Sunday, July 8, 2012

Maine Attraction, Part III

(continued from previous blog)

I roused our group the next morning and persuaded them to take a sight-seeing tour. My father-in-law suggested a drive to Rangeley, halfway between the North Pole and the equator. I didn’t relish the idea of squeezing back into the car, but it was something to do, somewhere to go—and it wouldn’t involve a mass minnow sacrifice.

It takes an hour and a half to reach Rangeley from Howard Pond on a route that cuts through the Maine wilderness. The small town opened up in front of us like an oasis. Sailboats dotted the lake, children frolicked, and parents lounged on the shore. Now this was a vacation spot.

We walked the town’s main street, lined with painted clapboard shops peddling ice cream, trinkets, outdoor gear, and culinary delights at the Roadkill Cafe. I browsed through entire shops dedicated to moose paraphernalia—the only sign of any moose I had spotted yet on this trip, mind you. But I refused to purchase one moose souvenir until I had seen the real thing. If Maine wouldn't deliver me an actual moose, they wouldn't get one cent of my tourist dollars.

We strolled for over an hour before the rest of the group decided it was time to move on. My father-in-law wanted to do some more scenic driving before heading back for dinner. We wove through the wilderness again, passing more trees than I thought still existed in this great country. I don't believe we encountered another single vehicle on our path. Not surprisingly, we didn't encounter any moose, either.

Then, cutting through a clearing the size of a football field, my father-in-law slammed on the breaks and pointed out his side of the car.

“Check it out, over there. A moose!”
I leaned over my mother-in-law from my hump seat.

“Where?” Tall grass covered the clearing from the road to the woods beyond. Other than that, I didn’t see a thing.

“Right there.” Dave pointed out from behind me. I followed his finger with my gaze. Indeed, there it stood. She (or so I guessed, for the lack of antlers) grazed in the brush about twenty feet from the road, tall and brown and still. She reminded me of a cow, the way she chewed the grass as if nothing else in the world was worth thinking about or noticing. She wasn’t nearly as majestic as I had imagined, what with the lack of antlers and all. But she was a moose. I stuck my camera out the window. In those pre-digital days, all I could do was point and shoot and hope for the best, and so I did.

That evening I curled up on the porch with Death on the Nile and the hummingbirds, and the latest addition to my collection—a stuffed moose wearing an electric blue “Maine” sweatshirt. At home in my photo box, among hundreds of shots from cities and resorts across the country, is a picture of green brush with a brown spot the size of a ladybug that only I know is actually a moose. It’s one of my favorites, and my most prized souvenir of my communion with nature in Maine.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Maine Attraction, part II

(continued from previous post)

I passed the first chilly night snuggled on one of the twin beds in the main room, wrapped in a smoke-scented wool blanket, serenaded by the low, mournful call of the loons on the lake.

The aroma of coffee awakened me in the morning. I poured myself a Styrofoam cupful, and grabbed a chocolate-encrusted donut from a cellophane package on the counter. Ah, nature. I breakfasted on the porch with the hummingbirds, mentally preparing for my next adventure. Dave had promised we’d do something that day, so I needed to get washed and dressed. It was time to brave the lake.

Did I mention I don’t swim?

Dressed in our bathing suits and armed with environmentally friendly bath soap, we negotiated the rocky hillside down to a small inlet in the lake. We stacked our towels on a rock, and then Dave and Scott swam out to a boulder about fifty feet out. I would stay in the shallow end, thank you very much. I scooped up some water with a cup and poured it over my hair. Then I squeezed a dollop of soap onto my head and rubbed. As I attempted unsuccessfully to generate lather, I glanced down at my feet. To my horror, approximately one hundred and fifty thousand minnows swarmed around my ankles.

I screamed and splashed to shore, my hair still clumped up with non-sudsing soap. Dave shot back from the boulder in an instant and stood at my side.

“What happened?”

I shuddered. “There are fish. In the lake.”

“Yeah.” He didn’t even try to hide his smirk. “We're supposed to go fishing in the lake, remember? Where did you think the fish would be?”

