Monday, December 19, 2011

Nothing Like Memories to Send Sadness Packing

During the holidays, I can get as giddy as a 9-year-old. I listen to Christmas music 24/7 (just the oldies like Bing, Perry and Burl) and watch my lit Christmas tree in a darkened room, and bake cookies to deliver to friends, and obsess over wrapping paper and ribbon and tags. I even think about renting a child so I can show up at the Santa pancake breakfast at McDonald’s.

With a few pounds, I could be Mrs. Claus. In fact, I’ve thought about using Ancestry.com to determine if I have relatives from the North Pole.

All kidding aside, the holidays also make me kind of sad. I have no immediate family in the area. My dad died when I was 18. My mom died eight years ago. My sister’s family is in Texas and they celebrate there to be close to the remaining grandparents. So, I’ve never *hosted* Christmas at my own home.

Still, I’ve decided to tell Sadness to take a vacation in Phoenix this Christmas. This year is about gratitude and remembrance.

As a writer, I value memories – mine and others’ – because they provide the rich details that make any story come to life.

Here are a couple of my fondest memories. Each year, Mom would give a special ornament to the three of us kids (and I still have mine on my tree to this day). Often, they’d be in the same *theme* but my brother would get the Santa, I’d get the angel and my sister would get the elf. The photo to the right is probably 38-40 years old!

Fruitcake was a big deal in our household. And not for giving! The kids would chop the neon-colored fruit and nuts while Mom would make the batter. We’d end up eating fruitcake for breakfast the whole season.

And now for a memory shared by my cousin Kathy. Her dad would hide money in their stockings and my cousins would have to figure out where the bills were hidden. No easy task! One year, he carefully opened a candy bar wrapper and inserted the money, then resealed the packaging. Another year, he went to the trouble of opening walnuts (!) , hiding the money inside, and then gluing the nut back together.

Would you please share one Christmas memory with me while I help Sadness pack its bags?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Savor the 'Now' Like It's the Best Sandwich You've Ever Had

It must be a function of aging that time seems to fly by at an astounding and alarming rate. December? Already? What happened to November and the six months prior to that?

My (mostly unspoken) fear is that time flies by so quickly because I’m not fully awake; present and attentive to what I feel and do and say each and every day. Kind of like when you drive a familiar route and then, wham…you’re home and you don’t remember passing landmarks along the way. Just yesterday, I was 18. And today I’m 46. That's a helluva blink of an eye.

On Saturday, my nephew graduates from the University of Texas at Austin. He’s very stressed: money woes, grad school applications for himself and his girlfriend, the future.

I wish I could stop time for him so that he could fully be present in the moment, to savor the current milestone before worrying about the next.

It’s hard to do. I often worry about “when” and “if” scenarios instead of sitting with the now.

For me, that might mean having a holiday coffee drink and reading the paper without my Blackberry on the table, blinking at me to check it. Or it might mean enjoying each bite of the amazing BLT at Poppy’s sandwich shop instead of inhaling it so I could get back to work.

What’s going on in your “now” that you want to savor? There’s no time like the present.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Society's Idea of Beauty is Beastly

My brain is noshing on the notion of beauty today – what it is, how it differs for each of us, how society shapes our ideas on what’s attractive or sexy.

Tawna Fenske, a writer I follow online, recently posted a fun blog entry called “Not so hot boys who make me want to get naked.” She talked about men who have a certain charisma that transcends societal norms of attractiveness. Case in point: Lyle Lovett. (yummy)

Then, last night, I had dinner with my dear friend, Joelle, who is dog-sitting for someone. Sissy, the sweetest little bulldog you’d ever hope to meet, isn’t pretty by anyone’s standards. But to me, she’s BEAUTIFUL. I couldn’t stop kissing her mushed in face. I can’t define in words what attracted me to her but I wanted to scoop her up and take her home.

Joelle and I then talked about how our ideas of beauty have changed as we aged. She’s an avid (i.e., obsessed) road- and mountain-biker so naturally her cute little body is muscled, lean and athletic. She finds the ‘strength’ in her legs beautiful and thanks them for bringing her so much joy.

I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of my hands. I type all day, every day, so I look at them a lot. My fingers are long. My nails have always been really healthy. And now that they are professionally manicured, I can’t stop staring at them! Not only are they utilitarian but they’re sensual and expressive.

What’s beautiful in your world today? Do you find you buck society’s idea of beauty?

To Deonne, my writer friend in Taos: would Billy Bob Thornton make your sexy man list?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

When $35 Million Doesn't Equal Success

Last night I stayed up until 11 p.m. (I know! Can you believe it?) to watch From the Sky Down, a documentary about my favorite band U2 and the production of their 1991 album Achtung Baby. The film chronicles the difficult recording period and the group's creative process.

In April 1987, my friend, Christi, and I saw U2 at The Summit in Houston. Joshua Tree was an astounding album and a phenomenal tour. In fact, we had to stay up all night at IHOP, eating blueberry pancakes and discussing the experience. The four boys from Ireland had skyrocketed to success in a matter of months, moving from arena to stadium venues.

I was astounded to learn in the documentary that the band was far from thrilled about the Joshua Tree tour. They said they’d often leave the stage and have a morose sit-down about how disappointed they were in their performances. Lead singer Bono said they were musically unprepared for their success. Drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. said, “We were the biggest, but we weren’t the best.”

WHAT THE F***? Boys, did you hear the gazillions of women screaming and crying? Did you see the lighters held high? Your album sold more than 25 million copies! The 79 North American shows on the tour sold more than 2 million tickets and grossed $35 million.

The point I’m making is that despite outside appearances, the band still didn’t think they were good enough.

