I also write children’s fiction, which means magical characters wake me at night with ideas they don’t think can wait until morning. (Middle-aged female characters wait until after coffee.)
I also write children’s fiction, which means magical characters wake me at night with ideas they don’t think can wait until morning. (Middle-aged female characters wait until after coffee.)
As for my ever-changing habits, here goes:
What am I working on now?
Two projects stay open on my lap top since I cannot seem to work on one without the other tapping me on the shoulder.
The first project is LIFE WITH FESTY (a middle grade fantasy about an adventurous boy stuck with an overbearing boggart as his mystery-solving partner). An intense critique of the first 54 pages from the incredible Eric Elfman (co-author of Telsa’s Attic) left me with loads of changes and ideas on this story such as how to amp up the dialog, increase conflict between characters, and reflect their personalities better.
Second project on the table: DEATH DOESN’T DESERVE CHOCOLATE, a novel about a father and daughter’s odd and endearing relationship as they say good-bye. (Think EAT PRAY LOVE meets $#*! MY DAD SAYS.)
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
My stories show the magic of the everyday world, whether it is a boy who hears whispers in the wind, or a daughter who watches her father spray bare areas of the lawn with florescent green paint while he wears suspenders with no shirt.
Why do I write what I do?
These stories found their way to me. When a funny British boggart invades your psyche with adventures and quirky comments, you’d better write them down or he’ll never shut up. (By the way, he wants his own line of merchandise.) His point of view has made me more aware of nature and how it stirs our imagination and reflects our emotions. Call him a muse maybe, but whatever he is, I owe him for waking me up in many ways.
On the women’s fiction end, the story began as a journal of Dad’s silly antics or sayings, but it morphed into a coping mechanism when we knew he only had a short time left to live. We found that love may be your emotional life raft, but laughter keeps it afloat. (Sometimes in nothing but underwear out on the deck where neighbors can see him–ugh.)
How does my writing process work?
On a typical day, I jot down any idea I wake up with (dialog, a scene, a “I-need-to-change-that” realization). With the idea recorded on my computer (or a cash register receipt, or cable bill), I turn to the more thoughtful process of what I had planned for the day. I also give myself timelines on when I want a next draft to be complete. (Without a goal, cleaning closets or other world saving activities would take over.)
I usually work outside on the patio with my writing partner (okay, dog) who lets me read aloud to her. I used to write as the story came to me until I found the book SAVE THE CAT with descriptions of the beats every story needs. Now to complete timelines of “what needs to happen when” to structure the stories and cut back on extra scenes that weigh down the action. (Insert a bow and a kiss to the comedic Blake Snyder.)
Okay folks, time to tag the next player in the MY WRITING PROCESS Blog Hop. Visit the rich colored world of talented artist and writer Wanda Collins Johnson:
“I make art. I am one of those people who began painting as a small child and never stopped. My art and poetry are a record of the mystery of life as it unfolds to me, like keeping a diary. In contrast, my work-in-progress novel, a YA mystery, is pure fiction… except for the parts that are not! Like most writers, I do put elements of my real life into my fiction, such as the part about building and living in a cardboard house in the woods when I was an 18-year-old Thoreau wannabe. I’m a member of SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. You can see some of my art and writing on my website, http://wandacollinsjohnson.com.”
Photos courtesy of Meridith Gimbel and Wanda Collins Johnson.
I have pretended this past year was one long joke, an April Fools’ Day event that would reveal itself as false. But two weeks ago, it caught up with me as my husband and I sat in the hospital waiting room, once again, to see if he would need a third emergency surgery. (Spoiler alert: he did not—yay!)
Since January of 2013, when our family found out the first of what I wanted to be a falsehood, I have held my head high (no pouting) and acted as if everything was okay. I rewrote the heart doctor telling Dad that he was at end, and made it a cheerful: “Dad has wanted to pass on for a long time. Soon he’ll be at peace.” No dealing with the selfish pain I felt of letting him go.
Then Tim’s first emergency: a result of being beaten up at age 12, brought up anger at the person who hurt him and made Tim need to have immediate surgery, both then and now.
Enter my inner-Disney-princess: Allow only gratitude in for Tim being alive, for the talented surgeon, and our having health insurance for the 8 day hospital stay—no time for sadness or worry. Snow White’s singing birds could circle; Cinderella’s happy mice could cheer me up. But no villains (bad thoughts) could enter my kingdom.
As Tim began to recover from the intestinal surgery that removed the portion of scar tissue that had wrapped around and cut off his intestines, he developed a blood clot (at four feet long, I think it should be named something more accurate like: The Beast).
This resulted in another emergency surgery with a year long expected recovery. However, we were told the remainder of the clot may not ever dissolve, leaving pain and pressure in his leg. Not what someone who spends their vacations hiking wants to hear, but I pounded in the message of YOU CAN DO THIS and visualized Tim climbing mountaintops with a singing Julie Andrews and the von Trapp family by our side.
But then, Dad passed away 10 days later on his 80th birthday. A blessing for him. I told myself it was the same for us—his suffering gone. Once again, cue the forest creatures, fairy godmothers, and singing princesses. Only happiness for his passing allowed. Villainous grief or other bad emotions would be slain by my Prince of Peaceful Thoughts.
In the midst of all of this, my sweet furry companion of 13 years (our dog Obi) developed too much pain to use to his back legs and had to be put down. I had been telling myself he went outside for a few minutes, all day long, because he still loved the outdoors (not because his medication made him have to pee so much). Again with my Disneyesque dialog, after he died: “He had been sick since he was four. How lucky to have had those extra years with him.” (The fairy princesses were on a roll. Grief didn’t stand a chance.)
We went on about our lives, Tim taking his blood thinner and finishing physical therapy (all while going to school online to be re-certified as a personal trainer…the Universe has a warped sense of humor). We spent lots of time with Mom and told stories about Dad’s shenanigans. We showered our other dog with lots of affection to try and heal her from her own past of abuse.
But the world still felt off balance, like we had only reached the part of Act 2 where the main characters think everything will be fine, before they get hit with one last dose of doom.
