Thursday, December 31, 2009

How Many Resolutions Am I Going To Break This Year?

Let's start with the worst: keeping my house clean. I know that one is going to be broken, because I have never been good at maintaining an immaculate living space. I put the effort in every day, believe me. But now there are kids running around, a dachshund tearing up wrapping paper that I thought was in the trash already, a fluffy cat that sheds, and at the moment, snow being tracked in and mixing with pine needles being spewed all over the living room by a dying Christmas tree. Here's what I'm going to do--it's genius really--I'm going to clean the house and take a picture of each room, so that when people come over I can show them the picture and say, "This is what it looks like . . . underneath. Yeah, it's a pretty room, I know. I miss it sometimes."

Get a maid, you say? Oh no, I'm the only one cleaning this mess. No one ever pays me to do it, why would I give money to somebody to clean my house with no kids bugging them the whole time? I'm the only one who gets to vacuum with a three-year-old hanging on the handle like it's an amusement ride. This is my challenge; my own personal Survivor show. Who's going to end up winning? Me or two people that can't even pour their own OJ? Me, it's gotta be me.

My next resolution is that of exercise and health food. Ah, I'm too tired to even write that one down. Consider it broken already.

Expanding my vocabulary. That's a good one. I need to work on learning new words that express what I want to say beyond the regular crappy words I'm already using. I gotta work on that, I really does.

How about not watching so much TV? I've actually gotten pretty good with abstaining since all the shows are on repeat for Winter Break. That, and the fact that this digital TV conversion makes every other sentence sound like Max Headroom. "Today, Shiites--op--aarf--letttt--bombed a--fwip-tat--it's snowing in Kansas City."

I am sure there are many things for me to ruin in the the new-coming year. I've always wanted to be a great dancer, have my book published, make a hit record, win a million bucks. It's fun to try. I'm . . . trying . . . really . . . hard.

Happy New Year and pass the merlot.




Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Ten Steps to Beating Writer's Block

It's really too bad writer's block isn't literally a big block that you can't beat the crap out of. Man, that would feel good. But it isn't. It's psychological, emotional, physical, societal, paranormal and anything else my gooey brain can come up with. I usually have no problem with receiving any and all inspiration, but like everyone else out there, find myself struggling with the whole process now and then.

So what do you do? Some writers are very adamant that you just keep writing. It's a job, not a party. If you want to be a writer, you have to produce no matter what your mood, no matter what the inspiration. Others will suggest that you step away from the project and wait for the muse to come around and sprinkle her magic dust on all your thoughts; tossing words into your brain like a parade goer tossing candy out to kids lining the happy avenue of life. The problem is, that can take years, or never. Waiting for a muse is like waiting for Twilight to come in on the holds list at your local library. In other words, it ain't gonna happen. You have to be your own muse. You have to create the atmosphere, find the inspiration, block the inhibitors of flow, tell your family to support and respect your writing, pray for prolific success.

I certainly would never accuse a victim of the block of being lazy. Come on now. Let's help each other out just a little bit. Supporting another writer can go a long way. Some day you might need the same encouragement and compassion. In the world of music, one musician will say to another, "Dude, it'll come. Just relax. You've written songs before and you'll write them again." In the world of art, when a person has the block one artist will say to the other, "You're heading in a new direction. This is a good thing. Go out and buy some new paints and start again." But when a writer has the block, it's as if the world has disappeared and it's just you and your brain eating each other's flesh like two rabid piranhas in a nuclear waste infused Amazon.

The block is agonizing, but, curable. Here's a ten-step list to get you back on your feet.

1. Don't psyche yourself out. I repeat, don't psyche yourself out. That's what starts the block. Imagine it being quicksand: the more you thrash around, the more you're gonna die. Just relax, dude.

2. Go read a book. There's something to be said for embracing abandon. For me, reading has always been a great way to let go of it all and just become whatever character or place I'm reading about. Allowing yourself to do that is a great salve for stress or worries that might be stunting your creative juices.

3. Water breeds thoughts. Go take a shower, wash the dishes, do the laundry, drench the garden. Just don't tell Al Gore and everything will be fine.

