I Want To Save Puff!

Why do I write?  That may seem like an odd question to ask, but I think the answer can make a big difference.

I got the idea to ask that question after having dinner with a young author.  Her book is due out in the next few months.  She bubbled over with excitement about her characters and the different stories she is working on.  Her body oozed creativity.  She continued to apologize for talking my ear off, but I loved listening to her.  She stirred feelings inside of me I seemed to have buried.

Over the next few days, I thought back to the time when I was the person oozing creativity.   My characters once spun their stories in my head no matter where I was.  I was so involved in watching the story unfold in my head that I didn’t realize I had stopped following my husband and proceeded to follow another man right out of the grocery store.  To be fair, I wasn’t really looking at the man.  I was looking down and following a pair of sneakers.  Don’t most men’s sneakers look the same?  Anyway, I followed the sneakers out of the store and right to his car.  I got in the passenger side of the car and looked over at a stranger.

“Oh, you’re not my husband!”

“No, ma’am, I am not,” he said calmly.

I quickly exited the vehicle and looked down the aisle of cars.  My husband was about ten cars away, standing there shaking his head.

Where did that obsessed writer go?  I think life happened.  Jobs demanded more of my time.  I felt I should clean my house more.   People always needed to eat.  My characters suffered the fate of Puff the Magic Dragon.

Let’s consider poor Puff for a moment.  Puff from the song “Puff the Magic Dragon” is an imaginary dragon dreamed up by a child named Jackie Paper.   Puff fades away as Jackie grows up.  I always found the song heart wrenching.  The words “One grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more, and Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar,” put a lump in my throat.  To me, it speaks of the loss of the wonderful imagination found in children because of their zest for adventure.

Again the question, why do I write?  The answer can be different for each author.  One of my favorite authors, Lilian Jackson Braun, once told a reporter that she loved to get up in the morning, sit in front of her typewriter and see where her imagination would take her.  When I read that, I knew I wanted to write.  I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my days.  The thought of it brought back the excitement of childhood and the joy of waking up every morning to a day filled with possibilities.  From my neighborhood, one friend is a playwright, another is a stand-up comic, and another is an artist.  We grew up feeding each other’s creativity.  It was how we lived.  It is how I want to live.

My answer to the question is that I write because it touches the core of who I am.  I don’t want to let Puff fade away.  I realize I need to make some changes.  I’ll keep you posted.

 

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Old Friends and New Thoughts

Recently I went to my 36th year high school reunion.  Yeah, 36 years.  Holy cow.  The big reason I decided to go was because one of my friends who I hadn’t seen in 24 years was flying in from Florida.  Although the idea of crowds combined with small talk makes me woozy, I knew this was one of the last times the group of us might be together.  I am only in my in my fifties, but my mother died in her fifties.  I am acutely aware of time slipping away.  My heart would not let me stay away.The rest of my close friends from high school and I did a pretty good job staying in touch, however, we have not all been together at the same time.

The amazing thing about getting together with everyone from high school was the feeling that we were never apart. It was as if we hadn’t missed a beat.  While time and life had changed for us, at the core we are still the same.  The things that made us click as children and teens drew us together again.  We laughed until we could barely breathe.  We are older, yet we are still the same.  We were transported back to a time when we felt we could do anything and we were with the ones who made us feel that way.  While we talked, one of us said that it is so terrific to be with the ones who know our stories-the ones we have no need to explain anything to.  We get each other.  We lived through our childhood, teens and twenties together.  We know the forces that made us who we are-the good the bad and the very, very ugly.  Now, hold that thought.

A week before the reunion, I had one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had as an author. I participated in an author panel discussion at a local library.  There were a series of questions that dealt with the writing process and the development of our characters.  It was fascinating to me to listen to other authors discuss how they write and where their ideas come from.  We all talked about the need for our characters to ring true and be engaging.  We shared how our characters developed from the time we first conceived them to where they are now.

As I ponder both experiences, I see a link. How well do you know your characters?  You are their creator.  You make them who they are.  Do you know their backstory?  Do you know what makes them tick?  Why are they the way they are?  Are there things they still need to explain to you? If you had the chance to spend an evening with them, what would you talk about?  Would your evening be more small talk or heart-to-heart?  I believe that answering these questions will make me a better writer.  What about you?

In the Blink of an Eye

 

If you read my last post, you know the last year has been a rough one. I am still trying to find my footing.  I am not doing the writing I should.  For Christmas, my wonderfully supportive daughter bought me book filled with topics to write about.  I decided I would give it a try and just start with the first topic and write on it.  So, here it goes.  The topic is, “What can happen in a second?”

