A Celebration

How many times do we as writers, or as just plain people, for that matter, stand back and celebrate just how far we’ve come? Not often enough! In this spirit, Christina Katz, a.k.a. Writer Mama, offered fellow writer mamas  a chance to contribute to her blog post today, timed to coincide with the re-release of  her e-book: Author Mama, How I Became A Published Author & How You Can Too.

I was proud to contribute to this post, and to be inspired by reading the stories of 39 other women, who are also juggling writing careers with motherhood. Some like me are relative beginners, while others have been at it for many years, but together we celebrate the joys of expressing ourselves through the written word, while still being on the front lines for our families. Read Christina’s post and be inspired too.

Did I Succeed?

So here’s the moment of truth. I actually found last year’s resolutions and now I get a chance to do a post-mortem of 2009 and see how well my accomplishments actually stack up with my expectations. My 2010 comments are in pink.

I was dating a check this morning and realized with a shock that January is flying along, and here I haven’t even made my New Year’s Resolutions! This is one tradition I just can’t bring myself to deep six, so in the spirit of better late than never, here goes.

Well, in the first place, I sat down to write my resolutions almost three weeks earlier this year (January 3, as opposed to January 22). That’s a good start!

For as many years as I can remember, one of my resolutions has been to exercise regularly. I know I am not alone, as looking for a parking space at my fitness club lately recalls the less happy aspects of shopping at the mall at Christmas time. My friend Tricia assures me that come Valentine’s Day, all these New-Year’s-Resolution people will have given up, and life will be back to normal.

I’ve been to the gym every single day this week for one class and thirty minutes of walking. Go me! (The parking lot at the gym is still a disaster.)

Well, that got me to thinking about how people in general, and me in particular, tend to approach resolutions. We generally set unrealistic expectations that feel more like a punishment than a way of promoting self-improvement. What’s the use of resolutions if you either ignore them, or worse, if they damage your self-esteem? I want resolutions that motivate me, and will make me feel good about myself when I look back over the year!

True that.

In that spirit, I think I’ll start with a year-in-review look at 2008. My chief accomplishment last year, although I cringe a bit at using the word “accomplishment” to describe it, was in caring for my parents (along with my siblings) after both were diagnosed with terminal cancer. Along with the heartache, there were happy periods mixed in there as well, and I can look back now over that time with the sense of peace that comes from knowing that I did everything within my power to bring a measure of comfort to my parents’ final months.

On March 20, what would have been my parent’s 60th anniversary, we held a memorial service for them. It was very healing.

Later that year, my siblings and I also worked in concert to settle my parents’ estate. It was a Herculean effort to empty their house and get it ready to put on the market, and a tribute to our efficiency skills that we not only did so in record time, but were able to sell it shortly before the market tanked. As my own house is now stuffed to the gills with my parents’ furniture, art objects galore, glassware, and boxes of old papers, I can perhaps be forgiven if “eliminate clutter” does not appear at the top of my New Year’s resolutions list for many a year.

I still haven’t gone through the boxes. Maybe next year…

In the course of notifying family friends and relatives of my parents’ deaths, we rekindled acquaintanceships that had been dormant for years, some going clear back into my early childhood, and I was excited to discover two “new” cousins of our mother’s, hitherto unknown to me, that I am now in contact with.

Joining Facebook this year really helped with this also. Go Facebook!

Besides all this, in 2008 I managed to find time to hit the gym on a reasonably regular basis, all things considered, I wrote frequently, and had the pleasure of seeing a respectable number of my writings published on the web, took inspiration from my writing group, and mastered (most weeks!) the Wednesday NY Times crossword. Not bad for a year that started off on such a sorrowful note!

I hit the gym 3-5 times most weeks, wrote pretty much everyday, got my first writings in print (one story each in Cupcakes on the Counter: The Stoves and Stories of our Families, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings and Chicken Soup for the Soul: True Love), joined a second writing group, mastered the Wednesday NY Times crossword puzzle, and made the happy discovery that if my family makes it a communal effort, we can complete most days. Plus I had a “My Turn” essay published in the Oregonian, and people are still coming up to me (four months later) and congratulating me on it, making me a mini celebrity of sorts around these parts. 🙂

I note in passing that were I to judge myself by the number of resolutions I actually met in 2008, I would come up short! So this year, I decided to craft resolutions with a twist, by focusing not on a rigid set of expectations, but instead on identifying hopes, dreams and goals for the coming year, an idea that was suggested to me by one of the guiding questions in a Cup of Comfort on-line forum.

