Monday, November 4, 2013

Random Acts

I did not know anyone who died at Sandy Hook.  I didn’t know their friends or families, either.  But I am a mother, and I remember what it was like having a first grader.  Those gap toothed smiles.  The sweet little hugs.  The nervousness I felt sending them off to school in the big yellow bus.  When those children were murdered on that cold December day, it shook something deep inside of me.  And when I read about the heroism of the teachers who died, it made me want to do something myself.

I decided to do twenty six small things before December 14, 2013, each a tiny dedication to those who died.  I started out making meals for friends who were sick or had suffered a loss, but that was something I always did, and it wasn’t really a sacrifice at all on my part.  Also, when I did these things, people thanked me for them and it brought me personal attention.  I didn’t want that.  I wanted to do something for someone I didn’t know.

I began donating to charities, but even that was too easy.  I just clicked on PayPal or sent a check.  It didn’t hurt.  It wasn't really a sacrifice, and it wasn't personal.  I'd always donated to charities, especially children's charities, and will continue to do so, but I wanted to find something I could do that meant a bit more.

I finally decided to donate my hair to be made into a wig for cancer patients.  I had long hair already, and I knew a friend was having a fundraiser at her shop in October.  I made this decision sometime in January, and it gave me months to grow out my hair.

What I didn’t expect was as my hair grew longer, I sort of grew attached to it.  I loved the way it brushed against my back.  I enjoyed winding it up in a bun or braiding it.  It was thick and long and I’d never dyed it.  It was the perfect hair for a wig, but as October approached, I grew more and more nervous about losing it.  I’d become sort of vain about it.  My friends told me how much they liked it, and insisted I keep it long.  Strangers complimented me on it.  Even though it had become a pain to take care of, I still wasn’t sure if I was ready to part with it. 

I let people know I was growing it out and why in the hopes that it might make them consider donating their own hair, but also to keep me accountable.  I was secretly afraid I might not go through with it, and I was so close to reaching my twenty six random acts.  Every time I saw a photo of one of the Sandy Hook victims, or of their grieving parents, it reminded me about what is really important.

Getting my hair cut, it turns out, was really no big deal.  A few snips of the stylist’s scissors, and it was gone.  I immediately loved the way it felt so much lighter, and brushed against my cheeks as I turned my head back and forth to look at it in the salon mirror.  I couldn’t understand why I’d been so nervous in the first place.  It was only hair, and it will grow.

Today I saw a quote on a page on Facebook dedicated to one of the children who died at Sandy Hook, Daniel Barden (   “Today I will change my way of thinking from, ‘I have to do this, I have to do that,’ to ‘I GET to do this, I GET to do that.’  Even life’s little changes and mundane tasks hold beauty, meaning, and offer opportunity.  We learn this from Daniel.”

I still have a few acts left to perform, and this quote reminded me why it is so important.  Each little thing we do, whether it is making a meal or helping someone in need or even donating our hair, may seem very insignificant in the scheme of things, but it can also mean a great deal to the one person it helped.  And aren’t we lucky indeed that we GET to do them?

If you are interested in learning more about Sandy Hook and the Sandy Hook Promise, here is their website:

Friday, October 4, 2013

Perfectionism in Writing

In my last blog post, I wrote about my youngest son, the rocker, and what I learned from his experiences.  This time I want to write about what I learned from my middle son, The Perfectionist.
My middle son is a scholar.  He’s been a fifty year old man in a little body since the day he was born.  He is also one of the kindest people I have ever had the pleasure to meet. But he is a Perfectionist (with a capital “P”).  He is careful.  He is thoughtful.  He weighs his options.  He thinks before he acts.

Being too much of a perfectionist can be deadly to a writer.  It could make you write and rewrite the first paragraph of your book so many times that you never move beyond it.  It can stifle and stagnate your writing, but a little perfectionism is a good thing. 
Here are the lessons I learned from my son, The Perfectionist:

1.       Planning is important.

Before my son writes anything for school, he spends a lot of time thinking about it and planning it out.  He told me once that he has the essay written in his head before he puts a word on paper. 

I do this as well, to a certain extent.  I have my books mapped out in my mind before I begin to write, but I leave some room for surprises.  Once, one of my characters died, and I didn’t even realize it was going to happen until I was typing the words.  It was unexpected, but it was what needed to happen in my story.  If you leave no room for these beautiful little twists and turns, your writing might be flat, but if you don’t plan things out, it could be even worse. 