How often do we feel this way in the face of success? Do we downplay milestones in our creative journeys or attribute them to luck? Or worse, do we beat ourselves up that we haven’t lived up to some ideal?

The whole documentary left me feeling a little sad because that album defined an important period in my life and the concert was an extra-sensory overload experience that stays with me today – 25 years later. But it taught me a powerful lesson. Money and fame and millions of adoring fans couldn’t make the boys feel good about themselves at that time in their lives.

I hope I can define success for myself in a way that is more compassionate.

Friday, October 21, 2011

On Growing Old and the Kindness of Strangers

Last night as my husband and I were about to fall asleep, he said, “I can’t believe you’ll be 64 tomorrow.” Then, he backtracked furiously about having dyslexia and of course, he meant 46. I told him I feel awfully spry for a 64-year-old, or awfully rickety for a 46-year-old. Most days, I fall somewhere in-between.

Just a couple of weeks ago, my sister visited me. It’s weird to realize how we’d both started worrying about our aging bodies at about the same time in our lives. Age spots, wrinkles, neck waddles, crepey skin (girls, you know what I mean).

Naturally, we found ourselves in the Oil of Old Lady (Olay) aisle at the Rite-Aid perusing the various skin care miracles. The price of that stuff is enough to scare the wrinkles right off you!

Anyhoo. After a few minutes, I grabbed a kit that contained a few different products. I turned it over to check the price. On the back were two yellow Post-it notes. One said: Yes, you are! The other: Beautiful just the way you are.

I grinned. A huge grin. The kind of grin that stays with you for hours. Days.

We left the Rite-Aid without purchasing anything. One simple, beautiful note from a stranger erased a lot of the self-judgment we’d arrived with.

I’m left with two thoughts:

  1. Let’s be kinder to ourselves and to all women and girls. Life is too short to feel inadequate at any age.
  2. Words are powerful. Let’s be careful to use them to uplift rather than tear down.

If you have a Post-it note handy, write a kind note and leave it in a library book, a menu, a bathroom stall, the gym locker room. I'm guessing you'll be responsible for a huge grin.

Friday, September 23, 2011

An Ode to Dreams Come True

I'm in awe of those writers who keep up their blogs. I'm either a procrastinator or time is now on supersonic speed and days fly by faster than ever before. (Probably a little of both?)

So, today's post is an ode to dreams coming true.

First, my awesome friend and college roommate, Christi, is inches away from being a REAL PUBLISHED AUTHOR. She signed a two-book deal some months ago and the first book debuts in early January. She's just released the cover to NIGHT SCHOOL -- which makes me all tingly because it's tangible evidence of a dream come true. Congrats, dear friend!

Second, my dear friend Carson celebrated the opening of her photography studio last night (Red Scarf Shots). I arrived to find the charming little space packed with friends and supporters. I'm not joking when I say you could feel the love! Recently, I was a subject for Carson's next photo exhibit (December in Durango, and February in LA). When she put out a call for subjects, I emailed immediately and said "Hell, yeah, count me in." She was in awe of my response. I told her that it was a no-brainer. I trust and admire her artistic vision and am honored to be part of her journey. Dreams-come-true are better shared, right?

The fact that I was able to go part-time with my day job and carve out full days like today for writing is also a dream come true. As is the fact that two of the most successful agents in the country have a copy of my manuscript at this very moment! (Talk about feeling all tingly!)

"Living the dream" is possible on so many levels. Wherever you are today, I hope that you're living at least a part of the dream that you envision for yourself. And it you're not, why not start now?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Don't Wake Me If I'm Dreaming

In the novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell, two characters (Emma and Stephen) are forced each night to attend balls in the Faerie kingdom of Lost-Hope, where they dance all night long. During the day, they have no knowledge of this ‘second life’ they lead — and understandably, they’re exhausted!

Ever since I was a child, I’ve had vivid dreams — and multiple dreams — every night. Some are just odd or whimsical, some frightening and foreboding. I often liken my overactive ‘dream life’ to the fate of Emma and Stephen. It sometimes seems that I lead two lives and that if I didn’t dream, I might feel more rested. (Hey, it’s a theory.)

What I find most fascinating about dreams are the unique, extremely specific details. Last night I dreamt that my cousin Kathy and I visited an antique shop. I entered a storage room to view an antique table and chairs from China. The details were so clear: the black and red lacquer finish, the intricate carvings on the tabletop, the red silk of the chair covers, the ‘feet’ of the table legs that resembled lion’s paws. Next, I browsed dusty shelves where I found an old leather-bound church hymnal. It was square and the spine of the cover had pulled away from the browned and aged pages inside.

Have I seen these items somewhere before? Or are our minds capable of storing a million (billion?) tiny bits of data that we draw on to construct these dream worlds? Do we tap into a collective unconscious as Jung would suggest?

I don’t have the answers but as a writer, the questions compel me. When I construct a world on paper, what images do I rely on? My own memories? The images absorbed through movie, television, books? Or, do our imaginations — like our dream worlds — draw on the collective unconscious?


I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you dream? Where do you think your dreams come from?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Getting There One Kick in the Butt at a Time

This evening, I'm working on my application for Hedgebrook, a women's writing residency on Whidbey Island near Seattle. Thought I'd share my answer to one of the questions on the application. Now you have some insight to how I became a fiction writer!

Who or what has influenced or inspired you and your writing?