Still like this idea.

Now I think I better define, for the purposes of this discussion, what exactly I mean by hopes, dreams and goals. I guess I’d say that a hope is something that you want that can reasonably be expected, in the best of all worlds, a dream is something a little wilder and perhaps a little less attainable, but nonetheless something to strive for, and goals are the concrete steps to take to move towards these elusive hopes and dreams.

Got it.
That being said, my hopes for this year are for maintaining my health, having my family and friends thrive, and getting more of my writings out there both on the web and in print. Okay, this is definitely hard. I’m not sure where a hope ends and a goal takes over, so we’ll move on.

Ditto for this year.

Dreams? Don’t even get me started!

My goals now, in no particular order. Focus on family and friends. Check. Write every day. Check. Try something new. For starters, I volunteered for Komen and Wordstock. Tackle the Thursday NY Times crossword. Check. (see above) Read just for fun. (I read at least one “fun” book a month). Exercise more. Check. Spend time in my garden. Check. Attend some writing workshops. I discovered the NW Author Series and attended several workshops. Actually read some of the writing guides I purchased last year. (Finally read Bird by Bird, Half Past Perfect, and Writer Mama. Also, read Writing the Memoir, Novel Shortcuts and Creative Nonfiction) Work piecemeal on getting the house organized. Getting there. Think about tackling a major house project (and maybe even do it!). Remodeled a bathroom. Take one day at a time. Check. Make time for myself. Double check. And finally, don’t judge myself too harshly if I fail to make great strides in any category. But I did! If I learned anything from the past two years, it is that sometimes just getting by is enough. Here, here.

An upcoming biopsy has started this year on a somber note. This isn’t my first biopsy, and I imagine it won’t be my last, but I refuse to let it get me down, and deter me from living my life to the fullest. Hence the importance of keeping my focus on hopes, dreams and goals. As any self-respecting kid can tell you though, the fastest way to take the fun out of something is to be told you have to do it. Keeping in mind that my list is more in the line of friendly suggestions that I came up with of my own free will, not inflexible action items, how can I possibly fail? And when New Year’s Day 2010 (or thereabouts) rolls around and I sit down to review this year, I’m perfectly sure I will have a whole new set of accomplishments to laud!

The biopsy eventually came out clean, thankfully, but it was yet another reminder not to take anything for granted. So was losing three more relatives from my parents’ generation this year.

So did I succeed with my resolutions? By any measure, I’d have to say emphatically, yes! All in all, 2009 was a good year. Here’s to good things for 2010!

One Word for 2010

On her blog, Christina Katz, adapting from fellow blogger Ali Edwards, selects one word every year that will keep her on track for the year. I like that idea. The only problem is, how do I pick only one word?

The first one that came to my head is RESILIENCE. Dictionary.com  defines “RESILIENCE” as  the “ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like;  buoyancy“. That sounds a little downbeat! So I went to the thesaurus for synonyms, and was directed to FLEXIBILITY and PLIANCY.

FLEXIBILITYis defined assusceptible of modification or adaptation“, leading me to ADAPTABILITY, its close cousin,  meaning being “able to adjust oneself readily to different conditions“. Hmm, that’s starting to sound an awful lot like resilient, without the “illness and depression” part.

PLIANCY” is “flexible; supple; adaptable“, but could also mean “Yielding readily to influence or domination“, making a pliant person sound like a cross between a Gumby and a pushover. Okay, so PLIANCY is out.

BUOYANCY” means “lightness or resilience of spirit; cheerfulness” (there’s that resilience again!) or “the power to float or rise in a fluid“. I don’t know, it just sounds a bit too light and bubbly for my taste. Think swimming pools. Think champagne.

Still not completely satisfied, I considered CURIOSITY: “The desire to learn or know about anything; inquisitiveness“. I definitely like that. I’m always up for learning something new.

INQUISITIVENESS” though, led me to: “Given to inquiry, research, or asking questions” but could also mean “Unduly or inappropriately curious; prying“. No thanks!

I think all things considered, my word of the year will be RESILIENCE which I’d like to define as “the ability to bounce back from whatever challenges life throws at you“.There is definitely the component of recovery in there, which makes it just a tad different from ADAPTABILITY, which is more concerned with the response to any kind of change, positive or negative. So, if I could get a couple more words (and who’s to tell me I can’t!) I would throw ADAPTABILITY into the mix ,  with a soupçon of (INTELLECTUAL) CURIOSITY .

