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Monday, October 31, 2011

Snow Flakes, Halloween, and Not Rushing Things

This past Saturday, we had a freak snowstorm that came out of nowhere and left people ill-prepared to deal with its effects. Today, there are still many without power. Property was damaged. Schools were cancelled. Accidents happened. People died. I couldn't comprehend the impending several inches. Snow before Halloween? This does not bode well for the Winter to come.

Shortly after "Snowtober," the pictures appeared on the news, Facebook, and Twitter. Our own 25-foot pear tree, whose leaves are still green, sagged with the weight of the snow belaboring it. One of its major branches snapped. The stark contrast of summer's green against the snow.

Other pictures showed orange, gold, and red leaves lying on crisp, snow-covered lawns. Incredibly beautiful, but the images gnaw at a sense of impropriety. The foliage of summer and fall shouldn't be blanketed with snow. It defies the order of things. Yet it's beautiful.

As you drive around the Northeast, you see downed trees and power lines. And hear of people dying. You realize that despite the beauty of this unexpected shower of white, it's inherently wrong. It doesn't--and shouldn't--snow in October because nature isn't ready for it. There is a timing to everything and a reason for seasons. The natural order of change allows for adjustment and adaptation. Rushing things might not initially seem dangerous. Often, we want to rush things out of impatience or boredom or a sense of entitlement.

This is difficult when you're chasing your dream. You want it to happen right now. You want to accept the first offer that comes along. You want to move from standing still. This happens with tweeners who want to grow up too fast. Singles who just want to end their loneliness. Writers who want to see their book on a shelf in Barnes and Noble. Better yet, an end cap. But as with all things, there is a process and we must respect that process. More importantly, we must remember that the process is a means to an end, not an obstacle.

So push forward we must. Remembering that if we try to skip steps or rush things, the weight of what might come will smother our too-green leaves and break us.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Eighth Graders, Soccer, and Keepers

Every Sunday morning, I have the privilege of working with a group of Eighth Grade girls at my church, LCBC. They're an amazing group of young women and I learn so much from them. Some things are philosophical and some practical. Just last week, I learned a new definition of "Keeper." One of my girls, Joy, is a phenom in the Goalie position. She eats, sleeps, and breathes soccer (Facebooking about it at least once a day). [That's Joy in the picture]

As she filled me in on her recent try-out for travel soccer, she said "There's only one other Keeper." Head cocked, "What?" I asked. "Sorry," she replied. "A Goalie. A Keeper."

The formal definition of "keeper" states: "a person who guards or watches, as at a prison or gate." Of course the wheels of my writing mind immediately began spinning. Oh the metaphors... (Yes, we've confirmed I'm a geek. Who else thinks in metaphors?)

In life, we often use the word "keeper" to refer to friends or romantic interests. The term implies a level of uniqueness about a person. Someone who is kind, reliable, fun, and loyal. Someone you want to spend time with. Someone you want to "keep" in your life. My Eighth-grade life group is full of keepers. My honey's certainly a keeper. As are the friends I surround myself with (even those that cheer for Alabama).

Listening to Joy describe her job as a goalie, her description stretched beyond the scope of her words. I thought of my inner circle of keepers. When I'm hurting. When I'm in a dark place. When I need someone to deflect the shots life is throwing at me, they're my goalies. They protect me from the onslaught. When I need someone to guard or watch over me when I can't do it for myself. This is what it means to be a true friend. A true love. To take the shots for someone else.

Writers looks at agents through the lens of whether they're a Keeper. For the anecdotal reasons above: someone unique, kind, and loyal. For the soccer traits: someone standing between you and the outside world, deflecting shots. And for the layers within the formal definition: someone who guards and watches at a gate.

