Lately, I had a flash of concern that I seemed to be forgetting a few more things than usual. Nothing big and nothing critical–I don’t have a To-do List app on my phone for nothing, you know! But just enough for me to sit up and take notice, figure out why, and reassure myself that it wasn’t that whole not-so-young-as-I-used-to-be thing.

Here’s how it went.

I had to schedule one of those no-biggie, routine medical procedures that ARE a piece of that whole not-so-young thing. (Just to jump ahead so you don’t worry–all done, and all’s well!) It was one of those things that comes with 24 hours of semi-fasting and a week or so of not taking meds like aspirin or ibuprofen and not eating certain foods. The doctor and staff went over it all with me ahead of time, they gave me a list, and I knew what was up. A no-brainer, right? Except…

I KEPT FORGETTING AND EATING THE FOODS!

Okay, let’s back up. First, I forgot about the week without the meds, and I had to call in and check whether six days off, instead of seven, was acceptable. Yes, it was. (Okay, I’ll admit to a smidgeon of disappointment that I didn’t have to reschedule, because, hey, it wasn’t exactly a procedure we all put on our Super Fun Things To Do bucket list.) Luckily, also okay were the certain “banned” foods I’d happened to munch on that day.

All good. I move along and get on with my week.

A couple of days later, I’m reaching for a food item to snack on, when I remember that 1) I’m not supposed to eat this and 2) I JUST ATE SOME OF IT THE DAY BEFORE!

To shorten what’s getting to be a long story, it was all good. I was okay, I had the procedure, everything’s cool, and all I have to do is put the next one on my calendar for a few more years down the line. (Whee!)

Even better, I figured out what was going on with my memory. I realized that my forgetting was about transitions and about mindfulness and about how time changes for us during different phases of our life.

When i went back to work full-time, about six months ago, I knew it would bring big changes. Not only would I be in someone else’s office 4-5 times a week (I often get to work at home on Fridays), but I’d be adding a commute to my days on top of the hours actually at work. I’d have to figure out how to shift all those things I used to get done during the weekdays, to evenings and weekends. Yes, I knew I used to do that all the time, but it had been a while, and I’m a very different person than I was back then.

Overall, it’s been working well. I’m not being as writing-productive in the evenings as I’d like, but I’m still making significant forward movement on my WIPS, and that’s huge. I’m not seeing friends as often as I want, but I’m working on it, and I’m making sure it does happen. I’m keeping the things that matter, and I’m trying to let go the things that don’t.

I’ve also been keeping down the stress levels, and that’s something I’m very proud of. That person I used to be, back when I did this last time, would have spent evenings (and middles of the night) looping about the job-work that had to be done the next day and the next week and the next month. She would have spent equal time berating herself about the life-things she hadn’t got done the day before and the week before and the month before. She would have been a lot less happy, and she would have made others around her much more unhappy, too.

See, I’m very clear that, with this transition to a different, more full schedule, I’ve been taking each day as it comes. (Cue theme song from One Day at a Time.) I’ve worked with that To-Do List app so that the things I have to do are out of my head and on the list, ready for me when and if I need to look at them, not zipping around in my head shouting at me when I don’t need them. I’ve focused on one or three tasks at a time while I’m at work–prioritizing, and putting tasks back in their folders while I wait for someone to get me the info I need, picking up another folder and working on that. And I’m writing when I write and getting life tasks done when I’m doing life.

What I’m not doing, apparently, is thinking multiple days ahead! I’m not remembering to check that list from the doctor eight days before my appointment so that I’d know to stop taking ibuprofen. I’m not spending time focused on or worrying about that procedure that’s still four days off, so that I’d know I shouldn’t eat that food.

Welcome to the downside of mindfulness, folks. Welcome to the risks of living in the moment.

I’m kidding. When I realized what was going on, I was actually pretty proud of myself. I still felt like an idiot, sure, but like an idiot I was proud to be. I know that this “downside” is part of my transition back to work and that, as I get more and more settled into my new patterns, my memory will be just as strong as I need it to be. But this has been a long time coming for me, this pushing away of the anxiety, this putting the future into its place…into the box labeled NOT TODAY. And as sure as I am that my memory is fine, I’m also that sure that I will not step back onto the path of worry and fretting. Oh, for pete’s sake, on random days when life is crazy, sure? Of course I’ll go back there. But the next day and the next, I’ll pace myself and live with a balance and happiness I never even hoped for when I was younger.

