#AuthorInterview: #SFF #writer #AdrianTchaikovsky discusses #writing #openinglines, #worldbuilding, and other bits of the #writinglife. Thanks, @aptshadow!

Happy Thursday, everyone! While Biff, Bash, and Blondie go after each other–and occasionally me–with squirt guns, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Adrian Tchaikovsky. He’s penned over two dozen books, including the Shadows of the Apt series and Children of Time, winner of the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award.

In short, Tchaikovsky is an amazing creative soul that we should all get to know a bit better. ūüôā How would you describe what you do, Sir?

So basically I mostly write books about spiders. Also dogs, AI, shapechangers, insect-people and anything else that lets me get out of a human skull. There’s not much more to me than that, in all honesty.

Considering the depth and breadth of your work, your imagination must have been nurtured with rich inspiration from little on. Are there any folks or favorite authors from your childhood that helped spark your passion for storytelling?

Absolutely ‚Äď my great storytelling guru from teenage onwards was Diane Wynne Jones.

(Insert girly squeal here) I’m a huge fan, too! Her life is such an inspiration, not to mention her use of classic literature to help create new timeless stories and her knack for building complete characters we readers want to cheer for time and again.

Oh yes, she vastly expanded my frame of reference as to what you can do with a story, how you can play with reader expectations, that sort of thing. The Homeward Bounders and Power of Three, especially. Jones pulls a number of switches on the reader in Power of Three, with regard to precisely what the setting is, who are the ‚Äėgood‚Äô and ‚Äėbad‚Äô people, all that, which really opened my eyes. Before that, as well as cutting my teeth on Dr Who novelisations, I loved Tove Jansson, because she built such a wonderful world with her stories.

My home state of Wisconsin is a curious patchwork of farms and wild places. I love exploring this landscape in my mind, creating stories to give shapes to the shadows hiding just out of sight. Would you say the landscape around you inspires your writing, or has been utilized in some way to help build a story’s setting? That swamp you describe at the beginning of Guns of the Dawn feels like this horrible place I knew near my summer camp… 

So… actually no. I don’t tend to relate much to places I’ve been, per se. No more than places I’ve read about or seen pictures of. It all just feeds into the general melting pot in my head that I draw new creations from. I’ve never been in a swamp like that, but I seem to be able to imagine these places and put them on a page well enough to make them real to my readers.

All the more impressive, then, Sir, that you can stimulate the reader’s imagine to build such a real place known only in your own mind!

Now, let’s stick with Guns of the Dawn just a touch longer because it has an amaaaazing opener: 

I killed my first man today…

The air was hot,muggy with moisture, filled with flies. Emily had not known hot before she came to these swamps. Hot had once been pleasant summer days with the corn ripening gold in the fields. Hot had been the good sun and the rich earth, and the labourers scaring crows or bringing a harvest in; a picnic on the Wolds, with a blue, blue sky cloudless above. Hot was a fierce fire burning in the study when the world outside was chill. There must be another word for this all-encompassing heat.

I’ve already told my husband I’m treating myself to this book after I complete my pedagogical training this summer. 

Anyway.

So after a first line that provides the point of view, time, and controversial action, you launch us into a paragraph filled with extremely vivid sensory details further enriched by memories of the past. Thanks to these memories, readers get the impression of a narrator who cares more about the quiet life in the farm land–a stark contrast to one who’s said she’s killed a man. You strike a delicate balance of grounding readers in the present moment of the story while also flashing back into the narrator’s past and how the world once was. Can you describe your process of finding this balance? 

This is going to sound very zen, which frankly I am not in any way, but there is a big subconscious element to that level of my writing. I was never formally taught about writing technique, I just read a whole hell of a lot, and then I wrote a whole hell of a lot, and my writing got better with each book I tried. Although there is a definite conscious input, and as I’ve got better I’ve become more aware of things I can do deliberately to create an effect, a great deal of it just comes out of the way the words spill onto the page in their raw form.

Well paint me green with storytellin’ envy, Sir, because your opening lines are as consistently effective as those created by Diana Wynne Jones. A wee survey of your stories uncovers hooks both big and small.

