Turn into the skid

Writing is a lot like driving in the snow.

It takes a fair amount of practice before you are able to confidently keep yourself from careening into a snowbank. You need to stay focused, proceed slowly and with caution. Be mindful of others on the road, but don’t get too close – in other words, pay more attention to your own vehicle rather than worrying about what everyone else is doing. And mostly, be prepared for the skid. That moment when you feel a loss of control, your tires are desperate for traction, and slamming on the brakes will only make it worse. When your instinct tells you to turn the wheel in the opposite direction because that will keep you on the straight and narrow.

But anyone who has ever driven in snow knows: when you start to lose control, take your foot off the gas and turn into the skid. Don’t ask me to explain the physics, just trust me on this one. I learned to drive in Buffalo. We know snow. And I’ve had my fair share of HOLY CRAP moments when the car does the opposite of what you want it to. My first vehicle was a rear-wheel drive that I nicknamed The Boat. That bad boy fishtailed like nobody’s business. And once, in my little Civic, I made a left hand turn that kept going until I faced in the complete opposite direction of where I had intended to go.

Writing has its share of skids. You’re cruising along, slowly and carefully. Then you send your story/novel/query letter to a beta reader, or if you are feeling especially brave – an agent or editor. Then feedback comes and suddenly you feel yourself careening off the road. You want to slam on the brakes. Give in and slide right off the road and into the shoulder. Or try to crank the wheel in the opposite direction, saying forget it – I’ll never make it as a writer.

Don’t. Ride the skid. Turn into it. Let yourself be out of control for a moment or two. Maybe you’ll end up in the snowbank anyway. It happens. That’s why you carry a shovel in your car, extra blankets, and a bottle of water. After the feedback, you may need to dig yourself out. That’s okay. The important thing is to get back on the road. Cry a little first. Eat some chocolate. Pet the cat. Call a friend.

You are the driver on this journey. You can’t control the weather, you can’t control what other idiots are on the road trying to keep you from getting to your destination. But you are the one behind the wheel. You know when to put your foot on the gas, when to apply the brake, and when to let go of everything and turn into the skid.

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December book report and my faves of 2017

Reading dropped a bit as we prepared for the holidays last month. And okay, part of that was also me scrambling to finish watching LOST before Netflix took it away. I had started the series when it was on TV 10+ years ago, and even used a few episodes in my classroom alongside our reading of Lord of the Flies, but lost interest (haha, pun intended) until the final episode. Which I watched, slightly confused, but more or less able to piece together what was going on after grilling my husband who had binged on library DVDs. Anyway, I decided to give the whole thing a go, and while I appreciated the layers of storytelling and character development, the ending was more disappointing than when I had skipped over seasons 2-6.

Back to books. I read two last month, so I decided in order to make this post longer (besides the above rambling), I’d highlight my faves from the year. I narrowed down the top four and then got stuck trying to pick a fifth from so many good reads. So top four it is. But first, my December reads:

Back Roads by Tawni O’Dell
This is not a book I would have normally picked up to read, but someone I recently met suggested it as a way of tapping into the male voice. (My current MC is a teenage boy and I worried he didn’t sound authentic.) There is definitely a strong male voice here, although too strong for what I was aiming toward. The story was good, but a bit of a rough read content wise – especially in the end. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone with a delicate sensibility.

More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
I’m making my way through the books on my TBR list that dates back to 2015, and I believe I put this one on there for its bisexual main character (although upon reading would conclude he is gay and not bi) as comp research for my previous book. It’s about a  Also, I loved the book jacket comp: Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind – a fantastic movie about wiping out painful memories. The voice in More Happy Than Not is great, and I felt like I was right alongside his group of friends. But I wanted more speculative fiction, and less homophobia. (SPOILER: The MC wants to undergo a memory erasing procedure so he can “forget” being in a m/m relationship. I struggled with the ethics of that.) I will say, I’ve been really into watching Black Mirror, and the book had a very dangers-of-technology feel to it, which I enjoyed.

