Thoughts on my front steps

I sat on the front steps, pavement warm against my feet. The grass needed its first mowing of the year, green only in patches, but beginning to grow. The scent of daffodils and hyacinths wafted around me, speaking happiness to my back brain. I love spring flowers. I looked down the bed of flowers next to the house. I planted most of them myself. I did not plant the weeds. Those showed up without permission. But this early in the season the flowers are blooming and the weeds have barely started to grow. Another reason to love Spring.

I missed Spring last year. I spent April in my basement office banging a text file and loose illustrations into a book in only four weeks. To add to the difficulty, I was still learning how to use InDesign. It was trial by fire. When I had thoughts to spare from work and kids, they mostly dwelt on how terrified I was that I’d make a mistake and ruin everything. I did make mistakes. Often. But I fixed them and we met our deadline. Sometime in May I emerged from my daze to discover that the daffodils had bloomed and died while I was busy. I had missed my favorite month for being outdoors. I grieved a little before running headlong into a summer which contained two book releases and two major conventions. When I reached Fall I planned to make the next Spring different.

I got up off the steps and walked to look at my flowers. I considered sitting down and weeding. But I found that I preferred to look and think, to see it all rather than focusing on a small patch. I considered the grass impinging on the walkway and the layer of debris which drifted up against it. When I clean it off, the cement underneath will be darker, stained by months of contact with the dirt. If I clean it off. I plan to do it, but I plan to do many garden projects which get pushed aside. No matter how well I plan, things change and the plans must change to accommodate. I intended for April, and particularly the week of Spring break, to be a quiet month, a lull in the business schedule. Instead I arrived with my head crammed full of tasks to track. Each day with its own extensive list of chores written in small handwriting to make sure everything can fit on the same page.

I walked across the lawn to the flower bed circling the baby oak tree. The tree is not a happy one. Each year it leafs out optimistically in shades of green, but this species of oak wants more iron than our soil provides. The tree must draw back nutrients to keep the core alive. The leaves fade to yellow-orange and crisp around the edges. Year after year the oak continues to struggle, trying to grow without having the necessary nutrients to truly flourish. Howard and I talk about cutting it down and planting something else, but we haven’t done it yet. My writing has felt like that oak this past two months. I want to write lush, leafy prose which will shade and inspire. Such leaves nourish the tree from which they spring. Instead everything I write has felt yellow-orange with crispy edges. It is all I can do. All my reserves have been drawn into my core to do the necessary work and to keep our family running.

At the base of the oak a tulip was blooming. It was one of the bulbs I hid in the ground last Fall. A gift to myself. Grass was growing around it thickly. I wanted to sit and pull the grass out. I wanted to prune back the grapes. I wanted to trim back the grass and clear the walkway. I wanted to do these and dozens of other gardening tasks. These things matter to me, but not to anyone else. If I do them it is for my own satisfaction. I softly touched the side of the tulip and wondered when personal satisfaction became insufficient reason to do a thing. When did I prioritize small happiness out of my life. It is a short term lack. Only a month or two, but already I can feel it. I can see it in my yellow-orange leaves. Already I knew that the garden hour and the tulip fed me. My next leaf would be more green.

The chore list is thinner than it was. I’m finding my way to the ends of tasks. But the solution is not in the finishing of tasks. Joy is found in the balancing of hours and days. Each needs to contain a mix of the different parts of me. My life needs to have work, ambition, peace, and contentment all in rotation. I’m getting closer I think. This year is better than last, despite the rescheduling.

An empty space

My first task each weekday morning is to get the kids off to school. It is chaotic and frequently frustrating, but it has gone better since I started making the kids pay attention to clocks. After I drive kids to their various schools, I come home and begin assessing what the rest of the day will look like. I check email, I check task lists, I talk with Howard. Then I make a plan for the day. Usually the plan gets altered repeatedly in the course of the day, but having a plan helps.