I imagine my story outline to be like the skeletal structure in a body.  It is the base, the strong center that holds everything together, but it can move and bend and reach.  If you had no skeletal structure, you would be a lump of flesh.  If your story has no structure, it is like a lump of something else.

2.       The devil is in the details.

My son is detail oriented.  He notices things that other people might miss, and details are important to him. 

I’ve always been a big picture kind of gal, but I’ve learned from my son that it is the details, and consistency within the details, that are important.  The details are the paint of your writing, what brings out the color and depth and interest in your characters and your setting.  Too much detail can make a perfectly good manuscript into something unreadable.  Too little can make it read more like a synopsis than a book.  Find the right balance where you are painting your story, but not turning it into a muddle of TMI (Too Much Info).

3.       Hard work is the only way to get it done.

 My son doesn’t take shortcuts.  He works and works and works, and then he’ll work some more.  He wants everything to be, if not perfect, than as close to perfect as he can make it.

His work ethic inspires me.  Sometimes I look for reasons not to write.  There are moments when even doing the laundry sounds like more fun than facing my book.  But I know the only way I will finish it is if I work, and the only way I’ll improve as a writer is by writing.  Sometimes, when the couch is calling my name for a nap I don’t really deserve, I think about my son, grab and espresso and get back to work.

4.       Being a little Vulcan is a good thing.

My Perfectionist is able to separate his heart from his head.  He can look at things, including his own work, subjectively and not emotionally.

This is something I’m working on as a writer.  Every once in a while, I catch something that I wrote that is purely there for decoration.  It serves no purpose, other than the fact that I like it and probably think it is funny. 

Sometimes I wish I had my son’s logical Vulcan brain.  It can be very hard to separate what is there only because I love it and what is there because it is important to the story.  I’m getting better, but I’m still guilty of it sometimes. The needs of the plot line needs to outweigh the needs of the writer. 

5.      Perfectionism doesn’t have to be boring.

My son waves his nerd flag proudly, and with great panache.  He collects funny t-shirts.  He is the school mascot.  He has the most comical role in the school play almost every year.  He carries his perfectionism into these activities, and uses it to improve them.

There are things about perfectionism that will come in very handy for you as a writer, and aren’t boring at all.  Perfectionists make sure their work is finished and polished before they send it out.  They care about spelling and grammar.  They adhere to deadlines.  They check and double check the rules and submission requirements.  They are an agent’s (and an editor’s) dream come true. 

At times it is hard for a true perfectionist like my son to really enjoy the writing process.  I understand this completely.  Math is logical.  It makes sense.  It is clearly either right or wrong.  Writing is not like that at all.  No matter how many times you read and polish a manuscript, you’ll still find things you might want to change.  It can feel like a never ending process, and there is no right or wrong answer.  And as far as submitting your work is concerned, it is strictly the opinion of the person reading it – whether it is good or bad, whether it sells or doesn’t.  There is no formula of success for writing, and don’t let anyone tell you any differently.  You can work very hard and write and excellent book, but there are no guarantees.  It is often very random, and completely left to chance. 

Perfectionism, like dark chocolate and fine wine, is good in small doses, but too much is a very bad thing.  I think I’ll have a bit of dark chocolate right now, and then get back to work on my manuscript.




Tuesday, September 24, 2013

How to Rock Your Writing

I have to start out by saying I am not a rocker.  I like music, in general.  My tastes range from classical to jazz to pop, but I have never been passionate about music or musicians.  I was never a groupie.  I didn’t buy a lot of albums.  I liked singing in a group, and adored belting out Christmas carols (the only songs I actually knew the words to), but I never dreamed of being on stage.  In fact, I would have preferred anything, possibly even a root canal, to being forced to sing in public.  But I have a twelve year old son who is a singer, and because of him I have learned a bit about rock and roll. 

Do you remember an old cartoon about a man who found a very talented frog?  It sang “Hello, My Baby” and tap danced, and the man thought he had found something really special, but as soon as anyone else was around, the frog would refuse to sing.  It would just sit there, very serious and frog like, saying “ribbit.”  It eventually drove the poor man insane.  I think the final scene of the cartoon was of the man being taken to an insane asylum as the frog, all alone with the man in the paddy wagon, happily sang and tap danced to the sound of the man's sobs.
I understood that cartoon on many levels, because my son was that frog.  He had an unusually good voice, even at a very early age, but refused to sing in public.  He wouldn’t even sing in front of people who had known him since the day he was born.  Occasionally, if everyone agreed to turn their backs and avoid looking at him, I could get him to sing a line to two, but nothing more.  It wasn’t until he had some training, and met the right teachers, that things really came together for him.

