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Heart in Books

October 15, 2014

The story of my heart began and finished on a road trip to Taos, a writing oasis where I often work for short periods of time. Before this particular trip, I was pitching a bad manuscript and playing around with new starts for my next book. It was fall, and I wasn’t sure which project to begin so decided to ‘write some up’, a phrase I stole from a friend.

 

Julie, who commutes an hour to work, raises two kids, and knits beautiful sweaters in all her free time, told me that when she begins a project, she ‘knits some up’ and begins 4-5 different swatches to help her decide which piece to do. What? I’ve tried knitting. It’s not easy. My pieces look like distorted little mats of yarn, resembling nothing; while Julie’s foot-long ensembles are gorgeous, not that I’m comparing. However, once she decides which piece she likes best; she unravels the others. What?

 

Surely she could use them for something, I said. She shook her head, laughing at me as if I knew nothing. “It’s part of my process,” Julie said. I can’t tell what yarn feels right, blends together, or looks best until I see enough of it to know.”

 

“And it doesn’t bother you—tossing the remainder?”

 

“Not at all,” she said. “They’ve served their purpose—without them, I wouldn’t know.”

 

And like that, I got it.

 

As a writer, I do the exact same thing. I write, and I toss. I write, and I toss. I write, and I toss. Back when I was a beginner, this was no easy task, and in fact, I couldn’t do it. Rejections do serve a purpose. They make you look at your writing and your journey closely with a critical eye. After a number of rejections, I began a ‘dump’ file on my computer, and when I’d written lovely, witty, AND brilliant sections that sadly needed to leave the page, I stuffed them in a file—just in case I wanted to use them again some day. Or not.

 

Before leaving for Taos, I’d written up a few starts, new story ideas to sample, still unsure which one to tackle. After driving about three hours, one of my closest and oldest friends called. Unusual. When I answered, she was hysterical. Her sister had discovered that her young teen daughter was cutting. Cath had no kids herself, and her sister and parents lived 1800 miles away, but they were a close family. We talked. She felt better. And then I remembered her dad. We’d grown up together, and her dad was a tough, kind-hearted SOB; determined, right, and very, very religious. I asked if he knew. He did. Apparently he was praying for his granddaughter and was also, praying with her, over her head, almost speaking in tongues. I hung up and couldn’t get the vision out of my head. There was a story in there somewhere.

 

I stopped for lunch and checked my emails. A different friend had sent me a link to a Rolling Stones article about a rash of suicides in Minnesota; the district of the Tea Party conservative and religious representative, Michele Bachmann. The article’s cover shot showed teenagers holding candles at a vigil. In total, nine gay teens had committed suicide.

 

My brother was gay. He told me so in an airport parking lot when I was 20-years-old. Ten years my senior, Kirk lived and worked in Portland, and during college I took advantage of $29 deals to fly as a student and visit. It was how we got to know each other as adults. Because I was clueless about his sexuality and my parents had not wanted me to know when I was younger, Kirk chose to tell me in the airport parking lot. His words went something like this:

 

“I just stopped at the pet store on my way here but the mice have already escaped. They’re somewhere in the car, but we need to find them, because I can’t leave my new boa constrictor with nothing to eat. He lives in the bathroom and will thrash around the medicine cabinet if we don’t, and we’re leaving for the coast in an hour to stay at a cabin with my boyfriend and his two kids.”

 

Wait. Wait. Wait.

 

Did he just say a boa constrictor lived in his only bathroom—the one I shared?

 

Wait. Wait.

 

I had to get in a car with two loose mice? Not happening.

 

Wait.

 

Did he say we were going to the coast with his boyfriend and his kids?

 

I stopped and didn’t speak. I didn’t know where to begin. It was quintessential Kirk.

Fortunately, Kirk found the mice without my assistance; he removed the snake whenever I used the bathroom, and we did go to the coast. His boyfriend was awesome, and so were his kids. Two years later Kirk told me he had HIV and two years later, he died.

I read the Rolling Stones article with tears streaming down my face. My brother was brave, one of the many gay men who’d died from AIDS in the early 1990s. Twenty-five years later, kids were still struggling with sexual identity, religious rights and wrongs, and suicide? Enough already. My mind reeled for the rest of the trip.

Because both magic and trauma happen in threes, when I got to the Mabel Dodge House there was a message from my mom. My cousin had died. I didn’t know my cousin well; she was much older and an alcoholic who’d had a rough life full of secrets. Her brother was the last living relative on my dad’s immediate side of the family. Because my dad had recently and suddenly died, I couldn’t ask him about all his family unknowns. I was tired of secrets, and even though ‘recently died’ actually meant that my dad had been gone a year and a half already, I missed him.

