Friday, May 29, 2015

Life Happens

Someone once said that life is what happens when we make other plans.  Each moment of life is one we can never get back.  The older I get the more I appreciate this.  That is why I was so steamed when I found out today that the package I waited for all day yesterday, would not be here for another three days.

Mind you, it is not that the package is needed immediately.  It is not.  It is the fact that I spent a precious day monitoring my front door for a package I was assured would be here by 8 p.m. only to find out a day later that the original estimate was, to say the least, overly optimistic. And now I get to do it all again on Monday!

Fortunately, I know how to use my time at home wisely.  I got a little work done, wrote some emails, read a little.  I did my errands today.  Life happens.  Packages are late.  Plans go awry. There is something uncontrollable about it.  But I am grateful for each moment, even the aggravating ones!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

How to write a novel

There are many ways to write a novel. I don't recommend the way I did it!

I wrote the dang thing in a month, just to see if I could.  NaNoWriMo is an annual contest of sorts that encourages would-be novelists to write 50,000 words in one month.  So I did.  What I wound up with was a disjointed story in several viewpoints with backstories written last.  It was a mess.  I have since worked hard on it, incorporating the backstories, making good separations, tying up the loose ends and refining it.  It's not been easy and I have had help.

At first I just put the non-novel away, thinking it was a good exercise but not worth the work to fix it up.  About a year later, I read it again and thought maybe it was worth the work.  If nothing else, I now know a whole lot more about the entire process for this exercise.  And, I have decided to publish it - just because I can.

Is it the great American novel?  Well, it is American at its core as the storyline deals with an immigrant family's journey through several generations.  Unlike most blockbusters though, this story deals with real people, not millionaires or celebrities.

My next novel will be planned, outlined, written to a structure and from a single point of view.  Not because it will be better, though I hope it will, but because it is more efficient to write that way.  I've written my whole professional life and found the entire experience of writing a novel fascinating because it was one area new to me.

It's out to an editor now for a final proof.  When uploaded, I'll put a link here.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Thoughts on Memorial Day

When I was in high school in the 1960s, many of my male classmates were drafted or volunteered and went to Vietnam.  Some of them did not return.  One was literally the boy next door. He lived with his ancient grandmother because his parents were both dead.  His name was Ronnie. He was tall, handsome, blonde and smart.  He was a senior when I was a freshman and as kind to an awkward young girl as he could be.  He came home in his Marine dress uniform before being deployed to Vietnam. I was in love.  

My brother also served during that war.  He came home, but Ronnie did not.  His grandmother did not live long after his death.  Both were victims of that war. 

Many remember this time in simplistic terms: one was either patriotic and for the war or some kind of wide-eyed radical who spit on servicemen when they returned.  I was there and was neither.  I wished the war had not happened, that we had never gotten involved in it.  I wished more people had refused to go to war but I also respected the decisions of those who did.  And I mourned the deaths of each of my friends because I felt that though their deaths were a waste, they were also honorable men who acted out of their best nature.

I am part of an organization that helps veterans and transitioning service members. Last week we held our annual symposium and listening to our speakers I again reflected on the cost of war: on individuals and on our society.  War is not intrinsically patriotic.  I still believe we should question authority, investigate non-military options, and enter conflicts with great consideration.  It is not patriotism to support error.  It is patriotic to do what is right, popular or not.  And what is right is to take care of all our service members when they return.  Because regardless of whether the conflict is right or wrong, their sacrifice is real and noble. 

Supporting veterans means more than sporting a bumper sticker; it means hiring vets, housing vets, getting them health care and more.  And on Memorial Day, as we remember our war dead, let us honor them by considering carefully how freely we spill the blood of their brothers.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

What Lasts

My grandmother lived on the opposite side of the city from my family but every Sunday, we would walk to her house.  And every Sunday we would walk home laden with food from her kitchen or flowers from her garden. A tiny immigrant woman, widowed young, with no education or English, my grandmother would reach into a sock she kept in a kitchen cabinet and pull out a quarter for me. She grew wheat in her little garden so I would know where bread came from.

Her daughter, my mother, was the eldest of seven children. I am her youngest child and only daughter. She completed the eighth grade and quit school to help support the family. She raised three boys and me, was also widowed young, and lived until she was nearly 100.  