He and Scott exploded with laughter. You would think a ruckus like that would have roused at least one errant moose from its hiding place and out into the open to make this trip worthwhile. No such luck. I stomped up to the cabin and finished washing at the bathroom sink.

We walked down the steep, dirt road to the tiny, clapboard General Store that afternoon while my in-laws watched the hummingbirds. We needed bait for fishing, since I was still annoyingly insistent on doing something. I wasn’t likely to see any moose while fishing, but at least I wouldn’t be looking at hummingbirds.

The little shop was about the size of a convenience store, but not nearly as well-stocked. Some items were so crusted with dust that I’d swear they had been sitting there since Dave was a kid. We told the clerk what we needed, and he pointed us to the refrigerated case. We found the plastic tubs packed with dirt and laced with fat, pink worms, right next to the Snapple. We bought two (and some Snapple for the climb) and headed back to the cabin.

By the time we returned, we were sticky with sweat. Gliding across the cool water sounded like a good way to spend the afternoon. Dave mentioned a rumor about some twenty-four inch salmon in the lake. Maybe we could catch one or two for dinner. My mouth moistened at the thought of fresh-caught, wood-grilled salmon. The outdoors might have some perks after all.

I donned a life vest and we cast off, Dave, Scott and me. We didn't so much glide as churn across the lake, our motor spewing gasoline fumes in our wake. But when we dropped anchor, the calmness enveloped us.

We returned later that afternoon sunburned, bored, and fishless. Dave blamed our constant talking and bumping about the boat for our lack of a catch. Thinking back, it’s a good thing we didn’t catch anything. None of us would have known how to handle a flailing twenty-four inch salmon, anyway.

The next day, we opted for a hike around the lake. I had never been hiking, and am not a big fan of insects or dirt, but hiking seemed as good a way as any to run into the ever-evasive Maine moose. As we left the cabin, Dave plunked a worn baseball cap onto my head.

“You’re going to want to wear that,” he said. “It’ll keep the ticks out of your hair.” I’m not sure if he had a genuine concern for my well-being or was just trying to creep me out, but I spent the entire hike scouring my clothing, hair, and surroundings for anything sporting more than four legs.

In three hours of hiking, we encountered not one moose.

On day three, we departed for another fishing excursion—on the other end of the lake this time, for a little variety—equipped with minnows we had caught with a wire trap hung off the side of the dock. We motored across the lake, and Dave dropped anchor in a shady inlet.

“Where are the minnows?” he asked, preparing his rod as if he did this all the time.

“Right here,” Scott said. He pulled the minnow trap up from the back of the boat. A mass of limp minnows clumped at one end of the trap.

“Tell me you didn’t drag it behind the boat,” Dave said.

Scott smirked. “Whoops.”

We emptied the dead minnows from the trap and returned to the dock. Dave replaced the trap in the water for another attempt later. When we checked that afternoon, it once again teamed with happy minnows. Dave dropped the trap back underwater, leaving the minnows to hang out until after dinner. When we returned that evening, Dave pulled up the minnow trap revealing six crayfish and a tangle of minnow skeletons.
I immediately headed back to the cabin. I’d seen enough carnage for one day. Tomorrow we needed to do something different. Like shop.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Maine Attraction--part I

I've been neglecting my blog, and I feel badly about it. It's been a busy month, with school wrapping up for both of my children and for me. Yes, I've finally completed my MFA after three and a half fulfilling years, and I finished with a bang, if I may say so myself: 4.0 grade average and a Best Thesis Award to add to my resume. *Sigh*

Okay, enough basking. In the meantime, I've also begun a new gig as a freelance editor, in addition to attempting to carve out time for revisions on two novels, so needless to say, time has been of the essence.

But I hate to ignore my faithful readers. So as an interlude of sorts, I'll be posting some of my graduate school writings over the next couple of weeks for your reading enjoyment. And so, without further ado:

MAINE ATTRACTION (part 1 of 3)


Sue Carr

Anyone familiar with the state of Maine will tell you that it’s a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. Fishing, hiking, skiing, canoeing, bird watching, snowmobiling – it’s all there in the unspoiled majesty of the secluded wilderness.