Memoir, Who Cares?

I’m still thinking about Melissa Hart’s memoir workshop last weekend. As the population of the planet creeps towards seven billion, and I contemplate writing my memoir, I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering: who cares about the memoir of a very ordinary person? But for every question, there’s an answer. Several in fact. Here, after some deliberation, are mine:

10) You do!

9) Ditto Mom and Dad (especially Mom).

8 ) Some other family members will, curious (and perhaps a bit nervous) about how you portray them.

7) Friends will, if they’re true friends.

6) Casual acquaintances especially will be gratified to be associated with a real author, as they have no fear of being portrayed in a bad light (or for that matter, in any kind of light at all). They can sit back and relax and just enjoy.

5) Fellow memoirists will be perusing it, to scout out the competition.

4) The news media will (if you should be so lucky!) to get the scoop on the next breakout memoir, or if you’re not lucky, to pan your memoir.

3) Your devoted blog followers will, pleased to have been in on the growth of your memoir from a fledgling idea in one of your posts, to the real thing.

2) People from your past might, curious to know what happened to you.

1) But if you’re really, really lucky, at least one kindred spirit will read your story and relish it, perhaps seeing themselves in one of your characters or discovering some great and elusive truth about their own life from it, and be eternally grateful that you had the courage to share your story.

I write for that one person!

Is Anyone Out There…

When I was writing an “explosion” poem today for the Poetic Asides November PAD Chapbook challenge, I got to thinking about the explosion of information on the internet. There so much good stuff out there, but how to separate the wheat from the chaff!

My blog stats tell me how many people are coming to my blog each day, or more precisely, how many hits I get on each page. It could of course be one person clicking lots of times. What the stats don’t tell me is whether they clicked on the page by accident, whether they actually read it, or if they did, did they connect with it in any way. Unless of course they leave comments…

I welcome comments! It makes my blog seems more like a conversation than a monologue! So I was gratified yesterday to see that Melissa Hart actually read my writeup of her Sunday workshop on memoir writing, and even posted a link to it on her FB page: http://bit.ly/1hokG9

Oh the wonders of Cyberspace-there are people out there listening!

Not Sabrina…

I went to hear Melissa Hart speak, this afternoon. She shared with us that she legally changed her name before publishing her memoir “Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood” to protect the privacy of those involved. She then went on to ruefully admit that she should have done more research before choosing her pseudonym, as there are two other well-known Melissa Harts: the politician and  Sabrina the Teenage Witch. (Btw, I learned from Google that Melissa Jane Hart, a.k.a. Sabrina was born in my hometown of Smithtown. Who knew?)

But back to the Melissa at hand. She ran an extremely helpful workshop on writing and marketing memoir. Some key elements of memoir, according to Melissa:

  • Conflict and resolution
  • Setting (place, season, time of day, what’s on the wall,…)
  • Characterization (especially important to make sure characters have flaws!)
  • Dialogue (her personal favorite)
  • A narrative arc (rising action, climax, falling action)
  • Use of hyperbole (especially in humorous memoir)
  • Use of metaphor/simile (and other literary techniques)
  • Plenty of sensory details (to make scenes come alive; don’t neglect smell and taste)
  • A reflection piece

She went on to say that what publishers and editors are looking for are fresh stories they haven’t heard a million times already. Just because something happened to us doesn’t necessarily make it memoir-worthy. A memoir needs a particular angle or theme that makes it unique. If  you can write humorously on a social issue that people are afraid to touch or tie in your memoir with current events, then you have a good chance of being published.

Book Review: Novel Shortcuts

Review of Novel Shortcuts: Ten Techniques That Ensure A Great First Draft, by Laura Whitcomb:

I heard Laura speak last month as one of the featured authors in the Northwest Author Series. I enjoyed her talk, so that lead me to read Novel Shortcuts: Ten Techniques That Ensure A Great First Draft, the book upon which the workshop was based.

I should say at the outset, that I have no novel writing aspirations for the near future. I am strictly a short story (and poetry!) writer at this point in my life, so some of what this book covers was not as relevant to me as it would be to its targeted audience, which as near as I can tell is fiction novelists actively working on drafts of their novel.

That being said, there were many helpful tidbits of information that I was able to glean from this book and apply to my own writing. Chapter One: Finding the Core of Your Novel covers discovering the heart of your story, and factors to consider in choosing the main character, setting, and story problem for your novel.