The climax hit a few weeks ago when Tim’s leg pain and swelling came back to the point it hurt to walk. We (and his doctor) thought The Beast Clot had reared its ugly head and grown or formed a new one. The tech doing the ultrasound said to stay at the hospital in case they had to admit Tim…again. But after the radiologist reviewed Tim’s first post-surgery ultrasound, he said it had not grown. No new clot. An appointment with the surgeon the next day revealed that Tim had simply over done it, walking more than his leg had been ready to do (more than 15 minutes). Even though it was good news that we wouldn’t be facing another surgery, the realization that Tim’s activity would continue to be limited hit hard almost 6 months from surgery.
With that last scare, my mountain of defenses began to crumble. Over the last 14 months, I had pretended Dad’s preparations to pass and his dying were heaven sent; and Tim’s surgeries and scares taught him something earth-shatteringly important and forced him to deal with pain from his past abusers. My hoax of “everything is fine” came unglued.
These events became real. Tim’s recovery grew into a mystery with no solid answers except “time will tell.” Dad would not make us laugh during all of this. Our big bundle of love dog would not be digging in the dirt when Spring spread across our yard. Instead, the ashes of both Dad and dog sat in wooden urns. Tim limped if he walked too long or too much.
That’s when “happily-ever-after” left me—my neck and back began to ache to the point where all I want to do is rest on a heating pad. I have had acupuncture, massage, along with exercises I learned previously in physical therapy, epsom salt baths, moist heat, and of course, listened to motivational “it is all going to be all right” CDs every day. But this goes deeper than that. It goes to my very core and has taken root in places those practices cannot reach. I’m still wondering what will.
I wanted so much to be perfect for my family all this time that I ended up becoming more of a mess than a pinnacle of perfection. I have nagged Tim to take care of himself (drink fluids, do his stretches, don’t stand too long) so much that I am sick of my own voice.
For more than a year, I tried to ignore the sadness and worry, except for a two hour time frame, once a month, with my Reiki therapist to talk about these issues—to admit to the negative emotions, the lack of positive thinking that I preached to Tim, Dad, and myself, and the guilt of not noticing how badly our elderly dog had been doing for months before we put him down.
Now I can’t run from it any longer because it has made an angry nest in the middle of my back, and spread out from my neck and shoulders, down to my waist. I need these emotions to hatch and fly away, leaving me alone and empty of them.
But that isn’t going to happen until something shifts; I’m still working on that part. Maybe it will be Spring, the warm weather can burn these burdens away from my soul. (I yearn for one of those sweat tents and wonder if that would help, but somehow think I’d come away with only dehydration.)
I feel a timeline ticking on the need to get-it-together before this becomes more than “a phase.” Apparently the Universe agrees with me since the very symbol I use in my manuscript—a full lunar eclipse —will be coming in a few weeks. In my middle grade manuscript, this event marks the deadline (I hate that word) for the main character, Josh, to fix the dying forest situation, or the damage becomes permanent.
Mother Nature is sending me a message: “Stop with the sadness or you’ll be stuck in it.” (She’d say it with more wisdom, but I get it).
Now I have two weeks before the red moon, the eclipse, and to figure out how to make this darkness go away, just like my main character has to do. Perhaps I need to take a few lessons from fictional Josh and when one thing doesn’t work, try something else. He wouldn’t sit around on a heating pad, waiting for the source of sorrow to just up and leave his forest alone. He’d climb a mountain if he had to (which he does) to face his fears head on, and without a map.
Maybe that is what I am doing here: admitting the world has knocked me off my feet but acknowledging I have the strength to get back up, even though it has flung us back to the ground over and over this last year as it preaches, “that which does not kill you, makes you stronger.” (Dad would laugh at that and remind me that he did, in fact, die during all of this.)
Maybe sharing these feelings and admitting I can’t fix everything will start the healing process. I’ve been so concerned with staying positive and appreciating Tim is here, and Dad died how he wanted, that I forgot to allow my sadness enough time to express itself. I can’t do that anymore. Perhaps we have to give in to grief sometimes to feel grateful again.
I go back to story (after all, our lives are simply a series of them) and imagine a mystical container full of an elixir that can fill my half-empty glass of grief. Where will I find it? Will it be walks along the lake; a road trip to one of my sacred spots; or simply deciding to step off of my alter of pain? If these processes don’t work, well, I’ll try something else. I have a full moon to catch.
What do searching for an agent, and online dating have in common? More than you think.
After emailing with a good friend (I’ll call her “Jane”) about her latest fiascos with men she had met online, I soon received an email from an agent I had queried a few months ago. I took a deep breath and double clicked the message. The word “unfortunately” leapt out at me; no request for a manuscript includes that word.
Not being a stranger to literary rejection, I filed the form letter in my email Submissions folder. After a moment, I opened it back up and read it again.
Hmm, Jane should send this to that guy she went out with last night. I hit the FWD key and made a few revisions (in bold) before sending it to her:
“Thanks so much for being in touch. You have a fun concept here. Unfortunately,
it is you are a bit too similar to a few of our other projects men I have dated, and I am unable to offer you representation another date at this time. Best of luck finding the right home for your work woman. Best wishes, Jane”
Jane emailed back that she had already blocked him because of his bad behavior. Still, she appreciated the sentiment—especially since I was the one who dragged her onto the dating website.
Later that month, I received a few more rejection letters…and Jane met a few more incompatible men. I recycled each agent’s response, and sent them off to Jane with a smile:
“Thank you for sharing your
work profile with me. Unfortunately, I feel that in today’s market, I cannot take on projects date men unless I feel strongly about them. I’m sorry to say that it didn’t happen with this one. This, of course, is just my opinion and others may feel differently. I wish you the best of luck with all your publishing dating endeavors. Sincerely, Jane”
“I am sorry not to invite you to submit your
manuscript phone number or to offer to represent date you. The material just didn’t grab me, and you deserve an unequivocally enthusiastic agent woman as your advocate mate. I wish you the best of luck elsewhere. Regards, Jane”
I had a feeling of accomplishment, and a sense of satisfaction for my work (albeit not much work was needed). I dug into my Submissions folder, and took out letters I had received before the advent of Jane’s online dating.
What a wealth of material! Jane would never have to sit, thumbs frozen in position over her phone, wondering what in the world to text and not hurt someone’s feelings. I had an unending source of “It’s not you—it’s me” just waiting to be used.