From The Children of Time:

There were no windows in the Brin 2 facility‚ÄĒrotation meant that ‚Äėoutside‚Äô was always ‚Äėdown‚Äô, underfoot, out of mind. The wall screens told a pleasant fiction, a composite view of the world below that ignored their constant spin, showing the planet as hanging stationary-still off in space: the green marble to match the blue marble of home, twenty light years away. Earth had been green, in her day, though her colours had faded since. Perhaps never as green as this beautifully crafted world though, where even the oceans glittered emerald with the phytoplankton maintaining the oxygen balance within its atmosphere. How delicate and many-sided was the task of building a living monument that would remain stable for geological ages to come.

From this paragraph we learn the story’s location, the time frame, and the narrator’s love of this created home. We are also left asking: “What happened to earth?” And we are driven to read on.

From The Expert System’s Brother:

It went wrong for me when they made Sethr an outcast.

From this sentence we learn the story’s point of view, that there is some powerful “they” capable of ruining someone’s life, and because one person’s ruined, so is our narrator. We are also left asking: “Who is this mighty ‘they’? Why should Sethr’s fate mess up life for the narrator?” And we are driven to read on.

Writing compelling openers is surely one of the most important challenges any writer faces. Do you have any advice for writers who struggle crafting their hook?

I am going to raise a hand and say that good lord I‚Äôve had books where the opener has been a problem, and it is super important. Often it‚Äôs a matter of where in the story you start ‚Äď easy to start things too soon and have too much lead-in. And there‚Äôs a huge pressure to start with everything on fire, meaning that certain types of storytelling are virtually extinct in the genre right about now. Sometimes I‚Äôd like to feel people would just amble with me a bit at the start‚Ķ

I love the idea of ambling…and with over thirty titles to your name, there’s lots of ambling to do! Some of your titles are stand-alones, like The Expert System’s Brother; some are in trilogies, such as Echoes of the Fall; and then you have your TEN-book series Shadows of the Apt. I tip my hat to you for building worlds unique and complete time, and time, and time again, just like Jones. What thrills you about building a new world? How do you avoid the temptation of re-using elements? No writer wants readers to get d√©j√† vu and think they’re just reading the same story over again.

Building worlds *is* the thing that thrills me, and I have a whole host of ideas yet to come. So far repeating worlds hasn’t been the issue (outside of sequels obviously). I’m more worried about repeating themes, because obviously there are certain things you come back to, each writer to their own, and there’s a real danger that you end up telling the same snippets of story over and over if you don’t remember to give them a different spin.

Another common problem for many writers–as well as movie-makers, I’d say–is crafting an action sequence that moves quickly and fiercely without confusing readers as to what’s going on. I know this was one of the toughest elements to hammer out in my own novel, which contains battles involving several key players duking it out all over the place. Your novels contain intense action on both an epic scale as well as an intimate one. How do you keep the language quick-footed without losing readers along the way?

Action sequences are very much an art of their own. Having a good grasp of the shape of the sequence is important I think ‚Äď I plan a great deal anyway, and action sequences get thought through in the same way. A chase or a fight has a mini-narrative of its own, including opportunities to bring out character, to foreshadow, and to have their own emotional beats. A particularly big action scene can almost be a book in miniature.

How true!

Another resource that’s always helped me write action scenes as well as stay focused on the feeling of any given moment is music. For every author that tells me he/she loves having music to help set the mood for writing a scene, I hear from another author that he/she needs silence in order to write. Which camp do you call home and why?

I tend to listen to music when I write and have a series of playlists for different moods, to help me focus and blot out distraction. I generally listen to instrumental music from film soundtracks, computer games, and music written specifically for trailers (a good source of consistently hammery action music), Some composers you might not know who have some interesting stuff include Kyle Gabler, Lorne Balfe, and Bear McCreary.

(Gasps) GODZILLA?! Hell to the yes! Sign me up for some new composers to study later this year!

One reason I depend so heavily on music is because it helped me write when my children were small and at home all day. Now that my kids are old enough to attend school, I can usually find an hour of peace to write. Still, it’s extremely tough some days to balance parenthood and writer…hood. Authorhood. You get me. Do you have any tips for balancing writing and parenting?

Honestly my son’s 11 now so he’s more self-sufficient. I write in the mornings and very late evenings, though, which is a convenient way of working around family commitments.