4. Write in longhand. Yep, retro is betro. We think it's easier to use a computer, but if you've been sitting there all day and night thinking, editing, squeezing thoughts out of your brain, then maybe you need to step away and find a new canvas to create on. Longhand is nice because it's not as formal as a white screen with a blinking cursor. It has texture, life, and it can be burned.

5. Exercise. Yeah, yeah. A true artist doesn't own a treadmill. We smoke, drink coffee, suffer . . . but have you looked at your butt lately? Yikes, there's a permanent imprint of the office chair on your flattened gluteus maximus and it ain't pretty. For the love of God, go do some squats or something. Aside from the physical aspect, exercise can be a great tool in relaxing your mind and allowing thoughts to open up. The rhythm of physical action is a great distraction from just sitting there in agony. Have you ever noticed how you can't think of a certain name or word until you get up and start doing something? I know we've all heard of Einstein locking himself in a room for three days until he came up with the theory of relativity, but geesh, he could've just gone to the YMCA and figured it out in half an hour. Or maybe not, but we're just writers here. Go take a walk once in a while and see how it helps. Your brain needs a break and a little oxygen. Get up, move, breathe, live. Dancing is exercise, so is some hot lovin' with your marital counterpart. I'm just sayin'.

6. Go to the bookstore and look at your competition. That's right. People are getting published and the proof is in a latte infused environment with Miley Cyrus being piped out of the overhead speakers. Don't be afraid; seeing your competition hurts I know, but it's also stimulating. Your book needs to be on that shelf too, and somebody just like you is walking around in a daze just hoping to discover what you are currently working diligently on in a little room in the back of your house. Move one of those best-sellers out of the way and picture your book sitting there in its place. It is possible. Miracles happen all the time.

7. Clean your house you slob. And then come clean mine. I don't know how it'll help us writers, but it might. Yes, friends, it just might.

8. A word a day keeps the block away. When I was a kid, my siblings and I used to pull out my grandfather's old, and very tall, clothbound dictionary. We'd read words at random, then inspect all the little etchings that looked like they came from days of Victoria. It was exciting, it was educational, and it was fun.

9. Write in a blog or keep a journal. I have like, what, three random readers or something? I could write about my cat's hairball and nobody gives a crud, but the act of writing is immense in helping me to keep from developing the block. Just like physical exercise and its ability to get your body moving, scheduled writing has taught me that I can compose no matter what the mood or planetary alignment. I'm not curing cancer or anything, I'm just putting down some words, and so have proven to myself that it wasn't just a fluke when I first started. I really can produce words on a regular basis and sometimes those words come together in a beautiful way. My three readers might even like it once in a while. You do, right . . . like it? Oh, shew. Check's in the mail, mates.

10. Get in that chair and stop yer complaining fool. That's right. I'm getting all Mr. T up on your ass. Get in that chair and just write a sentence. Strive for three pages. You can always edit, you can always erase. What you can't do it bring back time and intent. You have to use every minute you have. Write, write, write and think later. Don't let that internal critic get the best of you. I'm guessing that every writer throughout history has had his or her doubts, and wanted to give it all up at one time or the other. But the good ones didn't. They hung in there and kept creating. Someone out there wants to read your book, your article, your story and it's up to you to fulfill their need. Okay, don't . . . let that last line stress you out. Don't let anything stress you out. Writing is fun, remember? Just relax, dude.

11. OH! OH! I almost forgot (and notice I broke a rule and added an extra thingy here to my list. Heh, heh, heh evil writing is fun). Listen to music. Find a theme that sums up all your character's struggles and joys. Listen to it while writing, listen to it when thinking of writing. Music is a true muse and can open imagery, as I've said a few times before. I don't know what I'd do without tunes. Maybe die. Okay. Now go write.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Let the Festivities Begin

It is Christmas Day and the snow is falling. The world looks like a Bing Crosby song with waist-high drifts and little peeks of sunlight coming through to illuminate each tired flake. Presents spill out from under the tree, my coffee is brewing, and it is just Henry the dachshund and I awake to enjoy the solitude before everyone else wakes up and the real fun starts.