Imagine my delight when I found these gems and promptly shot them off to Jane when one guy hadn’t asked her a single thing about herself until she put on her coat to leave after an hour of conversation:
“Best of luck with
this project women and all your endeavors. Due to the volume of queries matches and submissions emails I receive, I’m unable to provide a personal evaluation of your query behavior and/or further explanation of my decision. Warmly, Jane”
“There was much to enjoy and admire in your fantasy adventure, however at the end of the day I didn’t find myself falling in love with your stories in the way that I had hoped and would ultimately need in order to
take this on date you. Most cordially, Jane”
When Jane had a man send her a nasty email because she had been busy with work and had not been communicating constantly after one date, I flexed my typing fingers and sent her these snippets from my stash:
“Thank you for thinking of me, but this isn’t quite right
for my list. I’ll step aside and wish you the best as you submit to other agents unsuspecting women. Best of luck, Jane”
“My opinion is entirely subjective and other
agents inexperienced women may feel differently. I encourage you to query date widely, as you never know who will feel that ‘spark’ for your book personality as is currently stands. Jane”
Please note that I am not poking fun at agents. Quite the opposite. I would much rather be a writer sending out queries than an agent getting fifty or more emails a day (with the majority being addressed to “Dear Agent”) from writers who didn’t bother to note that the agent doesn’t rep erotica, but children’s stories.
So for those of us querying agents / dating online / job hunting / (and this is Nashville so I can’t forget trying to get a record deal)—hang in there. Have fun with it. Know that the right agent / soul mate / employer / record label is out there. It just isn’t the right time yet. But if we keep improving our craft / resume / personal hygiene, it will happen.
On that note, I leave you with one last bit of (borrowed) advice:
“Because this business is so subjective and opinions vary widely, we recommend that you pursue other agents / boy or girlfriends / employers / etc. After all, it just takes one ‘yes’ to find the right match.”
How does a perpetual planner start the new year? By making a list of how to shift my psyche, and embrace the world in a new way…(hopefully sticking with it past Groundhog Day).
After a “lesson-filled” 2013 which including the passing of a parent, and a pet, as well as two emergency surgeries for my husband (with an expected year long recovery), I decided that in order to heal, we needed to live more fully.
Upgrade to smartphones. After only 40 hours of watching YouTube tutorials; having friends show me features I may or may not remember an hour later; and risking call block from the Verizon Help Desk, I can actually message people and share photos. This may be the most expensive way of sending funny dog pictures to friends. (Tim is using his new phone as a fancy alarm clock.) My best friend’s teenager was able to text me from his hospital bed…a picture of the urinal which he proudly filled up in one sitting. Oh, technology, your uses are endless.
Try new recipes. All those cookbooks that sit ever so nicely on our kitchen counter, could be used for more than 2 weeks from the day I bought them. Most of the time, I chop up whatever is in the fridge, and boil some sort of pasta to make surprise meals that may or may not need to be coated in hummus, after the fact. We need to try new things and that means a meal here and there that has actual measured ingredients. After all, dinner should not be a crap shoot.
Walk outside every day, even if for just 15 minutes. Mother Nature decided to test my resolve on this one. Being a cold-weather coward, I bundled up on those single-digit days and ventured forth into the icy asphalt tundra of our subdivision. I can only imagine how I looked in my mis-matched but warmest-clothes-I-could-find outfits as I strolled down the street in an incredibly over-sized coat (with lovely 1990s shoulder pads), a bright purple scarf wedged under my sunglasses to cover my face, and a horrible fuzzy hat that is twice the size of my head.
I may have looked like the crazy lady of the cul-de-sac (especially when I forgot to put sweatpants on over my long johns), but braving the cold felt invigorating, and yes, even inviting. A few small birds, squirrels, and my favorite family of crows all showed up…probably wondering if they could use my hat for a nest. No way. Obnoxious earmuffs held my fashion faux pas firmly in place.
So what have I been afraid of all these years (decades even) about being out in the freezing cold? I grew up in Alabama and when you spend your youth in sandals and shorts 10 months of the year, anything under 50 degrees is just wrong. But this month, I went out in crisp 7 degree weather, and sleeting 16 degree weather, and no body parts fell off. I didn’t turn to ice. I didn’t lose a toe to frostbite—not even a fingernail. (I did get a rather sarcastic WOOO WHOOO from some redneck who felt my unattractive attire was worthy of him rolling down his car window to heckle me. Unfortunately, my scarf-covered faced drowned out my appropriate response.)
I realize this 2014 list is not so much about braving the cold, calculated cooking, or embracing technology as it is about getting out of my comfort zone. No, I’m not climbing Mt. Everest, or inventing an exciting app, but I can do more than I have tried to do. Maybe that is what this year is all about—shaking things up a bit. Getting out of our normal routine, attempting new things, and simply being better.
Now, how do I forward a text message?
Dad passed away on his 80th birthday. He checked into the Nashville Hospice facility on Thursday (make that walked to his room, somehow, not accepting a wheelchair) and curled up on his bed to entertain the staff as they came in to check on him. The next afternoon, they disconnected his pacemaker / defibrillator and in less than 3 hours, he passed away naturally (and more peacefully than we could have ever hoped).
He needed very little medication—he was so ready to go. His heart went up to 80 beats per minute as soon as he was free of the device, and his rate stayed around 110 to wear itself out, I suppose, (much like Dad would do on his walks over the years). Apparently people’s heart rates usually go way down in this situation, not up. Very Dad-like.
On one of his trips to get up and go to the bathroom (yes, he was determined to keep using the toilet and not a urinal), he looked at my husband Tim in the recliner next to him and said very seriously, “Oh, #%!@, I’m not dead.” How many times he has woken up from a nap and said that…
When it was time for Dad to pass away, we saw his face as he gazed up at whatever came to get him, or whatever he saw. It was a look of awe and amazement that no one could make without seeing something so unimaginably beautiful and not of this world. He closed his eyes and a few minutes later, he was gone. It was a blessing to see and feel—Dad getting what he had wished for for so long.
I knew it was the first night of the full moon, but did not know there would be a partial lunar eclipse (we would only see a slight shadow). “The entire duration of the eclipse will be 4 hours and 10 minutes, commencing at 5:45 p.m. EDT.” Dad passed away at 5:35 p.m. central time, an hour after the start of this lunar eclipse. Tim and I had said on the night he passed that we felt like there was a window of time Dad sensed and felt the need to go during it. We assumed it was just his birthday, but maybe he felt something more.