Here is what I have learned from my son’s experience, and many of these things have helped me to grow as a writer and as a person.

1.       Work on your craft.  In the early days, when my son wouldn’t sing, I insisted he take private voice lessons.  I didn’t want to be pushy, and told him he would never have to sing in public if he didn’t want to, but I insisted on the lessons.  There is a simple reason for this.  When you are given a gift, whether it is the ability to sing or to dance or to write, it is your responsibility to nurture that gift and help it to grow.  Even if you never share it with anyone else, even if it means dancing when no one is watching or singing alone or writing without any thought of ever being published, you must do it.  I wanted my son to nurture his gift, and to have the skills in place to be able to perform if he ever wanted to do so.  I found a gentle lady with a quiet demeanor named Lisa Abrams who gave my son classical training.  At first he was hesitant, and would only sing for her with his back turned, but eventually his confidence grew.

2.      Force yourself out of your comfort zone.  The school talent show was coming up, and my son agreed to sing.  It was a very big step for him and he was scared to death, but he did it.  He sang “The Grenade Song” by Bruno Mars, and it was a huge hit.  Afterwards, he looked at me and said, “I want to do that again.”  We all face things that frighten us, but sometimes those are the things that end up being the most worthwhile.  Challenge yourself, and just do it.

3.      Find kindred spirits.  Riding on the success of the talent show, my son wanted to join a group called the For Those About to Rock Academy.  I was still a little worried that he would sit in the back of the room and refuse to sing in front of the other kids, so before signing up, I asked if he could meet the teachers and sing for them.  That was the day he met Joey Granati and Cathy Stewart.  They had mentioned they might do a Queen song for the upcoming session, so he learned “We Are the Champions.”  He was nervous, but after chatting with Cathy a bit, he agreed to sing, and as soon as he began to sing, Joey began to cheer.  His nervousness disappeared.  They understood him and he understood them.  A few days later, he met David Granati, the other teacher at Rock Academy, and it was magic.  Even now, after performing with them for more than a year, I see his eyes meet David’s on stage as he belts out a song and David grins, his fingers flying over the strings of his electric guitar.  I see my son look for Cathy to make sure he comes in at the right place and doesn’t miss his cue.  And I watch him grin as Joey, playing on the bass, leans back against him and strikes a classic rockers’ pose during a song they both love to play.  Kindred spirits.  We need them as writers, too.  And when we find them, we know it instantly and it is like a little miracle.

4.      Not every song goes smoothly.  Sometimes things just sort of fall apart on stage.  Voices crack.  Mistakes are made.  Things are forgotten.  But once the song is over, you just move on to the next song.  That is important to remember as a writer.  If you write something crappy, get over it.  Your next book might be better.  If not, get over that, too.  Call your kindred spirits, whine (or wine) a little, and get back to work.  No one said it would be easy, but if you love it, it is worth every bump in the road.

5.      Embrace spontaneity.  I’m a compulsive organizer.  I’ll admit it.  I plan things out.  Whenever I go on a trip, I print out directions, use a GPS, and also put Google Maps on my phone, just in case.  I make reservations.  I research parking areas.  I leave as little as possible to chance.  But I have learned that some of the most beautiful things happen spontaneously.  Once, my son was asked to learn a new song.  He did, and went over it with Joey, but didn’t rehearse it with the guitarist and the drummer.  They just went on stage and did it, and it was great.  Rockers are spontaneous, but they are not especially organized or conscious of time.  Your writing needs to have a little of both.  Whenever I write, I know where I’m going in my story (sort of like using a GPS), but I’m willing to veer off if I find something interesting along the way.  I know the GPS will lead me back, but I don’t want to miss the opportunity to find something magical and unexpected – sort of like the diner we found in San Luis Obispo that had the best blueberry pancakes in the whole world.  We never would have found that place if we didn’t have a newly potty trained child who needed a bathroom urgently, and that is my point.  Enjoy the surprises.

6.      Celebrate your progress.  Before my son had private lessons, and before he met Joey and Cathy and David, he was in the elementary school choir and was chosen by his teacher, Mrs. Damesimo, for the District Honors Chorus.  It was a great experience for him, and a wonderful opportunity to meet even more kindred spirits.  But the thing that stands out to me the most is the difference between when he started chorus, and his last performance at a concert his sixth grade year.  This child who was once so nervous that he couldn’t sing unless everyone turned around, belted out a solo in front of hundreds of people.  His friends in the audience screamed and cheered.  He responded with a shy, little smile.  Mrs. Damesimo glowed.  She knew exactly how far he had come and so did my son.  As writers, we have to see our progress, too, even if it means going back to that horrible thing you wrote a few years ago – if only to realize how much better you have become and how much hard work can pay off.