I wasn’t one of those girls who knew at age six that she wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up – except a thousand miles from the town of 1,200 where I lived. Then, several teachers throughout my junior and high school years suggested I try writing as a profession. They were adults. They knew more than I did about life. So after graduation, I decided to pursue a journalism degree… only to have a well-respected writer from Texas Monthly magazine (who happened to live in my tiny hometown of 1,200 people) tell me I didn’t need a ‘goddamn j-school degree.’ He said to study political science or philosophy or go see the world instead. Alas, I ignored his advice, finished up j-school and became a reporter. For the next two decades of my career I continued as a nonfiction writer and editor, working for national nonprofits and the United Nations.

Up until 2009, fiction was something I read. I didn’t want to write fiction. No way. No how. Well, until the Universe smacked me on the head one day with an idea and told me to sit my butt down at the computer and write.

I protested: “I have a day job. I didn’t have time for this foolishness. I don’t know anyone else who writes fiction!” To stop my whining, the Universe introduced me to AROHO, or A Room of Her Own Foundation. It said, “Go to the desert and make nice with other writers. It’ll be good for you.” So, I showed up at Ghost Ranch in August 2009 for my first AROHO women’s writer retreat. I met 80 women with niggly voices in their heads calling them to write poetry, plays, short stories, novels. Together, we took classes from women who’d been published, who’d made it as “real” writers. We told them our fears and they wrapped their collective arms around us and told us to be brave, to listen closely to the voices, and of course, to sit our butts down and write.

At that retreat, I met two women who went on to shape the next two years of my writing life more than anyone or anything else:


  • Flash fiction writer Pamela Painter introduced me to the “short form” and I fell in love with telling stories using a brevity of words. I had two pieces published that next fall in literary journals and then had proof that yes, indeed, I write fiction.

  • A literary agent (who shall remain anonymous) critiqued the first chapter of my novel in progress. She said it was trite with clich√©d characters, and too dark to be marketable. That evening, I sat alone in the desert, watching a brilliant lightning storm and crying my eyes out. I’d tasted rejection for the first time and I survived. Little did I know how much rejection awaited me…the fiction writer.

As my nephew told me recently. "Mandy, you can't not write. It's who you are. Trying to imagine a different kind of life is giving up."
Please tell me about that person, place or thing that influenced you are today...or who you want to be in the future!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Spying, Eavesdropping and Other Techniques for Location Research

Last year, I met an interesting writer named Jeff Posey. At the time, he was the chief organizer of the Dallas Fort Worth Writers' Conference. I soon found out he's familiar with Southwest Colorado, and even plans to move to Pagosa Springs one day, a community just 45 minutes from where I live in Durango.

Because we both recently conducted location research for our novels in progress, we thought we'd have an online 'chat' and then share our insights with other writers (and anyone else interested in our writing journeys). Below is an excerpt and then a link to the full 'chat.' Please forward to any writers you think would be interested!

--------------------------------------------------
JEFF

Don’t you wonder sometimes whether we’re truly the writers — or whether there’s a secret galactic box somewhere that just uses us to tell stories?


I know what you mean by stories latching on to us. I’d doggedly hiked nearly every trail in the Weminuche Wilderness in Southern Colorado (near you in Durango), but I’d avoided all the ancient Anasazi ruins in that part of the world because I thought they’d be boring.


Then on a trip with my son to the Chimney Rock Archaeological Area between Durango and Pagosa Springs, this boy ran across our path. I put my hand out to keep my son from running into him. The boy was a figment of my imagination, of course. A figment I couldn’t shake. Hence my surrender to the grip of the galactic box that wanted me to write Anasazi historical fiction.


I just returned from Pagosa Springs on a book research trip. I took a class in making authentic Anasazi pottery (see more here: Ancient Arts Chimney Rock Workshop). I find myself looking mostly for experiences, sensual input I guess. Do you do that as well? Do you intentionally seek out a place, perhaps at a certain time or date, just to see what it feels like?


MANDY
I absolutely believe in something like that secret galactic box 'choosing' us to be the vessel for the story that needs to be told. I had titles for all three books come to me in a very out-of-body woo-woo way, and I just had to say, "Okay. I'll get started..."


I love the idea of 'sensual input' in regards to research. That's exactly how it felt in Opelika. The story takes place in July and I visited in July so I experienced first-hand how very uncomfortable the heat and humidity are -- for me and my characters. I ate the food -- Southern, deep-fried, comforting, artery-clogging, digestion-challenging. I drank sweet tea and sat in neighborhoods, looking at houses where I thought my characters might live. I made sure I noted when the sun set, when the mosquitoes and crickets came out, how hot it was at 9 p.m. or 6 a.m., the driving distance between different places. I listened to that lilting, captivating accent of the region.


By the end I was exhausted from being so hyper-vigilant. I might have tried to absorb too much in a three-day trip. But the book will be different, better because of this trip.


I'm wondering if anything surprising came from your research? Something that stopped you short, something you knew had to be part of your book.

JEFF
Oh, yeah. Slapped me into a dead stop for a few seconds: Shining White Greathouse at Chimney Rock. I’ve been on the tours maybe a dozen times, but somehow the mental image escaped me until this trip. You know that beautiful stonework we associate with the Anasazi? Those stones the sizes of loaves of bread with smaller stones shoved between them in courses? The Anasazi covered that up with white plaster. Imagine walking from Chaco Canyon (90 miles as a crow flies) to Chimney Rock and seeing that shining white building high on the tilted mesa.


I know exactly what you mean by the exhaustion of hyper-vigilance in doing site reconnaissance. I climbed Pagosa Peak’s southwestern face to see if a bunch of boys in my novel could build and light a bonfire there that could be seen from Chimney Rock. It’s a rugged place. Building a bonfire wouldn’t be easy, but could definitely be done. Imagining my characters there wore me out as much as the hike and climb.

I love the details you describe and that you captured. I tried taking notes, but that seemed to fail me. I took lots of snapshots. Otherwise, I just rely on memory to tell me the things I need to remember.