We built a ceremonial fire for Dad on Sunday in the fire pit in our backyard with a nice alter of symbolic items he would find meaningful: one of Dad’s beloved spiderman figures (a symbol of doing good and helping others); a Christian cross from Ireland; a prayer wheel from Bhutan; a Hindu prayer necklace from the Kauai monastery made from the seeds (called “tears of God”) from their sacred rudraksha trees; Yoda to symbolize the force connecting us all; acorn from our yard; rain stick; and pictures of his mother, brother and our aunt Phyllis who have passed.
My friend Cindy came by with “ceremonial wine” and sang Amazing Grace, which Dad loved. Next time, she’ll sing another of his favorites—Elvis’s, I Did It My Way.
Yes, Dad, you certainly did.
Yesterday, after months (even years) of consideration, my Dad was scheduled to check into a hospice facility to have his pacemaker / defibrillator device shut off. He had chosen the date; received the reluctant approval of his wife, children and brothers; and had the full support of his two heart doctors, primary care physician of 17 years, and his whole hospice team.
Without the device, Dad would live only hours, days, or at most (and very unlikely), a few weeks. He would remain at the hospice facility for management of pain, anxiety, breathing issues and fluid build up. Peace and comfort would be with him during his final journey. His faded “Do not Resuscitate” tag dangled from his neck.
A few months ago when Dad’s heart doctor of 19 years retired, fear of the new doctor not understanding his desires became an issue. That is, until we met her. She deals with end-of-life heart patients every day. With each of our three visits over the summer, she spent a great deal of time explaining what Dad could expect if he kept going as is, or disconnected his device.
Dad’s doctors told us about Alive Hospice and we thank God for them every day. But yesterday, the comfort that their staff has brought into my parent’s home and my father’s soul was shattered only minutes before Dad would get in the car with us to drive to Hospice to disconnect his device.
Another doctor in the same department as Dad’s regular heart doctor (but who had never before spoken to my father, and admitted he had not seen Dad’s file) called the house and told my parents that if Dad disconnected the device, he would not die. He discounted everything Hospice and the other doctors have said, and told them Dad would suffer and have a decreased quality of life and a harder time breathing. (No mention of medication to comfort Dad for anxiety and/or pain, or oxygen when his decreased breathing occurred.)
This man basically pulled down a white screen to show Dad the movie JAWS, just before Dad could enter the ocean and swim out to the afterlife.
Now my father—who remains scared of the physical, mental and emotional state of living—is terrified to go in the water (disconnect the device) even though he still wants to. He walks on a scorching hot beach full of flesh-eating creatures, but has become too afraid to go in the ocean, even though there is a nice sailboat waiting to take him (comfort meds, Hospice staff, and family).
Whether this doctor (who we have found out deals with the device companies) scares people into leaving their devices on for religious reasons, or purely a heartless lack of consideration for quality of life, is unknown. Either way, he had no business calling my father, let alone lying to him that he would left to suffer.
Today, as my frustration turns to understanding, I have to think now must not be the time for Dad to meet his maker; I cling to the belief that when someone’s ill-thought actions steer you down a path that you might not want to take, you still examine the wrong-doing to see if changes need to be made in your own actions or thoughts.
In this case, these medical devices are like being driven around in a luxury car, but when you decide you want out, they tie a rope around your chest and drag you along a rocky dirt road where you feel every bump, and breathe in dust and decay. This doctor who scared my Dad represents the car maker (device manufacturer), not the passengers (patients).
So what needs to be examined here is the fact that some in the medical field have come to the point where machines matter more than humans, like a bad sci-fi movie. I am eternally grateful for the technology and three devices that have kept my father alive for the last 13 years, but when this man who gave me life decides that he is ready to let go of his, I believe he ought not be bullied or burdened. He needs to follow his own heart—with or without a device intact.
This month the Crossroads Campus crew taught teenagers how to clicker train dogs, but with one twist: WE were the dogs.
In small groups, each of us took turns being in the vulnerable position of entering the room without any idea what the others wanted us to do. (And no guys, “Shave your head!” is not an option.)
These young men always light up when the dogs come to play, but this dogless exercise brought out the little kid in everyone as we became miniature chihuahua / yorkie / pit bull mixes (these guys are creative) who had to use the TV remote, or hounds who had to scratch their long floppy ears.
What a way to get into a dog’s mind of how it must feel to hear cues and not know what humans want. We crawled around, sniffed, rolled over, and hopped on furniture. Any movement toward what the others wanted “the dog” to do would get a click and then a treat. One click, guys…not four or five :). They quickly got the hang of both clicker training and how patient and smart animals are as they learn our language.
Kudos to Julie Farris for her guidance and wonderful ideas, and many thanks to these young men for their trust as they go along with whatever ideas we adults bring to them on our Dog Day visits. This time, we all came away with a better understanding of how our four-legged friends must feel when we speak human gibberish and expect them to understand.
(Photos courtesy of Crossroads Campus)
As a kid, I dug grass away from our water meter to see what might be hidden underneath the rusty metal lid. Last week it was our plumber’s turn. He cut off the water to fix a leak in the kitchen and a minute later came in the front door and said, “You have a black widow spider.”
Instantly I was 8-years-old and followed him and his flashlight outside to the dark cavern of the water meter to scoop the spider out with a stick before it got away (and perhaps closer to the house). Its legs curled up as it tried to play dead on the grass, revealing two red markings on its belly including a perfect red hourglass—like artwork made with a tiny paintbrush.
As the plumber and I knelt there like two elementary school kids, the teenager next door pulled up in front of the house. An invitation to come see the spider got a quick, “Um, no thanks.” Maybe at some point we gravitate back to the wonders of our childhood. During the teen years…apparently not.
I found a glass bottle and cut a slice in the metal lid before wondering just how narrow a slit that spider could crawl through. I slid our 8-legged guest into the container and shut it while the spider was still playing possum. It could hang out in the front yard until I knew what to do with the cool but seriously creepy creature.