7.      Love what you do.  When I see Joey and David and Cathy on stage, it is clear they are doing what they love.  When I watch Lisa teaching my son, it is clear that she is doing what she loves.  When I see Mrs. Damesimo directing the sweet little faces in the elementary chorus, I know she is doing what she loves.  And when I see my son sing, I know he is doing what he loves, too….for now.  He also loves soccer and reading and spends way too much time playing video games, but music is a big part of who he is as a person, and I hope it always remains a part of his life.  I didn’t find my passion in music, I found it in writing, but it took me a while.  Even though people have been telling me I should be a writer my whole entire life, I didn’t listen.  I travelled and learned and explored and got married and had a family…and then found out writing is what I really love to do.  It is my passion, and I am incomplete without it. 

It is never too late, so keep writing, and ROCK ON!  \m/

If you'd like to see my son's solo at the chorus concert:

And this is a video him performing with the Rock Academy and the always wonderful Joey Granati:


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Facing the Fact That Your "Baby" Is Ugly - What To Do If Your Book Really Isn't Very Good

The first book I ever wrote was called KALYPSO.  It was loosely based on parts of the Odyssey.  It had elements of Greek mythology.  It involved mermaids and Atlantis and hidden treasures.  It was awful.  It was too wordy and detailed.  It went on, and on, and on.  It embarrasses me to even look at it, but I’m glad I wrote it.  It taught me how to free write, how to move forward, and how to actually finish a story.

The next book I wrote, AMAZONS, was much better - so good in fact that when I submitted it to several agents, ten asked me to see a full manuscript.  That is a pretty big deal.  Agents don’t ask to see a full unless there is something in the writing or in the story that makes them think it has potential.  I was over the moon, but I didn’t sign with anyone for AMAZONS.
After AMAZONS, I wrote SO PRETTY, and almost immediately signed with my agent, Marlene Stringer of the Stringer Literary Agency.  I was sort of relieved at this point that I hadn’t found an agent with AMAZONS because Marlene was so perfect for me.  I put AMAZONS away, and focused on other things.

A few months ago, I attended the Pennwriters annual conference in Pittsburgh, PA.  I decided to submit AMAZONS and another book I had just finished working on, TIGER LILY, for a Novel Beginnings contest.  TIGER LILY won third place, and AMAZONS actually made it past the first round.  I was sort of surprised. 
I knew in my heart of hearts that there was something wrong with AMAZONS.  It was clunky.  It didn’t flow.  It was so much better than my first book, but not nearly as good as my fourth.  The good news was I had improved as a writer.  The bad news was I still didn’t know how to fix AMAZONS.

Looking at your book honestly is sort of like looking at your child honestly.  I’ve never heard anyone say they have a really ugly or stupid baby.  As parents, our children are all beautiful and perfect, but as writers, we sometimes need to realize it when we have given birth to something bad.  We need to face it and fix it, as much as it hurts to admit it.
AMAZONS wasn’t exactly ugly, but it wasn’t perfect either.  The good news is others were able to see what I couldn’t.  Part of the contest at Pennwriters is feedback given by the judges.  Those judges saw what I, as a proud parent, could not.  They saw the flaws in the beginning of my book, and they offered suggestions about how to fix them.

I just rewrote AMAZONS.  I changed the title to THE AMAZON (huge difference, I know).  I added chapters and polished up the dialogue.  I worked on the ending, and even added an unexpected plot twist.  Time, distance, and experience helped me with most of it, but the advice of the judges from Pennwriters was invaluable. 
My advice to other writers is this – don’t do what I did.  I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t seek out help.  I’ve never been in a critique group (mostly because my life is a non-stop roller coaster ride of soccer practices, play dates, and after school activities at the moment), but I can see the value of joining one.  If you don’t have time, or if you can’t find a group you trust and feel comfortable working with, seek out a writer friend who would be willing to help. 

Don’t feel embarrassed by your writing failures of the past; the fact that you can see that your first attempt at a book was awful means that you have learned something and you are a better writer now.  Instead of dwelling on it, find a way to make it better.
Who knows?  There may even be hope for KALYPSO.