READ THE FULL CONVERSATION, including the Top Three Pieces of Advice for Location Research!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Virtually Impossible to Feel Alone

Recently, a friend asked if I feel isolated as a writer. I do at times, because I’m one of those “in your head” people in the first place. I feel most isolated when I struggle to explain to non-writer friends why I put up with rejection, self doubt and a rapidly changing, and often times, subjective industry. Or, when I try to describe the exhilaration of a great writing day or an agent request for chapters.
That’s why it’s so important for me to connect with other writers, even if that’s virtually. My connections to the following folks have been organic. The Universe must be hard at work because I didn’t go looking for these awesome supports. While I have lots of local support, this is my “Around the World” list of people who have shaped my writing life.

  • Tracy – a writer in North Carolina introduced to me via our common friend, Deb (my former Goodwill colleague). Tracy has been an invaluable beta reader and all-around cheerleader.

  • Jeff – the 2011 director of the Dallas Fort Worth Writers Conference who happened to notice my email is DurangoWriter. That sparked his interest because he owns land in Pagosa Springs, just a short 45-minute drive from here. We recently collaborated on a virtual “chat” about what it’s like to do research for our novels on location. And he wears cool fedoras.

  • Kat B. – an American writer living in Japan who sponsored a critique contest as a clean water fundraiser. I entered the contest and we began to exchange emails. I learned we share a love of baking as well as writing. Even, halfway around the world, she has offered support in so many ways.

  • Christi – my college roommate living in the UK who reconnected with me via Facebook after almost 25 years. Besides giving me the most awesome feedback on my first novel, she inspires me with her writing. Her debut novel, Night School, comes out in early January. I wish I could be there for LAUNCH DAY. And her husband is pretty darn fun to follow on Twitter.

  • The four authors who started a free online writers’ conference called WriteOnCon – These ladies do this on their own time without compensation! They put thousands of writers around the world in touch with each other and with industry pros. Just this week, at the second annual WriteOnCon, I got a request from an agent to see three chapters and a synopsis after I participated in a virtual pitch session.

  • AuthoressAnon – This amazing woman remains anonymous but she’s single-handedly created a unique pitch contest that links writers with agents EVERY MONTH. She also coordinates something called the Baker’s Dozen Agent Auction, where writers can submit the first 250 words of their novels for 13 agents to peruse. My entry this month has received some positive reviews from fellow writers and from the agent reviewing the snippets. Thank you, Authoress!

  • The writers whose blogs inspire me to push forward – Tawna Fenske, Anne Riley, Kiersten White, Mandy Hubbard, Rebecca E., and many others too numerous to mention.

So, yes, I do feel isolated at times. But I don’t have to, as long as I have an Internet connection…and make an effort to get out of my own head.
What kinds of virtual connections have YOU made?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A World That's Touch and Go?

I love when three seemingly random occurrences suddenly gel as an aha! moment. The theme today is tangibility, as in “that which can be discerned by touch.”

Here are the occurrences that started me on the tangibility tangent.

  • My musician friend Tim just self-released a CD and my copy arrived in the mail last week. I held it in my hand and thought, “Wow. This is for friggin’ real.” I put it in my car CD player and whoa, there’s Tim playing guitar and singing his heart out.
  • A work colleague sent me some black and white photos of spectacular scenery at Dinosaur National Park in Colorado. They were Ansel Adams quality works. I found out that he lugs around tons of camera equipment and still uses FILM. That’s right – no digital camera for Mark. He even has his own darkroom.
  • I bought my nephew Hunter a Kindle for helping me with some home improvement projects this summer. We had an interesting talk on printed books versus e-books – particularly what will it be like for him to teach comparative literature one day at the university level. Will his students even use printed books?

My next thought was “I sure hope my first book gets published before print books go the way of the dinosaurs and become museum oddities.”

That gut-level reaction spoke to the need (desire?) to hold something solid in hands so I could shout, “Here’s my book! Lookie! I’m published!” Wouldn’t I still be published if the book was only available electronically?

Most of the books I read now are e-books. I rarely buy CDs because I download most of my music to an iPod nano. I use a digital camera for all my photography and “store” photographs on the computer instead of in albums or boxes in the closet.

I have no doubt that Tim’s music would have been just as amazing as a download, or that Mark could use a fancy digital camera to take the same breath-taking photos.

We live in the digital age and most of us are pretty comfortable with that notion on a day to day basis. And my “aha” moment is that I’m okay with e-publishing if that’s what’s meant to be. I’m curious what you think. Is our world becoming less tangible bit by bit, or will our notion of tangibility just need to morph?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Humidity as Thick as Cheese Grits (I Must Be in Opelika)

As I write this, I’m sitting on the veranda of the clubhouse at the Robert Trent Jones Grand National Golf Course in Opelika, Alabama. It’s 95 degrees and the humidity is as thick as the cheese grits I ate for breakfast. Still, I’m enjoying my view of the 18th green. You see, it’s where a funeral service will be held for Ned Pinckney, a murder victim in my next book.

I’m spending a couple of days here in Opelika to soak in the unique atmosphere (kind of like all the grease my body is soaking up because I insist on eating fried food at every meal). I wanted authenticity and it’s authenticity I’m getting!

Everyone asks why I chose Opelika and I always say, “I didn’t choose Opelika. It chose me!”

Almost 18 months ago, I spent a lovely weekend in Alabama with my friend Jane, her mother Annelle and our mutual friend Wendi. All these ladies are ‘suhthuhn’ through and through. The hospitality they showed me still wraps around me like a soft worn blanket. I should call them up from time to time just to hear that accent. (“What accent?” they’d probably say. “We talk raht. It’s everyone else who doesn’t.”)