I remember all my past Christmas', especially those of childhood of waking up to find my own little mountain of gifts under the tree that hadn't been there upon going to bed the night before. I believed in Santa, and still do in some form, as something magical can never quite be taken away from any child's heart. My favorite Christmas was the year I came downstairs to find, alongside each of our wrapped presents, a bowl for each of us--and until they broke--were well used and well loved for many a year. Funny that such a seemingly mundane gift should stick in my memory but it does. Perhaps because I knew my mother had bought it, and the thought of her placing such love and care into our presents touched me deeply.

Christmas, or any holiday, is about the Spirit which carries through every person; every child. It is the glow of shared ritual; the traditions which tell us every year has a meaning: to forget the struggles of the past and look forward to new opportunities, new chances that yes, might bring more sorrow, but what joy has ever been bought without pain? The holiday season is a time to reflect on all the blessings, and to nurture those that can provide beyond their station: to be kind, to bring happiness, to find humor instead of hatred, to forgive.

So, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all. And to quote from my grandfather's ancient issue of Washington Irving's The Sketch Book:

Lo, now is come our joyful'st feast!
Let every man be jolly,
Each roome with yvie leaves is drest,
And every post with holly.
Now all our neighbors' chimneys smoke,
And Christmas blocks are burning;
Their ovens they with bak't meats choke,
And all their spits are turning.
Without the door let sorrow lie,
And if, for cold, it hap to die,
Wee'l bury it in a Christmas pye,
And evermore be merry.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Child's First Snow

When children are told about snow, it's almost taken as a fable; just as distant as a faerie fluttering around their head at night, waggling a magic wand over their eyelids to keep them suspended in dreamland. You tell them about snow; explain how light it is, how it looks like slivers from a giant crystal, cold, yet melts the second it hits your skin; how its patterns are of millions and so beautiful that it doesn't seem possible to believe, even when you're standing in the midst of a blizzard.

And then the day comes when they see it for themselves.

Joy.

"What's that Mama? What's that?"

"It's snow."

"Snow?"

"Yes. Do you want to go out and play in it? You do?" A hand is reaching for the doorknob, no need for boots or coat or anything. "Hold on. Let's get you dressed. Snow is cold."

Now comes the fun of stuffing two little sausage arms into a puffy coat, feet into boots that are either too big or too small, fingers must be inserted into each little section of their gloves--an almost impossible task given their fingers are still at that stage where they're like little duck fins; unable to separate at will.

Now the unleashing.

Bright red, puffy coat arms flail in excitement, black boots stomp in undiluted happiness, blue gloves become covered with studded chunks of snow. Their round cheeks are ruddy in the flash freeze or air, smiling for the wonder of it all.

It's the first lesson that some things--no matter how magical they seem--really do come true in this physical world. Though we should never ask for proof, once in a while it's nice to see, and feel, and hear . . . magic. That simple, profound bliss that a child holds every day of their life is available for anyone on this earth. All you need is blind wonder, and a good pair of boots.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Being an adult ain't much fun

It was fun until I found out I had to take the dog out in the freezing cold--and rain, and heat--every morning and night for the rest of my life. It was fun until I found out putting clothes on kids every day is like threading a needle with playdoh. It was fun until I had to pay bills, and taxes, and tickets, and library fines.

This is why I write. Because writing is fun and it takes me out of the mundane existence I sometimes find myself in. I love my kids, I love my dog--and cat, I love my house and library and police man and everything else. But it does get pretty hectic sometimes. Kids know how to make a mom feel very unappreciated, so it's nice to be able to sit down and create something that was lingering in my mind my whole life anyway.

Last year was a tough one, and I noticed that when things started to become too much too handle, I began playing this game in my head. I was creating a dialogue with someone, filling up the space with a scene and then adding characters; people who made me think, made me laugh, caused me to want to respond. I was at a movie with my husband and I hated the plot, so I started to create my own plot and was having a great time. The movie ended but I wanted to sit there and keep creating. This probably makes me crazy, I don't know. But it told me something: I was supposed to write, and soon. When I started last spring, I couldn't stop. Three hundred pages later and I was still thinking hard about my characters and what I wanted them to do next. Then I thought about other characters and other books I wanted to write.