AND NOW…. MY TOP FOUR READS OF 2017
Because I think you should GO OUT AND READ THESE BOOKS! LIKE, NOW! I’m going to link to their amazon page. Feel free to also support local booksellers, and/or request that your local library carry a copy. Spread the love, people.

The Long Walk by Brian Castner
First, some background on how I came to read this book (in less than 48 hours). Brian Castner spoke at our local author book club in early 2017, and I was asked to facilitate the discussion. I gave myself plenty of time to read All the Ways We Kill and Die (also a great read and definitely in my top ten for the year), his novel that explores the nuances of modern warfare. I researched Brian, took notes while I read, and prepared questions for the discussion.

Two days before the meeting, my friend texted to ask how I enjoyed the books. Books. Plural. In a panic, I checked the club’s website, and sure enough, we were slated to also discuss Brian’s memoir, The Long Walk. Thankfully, our local library had an e-book available, and I stayed up late devouring the book. Honestly though? I would have devoured it even without the fear of being unprepared for book club. It is not the sort of book you put down, and not the sort of book you ever forget. You can read my full review here. Meeting Brian the next day, talking to him and hearing his story first-hand, was also something I’ll never forget. If you have the opportunity to meet an author you admire, do it. And please, read one (or all) of Brian’s books. website

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell
I added this book based on a magazine recommendation, and normally things that everyone else likes I read and think, meh. I took The Death of Bees on vacation and basically stuck my head into the book and barely came up for air. It reminded me of one of my all time faves, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Loved, loved, loved the dark humor and satire.

Salt to the Sea by Rita Sepetys
A friend recommended this book to me, and I listened to it on my phone. It is an award winner, and for good reason. It’s a WWII young adult historical fiction novel, and you’ve probably never heard of the tragedy that takes place at the end – I certainly hadn’t. But that’s not why you should read it. The characters are richly developed, and the story woven beautifully. I look forward to reading more by this author.

No Place Like Home  by Dee Romito
I am lucky because Dee is one of my dear friends. And she is a wonderful writer. Her middle grade books are full of heart and a must read for children and adults alike. Trust me. I read No Place Like Home aloud to my oldest son (he’s 11), and we both loved it. Read my full review here. Especially the end, which I read during a soccer tournament and had to choke back tears.

Not only is Dee a great writer, she is also a fantastic resource for other writers. Her blog provides helpful links and advice, she teaches Scrivener workshops at writing conferences (and spreads the love of sponge candy), and she co-founded our local writer and illustrator group, BNCWI.

So check out her books. You won’t regret it.

What do you plan to read in 2018? I’m excited about my friend Alyssa Palombo’s new book coming out in the fall, and hoping to chip away at my now three year old TBR list. And like every year, I look forward to learning new things, interacting with authors, and losing myself in a good story.

Traditions

‘Tis the time of year for traditions, and our little family of four has several. Some new, some passed down from our childhoods. Hubby brought one back this year and I hope it continues for a long time. His father wrote a letter to each of his children every year and hid it in the tree. The letter highlighted accomplishments from the year and were a way of not only chronicling major life events but to keep him connected to his kids as they got older. As new members entered the family (spouses and grandchildren), each one would receive their own letter, and he kept the tradition going until he died. I teared up this morning watching my boys read their letters and thinking about my late father-in-law.

letters

Another tradition we adapted from hubby’s childhood is the yearly ornament. He received one every year in early December, and when he moved out his mom gave him the ornaments for his own tree. Some of them didn’t survive the decades of storage (and for a long time lived in a sad box of broken memories), but many are on our tree today. The boys now get their own ornament each year, often symbolizing a milestone or obsession from the year. I love opening the box and reflecting on years past.