Anyhoo…during my visit, I learned of the town of Opelika. That darn word stayed in my head. “Opelika! Opelika! Opelika!” my subconscious shouted to me each day. The melodic and unforgettable word (which means Large Swamp) demanded its place in my book. Hell, it demanded to be in the TITLE of the book!

So, I had a title long before I started writing The Opelika Ladies Murder Society. And guess what? I named the main character Annelle… one, because she has such a cherished space in my memories and, two, it’s the kind of name – like Opelika – that takes a hold and won’t let go.

More atmosphere (and humidity) awaits me on my travels. Can’t wait to start injecting tidbits of Opelika life into the manuscript.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Is the Grass Really Greener in Paris?

On July 4th, my nephew and I saw a movie while the rest of the family golfed. I chose “Midnight in Paris,” Woody Allen’s new movie, because it was at the local theatre with the best popcorn. While a bit sentimental, the film still held a lot of charm in the way it demonstrated the age-old illusion people have that a life different than theirs would somehow be better.

The movie’s main character, a writer, “time travels” each midnight to his idea of the golden age: 1920s Paris. He rubs shoulders with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Picasso, Hemingway, Dali, Gertrude Stein and others. These excursions are his escape from a wholly unsatisfying life as a Hollywood screenwriter to a romantic, creative era more conducive to the arts and writing.

He meets an alluring woman during one of these late night adventures. She finds 1920s Paris boring and is looking for her own golden age, which turns out to be the 1880s in Paris, the age of Gauguin, Rousseau, Degas and Monet.

In the end, he realizes he’s the architect of his present; he can make it whatever he wants it to be. He breaks up with his fianc√© and stays on in Paris to write his novel.

It’s only human to want something better for ourselves. And I don’t think that’s wrong. What gets us in trouble is thinking that the “something better” exists elsewhere. It’s always within reach because the something better is in us, right there for the taking.

Yes, writing my novel at a little cafe in Paris sounds idyllic, but it’s also expensive. I kind of like that I can find inspiration right here in little Durango at one of the many little coffee houses.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Can We Exercise Our Imaginations?

I recently saw a tweet from an agent who said she wanted to thwack the next writer who talked about his or her muse. She asserted that writing’s hard work and that you can’t wait for inspiration to strike.

I agree with the “not waiting” part but I also think we can develop our ability to be inspired. We can make it a proactive process.

This notion was triggered by my responses to two photos I ran across. A dear friend sent a photo of her grandsons at play -- that unabashedly joyful time as children where we easily suspend reality. How great it would be to recapture that feeling of expansiveness and freedom? We could go anywhere, be anyone, do anything. Talk about inspiring!

The second photo is of my father. I didn’t know my dad very well – and know very little of his life shortly after WWII when he lived with his friend, Dutch, in San Diego. A cousin sent me the photo to the right. My dad’s on the right in the photo but he doesn’t look like the dad I knew growing up. When I first saw the photo I thought to myself, “There’s a good story somewhere in there.” That’s because I took the time to notice details – the white tee and cuffed jeans, the large Schlitz beer in his hand, the bracelet around one wrist, his odd expression.

Do you agree that we can train ourselves to be inspired? Or is inspiration something that comes from outside of us? A little of both?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Does Your Gratitude Adjustment Include Leprechauns and Red Leotards?

Last week, Andy’s back went to spasms so I had to drive him to a massage appointment one evening. Bored and with nothing to do in the waiting room, I began leafing through a small book on the coffee table titled 14,000 Things to Be Happy About by Barbara Ann Kipfer.

The author kept a list for 20-something years and then threw it all together for a book. (What can’t be published these days?)

Some things that made Barbara Ann happy were:


  • Absurd – leprechauns, red leotards, Sun-In hair lightener , the TV show “Dallas”

  • Admirable – world peace, love, justice

  • Redundant – happy times

  • Obvious – wine with a friend, fresh flowers, D.H. Lawrence, wedding cake

  • Inspired – smell of Play-doh, X-acto knives, little boxes of breakfast cereal
Reviews on Amazon.com are mixed. Seems readers took issue with items they refused to believe made Barbara Ann (or anyone) happy. They really didn’t *get* it. The book is about using our own imagination; remembering all those things that make us happy that may or may not make sense to others.

The little book was a much needed gratitude adjustment for me. I’ve started my own list. It may not be publishable but it’s a great reminder that we’re all so very different – and that’s a little fantastic (to borrow a phrase from the Fantastic Mr. Fox).

Here’s something from my list: seeing a car go by with a dog sitting in the passenger seat like a person.

Won’t you share one thing that makes you happy?

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Memorial Day Weekend Movie Edition

This long holiday weekend is the un-official start of summer …which means movies, movies, movies. I go to the movies almost every weekend (all year long). I love the whole experience, from popcorn and Diet Coke to previews to the end credits.

Rarely am I disappointed because, after all, I enjoyed my popcorn and Diet Coke. However, I noticed a thread on Twitter recently about movies that didn’t do justice to the books that inspired the film versions.

My all-time favorite book is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. The movie Simon Birch was based loosely on the novel. It was horrible. I wished I’d never seen it. Blah. Gack. Brrf. Yet, I thought the Harry Potter movies did a fairly good job of keeping the flavor of the books.

I anxiously await the premiere of The Hunger Games movie. I LOVED that series by Suzanne Collins. I have high expectations based on the actors they’ve assembled thus far.