I watched a lot of TV in my childhood, but I also read tons of books. My mom worked at the local library and I had access to the whole place, spending many hours of my time reading away at anything I could find. Later, I would slip into her little office and type away on the old Smith Corona, never thinking much beyond the little world I wanted to create for just a moment. It was all passionate stuff: faeries, gardens, magical forests . . . I never dreamed that someday it would lead me to another place, or how much pride I would have in just being able to put a few words together.

So, although I get frustrated walking among the mundane and droll activities of adulthood, I have found a way to escape and survive. No longer a child with dreams, I have become a creator perhaps because I was allowed to be a part of the ultimate creation and it inspired me beyond just being satisfied. There is no such thing as satisfaction anymore. Only words that need to be written.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

I Love the 70's, Man

The 1970's were shaggy looking guys, chest hair, Disco, no bras . . . That's just a sort of surface evaluation. The way I see it, from the memories I had in those few years after just being born, were of a time organic, girls with long hair, whole wheat bread, Bubble Up pop in bottles, Baseball games, Pontiacs, nature, Willie Nelson, Elton John, Dinah Shore, walks through the forest, untamed land, men in suits standing on the street corner in town, little stores, Catherine Deneuve.

I remember the whole bell bottom thing, locked in my mind because of one intense moment. I had been riding my bike up and down Franklin Street, when all of a sudden the hem of my wide corduroy pants became caught in the chain--the very chain which, by the way, was always popping out at the worst times. The event stopped all motion, throwing me to the just-paved street in an act of bicycle violence. There I was, lying on the ground in the middle of Franklin, yanking away at thick corduroy and snaggle-toothed chain, with neither one budging in the least. I yelled for my mom who was five houses up the street, watching Julia Childs make a poached salmon. It must have been a good recipe because Mom never came to my rescue, leaving the job to someone else, who came out of their house and extracted the fabric, sparing me from having to chew my leg off before some wild Le Mans came speeding down the hill. I don't recall wearing bell bottoms much after that event. The 80's came and it was time for cuffed jeans anyway.

The long hair. Kathy Collette was the girl up the street who had hair so long it reached all the way past her butt. It was shiny, a beautiful chestnut brown, matching her demure, wide-brown eyes. If I remember anything about the 70's it was her; she was the epitome of that natural world before Madonna came to rip apart innocence with her lacy bustier. Kathy spoke softly, yet was sure of herself. Her parents were two hippies, with measurable tresses themselves. One trip to her house revealed brown kitchen appliances, shaggy carpet and rainbow stickers on the refrigerator. When they moved out of town, I felt the world change with them; riding away on the bumper of their VW van.

Perhaps I have a slightly different version of the decade due to living in a small town. I didn't know that people were snorting coke at Club 54 and having their own version of Wife Swap. The only thing I was conscious of was running in bare feet in a big field and the sun was bright and everyone seemed real.

It all changed so fast, and I soon found myself in another era without quite knowing how it had happened. People were embarrassed with honesty and brown countertops; they wanted convention and cutting edge. They took whole wheat bread and injected it with saccharine, then threw it into a blender with some Vodka. No more crying Indian, no more Marcia Brady. Somewhere in the US, Kathy Collette had cut off all her hair and was drinking a Tab cola dreaming of Luke Skywalker. And I was back in Springhill, trying to tune in Blondie on my dad's old transistor radio.


Friday, December 11, 2009

Jesse, Jesse, you're such a bad boy, Jesse

The third main character in my book ended up being my favorite because he was just so funny and rebellious--Jesse Limon. He drives a black 1972 SS Camaro, plays in a band called The Limelights, works at the local record store where he doesn't really care about the merchandise, and--last but not least--may or may not be associated with the terrible Soul Seekers.

