Wednesday Wonders: When You’re Not Done Yet

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Have you ever thought you were done? And then you weren’t?

Yesterday, I thought, was my last day of this never-ending summer quarter at school. I woke up early, eager to get to the day.

I took a shower, fed the critters, and shocked the coffee shop I go to by getting there two hours before my usual. I couldn’t stand the thought of writing at home when I had my last day waiting for me, so I plunked myself down at a small round Starbuck’s table to scribble away before driving on in to work.

I arrived at the school at 6:30 am, thinking I would catch up on all the last minute details and then use a few personal hours to take today off.

But I am not done. I have a staff meeting today, it turns out.

It will be fine. We’ll debrief what we’ve done this year and make excellent plans for the fall.

But I really did think yesterday was it. I’ve had the 16th set in my mind for months.

This tiny tale of a mistaken ending leads me to my latest idea for the blog. 

A friend and I have begun to meet and talk and free-write together over tea. We usually pick a writing prompt and then use it to write about the characters in our current works in progress.

So, my blog-reading friends, here is a prompt for you, should you choose to use it:

When did you think you were done but then discovered you had more to do?

Or for your work of fiction:

When has your character thought she had reached the end, only to discover that she had another day (or more) to go? 

May you finish all your work in good time and then know rest-

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Wednesday Wonders: Stretching Some Sentence Skills

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Not too long ago, I was correcting papers and wishing the writers would not be so inventive with their sentence structures and vocabulary.

I would see something with a phrase, a comma, or an unfamiliar word like ‘thalassemia’ and sigh.

I had an prickly sense that something was off but wasn’t strong enough on the structure to make the fix without some checking. Only after looking up the words and the grammatical structures, could I make the right corrections.

I thought to myself: “If I were writing, I would never have tried it this way.”

Then it occurred to me.

If I stick to only what I know, I won’t grow in style or ability. The writers making those mistakes did me a favor by making me stretch.

Pricilla Long in The Writer’s Portable Mentor also pushed me with the suggestion that I take a sentence from another writer and make it my own. To do this, I must carefully examine how the writer creates the sentence and then craft my own sentence in the same form.

I chose two lines from ‘Welding with Children’ by Tim Gautreaux.

“Tuesday was about typical. My four daughters, not a one of them married, you understand, brought over their kids, one each, and explained to my wife how much fun she was going to have looking after them again.”

The first structure is something I might write on any given day. It’s simple with a subject, verb, and adjective phrase.

The second sentence structure never would have come to me with its interruptions and commas sprinkled all over the place. It’s the kind of thing that gives a grammar teacher headaches, and, yet, it works so well to give voice to Gautreaux’s character and set the stage for his conflict.

Here is my version, using that same foundation, worked through with the meaning of another story:

Football night was the usual. My new friend Susie, never one to worry about style, you know, fiddled with her neon spirit hats, two of course, and listened while Josie the cheerleader was babbling at me once more.

It’s turtle-slow work, this sort of sentence skill building. I know, for example, that the last verb form I used is not quite the same as the original version, but I couldn’t quite make it work. And I sure wouldn’t want to craft like this while trying to make a word count.

Still, I do like it. I like the stretch from both proofing those papers and the sentence work. Language  holds more twists and blind corners than I figure I’ll ever have time to explore.

That’s just the way I like it.

May you stretch in words and other ways-

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Wednesday Wonders: The Gifts of Rejection and Criticism

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Criticism and rejection are the best parts of becoming a writer or other artist.

I know. That’s insane.

Even as I write this, I am avoiding re-reading critiques I recently received. I am avoiding it like I avoided driving down the icy road where my van slid and almost tipped over the edge of a cliff last January.

Before I read the feedback the first time, I told my son I was afraid to open the documents I had paid two editors to write about my book. I had the sense that they hovered like the howlers from Harry Potter–red envelopes sent by angry parents that would scream at me.

When I finally opened them, I did hear some screaming.

If I never wrote or taught a class, I might go through life without asking for honesty about my work, and I wouldn’t now be shivering at the thought of taking another look at the howlers in my inbox.

I don’t have much trouble asking for input. The agony comes afterward.

When I ask for feedback, someone often tells me.

Many of my sweet ESL students did not. They would write things on my evaluations like, “Karrie is so beautiful!” I adored them for this but couldn’t exactly improve my classroom skill based on that information.