What are your book-to-movie experiences? Any movie really capture a favorite book? Any movie really mess up a favorite book?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Choose Your Weapon: Words or Sticks and Stones

We were taught at a very early age that “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” I’m sure our parents meant well, but let’s face it…they lied. Words have a lot of power. To hurt. To heal. To inform. To deceive. To entertain.

As a writer, I appreciate that words can do those things and more.

As a human being, my feelings got hurt this morning when a jerk wrote the following about a one-page excerpt from one of my novels:

If more than three people in the world buy this load of catflap, I'll eat my laptop.

The comment was posted at Page99Test.com, a site where authors post page 99 of their works in progress so that readers can vote whether they’d turn the page or not. There is a comments section…which is where I found the catflap nonsense.

The interesting thing is that I also received this comment:

The situation is instantly gripping and many details (the room smells of mold and cigarettes -- what a combo!) ignite on the page. This could be a John Grisham thriller. Good work.

The hurt I felt this morning passed quickly. And the pride about the second comment passed just as quickly. Why? Because how I feel about my writing – about myself – comes from within myself. Too often we base our self-esteem on how others view us – or how we want them to view us (rich, thin, sexy, smart, professional, talented).

Readers, what do you think? What makes you feel good about yourself despite what others might say?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Why I Need Your Crazy Aunt Myrtle's Dentures


As I writer, I keep my eyes and ears open for interesting settings, unusual people, strange conversations at the coffee house. I jot down these details in case they’re a good fit for a novel or short story I’m working on.

It may just be a germ of an idea that will take root later. For example, the other night my husband said he’d love to know the exact date and time of his death; that it’d make it easier to know how long to work, when to retire, when to take that trip he’s always wanted to take. I disagreed with him (long story) but the point is that I now have a great idea for a short story where a group of couples form a commune off the grid so that they can keep the dates of their children’s deaths a secret from them.

Sometimes I have really great luck in running across ideas. Other times (like now!) I am asking my blog readers to help me.

I am working on novel number three. The main characters are women in their 60s and 70s in a long-standing book club. I have some general ideas of who these women are: one’s a socialite, one’s a hippy, one’s a retired school teacher. But I need to see them in my mind. That’s where you come in.

Do you have a crazy Aunt Myrtle you could describe to me? Does she play with her dentures, eat only beige foods, or garden in the rain? Is your Grandma Hattie a socialite who’s lost all her money and traded in her real jewelry for cubic zirconia?

I’d love to hear any unique, quirky character traits some of your older relatives possess or possessed when they were alive. I may use these details -- or they just may be the germ of an idea that will blossom over time.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

One End, New Beginnings

Yikes! Where did the month of April go? And shame on me for not blogging once. I found these two quotes recently and wanted to share:
  • “The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you didn't write.”
  • “If you wait for inspiration to write, you’re not a writer. You’re a waiter.”

I haven’t really figured out my latest bout with writer’s block (writer’s procrastination). At first, I blamed it on my day job creeping into my writing days. But who let that happen? Me, myself and I. In truth, it’s more about a funk I’ve dropped into since completing two books and not finding an agent yet. It’s been hard to throw every bit of myself into these books, truly believe in them, and still not get them recognized.

Agent and prolific blogger Rachelle Gardner recently wrote a column titled 4 Reasons You Should Write Several Books before Seeking Publication.

Eye-opening, sobering and hard to swallow – yet pretty on target. Sometimes writers need to strengthen their craft. Sometimes they need to write a book that’s more marketable. Sometimes we need to let go of the things we love, even if that thing is a manuscript.

It’s time to commit to book 3 — I’d hate for it to be the best thing I didn’t write.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Just Who Do You Think You Are?

One goal of The Artist’s Way course in creativity is finding ways to silence the destructive voices that derail when we try to follow our dreams. They warn us:

1. You can’t do that.
2. You’re not good enough.
3. People will laugh/talk/judge.

I’ve completed The Artist’s Way once – and have revisited several chapters since then. And you know what? I’m still listening to those destructive voices. It takes almost a daily meditative practice to remind myself that those are old scripts that have no place in my life anymore.

Last night I had dinner with a friend of mine whom I consider brilliant, bold and powerful – a pillar of self-confidence. We began talking about how we limit our possibilities. Yes, even she struggles to silence the voices.

She brought up a common and destructive phrase that all of us have used from to time. It’s so generic and open-ended that it’s easy to call up on a moment’s notice.

“Who am I to think I can__________?” [fill in the blank]

  • Who am I to think I can be a published author?
  • Who am I to think I can learn to play the bass guitar?
  • Who am I to think I can open a successful art gallery?
  • Who am I to think I can influence my city council/state senator/Congressman/President?
  • Who am I to think I can ask for what I need in this moment?

My friend and I agreed to form a *buddy system* so that when either of us lapses into this thinking, the other can kick her butt. But since most of this destructive thinking is internal, we may be on our own to stop this futile exercise. Maybe we can all just STOP and BREATHE…and then write a different script.

What have you told yourself was impossible but you made it happen anyway? Or what have you vowed to do for yourself in the future?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What's That, You Say?

Clear communication is as rare as unicorns. And it’s easy to understand why. Even when words are in black and white, we all read with a lens that is uniquely our own. That lens draws on the baggage, beliefs and assumptions we’ve accumulated over a lifetime.

Let’s take e-mails as an example:
  • Brief, to-the-point e-mails are often viewed as terse.
  • E-mails with tons of exclamation points and emoticons can be construed as over-the-top or insincere.
  • One supercharged word can alienate the reader from the get-go and the rest of the message is essentially lost.
  • Long e-mails will be scanned by busy people and the most salient point can be overlooked.

Now, extrapolate these assumptions to longer communications like personal letters, reports or even books. We all have the same 26-letter alphabet to string together words, phrases and paragraphs. Are we certain that our apology comes off as sincere or that our argument is persuasive and not snarky?