Lastly, let’s talk about the ever dreaded Kryptonite. Writing Kryptonite, to be precise. There’s always something that can sap all creative power away in a heartbeat. For me, it’s a phone call from my sons’ school principal. It takes a good long while of watching my sons lose themselves in their own adventures with droids, transformers, and wild animals before my own creativity sparks back to life. What would you call your Writing Kryptonite, and how do you overcome it?

Arguments with my son will do it, but as a sort of contributor to a general cycle of depressive ups and downs that are quite capable of just doing their own thing with me, without any actual outside stimulus. Writing is a big drive for me, though. If I’m not writing, it has a serious negative effect on my mental state all its own. So although a downswing can make it hard to get going, once I’m actually writing I can generally retreat into it from my problems.

I know just what you mean, Sir. Do I ever know just what you mean.

My deepest thanks again to Adrian Tchaikovsky for taking the time to talk to us today! You can find him on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and his website, too.

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

We’re going to meander through some gorgeous western scores in anticipation of my upcoming Night’s Tooth.

Mississippi River Valley, 1870s. The white man wields rails and guns to bring law to the land. But there are more than wild animals hiding in the territories, and it will take more than guns to bring them down.

Sumac the bounty hunter needs no guns to hunt any bandit with a price on his head, even one as legendary and mysterious as Night’s Tooth. But Sumac didn’t count on other bounty hunters coming along as competition, nor did he expect hunters sharing his own magical gifts.

It’s one man against a gang and a mystery, all to protect a train that must cross the territories at all costs…

Inspired by classics like For a Few Dollars More and fantasy cult favorites like Highlander, ‚ÄúNight‚Äôs Tooth‚ÄĚ is a western with a fantasy edge set in the Fallen Princeborn universe.

Did you miss my August newsletter? Here it is!

We’ll also do some adventuring about Wisconsin and do a wee worldbuilding study of a recent western fantasy, Charlaine Harris’ An Easy Death. More author interviews are on the way, too. I hope you’ll join me!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

A letter to my #father of #grief, #family, #Easter, and #StarTrek

Dear Dad,

Another Holy Week is almost over. Another Easter on the horizon.

Another Easter without you.

This time of year the stores are overloaded with Easter lilies, the scent of their beautiful white blooms permeating every aisle. Of all your allergies, Easter lilies were the worst, especially because the old ladies of the church flower guilds never really took it seriously.

Oh, you’d tell them, and I’m sure they nodded politely, but what did they do on Saturday? STUFF the altar with lilies for the Easter service Sunday morning.

So where are you during those two, sometimes three services Easter morning? Not in the pulpit, that’s for damn sure. Down in the pews, as far from the altar as you can get, silently praying you can at least speak your way through the service without passing out because your throat’s so constricted. Singing Easter hymns was not even an option, which sucked, because I know how much you loved them. Even if the flower guilds used a mix of fake and real lilies, it made no difference–your voice would always be so hoarse anyone would have thought you’d spent the last six hours cheering for William Shatner’s arrival at a Star Trek convention.

Honestly, that’s what initially got me writing this. Not Easter, but Star Trek.

All my listening to James Horner put Bo in a mood for Star Trek; one clip with the kids later, and Biff is hooked.

Oh, Dad. Biff’s so into Star Trek right now it’s hilarious and sad all at once. He stares at the ships, absorbing every detail. He’s transforming boxes into his own Enterprise, Excelsior, Reliant–the kid’s got the entire Starfleet parked on the end of his bed, manned by the brave comfies from Planet Teeny Ty. I can’t imagine what a conversation between you and Biff would have been like, especially when the little guy’d insist Excelsior is cooler than Enterprise.

And because I can’t imagine that conversation, I’ve been pretty damn sad.

My last picture of you and Biff–his first birthday, 2013. Probably can’t see it, but you’re wearing your Dr. Who-Harry Potter scarf fight shirt. I have a pillow with that shirt’s image now.

Bash shows me the first book he made about the Wall-E and Eve robots, and I can’t help but remember when I’d show my own stories to you, how’d we spend ages going over the stories I’d type on that goliath of an IBM computer.

How is this the only picture I have of you and Bash? Where are the others? I asked Bo, and he’s pretty sure our sister-in-law was the camera-holic at that time. I’ll have to get those pictures from her somehow.