People born in America are not this way.

Often they tell me what they think.

Some try to say it gently.

Some tell me the stinging truth because they sincerely want to help.

And some burn and sizzle me with cruel words like internet trolls or American-born students drunk on the power of anonymously sticking it to the teacher in a class evaluation.

All of this is valuable. Not all that they say is valuable, of course. Some of it is total trash.

But facing the fear of personal rejection–that is valuable. My squeaky ego would much rather guess at what others think. She pretends sometimes that she doesn’t need to read critiques because she already knows what is wrong.

My squeaky ego doesn’t know. She can’t. She’s too wrapped up in herself and her own emotions.

Learning to push my ego to the back seat, pick myself up off my carpeted office floor, and take the next step teaches me a hard core resilience.

If I can read criticism, take what I need and toss the trash, I will be able to face other terrifying things I need to overcome. It’s the only way I know to stretch and learn and grow as an artist and as a human being on the spinning planet.

Here is a method you can use to get through reading your own critiques. I am currently stuck at step five on my latest howlers.

How to Read a Critique

  1. See that the critique is there. Think on it and work yourself up to opening the doc or the envelope. (Thinking about howlers and how they only get worse if you wait can be helpful.)
  2. Know that you will read good and not good things about your work. As much as possible, separate yourself from your work. There is a big difference between reading that you made a mistake and thinking that you ARE a mistake. Remind yourself of this. Many many times. As many times as you need to before, during, and after a critique.
  3. Know that some critiques will be kind. Some will not.
  4. Open the document. Read through quickly on the first pass. You will be drawn to the negatives and they will stand up on the page like tall men sticking their tongues out at you. This is fine. Normal. Let them. Keep breathing. Meditation practice and deep breathing helps with this part.
  5. Decompress with trusted friends and family. Let them reassure you that you are not a mistake and that you should keep going.
  6. Re-read the critiques. The second time through you will see the good things as long as it was not written by one of those cruel trolls. (Please do not read those again. Those should be given to a trusted friend or colleague to dispose of appropriately. Preferably in a sharps container on the way to an incinerator.)
  7. Write down what you’ve learned.
  8. Keep working.
  9. Ask for another critique.
  10. Repeat.

May you do the work, brave the storm, and then do the work again-

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And if you want more, here is Brene Brown. Her take on criticism quiets the howlers with grace and the image of an arena.

Wednesday Wonders: When Your Art is Worth Saving

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By Sydney Zylstra (retrieved from the attic in 2011)

“You know all those paintings your mother makes and then throws out?”

My sister and I nodded as my dad said this. We knew.

“Well, I pulled a few out of the garbage and stuck them up in the attic. Remember to get them out of there when I die so she doesn’t toss them.”

I understand why my mother wanted to throw those beautiful pastels away. It helped her feel free to make mistakes and go on to create more when she knew she didn’t have to keep or share what she created.

She probably felt something like Molly in this clip Jody Casella shared with me recently:

I also get why my dad didn’t want to let them go. He couldn’t see her mistakes. He only saw a picture worth saving — something he didn’t want in the trash even after he died.

I am drawn to that video of Molly and the memory of my dad stashing away my mom’s art. And I’m happy to say I no longer feel like dipping my manuscript in alcohol and setting it on fire over a gas burner. 

Instead, I keep this mantra by James Scott Bell posted near my computer screen:

“It can be fixed.”

That helps enormously when the mean voice in my head chatters on about all that is wrong even as I work to make it better.

And I’m glad Dad saved the pastels. A year or so after he died, my mom found them on my wall and stopped, looking them over for a slow minute.

I held my breath, praying I would not lose my treasures.

She surprised me by insisting they needed a coat of sealant to protect the surface. She then took them down and returned them to me, never suggesting that I throw them away.

Those canvases covered in flowers still hang in my hallway, reminding me to look at what’s worth keeping even when, at first, I might not think my characters have led me down the right path. 

May you know the joy of creating and the power of saving your work-

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Extra wonders:

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Seattle waterways before the Ballard Locks and the ship canal connected the lakes to the sound.

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My book and I loved this trip to see my Seattle family and visit the locks. So much to research for us here!