When Emma meets him, you get the feeling that on any other day, in any other town, she'd really fall for him. But there's something strange going on. Whenever he comes near she feels repulsed and scared. Not yet accepting of the fact that she has powers of intuition, she brushes it off as him being a player and nothing more.

Jesse is Emma's ticket out of town. He's ready to shoot off to New York to find his father and start up a musical career, record and all. It's such a perfect plan--Emma should definitely go with him and be done with Springvail. But things seldom go as planned; fictional people are just as messed up as real people. You can shout all you want but they're going to do what they're going to do.

I realized the other day that all my characters are of a different time. You won't find a hippie, earthy Emma anymore. She's all vinyl records and art, with her long hair ala Joni Mitchell and Jodie Foster. William is this Hemingway addict who is full of passion and lust for life--even though he's half-dead; like a ghostly Kerouac stuck in a small town.

And then there's Jesse. Rock star, fast car, live until you die. You gotta love that. I do. I love Jesse so much. Like, I actually blush when I talk about him sometimes. I know it's pathetic but darnitt, he got to me. Again, you're not going to find this guy anywhere else, just in my book (good plug, eh?). He is truly a part of the 70's that drifted away on the guitar strums of Keith Richard's blonde Fender Telecaster. If he came screeching up to our driveway in his black Camaro, I'd look out the window, then at my family, the window again, family again--grab my jacket and say, "I'll be back."

Sometimes I wonder if we create these characters because we need them in our lives. Dependent on us for their very existence, we feed off their energy, and then that energy comes back to change us again and again. It's a circular thing. But don't think about it too hard, it's just me and a brain cell having a party today.

Jesse had to be in my book. You'll see why. And you'll be mad at me.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Setting ourselves up

I've been thinking how we are so afraid of failure, or the pain of failure, that we almost ask for it on a constant basis. "You're gonna reject me! Oh God, just do it already!" Instead, we should be saying--like the SNL version of Joy from the talk-show, The View--So what, who cares?

I've known so much failure in my life that I could list it as a body part. Knit it a sweater. Hold birthday parties. Invite it to a movie. Why, oh, why am I so afraid?

Because it hurts and it always feels like you have to reinvent yourself after a rejection. But that's life. You can't be a writer, an artist, a musician, a mom if you can't take rejection.

So, I am rejecting rejection. My dreams will not have floorboards. Instead of worrying about being put down, I'm going to envision the day I succeed, and most of all, how much fun I had getting there. Instead of having months of worry and pain before the blade drops down, I'm going to write and have fun and believe in good things.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Ralph's Christmas Card


Spring Hill Middle School was ready for Christmas. Every room had been decorated with a tiny tree, paper garlands, and glittery tinsel taped along the walls in scalloped bows. There were even presents, brought in by the students themselves for a classmate whose name they'd pulled out of a hat.

Every year they showed a film in the dusty auditorium, whose radiators bubbled and hissed under each curtained window along the eastern wall. This year's was A Christmas Carol. It flickered on the large white canvas in black and white jolts, hitting my retinas like a jumping match; drawing me into a world of old London, and crooked, mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge. The moment Alastair Sims looked out over us in the darkened middle rows with a sneer, I smiled, and from that moment on have loved this particular version of the classic, and Sim's brilliant performance as the miserly changeling.

Looking around, I could see the faces of all my classmates. They looked bored, tired, restless. Some were whispering, wishing it was Christmas break already. They had big presents to open, perhaps an Atari game system or a brand new sled, just right for the time away from school. I didn't know what would be under my family's tree, aside what I had bought at Gibson's a week before with only five dollars. A little purse for Cathy, a strategy war-game for Marshall, and a box of bath soaps for Mom. They were already wrapped, and had been placed carefully under the lilting boughs in a little mound of silvery ribbon and plain red paper.

The movie ended and the auditorium expelled us out in to the hall in a noisy stream of girls telling each other secrets and boy jumping up to hit the door frame above their heads. Then it was on to our classrooms for our Christmas party, where we'd open our presents and then leave for break.

Our teacher had a slightly different plan. She sat us down and began to tell us about Ralph, the man we'd seen in the senior citizen home during the last few months for our weekly class visits. He was eighty years old, she said, and he didn't know how to read. He wanted to write a Christmas card to his family, but needed our help. Would we like to help him?