Life and death happen in a second. A child is conceived in a second and the cells multiply second by second.  It technically takes nine months-or forever when you are at the final few weeks-but one second you are not a parent, and the clock ticks, another second passes and you are. On the flip side, one second someone you love is with you, and a second later they are gone.  It happens in a whisper.

Storms move through and change lives in a second.  A tornado can destroy a house in a second.  A flash flood can rip through an area and destroy it.  What a storm can do in a second can take years to repair.

The light of learning splashes across a child’s face in a second. One moment I can tell they are completely confused.  In a flash, the light of excited understanding has splashed across their faces.  That moment sends chills down my spine.

Psalm 30:5 tells us that “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” There was a time I thought I would never be truly happy again.  I functioned in numbness for almost a year.  Then one second I felt it- joy.  It took me a few heart beats to fully realize what it was.  My heart was full of joy.

Relief happens in a second. In my last post, I talked about how stressful the past year was for me.  That last year was the culmination of 12 years of just getting by week by week and dreading school vacations and summer.  Yes, I did just write that I truly dreaded summer.  In one second, I learned that I had a new full-time job.  That wave of relief flooded me in a second.  I may still live paycheck to paycheck, but at least I always get a paycheck.

We fall asleep and wake up in a second. I like to fall asleep listening to the Bible.  I let my mind focus on each verse as it is read.  Next thing I know, my alarm is ringing and I am awake.  If you have ever tried to calm a colicky baby, you know what it feels like the second the child falls asleep.  It seems like everything in the world hangs in the balance and you hold your breath, praying that sleep has indeed come.

Of course, how we view a second depends on a number of factors. Albert Einstein said, “When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second.  When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour.  That’s relativity.”  Still, a second is a second.  It never changes.  Our view of it may change, but a second itself never changes.  We often wish time away.  We all do it.  I either want it to rush by or slow down.  My best days at work are those in which I sit down and then look up and the day is over.  However, our days here are finite.  None of us know when the clock will tick our last second.  In that frame of mine, I will end with a quote I love by Ariana Grande, “Don’t ever doubt yourselves or waste a second or your life.  It is too short, and you’re too special.”

My Time as the Ball

 

 

I am sure that many of you are familiar with the expression “sometimes you’re the bat and sometimes you’re the ball.” I think most people can identify with it.  It seems to pair quite nicely with the concept of Murphy’s Law.  Of course, life in general would be easier if our position as the bat or ball changed on a fairly regular basis.  But alas, that is not the case-at least not for me.  I seem to have seasons-long seasons- of being the ball.  This past year I discovered that it is possible to be the ball and not even know it.

In September, I became the ball. I was slammed right down center field.  Since the beginning of the school year, I taught five separate classes a day and two hours after school four times a week.  I did all this with a maximum of thirty minutes planning time a day.  My evenings and weekends were often spent planning and organizing.  I was the ball sailing along wondering when I would land. I didn’t know I was the ball because I love teaching.  The after school classes were the time for all the hands-on activities that the schedule didn’t allow during normal school hours.  It was my chance to be creative and allow my students to be creative. I was exhausted, but I continued to push through.  I didn’t realize how stressful it was on me.  I was so busy creating for school that I didn’t even have time to write.  When my day was over, my brain was dead.

In March, I learned my position was being cut. I cried for weeks on my drive home as I thought about leaving behind the children that I built relationships with during my 12 years in the district.  I was in shock and wondering what I would do next.  This ball was headed right for a wall.

It just so happened that I was reading a book entitled The Grave Robber by Mark Batterson.  In the book, Batterson makes the point that God often sets us up for miracles in our lives by creating circumstances that push us out of our comfort zones and providing the right nudge at the right time.  I knew I certainly had the circumstances.  Batterson also makes the point that everyone wants to see miracles, but nobody wants to be in the position to need one- that description certainly fit me.

There I was in need of a miracle in circumstances that would force me outside my comfort zone when the nudge came. The school secretary handed me a job positing for an assistant to the Director of Student Services.  The secretary thought I would be perfect for the job and encouraged me to apply.  I have a background in special education and years of experience as a paralegal.  I applied and got the job.  Not only did I get the job, I started exactly one week after my interview.  God didn’t just open a door, He shoved me through it.

This new job fits me like tight jeans on Kim Kardashian. I am happy beyond words.  When people tell me that I am in one of the most stressful jobs in the district, I am not quite sure what to say.  Yes, there are days I work long hours to get things done.  However, my time is my own when I go home.  I have time to write again.  My brain isn’t dead upon exiting my job.  I have time to take walks again.  I had no idea how extremely stressed I was.  At a doctor’s appointment last week, my doctor was amazed at how relaxed I looked.  My blood pressure was down.   I am clearly up to bat.