Monday, July 29, 2013

Interview with Author Nancy Hahn

Today I am interviewing Nancy Hahn, the author of over twenty five children’s books.  Nancy began her career as an elementary school teacher.  She danced from an early age, and then taught dance to children throughout the Pittsburgh area.  She created the program “Dance N’ Fun” for the City Parks and Recreation program.  She taught for the Pittsburgh public schools and a magnet school in Pittsburgh.  She created the accredited dance program at Allegheny Community College.  She spent almost thirty years in television programming, by building her own television station and focusing on international and children’s programming and independent movies.  She felt those were voids in the market at the time, and she wanted to fill those voids.  When Nancy’s daughter began touring with Christina Aguilera, Nancy started doing professional song writing as well.  Her efforts resulted in many pop songs that charted and were featured on Radio Disney.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to say I met Nancy because my son is part of her newest venture.  He recorded a song called “Rock Dog” that will be used as she begins turning her books into interactive audio entertainment, cartoons, and Broadway productions.

Nancy, the first question I have to ask you is about your dance background.  You taught Lynn Swann and Franco Harris ballet, which was hugely reported on in the Pittsburgh area.  What was that like?

The dance room at the community college was right beside the weight room.  Lynn and Franco used to go into the weight room religiously, and they always had their faces pressed against the window of the dance room to see what we were up to as they went past.  Finally, one day I went to them with my stern teacher’s face (I was twenty two years old at the time, so it wasn’t all that stern), and asked them what they were doing.  My students were aghast.  They all knew Lynn and Franco were star players on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ football team, and they couldn’t believe I confronted them.  They were such nice guys, though.  They looked at me, kind of shy, and said the dance class looked interesting, so I invited them in.  It was funny.  Just imagine Lynn doing a tour jete, and Franco doing one right after him in a fierce competition to do it better than Lynn.  They were hysterical, and they kept coming to my class.  Ballet gave them better agility and helped Lynn to jump higher when he caught passes. 

And your daughter began as a dancer as well, and then become a very successful singer.  What was it like touring with your daughter?
Rich Engler, a huge music promoter in Pittsburgh, was looking for a “Pittsburgh Pop Girl” to open for Eiffel 65.  One of my friends told me to reach out to him and make him aware of my daughter, Hilary.  He was kind of hard to get a hold of, so I decided we would just try our luck.  We drove down to his office, Hilary, my husband and I, and I had a little video cassette recording with me in the car.  I went to the office and spoke to a friend of a friend who worked there.  He asked to see the video, so I played it for him.  Right away he said, “Hold on a second.”  Five minutes later, he came in with Rich Engler, who watched the video and asked if Hilary wanted to open for Eiffel 65.  I was so shocked.  He asked if we were busy on Monday, and I said “No.”  He said “Come to the office, I want to put her on the Christina Tour, too.”  I only went in to ask about one little thing, but it snowballed.  Touring with my daughter was a very rare experience, and it brought us closer together.  We were together in some of them most unconventional living arrangements, in tiny hotel rooms, together twenty four hours a day, and we had lots of obligations.  We had to do everything ourselves, from sound checks to choreography to vocal arrangements.  We ended up doing two simultaneous tours, the “Levi Make Them Your Own” tour, and all the SFX Venues, which were outdoor venues.  It was crazy, but it was wonderful, too.

When did you start writing children’s books?
I started writing children’s books in 2011.

How did you become interested in helping the “Lost Boys” of the Sudan?  Did you travel to Africa?
I heard them speak and got to know them and know their story, especially one boy named Bol.  Bol told me about his life, and it was such an incredible story I felt I had to share it.  We had a sort of unspoken bond; his story was the message and I was the messenger.  Another Lost Boy had a sister who was almost a child bride before he rescued her.  I felt I had to share her story, too.  That is the story of Natepi.  I donate the profits from these books directly to the Lost Boys, no filtering. And the proceeds from Nateti’s book goes directly to her college fund.

Tell me about your new book, “Merry Jane and the Holidays”.
Because of the dancing and the music in my life, all of my books are musical.  The Lost Boy book has musical elements.  “Nene the Hawaiian Goose” has musical elements.  When I created the characters, “Merry Jane and the Holidays,” it was about an animated girls’ band. I decided they would only play on the holidays, and their songs are about the holidays.  They have a phenomenal manger, Rock Dog, and unbeknownst to them he wants to have a singing career, too. 

Explain how you are adding the music element to your books.
I created something called MyBooktoons (“Books come to LIFE!”), which is a way to make books with musical and animation elements.  The Kindle format will soon be able to have these features. 

When will your books be made into cartoons?
They are being made into cartoons right now.  The book for “Merry Jane and the Holidays,” was put out first, and the cartoon will come soon after.  There are many things in the works right now beyond the books and the cartoons, including shows and other venues.  David Granati is the musical wizard who brings all the magic to my songs.  He records them at Dave World Productions.  We are always on the same page and have so much fun working together and creating quality material.

