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.

 

An Autumn Nor’easter

 

photo-6
A magic carpet of wet leaves to walk on.

If this storm had come in December instead of October, we’d be buried in snow right now. Thankfully, it’s not even close to winter yet (at least in my mind) and we’ve just gotten a welcome dose of rain. Not so far from here, trees are down, taking cars and electricity lines with them, and streets are beginning to flood. In my neighborhood—a sheltered little corner of town—the damage consists at this point of some water in the basement, small tree limbs on the ground, and drowned earthworms (R.I.P, little fellas).

photo-7
The rain’s come down fast and furious, and the storm drains are already past capacity.

So, my kiddo and I walked to school today as we always do, thumbing our noses at this briefly weakened segment of the storm and belting out “Singing in the Rain” (sorry, neighbors) as we skipped our way through deep puddles and flooded storm drains. I’ve always liked the rain, and I’m pleased to say that it appears to be an inherited trait.

photo 3
Our Halloween decorations took a hit, and some little branches are down. There are candles at the ready, though, in case the power goes out, and worse fates than working by candlelight..

But now I’m hunkered down at my desk, hoping to do a little writing as the wind whirls around my little yellow house and the guinea pig snoozes, blissfully unaware of that her squirrel and rabbit cousins are outside braving the elements. The kettle’s doing its business in the kitchen with a mug of hot tea just moments away—and like Gene Kelly, right now I have a smile on my face.

Book Love: Judy Blume and Lena Dunham In Conversation

SAM_2106
A small gem of a paperback, only a little bigger than the glasses used to read it.

Yesterday, a package from Believer magazine arrived in the mail. It was much smaller than the usual magazine, so naturally, it was intriguing. Inside, was a pocket-sized gem of a paperback book: Judy Blume and Lena Dunham In Conversation. There had been an interview in the actual magazine itself, but here was a long version—in a perfect trim size—just waiting for me to devour.

It goes without saying—even though I talk about it a lot—that I greatly admire Judy Blume. Her books were always a treat to read, but in particular, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret was a touchstone for my younger reading self. She’s been controversial, she’s been banned, she’s been beloved. Throughout it all, she’s been honest and she’s taken her audience very seriously—and that counts for a lot in my book.

When it comes to Lena Dunham, I know only what I’ve read in interviews. I’ve never once seen the show Girls, but have wondered for some time if there’s something that I’m missing by simply not having the right cable television package to watch it. I’m more convinced than ever after reading this lengthy interview.

One is young and just arrived at her icon status, one has had time to adjust to it and live in her own skin as a writer. One has pushed the limits with her words, and the other sometimes does it with the baring of her own body. But both of these women have dared to go where no one expected them to—probably where a lot of people didn’t even want them to. They’re utterly brave in their creativity. So it makes sense that they sat down together—even decided to be friends afterward!—and talked about their process, their work, their families, and their lives.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to create—what the rewards and the drawbacks are, and why we as people are so drawn to the very act of creation. In the end, I think we all want to be brave as Judy Blume and Lena Dunham in what we create—whether we’re painting or writing or making music or dancing or acting or…whatever. We want to boldly go where no one has before—to tell a story in whichever mode of telling we choose that’s somehow both a part of ourselves and a part of something bigger than ourselves.

So, this interview—this brief look into the minds of these two very writers—struck a chord for me. If you have a chance, take an hour (or less, really) to read it. Heck, you can even borrow my copy. It’s a little dog-eared, but who minds that among friends?

Shocked—Shocked!—to Find Out that Writers Make No Money

Recently, Digital Book World published statistics on how much writers make. Turns out, it’s not very much. As a writer myself, and someone who works in the publishing industry, this was about as stunning as Captain Renault’s revelation that there was gambling at Rick’s Café.