So am I grateful? Oh, you bet. Because along with these lovely routine medical procedures that come with getting older, so does a peace and ease that makes them–and so many other things–no big deal. In a very, very good way.

Happy Thanksgiving, all! I hope your holiday is filled with love and friendship and a few moments of quiet solitude between the turkey and the pies. And don’t beat yourself up if you forget to buy the whipped cream!

I finally started reading Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, which is–as I knew it would be–wonderful. I’m part way through her essay, “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life”–also wonderful.

When I read the part about the difference between carrying a story idea around in your head and trying to put it on the page, I almost shouted out loud, “YES!!!” Instead, I just nodded my head. A lot. Hard.

Here’s the idea part:

The book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame…a think of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life.

And here’s the part about trying to write all that down.

…when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing–all the color, the light and movement–is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.

Yesterday, I started reading the fast first draft I wrote over the summer, the MG WIP. Unlike what I feared, it didn’t send me into despair at how bad it was. There were a few smiles–I even let myself put a few smiley faces into the margin for myself. And there were lots of ideas–some in the form of Aha! moments that made me grateful, but many others in the form of big, big questions.

I think this reading, and these ideas–not the first draft–are my attempts to catch the butterfly.

I had the feeling–to continue with Patchett’s metaphor–that I wanted to use the gentlest net possible–something made out of fine, gossamer threads of cashmere, maybe–something that would barely brush against the butterfly’s wings. A net that would more encourage than force, that would just create a gentle breeze to nudge the butterfly to land for me.

But maybe I need to just steal Patchett’s SUV and press that gas pedal to the floor.

Either way, this morning, I’m carrying around that feeling of: if ANN PATCHETT feels this way when she writes…then, yes, I can and had better keep moving forward, net in hand.

So… PiBoIdMo has started, and I’ve recorded my first idea. (Insert art note re crowds of people cheering, confetti being thrown, maybe a few sparkly fireworks.) I went with my plan for this year and found a quiet, cat-accompanied place to sit and think, then pushed my mind out of the immediate surroundings and into memory and imagination. (Art note of more cheering.) And I pushed myself to think of the actual problem, a set of threes, multiple possibilities for turning points, and some layers to the ending. (Art note of people shaking their heads at hero’s hope this could work for all 30 days.)

Anyway, all that thoughtfulness led me to a bigger thought, which I want to share and about which I’m hoping you’ll chime in with some comments.

The story idea I got today came with an image of the hero as an animal. A non-human animal. A particular non-human animal with a particular problem. A problem that many real, human children experience. I could write this story with the animal or I could write it with a human child. Either will work. My gut tells me that I will write it with the choice that brings the story to me, that helps me see it best, that helps me get it on the page. So I’m not really looking for writing advice or encouragement here.

What I’m looking for are your thoughts on how this choice (not just my choice, but this choice every time it’s made by any author, illustrator, or publisher) impacts the child reader (or listener) of a book.

I recently attended KidLitCon, at which one of the big themes was the need for more diverse books, with which I totally agree. And one of the conversations was about how diversity isn’t just about racial or ethnic differences, but how it’s about everything–sexual preference, socio-economic differences, physical and mental disabilities or challenges. Everything. And one of the biggest layers in the push for these diverse books is the critical need for children in all these worlds to see themselves in stories. Again, a need I totally believe in.

More than one person said that seeing an animal in a story is not seeing oneself.

I don’t know. I totally see the point–the idea that you’re distancing the problem from the actual child, maybe padding it in a bad way with fantasy. That you’re denying the reality of the scenario in the real world and that–the bottom line–you’re not recognizing the child.

But…I’m trying to see from a child’s eyes and mind. Children have powerful imaginations. Children extrapolate. Children see the universal in the specific. Right? So if a child sees an animal with a problem, challenge, or just a situation that she or he has experienced, does the child automatically think, “Not me,” or does the child possibly think, “Hey, me, too!”?

What do you think? Animals or real kids? Sometimes one, sometimes the other? When and why? Thanks for joining the conversation.

I saw a reference to Rebecca Mead’s post, “The Percy  Jackson Problem,” a while ago, skimmed the article, thought oh, that’s ridiculous, and then moved on because how many times can we argue with these people. But then I started working on a post about just my reading habits and…yep, I started veering right off into a justification of reading for entertainment and escape, and I knew that it was in part because my brain has been simmering (possibly even steaming) about this post.