We writers sit alone and pour our hearts onto a keyboard. A work takes form that we nuture for months, years, or even decades. Our comfy chair, bunny slippers, and laptop monitor belie the journey ahead. Because the publishing world is big. Agents. Editors. Editorial boards. Copy editors. Back cover copy writers. Cover designers. And that's all before the book is published. Then there are marketing people, bookstore event planners, book signing and publicity tours, and you--the reader. To move into this world and expose yourself through your work, you need a Keeper. Someone taking the hits and guarding the gate.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Safety of School Buses and Trusting Your "Baby" To Others

This morning as I sat behind a school bus at a traffic light, I was reminded of its irony. Look inside any mini-van with a kid between the ages of 5 and 8, and you'll see them buttoned-up tight. Car seats with harnesses and booster seats. We make sure we have extras for our children's friends. Our cars don't leave the garage or parking lot without making sure everyone is strapped in. Yet we put our tiny, five-year-old Kindergartener on a big, ole' school bus that doesn't have seat belts, much less a booster seat. We watch this hunky chunk of metal barrel down the road full of precious cargo. This is particularly scary if you chaperone a field trip. When my son was in Kindergarten, I sat in a bus full of 3 to 6-year-olds as we rambled 30-minutes away to a farm.

Sure, there have been studies on the safety of school buses and why none have seat belts. The Washington Post reported on a study asserting that not only were buses safe without seat belts, but because of their dimensions, were six to eight times safer than riding in cars. Consumer Reports backed up this claim. The American School Bus Council states on their website that buses are safe for the following reasons: the color and size of school buses make them easily visible and identifiable; their height provides good driver visibility and raises the bus passenger compartment above car impact height; and emergency vehicles are the only other vehicle on the road that can stop traffic like a school bus can. It compares school buses to egg cartons with padding, raised seat backs, and a reinforced shell for protection against impact.

The National Association for Student Transportation quoted tests showing that a bus lap belt could actually contribute to abdominal and spinal injuries in a crash. Safety studies also cite the difficulty in evacuating a bus full of kids with only one driver. I trust that our state and federal governments have researched this issue thoroughly in coming to the conclusion that buses are safe despite any child restraints. I put my own children on buses every day. But I wrestle with the contradiction of our little ones bouncing around, two or three to a seat, when we strap them down in our cars.

Sometimes, things that seem intuitively or culturally wrong might not be. They might test our sense of normalcy or what is appropriate and result in conclusions that make us uncomfortable. Conclusions that force us to trust that someone else has done the homework. Trust that their conclusions are true and sound. Even when they make us shudder with apprehension. We close our eyes and surrender our tiny five-year-olds to the open jaws of a big, yellow hunk of steel that promises with the hiss of its closing doors that the one we live for will be carried to school safely. And brought home at the end of the day.

For both of my novels, I had freelance editors take a peek. An objective eye on my heart's work. I wanted them to point out all the weaknesses, highlight the grammatical errors, and help me focus on making the work stronger. Now, as I face the task of trying to get The Beauty of Grace traditionally published, I'm reminded why I self-published my memoir, Abby. If a traditional publisher signs my book, I'm essentially handing it over to the big, yellow hunk of metal and hoping that it gets delivered to the public resembling something close to what it looked like when I turned it over. The traditional publishing process involves much editing and signing over of the decisions regarding cover art, the excision of pages of work, and how the book will be presented to the public.

I chose to self-publish Abby because I wanted to tell the story of my daughter's stillbirth with no interference. I wanted to put her tiny footprints on the cover in their actual size and not have someone tell me that the book would be published with something else on it. I didn't want anyone to require me to delete any of the pages of the story I so painfully told. But in the business of publishing, to do it yourself can mark you with a tattoo that is impossible to erase. You're no longer a "debut artist," but instead an artist that decided to put her work out there without the filter of the publishing community. It isn't impossible to land an agent when you have a "history," but it makes it more difficult.

So in this quickly-evolving era of eBooks and the rapidly changing face of publishing, I find myself glancing over my shoulder in a 360-degree move. I've worked hard over the past year or so to obtain an agent and be published traditionally. Because to land a publishing contract is akin to being signed to a professional sports team, minus the seven-figure paycheck. It means that you're the cream that's risen to the top. Worthy of advances and publicity tours. But it requires a surrender.