My point is that even the things we love the most can stress us out. We can be on overload without even noticing.  I happen to believe that writing is part of my calling in life.  I see this situation as proof that I am watched over and taken care of.  I was shutting myself down until I read just the right book at just the right time with the perfect nudge to apply for just the right job.  Coincidence?  I think not.

 

 

 

When Life Imitates Art

I love a good cozy mystery. It’s probably why I write them.  To me, a good cozy mystery has characters that make you wish you could move in next door to them.  At the very least, you wish you could be their friend.  I love cozy mystery series because I enjoy going back to “see” my friends and spend time with them in their cozy worlds.

Of course, it is called fiction for a reason.   Recently, one of my former students disappeared.  It was over a week and there was not a peep from her.  She loves drama, so no cell phone or snapchat contact was unheard of.  Everyone instinctively knew that something was horribly wrong.  It took the police about five days to decide that she was not a runaway.  It was the lack of contact that convinced them.   I honestly thought she was dead.  A few other teachers thought she was snatched for the sex trade.

Teachers put out flyers all over town. A man came forward and said he gave her a ride to the train station the night she disappeared.  She asked for money, but he refused.  He swore he dropped her off at the train station.   It was about one o’clock in the morning and no trains would be running until the morning.

We (the teacher squad) did what normal people do and began to obsess. We were on April vacation, but we were constantly in contact with each other.  I honestly acted like the characters in my books.  We talked about going to the train station at one o’clock in the morning and asking people if they’d seen her.  We figured that the same people were likely to be hanging around there at the same time of the night.  We were going to try and question cab drivers and go into bars and ask around.  I suggested we start a fund for a reward.  After all, the police couldn’t find her, so it was up to us.  I asked a friend of mine, a former prostitute, to go with us.  She’s great back up.   I won’t repeat what she said, but it came down to the fact that we didn’t belong with that crowd at that hour of the morning.

Before the teacher squad could all pile into someone’s minivan and hit the streets in the wee hours of the morning, the police obtained the surveillance footage from the train station and found a clip of my former student talking to a man and then leaving with him. The next thing to obsess over was this unknown man.   We put his picture on Facebook.  The police put it on the news.   The teacher squad came up with a new plan.  We were going to hit the streets with the picture of this man.  Yup, we were going to go into one of the worst parts of town and flash his picture around.  We were also going to stick with the idea of going to the train station and ask around there in the middle of the night.  It all seemed to make perfect sense.  We all read cozy mysteries and I write them –  that certainly qualified us to help with this investigation.   The plan involved working in teams so that no one was alone.  I am an overweight and middle-aged – actually, I am at the very far edge of that middle.  No one was going to rape me (God bless them if they tried) or try and sell me into the sex trade. Sell me?  Heck no.  They would owe money.  We never really considered we could be shot.  After all, who shoots plump, lovable teachers?  If Jessica Fletcher could do it, so could we!

Before we could act on our heroic plan, the child was found. She was in a shelter in another state.  I have no idea about how she got there.  Her mother has asked us not to ask about it.  Of course, we respect her request.  It really doesn’t matter.  She’s safe.  She’s home.

I look back at the past week and know that we would have gone through with it all. When people are worried about someone they care about, they will push any limit.  That’s the reality.  What is also a reality is that I began see how brave cozy mystery characters have to be.  It’s fun to fanaticize about being friends with characters and solving mysteries.  In this case, my friends are characters and we tried to solve a mystery.  If I were reading a book where the characters were going to go into one of the worst parts of the city to track down a criminal, I am sure I would be predicting a disaster- talk about a page turner!  I didn’t see it that way in real life, but my friend the former prostitute did.  I suppose the moral of the story is you’d be wise to listen to your friendly prostitute about all things involving the city at night.

Ode to Solitude

Social media isn’t always I bad thing. In a past blog, I mentioned that it is becoming necessary for authors to reach out and engage the public.  Many agents and publishers want to know in advance what the author is willing to do to promote a book once it is published.  This past week, on a few different occasions, I was reminded that people, regardless of whether or not they are authors, also require solitude.  I was also reminded that our society now makes that a hard thing to have.

