Wednesday Wonders: Falling Back

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“For this weekend, you get to call yourselves writers loud and proud instead of in a small voice at the end of a long list of other things you do.”

My writing teacher Lois Brandt said this (or something very like it) at the beginning of our Weekend on the Water retreat with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

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Lois wasn’t lying. All weekend long, I talked and heard about books. I talked about my books in progress, I heard from debut authors, and I listened to the faculty tell of how to write as well as what they as editors and reviewers look for when they read. I chatted with my group about their writing and heard what they had to say about mine.

It was glorious. 

Sometimes, I learned, it’s good to be stuck. Sometimes it makes me stop, look at what I’m doing, open my eyes and ears, and hear something new. Sometimes the stuck let me hear old things in a new way.

Gradually, I felt the cement blocks on my creative feet and fingers lifting.

When I got home I found a contest to submit to and the deadline is soon. After that I have my short story who sits so close to my heart I have to crack her open and send her out as soon as I can find a possible home.

And my middle grade novel. This weekend I felt my character wake up inside me as I listened to another writer give me story idea after idea from his own experiences with characters like mine.

Here is what I learned in my two full days at a former convent in Des Moines, Washington:

We do not create alone. 

Even as I sit at this keyboard, far away from everyone I met this weekend and from any of you reading, I feel all of them and you with me.

It’s crazy sappy, yet I have to say it because it’s truer than true.

May you find joy in the people who love life like you do.

And do remember the anonymous quote Kim Baker told us as we went our separate ways:

“You are a ghost driving a skeleton made of stardust on a rock flying around the sun. Fear nothing.”

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The published works of the writers I got to meet over breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 

 

 

 

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Last on this post, but first in my heart, Amanda Hosch. She told me her book journey from the summer of dreaming about her character to the 6 weeks of writing it in a flurry to the agent to the book deal after three years. She was so elated and bubbled over with book joy. Amanda is now one of my heroes. MABEL OPEL PEAR AND THE RULES FOR SPYING hits the stands and the websites in the fall of 2017. Hooray!!

 

 

 

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Wednesday Wonders: How a Storyteller can have Superpowers

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My mother-in-law Vivian likes to read popcorn Christian romances. You know the type. There’s a swooning woman and a shirtless guy on every cover of the stacks of books she keeps close at hand. God is always a player in these stories so they are not exactly Harlequins — but they aren’t far off.

Once I picked up a book with a title something like Breaking Love and read the first chapter. The writer knew what she was doing with an engaging opening scene and tension that made me wonder if Priscilla was ever going to unfreeze her heart after that last horrendous breakup with Jonathan because she needed to in order to save the farm.

I always thought these book were just silly things that Vivian read until my father-in-law Jim got sick. A retired home health nurse, Vivian took care of him for about two years as his health got slowly worse and worse from diabetes and cirrhosis caused by medications.

As he sunk deeper and deeper he became less and less engaged in the world around him. I could see Vivian becoming more and more alone in caring for him 24 hours a day.

One day I asked her about this. She said yes it was lonely but she often lost herself in her books. I could see how much those stories of Pricillas and Jonathans meant to her.

The writer in me perked up. Sometimes it feels as though the job I do with words is not worth much to others. People often ask me to do it for free. It is a vital piece of what I do in my paid work but not recognized much for its own worth. I work with student nurses who will likely save physical lives in their careers. The value of what I do is not nearly as clear cut.

But a story that could ease my mother-in-law’s burden. Now that was worth something. I honestly believe those silly plot lines saved her sanity and helped to heal her breaking heart in a way that no pharmaceutical could have.

Recently, I heard another story in a Radiolab podcast that reminded me of Vivian and her books.

In this a father desperately wanted to do something to help his premature daughter as her translucent body slipped back and forth between life and death. She was born at twenty three weeks and 6 days and was not at all fully formed.

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A baby much healthier and older than the one in an incubator whose father read to her.

He started reading her Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The mom and dad noticed that her oxygen saturation levels went up whenever he read — unless he tried to act out Hagrid’s voice. Then her numbers went down. His wife made him stop scaring the baby but he kept reading.

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Maybe the little girl was not reacting to the story. Maybe that is not a medically sound analysis. But it was clear to me that the dad needed to read it like he needed her to keep breathing. (She lived and is now a five year old ready to begin kindergarten.)

I realize what I am saying here contradicts what I said last week about writing for myself and not worrying about the interest or approval of others. I have found that most good life answers have an opposite side to them.

I do need a reason to write outside of myself. It can’t be my everything but when I hear how much stories matter to others it helps me to keep going.

In fact, I am such a sap that the story about Harry Potter and the baby made me cry.

That’s why I do this, I told myself. I don’t know that it will help a grieving widow or a desperate father. But what I do is for me and it’s also for others who might need the story I’m writing as much as they need any other kind of medicine.

I don’t know that what I write will work for them. But it’s worth a shot.

May you find your own story medicine-

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Bookmares

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How I feel about choosing my next read.

How I feel about choosing my next read.

Lately, I’ve felt traumatized by books. Two of the books I was able to stop reading when they upset me. I didn’t care enough about the characters to make myself read any more about teenagers doing drugs and blowing up their lives or risk running into another scene like the botched horse euthanasia that I long to unread.

Two more recent books have had me fully bought into what happens. I care about those characters about as much as I care about my high school or Sunday school students. I need to know what happened to those kids and that they are okay.

I’ve been listening to their stories on audio (iPhones and libraries make great partners for my morning commute – I can’t even get late fines). So I have had to get the printed books to let me skim those scenes about parental abuse of the character kids I want to scoop up and rescue from their writers’ words.

All of these authors are skilled. Very skilled. Even the ones who wrote characters I didn’t connect to have an amazing writerly superpower: they make me see in my head what they experienced or imagined in their own heads.

When I first took a class on fiction writing, I couldn’t get past the idea of conflict in writing. I didn’t want to believe I needed it to make a good story. Even more, I didn’t want to create stories to fill people with more feelings of conflict. I used this excuse for a long time to stop myself from writing.

Recently I scared one of my critique group members with the opening scene to my book with too much conflict. So I try not to hold my readerly stress against authors, and I know I’ve accepted that fiction needs conflict to pull the story forward.

But I am shopping for books with a tad fewer chest tightening scenes for my next reads. I crave great stories that pull me through without ripping my heart out over imaginary people. If you’ve got a minute, I’d love suggestions. Bring on the Pollyanna. My reading heart needs mending. Maybe this makes me a wimp. I’m okay with that.