In my turn, I married and had two daughters, both of whom are now mothers also. From this vantage point in life, I think I have a better understanding of immortality than any philosopher or theologian. For in my daughters, I see all the love that was poured into me by my mother and grandmother now being lavished on my grandchildren.

Of my four grandchildren, the youngest presents my daughter with daily challenges.  He has a rare genetic disorder and must be fed small amounts very frequently.  Common infant episodes of spitting up or fevers are for him, life threatening. Though I saw in this daughter admirable mothering skills with her older two children, both healthy girls, I stand in awe of her ability to face each day though exhausted, with hope and great love.  Her children are well adjusted and well behaved.  She has sacrificed more than the casual observer will ever know for her family. Her beautiful brown hair is flecked with grey and her eyes are deeply lined.  

My other daughter, too, has a son.  She is a modern woman with a career and I see her struggle to find balance and somehow she always does.  In both daughters I see my own mother and grandmother reflected.  I see it in their hands as they brush back a stray lock of hair from their child, or in the care they take as they chop favorite foods into bite-size bits for their little ones.  I see my own mothering improved in them.  And I suspect that could I go back to my grandmother's mother or to her grandmother, I would see the same love and care and willingness to do without as I see in my daughters.  

My grandmother is gone more than 50 years now and my mother almost eight years but the very best of them lives on in my daughters and will continue in their children for generations to come. Love outlasts death.  Love lasts.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Why most people get self-esteem all wrong

Self-esteem is one topic sure to set people off.  In one camp are those who think we should praise people so as not to damage their fragile self-esteem.  In the other are those who think self-esteem is some kind of psychobabble for people who are simply full of themselves.  Both camps are wrong.

The word, itself, gives one a clue as to what it really is.  Self-esteem, by definition, cannot be bestowed upon another.  It is, in fact, how we regard ourselves.  And if that is true, we cannot bolster our children's self-esteem with praise.  However, what we can do is see to it that they become competent human beings and are able to self-assess.

How does one raise a competent human being?  Praise has little to do with it and put-downs nothing at all.  Parents who want to raise competent people need to make sure their little ones know stuff. They start small, so their competencies should start small.  Let your toddler dress him or herself.  Let them drag a stool to the sink to brush their own teeth.  When they master the zipper or buttons, let them show you how competent they have become.  As they grow, you will continue to teach - and to demand independence and excellence.  In this way, they will become competent.

When people drive cars, sit at their desks at work, or express themselves through a hobby or sport, they feel their competence, or its lack.  They esteem themselves as competent at their jobs or their pastimes.  Granted, some people never learn to measure themselves accurately.  But self-esteem is nothing more that one's measure of one's self, whether done well or not.

Self-esteem cannot be given.  And it is not something to be derided.  Competence and knowing one's self is all there is to it.  You want kids with good self-esteem? Let them be wrong sometimes.  Then show them how to correct themselves.  Let them know that you expect them to become competent; don't praise them for nothing.  The former communicates to them that they are capable of more; the latter that self-delusion is OK.

Thursday, May 7, 2015


I'm new to homeschooling.  I was happy to send my two girls off to school as soon as they were old enough.  But my older girl is of a different mind.  She wants her children homeschooled.  Enter Granbean.

Last year I played a small part in teaching 2nd-grade art and language arts to my granbeanie, as I call her.  This year, I've taken a more active role because my daughter had a baby late last year with a challenging disorder and I've wanted to take some of the work off her very tired shoulders. So it was time for me to figure out what we were doing in 3rd grade.

Let's face it, it's been a while for me since 3rd grade!  So I looked up what she was required to learn and I made a plan.

My student is smart but likes to do easy things so I made her first semester hard.  I told her she had to learn to type and to throw a pot on the potters wheel.  Both are challenging tasks for an eight-year-old.  She made it up to 15 words a minute and managed a fairly respectable pot.  The lesson wasn't so much for the actual skills involved as it was for the message I wanted to hammer home: you can do hard things!

In her second semester, she made a variety of crafts, including handbuilt pottery, knitting, and rock tumbling. She wanted to have a crafts booth and I said she could, but she would have to take part in all aspects of it - not just the production of crafts.  She made a paper spreadsheet of all her items, figured out what to charge, projected out the costs and revenues and made a stab at projecting her profit.  She arranged her display.  She helped set up at the venue.  And she greeted potential customers like a pro, dazzling them with the story of how she learned the crafts and why she wanted a booth.