Plus, Kurtis Scaletta reminded me about it in this post on his blog.

Let’s just take a moment and try to get past sentences like this, “Riordan has come up with a clever conceit, which is amusingly sustained” and “That slangy, casual style is a hallmark of the Percy Jackson books, which often read like a faithful transcription of teen uptalk,” the condescending reductionism of which make me want to ask Mead if she even read the same books I did and to, perhaps a bit immaturely, double-dare her to try to achieve anything close to what Riordan has.

So let’s look at the main problem here. Mead talks about the debate between the any-reading-is-good-reading camp and the “those”-books-will-keep-our-kids-away-from-the-“better”-books camp. I haven’t read the Gaiman piece she quotes from, but as far as I can tell, Gaiman is truly saying that reading is about reading, different books for different kids, while she seems to hear him saying that it’s okay for kids to read anything because “those” books will ultimately lead kids to the “better” books. She worries that Gaiman is wrong to view any kind of book as a gateway to some kind of higher reading, while I don’t think Gaiman–from the bits in here–is actually worried about there being or not being any gateway.

Neither am I.

I was an English major in college, and I loved most of the books that my professors deemed worthy of teaching in their classes. I loved, until I hit grad school, hashing out the meanings of those books and writing essays about them. I see huge value in those books, although I would argue that that value lies primarily in the entertainment of their stories, the escape which their wonderful writing provides us, and their power to create and sustain the reader in all of us. I’d say Rick Riordan’s books pretty much hit the bullseye on all those targets.

I do not agree that those “better” books have some intrinsically greater value for whatever reason. The best and most important purpose of a book, any book is to be something someone wants to read. The most amazing power of a book for children is to not only be that book but to turn the child reading it into someone who wants to read more…and more…and more…and more. And the most evil thing for which a book can be used is to try to make that same child read “up.”

A small selection of our population need to be able to competently and comprehensively analyze literature. Those people will become teachers and professors. And, yes, much gratitude and appreciation to those who choose that path and share their selection of books with their students. But…I truly believe that the most important thing we can give all the other kids, to carry them through life, is a love of reading. And, yes, any reading. Kids who love books will experiment. They’ll try something new, even if only occasionally, because–hey, it’s a book. That new book doesn’t have to be something defined (by whoever) as a classic–it can be a comic book, it can be a mystery instead of a fantasy, it can be a book with a male versus female protagonist, it can be a diverse book, it can be poetry, it can be a joke book, it can be a movie review, it can be an article in the Smithsonian or in Mad Magazine. A kid who is forced into groove after groove carved out by someone else…um, yeah, that’s not going to work. If your goal is to turn kids off books, yeah, sure. But not if your goal is to keep kids reading.

This is getting a little long, as rants do, but one more thing. I keep thinking about the reader I looked like in high school and college, the reader my teachers probably thought I was. And I think about the person I am now, and how many people assume that I am up on all the latest literary fiction, or that I go back all the time to reread Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy (I had a real Russian-Lit binge going for a few years). And when I tell them what I do read–at least 90% kids’ fiction–they  just don’t get it. Like Mead.

So here’s the reader I really was, as a kid, the one that did take the path through classic novels for a while, and then through mystery novels, and always in and out through my childhood favorites, and ultimately–at least for now–to the kids’ books being published today.

I was the kid who:

  • Read and loved classics like The Secret Garden, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables
  • Brought 10 books home from the library and then often read/reread only the comfortable favorites and took back all the “unknowns” without even getting to page 1.
  • Fell in love with Shakespeare because, yes, reading Polonius’ lines (NOT Ophelia’s) in Hamlet was so much fun, but also because–let’s face it–I had a total teen crush on actor Byron Jennings who played both Richard II and Richard III at PCPA.
  • Was told by my father that he wasn’t going to pay for any more Harlequin Romances. (He did not, because he’s an awesome dad, tell me to stop reading them, and of course I didn’t, not for a while.)
  • Went to college as an English major because, yes, I wanted to read Victorian Novels for four years.
  • Got completely burnt out on reading those Victorian novels and others, because of the seemingly inseparable task of writing literary analysis that justified these novels as “better books.” For almost a year after I got out of grad school, I would go into a bookstore and not find a single book to read. Scariest. Time. Of. My. Life.
  • Still has her collection of this series by Phyllis A. Whitney and will rank them right up there with her beloved Dickens, Austen, and Brontës any day of the week, for the brilliant genius of their rightness. As I do Rick Riordan.