A web search (the electronic kind) of black widows said we had a female, poisonous to children and the elderly (not that she was all that great for adults) yet non-aggressive. But if you accidentally brush against one…well, you’ll know it later.
One of the many mantras of revising is: “Kill your darlings.” Who does that more than a female black widow who devours her companions at the end of a date? With about 25 writers at the retreat, there would be lots of creating (and carnage of our manuscripts).
When my husband got home, I led him to the glass bottle. I’ll leave out his response since I write for middle-graders. He is a gentle soul so I asked his advice on what to do and got an immediate, “she’s not staying here” like the spider is some obnoxious old friend breezing through town.
Next I thought about emailing a friend visiting Bhutan that week. Those enlightened souls are the epitome of “do not harm.” Then I decided she might have better things to do there than interrogate monks about arthropods.
An hour later, I drove down the road with a spider in the cup holder. A dead end about a half a mile away from any houses would be her new home. Once there, I opened the lid and swung my arm out toward the field to set her free. This would have been an inspirational moment had I not leapt around as if on fire, wondering if the breeze had blown her onto my clothes. Maybe wearing a black shirt and sweatpants to fling a poisonous spider into the wind isn’t a good idea.
Back home, I asked my husband to see if I had anything on me. “You mean, like a spider!” he asked. I shrugged. “I’m sure she’s in the field…it’s just for my peace of mind.” (And the fact that I’d used his car.)
As I got ready for the writing workshop, I decided the spider’s message for the retreat may not just be the mantra, “kill your darlings” but also to devour that which no longer serves us so we can give birth to new life. I’m referring to your manuscripts here, not your dates. We’ll leave that to the black widow.
P.S. Oh, and let me know if you need a good plumber
(Photos courtesy of Courtney Stevens Potter and the SCBWI Midsouth website).
NOTE: As of March 19th, this bill has been withdrawn :)! Thanks to all the dog lovers out there who made that possible! Since awareness of breed specific legislation is important, I am leaving the blog post from yesterday:
This week (March 20th), lawmakers in Tennessee will decide if they can require owners of a specific breed to carry $25,000 worth of insurance on their dog. Judging others based on appearance is simply a fancy way of saying discrimination. When we think of people being stereotyped by the physical characteristics they brought with them when they were born, we cringe. But now they are teaching the concept of discrimination through dogs.
Tennessee House Bill 621 has tossed in an amendment that labels all pit bulls as “dangerous.” What breeds will be next? shepherds? chows? dobermans? Since most of us do not have a family tree of our pet’s linage (nor do we do the expensive DNA testing) this leaves us with a lot of guessing on what they are.
Years ago, without intending to, I became a person who adopts dogs others have cast out. We had a beagle mix whose former owner named “Hunter.” They gave him to me since he was not what they wanted and thus had been a neighborhood stray for two years. This little guy enjoyed rolling in the dead as much as any dog, but he never harmed a furry or feathered creature that we ever saw. Squirrels dashed around our yard with no fear of Hunter, who would sniff along as they gathered their dinner.
When the cicadas came up out of the ground a few years ago, he would crunch on the dead ones, but those on the ground still alive, he would simply sit and listen to their song as if meditating. The last two days of his life, a cicada got inside our patio and sat near Hunter’s bed, making its familiar noise for a not-your-typical beagle. He defied the label that society (and even his own name) stuck on him.
This beagle’s lack of sticking by his stereotypes always made me smile, but now, our other dog is being stuck with labels that could affect legislation (and the adoptability of an entire breed).
Six months after little Hunter died at age 16, we went in search of another all-American-mutt. Petfinder.com led us to a dog who had been tossed around and returned for two years. Her photo showed a scared but sweet face. The rescue organization said she was a good match for our blind elderly dog so we did a meet and greet with them where they pretty much sniffed and then ignored each other.
After adopting Mia, an animal expert friend came over with her own dog and determined that Mia (a pit bull-boxer-basenji mix) had been severely abused at an early age, confirming what we had already thought based on her behavior. No one would blame this dog for not trusting humans, but luckily for us, she did. I’ve never seen a more snugly creature. She curls up next to us like a cuddly toddler and has come a long way in seeing that she does not always have to bark to keep new people at a distance, but can let them love her.
And then there is our other dog Obi Wan, a chow-shepherd mix who exudes the comfort and calmness of a true Jedi Knight. At only 3-months-old, he used his mind trick skills to quickly have me open the car door where he jumped in as if he already knew the way home. He was quite happy for a dog that had been dumped out of a truck earlier that day, according to the nice young man that had been caring for him outside a store. When I brought home this begging-for-a-bath dog, I did not know that 12 years later, he could be next on the list of breeds being legally considered “a dangerous or vicious dog” like his adopted sister.
I never intended to adopt these types of dogs, but now that we have them, I’ve taken up a torch that has been handed off by people who spend countless volunteer hours to bring their misunderstood pets (many certified as Canine Good Citizens by the American Kennel Club program) out into the community to shine the light of truth on breed stereotypes, mainly pit bulls.
And what do they get in return? Breed specific legislation.
Even though pit bulls (see Staffordshire Bull Terrier) are ranked higher in temperament testing than the average dog—passing 90.7% of the time vs. saint bernards at 84.6 (per the American Temperament Test Society)—pit bulls are one step away from costing responsible owners $25,000 worth of insurance coverage for “…harboring a dangerous breed.”
As a certified dog trainer, the big smile of a pit bull brings out my baby-talking voice: “Who is a sweet baby? You are. Yes, you are.” (Insert kissing noises here.)
So why not legislate against dangerous owners like dog fighters, or those who chain their dogs up outside and torment them so they will be “good guard dogs,” or those who let their dogs roam free to snarl and snap at anyone passing by? (We get this in our neighborhood from dogs not considered “dangerous” so they are left for my leashed pitty-mix and me to deal with.) Trust me, dog fighting ring leaders will not be rushing out to insure their sixty or so dogs, however, responsible owners will be obligated to do so, and others just won’t adopt them all due to cost of insurance.