Yesterday I found myself at 10 am with nothing left to do. Seriously. I still have piles of work, but all of it was waiting on a piece from someone else. Book layout is waiting on margin art. Cover layout is waiting on some illustration pieces. Convention prep is waiting on a photo shoot which we’ll do next week. No one had ordered stuff from the store since I shipped the day before. There weren’t even very many emails. The weather was stormy and wet, so gardening was out of the question. I puttered around the house for awhile. Then Howard left the house at noon and I was alone. Alone for two hours with nothing urgent to do. It was marvelous.

I was tempted to sleep. Sleep makes my brain blank which sounds really attractive since it has been a noisy place to live of late. Instead I decided to spend those two hours being a writer. So I crafted a query letter and submission packet. My friend Janci offered to read it and give me a critique about whether it was working. Writing the query is yet another baby step toward the time when I’ll be querying my project for real. Part of my brain spent time telling me that I was being silly and that no one could be interested in buying my book, but I ignored that part and did the work.

Then it was time to pick up the kids. And none of them had homework. And they all dashed off to play at friends’ houses. And then I was alone again for three more hours. It was enough time to eat food, play a video game, and clean up the house. It was wonderful to be able to do the things I chose to do simply because I wanted to do them.

It also meant that my brain was untangled and ready when the North Valley Writer Girls could not come, the Utah County branch all congregated at my house instead. It was really fun. I was able to be at home for my kids while still getting to talk with other writers.

Today I think there will be more time free for thinking and unwinding, although I won’t be alone in the house. I’ll also be listening to my church’s General Conference which will fill my head with new thoughts to think. Next week the kids are home for spring break while I simultaneously attempt to finish up a book. It will definitely be interesting.

Fiction, Blogging, and Going Forward

I came to writing through fiction. I read marvelous stories and wanted the power to shape the direction the story would go. I wanted to tell my own stories. So I began writing. The birth of my children diverted my creative energies for a time, but when I picked up writing again it was with the intent to write fiction. I sought out communities of fiction writers and made myself a comfortable little space there.

But my road to fiction has not been smooth. Time and again I found myself putting down writing to take care of things which were a higher priority for me. So I put away my stories, knowing they would wait. What I did not put away was my blog. Once I began it in 2004 it has been a constant. I kept it even during the year when I was deliberately “putting writing on hold.” In hindsight I find it fascinating to see how I did not count blogging as writing.

In my fiction writing communities, blogging is perceived as an interruption. It is discussed as valuable and necessary and often enjoyable, but ultimately a distraction from the production of fiction. I’ve read conversational threads where writers caution each other about how blogging first can use time and creativity which is not then available for fiction. This is a valid concern. Anything which leads astray from the goal is a distraction. I’ve also read discussions about practicing the craft of writing where words written in blogs were not considered real practice. I read that discussion during the year when I had put fiction away and it made me sad. I wanted my blog words to be helping me so that when I came back to fiction I would be better at it.

It was something of a revelation to me that my blogging could be an end and an art in itself. I think it was Howard who said it to me first. He told me that my real writing skill was showing in my blog entries, which he loved, not in my fiction, which he thought was kind of nice. I was not happy to hear it. I had a sinking feeling that I might be the antithesis of C.S. Lewis who wanted to be known for his non fiction, but who is most famous for the fanciful Narnia books. I wrestled with that. I pondered. It was hard for me to feel valid as a writer when most of what I was writing was tangential to what my writer friends were pursuing.

Over time my brain creaked open to accept the idea that what I write in my blog has real value. What I wrote was not a distraction for me, it was a goal. Or at least it could be. This was when I began to look at creative nonfiction and personal essays. I found authors whose words I loved. I absorbed and practiced emulating the elements of writing which I admired. I dreamed of my own book of essays. I began to believe that this nonfiction work was worthy. When other people echoed what Howard told me, I started to believe it, and thought perhaps it was a good thing.