I hear Blondie sing in church, and can’t help but remember those toddler years when she’d run up the aisle at your own church at the end of a service. You would pause the announcements, and just stand there, grinning, until she reached out for you with her little hands. You’d hold each other all through the announcements, recessional, and greeting, so happy to be together.

You and Blondie in Door County, Wisconsin, 2013

Blondie turns nine next month.

Bash, Blondie, & Biff, 2019

How you’d laugh with these guys now, sharing goofy faces and terrible puns. How you’d run after them at the park, caught up in epic battles of dragons and space ships. How you’d throw your hands up in exasperation when facing the latest generation of family stubbornness I know I got from you and have passed on to all three of my little B’s.

How I miss the memories that never were.

But this Easter, I’m doing my damndest not to let love known in the past prevent me from seeing the hope of a happy future.

Awake, my heart, with gladness,
See what today is done,
Now after gloom and sadness
Comes forth the glorious Sun!
My Savior there was laid
Where our bed must be made
When to the realms of light
Our spirit wings its flight.

From the lutheran hymn “awake my heart with gladness”

Despite those lilies, you loved Easter. You loved sharing its joy, its hope, its miraculous nature. If not for Easter, there would be no hope for us beyond these few years of mortal coils. Through Christ, death can only keep us apart for a little while; through Christ, we know that when our time on earth is done we will be joined together in Heaven, where we can share all the songs and smiles, stories and laughter we’ve gathered over the years.

Happy Easter, Dad. For once I can put a lily next to you and it won’t kill you, let alone keep you from singing the Easter hymns you loved so much.

The Easter hymns I still cannot sing, too choked with tears.

But no tears will ever choke my hope of seeing you again in Heaven.

Happy Easter, everyone.

#writing #music: #JamesHorner & @samuelsofficial

After wading through the muck’n’mire of Cancel Culture, I’d like to celebrate Spring’s arrival with you. It comes upon the choir of strings, written by a beloved composer, performed by dynamic voices.

Stringed voices.

Norwegian violinist Mari Samuelsen and her cellist brother Hakon have been performing both together and separately for years. Like me, they’ve always adored the music of composer James Horner–how can one not? This man’s music brought life to blockbusters like Braveheart, Aliens, and Titanic. His music filled the movies of my childhood: Something Wicked This Way Comes, American Tail, and Start Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, to name a few.

Just as writers and readers dream of meeting the authors who inspire them, the Samuelsens dreamed of Horner composing a piece for them.

And, as the happiest of stories go, this dream came true.

Mutual friend and Norwegian director Harald Zwart finagled a meeting with James Horner and the Samuelsens. After performing for Horner, Mari asked if Horner would write a concerto for them.

He said yes.

I feel like I’m transported to the classical style Horner himself loved. The beginning cello solo here reminds me of the bassoon opening Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Then the violin enters, and I can’t help but think of Firebird Suite,also by Stravinsky. It’s no coincidence both works were adapted to accompany visual stories of creation and destruction in Disney’s Fantasia and Fantasia 2000.

And Horner himself is a storyteller, such a storyteller. The cello and violin are the characters of this story; its setting, the dawn of spring. Can’t you just feel the encroaching sunrise with the muted swell of the woodwinds? And here come the strings: warmth, growth. Green shoots struggle for freedom from thawing soil. Cello and violin walk–no, dance–through the landscape, casting out the final frost fairies to welcome spring’s sprites. The sprites run as the orchestral strings unleash them into the air.

I could go on, but I am sure your own imaginations picture this dance of change and color. It delights me to hear beloved themes from Horner’s other work woven into this tale: the strings bring forgotten magic from Something Wicked This Way Comes, a touch of kindled love from Titanic. The orchestral woodwinds remind me of the bravery buried in Wrath of Khan. Yes, I hear many loved harmonies of my childhood fantasies come and go until the final moment, when all is silent but for the violin and cello, an echo of the song’s beginning.

It helps the harmonies are played with such passionate players. I must find more of the Samuelsens’ work–their expression with bows and breaths are unlike any I’ve heard before.

If you loved Part 1, then please, listen to Part 2 and Part 3 of James Horner’s concerto. It’s such a stunning work, and one of Horner’s last; he died the year this album was released, 2015.