I realize now that sending my books to professional editors was like putting my kids in my best friend's mini-van with extra booster seats. To release your work to a publishing house is trusting your "baby" to a big, powerful school bus and hoping it will arrive resembling your "baby." But you trust because you can. You have to surrender the control you've had since infancy knowing that your "baby" will be better for it.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

How Clarity Comes Not From Hyper-focus, But From The Opposite

"Fog is a meteorological phenomenon caused by a supersaturation of the air, so that it can no longer hold water vapor." ~ WiseGeek

The fact that I'm opening my blog with this quote indisputably evinces the fact that, yes, I am a dork. But this morning, I opened my front door to a blanket of fog on my lawn. It was eerie and beautiful, but precluded clarity.

I couldn't help but see it as a metaphor for life. You've probably said, "I'm in a fog," or "my brain is foggy." This is sometimes attributed to lack of sleep or caffeine. But, in fact, we often find ourselves in a fog because of a supersaturation in our brains. Too many obligations, too much social networking, too much media. With the constant input that bombards our brains, they sometimes freeze, and a fog results. We can't think of that guy's name or remember why we walked into a room.

While a nap or a cup of coffee can help fogginess sometimes, it's usually a brisk walk outside, an hour of unstructured play with our kids, or the singular focus required of a good book that burns off the fog. And it does eventually burn off. Just as the morning sun rises and sears the fog lingering on our grass, moments of mental respite rejuvenate us and help us clear our minds of the clutter.

In writing, I often get bogged down by the swirling elements of fiction: characters, plot, setting, dialogue, meaning. When I try to write or edit a piece with all of these things in front of me, my mind shuts down. What is so affectionately referred to as "writer's block" can set in, which frustrates all writers. But the harder we try to push through it, the more it resists and the heavier the fog becomes. With writing, school work, family dynamics and relationships, we can't always force the solution because the fog that envelopes us precludes one. We must instead step back, close our eyes, and allow our minds to re-boot. But in order to re-boot, you must first Shut Down.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Dichotomy and How My Liberal, Democratic Self Adores My Conservative Husband

My honey and I are complete opposites. He's a Republican, I'm a Democrat. He's an ACC fan, I'm SEC all the way. He's a total carnivore, I'm a vegetarian. He loves his aviation magazines, and I love literature. The yen and the yang. Polar opposites. The Steely Dan to my Black Eyed Peas.

But it works. And it works well. Over the past fourteen years together, our extreme differences have enlightened us. Not that we've pulled one another toward the middle, but we've made each other more understanding of a position that in the abstract we might find offensive. As we watch political debates together, we often find ourselves commenting on the same things. And often in the same way. Because our core beliefs aren't different. Family. Friendships. Loyalty. Being your best and achieving your most. Loving the underdog (literally and figuratively).

Our marriage reminds me on a daily basis why even when people think they're on the opposite ends of the spectrum of thought, belief, philosophy, and logic, they're actually side-by-side. We not only co-exist in our differences, we thrive and become better people by allowing ourselves to stretch our minds by the thoughts and beliefs of others.

Although I will always be frustrated by the futility of the way our votes cancel one another out on election day, I will never regret standing in line at the polling place with him and casting my vote. We re-index one another and bring an entire sphere of opinion into our home. While I might get completely frustrated by his opinions, I am always mindful of how blessed I am to have a husband who not only seeks truth, information, and intellectual growth on a daily basis. He also allows himself to be vulnerable to the constant bombardment of his wife's polar and (to him) potentially offensive pontifications.

In writing, and more importantly reading, we must open our hearts and minds to ideas and opinions that make us uncomfortable. We might read a book or magazine article that rips a shiver down our spine, but it creates dialogue and provides us with a perspective and empathy we might not have otherwise have had. Expression requires openness and openness requires an honesty that reveals not only our vulnerabilities but allows us to consider change.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why Bubble-wrapping Our Kids Not Only Suffocates Them But Cripples Them

"We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future." ~Franklin Delano Roosevelt

I saw this quote for the first time today and it has stuck with me like flies on a cow patty (Southern roots showing there). As a parent, I often worry about my children's future. The pendulous economy. The uncertainties of threats both far away and in our own neighborhoods. The premature exposure to sexual images, bad language, cruelty, and peer pressure. Good grades. College savings. The influence of social networking and unrealistic expectations created by society. In my daily struggle to feed them, clothe them, keep them healthy, and love them, I often feel like a ninja warrior trying to deflect danger flying from all directions. So much is beyond my control. I can't single-handedly change Congress's spending, hunt down and prosecute every predator, or bubble-wrap my children's eyes and ears.