We were together a while before we had children, and the tradition originally involved a simple exchange. One of my favorite ornaments on the tree is from our early years of exchanging, and one that the children never really understand when we pull it out.

ornament

Hubby and I started dating in 1998 (well, technically 1993, but that’s a whole other story). He joined the Navy in 1999. We were married in 2000, and in 2003 he left in January for what was supposed to be a three week deployment. He didn’t come home until late September.

2003 was a rough year, and that Christmas he made an ornament to represent the missing puzzle piece of our relationship. Whenever I see it, I can’t help but get emotional. That separation was difficult, but it strengthened us in the long run. And every Christmas when I see this ornament, I think about all the other military families who endure separation, especially those who are experiencing it during the holidays. It isn’t easy to be away from your family, and it isn’t easy to be the ones left behind. Every day, but today especially, I am thankful to have hubby home with us, and thankful for those who continue to make sacrifices for our freedom.

Whatever you celebrate, enjoy the time together with people you love. But don’t forget about those who may be lonely and struggling with separation. I could not have survived those nine months without the support of friends and neighbors.

And cheers to traditions, new and old!

November book report

I know, I know, it’s eighteen days into December. But good news: I finished my yearly reading goal!

goal
And I couldn’t let a month slip past without giving a shout-out to all the wonderful words that entered my brain in story form. November was a very YA/Middle grade focused month. In fact, I didn’t read a single “adult” book.

Glimpse by Carol Lynch Williams
Another verse book recommended by my editor friend. This one did not make me cry, but it certainly tugged at the heart. It is a story of two sisters, one of whom struggles with mental illness, and it reminded me of Stop Pretending by Sonya Sones. Be warned, there are suicide attempts and abuse, some of which was quite difficult to read. I had a hard time with the mother character, but overall enjoyed the quality of verse and story telling.

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi
Oldest read this book with his class, and I had promised him back in the day that anything he was assigned I would also read so that we could discuss it together. We’ve read a few Avi books together – he is an excellent story teller. The book is fast paced and full of girl power adventure. Critics argued that the character shift was not believable, and while my son and I concurred, we both enjoyed watching her go from prim stuck-up to edgy risk-taker. Fans of Treasure Island would enjoy this read.

Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
Here is my review from Goodreads: I recently read Walk Two Moons with my oldest son. It was not my first time reading it. Not my second. Not my third. It was probably the 20th time I’ve read this book, and I cry EVERY TIME. It is a beautiful, moving story about family, friendship, loss, and love. And so much more. If you’ve never read it, you should. Read it alone. Read it to your child. Read it to your pet. Just read it. And have tissues handy.

My youngest reported that his teacher was reading WTM during silent reading time, so I mentioned it during conferences. She had never read it before and asked if it would be okay to share with third graders. It’s not (IMO). There are some seriously heavy parts to this book. I used to read it with 7th graders and feel it would be appropriate for 10+.

Liar & Spy by Rebecca Stead
I loved When You Reach Me. The “mystery” in this one was a bit more obvious (I had it figured out right away), but it was still a great read aloud with my younger son. We both enjoyed the MC’s voice and the various characters, especially the neighbors with their unique names and personalities.

Stay Where You Are and Then Leave by John Boyne
Another book chosen because I loved the first one I read by the author. In this case, it was The Boy in the Striped Pajamas – a total tear-jerker that left me sobbing in my work parking lot last year. (Note: Read the book over watching the movie. Far superior.) Stay Where You Are and Then Leave is another excellent, beautifully woven war story. It deals with PTSD before it was recognized as a mental illness and taps into the heartache of missing a family member. The audio book version is worth a listen, and again I would recommend it for 10+ due to the issues addressed.

Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff
I listened to this verse book on my phone and worry that not seeing the poems may have altered my appreciation a bit. The story is about a young girl trying to make money for college who takes on a job babysitting for a single mom struggling with poverty. It was good, but after trying a few other verse books in audio format and giving up, I’ve decided it may be better to stick with print.