She decided to share the profits with me.  I encouraged her to donate to some cause, but she told me she had worked "THREE months" on the booth and would be keeping the money.  I donated all of mine to FOD, the group that supports research on and families with fatty acid oxidation disorders, which is what afflicts her brother.  I don't take money from kids but in this case I think it helped her understand that the ability to give may be the most satisfying part of success.

She did great.  She sold a lot, but she also learned a lot.  She is anxious to do it again.  I've challenged her to master wheel work for her next outing.  After all, 4th grade is coming right up!

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Myth of Writer’s Block

I often hear the phrase, “writing in my head,” by which a person means that he is having ideas for something to be written later.  I think we all do this.  What separates writers from others with ideas is that we write them down.  Not only do we write them down, but we have the skill – the craft we call writing – to breathe life into those ideas and make them live on the page.  This is where many get stuck and gives rise to the myth of so-called “writer’s block.”

No one who has written in any capacity would deny that there are times when we are stuck.  We wonder what our character should do next, what the precise word should be, if we should insert a flash-back, etc.  However, that is simply part of the work of writing. Fear of the blank page, or of failing, or of offending someone is something else entirely.  That would fall under some psychological heading that would make for a totally separate post.   If one gets stuck when writing, it is a crisis of craft, not of psychology.

No doubt there are times when we need caffeine or food or we need to stretch our legs or clear our minds, but if one is what is commonly referred to as “blocked,” one must consider what the cause is. There is no such thing that exists outside ourselves as writer’s block.  That is, being stuck or blocked is not like catching a cold or getting cancer.  Something is going on, or more likely, not going on in our minds.

Let’s consider what writing actually is: at its heart it is communication, but at its soul it is transport into another time, another life, another place.  Both take skill.  It takes more than just writing down an idea.  Many avid readers get ideas from reading their favorite novels.  They might think, “What if the vampire is really a mermaid gone rogue after coming ashore?”  So they write that idea down.  That is not writing.  That is merely an idea on paper.  If it is never expanded, if the vampire/mermaid never becomes real to the reader by virtue of a personality, a backstory, quirks, even endearing qualities, then it remains an idea.  One idea does not a story make.  Serial ideas do not a story make.  Characterization, plot, and motives all make a story.

So, then, what is – or is not – going on in the mind of a writer who is blocked?  A lot of writers trip on their own story lines.  They write themselves into corners.  They lose the thread of the story in the subplot or they forget the character they left in a well somewhere.  And so they claim a block.  The solution for this is nothing short of writing, or rewriting to be precise.  Toss out the plot twist you loved so much that created an untenable situation or create a logical way out.  Work at it!  Sit in your chair and write your way out!  It really is that simple and that difficult.  When the writing gets hard, writers write.

Granted, sometimes when this happens a break is in order but a break is not a block.  One still must attack the problem itself whether it is too many red herrings, an odd tense change, or voice shift. Sometimes all that is needed is to re-read the work.  As a reader we spot things that as writers, we miss.  Then get to work: write.

If the problem is not what one has already written, but what one has not yet written, one must consider why.  If a writer has no ideas it could be burn out on the project itself.  Many authors have stated they got tired of always writing the same character doing the same things.  In Misery we see a fictional author suffer for killing off a favored character for this reason.  If this is the case we have to bravely scrap the project and just move on and write.

However, the problem may be as simple as not wanting to write.  The internet beckons; it’s basketball season; the kids need something.  There are always distractions and good reasons not to write. Those of us who are writers, write.  We write when we’re ill, when the kids are ill, when our mothers die, when we’re bored to tears.  We write when the sun shines and the pool is inviting.  We write.  Not wanting to write is fine.  It is more than fine.  It is normal.  But if you don’t write you don’t have writer’s block; you might want to consider another line of work or creative outlet. 

Writers write.  Some of us do it because it is our work.  It is how we get paid.  We have deadlines.  Others do it because they are driven to write.  Some hate to write but do it anyway.  But writers write.  It is that simple.  If you feel stuck; don’t cling to writer’s block.  Write.    Unlike a dancer with a broken leg, writers with writer’s block have total control over whatever has them stymied.  All they have to do is write.