The discovery of blogging as a valid writing pursuit in no way diminishes my love of fiction. I still have stories that are waiting for me to tell them. I can say things in fiction more powerfully than I can in my blog. But I can say things in my blog more powerfully than I can in fiction. It really depends upon which things I am trying to say. My inner acceptance of blogging multiplies my options. Unfortunately it does not multiply my time and energy. But in the next 30+ years of my life, I’ll surely make time for both.

This was my frame of mind when I attended the AML annual meeting. While there, I got to listen to presentations and participate in discussions with people who believe that the blog is an art form in itself. Through their eyes I was able to see the value of the daily nature of blogs; how each entry is anchored by the time when it was written; how blogs build context and meaning through successive entries. It is almost like writing as a performance art. Various performances may be repetitive, but each has its own nuance. This was a fascinating way to thing about blogging, to re-view my own writing. I made one step more in valuing my nonfiction writing. Now I can see how my blog has value for what it is, independent of whether or not I can pull essays from it for publication.

I always knew my blog was important to me. I always knew it was a way for me to share thoughts and for others to respond. I knew it had value. But I love having new words to explain why. I love having language to explain the beauty I see, not just in my own blog, but in the many blogs that I have the opportunity to read. Blogs are folk art. Anyone can create one and they are learned from people nearby. Blogs are shaped by the creator and are wildly divergent from each other in purpose and in presentation. The blogs which interest me most are the ones that are created for personal fulfillment, as folk art is. (Sorry, these last two paragraphs are the humanities major in me going squee over discovering this new form for human expression, one in which I have been participating for years without ever seeing it as a form.)

In the end all this self realization and analysis does not change much. I am like a bumble bee who has taken a course on physics and turbulence. There is a risk that too much knowledge will interfere with what I want to do. It is time to stop thinking about it and just flap my wings. Flapping will carry me a lot farther than analysis. I will continue writing as I began. I will work on the project which feels right to me at the time, regardless of whether I can form a coherent explanation as to why. This is how I arrived at a place which I love and which I did not know existed before I was standing in the middle of it.

Returning Home after a day away

“Mom, I missed you.” says a sleepy Patch as I hug him in his bed. I’ve been gone for most of the day, wearing nice clothes, having grown-up conversations, smiling at new people.
“I missed you too.” I murmur as I wrap my arms all the away around him. He is small enough that I can touch my arms on either side while holding him. Some inward part of me uncoils and relaxes.
“Will you snuggle with me in my bed?” he asks.
I tell him I will. So I go to my room and shed the nice clothes. I put on my fuzzy socks that make my feet look like muppets. I am dressed to unwind, to relax, to snuggle. And I grab my laptop, because that too is part of unwinding.

Today I attended the Association for Mormon Letters annual meeting. I was given an award for this blog “Best Online Writing.” It was very nervous to me to walk into a new community knowing that I was going to be singled out for an award. I did not know what kind of a reception I would receive there. Small communities are sometimes resistant to interlopers. This one was not. Everyone I spoke to was kind and welcoming. People treated me and my writing with respect. My friend Kathy even presented a paper which talked about the intersection between blogging and the personal essay in which she used this blog as an example. So I spent all day meeting intelligent people and having discussions which analyzed or explained. It was fascinating to listen and participate. The thought “oh, so is that what I’m doing? I never saw it that way before.” crossed my mind more than once.

The AML community is very focused on the production of good literature. But the creation of literature was never my stated goal here. I am just explaining me to myself out loud. I am catching the moments of my life so they will not escape me. I am trying to wrap words around my meanings. At the meeting I found my little word-wrapped meanings being held up, and examined, and found valuable. It was deeply moving and also a little unsettling. But there was an excitement to reading from my blog out loud to a crowd of attentive listeners. They reacted to my words in the moments that I spoke them. And I realized in a way I hadn’t before how my words can affect others.

All of this swims in my head. It is going to take a while to sort it all through. For now I am glad to be snuggled here with my son’s head resting on my chest as I type.
“Mom, I can hear your heartbeat.” he says and turns his face up to smile at me.
I smile back. He does not care if what I write is important or not. He does not care that I won an award or that I treasure the recognition. He just cares that I am here to snuggle him and listen when he tells me about his day.