Anyone familiar with me will tell you I’m not an outdoorsy girl.  

But when my husband, Dave, suggested a quiet week at the lakefront cabin where he vacationed as a child, I didn’t hesitate. After all, I loved watching Northern Exposure, and dreamed of visiting Alaska. From what I understood of it, Maine was a closer, slightly more densely populated version of Alaska. More importantly, I wanted to see a moose.

Don’t ask me why a decidedly non-outdoorsy girl has a thing for moose. Perhaps it’s the manifestation of a suppressed desire to commune with nature. Perhaps it stems from my love of our plush honeymoon accommodations at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, decorated with carvings of northwest wildlife in the safe, civilized metropolis of Orlando. Or perhaps it’s sheer marketing prowess. Among the moose accoutrements I’ve been enticed to purchase over the years are a moose “welcome” sign, moose bedding, even a moose incense burner.

The idea of seeing a moose in the wild so thrilled me, in fact, that I apparently tuned out any further description my husband gave of this cabin in Maine.

We departed the Philadelphia suburbs before sunrise in mid-August. The five of us – Dave, his parents, his brother Scott and me – crammed into my in-laws’ early-90’s Chevy Cavalier for the ten hour drive. Being the smallest in our party, I took the “hump seat” sandwiched between my mother-in-law and husband in the back. Not a bad position for the first five hours or so, but after about seven, my ankles stiffened from trying not to infringe on anyone’s floor space, and my butt ached from hours in a seat not actually intended for human use. The thought of relaxing by the water at our lakeside cottage was all that kept me from jamming a heel into my father-in-law’s back when he passed yet another gas station in his quest to find gas a couple cents cheaper further up the road while the gas gauge flirted with “E.”

We approached Maine through the tumbling green peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountain range under unblemished skies. As we neared Howard Pond, we passed signs for the Sunday River Ski Resort. I daydreamed about our cabin nestled in ski resort country. Maybe there would be trails leading over to the resort, where we could hit tennis balls or do some sightseeing. Maybe we could make this a regular thing, summering in Maine for several weeks each year.

But we kept driving farther and farther from Sunday River, as signs of life became scarce. Every few minutes a careening logging truck would practically blow us off the road like a miniature clown car in a cartoon, but otherwise we passed no one.

Finally we turned onto the semi-paved road that snaked sharply upward into the dense woods. As we turned, we passed a forlorn clapboard structure resting by the side of the mountain advertising stamps and live bait. This, Dave informed me, was the only source of essentials for at least ten miles.

Surely he was exaggerating.

The exhausted Cavalier churned its way up through the forest on an ever-narrowing path. As we jostled up the road, I gazed at one lovely lake house after another, waiting for my father-in-law to pull over and announce that we had arrived.  Just as I thought the car might finally peter out, he veered into a patch of packed dirt outside a small brown cottage that resembled a child’s playhouse – and by “resembled” I mean “was approximately the size of.” This couldn’t be it.

I pried myself from the back seat, arched my stiff, aching back, and surveyed our lodgings. The cabin clung to a steep hillside amid the dappled sunlight of the forest. As we yanked our bags from the trunk, my mother-in-law pointed out places where this one twisted his ankle and that one got in trouble for hitting baseballs into the lake.

Built by a friend of the family back when people still built homes with their own two hands, the cottage felt like a playhouse even from the inside. The plank walls offered shelter from the elements, but no insulation (which is why, Dave explained, we visited in August and not October). The miniature kitchen could comfortably hold a person and a half. The bedroom with its gray woolen blankets held two twin beds in an “L.” The living area included a small table, low bookcases packed with Agatha Christie novels, and padded benches along two walls by the fireplace that doubled as twin beds. The scent of long-burning wood fires permeated every fiber of the cabin. I inhaled deeply. It was cute. Cozy. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

Dave must have recognized the pained expression on my face, and pointed me to the bathroom. Thankfully the cabin had at least this amenity. I shut myself in, thankful for the privacy even if only for a few minutes. But I couldn’t sit down until I carefully inspected every crevice and beam for black widows, as anyone should in such situations. Surprisingly, I found none.

