would have been a happier place. But even more unforgivable to me is that he went back and tinkered with the original trilogy instead of knowing when to when to walk away.

So the revisions do things like take a great scene with a handful of Rebel pilots (Luke included) headed out to try to defeat that Goliath that is the Death Star—and make it look like a whole air fleet of them are attacking instead.

And it loses something—something important, I’d argue. Drama, suspense, a true sense of just how much the Rebel Alliance was outgunned and outnumbered, and yet prevailed despite that.

Way to wreck a perfectly awesome scene, George Lucas.

So, I worry as I revise. Sometimes, I think I’ve made a scene dramatically better. Other times, I fear I’ve just made the attack on the Death Star fall flat.

In the end, though, I fall back on Kenny Rogers once again: “You never count your money, when you’re sitting at the table. There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.” I’ll keep plugging away, and with each new version of this story perhaps I’ll be able to see more clearly when it’s time to dig back in, and when it’s time to step away!

 

 

 

Meeting Your Deadlines: The Death Star Trash Compactor of Writing

Sometimes as a writer, you’re going along perfectly happily rescuing the metaphorical princess Leia of your story—and then a deadline that seemed quite far away starts to close in on you like the walls of the trash compactor on the Death Star.

You try to brace for it, but there’s nothing that can hold the huge steel walls of the compactor at bay. You feel something brush against your leg and know that nothing good is lurking underneath the filthy water. There are no droids fiddling with the computer system to save you.

And quite frankly the smell is getting to you.

My latest deadline in my MFA program is today, and even though there’s not a heck of a lot I can do to my work at this late stage, I’m still feeling the crunch. I know everything will get sent off in proper fashion, but it’s hard not to feel that if I just had more time to revise, I could make this submission just a little bit stronger, a little bit better.

In other words, it’s a self-inflicted trash compactor of doom, and the walls closing in on me are ultimately comprised of my own compulsion to try to make everything perfect. Which means that droids aren’t, in fact, going to be able to save me—only I can.

Choosing to try to write means choosing to accept your (and your writing’s) imperfections, even while trying to work through them. That said, there are definitely times when I wish there was a Force to reach out and guide me to right path, the right turn of phrase, the perfect revision. That I could send a garbled message telling Obi Wan that he’s my only hope—and that somehow Alec Guinness will put together a rag-tag group of kids to come and save me.

Barring that, though, I guess I just need to let go and get my submission in!

“Stay on target, stay on target.” Or, How I Lost My Focus

Last week, I was patting myself on the back for doggedly staying on track and revising. This week, I have strayed from the revision path in a fiery ball of Darth Vader’s fury.

Frailty, thy name is writer.

It’s not that I didn’t want to stay on target and keep revising. It’s just that this idea had been percolating in my head. An idea that I really liked, in fact. An idea for a light, airy bit of a YA novel that’s as much fun as writing picture book texts.

I’ve written nine chapters in four days.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Luke Skywalker, attempting to stay focused with a Yoda on his back.

This is clearly a blessing as well as a curse—and really, who am I to complain that I’m working on something that I’m really enjoying?

And to bring it all back to Star Wars (because in the end, everything always does come back to Star Wars) it’s also left me wondering if I’m like Luke Skywalker relying on the Force to guide him to the weak spot on the Death Star—or like Luke later in the Empire Strikes Back when Yoda accuses him of abandoning his Jedi training.

My husband thinks it’s the former, and that the Force (or the muse, as he calls it) is simply flowing through me, and I should go with it. It’s hard, though, to shake the feeling that I’ve eaten a whole box of Popsicles and have no room left for a real dinner. Or, to bring it back to Star Wars again, that I’ve just abandoned a higher calling to go off and save Han and Leia.

But it’s Han and Leia! How can I not go off to save them?

Am I just being tempted by the dark side?

How does one stay focused?