If you want your voice to be heard on this issue, you can email the sponsor of the bill and those voting on it this week. Here is the information to politely ask these representatives to vote NO on HB621:
Sponsor of the bill: Brenda Gilmore at email@example.com
Ron Lollar, Chair (Shelby) firstname.lastname@example.org
Curtis Halford (Gibson, Carroll) email@example.com
Andy Holt (Weakley, Obion, Carroll) firstname.lastname@example.org
Judd Matheny (Coffee, Warren) email@example.com
Billy Spivey (Franklin, Lincoln, Marion, Marshall) firstname.lastname@example.org
John Tidwell (Houston, Humphreys, Montgomery) email@example.com
Ron Travis (Bledsoe, Roane, Sequatchie, Rhea) firstname.lastname@example.org
Also thank them for their time and consideration on this issue.
Last week we had a visitor, one I did not think we would ever see again. It came in the form of a pure white squirrel.
Two months ago, this creature bounced around our backyard while I made my breakfast. At first, I thought it was a rabbit and was amazed at how white the fur was on a muddy day. But then the animal swished its long fluffy tail and ran up the tree. In complete awe of the squirrel that looked as if it had been dipped in snow, I wasn’t sure what to do. Stand and appreciate it, or rush for my camera?
I thought about the symbolic (animal totem) meaning of squirrel. Then I remembered the fully charged battery in my Nikon.
Symbolism could wait until I got my zoom lens.
I noticed the other squirrels ran from the white one like rats leaving a sinking ship. Unlike the obnoxious human (me) in her bedroom slippers in the mud, they wanted to keep a good distance.
But now the other squirrels seemed to be okay with their bright buddy. Some even played chase with it up and down the trees. Maybe over the last two months they saw that this squirrel was no different than they were, except easier to spot (and stalked by the human with bad morning-hair).
After googling white squirrels (that’s just fun to say), I found they are indeed rare because of low occurrence and their beautiful coat. See The Wild Classroom.
Unlike the lovely brown squirrels who blend in with their environment, this glow-in-the-dark mammal might as well have a lighthouse beacon on its back for hungry hawks and other birds of prey. Because of that, they don’t have a long lifespan and therefore do not leave behind as many cute babies to carry the gene.
I realized that this precious creature will not grace our backyard for years to come like so many other squirrels (including the one that ran in the doggie door and made my husband scream like a 5-yr-old girl).
Like winter snow, this unusual squirrel appeared out of nowhere, making the landscape seem more alive, only to fade away as quickly as it came (that is, if you live in the South).
So what is my point in this squirrel appreciation post? I suppose to step back and appreciate differences when we see them and maybe even wonder why they offer us a different view than we are used to seeing in our own backyard.
The spring forward weekend reminds me that our middle Tennessee winter—the brief period of darker days and searching for a glove you lost last year—is close to an end. As humans, we often try to fight the cold months of nature and curse its bone chilling winds while wishing for sandals and sun. (I am firmly planted in this population.) But if we follow the seasons and flow with them, we can adapt just as the animals do.
I use myself as an example since friends and family aren’t fond of my using them. (Oh, wait, I’ll just share one photo of Dad, flowing with the seasons by digging out all of his superhero underwear each year at the first sign of spring.)
When the cold weather comes, I ramble indoors like a bear to a cave, snuggling in deep to create a new story (insert your own project of choice here). I curl up into the plot and hear the characters’ innermost thoughts inside that hollow cavern. Their truths hover all around me like a warm fire, keeping out the cold of the unknown…what will happen next? Whispers echo from faraway places, luring me into the story. Some characters stick to the page. Others haunt my mind and spill out conversations at any time of day, or night. I’ve asked them to please hold their inspirational thoughts when it is freezing cold and I’ve just climbed into a warm bed, or while I am doing 70 mph on the interstate. So far, my requests have been ignored.
But when those first flowers of spring pop out of the soil, it is time to come out of our creative caves to see what we have made. My characters will stretch their arms and legs (and in some cases, their wings) and greet the sun with a new understanding of what they discovered during those cold months of hibernation with only their emotions and ideas to occupy their minds. Spring will be the time to feel the grass beneath their feet and awaken their senses. A time to connect again with the rest of the world. A time to play with the story I wrote in a cozy winter womb.
In continuation of my last blog on Getting to Know Fictional Characters, I add this: Get to know the world they live in. What sights, sounds and smells fill their backyards, towns and world?
After writing the climax scene of a work-in-progress, I had an overwhelming urge to go back to Old Stone Fort State Park. Unsure of the purpose of this story quest, I bundled up for the cold weather and drove out there. As the only one on the muddy path in the drizzling rain, I had the place to myself.
A short way into the loop trail around the park’s sacred site, the rush of the first waterfall filled the air. We had a severe storm the night before, so the two rivers and falls flowed at a rate I hadn’t seen before. But…I had written about it. The scenes I’d imagined for my story only hours earlier, took place in Ireland during a storm at sea. The part that would follow would be the emotional aftermath of pain my main character Josh would experience. This long walk in solitude would bring me there.
Bright green moss crept up trees, along logs and rocks. I transported myself to the Emerald Isle as I stepped into a dilapidated structure along the river. The stones fit together like the short walls that wind their way across the Irish countryside. Spirits live in this ancient burial ground of the park—that too screamed Celtic culture and mystery.
I stood inside the gap of a rock wall to stare down the cliff at the water below. Josh would have heard this same thunderous roar on the sea cliff of Ireland that night. I hung onto the rocks on either side and closed my eyes to see it as he did.
One thing was missing: crows. These birds show up in every park, on every trail since the winter before my first manuscript came to me. Sometimes I get a larger version of the crow—a single raven—but only in the parks that are part of my stories. Somehow they know. But the faithful crows sail around our yard and caw at key moments when I write. How could they not be on this quest with me into the realm of our story?
Nature has a sense of humor. It didn’t bring me crows. It brought me bold black birds, all right. Vultures. And lots of them. At first I thought the fingered wings of the beautiful creature in flight over the river was a black hawk. I’ve had a few of them show up at key moments in life, so why not. Take it up a notch…no offense crows, but sometimes bigger is better when it comes to impressive wing span.
Moments later, another bird and another flew in with the wind. They didn’t circle in true vulture fashion, but seemed to be enjoying the unusually swift current of the river. Grateful to nature for giving me a fist bump in regards to my quest, I forged on, tossing fallen branches from the storm off the trail as I went, and photographing odd mushrooms, familiar tree holes and strange shaped trees.