When I came out, I sat by Dave on the bench. “There’s no shower,” I pointed out.

“Right. I told you that.”

“You said there was a pump that brought water up from the lake.”

“Yeah, for the toilet and the sinks. I told you we could bathe in the lake.”

“You said we could.” I poked him in the shoulder. “You didn’t say we had to.”

He shrugged and stood up. “You heard what you wanted to hear.”

I followed him onto the narrow screened porch at the back of the cabin. My bathtub, a.k.a. Howard Pond, filled the valley before us. The calm pool of blue was more of a lake than a pond, truth be told. At least half-a-dozen hummingbird feeders dangled outside, decorating the view like jewels on a necklace. Several of the tiny birds hovered, sucking the sweet nectar left by our host. In the silence we could hear the buzz of their wings. I had never seen these delicate birds up close. When I stood next to the screen, I could feel the almost imperceptible breeze from their blurred wings. I found myself watching them fly, hover, drink, back up, fly, hover, drink. This wasn't the wildlife I had come to see, but they were intriguing. Fly, hover, drink. Fly, hover, drink.

Okay, maybe not that intriguing.

Unfortunately, the hummingbirds proved to be the main entertainment. We had no television (not that there would have been cable anyway), no internet (or anything resembling electronics aside from the coffee pot), and no cell phone coverage (although we did have a land-line telephone, the kind with a cord like the one I recently spotted at the Pittsburgh History Museum).

There weren’t even any moose grazing nearby.

We settled onto the porch to gaze on the still, blue lake. “So, what should we do?” I asked. Any vacation I had taken to that point involved the doing of something at any given moment – sightseeing, dining, amusement park thrill-seeking – at the very least, shopping.

Dave smirked. “This.” He sank further into his chair and sighed.

After about fifteen minutes of glancing from the hummingbirds to my family, waiting for anyone to do anything, I went inside. I pulled Murder on the Orient Express from a shelf, curled onto a bench, and dove in. I could do nothing for one day.

Monday, April 30, 2012

My Unplugged Weekend

This past weekend, I went on a technology fast of sorts. It wasn’t preplanned, and yet it wasn’t accidental, either.

On a typical weekend in our house, when my little one has his lay-down after lunch and my older one is either playing the Wii with her father or playing outside with friends, I bring out the laptop and get to work. I peruse social media, news sites, entertainment sites, and eventually (hopefully) do some writing on my work-in-progress du jour. It’s a fairly routine carbon-copy of the other five days of the week when my daughter is at school and the house lulls itself into a mid-afternoon sleepiness.

But this weekend, when my daughter and I arrived home from a morning dodging snowflakes and running errands, I decided to let the laptop sleep. Instead, I decided, I would read a book. And not on my Nook, either, because I knew if I awoke the Nook, I would be lured onto Twitter and Words with Friends via my Wi-Fi connection. Nope, instead I cracked open an actual paper book (The Likeness by TanaFrench, if you’re curious—quite good so far). I read for several hours while my daughter visited at her grandparents’ house, while our little guy took his rest, and while the hubby enmeshed himself in a season of hockey on the Playstation. Such a tranquil way to spend a chilly, gray afternoon.

I kept the trend going that evening, and taught myself how to de-code crocheting instructions for a scarf while watching old episodes of Northern Exposure on Netflix. I felt so relaxed and decompressed by the time I went to bed Saturday night that I decided to treat myself to another unplugged day on Sunday. Ahh, bliss.

This morning, after taking my daughter to the bus and practicing some flexibility-centered yoga, I sat at the computer to catch up on everything I had missed over the weekend. Interestingly, it wasn’t much. To my mild surprise, nothing earth-shatteringly important was announced on Facebook over the weekend that managed to elude my attention. No life-altering tweets went unread. No time-sensitive updates hit my accounts in Good Reads or Figment. In fact, I barely missed a beat.