First, there is my own experience. This school year has been a whirlwind for me.  I teach five different classes every day and I teach after school four hours a week – grades 5/6 two days and 7/8 two days.  I am not complaining.  My four days after school are days that I do project-based learning – something I am extremely passionate about.  While I love doing this, I am the first to admit that it takes a tremendous amount of planning and effort.  In addition, my 5/6 grades can have up to 30 students.  It’s a challenge.  I love challenges.  I thrive on challenges.  However, I come home exhausted.  I am not a spring chicken.  In addition, I have quite a bit going on in my world and these things take up most of what little free time I have.  Last week, there were some wind storms that caused us to lose power – a definite inconvenience.  However, it was also a godsend.  I came home on two different nights and there was no sound (my husband, who loves television, was away) and I couldn’t use my computer.  Yes, I did have my cell phone, but I needed it to be my alarm in the morning so didn’t want to risk a low battery.  For two nights I sat and read by candle light.  Sometimes I found myself just staring at the candles like one stares at a fire.  All my stress drained.  In contrast, my daughter, age 28, felt she was going crazy.  She put on Facebook that I was easily amused.  Eventually, the power came back on, and life resumed its noise.

On a few other occasions this week, there were notes from other authors and bloggers that I know and love. They either had taken or were taking a social media break due to either a need for solitude or the craziness in their own lives.  I felt better knowing that I was not the only one.  Still, I find myself musing over the fact that we feel the need to apologize for this.  I find this an interesting turn of events in this ever changing world.

What’s the point of all this? Because of my internal makeup, I need solitude.  It isn’t always a negative, despite what the new world order says.  I haven’t done much writing this year because my life is bordering on insane.  Others are stating their own need to withdraw.  I imagine there are writers for whom solitude is as necessary as the air we breathe.  These are probably the same authors that take our breath away with just the perfect word or phrase at just the perfect time.  I used to think that authors needed to change to be more social, but I have changed my opinion.  While I don’t deny the need for authors to engage the public, I am coming to see the need – perhaps necessity – for solitude in life.

 

Where to Begin

My students at school are amazed that I am an author.  The idea of wanting to write is foreign to them.  They write when given a prompt.  They write because they have to.  Sadly, they struggle to imagine.  The concept of pretending does not come easy to them.  They don’t know where to begin.  Not knowing where to begin is a problem authors can identify with.  I find that the best place to start is my own jumbled thoughts on life.

I recently groused on Facebook that I am not too thrilled about “the new normal.” I didn’t even know that term until a few months ago.  For those of you as uniformed as I, it simply means the way things will be for the foreseeable future.   It marks a life change such as the death of a loved one or a new way of life such as everyone being glued to a cell phone.  In short, things have changed and they aren’t going back.

As I age, I am not thrilled with the new normals in my life.  I don’t like missing people.  I don’t like everyone’s noses stuck in their cell phones and not talking.  I don’t understand the need to let everyone know every move you make on Facebook.   And, perhaps most of all, I am not thrilled with the constant testing of kids and the craziness of the Common Core.  Enough already!

Now that I have complained, I confess that there are new normals that I like.  I love spell check.  I enjoy being able to email things instead of having to snail mail them-but I love getting letters in the mail.  I like knowing that if my car breaks down, I can quickly call AAA.

I think that the new normal I really have a problem with is me getting older.  I look back at pictures of things in the 60’s and it makes me want to cry. My closest friend’s father recently passed away.  He was 90.  He was also the last person alive I knew on the street I grew up on.  He was a link to my childhood.  He was my friend’s father and if he was alive, a part of us could still be children.  I saw some of my friends at the funeral.  We talked about then and we talked about now.  We talked about how we became who we are.  We talked about the journey of life.

So, what does all this have to do with writing?  Everything.  I have a lifetime of stories to tell, lessons learned and things imagined.  Every day that passed was filled with stories waiting to be told.  We all think we are just marking time here on this planet, hoping to leave it a bit better off.   I believe we all have gifts to share.  Maybe authors and future authors are all little sponges soaking up the stories of life. I smile as I realize that I am much closer to the end of my life than I am to its beginning, but I still am deciding what I want to do when I grow up.

 

 

Life’s Full of Surprises

Writers can get their inspiration from just about anywhere.  The beginning of this school year has been a whirlwind that I have been happily caught up in.  When I say happily, I mean deliriously happy.  I have not been this elated in over five years.  In the past few years, I grieved the loss of a position that I didn’t think I could ever re-create.  The position changed because the school system reorganized and I moved to another school.  I once posted on Facebook that one of the hardest things in life is to have had the best and lost it, knowing that it could never be recaptured.  I and many of my former colleagues were literally in mourning.  The school has since been torn down and we are all in different places.  The family we created and the intense joy of going to work every day was gone.  I didn’t dislike my new job, it just wasn’t the same.  I understood what it was to simply have a j-o-b that I went to every day to make a living.  It was not my passion and obsession that it once was.  I missed having that with every fiber of my being.  I felt adrift on the ocean of life, floating aimlessly with no land or rescue in sight.  Sharks were circling and I didn’t really care.