I've come to terms with the limitations of being one person who lacks a superhero's cape. I understand that I can't protect my children from the realities of our world by cocooning them away in a bunker of safety. Not only is it unrealistic, it's actually harmful to them because it prevents them from ever learning how to care for themselves and make good decisions. My job is not to protect them from all that does and will bombard them. My job as their parent is to give them the tools to protect themselves. I must teach them empathy, patience, assertiveness, resiliency, open-mindedness, and honesty. I must arm them with logic, the ability to ask questions, and the art of listening. Rather than stuff them in an armored car and drive them through life, I must teach them how to drive.

For as FDR said, I can't create my children's world. I can only love them and show them how to navigate the road.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Why we love orange, Fall, and the Necessity of Change

At this time of year, most of the leaves are turning. Beautiful hues of orange, yellow, and gold. The vibrant, green leaves that shaded us all summer surrender to the cold and change into brilliant colors. The first year we lived here, I caught my breath often at the beauty of Fall. One of my neighbors, who's lived in the Northeast her entire life, said, "But they're such a mess." What I saw as beauty, she saw as something else to deal with in an already busy life.

As I walked our dog, Ellie, today, I held onto that initial gasp of wonder I felt seven years ago when we moved here from South Florida where the leaves never change. I embraced the crisp air and thought of the changes to come. How the leaves will fall from the trees. Making them bare during the coldest, harshest temperatures. This is why we in the Northeast savor Fall. Because it represents a transition and a time we want to freeze as we brace ourselves for the difficulties of Winter. You see orange everywhere. Pumpkin pie. Apple cider. Fall mums blooming in the crevices of summer's goodbye. Echoing the colors surrounding the ever-dwindling twilight landscape as the days grow shorter.

Such is the complexity of life. To truly appreciate the summer afternoons that extend past bedtime, and the crisp Fall mornings that transform everything around us, and embrace the beauty of the first white-washed snowfall in December--we must surrender to the difference. Drastic change is necessary not only to renew us, but to force us to appreciate the phases of our lives. Requiring us to embrace both the beauty and the difficulty of change.

Writing is an evolution of the soul. You find a spark, an idea, that forces you to sit and write it down. However messy or difficult it might be. And as the seasons change, you embrace the simplicities of what you're trying to express, while understanding how it might be messy and bare and exposed. But you know that what is inside of you needs to move through the seasons until it blooms into the thing you hope it to be.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

More on periphery, Auburn football, and kids

Tonight was the Auburn-Florida game, which doesn't mean a lot to most people north of the Mason-Dixon. But in the South, SEC football is always the highlight of Saturdays. Sure, it's 60 minutes of boys throwing a pig-skin and hoping for 10 yards at a time. But it brings anticipation, excitement, and a few hours of re-focus from whatever ails you. Although the Auburn-Florida game isn't the same rivalry as the Auburn-Alabama game, there's just something about SEC football that makes each match-up mean something.

Tonight, I babysat my friend's two-year-old so she could enjoy some much needed respite and dinner with her mom. Lars and I sat on the floor and played with play-doh. Attempted to read books. Raced Matchbox cars. All while the Auburn-Florida game played in the background. I would glance up at big plays, rejoice at touchdowns, and half-hear commentators as I engaged a sleepy, grumpy two-year-old and tried to navigate world peace over putting on pajamas. All while the game played on. A game I'd been looking forward to watching in peace all week. A game that suddenly became just a game. Because what was more important was sitting on the floor with this two-year-old that I love and rolling balls out of play-doh.