When is the release date for “Merry Jane and the Holidays?”  Where can it be purchased?
“Merry Jane and the Holidays” was released today.  It is being published by Rainforest Books, which is part of the Rowman Littlefield family, and is being distributed by Ingram and Baker Taylor.  I will soon have my own imprint called TreeHouse, and we are launching a book of recipes called “Backstage Baker” which has recipes from an actual Broadway backstage baker.  “Merry Jane and the Holidays” can be purchased on Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Kobo (which is the former Borders), Amazon, Apple Books, Google Books, and literally hundreds of other places.  Soon the books will be in public libraries, too.  The e-book universe is expanding by leaps and bounds.

Thank you so much for your time, Nancy.  You are a fascinating and inspirational person, and, on a personal note, you have become a wonderful teacher and mentor for my son.





Sunday, July 28, 2013

Motherhood and Writing - Meeting the Challenge

It begins with a sound in one of the rooms above me; a loud thud followed by slow, heavy footsteps.   Then the cadence of what seems like a bowling ball being thrown down the stairs.

“Oh, no,” I whisper as I frantically try to type out a few more words on my computer.  “They are coming.”
I had gotten up early, eager to write, but had been pulled into the world of Facebook and Twitter for far too many precious minutes.  I had wasted time, and now, just when I was beginning to make progress on my manuscript, they were here.

“Mom, what’s for breakfast?”
 My youngest is always the first one up.  As he rubs his sleepy twelve year old eyes under his glasses, I hold up a finger to stop him.

“Just a minute, honey.  I’m almost done.” 
My fingers move faster and faster, trying to get to the end of the scene before my inspiration fails me and I forget the perfectly planned moment I wanted to write.

My youngest child mutters something that sounds like, “Oh, man,” and trudges to the kitchen.
I have been granted a reprieve.  It lasts exactly two minutes.

“We don’t have anything to eat,” he calls from the pantry.  “Mom.  Mom? Mom??!!”
I sigh.  I have one last chance.  “Do you remember ‘The Hunger Games’?  Foraging is an important survival skill.  How long would Katniss have survived if she couldn’t have hunted for squirrels and rodents?”

My unimpressed son stomps back to my desk, his cheeks still pink from sleep and a definite scowl on his face.  “I’m not eating squirrels and rodents.”
I give him my best and most encouraging smile.  “But I bet you can make toast.”

He walks away saying something under his breath that sounds a lot like, “This sucks,” but I choose to ignore it.  I’ve bought a few more minutes.
“Mom, where is the toaster?”

I want to slam my face into my keyboard, but I resist the urge.  This is what summer vacation looks like at my house.
Motherhood is a balancing act, a carefully orchestrated dance that involves juggling your own needs with the needs of your children.  We all need some time for ourselves (Calgon, take me away!), but when you are a both writer and a mother, the need a few quiet moments each day isn’t an occasional selfish luxury; it is critically important.

I’ve learned a few things along the way.  I have three very busy boys, aged nineteen, fourteen and twelve.  They are always hungry.  They create excessive amounts of dirty, smelly clothing.  They leave a trail of debris wherever they go, but this is a fairly easy and pleasant time in my mothering journey.  Things weren’t always this easy.  I was nursing or pregnant or caring for a sleepless infant for years and years.  I once had toddlers pulling on my legs and spilling apple juice on desk.  I have done a lot of writing with “Blues Clues” or “Barney” blaring in the background.   It is so much simpler now, but some careful planning is still very important to keep everyone happy, healthy, fed, and productive.

1.        Find your time to write.

I am very lucky.  I am a stay at home mom.  Once the children go to school in the morning, I have a solid block of beautiful, glorious, uninterrupted writing time.  But during summer vacation and winter break, it isn’t that easy.  I find that if I wake up early, and write a few hours before anyone else wakes up, everyone in the family is much happier (and able to eat breakfast).  Some people are morning larks like me, others are night owls.  Find the writing time that is best for you, and make it work.

2.       Use your writing time for writing.

Social media is a necessary tool for writers.  My super, awesome, and completely wonderful agent (Marlene Stringer of the Stringer Literary Agency), created a private Facebook page for her writers.  Every day she shares her knowledge and experience with us by posting very useful information about writing and the publishing industry.  This is important stuff.  Looking at photos of my friends’ children and pets is not quite as important.  Be careful not to get sucked into the black hole of Facebook and Twitter-land.  During the precious hours (or minutes) you have set aside for writing, focus on writing.  That sounds easy, but it isn’t.  The laundry is overflowing.  Dishes need to be washed, and you can’t quite remember the last time you dusted.  But those things can all be done when your children wake up – often, the writing cannot.  Make it a sacred time, a time just for writing and nothing else.