Looking at the graph below, it’s particularly surprising, of course, that “aspiring” writers don’t make any money at all. Oh, Digital Book World, say it isn’t so!

dbwslide

While it’s interesting to look at numbers like this sometimes—and the breakdown of what kind of publishing provides what kinds of rewards—it’s not terribly informative. Because as both the graph and life experience can tell you, writing is not a lucrative calling.  And writing for young people, in particular, is not known for its millionaire-making.  With very few exceptions, anyone who writes—or creates visual art, or music, or…well, I could go on endlessly—can tell you that it’s not the salary that drives her.

This is not to say that it’s not a very nice thing indeed to get paid for your writing—it goes without saying that it is. It’s frustrating, even infuriating, sometimes not to get paid a lot (or even at all) for your work.

But—and here comes a reference to The Bachelor (it is still Juan-uary, after all)—creative pursuits are all about the journey. And part of being there for the Right Reasons is knowing that you’re almost certainly not going to get rich doing it. Though, again, a little something here and there certainly helps.

So, thank you, Digital Book World, for providing this graphic. It’s very colorful and pleasing to look at, and give us aspiring writers out there something to actually, well, aspire to. That teeny little slice of green up there is certainly calling my name!

The Bend in the Road

020_021

“Anne had a long meditation at her window that night. Joy and regret struggled together in her heart. She had come at last . . . suddenly and unexpectedly . . . to the bend in the road. . . . but Anne realized as well that when she rounded that curve she must leave many sweet things behind . . . all the little simple duties and interests which had grown so dear to her in the last two years and which she had glorified into beauty and delight by the enthusiasm she had put into them.” —L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea

It is not unusual for Anne Shirley to come to my mind unbidden, but today, this particular passage is first and foremost in my mind. Because I’ve come to a bend in the road—one that I hoped for and need, but one that also is bittersweet as all such things must be.

After nearly seven years—long enough so that my daughter has no recollection of me working anywhere but there—yesterday was my last day in the office at a publishing company that I love dearly. I’m not leaving completely, of course. I’m extremely pleased to say that I’ll still be acquiring and editing books with them. But now it will be as a freelance editor working from a quiet corner in my own home.

There are many wonderful things about this, cutting the endless commute out of my world not  the least of them. But it also gives me time to deal with schoolwork, time with family, and time to write in a more meaningful way—all while still working with authors and illustrators and on books that mean an awful lot to me.

On the flip side, I will miss the colleagues and friends in the office who have played such a huge role in my world week after week, year after year. And that’s a pretty gigantic flip side.

In the end, though, I welcome this bend in the road, and if I face the uncertainty of what lies beyond with a little bit of wistfulness, I also face it with great hope. Because there’s beauty and delight in what’s already been—and perhaps still more in what’s to come.

 

Just Say No…to Almost Everything

There aren’t many things that Nancy Reagan and I have in common on the surface of things, but I’m finding myself more and more often thinking about her “Just Say No” campaign back in the 80s. This is not because peer pressure has been steering me toward drugs (thankfully). It’s because I’m really bad at doing it.

Got a social commitment that you need me at? Perhaps a playdate that adds chaos to my world? Some freelance work, you say? I have a really hard time saying no. But as this fall swings into full gear, my schedule begins to get unbearable, and I’m stretched far too thin, it’s time to learn how to say no.

Why can’t I ever do this? It’s born of two things, I think: 1.) not wanting to let anyone down; and 2.) not being able to accept that I can’t do everything. I’m a juggler, a multi-tasker. How else would work, writing for school, writing not for school, and my family all be coexisting in my life? So, to say no is to admit that I can’t do it all.

But you know what? I can’t. Right now, I’m trying to focus on what’s important and let the extra stuff fall a little bit by the wayside. I guess I’m the opposite of Ado Annie from Oklahoma. She “cain’t say no” but in a fun way. I’m learning to do the opposite in a sanity-preserving way. But check back in June. I bet I’ll be back to “yes” once again!