What came next was something I’d never seen. At the top of a tree, a bird sat facing me with its wings fully spread among the branches, like it was caught. I thought it might be dead, until it moved its head as I got closer. There were others. Two more posed the same way, both eerie and cool. What were they doing? When I got up to the tree, they took off over the river in a majestic flight. It felt like a blessing.
Their action had parallels to my personal life, but that is for another time, another blog. I gathered that this journey had a dual purpose as the feathered companions continued to swoop along the circular trail for the next mile or so, coming into my line of view at key points in my thoughts as I dwelt in this make-believe Ireland.
To stick with the theme of the story’s Irish setting, I remembered a Celtic coffee shop I read about in a nearby town only ten more miles from the park. Why not? I used my faithful GPS (calling my mom and having her google it) and soon was transported to another side of Ireland—the warm and cozy interior filled with authentic music, and Irish tapestries and paintings, along with unique gifts from the Emerald Isle, even an adorable set of cuddly toy sheep.
I bought a CD set called Celtic Legends, Songs of Lore and a map of Ireland. I ordered an Irish tea with honey and slid into a chair at one of the custom wooden tables. After a damp cold gray day beside the flowing waters of Ireland, I drank the smooth texture of the country’s spirit and wrote notes about the enlightening quest. An hour later, I drove home listening to the mystical music of a land not so far away.
Do you want to get to know a fictional character better? Pick one or two people (or creatures) from your favorite book. Now dig in and get a real feel for who they are and why they make certain decisions. What would you do in their situation? Characters can reveal your innermost thoughts and beliefs (and of course, show you a good time).
After a spot-on critique with an agent, and attending an energetic conference (thank you SCBWI Midsouth!), I’m challenged with diving in deeper to get to know my main character (Josh). He has this magical creature best friend who dominates my everyday life, so I decide to carve out some quality time with just Josh and me…no boggarts allowed.
Here is what I have so far for the get to-know-your-character adventure:
Sunday—In the car:
I let Josh scan radio stations. As he does, I wonder if he will sing with no shame on being off-key? Maybe he’ll just nod here and there to the beat of the music. Eventually, I know Josh will stare out the window and ask questions I can’t answer. Thank goodness for Google.
I already know how Josh dresses, but while returning a blender to a department store, I take a few minutes to browse the boys section. His cargo pants hang on rack. I get a vision of the dirty clothes, tossed on the beanbag in his bedroom. When I touch the thick material, I see Josh in the woods, stuffing rocks in the over-sized pockets. Some t-shirts make him snarl (metallic iron-on…no way), while others get a nod of acceptance (big black birds with wide-spread wings–cool).
Josh leads the way. He drops hot peppers in the cart. He wants onions on everything; I want garlic. He wants the hot salsa. I want mild. He talks me into the medium. 12-yr-olds can be convincing.
Wednesday—Plan for a walk:
What will he talk about, away from the distractions of TV, music, video games or friends? Will he ramble on about outer space, or will funny stories of what happened at school come up? Maybe he will point out things I wouldn’t normally notice, like how the bark on a tree forms a sort of face, if I look at it just right. I’ll bring a camera to photograph nature from his perspective. He might have problems to discuss or an embarrassing moment to confess. I haven’t heard him…I’ve been too busy plotting his life for the next year, to get a feel for how the possible series would develop. Now that it has come full circle and I see how it ends, I’ll let Josh make me laugh or cry as I see life unfold in his everyday world.
Meet some of my 4-legged students helping me become certified in dog training. Lovable nine month old Boonaoom graduated this week with flying colors, literally. In the beginning, she would climb up on a chair and use it as a doggie diving board to sail over the top of the barrier. This sweet-sixty-pounds-of-fun taught me the importance of communicating in ways an audience can understand. Under the guidance of Carrie (the Yoda of all dog trainers) I’ve found the job of dog trainer to be more of a translator between the dog and pet parents. When they learn each other’s language, both walk away feeling closer, which leads to a better relationship. So, since I relate everything to writing (or Star Wars…or Seinfeld…or Harry Potter), I have to share the similarities I’ve noticed between dog training and writing for young people:
Other works-in-progress (dogs who are revising their behavior: cutting out parts that do not show their sweet character while adding ones that do):
Before entering a writing contest, it is important to read your story and synopsis aloud to an attentive audience.
When we think of our first role models, besides parents or those in our daily lives, we normally think of superheroes with special powers far beyond our reach. For most of us, there were more significant heroes before we got caught up with cool cartoon ones. I’m talking about those creatures we dragged around in the form of stuffed toys, who slept by our sides every night, reminding us of our favorite story.
Books like The Lorax and Horton Hears a Who introduced us to those who stood for something greater than themselves. They held large concepts, but yet we understood their message and their hearts, so much that we wanted them with us all of the time.
I wonder how much creatures like The Lorax and Horton influence us as we get older. Did The Lorax help teach me to care about the environment? Did Horton show me that “a person’s a person, no matter how small” and to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves?
Recently, my best friend and I took her four-year-old to see the movie The Lorax. When the movie was over, her little boy started to act out. His mom kept asking him what was wrong. After a few minutes of stomping around and not being able to look at us, the little guy went from anger to sadness. He cried but managed to get out words that brought us all to tears: “But the trees…”
Feeling responsible for every tree that has ever been cut down in the history of the world (how do they do that?) we stood silent, not knowing what to tell him. My friend rushed out to get the book so she could read over and over again about how the trees came back and he could touch bright-colored pictures of those precious truffula trees. She also got him a stuffed toy Lorax which has not left his side. Her son wants to plant a tree so they won’t all disappear. I love this kid (and will of course tell this story to his future prom date before allowing them out of the house :)).
My question is this: Do our first heroes help make us who we are, or do we migrate to those that mimic what we already believe? I tend to think it is both. Maybe this is a question only a four-year-old can answer.
Today I was reminded of how words give us much more than their mere definition. They bring us a 3D image of their texture, emotions and power. A good friend was trying to come up with a name for her management style with animals and asked a group of us for our input. In looking over the phrases on the list, each word popped out at me. The overall names may have been accurate for what she does, but some of the individual words weren’t right; they were either too hard, cold, or complicated. Her technique is soft, caring, and compassionate. Each word would need to reflect those characteristics if the name was to carry the message home to the hearts of her audience.