Then it happened – a miracle.  My j-o-b changed slightly.  I am in the position to follow my passion for project-based learning.  I am able to create again and teach children how to create from the things they learn.  The mind-numbing worksheets that I was forced to teach and endure are mostly gone.  They can never be completely gone because children need to read information and practice it.  However, the worksheets I used are replaced with ones that allow students to search for information or ones that allow students to use their answers for other purposes down the line.  My students are engrossed in their pursuits and I am feeling alive again.

Suddenly, there was a glitch.  I was caught up with the projects I was doing for the next few months.  I no longer need to search for and synthesize my findings into fun projects.  I simply had to facilitate.  I am becoming bored again.

Then it hit me.  I am someone who needs to create.  It is a deep-seated need within me.  It has always been there, I just didn’t see it for what it was.  I was the odd student who inwardly jumped for joy when the professor mentioned the words “paper” or “project.”  It is why I loved my online classes with papers and projects due every week.   My favorite professor was one who didn’t believe in tests.  Our projects were our tests.  Our projects showed him that learning took place.  Creating is the highest point on Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning and my pinnacle of joy.

I am glimpsing snippets of the path that brought me to becoming a writer.  As a child, my friends and I diligently created new worlds.  We were rarely ourselves.  Instead, we were orphans in other countries or pretend adults (what were we thinking?) who solved mysteries.  Every day contained infinite possibilities.  Our bikes were not exercise devices; they were vehicles for the exploration of other worlds.  Man, I miss those days.  As a cozy mystery author, I create other worlds and characters.  There is no greater compliment than when a reader tells me they wish they could live next door to my characters.  If my characters feel real to my readers, I have done what I set out to do.

I don’t know exactly what this new deeper insight into myself means, or where it will take me.  I do know that I feel more complete.  I understand a greater part of what makes me tick; so many of my oddities make sense.  Yeah, to many, I will still be weird, but at least it is a weirdness that makes complete sense to me and gives me a sense of purpose.

 

Making a Difference

I have confessed to being an audiobookaholic.  I don’t go to meetings, but I probably should.  My very long days make it hard to find time to read, so I pursue my passion for the written word by the only other means possible.  I listen in my car on my way to work, I listen while cleaning my house – it takes my mind off my misery- and I am always planning my next download.  It is my biggest guilty pleasure.  It even surpasses hot cocoa in the winter and ice cream in the summer.

The biggest drawback is that I can’t fold down the corner of a page – sacrilege to some, I know -and I can’t underline – again, sacrilege.  So there are times when I simply must hit the pause button to ponder the author’s perfect use of a phrase, just the right word in a line or a thought that stops me in my tracks.

It is in these moments that my heart yearns to be better at my craft.  I long to be the one who makes people stop for a moment in their busy lives.  I want to create the image in their minds that no movie could come close to creating.  I want to touch a heart.

My closest moment, and it is probably as close as I will ever get, came last spring.  My daughter was stationed overseas for the Air Force.  She was stationed in a country where going off base was very dangerous.  There wasn’t much to do on their down time but read.  Yes, I know, that really isn’t such a bad thing.  The problem was that she found it hard to keep herself in books.  She quickly read through the four she brought with her.  Everyone else was having the same issue, so they began sharing books.  One afternoon, a female soldier came up to her and handed her a book.

“Here,” the woman said, “I just finished this great mystery.  You’ll love this book.”

My daughter looked down at the book and smiled. “I already read it.  My mother wrote it.”

The woman had no idea of the relationship because my daughter is married.  The last name on her tag is different from mine.  It turns out that my daughter’s friend and neighbor bought my book and brought it overseas with her for her tour of duty and left it on base for others to read.  Jennie called me and was ecstatic to report that my book was making the rounds on base and people were really loving it.   I mentioned this online and a few other authors sent me books to send overseas.  This thrilled me beyond words.  I already sent my daughter 70 boxes of Girl Scout cookies, but this was better.  I was sending entertainment that had the ability to take them to other places where war wasn’t.  It was entertainment that could make them smile.  It was entertainment that could be shared over and over and over until the pages crumbled with age.  Cookies are great, but the thrill is gone once they are eaten, DVDs can warp and scratch, and music downloads leave with the device.  Books live on to thrill another day.

I may never stop someone in their tracks with a very deep thought, but I can make people laugh and make them eager to turn the next page.  I can take them away from their troubles.  Every author’s work can live on to thrill another day.

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