All The Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg
A verse book about finding out who you are and dealing with demons from your past. Deals with post-Vietnam War adoption in a way that didn’t make me want to throw the book across the room (I can be a bit touchy about adoption in literature). Many of the poems were raw and beautiful. It hasn’t been my favorite verse book, but I’d definitely recommend it.

So far, my December reading has been a bit sparse. But I plan to spend some quality time during the holidays wrapped up with a good book. Happy reading, everyone!

 

Thirty days of thanks

In the beginning of November, I came up with a plan: To write and deliver one note for each day of the month, thanking someone who has made a difference in my life. The note must be delivered anonymously (I cannot hand it to them). With a handful of exceptions, the daily recipient will be randomly chosen. Exception number one: start with hubby – partly because he is the number one influence in my life but also because he will likely see the pile of note cards and wonder what I am up to.

Day one: note left on hubby’s pillow. He doesn’t notice it until after dinner, at which point he takes it into the bathroom to read. It stays there indefinitely. He says nothing. I question whether or not this is a good idea. Nevertheless, I begin to brainstorm a list of people to thank, and bust out our 12 sided die to help with the random aspect.

Day three: note left on co-worker’s desk. She gives me a hug and tells me it made her day.

Day four: A complete stranger gives me his raffle winnings (a portable grill and grill tools). I’m convinced that the positive energy I am putting into the universe is coming back around.

Day ten: Mom calls to thank me for her note and to ask if everything is okay. She’s worried someone is sick. Someone is, I tell her, the friend I told you about, remember? A good friend is battling serious health issues right now and part of the reasoning behind my endeavor is to make sure the people I care about know that I care about them. And I know that she knows that, but I wanted to make sure other people in my life knew too. Knew how the small things they do make a difference, especially when it feels like the day to day does nothing but wear us down.

Day fifteen: I blew off yesterday’s note and this morning my mom texted to say she’s in the ER. Okay, universe, I get it. Seriously though, I just finished writing yesterday and today’s notes and now I’m falling apart a little. One was to the friend mentioned above. And I hold my breath every time I see a message from her, because it’s usually bad news. Then there’s my mom. She’s battled back before, again and again really, so I don’t expect this time to be any different. But what if it is? What if dad calls to say she’s gone? Because hearts do that. They just stop. And hers has taken a lot already. What if the last thing I said or did was something mean and selfish? Part of this exercise has been to be a kinder, more loving person. But as I pull people closer to me, it only hurts more when something bad happens to them.

Day twenty-six: I haven’t written notes all week, and feel a bit like giving up on the whole idea. It’s my birthday, and I want to stay in bed all day and mope. Not about getting older, honestly it doesn’t really bother me all that much, more about the fact that once again I have set out to do something and failed. The list of uncrossed-off names stares at me from a post it note on my desk, and after seeing all the love pour in on social media and text messages from friends and family sending me birthday wishes, I decide to tackle a few more letters. Some of them make me tear up a little, thinking about the people in my life who have influenced me in one way or another, who have stood by and supported me. There is so much I am thankful for; sometimes it is overwhelming.

Day thirty+one (today): I wrote twenty four and a half notes, and one has yet to be delivered. There are uncrossed-off names left on my list, and more that I need to add. And while I’m disappointed in myself for not truly completing the task, it has been a heart-opening exercise and one that I vow to continue in one form or another. When I’m feeling down, discouraged, unloved – instead of wallowing in self-pity, I will pull out my notecards and write to one of those people.

Because everyone deserves to be appreciated.

 

Letters from my former self

It’s that time of year again. When hubby brings up the holiday decorations and we all reach into our stockings for THE LETTER. The one we wrote to our future self back in January with goals and dreams for the upcoming year.

My youngest wrote all about roller coasters and getting 100’s on his math and spelling tests. He seemed pleased at his accomplishments and proceeded to turn his letter into an airplane and fly it all over the room. Which, by the way, is his personality in a nutshell.