WhitneyWhat I read as a kid was a mix of “those” books and “better” books. The only time I ever risked becoming not a reader was when I lost the balance of that mix for too long, when I put myself in a position where choice was completely taken away from me for too many years. And, yes, giving kids insufficient time to read assigned books and other books is taking away their choice. These days I read kids’ books, I read memoirs, I read mysteries and fantasies, and–when the craving hits me–I dip into Austen or Dickens or one of the Brontës. And I am happy.

Let’s just let our kids read.

So here we are, a mere 9 days away from PiBoIdMo 2014.

I have my notebook. I have my pen. I have my imagination. That’s all I need to spend 30 days having ideas pour out of me, to be ready on December 1st when I can start magically weaving them into amazing stories.

Right?

Well, um…

Yes, to a certain degree, that’s all I need, and that’s all you need. Honestly, the simplicity of PiBoIdMo is one its best features. (When I think of all the novel writers starting on NaNoWriMo in that same nine days, I want to toss rainbow confetti and four-leaf clovers their way and hand them large amounts of chocolate. Except I may need some of that chocolate myself.) You can do PiBoIdMo simply, easily, and I guess what I’d call the Down and Dirty way. I’ve done it myself, and it works. It works great. Every year, I’ve gotten 30+ ideas in that month, and at least a few of them have turned into possibilities and, some, into actual stories.

This year, though, I’m feeling a need to shake it up a bit. Just recently, when I went back to my lists for a new idea, I came up empty. Oh, the list was there, the ideas were there, but none of them grabbed me. I’ve been thinking about why, and I’ve come up with a few things I want to do differently this year.

  • Spend more time on “looking at” an idea. In past PiBoIdMo years, I’ve tended to rush through the idea-finding, kind of grabbing anything out of the air as it floats past me and tossing it into the notebook. It’s effective, yes, if I’m going for quantity–and I am–but I think I want a bit more this year. I want to bring a bit of mindfulness to each ideas–I want to give them some space to find me and a bit of attention as it drops into my brain. Yes, PiBoIdMo is about going fast, about gathering a big list, then looking for treasures. But I’m thinking I could slow down just a bit below Mach 5 (whatever that means!) and still be good.
  • Go for more than just an idea. I think part of the problem with my lists is that–with so many of the items–I can’t even remember (almost a year later) what I was thinking. Maybe for some of you younger whipper-snappers, this isn’t a problem, but for me…yeah. A gift for you: If you can figure out what I meant by “Salt, no pepper. Pepper, no salt. Ketchup, no mustard,” the idea is yours! I want to add a few details, think about a character, maybe toss in a problem. Just an extra layer or two of idea frosting, if you will.
  • Stay away from concept-book ideas and shoot for story-based ideas. This is not any kind of judgment on concept books; I am in awe of writers who do them well. But I seem to still need a story to keep me interested and to engage me in turning the original idea into a book. During PiBoIdMo, those concept ideas come at me like little sparkling fish–I reach for my net, grab them, and toss them in the tank notebook. And then, a month or three or eleven later, all they do is swim in circles and make goggle-eyes at me. Whereas stories…oops! Sorry! Got distracted staring out the window and thinking about all the places a story can take me.
  • Play with titles. There’s a rhythm in a title, a little bit of music, even–sometimes–that first taste of story. The picture book I’m working on now, which I’m pretty much head over heels in love with, started as a title. Who knows whether the title of that book will stick, or whether any will that I attach to a PiBoIdMo idea, but as a brain-grabber for me, as a lead-in to a character or a plot, they may be a new tool for me.

If this is your first year doing PiBoIdMo, don’t fret it too much. If you have a fun idea for doing a little extra, or if something in my list grabs you, then go for it. But, really, the best way to get started is to dive in, scribble something down, turn a page, and do it again. (Oh, ONE TIP: number our ideas. When you get 2/3 through the month and you start to panic about consider whether you have enough ideas, you do NOT want to have to go back and count them. You want to be able to look at the last page, read the number 25 and know just how close you are to the goal)

If, however, you’ve done PiBoIdMo before, maybe several times, think about adding something new this year. Maybe the title thing, maybe you want to come up with ideas only for concept books. Maybe you’ve got some great ideas of your own. Toss them in the comments to share!