In this age of constant information overload, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we must always be connected to our electronic media in order to stay relevant, stay in touch, or stay informed. But the truth is, the world won’t stop spinning if you disconnect for a few days. In fact, if you do, you may find yourself far better able to deal with everything the world throws at you when you jump back in.

So after a successful and peaceful weekend of truly connecting with my husband, my children, and my interests outside the “virtual” world, I’ve decided to make all of my weekends “unplugged.” Who knows, maybe I’ll actually finish this scarf I’ve started.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Ten Things I’ve Learned from Teaching a Writing Workshop

As some of you know, I’ve been teaching a writing workshop to 5th through 8th graders at a local private school. It’s my very last task on the path to earning my Master of Fine Arts degree. Initially, I thought this would be a fun-filled romp through the creative process with eager, motivated students. But my experience thus far has taught me…well…

1.      Students at this age are often reluctant to voice their enthusiasm for any topic, particularly to the person in “authority” whose job it is to teach it to them. And especially if they happen to be among friends at the time. Let’s face it, most of the time it’s not cool to like school.

2.      Students at this age have no problem expressing their apathy, or complete hatred, for an academic topic—even to a nervous, brandy-new teacher—as discontent is always cooler than enthusiasm.

3.      Students at this age like to eat. If you want them to be creative (and even moderately enthusiastic), feed them.

4.      Much like giving instructions to a preschooler, specificity is key. Just like you can’t tell a preschooler to use the potty without including the instructions to a) wipe, b) flush, c) pull up your pants, and d) wash your hands—e) with SOAP—you can’t expect your students to write creatively without some sort of direction. In fact, the more direction you give, the cleaner the results. (Just like with the preschooler.)

5.      Even reluctant talkers become chatty when they get on a topic they truly love. I’ve found orcs and zombies to be of particular interest to my group.

6.      Students at this age (or any age, really) aren’t so big on take-home assignments, no matter how fun you make them sound. I allow time at the end of each workshop for in-class writing instead.

7.      As a novelist, I had grand plans for my students to chip away at large writing projects during our workshop, crafting characters, settings, and plots over the course of several weeks. Surely they’d be just as interested in creating epic stories as I am! Not so, actually. Short, quick-hit assignments work best.

8.      When you’re dealing with reluctant writers, throw out the criticisms for the time being. Tell them all the things they’re doing right. You’ll see smiles emerge, chests inflate, and fervor grow.

9.      Imagination in students at this age is boundless. Encourage them every way you can to unleash it.

10.  Students can be taught to love writing. I didn’t always believe this to be true, but it really is. Teach kids how to have fun with writing and they will respond with gusto.

We’re only halfway through, but already I feel I’ve gleaned a semester’s-worth of knowledge from these students. I can’t wait to see what other discoveries emerge in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Parting Thoughts

Easter weekend is my favorite weekend of the year. Not only does it encapsulate the promise of rebirth and renewal that surrounds us in nature each spring, but it reminds me, more than any other season or event throughout the year, of what awaits me on the other side of this life. Over the course of four consecutive days of services at my church (the Mass of the Last Supper, the Good Friday veneration and adoration, the blessing of Easter foods on Holy Saturday, and of course the glorious Easter Sunday celebration), I am reminded over and over of my personal beliefs regarding death and rebirth. It leads me to think about my own eventual demise in a hopeful and optimistic light.

That is, until a classmate had me list the things I hope not to think about during the last minutes of my life. This creative exercise got me worrying (as many things do). What if, as I’m lying in my bed fighting for those last minutes, instead of thinking fondly of family vacations and the births of my children, I’m wondering if I’ve left the oven on? What if, rather than peacefully tallying my well-made choices, fruitful paths, and accomplished goals, I am instead wondering how I’ll ever find out who will win the current season of The Amazing Race? What if the thoughts in my head at my death are the ones that will remain with me throughout eternity? And what if those thoughts are centered around the tacky nylon track outfit my husband threatened to bury me in if I didn’t stop complaining about my wardrobe? (It hasn’t happened yet, but I assure you, one day it will.) Perhaps, instead of donning the dazzling white vestments of the angels, I’ll be doomed to shlump around eternity in navy blue with gold racing stripes down my arms and legs, swish-swish-swishing as I traipse across the clouds as an everlasting tribute to my dissatisfied human self.