3.        Plan ahead.

My children come home every day at 3pm from school.  I always tell my husband that I work the 3-11 shift.  From the moment they get home, my official Mommy gig starts and it doesn’t end until I fall exhausted into bed.  Life is easier for everyone if I just line up my ducks ahead of time.  Every day I start dinner (or at least planning dinner) at 2pm.  This sounds ridiculously early, but at this stage in our lives it is a necessity.  Each evening involves such a barrage of activities, from soccer to tennis to rock band, that eating as soon as the children get home from school has become our only option.  Because my husband travels for work, I am a solo parent most days, and often have to be two places at once.  Planning food and rides and snacks ahead of time (and hopefully not leaving any children behind when I carpool), is vital.  I also plan out errands and grocery shopping days so that I have more solid blocks of writing time.  A little organization goes a long way.
4.        Bring your work with you.

Parents spend a lot of time waiting.  I wait for soccer practice to be over.  I wait for meetings to end after school.  I wait in various places for my children to be done with whatever it is they are doing.  I spend a great deal of time sitting in my car and staring at my watch.  I’ve learned to bring my laptop, or at least a notebook, with me everywhere.  You just never know when you’ll have a few uninterrupted minutes (piano lessons last thirty minutes – yippee!).  Take advantage of them, even if you are just staring into space and dreaming up a new story.

5.        Stop feeling guilty.

I am of Italian and Catholic descent.  I am very good at guilt.  I dream of creating gourmet meals for my family every day and living in a perfectly clean house.  I also dream of writing really good books that will touch, inspire, and (possibly) make people laugh.  My children and my family always come first, but my dreams are important, too.  I’ve heard my friends say they are a better mother when they are working, and I am definitely a better mother when I am writing.  And I’ve realized the old saying, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” is true (although the grammar makes me cringe).  It’s better for everyone in your family if you are doing what makes you happy.

6.        Let them be a part of it.

My children are a valuable resource for me.  They are my most honest critics.  I can tell as soon as I read something to them whether they love it or hate it.  They might try to be polite, but I can see it in their eyes, and they are always right.  When it doesn’t work for them, I know it won’t work for others, but when my story captures their attention and sparks their imagination, I know I’m onto something good.  Once, I was stuck on a plot line.  My youngest (the forager) asked if he could help.  I had my doubts, but I explained my dilemma.  He thought about it for a few minutes, and then came up with the perfect solution.  I think he was around nine years old at the time.  Sometimes a fresh set of eyes is all you need, and if your children can feel like they are part of the process, it is a wonderful thing for everyone.

7.        Don’t let others take your writing time away.

As I said, I am lucky enough to be a stay at home mom.  This means I often get pushed into volunteering for every committee known to man.  Choose your activities wisely.  Don’t become so busy that you stop making time for your writing.  Learn to say, “No,” and practice doing it often.  Every once in a while, in a caffeine induced surge of optimism, I think I can chair several committees, manage a soccer team, and host a sleepover for twenty neighborhood children.  I always regret those decisions.  If you pull yourself too thin, you are going to snap – just like an old rubber band - and it hurts when that happens.  Know your limits (both emotional and physical), and don’t forget limitations on your time, either.  It is a finite and precious resource.

I love being a mother, and I think I’m pretty good at it.  I’m not perfect, but I’m trying.  I love being a writer, too, and thankfully I have a wonderful husband who supports my dreams and believes in me.  Sometimes things go well, and sometimes they do not, but as your children get older, they really do get easier.  I am in awe of the women who have full time jobs, itty bitty babies, and still manage to churn out great books.  I imagine they must have a much higher level of energy or organization or drive than I do, but it is important not to compare yourself to other mothers or other writers.  We are all just doing the best we can.   

Now to help my twelve year old find the toaster, and teach him how to use it….

Monday, July 15, 2013

Ten Lessons I Learned Teaching Writing to Children

Every summer I teach a writing class through the Young Writers’ Institute to children who will be entering third and fourth grade in the fall.  Here are some important lessons I have learned from them over the years.