I am so thankful to have found Pas De Deux, and cannot wait to write more about the composer who led me to this album. But that will have to wait. Until then, let me give you a sample in the form of his contribution performed by the Samuelsens. May this song bring you dreams of Spring’s duet, its color and storms ever dancing with ribbons of sunlit magic.

But most of all, may this song fill your heart with a hope defiant of all darkness.

Thank you so much for reading this small journey through music’s inspiration. I hope you’ll take a moment to check out my novel and free fiction, as well as subscribe to my newsletter.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#Whole30 #Writing Log: Day 29

Certain moments promise tears.

Maybe that moment is in a story…

…or hidden within a song…

For me, at least yesterday, it came as a question.

“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Innocent enough question, right? Routine interview question from the panel, right?

Yet there I sat before the faculty, tears welling in my eyes.

I¬†apologize¬†for¬†my¬†reaction.¬†I¬†understand¬†the¬†question.¬†It¬†just¬†calls¬†me¬†back¬†to…well,¬†I¬†should¬†be¬†honest.¬†It¬†calls¬†me¬†back¬†to¬†when¬†my¬†children¬†were¬†infants¬†and¬†I¬†suffered¬†postpartum¬†depression.¬†

Very, very bad postpartum depression. 

I would tell myself over and over that all would be better in five years. 

In five years, when the kids were out of colic and not fighting so fiercely, all would be better. 

And¬†here¬†I¬†am¬†these¬†days,¬†telling¬†myself¬†that¬†in¬†five¬†years,¬†when¬†my¬†sons¬†are¬†older,¬†things¬†will¬†be¬†better…

In¬†regards¬†to¬†the¬†University,¬†I¬†like¬†it¬†here.¬†I¬†want¬†to¬†continue¬†teaching¬†here,¬†whether¬†it’s¬†full¬†time¬†or¬†part¬†time.

¬†I¬†want¬†to¬†help¬†our¬†students¬†succeed¬†because¬†I¬†know¬†how¬†hard¬†it¬†is¬†for¬†them¬†because¬†I’ve¬†lived¬†that insane balance of raising a family, caring for loved ones, and maintaining a job.¬†

I¬†want¬†to¬†make¬†our¬†curriculum¬†meet¬†our students’¬†needs¬†because¬†so¬†many¬†just¬†don’t¬†see¬†how¬†important¬†writing¬†is¬†to¬†their¬†success.

 I want to help them learn that, see that, for the next five years and farther.

So that should sum up how the interview went this week. I didn’t have many professional, verbose, academic answers for them.

Just a lot of heart.

Maybe that’s enough. Maybe not. No matter what, I’ve done my best and will continue to do my best. With the love of my family and dear friends like you, I won’t stop running with the wind, leaping as a wild child, never quite grown up, never quite done learning. And always ready to share that magic with others.

In the meantime, Bo’s ready to pour a glass of wine for me tonight because dammit, it’s been a long week, and I’ve already cheated the Whole30 code anyway.

Thank you for sticking it out with me, my friends. x

Oh! I finally got my newsletter out this afternoon, including a sneak peek at Fallen Princeborn: Chosen. Check it out!

Noooooow it’s time for that wine. ūüôā

#Whole30 #Writing Log: Day 13

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (3)

Working from home has lots of pros. I can prepare my non-sugar non-dairy non-gluten non-joyful lunch with anything handy here. I can run errands whenever. I can sit in the recliner with my dad’s ancient laptop and ice my back while writing. I can work with my students at 5am or 8pm, whenever’s convenient.

But I’m with my own thoughts aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaall the time.

And with depression always lurking on the edge, this isolation can get nasty.

Take this morning.

The heater goes wonky.

I’ve got fifty posts from students to sort through, not including their projects. This all needs to get graded in the next few days.

I have an interview for a full-time position to prepare for.

I have a novel that needs serious course correction.

Will the boys be sent home again?

How will we afford Bash’s ER visit from that damn lego up his nose?

What if the heater breaks?

What if the roof starts leaking from all that heavy snow?

Blondie so badly wants to spend time with animals. Where to do that, when to do that…

I have to go to choir tonight on these shitty roads and I HATE driving on slick roads, I’ll spin out, I’ll end up in the ditch and how will we afford that?

My heart starts going nuts.

My breathing rushes.

I get light-headed.

I KNOW WHAT THIS IS.