I don’t want to lie there, fading in and out of consciousness, concerned that I won’t be meeting my editor’s latest deadline, as if words submitted to a disinterested party should matter more than words spoken to my children, or grandchildren, or husband. Nor do I want to think about the debts I’m leaving behind, and how, in those final minutes, I might be able to do something to earn something to shave some small percentage off the top of the mountain of dollar signs accumulated over a lifetime. I don’t want to think about the things I regret not doing, the chances I didn’t take, the risks that might have paid off, the “what ifs” or “if onlys.” I want only to think of the joy that is, the happiness that was, the glorious forever that awaits.

And then I wonder why it is that I taint the vast majority of my day-to-day thoughts with the exact things I pray I won’t think about when I’m dying.

So here’s to populating our thoughts with the things that really matter, today and every day. (And to making sure my husband never buys me a navy blue track suit. Ever.)

Friday, March 30, 2012

Time for a little Mega Millions dreaming...

So, have you purchased your Mega Millions ticket yet? There are only a few hours left to snag a chance at the record-breaking $640 million jackpot. Yep, $640 million. That’s over half a billion dollars, for anyone as mathematically challenged as myself. Half a billion. That’s a frighteningly enormous amount of money. According to a 2008 article in the Anchorage DailyNews, that would buy you “179 million Big Macs, 23 million toasters, 12 million tires, 200,000 flat screen TVs, 83,000 sets of diamond earrings or 1,500 houses.” Granted, it still wouldn’t put a dent in our national debt, but that’s a freaking lot of Big Macs.
I started buying Mega Millions tickets several months ago on a whim. Call it a low cost, non-guaranteed investment plan. I buy one ticket per drawing, which amounts to two per week, and I play the same set of numbers that my children selected months ago for every drawing. The dreamer in me hopes we’ll hit one day and be instantly and permanently freed from any and all financial stress in our lives. The pragmatist in me grumbles over the two fewer dollars I have available to add a biscotti to my coffee once a week. (I often wonder which would do me more good.)
So I bought my two tickets on my Monday grocery run not really paying any attention to the frenzy surrounding the climbing jackpot, and now I’m almost a little scared. Not that I’d actually win or anything—according to experts, I’m more likely to get struck by lightning, eaten by sharks, fatally stung by a bee and elected president all in the same day. But, seriously, could you imagine winning $640 million? What a massive responsibility that would be. The mere idea of it is almost crushing. You would have to remain anonymous to avoid being hounded day in and day out, not only by the press, but neighbors, Facebook friends, old roommates, your bridal party that you haven’t talked to in over a decade, the guy at the gym who only ever talks to the hot young chicks…(I know what you’re thinking—I’d never have that problem because I don’t actually exercise. Ever. You’re on to me.)
But how do you keep a $640 million secret? No matter how hard you try, someone at some point is going to notice that your faded, outdated wardrobe has somehow miraculously been entirely updated, that your tired-looking house is suddenly getting new siding, an addition, fresh landscaping, and has, for some reason, a Dumpster sitting in the driveway filled to the brim with household items that seemed acceptable only a week ago but are now deemed too trashy for human use. Oh, and next to the Dumpster are two shiny new sports cars to replace the rusted out, 100,000+ mile junkers that sat there only the day before. It would be somewhat obvious, I would think.
I’m not going to spend too much energy worrying about the anonymity strategies I would engage, or how I would convince the neighbors that our refinance proved slightly more profitable than we expected. Instead, I’m going to take a minute to dream of what I would do with all that cash. So here’s my top ten list, in no particular order:
1.      Pay off all debt.
2.      Secure funds for retirement, education, emergencies, etc., so that our family will never have to worry about money again.
3.      Get everyone in my and my husband’s family out of debt.
4.      Give gobs and gobs of it to charity.
5.      Take my and my husband’s entire families on an all-expense paid trip to Disney World for as long as everyone can get away.
6.      Replace both of our not-so-gently used vehicles.
7.      Hire a contractor to complete every home improvement project I have ever dreamed up.
8.      Hire a contractor to complete every home improvement project my parents have dreamed up for their house.
9.      Set up a fund that will pay for every vacation we can dream up forever.
10.  Live happily ever after J
How about you? What would you do?