What’s that you say? People should communicate face-to-face and there wouldn’t be these problems?

Ha! And double ha, I say to you. In-person communication can be just as fraught with inaccuracies based on perceived attitudes, gestures, body language, etc. We may be so antsy waiting for our turn to speak that we completely miss nuances in the other person’s words. A person looks at his watch and we think he's not interested in what we're saying.

So, how do we become clearer in our communications? Let me know what’s worked for you – or if you have any examples of miscommunications to share.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Ripple Effect

Last week I was in Charleston, SC, for Goodwill’s annual meeting. To make a long story short, I hate to travel for work. The flying, the food, the hotel stays. BUT…the bright spot is visiting with Goodwill colleagues I don’t see but twice a year or so.

Two conversations touched me deeply and stay top of mind even a week later.

A Goodwill CEO from Michigan (who used to be a colleague of mine and is still a dear friend) mentioned over dinner that she reads my blog. No one ever comments on the blog so I assumed very few people even read it! She said she was so inspired by my passion for writing that she has begun to capture on paper her memories of her mother (who is 95 years old).

The next day, another staff member at Goodwill’s national headquarters engaged me in a conversation about how much he wants to begin writing and that he feels stuck. He, too, mentioned my blog. I shared my struggles and some resources that help me. Later he emailed and asked if we could chat monthly to keep him on track. I am so honored that he asked.

Rarely do we have evidence of how our actions affect others. It reminds me of what the keynote speaker at the conference said: Our actions and words always leave a wake. I feel blessed that these friends shared where the ripples of my writing ended up.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday, Friends and Rollercoasters

I hate rollercoasters. Yet, I’ve chosen a profession that makes me feel like I’m trapped on one.
  • Whhhheeeeee! Manuscript finished and ready to send to beta-readers.
  • Whoooaaaaaah! Revisions, twists, turns, can I actually make it up that incline?
  • Yeeeeeeee! Literary agent is interested.
  • Owwwwwww! Rejection – and I'm upside down with my heart in my throat and my lunch about to come up.
  • Wheeeeeeee! Great idea for a new book. Can't wait to get started!

You get the picture. It’s a constant back-and-forth-up-and-down-full-speed-ahead-full-stop type of existence. It’s making me kind of crazy. (Husband would dispute "kind of.")

Some days, it's a monumental task to stay focused and positive in the face of rejection. Good thing I have friends, family and fellow writers who support me no matter what.

I recently entered blurbs from Hannah’s Half in contests held on writer and agent blogs. Other writers who commented were thoughtful and encouraging, even when making critiques. My sister-in-law, Camm, tweeted me with enthusiastic comments while she read Hannah’s Half – in one day. My husband, Andy, exclaimed "Goose poop!" at the agent who emailed with a 'pass' this morning.

So, today I want to say thanks to Andy, Tessa, TracytheWriter, TracytheFriend, Camm, Christi, Wendi, Arlene, Jenni, Hunter, Micki, Kathryn, Alison, Tim, Joanie, my bookclub and the dozens of others who always ask how the current book is coming along, who always give a “like” on Facebook when I post good news, who always suggest ways to pamper myself when I get bad news, who always read a blog about writing just because the care about me.

Friday, February 11, 2011

What Would St. Valentine Say?!

In honor of Valentine's Day, Oasis for YA, an online community for writers of young adult fiction, has asked writers to post a romantic and/or sexy excerpt from their books. The following is from my novel, Hannah's Half. A bit of info to set the scene: Hannah's love interest, Adam, is a ghost who's unable to move on to the afterlife. He and Hannah are twin flames (or halves of the same soul) who've spent several past lives together ... each time with disastrous results.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“I need you, too, Hannah.”

He kissed me roughly and I kissed him back. When he pushed me onto the bed, I didn’t stop him. He pulled off his tee shirt, which left his hair disheveled and wild. He straddled me while we both pulled at my tee shirt.

“What if this doesn’t work?”

He stopped my question with another kiss — long and deep and perfect. I unzipped his pants and he pushed my hands away, removing his own jeans while I tore at mine. Our knees bumped clumsily as we kicked to free our legs.

Touching Adam felt like being under water. Our movements became softer and slower as if I was buoyed by the pressure of his body. His kissing slowed and his hands became less desperate and more deliberate. I shuddered when he pulled my leg around him.

Every movement I made was accompanied by a flash of memory; all our past lives in one tornado of emotion. I moved my hand over his smooth chest and down over his belly, hooking my thumb in his boxers – it was the present and past all in the same instant. I’d never felt so complete.

“I want you,” he whispered.

“You’ve always had me,” I said.

“Then I want you even more.”

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

May the Force Be With Us

All I can think about today is the VW commercial where the little boy in the Darth Vader outfit runs around trying to manipulate things with his awesome power. I found many of the Superbowl commercials to be so-so. The VW one, though, is getting universal accolades. (It’s my personal favorite.)

There are those stand-out ads that we will always remember (E*TRADE baby, the Budweiser streaking goat). It’s hard to quantify what makes these work and others not so much. Yet, we instinctively “know it when we see it.”

I think this must be what literary agents are up against: they must wade through the so-so slush until that brilliant piece leaps out. I’m guessing some manuscripts try too hard and just come across as icky: like the Doritos commercial where the guy licks the orange, Dorito dust off a co-worker’s fingers.

Writers (published and unpublished) often want agents to quantity the unquantifiable. They want a secret formula that will make their stories stand out. The problem is that there is no secret formula.