NOT A HEART ATTACK. A PANIC ATTACK.

I WON’T LET IT GET TO ME.

I stagger upstairs, call Bo. He talks about work, about the roads, about anything as I slowly get up, open a window. Breathe.

Breathe, Jean, breathe.

Panic attacks fucking suck. They have a strong ally in depression.

But you won’t beat this lady. I’ve faced postpartum depression twice without meds. I’ve battled my own body. I faced the Monster who abused me. I’ve overcome loss and pain and FUCK you, panic, you will NOT own me.

I’m gonna keep breathing. Fighting. Mothering. Writing.

Never give up, my friends. Never, ever, give up.

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

Oh, PS, the novel’s on sale, yadda yadda.¬†

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (2)

 

#Whole30 #Writing Log: Day 8

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (3)

My apologies in advance.

This one’s short. Curt, really.

Today was supposed to be a lovely day for Blondie.20190208_114112

 

Parent Visitation Day. For the first time ever, I could attend the whole day and watch her awesome smartness in action. She kicked butt on her spelling test. She went crazy during a math game (seriously, everyone went NUTS over these weird cards), and brainstormed up some amazing ideas for her gray wolf habitat display for the Science Fair. We were just getting ready for lunch when–you guessed it–the phone rang.

Biff and Bash’s principal.

They needed to be sent home for fighting. Fists to the face and everything.

I did my damndest to hide my tears when I told Blondie. Her reaction: not all that surprised.

For once, for FUCKING once, can’t Blondie matter more than the boys’ behavior?

But Bo works in another chunk of the state. I have to get them.

Bash’s black eye is…well it’s hopefully something to give him pause.

Biff says Bash started it by budging in line. When I asked why Biff didn’t just tell the teacher, he shrugged. Would he have punched out another kid for such an offense, or because it was Bash, then it was all-out war?

The school’s scheduled an evaluation for a behaviorist.

God, I need a drink.

Oh wait. I can’t.

No booze during Whole30.

20190208_072806.jpg

I know you’re a good guy, Biff. You and your brother both are. Please, PLEASE, you have to¬†show¬†you are a good guy to others. You cannot lash out so violently over so little. Please, dear ones,¬†please.

(sigh)

Okay. I can’t be dour forever. There has to be a change sometime.

And a few hours with Blondie is better than none at all.

A YA book blogger also reviewed Fallen Princeborn: Stolen and loved it.

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (2)

Bunnerbooky’s review made me smile like a hug from Blondie. You can check her out here.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends.

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#Whole30 #Writing Log: Day 4

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (3)

More mist today. A spring-like humidity clings to winter coats: still too much snow to be outside without them, yet the freak warmth makes one feel like it’s April, not February. That’s Wisconsin for you.

20180509_101546

Bash, Hoppy, and I on a happier day.

If only the mist didn’t seem to fit so perfectly with Bash’s constant talk of death.

“Noooo, I have to wear my mittens so I don’t get frostbite and die!”

“Can choking make me die?”

“Mom, how does Jesus get me after I die?”

Where this fixation came from, I don’t know. I’m surely responsible, at least in part, what with my Stop wrestling on the stairs before¬† you kill each other! kinds of threats. Bo’s not helping, either.

“Mommy and Daddy are on a diet so that our coffins don’t break pallbearers’ backs.”

Y-yeah, that’s a great thing to tell the kids.

Yet I can’t bring myself to be angry, or even annoyed. See, not only did my father die suddenly in February–Bo’s, did, too, just three years before Dad.

“Mom, your mom is Grandma. Grandma is still alive, but your dad’s dead. How did he die?” Bash asks while playing with Transformers, like this is a normal question during a normal day, like this is a thing to ask right before “What’s for lunch? Do we have string cheese?”

His heart stopped working,” I say quietly.

“And then he went to heaven?”

“Yup.”

“Where is heaven?”

“On top of the universe.”

“Ooooh,” Bash whines, and finds my lap without looking up from Optimus Prime mid-transformation. “That’s far away from you.”

I wrap my arms tight around my baby Bash, no longer so little,, but always my youngest, my snuggler, my storyteller. “Not that far, Bash. Never that far.”

~*~*~*~

Snuggle with your loved ones today. Give’em a kiss, show them what they mean to you.