Oldest refused to read his letter out loud and moped on the couch saying he didn’t accomplish anything. Which of course is a total lie – he’s done a lot of great things this past year. Later I found the letter and learned the cause of his disappointment – he had written about things he was obsessed with last year, and trends being trends, they were no longer important. Oh, and he wanted to grow six inches. Genetics can be so, so cruel.

Hubby read his letter, which talked about a bathroom remodel that hasn’t happened yet, and a handful of other things he didn’t accomplish. I read mine. More of the same. Wow, we really stank this year, oldest remarked.

No, we didn’t, actually. We set out on one path and life took us a different way. We didn’t accomplish our goals from January, but instead entirely different experiences and opportunities came our way. And that’s okay.

Although… I would like to publicly say I am disappointed in myself in a few areas. My writing goals included querying my YA Historical Fiction project, which I didn’t do because I am somewhat terrified to put it out into the world. And my butt was not nearly in the chair as much as I had promised myself it would be – despite various mind tricks such as elaborate daily schedules, trips to cafes, and secret candy stashes. But it’s here now, right at this very moment. Let’s celebrate the small victories, shall we?

I think the area in which I have been most victorious is pushing out of my comfort zone. My new job has forced that to some degree; I’m required to go into the community and talk to strangers, so I’ve been working hard on my ice breaking and small talk skills. (Not to worry, there have been PLENTY of awkward moments this past year, during which I stared blankly and lost all ability to make normal conversation.) If something scares me, my immediate reaction might be to give up or walk away, but I’m trying to push past that and embrace new experiences.

And then come home and bury myself in a book next to my trusty feline companion.

We can’t change who we truly are at the core, and I’ve learned that after many, many years of stocking letters. But we can work to become better versions of ourselves, whether that means being more adventurous, working harder to achieve a goal, or being a kinder human being. (More to come on that last one.)

Don’t be afraid to set goals, both realistic and star-reaching. But be prepared for the universe to have other plans. That’s part of the fun.

 

 

 

Momiversary and other thoughts

Today is my anniversary of motherhood. Eleven years ago I drove through a torrential rainstorm, waited for hours in the JFK airport, and at around 11:30 pm I met my son. A happy moment (and also slightly terrifying) and one that we regularly reminisce.

But the moments leading up to it were painful. And this morning, as I sat in the waiting room of my gynecologist, I was reminded of that pain as pregnant women made a seemingly endless trek toward the exam rooms. Today happened to be the office’s outreach to at-risk expectant mothers. Not great timing.

I used to spend a lot of time in waiting rooms, back in the days of fertility treatments. Waiting rooms that overflowed with pregnant women, many of whom were young, alone, and frustrated about their situation. You could see it in their eyes, and I used to wonder if they could read mine. Read the unhappiness and desperation. I would sit in the waiting room and keep myself together – keep my emotions steady – until I crossed the threshold into the exam room. Then I would break down and sob.

Thankfully, I am not in that place anymore. I have two amazing sons and have made peace with my path to motherhood. But there are moments when I can’t escape the rush of sadness that refuses to let go of my heart. Moments like this morning, as I watched each belly full of life and rested a hand on my own, full of scar tissue.

A few months ago we were guests at a church, and a couple had filmed their testimony. When the story began, I knew what would come next: Struggling to conceive, praying to God for a miracle – I spotted the trajectory right away, knew the meteor would land right in my gut. I left the room in time before tears came, and thankfully they never did. But I realized that I would never be able to fully let this go. The tears may no longer flow, but the ache creeps in, when I’m reminded of the painful journey that ended eleven years ago.

That’s the thing. Our pain never fully ends. Because no matter how much we heal, the scars remain a part of who we are. And that’s okay. The scars remind us of where we’ve been, of who we struggled to become, and the amazing things that came out on the other side.

Like my boy. I can’t believe it’s been eleven years. It feels like yesterday I carried him in his little green sling and sang endless rounds of “This Little Light of Mine.”

Let somebody blow it out?

No way.  I’m gonna let it shine.