Sometimes, the things that we look forward to, focus on, and hang our happiness on become periphery. We realize in hindsight that our priorities need shuffling. That having a morning dialog with our child is more important than reading the morning paper. Or doing a puzzle together is more important than cleaning the windows. Or calling a friend to chat is more important than making sure your e-mail inbox is empty. Sometimes, things that are in our crosshairs fall into our periphery for a reason. An involuntary re-index. Because what we assumed was important actually isn't. Yes, I love Auburn football. But I love my friend's son more.

In seeking to publish traditionally, I've focused on trying to get an agent. Wanting to walk into Barnes and Noble and see my book under "S" in Fiction. Hoping to see my book cover on the front page of the New York Times book review. Praying Oprah stumbles on my other books on Amazon.com and says, "I gotta have this woman on OWN."

But its all periphery. As authors, we write because we have to. It's a compulsion we hope someone finds worthy of indulging and spending a few moments to share with us. To allow our words into their minds and hearts and hopefully ignite thought, reconsideration, or a new idea. That somehow our work and what's inside of us that begs to be expressed will evoke a change in even one person.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Make You Miserable"

Over 150 years ago, President James Garfield uttered this famous phrase. The first section is based on John 8:32 in the Bible, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount delivered almost 2,000 years ago. Sometimes the oldies are the goodies.

I've found this phrase particularly profound lately. Our lives fill with people, experiences, tragedies, and circumstances. Some are joyous and fun and interesting. Others are painful, difficult, and incomprehensible. And every once in a while, the two converge. You take a new job that seems exciting and challenging only to find it stressful and unmanageable. You make a new friend with whom you laugh out loud and feel exhilarated around only to later be hurt by something said or left in their wake because they've moved on to a newer, more exciting friend. Or you have an experience because it seems fun, feels good, and pleases you at the moment, only to wake the next day with regret.

Part of growing older and maturing requires us to stare reality in the face, take a bite, and stomach the bile that tries to fill our mouths as we grope with the truth. Be it betrayal by a friend, desperation over a circumstance thrust on us by the economy, anger at a parent or child, a medical issue, or confronting demons from the past lying in wait. It's so much easier to gloss over the uncomfortable. To pretend we don't see that friend across the hall who is angry with us. To ignore the pain in some part of our body that just won't go away. To engage in small talk with someone whom we really need to dig deep with. To confront the economic or social circumstance that has altered our reality. To face that thing that never lets go.

Facing our truths is painful and difficult, but as the quote says: "It will set you free." We try to bury our pain and frustration and embarrassment. But it's akin to putting a lid on a pressure-cooker. It will only stay so long before it blows off and shatters on the floor. You can shelve your anger at a friend, parent, spouse, or neighbor. You can bury the pain of a childhood hurt, a friend's betrayal, a job lost, an opportunity wasted. You can refuse to confront whatever lies within you that keeps trying to bubble to the surface. But it's futile. Although facing your truth will make you miserable (or sad or embarrassed or angry or exhausted) at first, it will set you free.

How does this tie into writing, you ask? As authors, we must excise, rewrite, delete entire scenes and characters. It's a constant pruning after spending hours or weeks making a chapter or scene just right, only to learn that it needs to be chopped completely. Spending years on a novel only to cut chunks in a re-write feels like cutting off appendages. But it's necessary. To produce the best work you can, you must confront the truth of the inadequacies in your writing. You must realize that it isn't the place to vomit agenda or show how descriptive you can be. You must face your work with an eye focused solely on making it the best it can be. As we must do with life.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Fifteen Years of Hard Work = Fifteen Minutes of Fame or A Nice Bathroom

For the past week-and-a-half, my husband and a friend have torn our guest bathroom apart. Seven years ago, we moved into our home, which we love, but that was outdated. I'm talking 1980's fake brass, formica, linoleum outdated. Is it livable? Absolutely. Are we blessed with this home? Undoubtedly. But we decided to make some changes so it would mirror our style rather than 80's big hair.