A recycled bit on the wonder series:

I love the way writing and other art forms open my eyes to the surprises around me in my everyday life. Many of these wonders will also be in my Instagram account since I discovered the joy of that program during an advent photo project.

I collect these surprises like little rocks in a kid’s pocket. I may use them in a story. I may not. Either way, life gets a little brighter when I take the time to notice.

Epic Fail Part Two: Believe it Or Not Failure Isn’t (Always) Someone Else’s Fault

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As promised after the Super Bowl Sadness, I looked into people who have made mistakes and bounced back. When I googled and asked others about this I found three interesting things:

1. Lots of people have made mistakes.

2. No one wants to talk about their own mistakes.

3. It’s much easier to think even our heroes were unrecognized — that they were unfairly rejected — than it is to think about how many times they had to sweat it out and improve to get good at what they were doing.

When I asked others face to face about famous people who recovered from big mistakes, several people paused, looked at me, and then said something like:

“Well, I’ve made lots of mistakes, but I don’t want you writing about me.”

Then I often learned of the writers or artists they know who were rejected over and over again until someone finally saw their greatness.

But, I kept thinking to myself, if that’s totally true and the writer or artist changed nothing about her/his work, then the people who rejected Harry Potter, Mickey Mouse and Jaws are the ones who made the mistakes, not Rawling, Disney, or Spielberg.

What’s worse, the rejectors had no redemption. They never recovered from their mistakes because the other organizations who saw the greatness made all the money.

What bothers me most is the idea that your stuff is either good enough, or it’s not. Either the world sees you’re already great or it does not. In this view, there is no room for the reworking a book, a drawing or a movie until it’s even better.

I”m still pondering this and what it means for my own work. But for today I will tell you of one successful artist who made mistakes, learned from them, worked hard to make corrections and went on to become a name you all know. I read of his failure in A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant life of Robert “Believe it or Not “Ripley by Neal Thompson.

Robert LeRoy Ripley got his first job as a cartoonist in San Francisco with a respected newspaper when he was a young man. Soon after, he was fired from his dream job because his work was not good enough for the publication.

Rather than rail against his fate or go back to the small town he was raised in to live out his days doing work he did not love, Ripley started taking drawing lessons and studying other cartoonists. He kept the lessons and study up even after he got his next dream job and worked ridiculously hard long hours to improve his skills.

Ripley did not resent his firing. He knew he needed to get better and put all his energy into doing just that.

His quest for improvement sometimes bordered on obsession, and I’m hoping to avoid manic no sleep sort of behavior. Still, I admire Ripley’s focus and determination in the face of his own deficiencies.

This encourages me much more than the stories of needless rejection because the amount of effort I put into getting better is under my control.

I’d also like to think those mistaken rejectors might have gotten better and gone on to recognize the next great person who knocked at the door. I’m that kind of optimist.

To finish this up today, I’ll leave you with Ira Glass who says the hardest part about beginning is allowing yourself to crank out enough stinky material until you get better, knowing all along that what you’re making smells like the fish those guys at Pike Place Market fling into the air. In other words, put in the time making mistakes.

Epic Fail Part One: The Gift of the Seahawks After the Loss

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My first column in The News Tribune ran last week. In it, I talked about my admiration for Pete Carroll and his leadership of the Seattle Seahawks. After reading it, several people I knew (and many I didn’t) sent me emails telling me how much they liked my work, including my high school English teacher Mrs. Koon.

It felt wonderful but also oddly terrifying in a way that I struggled to understand.

Apparently, it’s one thing to write along hoping someone will notice and that I will improve enough to be good. It’s another to have people watching for my next piece to see if they like it or not.

Then the Hawks lost.

Dramatically.

Because of a decision Carroll made.

I’ve read the posts and talked to my friends about it. Most people say it was a bad call. They say Pete Carroll made a mistake in throwing the ball instead of running it with Lynch or, my husband tells me, running the ‘read option’ where the Wilson fakes it to Lynch and then runs it in himself if he reads the situation correctly.

“What’s with all the throwing!?!” one person posted on my Facebook feed. “Run the ball!”

I’ve seen plenty of analysis as I’ve tried to process and understand what happened. I’ve even read smart statistics about why Carroll made the mathematically best move.

For the record, I think he made a mistake. Or, at the very least, he made a carefully calculated gamble and lost.