1.       Writing is fun.

On the first rainy day of YWI, I ditch whatever else I have planned and surprise the children with a dark room full of (flameless!) candles, blankets, and soft pillows tossed on the floor.  I don’t have to give them any direction.  They curl up on pillows, or make tents out of blankets, and just start writing.  It is joyful.  Sometimes it is easy to forget that when things aren’t going well, and we are struggling with a writing project we are working on, but it is true.  If it feels like a chore, find a way to make it fun again.  Light a candle.  Write outside under a shady tree.  Work on something that inspires you to think or to laugh or to connect with others.  Rediscover your joy.

2.       Writing is hard work.

Writing is a skill, and my Young Writers are just starting to master the basics.  One thing I have observed is that there is often a big difference between boys and girls at this age.  Boys are still working on the mechanics of writing, on forming letters and holding a pencil.  They have wonderful ideas for stories, but can’t always get them onto the page.  This happens to writers of all ages, and the key is to keep working and find a way.  Writing stories in comic book form with illustrations is especially helpful for my younger boys, but when they come back a year later, I realize a miracle has occurred.  They have conquered the fine motor skill monster and can now write longer and more complicated stories.  Writing is a craft that we never can truly master, and progress is more apparent in a beginner than in an adult, but the only way to grow and improve as a writer is to keep writing. 

3.       Writers spend a lot of time staring blankly into space.

 Daydreams are where all great stories begin.  We need to take time to daydream, especially when we are children.  One of the best things about teaching a summer writing class is that we don’t have a strict schedule to follow.  When the children beg me for extra time to write, or think, or dip their toes into a creek while we take a walk outside together, I can allow them that luxury.  For writers, that time isn’t really a luxury, it is a necessity.  Writers need time inside of their own heads.  Most of my books are already written before I put a single word on the page. 

4.       Write what you are passionate about.

 Every year I have a child who adores haiku.  I usually have another child who wants to write nothing but limericks.  And I always have some adorable little blonde girl who writes dark stories about death.  I don’t know why, but it is always the littlest, blondest ones who love horror.  It never fails.  But these children understand a very basic rule – find what you love and write about what makes you happy. 

5.       Writers are born, not made.

 There is a reason my Young Writers must be nominated to join this program.  All children can learn to write, but not all children are writers.  Some children would consider writing camp to be the cruelest form of punishment.  My students beg for a longer session and cry when it is over.   That is something that cannot be taught, and the same holds true for writers of all ages.  Writers write because they have to, because there is something burning inside of them that must get out, and writing is the medium they use.  Painters paint.  Singers sing.  Writers write.  They are born that way. 

6.       It is important to write freely. 

The first thing I do is teach my students to free write.  I tell them not to worry about punctuation and grammar and all those scary things that are holding them back, and just write whatever thoughts are going around in their heads.  Every year, there is at least one student who lets out a huge sigh of relief when I say that and starts scribbling away.  The pressure is off.  Punctuation and grammar are important, but perfection is not.  We all need to write freely, and to write boldly, and to move forward.  Mistakes can be corrected later, but there will be nothing to fix if you never get anything onto the page.  

7.       No one else could write your story. 

I love using writing prompts in my class.  I begin with something like “The lights went out…” and then I watch the miracle of writing occur.  Each story the children come up with is completely unique and amazing, and no one else could have possibly written it the same way.  We need to remember this when we lose faith in our own writing.  There might be better writers or better books or better stories, but only you can write your story. 

8.       Writing is sharing part of your heart with others. 

Sharing what you write can be the hardest thing to do.  Others may hate it.  They may judge it.  I remind my children to listen when others share, and to respond with gentle words.  It doesn’t take many reminders.  They understand how vulnerable it makes a writer feel, how exposed and insecure.  But they also understand the wonder of it when others like what you have written and respond to it.  It is worth all the pain and suffering. 

9.       Inspiration is everywhere. 

A stick floating in a creek.  An old velvet hat.  The cool joy of ice cream on a summer day.  It doesn’t take much to inspire an eight year old.  We need to look at the world through their eyes once in a while.  A hole in a hillside could be a major landscaping issue, or it could be a secret passage to unknown worlds.  We can’t choose what we are looking at, but we can choose how we see it.  

10.   Kindred spirits come in small packages. 

I teach small children, but they are old souls.  We understand each other.  We share common interests, and we are passionate about books and writing and words in general.  I attended my first writing conference this year (Pennwriters 2013), and I had the same feeling.  It was a gathering of kindred spirits.  It is important to find people like that to connect with because writing can be a lonely and solitary profession.  Find others who share your passion, whether at a writers’ conference, in a writing class, or even with a writers’ group, and meet with them.  You’ll walk away a happier person, and a better writer.