It dawned on me how much texture a word has to it. The word “care” feels soft, like a rabbit’s coat (still on the rabbit, of course), whereas “management” feels like a porcupine. Okay, so a bit of my own personal issues with being managed show in that last example, but words create emotions. Again, “care” wraps me in a warm blanket on a cold night; “management” leaves me asking for the blanket and waiting for approval to get it.
Words also have power. They attract the energy of their meaning. “She crept” makes me bring the book closer, crouch down with the character and wonder what will happen next. “She screamed” pushes me back, brings up my defenses and forms an invisible wall around the character, away from what awaits her. (No, I do not write horror; I write children’s stories. :))
I am aware of a word’s texture, emotion and power in my writing, but how much attention do I pay to those attributes in my speech or non-professional writing such as e-mails with friends or others? Hopefully, more now. Awareness is the first step…it’s the second step of doing that gets tricky.
May your holidays be filled with peace and joy.
Photo not used on our card…
This month we visit a few forest homes. Each house reveals the personality of their resident magical creature:
These elf and boggart homes are along the main trail in the Old Stone Fort State Park. The park is an ancient sacred ceremonial site between two rivers in Tennessee. It is not actually a fort, but a short rock wall covered in dirt, stretching for over a mile. The wall mound was started 2,000 years ago and was kept up for 500 years! Sure, 500 years isn’t long in elf years, but for us, that’s over 5 lifetimes.
On the shaded trail, you pass unique tree holes, a wrap around dirt mound with a hidden wall underneath, and three cascading waterfalls. As we leave the tour of homes right before sunset, the only sound is a light breeze rustling through the leaves. The last of the day’s light filters through to tell us it is time to leave. Darkness is coming—time for enchanted beings to roam the forest, undisturbed.
This little tree frog near a waterfall reminds me how creatures blend in with their forest, but are alert to everything around them. Keep your eyes open and no telling what you will see.
We witness the last of the Harry Potter movies this month <sigh>. Seeing the end of this legendary tale, I have to wonder why this story resonates in us to such an extent. Yes, it is suspenseful, adventurous, etc, but it must be more than that. Is it the power of the friendships; characters so solid in what they seek; courage to face unimaginable fears?
For me, the Potter series was an eye-opener. It let my imagination run wild through the halls of Hogwarts and the forbidden forest. The words put me back in touch with my own creativity and imagination. J.K. Rowling released the inner middle-grader in me.
I remember the wave of excitement with the release of each book or movie. They brought Potter fans together with no barriers of age, language, or culture. Sitting in a bookstore until midnight, waiting for the latest Potter release, was a feeling of oneness with strangers. Everyone there, and in bookstores across the country—across the globe—wanted the same thing. We needed to embrace the friendships and hardships of characters we had come to love. Okay, and we were dying to know what happens to Harry!
So with the release of the final movie, we say thank you to Harry, Hogwarts, and most of all to the author and those who believed in her story enough to bring it to us. So raise your mug of butterbeer, or glass of pumpkin juice to J.K. Rowling as you curl up in front of a cozy fire in the Gryffindor Common Room to read your favorite Potter book.
“Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic.” –Professor Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.
In celebration of the longest day of the year, I get up at 5am and head to Roan Mountain, aka the legendary mountain in my work in progress manuscript. Mid June brings thousands of catawba rhododendron to life. These evergreen bushes cover the mountain top with a blanket of dark pink / red. Waves of blue Appalachian Mountains stand witness to the short lived beauty that will soon be cast away by wind and rain.
For the peak of the summer solstice, I can think of no better place to be than the pages of my manuscript come to life. The curved branches underneath these blooming bushes are as captivating as the flowers. It is a whole other world under their canopy as you walk along the paths. Buzzing bees provide the background music, moving in and out of the flowers. An occasional butterfly stops long enough for you to see the color of its wings.
Other parts of this mountain are shaded and quiet. The Doe River flows over rocks and along moss covered trees in this magical forest.
Still other parts are high grass covered hills. I climb the one at Carver’s Gap while thunder rolls in the background. Once up there, I have enough time to record some video of the 360 degree mountain view, and take a few photos before a bolt of lightning hits the hill next to me.
Knowing lightning hits the tallest thing (and at this moment on this hilltop—I am the tallest thing) I gather up the tripod and electronics and run down the hill. I will admit there was serious praying going on too as I realize the irony of meeting my end on the mountain I have focused on for the last year. Seeing two more bolts of lightning, I finally reach the forest area of the hill. The minute I dive into the trees, I feel safe and protected by the strong branches surrounding me.
When I exit the forest area, a lone rhododendron bush greets me. It is so peaceful in the shade of the incoming storm clouds. I can breathe; it is going to be okay. I give thanks and of course take out my camera, just for a minute, before the last of the downhill climb. It is time to head home. In a way, this mountain has become a second home thanks to the story and characters.
Until we meet again on mountain, trail…or keyboard
Just back from Fairyland Canyon. Yes, it actually exists on a mountaintop in Utah. Before our trip to Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park, I knew my next manuscript would start in this area. Spotting “Fairyland Canyon” on a map when we got there was followed by a resounding, “We have to go there!”
Towering hoodoos fill the canyon like stone people awaiting their fate. Ancient bristlecone pine trees dare you to come close. Some of these trees are thousands of years old and I imagine the magical creatures who have lived among them.
While taking pictures of the canyon, a wind comes up behind me and sweeps my hat down into the canyon. You do not want to go “off trail” here, unless you want to spend the rest of eternity at the bottom of the hoodoos. Photographing a goodbye to my beloved Pikes Peak hat, I notice the log next to it looks like a creature with its mouth open. How many hats has this tree-log-creature eaten?
Borrowing my husband’s hat (and holding it on my head this time), we leave this mysterious mountain of rocks and trees. In my mind, I see the characters Josh, Lilly, and Festy wandering through this land – searching. I’ll be sure to tell them not to wear a hat.
I have changed web hosting companies, and switched to a new format. This website is now brought to you by wind power. While Host Gator uses wind mills for energy, they are protecting 551 acres of forest a year! Each of my stories relay our connection to nature. Now, Mother Nature herself is helping to bring them to life—well, to the web anyway. It will take a publisher to bring them to life :).