So my honey and our friend have ripped out linoleum, thrown out the mauve toilet, and pulled out the "hot-cold" singular bulbous knobs. Electrical, plumbing, and venting were all re-routed because of the creation of a pocket door to give our pre-pubescent daughter her own, in-suite bathroom. Sheetrock, plywood, liquid nail, P-traps, and wiring caps all worked together to create a new, beautiful space. There's still a lot of blood, sweat, and tears that will go into this tiny space. An act of love for our budding girl. (My friend, Amy, just similarly experienced major construction when she created a new room for her daughter, Courtney, and can attest).

But when the process is complete, the result will be seamless. Guests will venture into the bathroom and use it's beautiful new sink. Flush its state-of-the-art toilet. And quietly slide the convenient pocket door that took my husband half a day, and lots of under-the-breath words, to install.

Point is: to create something people enjoy without realizing how long it took and how hard it was to create is art. Your favorite song took a lyricist, a band, a producer, a studio, an agent, and a record company all believing and investing to pump out three-and-a-half minutes that you'll love for a couple of weeks. Your favorite clothing company employs designers, stylists, factory employees, and marketing people to pump out this season's latest jean that you'll wear for a few months. Facebook, Twitter, StumbleUpon, LinkedIn, and all your other favorite social networks put in years of creativity, begging investors, tweaking ideas, only to have to evolve every few months to keep up with everything new.

Writing and publishing are living, breathing things. A novel can take months or years to write. Days are spent contemplating character names, subplots, settings, words, and things as simple as the placement of a comma. The reader doesn't see this. And shouldn't. True artistry in literature requires the reading of a story where the reader doesn't hiccup over a misspelled word or have to flip backwards because the writer inadvertently created an inconsistency that the reader caught. To be a good writer requires a seamless, flawless flow of words that evoke other worlds, emotions, and vacations from reality that can't be violated by the writer's errors. And all of the behind-the-scenes work. All of the linoleum ripping and paint-tape-excision and sanding must be transparent. Because to reveal the blood, sweat, and tears, and seek validation in the work itself, is to put artist over art. We are storytellers. We love the words. Their beauty. Their ability to move hearts, minds, and mountains. To do them justice, we as writers must become invisible and live in their shadow.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

College Football > Pro Football. Any. Day. Of. The. Week.

I love football. How could I not? I'm from Alabama. Where the Auburn-Alabama rivalry is palpable and football is another form of religion. In middle school and high school, football Fridays meant pep rallies and bands and lots of school spirit. People spent just a few dollars to stand in the bleachers and cheer on their children and their friends' children. Everyone has a stake. Be it familial or hometown or high school alma mater. In Alabama, there is nothing more exciting that watching Auburn or Alabama play. The RV's pull in days before and set up grills and flags and friendships. It means something. Almost everyone in the parking lot and the stands has a tangible tie. So when the band fires up and the pom poms shake, the excitement builds.

So as I sit here and watch the NFL, I'm disappointed. Sure, there are geographical ties, but the loyalty is to a name. Sit in a living room with people watching an NFL game and not one of them will have an actual tie to the team they're cheering for, other than the fact that they might have lived in the city the "team" plays for. Or they might be following someone from their college team. But the ties are tenuous. As are the alliances. Because you might love the QB, but chances are, he'll be somewhere else next year. The NFL players lack the loyalty and passion of the college players. It's become a business. It's no longer about the Friday Night Lights or the Saturday band playing your fight song. It's about fans who pay a ridiculous amount just to sit in the stadium, then pay an even more ridiculous amount for a bottle of water, a cup of beer, and a hot dog. This is business. It's not about the love of football, but about exploiting the experience of football.

I'm sure my NFL-loving friends will give me grief, but let's be honest. Watching the NFL isn't about you, the fan, who pumps money into your team and fuels the business that used to just be a game we loved.

Such is the business of trying to get published. You want to make it to the show and get published. You want more than anything to walk into a bookstore and see your work on a shelf. But once that becomes the goal, it no longer becomes about the writing. I've found myself losing my sense of passion over words and poetry as I focus on my goal of getting published. I don't want to lose sight of the Friday Night Lights and the band and the reason I started this journey in the first place.