At the Intersection of Writing and the A-Team

There are days when the words just flow off my fingertips and onto the screen—when I can’t type quickly enough to get down what I need to (and subsequently skip multiple necessary words in the process). There are days when, like the machinations of a well-planned A-Team operation, everything just falls into place.

I’ve had a couple of days like this of late, and it’s kind of a gift. Getting not just words but whole pages of them out at one time; having a piece of story (even entire chapters) pop out in one fell swoop. When this happens, I have a true Hannibal Smith moment, and treasure how much I love it when a plan comes together.

Then there are other days when I pity the fool (in this case, sadly, me) who attempts to write anything at all. These are the days when this whole endeavor feels like an exercise in frustration—one that will add nothing to my life in general but gray hair and a whole lot of eyestrain.

It isn’t just the golden days of flowing words that keep me going on this path. It’s the sweet spot that lies in between the gold and the despair—the days when I think it’s a lost cause and then realize something important about the story I’m writing, or the one I’m attempting to revise—that make up my writing life.

Sometimes, even when you least expect it, a plan does come together. B. A. Baracus can get on that airplane after all. Face uses his charm to turn a seemingly hopeless situation around. Even Murdoch’s craziness comes in handy at just the right moment.

And a little puzzle piece of your work falls into place, right where it should be.

The Novelist—a New Take on the Game of Life?

For the most part, I am not a gamer. Okay, for almost any part, I’m not a gamer. I’m married to one. I have friends who are addicted to one game or another (or several all at once). But it’s never really called me. Once the Atari went the way of the T-Rex, I kind of lost all interest.

But when I saw an article (or three) about this game, The Novelist, I was intrigued. I’m trying to be a novelist after all, so this seemed to hold potential. So, I watched this trailer and…kind of lost all interest.

First of all, I’ve read too many VIDA statistics about how the deck is stacked in favor of male writers not to be a little disappointed that the game’s creators chose a male writer. Although given the male-dominated world of gaming (or at least the perception by men that it’s their world and not ours), I guess it’s not all that surprising.

To make this game even more difficult to want to play, The Novelist and his artist wife seem to be spending the summer in a giant house by the water during which time neither of them have to work in a way that, well, earns money. But they struggle! You have to help them navigate their struggles to juggle work and home life. I’m not saying that being a full-time artist doesn’t come with it’s own time-management problems. I’m just saying that two parents with this kind of money aren’t struggling in the same ways that the vast majority of writers and other artists are.

Even aside from this, the idea of spending any of my free time (or $14.99!) on a game that’s all about the difficulties of juggling work and parenting seems…like life not entertainment.

Sure, this isn’t supposed to be real life—it’s a game, after all. But I want some fun and escapism in my down time. And a game about a writer struggling to write and take care of his kid sounds a little too much like art poorly imitating art (some of us have to work, too, after all!) for me to take the plunge on this one. But if you do, let me know what you think.

After Residency

SAM_0619After the seminars are done, the manuscripts have been workshopped, and the lights turned off after so many nights of wonderful readings, the dust begins to settle.  A low residency MFA program can be both an incredible blessing and an incredible challenge. And the most challenging part of all is saying goodbye to the very talented and kind friends—old and new at this point—whom you know you will not see again until January, and whom I’ll miss despite Facebook, Twitter, and emails.

Now, after more than a week of long days and nights, of hours sitting in classrooms and around campus, and of dining hall food that leaves quite a lot to be desired, I’m home and decompressing.

For me, this means an early morning run and spending time with family before digging back into my job and the regular routine of life. It also means diving into this semester’s glorious pile of reading, getting organized, and doing the hard work of getting back into a story that’s been on a short (and needed) hiatus. Even as exhausted as I am at this moment—and I am so very tired indeed—the prospect of this work is so exciting that I’m thinking about it in the middle of the night, as I run, and throughout the day.

This means that the residency did everything it’s supposed to, in the end. And while I already miss being on campus and being with friends there, I’m more eager than I imagined I could be to start writing again. Let the work begin!

“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?