And I’ll see you all over at Tara Lazar’s blog for PiBoIdMo 14! Counting down: 9…8…7

Believe me, I get that prose–without plot, without characters, without setting and dialogue–isn’t enough. I’ve read enough books and manuscripts where the words flow pretty darned well, but everything underneath those words is thin–right. No scaffolding, no story.

But…I am also a sucker for beautiful prose, for the phrase or sentence that just nails it, that makes you suck in your breath, reread it, and then read it again–out loud to whoever is in the room, whether they really want to listen or not. The prose that makes them realize they really did.

It’s been a couple of weeks of reading authors who can wield words with beauty, like Van Gogh with his sunflowers, like Thor with his hammer, like B.B. King with Lucille. Authors who, yes of course they have all the other elements down pat, but who draw you along with the power of that prose. You absorb the story and the characters through osmosis, but you breathe in the words like the sweetest, purest oxygen.

If you’ve been following me on Facebook, you’ve heard me rave about the authors I’ve been breathing recently, but I’ll mention them here again.

  • Jandy Nelson. I remember really liking The Sky is Everywhere, so I picked up I’ll Give You the Sun. It knocked my socks off. Yes, story out the wazoo, but omg the beauty of the words, the way she mixes everybody’s special magic in with the less magic world they move through, the way they turn that world into magic for themselves and the reader. And two points of view, people…TWO.
  • Jan Karon. On a recommendation from a Facebook friend, I started Karon’s At Home in Mitford. I loved it. Sort of like Barbara Pym, except somewhere in the South instead of England, and without the depression. Without any depression. I put Book 2, A Light in the Window on hold at the library, but only Book 2, because you know…sometimes that first perfect book and then the rest not so perfect. Let’s just say that 50 pages into A Light in the Window, I zipped over to my library website and added Books 3 and 4 to my hold list. The books read like a river, one you’re safely and slowly traveling down–in the warm sunshine and not a drop of seasickness, with a pitcher of lemonade and a pot of tea waiting for you somewhere along the way. Even when Winter comes, you’re on that river, bundled up a little more against the cold, but still traveling happily, knowing its just the season and it will roll along into Spring and Summer.
  • Joshilyn Jackson. Years ago, I read Between, Georgia, which falls into that small bubble of books that may qualify as the single best book I’ve ever read. I’ve loved every one of Jackson’s books that I’ve read, but Between…it’s 17 stars out of 4. It goes on your must-read list NOW. And then pick up Someone Else’s Love Story, which I’ve been reading all morning and which is looking to be Jackson’s best one since. Kind of like Jandy Nelson, except entirely different, Jackson uses her power over words to place her character’s perceptions on the page and make them real. Again, two points of view here, and amazing, amazing, amazing. Different words, different phrasing for each of them–one kind of musical and light even when the darkness curls up at the edges, and the other a boulder just starting to shift on the slope of a mountain…just threatening to roll and pick up steam or maybe settle back down again and stay solid. With a few tiny sun-sparkles off the quartz embedded in its surface.

There are dozens of other writers who get me with their words–Steve Kluger with My Most Excellent Year, Kristin Cashore with Bitterblue are a couple that come to mind quickly. How about you. Who makes you almost not care that their storytelling and characterization is wonderful, because you’re so happy just to lose yourself in the prose? Leave some more suggestions in the comments!

 

October is my Stay Away From The MG WIP month. November will be my Now Step Into Revision month (along with PiBoIdMo-yikes!) And so, of course, what’s twiddling along inside my brain is how best to get started.

I’m feeling like I need to do some notebook work–the low-tech kind. I have some biggish questions I want to, if not answer, spend some time with. And I think if I can stay away from the computer at first, I might be able to resist the temptation to just dig in and start changing words, instead of ideas.

This doesn’t sound easy to me. I love my computer. While I still have nostalgic affection for the notebooks of my childhood, I haven’t been successful with them for years. At the base level, I can barely read my own handwriting these days. And at the higher (?) level, any ideas I do manage to come up with seem to come with a pretty strong tug to get back to my keyboard and type as fast as I can to get it all down, put it into a scene, formulate and form it.

But I’m going to give it a shot. I’m going to see if I can get myself to a library or a coffeehouse a couple days of days a week after work, or take my notebook into my bedroom–away from distractions–and I’m going to ask myself some questions and see what I can do about stepping toward some possibilities.

Do you use a notebook? At what stage in the writing/revising process? What do you use it for? And how do you go back to whatever it is you’ve scribbled on the pages and make it useful?

All tips and suggestions welcome in the comments!

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