When I saw his face fall after the game ending interception, I felt a recognition. That is what I am afraid of when people say they liked my work and are looking forward to the next. That. Making a mistake, feeling the devastation, and having more people watching to see it.

In a strange way, it helped me that Carroll lost the Super Bowl.

Don’t get me wrong.(Please, dear fabulous Seahawks fans!)

I’d so rather we had won and keep wishing for the Hermione’s time turner so we could go back and make that last yard with Lynch, the read option, or another down. Anything.

It’s just that something about seeing a gigantic failure gives me permission to keep going, knowing that we all make mistakes.

Some will forgive us.

Some will not.

That’s the risk.

The pain of that football loss only happened to me because I cared enough to feel the absolute thrill of the victory two weeks before.

My writing is a calculated gamble I’m willing to make because the joy of getting the words right matters to me enough to face the risk of the defeat, public or not.

To that end, this month I’ll focus on the epic fail. I’ll look at different failures each week. For Carroll and for me, I’ll look for stories of resilience — of how others have overcome huge mistakes and come out stronger for the struggle.

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A Winter Root Canal of My Blog

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Here you see a cute young person with her new tooth ready to grow in. I looked something like this only 40 year olds don’t look as adorable when toothless, and a metal cap peeked through my gums instead of the growing tooth you see here.

Last Monday, I sat in the dentist’s chair as he tried to break off the five year old ‘temporary cement’ on my front tooth, and I mentally cursed my 16 year old self for her carelessness.

Sometime in the 1980’s I had ridden my bike down a hill thinking the most important thing was to get to my job at Payless drugstore on time. I hadn’t worn a helmet (although I knew better) because it was 80 degrees outside and the sweat would mess up my hair.

I saw the stop sign at the end of the road where I had lived for most of my life and went to use my usual trick: ignore the stop sign and pull to the left side of the road, wait for traffic to clear and then move to the right side of the road. But the stop sign was at the bottom of the hill, my bike was a bit old and rickety with brakes I hadn’t dealt with appropriately and the van was coming my way in the left lane at exactly the wrong time. I looked to the right to see if I could move over and then crashed into the front of the grill, flying up onto the windshield with my face.

I owe my life to the fact that the driver had mostly stopped by the time I hit him. Every so often I envision what my nose must have looked like from his perspective, squashed up on the glass in front of him. I’m sure it wasn’t my best look. I didn’t see him gasp. I had shut my eyes.

I was remarkably lucky and only lost my front tooth to the incident along with a few aches that will never go away in my neck and knee. I made it through 20 years with a root canal and then the shell of a tooth snapped on a Starbucks sausage sandwich, of all things.

Since then I’ve had an implant with a slightly grey gum line just above it. My dentist was trying to fix the color for me. He snapped off the cement of the white tooth cap and unscrewed the hardware in my jaw to hand it to the lab guy waiting and looking down at me as they discussed how to best rework the porcelain to ‘pink-up’ my gums. The lab guy needed to work on it overnight so I left the office with an embarrassing gap, praying I would not have an accident or get a ticket as I drove.

I went directly home that night to my sweet family and listened to them chuckle a little as they said it didn’t look that bad. No, my son would not go to junior high looking like that. “But,” he said, “we’re family, Mom. It’s fine.”

I rushed back for my tooth first thing the next morning eager to comfortably say words with fricative sounds once more. The gum is now slightly less grey, and the experience certainly made me grateful once again that modern dentistry helps me with my past mistakes.

As I thought about it, I realized mistakes like running my bike into a van have helped me have the courage to step forward with other potentially mortifying experiences like blogging. I’ve found that in posting over the past year and a half, I’ve made plenty of blunders that aren’t unlike walking around toothless with my IQ lowered by 10 points just by smiling. It’s not that anyone openly mocks me. But in my imagination, at least, plenty have turned away and said something to their friends.

All of which is leading up to my next step in this writing business. I’m talking a break from my mostly weekly postings. Using a book by Dan Blank I am sitting back, looking at where I’ve been, pondering where I am going and exploring what I’d like most to do with this space I’ve created on the web. I expect this blogging root canal to take about a month which means I’ll be back online in some form by February 1st. In the end, I may decide an implant is needed and completely recreate the blog. We’ll see. Whatever I do, I know I owe thanks to the writers who have gone before me for sharing their wisdom like I owe my dentist with his medical magic.