Dear fellow writers…if we’re honest with ourselves, we know when we hit that sweet spot and we know when we’re just trying to be clever. To finally get that agent’s attention, our writing must be creative, stand out above the slush, and be able to evoke a response in our readers.

May the force be with us.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Paying It Forward in the Tweeterverse and Blogosphere

Recently I sat down to make out my ‘wish list’ of agents to query for “Hannah’s Half,” the YA paranormal novel I finished (and am revising!). I was hopping around Twitter, trying to find a particular agent to follow when I happened upon a writer’s blog.

Shelli (srjohannes) shared a story about an agented writer and blogger who stumbled upon her book synopsis and liked it so much, she referred it to her own agent. Yes, you can guess the rest of the story. Shelli is now represented by the same agent.

Shelli’s now hosting a contest on her web site as a way to ‘pay forward’ the generosity shown to her. She’s agreed to select a pitch that intrigues her and share it with her agent.

It got me thinking of the serendipitous connections I’ve made in my writing life.

Some time ago, I wanted to form a writers’ critique group. I sent out a Facebook notice without noting that the group needed to be local – as in Durango, CO. A former work colleague sent the message to a friend in Maryland who contacted me. We began to exchange emails and war stories. Then, she offered to critique my YA novel. I’d only written women’s fiction to that point and needed a YA author’s insight. And boy has Tracy given me that and more.

My manuscript is SO MUCH BETTER because of her generosity. And the girl keeps on giving! Writers usually have to be their own cheerleaders, especially in the face of rejection. I now have Tracy as a cheerleader whenever I'm down (and I hope I am to her as well). Plus, the girl loves cupcakes. We were meant to be friends.

Has anyone done anything special for YOU that you feel you should pay forward?

Monday, January 31, 2011

On Expanding One's Reading Horizons -- Or, I'll Only Read That If You Make Me

I am known for horning my way into book clubs...well, the same book club actually. When I moved to Durango, CO, in 2003, I heard my staff talking about their book club. To make things really awkward, I asked if I could join. How do you tell your new boss "no"? Not my finest moment, but the Mountain Sistahs welcomed me with open arms.

Somewhere along the way I decided I was too busy with work to have outside interests. Can you see the warning sign that I didn't? So, I quit.
After a number of years, I wised up, established better work boundaries, stopped saying yes to every request to volunteer, and carved out time for me. Then last summer, I saw a member of the Sistahs getting her hair done at my stylist's shop. Once again, I "invited" myself back into the group. Actually, I asked Jackie to ask the rest of the group if they'd accept me back.. And they did!

Last Wednesday was book-picking time again! I was so excited...until I realized how much interest there was in non-fiction titles. I wanted fiction! Non-fiction always felt like school-work or an obligation. Fiction transported me to other worlds. Fiction was fun!
Some members sensed my panic and assured me it's usually an even mix. I have to admit that some of the non-fiction picks in the past ended up being some of my favorite books (The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe). The book club forces me (gently) to expand my reading horizons and read books I'd not otherwise buy or check out from the library.

My contribution to the reading list was The Sky is Everywhere, a young adult novel by Jandy Nelson. If my group can agree to read young adult, then I sure as heck can read some non-fiction.
Readers...do you gravitate to fiction or non-fiction?
Have you been pleasantly surprised by a book that was outside your typical reading tastes?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

To Buy (Or Not to Buy) a Book -- That's a Loaded Question

I've blogged, tweeted and Facebooked about a great web site called Page99Test.com. Authors (published and not) load page 99 of their book onto the site and readers comment on whether they'd turn the page and if they'd be inclined to buy the book.

I'm excited that page 99 from This Side of Crazy earned a "Page Turner" designation! Seventy-three percent would turn the page (the average in the general fiction genre is 48 percent).

This is all well and good -- except that opinions are subjective. One commenter compared the writing to To Kill a Mockingbird while another called it a bit overdramatic. I still think it's useful for authors to get this type of feedback, so I encourage you to bounce around the site and read a few page 99s. They're anonymous, sorted by genre.

Since the basic premise of the web site is that reading page 99 of a book can convince someone to buy (or not buy) a book, I wonder what compels you to make a book purchase?
  • Interesting title?
  • Cover design?
  • First couple of pages?
  • Inside flap or back cover description?
  • Recommendation from a friend?
  • Book review in newspaper or magazine?
  • Something else?

Would love to hear your thoughts!


Saturday, January 8, 2011

Gleeful Journeys

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m in Texas visiting family. My niece, Haley, received the first season of Glee on DVD. Watching the series has become a family activity. Everyone (including my 20-year-old nephew) loves it. Each time we hear the closing music we want more! Anyway, back on topic. What’s on my mind today is the season one finale where the Glee club goes to regionals to compete.

They know they’re underdogs but try to stay confident. Then, their competition shows up one day in the auditorium, does a number and completely destroys the confidence of Glee club members.

Mr. Schuester, the Glee club sponsor, suggests a medley of Journey songs as their regionals routine to remind them that winning isn’t what’s important – it’s the journey, the experiences we have and share along the way. One of the songs was “Don’t Stop Believing.”

I know this applies to my writing life. There’s no end point – a prize – that will make me a real author. I’m an author today. The journey is going to include a lot of ups and downs. Does that mean I can’t be ecstatic that an agent asked to see my full manuscript this week? I’d miss out on so much if I lived in expectation of the day when it won’t be “hard” anymore. It will always be hard.

My new writer friend has an agent (hurray!). She’s completed three manuscripts (triple hurray). Yet, she received three rejections from publishers this week. She’s still a success in my eyes. After a cupcake or two, I know she’s feeling better and that her journey continues. After all, she’s a writer. What can she do but keep writing?

What’s your journey?