The three messages proved to be a trifecta of sorts, and I began to ‘write some up.’

For Taos, it was cold. The sun had dipped under heavy clouds, and rain fell. I’d brought all the wrong clothes, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t stop writing. I wrote for three days, never seeing the sun. The setting played with my mood, as it does in all stories, and gave me its own gift.

In the beginning, UNDONE was a different book. In fact, it was titled VOICES, told by Lily who battled voices in her head, depression, hundreds of secrets, and suicidal tendencies, in addition to everything else. It was WAY too depressing. I worked on it for months and finally pitched it to a few agents. Rejected. Reworked, workshopped, and pitched it again; resulting in lots of interest but ultimately more rejection.

Struggling with knowing what was wrong, I applied to two advanced writing workshops, one taught by Mat Johnson and the other, Nova Ren Suma. Accepted to both, I applied for a grant and attended both. They were nothing short of extraordinary, exactly what I needed to start something new and more importantly, to complete UNDONE. I headed back to Taos to find what Mat insisted needed to be found in every scene: the heart of the story, and under Nova’s direction, I found the book of my heart on every page.

Again, Taos was cool and cloudy, even for August. It didn’t matter. I wrote. I ate. I wrote some more, and I got it.

For months, I’d been plagued with questions about what was wrong with my book: what was it missing, why had agents asked for fulls and then turned it down, how does one know when it’s REALLY done? I asked everyone: mentors, friends, and other writers. Of course, no one had the answer that I needed. But at 11:55 p.m. on August 12, I sat on my tiny twin bed at the Mabel Dodge House, and I knew. Aside from my own minor edits and agent/editor critiques; it was ready and right and beautiful.

I’d found the story of my heart and the heart in every scene.

The odd thing is, now I don’t mind so much what happens to UNDONE; maybe an agent or two will be interested, maybe an editor will want it, maybe I’ll self-publish, maybe I’ll read it to the cat.

But it’s done; mine and complete.

 

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Videos or Books?

September 27, 2014

Each semester, I take a poll and ask my students, “Who reads?” Maybe one will raise their hand. Although I know college kids are busy, this saddens me. It’s difficult to improve writing, if reading’s not involved. So, I assign plenty of essays, hopefully interesting ones, and we write about them.

But I also show short clips from movies, videos, and many YouTube recording.

Although not every writing teacher would approve of the tactic, I think video plays an important role in the classroom. Not only does film capture the attention of the twenty-something set, but clips can be analyzed like a book.

How does a setting affect the mood of a movie? What’s the purpose? The inciting incident? How has the character grown? What are the details that remain with you once the film is over? Watching Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men or the Shining is an excellent example of voice and character.

Books are great. In my opinion, they can’t be beat. But movies and film can be useful tools when teaching students to write. Next time you hit the big screen, watch for the climax. See if you can plot the film like you would a book. The exercise will improve your own writing.

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Summer Workshops: Lighthouse meets Djerassi

September 8, 2014

Last spring I applied to two juried writing workshops, hoping I’d get into one of them. I did—to both. Fortunately, I received a grant from Colorado Mountain College to pay for them, and like that, I had three weeks of workshops to attend, writers’ works to read, and my own pieces to polish. Nervous? Yep. Excited? Most definitely. I set my intention and began the work.

The first workshop was run by the Lighthouse Writers in Denver, Colorado and lasted two full weeks, the longest writing workshop I’d ever taken. I signed up for individual sessions, concentrating on emotional plot, character development, and exciting stuff like sentence structure. By the end of the first week, my brain was saturated, and I’d not yet begun my sessions with Mat Johnson, a professor from the University of Houston’s MFA program.

I didn’t know Mat so ordered his books and did my research. Five minutes into the first class I was convinced that I’d applied for the right workshop. For the next five days, Mat guided ten of us through a mini-MFA in creative writing. His energy high; he taught through practical application and pounded his message into every lecture—find the heart of your story. See it reflected in every scene. Make sure something happens that changes your character forever and mirror it back into the heart of your story.

Heart.

Two days after finishing two weeks of workshops, I was on a plane to Northern California to study with the enchanting and gifted author, Nova Ren Suma, as well as nine other writers at the Djerassi Institute. There could have been no better place, no better teacher, and no better co-writers. Exhausted and yet oddly energized, I settled into my corner room; a room with a view of a tree covered in moss and inhabited by squirrels, chipmunks, and a few squawking birds with plenty of rabbits below. Djerassi has a tragic history and beautiful mission, offering the perfect environment for creative types. Given free reign of the kitchen, we made our own meals—except for dinner when we gathered for an organic feast prepared by Dan, a terrific chef. Three staff members joined us, and the conversations were always full of humor, insight, and plenty of wine.