It is good to get out and see my world in new ways. It is good to come home and remember why I do the things I do.

Leaving LTUE for the day

It was time for me to go home, but I did not want to leave. The day’s symposium schedule was only half complete. I had half a dozen conversations begun and interrupted. I wanted to stay. I wanted to visit with my friends and meet new people. But the school day was ending and I needed to be there to pick up my kids and take them home. Then I needed to remain home to provide normality. The kids can handle a couple of days with the schedule skewed around business, but four days running was a bit much. So I opted to miss Thursday afternoon rather than Friday or Saturday. These are the compromises I must make between my mother role and just about every other role in my life.

I was just beginning to pack away things and arrange for our table full of books to be watched by a friend, when Brandon Sanderson walked into the room trailing a dozen people. Apparently Brandon had ended his last panel by announcing that he would be hanging out next to our table for an hour and people could come chat. This is something that Brandon and Howard frequently do. We enjoy having our table be a gathering place and we try to plan so that we have enough space to share. I quickly scooted our merchandise over to make room for stacks of Brandon’s books. Then I spent a few minutes cashiering for Brandon and his assistant Peter.

Brandon sat on a chair and the fans sat on the floor around him. The question and answer session became something of an impromptu panel as Dan Wells, Bob Defendi, Jessica Douglas, and I all chimed in with thoughts on the topic of the moment. Mostly we all listened to Brandon, because he was the one people were there to hear and because he knows a lot about how to help writers who are just getting started. Gradually the room filled up. I kept watching the clock, calculating the very last minute I could spend before I had to leave. The minutes fled far too quickly.

I maneuvered my way from behind the table, past Brandon, and through the crowd which now extended all the way to the door. I bid farewell to a couple of friends in the hall and began the trek to the parking lot. The chilly walk and 20 minute drive were just about long enough for me to fold away my writer thoughts, convention thoughts, and business thoughts, while also unfolding all the mother thoughts. Tomorrow morning I will reverse the process as I drop the kids at school and drive to the symposium again.

The packing and unpacking of thoughts is necessary because I can not best fulfill a role if I am distracted by thoughts that belong to a different role. This is often hard. The writer in me grieves when I walk away from an event to go be a mother instead. I grieve when I must leave conversations so that I can go be alone with my kids. But the mother and introvert in me rejoice to be home where I am needed and where there is quiet. Practice makes all things easier. This has become easier, but it is still hard.

I look forward to tomorrow.

Seussian Rhyme

Per my usual birthday tradition, I am posting a short story. This is one I wrote last year, but hasn’t seen the light of day outside a small writing challenge contest. I was really trying to stretch myself in a new direction. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t, but it was fun to write.

Seussian Rhyme

The upload machine had uploaded my brain
into the computer, but now I’m in pain.
Five year old Suzy just wanted to look
Cause I was too busy to read her a book.
The AI was able to read it just fine
Now I’m trapped in a world made of Seussian rhyme.

The visual data has also gone strange
Full of bright flood fill without the full range
Of shades and tonations to which I’m accustomed.
The eyes I have work, but I hardly dare trust em.

I find I have feet, both a left and a right.
They’re pointed and furry, but even that sight
Gives me some hope I can find my way out.
So I start walking and send forth a shout.
I’ve no way of knowing the sound can be heard
Outside the edge of this virtual world.
How long have I been here? I really can’t tell.
Thinking in rhyme is like living in hell.

The wild wiggled roads lead me straight to a town
With houses and towers that all should fall down
Lopsided and curving, a construction nightmare
And all filled with people who don’t seem to care
their town is insane. So I turn to one chap
“can you direct me to an exit mayhap?”

He walks right on past me and says not a word
Neither will anyone on else. It’s absurd.
This town’s full of people and not one will talk
Hours go by on the rickety clock.
Would that this place had some food I could eat
That wasn’t wrong colors for eggs and for meat
The smells are just fine and they’re always served hot,
But they’re unappetizing cause Sam I am not.