Of course, I’m going to plug my novel here, too. but seriously, share your heart today. Life is too short not to fill it with love and hope.

Free Fiction Has Come from the Wilds (2)

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends.

JeanLee-nameLogoBoxed

#writerproblems: Feed the #writing Flame

Let’s face it: some days, we’re burned out.

God knows I am.

From 4am until 10pm, life is a steady stream of to-dos: grade papers, get kids up, get daughter to school, work on author platform, stop Biff from shoving cars into the fridge, feed twins, get them to school, try to rewrite that &!#@ scene for the umpteenth time, get daughter from school and rush over to the sons’ school, drag Bash out of mud-slush sandpit, scramble a supper, dishes, laundry, bedtime stories, pay attention to spouse, answer student questions, crash.

Repeat.

How in Hades do we keep going? How, in all the needs of family and work, do we find a way to keep inner flame burning?

With a fresh box of matches.

Light the Dark is an amazing collection of essays gathered Joe Fassler, who’s interviewed dozens of writers for The Atlantic. Each essay shares “a moment of transformative reading,” as Fassler puts it–a line the writer read, and is inwardly changed. I was skeptical to read the book–I barely have time to read the novels I should be reviewing. How the heck can I read something for me? Ridiculous.

Buuut I figured I could give the first essay a go while the boys mucked about in the library. Aimee Bender’s “Light in the Dark” shared the physical and spiritual elation felt when memorizing Wallace Stevens’ poem “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour.” She had heard the poem at a funeral, and its first line–“We say God and the imagination are one”–stuck with her. And me.

There’s something beautifully enigmatic about that line: It contains what feels so expansive and mysterious about the imagination to me. I love the way it treats the imagination with an almost religious reverence.

Which is just how I feel about imagination. It is a sacred gift, one not to be denied or squandered. God has given me many hard blessings, but He also gave me something that I knew was special: imagination. Before I knew how to make letters, I knew how to create worlds of adventure, of stories fantastic. And when I learned to make words, I knew them to be powerful, worthy of respect, just like the Scripture I memorized from little on.

And then, too soon, I’m nearing Bender’s conclusion:

That’s the thing I want to do in my own writing: present words that act as a vessel for something more mysterious. I know it’s working when I feel like there’s something hovering beneath the verbal, that mysterious emotional place…

Yes, I thought. Yes, that, just so. To know another writer struggles to find that place of power, of strength beneath the words…the writing life did not feel quite so charred.

I had to try another essay. Just one more, before the boys drove the librarian around the bend (again).

Sherman Alexie’s “Leaving the Reservation of the Mind” floored me. Floored. Me. He shares the context of his world:

There is always this implication that in order to be Indian you must be from the reservation. It’s not true and it’s a notion that limits us–it forces us to define our entire life experiences in terms of how they do or do not relate to the reservation.

I felt the whiplash of memory: the moment from my first year of graduate school when my parents criticized my writing for not putting faith in a good light. For not sounding “nice” enough about it. For having a harsh, raw tone about life in the ministry. How dare I.

For years, the guilt stuck with me. I wasn’t writing about what was appropriate, what fit. I come from a Christian family. I should be setting a good example in my church, teaching good Christian children how to write good, Christian things. Smile sweetly, bring the cookie bars for fellowship hour.  Be content.

No.

We’re all cursed to haunt and revisit the people and places that confine us. But when you can pick and choose the terms of that confinement, you, and not your prison, hold the power.

I left the library with Light the Dark. I had to. Not just because the boys were shouting over checkers next to the old curmudgeon at the stamp table, but because I was reading words that burned me deeper than my imagination. This isn’t just about craft–this is about living. Literally, it’s the writing life: these authors are sharing the moments words branded themselves onto their internal skin, and shaped their futures.

And now here I was, blasting Tron for the boys and humming off-rhythm inside because for the first time in ages, I could feel a spark of hope, of need. A microcosmic brightness just between the gut and the lungs. Oh yes, it is cosmic, and it will come from me, from you, from all of us who live for words, burning sacred, to light the imaginations of  tomorrow, and every tomorrow thereafter.

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#writerproblems: The War Against #Writer Butt

“Who wants to dance with Mommy?”20180214_155933Sigh.