The smart and popular girls raised their hands right away. Of course they would love to help. They had an unending confidence that they were the perfect people for the job. I also raised my hand, but with hesitation. Mrs. Harris smiled, selecting me to join with the girls and also some of the boys, causing me to be filled with doubt. I would ruin it, for sure and shouldn't have raised my hand.

We were led down to the school library, where Ralph sat at a table, wearing a red flannel shirt and denim overalls. His face was wrinkled with deep lines, hair jutting out in white feathery puffs. He smiled at us, getting up with a wobbly stance as we came to stand around him.

"Ralph, these kids have offered to help you write that Christmas card. Kids, use this paper I printed out, and show him what each letter is, then show him how to write out each word that he wants to say."

Everyone agreed and was ready to get to work. Susan Kips treated him like a baby, and I hated it. "Okay, Ralph, this is an A . . . can you say A?" I rolled my eyes. He repeated the letter in a dry, gentle voice, then repeated each one from the whole alphabet we chanted to him. Next we taught three-letter words like D-O-G and C-A-T. He seemed embarrassed, but was focused, even in the moments we spoke at him in unison, voices raised and excited with our task. Someone handed him a pencil to use to start writing his letter, but when he reached for it we all became quiet. He was missing the index finger on his right hand.

"Ralph!" Corey Olmeier, exclaimed. "What happened to your finger?"

The old man laughed, holding out the rest of his knotted digits. "Aw, that. I was about thirteen, trying to get my Pa's horse out of the barn, and I shouldn't a been standing behind so close. That horse up and kicked me, bruised me up real bad, crushed my finger and they had to cut it off. My Pa was so mad at me. Been dead a long time now. Only one left is me and my sister, but I ain't seen her much since I left home at sixteen."

A horrible silence followed his story. No finger, couldn't read, no family. What kind of life was that?

"Did it hurt Ralph?" somebody finally asked.

"Hurt like hell."

More silence, then I, after searching through the faces and seeing no sign of activity, opened my mouth to speak. "Okay Ralph. You have to write your letter now. What did you want to say in it?"

He smiled, "I just want to say, Merry Christmas."

I pointed to the letter M on Mrs. Harris' guide, and he started to print. It was poor execution, but he was determined. We sat and watched him trace every letter that we pointed to, then when he was done, we folded the paper so that it looked like a real Christmas card.

Shelly Wentz started to draw a snowman on the front cover, then Alice Day traced a glue stick on the ridges, sprinkling glitter over the top. Next we had him write his name on the envelope, and the address he wanted to send it to.

When it was done, Mrs. Harris came over to see the completed project. She was pleased.

"Well, Ralph, did these kids help you out?"

He nodded, looking at each one of us in gratitude. "They sure did. I never wrote a Christmas card before. I never read nothing before." He had to stop talking, because he couldn't make the words come out of his throat.

The bell rang.

"Bye Ralph!" everyone yelled, heading for the door. "Merry Christmas, Ralph!"

I looked back to see him clutching at the letter. He stared at it for a second, eyes looking more red than when he had sat next to us a few minutes before. Then, that imperfect, knotted hand slipped the letter down into the front pocket of his overalls and he started a wobbly trek past Mrs. Harris and I at the library door.

"You mail that card, Ralph," she spoke in a warm, sure voice. "Your sister has waited a long time."

He nodded, grabbing both of her hands in his for a quiet answer to her request, moving on to the hall and outside where snow was falling in hurried flakes.

"Enjoy your Christmas," she whispered to me, handing me my Secret Santa present with a little smile. I opened it carefully, revealing a little book of poetry, just right for a young girl with millions of dreams in her head. Looking up, I returned her gentle hug, then turned away to make the long snow-filled walk all the way home to Franklin Street, where the holiday exploits had already begun.







Do you believe?

Fifty-Five years ago on November 22, 1963, president John Fitzgerald Kennedy rode alongside his wife Jackie in a motorcade through the crowd...