I started to think about the things that define
A virtual world. This one had to rhyme
It also had rhythm laid out by the master
This meant I had power to get me free faster
I knew exactly what I had to do
The course I must follow, the path to pursue

I must find the right Seuss to get me loose

I needed a fox, but where should I look?
Wearing blue socks, he had his own book.
A book with few rhymes, where rhythm was sparse
Perhaps in those rules an exit would parse
As if he were summoned, the fox did appear
I spoke clear and loud to make sure he could hear.

“help me kind fox. I’m truly perplexed.
I need to find some way to exit this text.”
“close” smiled the fox, “but not quite right.
The perplexing text exit remains out of sight.
The easiest way to be done with our game
Is really quite simple, you must name a name.”

I puzzled again til my puzzler was sore
What tang toungled name could I use for a door?
Ah of course, what else should I use
The name of the man which created the whos.
I spent a long hour putting words into place
Then I spoke clear with a smile on my face.

“A man once wrote of snoozing juice mooses
And also of gooses a-guzzling juices
The juice guzzling gooses also wore shoeses
Which lead to attack from jealous mooses
For lack of moose shoeses some very sad gooses
Had to fight loose of some nasty nooses
Then shod mooses fled for fear of reprisal
Of such wrote the man Theodore Geisel.”

I end triumphant. The fox shook his head
“you’re clever, but you don’t get it” he said
The meaning and matching, the mixed up word play
Only matter when someone can hear what you say.
That someone is small and will hear with delight
The rhythms and words you read her at night.

Like Derwin of Didd I was fearful and shaking.
Stuck in a mess of my very own making
My little girl Suzy and her special book
She’d asked me and asked me to sit down and look.
I was too busy. “I’m working” I said
And so she asked the computer instead.

“Oh Suzy.” I said “I’m sorry as can be.”
With this last rhyme, I find myself free.

And in my spare time, I solve mysteries

I am a writer, but I am not a writer first. My life is full of things which are not writing. Many of those things are more important or more urgent than writing. I know a lot of other writers and this is true for most of them. Life gets in the way of writing, but we put up with it because all that interference give us experiences to write about. Or at least in theory. A lot of my personal interference has to do with dishes, laundry, and carpooling, not really the stuff from which gripping drama can be crafted.

I am constantly amused by the portrayals of writers in written and televised fiction. They spend very little time actually writing. Instead they’re off having adventures, or relationships, or solving mysteries. (Some examples: Murder She Wrote, Castle, As Good as it Gets, Bones, Romancing the Stone.) This is because watching some one write is boring. Often being the person doing the writing is tedious. Even when doing the writing is thrilling and invigorating, all the excitement is internal. From the outside it just looks like a person typing, and maybe smiling, occasionally cackling with glee. It looks a little disturbed, but not fascinating viewing for extended periods of time.

So what does a writer’s life really look like? The answers are as varied as the writers themselves. I know writers who are students, government employees, stay-at-home parents, business owners, teachers, and just about any other life role you can think of. Some of the writers I know are full-time, writing is their primary job. But even these writers have lives that are full of other things. To be a full time writer is to own a small business and there are piles of administrative tasks involved. All of these other life roles reduce the amount of time a person can spend in the writer role.

In the past 3 months I’ve finally found writing time in chunks rather than snippets. It is luxurious to be able to spend two hours writing on a single day. Most often I get 3 or 4 fifteen minute spans of time during which I scribble notes or compose sentences. I use the time spent carpooling, dish doing, laundry sorting, to think thoughts so I can scribble them down when the opportune moment arrives. But some days there is no time for thinking or writing at all. This is why writer/mystery shows are complete fantasy. I don’t know any professional writers who have time to spare for wandering around finding clues.