When we weren’t eating, writing or in class, we roamed the property: a beautiful ranch with the Pacific Ocean in sight. Artists had littered the trails with amazing sculptures, and the enormous redwoods presented their unique inspiration. Mist rolled in, bats flew by, and snakes slithered across our paths, all offering their energy for our creative process. When I was stuck, not sure what to write or where to turn, I walked in the woods and talked to the trees, making me sound a bit like a lunatic, but it worked.

It was a gift.

Perhaps the best part of the workshop was studying with Nova and nine inspiring women. Nova’s style of teaching was exactly what I needed: soft, inquisitive, and heart-felt. Without knowing it, she piggybacked on Mat’s class perfectly, providing each of us with exactly what we needed and directing us to write the book of our heart. Together we learned, laughed, and felt what it was like to be surrounded by others who understood who we were as writers; a little crazy, a lot creative, and always challenged.

For me, the week was about community inspired by people, nature, and the work. It was the perfect place to find the heart of my new story and refine the veins of my finished manuscript.

I will be forever grateful to Nova, Mat, Djerassi, Lighthouse, and to the writers who joined me. I’d found my answer to my question: when is it done and good enough for others to read? When the heart of the scene is found on every page. When characters have changed, and so have you. It’s done when you know. And then, as Nova says, you’ve found the story of your heart.

My summer workshops were exactly what I needed; time to explore, go inside, and confidently find my voice to answer my own questions.

Grateful.

No onward and into fall.

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Quotes

August 28, 2014

I just got all quote fancy on you!

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WRITEONCON

August 12, 2014

If you write for kids and teens and want to take your writing to a new level—check out WriteOnCon: a fantastic FREE on-line conference, held every August. Did I say free? Yes, indeedy.

Loads of authors, agents, and editors participate in the conference, and if you register (for free); you can participate in interactive sessions. If time is an issue, download interviews, articles, and read transcripts from panel discussions on your own time. This is why we LOVE the internet!

Writing conferences play an important role for a serious writer. If you’re not able to attend a conference in person, check out what’s online. Besides offering valuable information about the industry, WriteOnCon offers networking opportunities and new ideas.

This year’s  on-line (free) conference is August 26-27.

You don’t have anything to lose by checking it out. Remember– it’s free! Free, free, free, I tell you!

Website: www.writeoncon.com

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Vacation and Writing Work

July 28, 2014

It’s almost August: dog days and vacation close in!

The packing.

The organizing.

The lists.

The shopping.

The remembering.

The bills.

The job.

The dog sitter.

The mail.

The tickets.

Daunting? Oh yeah. I’m exhausted writing the list. Life often spirals out of control the week before vacation. And yet we do it. We take vacation because a week away is worth the work.

Same goes for our writing.

When a writer begins to think of writing as their work, it becomes work.

The outlining.

The drafts.

The thesaurus.

The critique.

The revision.

The late nights.

The early mornings.

The stuckness.

Exhausted? Yes. But it’s oh so worth it. Writing can involve mind-numbing confusion, but the ultimate result? Well, it might not be a piña colada on the beach, but it’s still worth the work.

Keep going!

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Flight to Spain

July 8, 2014

This morning I watched my daughter’s plane taxi from the gate, bound for Spain. Like a bad Julia Robert’s movie, I bawled my eyes out. Ellie’s been gone before, but today felt different, more painful. Maybe it was because Spain is so far from Colorado. Perhaps it was because she’ll be gone all summer. Maybe it was because I have a crazy imagination that plays dirty tricks on me throughout the night. And perhaps, most likely of all, the pain was all mine, simply having a difficult time saying good-bye.

 

Ellie will be 17 next month. She’s ready to find her way. And yet, it’s hard to let go.

 

As I drove home, exhausted and red-eyed, I thought about my writing. The process of my work, putting pen to paper, has always helped me understand my life and vice versa. Recalling my choked good-bye made me remember that letting go is part of the work, both in life and in my writing.

 

Advanced writers craft pages upon pages, only to delete them and begin again. It’s never easy. We love our words. We love our babies. But for the health of the manuscript and the health of our children, it’s sometimes best to say good-bye.

 

No doubt that I’ll get teary again this summer as I think about Ellie, but I’ll have tools to help me cope. I’ll call, I’ll email, I’ll text. And before I know it, she’ll be back. By now I’ve got a tool kit for my writing to help me edit—I’ll scratch, I’ll copy, I’ll delete. And before I know it, they’ll be a chapter.

 

It’s okay to be sad. But we need to let go, words and kids included.

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