Friday, March 9, 2012

How do you know when it’s time to let go?

I know many people struggle with this question on far bigger issues than the one I’m struggling with now; things like floundering marriages, destructive long-term friendships, or that 80’s haircut that’s just too rockin’ to lose (it’s not, but…well, you know). It’s easy to identify why these things are bad for (you’re fighting all the time, the person makes you feel bad about yourself, it’s likely to land you on What Not to Wear), and yet for any of a plethora of reasons, you hang on.

Often this is seen as a good thing. Tenacity. Perseverance. Stick-to-it-iveness. These are all hailed as admirable traits. Don’t be a quitter, we instruct our children. Never give up. Believe in yourself. Hang in there. But sometimes you do indeed have to let go. For your own sanity, heath, fashion sense, whatever. I think I may have reached that point with my first novel.
I started this tome back when my darling second-grader was just learning to talk. The idea came to me while driving past a cemetery one chilly fall night when numerous blue votive candles burned, commemorating loved ones now passed. I shivered at the idea of setting the first scene of a story there—a good, creepy, ghost-story shiver. The book grew from that point. But not in anything close to a linear direction. It branched and weaved, it morphed, expanded and regrouped. It changed direction at least twenty times.

I remember taking the first chapter (a mere 30 pages of the first draft) to a writer’s retreat, confident that my gift would wow the other attendees and leave them all wondering why they were even bothering with their craft when such natural talent exists in the world. I was informed (politely, but in no uncertain terms) that no middle-schooler would choose to read 30-page chapters rather than play the Wii. At first I felt affronted. Obviously they hadn’t grasped my vision. They hadn’t heard enough of the story. They couldn’t see the big picture. Didn’t they know how long Harry Potter was?
But after I stewed for a while, I felt stupid. Of course they were right. How could I not have seen it? What had I been thinking? And so I revised and rewrote, cut and pasted, reworked and reorganized. Feeling proud of the progress I’d made, I sent the manuscript to the editor from the retreat, who liked it, But…

And so I rewrote again. Feeling proud once again, I submitted again. But fourteen agents didn’t like it enough to request more.

And so, again, I’m revising. And yet, after almost seven years working with this story and these characters, I’m still getting feedback that says my characters aren’t well defined enough, that their story isn’t jumping off the page. I’m now wondering, is it time to let them go? Perhaps I’ve done all I can with this story, with these two middle-school boys and the ghosts that haunt them. Maybe this story is destined to be mine alone, and not one I’ll ever share with the world. Maybe it’s time to lay them to rest just like the many departed souls in the cemetery.

But, just like a bad relationship or a comfortable haircut, it’s so hard to let them go.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Eating the True Self Berry

During a freewrite in class the other day, I was reminded of a book I recently read to my daughter in which the main character has access to “true self” berries. When eaten, this miraculous fruit will reveal your true self, stripped of any pretense or deceptive self-image. When the villain of the story partakes of the berry, she turns into a warty toad, the personification of her slimy, detestable personality. The heroine, however, eats the berry to regain her wings and become the fairy she is meant to be. It occurred to me that most—if not all—of us could benefit from this amazing fruit. For how many of us fully recognize our true selves?

I thought of this story because, during this freewrite exercise, we were asked to meditate and imagine ourselves in a beautiful and peaceful place. I immediately pictured myself in Nova Scotia, sitting on the pier in Pictou, waves lapping at my feet, the clear blue sky arching overhead, and a colorful, bustling fishing village surrounding me. I remember sitting alone on a bench with the breeze tousling my hair, writing in my journal. What I find interesting in remembering this place as a peaceful one, though, is that I wasn’t happy in that moment. In fact, I was crying.
At that point, I was almost halfway through a 14-day field seminar with other graduate students from Chatham University. The trip was lovely, filled with exploration, natural beauty, and camaraderie. But my husband of almost 14 years (at the time) and my two children (6 and 2 at the time) were 2,000 miles away visiting my in-laws in Florida. And I missed them. Terribly. The sound of two toddlers frolicking behind me on the pier only magnified the hole in my soul at that moment, expanding it to a gulf, an un-crossable canyon.  