Chapter Two: Deciding How to Tell Your Story presents some of the mechanics of telling a story, including voice, tone, storytelling devices, and point of view. This was all equally applicable to the short story. Chapter Five: Balancing Scene, Summary, and Reflection has a good discussion of how to control the pace of a story through the judicious use of summary and reflection to tie action scenes together. Chapter Seven: Stealing Tricks From the Best corroborated my belief that the best way to learn about the craft of writing is to line up books by your favorite authors, and read, read, read.

The only section of the book I found somewhat troubling was Chapter Ten: Goals and Miracles, which seemed to imply that the end goal of writing a novel is to become rich and famous. Considering how few authors will ever make it to that elite status, I would say by all means write as if you will be picked up by a big-named publisher some day if it makes you feel good, but if your primary motivation isn’t the joy of the writing process itself, you’d be well advised to just hang on to that day job!

Books on Writing

I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction books on the craft of writing lately. Some are more on the inspirational side, while others take you through the nuts and bolts of creating scenes, writing believable dialogue, point of view (POV), pacing and characterization.

Here are some of my favorites that I’ve read over the past year, from most recently read, going backwards in time:

1. Novel Shortcuts: Ten Techniques That Ensure A Great First Draft, by Laura Whitcomb
2. Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, by Judith Barrington
3. Writer Mama: How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids, by Christina Katz
4. Half Past Perfect: Writing Simple, Personal Stories to “Re-Story” Your Life, by Barbara Allen Burke & Elizabeth Taylor
5. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott
6. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, by Natalie Goldberg
7. Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home: Life on the Page, by Lynn Freed

On Book Reviews

I had this great idea. I was going to write a book review for every single book I read, as soon as I finished it, while it was still fresh in my head. After all, I’ve read almost 150 books in the past three years alone. Surely that would have generated a respectable number of book reviews by now. But alas, it didn’t happen that way.

In the first place, how many times did Mom drill into my head that if you didn’t have something nice to say about someone, it was better not to say anything at all? It is difficult for me to write anything less than a 4-star review. Three stars is about as low as I go.

And secondly, who am I, who is anyone for that matter, to decide what is good and what is bad? There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to books. Our tastes in books are personal, as unique as we are ourselves unique as individuals.

It was my cancer survivor’s writing group, which utilizes the techniques and philosophy of the Amherst Writers and Artists Methodology, which pointed the way to how I might resolve this dilemma. In our group, we don’t critique each other’s writings, per se. We listen in silence, non-judgmentally, and only after the piece is read do we comment on what we heard in the writing, what stayed with us, what did we remember?

This gave me a new direction for my book reviews. Why not make them more like book commentaries instead? Write about what I learned from them, what stayed with me, what moved me, what was useful, entertaining, or enlightening? In that spirit, I think I’m ready to write about books again!

The Book Review Crisis

Last year at Wordstock, I attended a panel discussion entitled “The Book Review Crisis”. A book review crisis? Really? I was intrigued. But the more I heard, the more irritated I found myself getting. So irritated in fact, that I even got up the nerve to go up to the microphone and ask why the panel members all seemed to think that we everyday readers needed a “professional” book reviewer to tell us what to read. They mostly seemed incredulous that anyone would actually go to Amazon.com to read peer reviews of books instead of consulting the experts.

Okay, okay, I realize this is a subject I am a bit touchy about. “How do you pick books?” one panel member asked me. That got me thinking. How do I pick books to read? Well, I get book recommendations all the time from Amazon, Powell’s, the Oregonian, other websites and blogs I follow, and family and friends. But what I ultimately decide to read is based on the book itself. Or more precisely, the merits of the book according to my own personal tastes.

I always check out the book description first on Amazon. See if it the book interests me. Read a few random pages from the book to see how I like the style of writing. Yes, I do read a smattering of reviews, and it is impossible not to note how many stars the book received. Does this influence me somewhat? A bit, I suppose, but not all that much.

Simply put, I choose what I like to read, and if the book is not a best seller, well that doesn’t matter a whit to me. In fact, that causes the renegade reader in me to like it even more. I don’t like anyone else telling me what to read!

But my all-time favorite way to find good books to read is to head to the used book section of my local library, or Powell’s, and just shelf read, the good old-fashioned way. The title needs to draw me in. I look for an interesting cover. Only then do I read the book jacket. And if the book passes all those tests, I open it to a random page to read. If I still like it, then that’s what goes home with me. Sometimes the lowest tech method is still the best!