Notes from a presentation on journaling/blogging

I gave a 20 minute presentation on blogging and journaling this evening. It was a really enjoyable experience. I love getting to talk about the writing that I love to do. It was nice to share that love with people who were considering picking it up. What follows here is notes from my presentation. This is mostly for my benefit. I may have to give a similar presentation some time in the future and this way I can start from the notes I already have. It also allows me to point people to this entry instead of creating a piece of paper to hand out. Perhaps it will even be useful to someone who was not at tonight’s event. Keep in mind that these notes only served as a jumping off point for discussions which were much more nuanced and specific.

The difference between blogging and journaling: Journaling is primarily private, the only intended audience is yourself. Blogging has an audience in mind even if that audience is only one other person. Both blogs and journals can contain personal thoughts, events, experiences, or commentary.

Costs and Benefits:
Both cost time, energy and brain space. Some of the tools require practice to use.
Writing thoughts down helps them be clearer and more focused. It slows them down so they can be examined.
That slow down provides a conduit for inspiration and seeing things in a new way.
In a public blog, sometimes you get comments. That can be either a cost or a benefit depending upon the nature of the comments.
Can be a wonderful way to connect with family, friends, or even meet new people.

Paper and pencil- journals don’t have to be elaborate. I’ve grabbed scraps of paper before. But I recommend a method where the bits of paper won’t get lost.
Bound book- this can be anything from a special tome purchased for the purpose to a ten cent spiral notebook. At times I have found the spiral notebook to be very nice because it is so relaxed. I scribble all my notes, math calculations, lists, etc in the same place and it becomes a record of my life at the time.
Online- Lots of options. I’ll only list the three I know personally
Livejournal – An online community which has friends lists similar to facebook. People can lock their entries according to who they want seeing the entries. Read their site for more details.
Blogger – A journal or blog here can be completely password protected, or open to the public. Read their site for more details.
Own Domain name – This takes a lot more effort to set up, but can be very flexible and useful.

Stumbling Blocks:
“My life is boring” – No it isn’t. All of our lives are full of things that would be fascinating to someone who lives differently. Find the little stories in your life. The odd conversation in the grocery store line. The child’s lost tooth. Think of the stuff you would tell to a friend you haven’t spoken to for a day or a week. You can carry a little notebook to scribble notes about things as they happen so that you don’t come up blank when the time comes to write.

“It is a burden” The blog or journal is yours. You own it, it should not own you. You make the rules. You don’t need to apologize if you haven’t written in a while. The journal or blog is not going to get upset. It will wait for you.

“I always forget” Like any other habit, practice is required to make it a regular part of your life. Practice also makes figuring out what to write easier. You’re training your brain.

“People are watching” This one is blog specific, particularly if you post publicly. It is easy to become self conscious. Make sure you set some clear guidelines for yourself about what parts of your life are private and which are public. Everyone will put their line in a different place when deciding whether to pose photos, names of children, location, etc. Do your own research. Think through the risks and pick what is comfortable for you.

Note: In private journals, be sure to include full names, dates, locations and details. In five years you won’t remember what “lunch with friends” was about unless you put in the details. It is not polite to post such specific information about other people on the internet unless you have their prior permission.

Powerful writing

I have been thinking about Doctor Who: The End of Time. I enjoyed it, but my enjoyment was in spite of the script rather than because of it. The show contains a climactic scene which is half full of an expository monologue explaining why the situation is deadly and unfair. The more I think about that scene, the more I see how much more powerful it could have been if it had just been set up properly. A little bit of ground work earlier in the script would have given all the information that the torrent of words supplied. Then the Doctor could have arrived at that moment wordless, fearful, and I would have been right there with him.

I love scenes where the dialogue is simple, but the meanings are subtle and complex. An example is the ending scene of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind when all the characters say is “okay.” It is only a single word repeated twice, but that one word implies acceptance, interest, love, a willingness to forgive, and a chance to start over. All those implications are created by everything that went before. It is all carefully crafted so that the scene can mean what it does.

I love it when a writer is able to put thoughts and feelings into my head without ever saying them out loud. I want to be able to do that.