So how could this moment bring me anything close to peace? Because it was one of those moments that brings life into perfect clarity. During that trip, I had a rare opportunity to focus on me—my writing, my thoughts, my work as an artist—and nothing else. For fourteen days I didn’t have to wipe a face, scrub a toilet, answer an e-mail, or wash anyone else’s clothes. I felt, for the first time in a long, long time, that I could exist independently my traditional roles—mother, wife, daughter—because the people who defined me in those roles weren’t around to define me. I defined myself. It felt empowering.

And yet, in defining myself, I came to the critical realization that these roles are as integral to me as a heart is to a body. While there is a part of me that is only me—myself, my thoughts and the words I craft from those thoughts—that part of me is empty without those other roles. Who am I without the affection and love of my children? Without the support and guidance of my parents? Without the selfless and seemingly endless love of my husband? Without these influences, these roles, I am an entirely different person, someone other than my true self. And that’s something I would never want to be.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Making Changes

Tis the season to make some changes. Have you noticed? Promises and prompts to change ourselves abound at this time of year. New Year’s resolutions. New year, new you. Out with the old, blah, blah, blah. The quantity of TV ads touting gym memberships, exercise balls, diet plans and workout videos is staggering. Department store ads bombard us with organizational mechanisms to help us finally whip our chaotic hoarding selves in order. Even schools join in, urging us to finally make that career change we’ve always wanted to make but never realized until we saw their ad. How could we not feel inspired?
I’m jumping on the change bandwagon myself, hauling my lazy bones out of bed a half hour earlier to do daily cardio, purging the sweet treats from the house, rearranging rooms (needless to say, my husband isn’t too excited about this one). But while change is exciting, it’s also difficult. Downright painful, sometimes, as my aching muscles can attest.
A particularly agonizing change I’m working toward right now is the revision of my first novel. You may remember this novel from my frustrated blog posts last summer in which I lamented the obvious poor taste and lack of vision espoused by the more than a dozen editors and agents who never even bothered to request the full manuscript, let alone offer me a six figure multi-book contact. Silly people. Or so I thought. But after a kind yet in-depth critique from my mentor, I came to realize that I had been the silly one. This novel wasn’t ready. It wasn’t even close. And here I was, trying to shove it down the throats of massively overworked agents who had at least fifty other manuscript packages – some good, many not – to slog through along with mine. And there would be another fifty the next day. And the next. When I finally looked at my piece with a more objective eye, I completely understood the many responses I received with the same basic message: “It’s well-written, but I didn’t fall in love with it.” An infuriating response at the time, but one that is becoming clearer to me the more I write. It’s one thing to master the mechanics of writing. It’s entirely another to grab readers, to make them care deeply about your main character, to laugh, to cry, to turn page after page after page. This, alas, is much harder to master. Thankfully, I now have an amazingly talented writing group to help me do just that.
My manuscript, originally planned as a young adult novel, is now becoming a middle-grade novel (which, apparently unbeknownst to me, it was all along, except that I never let my word count know). And so the main goal in revising is to cut. Cut the introspection, cut the flowery language, cut long narrative passages, cut, cut, cut. Stephen King said it best, I think, when he compared manuscript revision to slaughtering children (as only he would). Ripping out phrases I worked tirelessly to craft because they don’t fit the character or my target readership is excruciating. They were such lovely phrases, after all. Surely they should be read by someone other than me.
But it’s a necessary process. And strangely rewarding. In fact now that I’ve begun, I make it a personal goal to cut X amount of pages from each chapter, and I find I’m merciless in hitting that goal, no matter how many “darlings” I have to sacrifice, because once I’ve slashed a chapter, I immediately see the improvements.
It’s a painful process, but worth it in the end. As most change is.