Finding time to move is a right bugger these days. When one’s jobs of¬†editing your novel and teaching both require hours upon hours before a computer, physical activity doesn’t get to be a priority. Sure, there’s the movement of motherhood: chores, keeping kids from wrestling each other off of the bunk beds, etc. But these aren’t steady, challenging movements one’s body needs to lose the writer’s butt that’s been developing since the holidays.

For the record, I do know something of how diets work. I gained almost 100 pounds during Blondie’s pregnancy, lost a small chunk, but then gained that chunk back during the boys’ pregnancy. The latter pregnancy threw my entire diet off-balance, as so many foods made me sick. When we finally evicted Biff and Bash (aka, induced birth), I reveled in dairy and all the other foods that would never stay down long with boys in utero.

But when the boys started toddling off in different directions, I realized: I have to be able to keep up with them. I have to be able to run, to move. I can’t be wheezing on stairs with them.

So I joined Weight Watchers, and lost 85 pounds over the course of a year.

YAY!

But then, I just stopped keeping tally of what I ate. And for the life of me I can’t seem to jump back into that groove. I’ve tried other methods like the FitBit to tally calories, but I kept forgetting to type it in with Biff shaking the yogurt off his hand and sending it all over the Legos on the floor, or with Bash hugging his bunny Hoppy and smearing Nutella all over its body. There’s always something that¬†needs¬†attention.

And, to be selflishly honest, I stare at screens enough as it is. I don’t want yet another reason to stare at a screen and type.

But I know I need to do¬†something. My workload ain’t goin’ anywhere. My kids’ craziness ain’t goin’ anywhere. Wisconsin winter ain’t goin’ anywhere for at least…three to six months. (Hey, we’ve had blizzards in May. I assume NOTHING about Wisconsin weather.)

At first I thought I could take a cue from Blondie’s teacher. With three grades in her classroom, she knows it’s important to give little kids physical breaks from those desks. So, she has these five-minute “brain breaks” scattered throughout the school day: She puts on kid-friendly dance videos and lets the kids go nuts next to their desks until the dance is done. Cool idea, right? Especially in winter, when Wisconsin can have cold snaps resulting in frostbite with just a few minutes’ exposure, or a big melt turning the entire landscape into a muddy, cold mess.

 

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Monday…

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…and Thursday.

I know my sons behave better when they can burn energy. Let’em dance!

Well, you saw the result of that experiment.

So, I let them run their races around the house. Me? I find whatever spare reason I have to move: taking things one at a time down the basement. I pace while I read, or take editing notes. I fidget while I teach. Just. Keep. Moving. Lord knows that once all three kids are in school 8am-3pm, I can carve out a wee window for exercise. Until then, I’ve got to accept the little steps as I can take them.

This starts with diet.

In the quest to find out what foods I can scarf without guilt, I came across Sugar Busters, a breakdown of how much sugar we take in through processed foods and poor food choices. Cut out the processed foods, focus on the fiber-rich produce and protein. Whole grains. Easy peasy!

Only I live in a house where pop tarts, muffins, mac’n’cheese, peanut butter and jelly open-faced sandwiches sliced down the middle with crusts painstakingly removed–(erm, that last one’s Biff)–none of this really caters to the “quinoa berry mash in a slow cooker” kind of cooking.

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“Let’s eat Cars for lunch, Mommy!”

And before you ask, Bo’s soured to the whole “diet” thing. He did Atkins for a year before we met, and now clings to the carbs in his life with a death-grip.

So.

Whatever I do, I do for me.

I did find another diet book in the library: Digest Diet. Lose weight by eating certain foods in just 21 days. Oooo, sounds easy! The first five days consist of nothing but shakes and soup. After that, a slow introduction of meat and veg with just a touch of carb. Lose anywhere from 10-20lbs in this time. Brilliant!

I made Bo find flaxseed meal and the other ingredients for the shakes. This, I could do: after all, I can drink a shake and write at the same time. I can sip a shake while handling laundry or whatever else. This diet fits with myyyy lifestyle, Naive Me thinks.

Here are some more thoughts from Naive Me from the past week:

Day 1: Woohoo, I got my shakes in! What soup do we have? (gasp)¬†Ella’s Deli¬†is closing?! But Blondie and I love it there!¬†We all gotta go one last time so I can say goodbye…and have their chocolate cake, one last time…

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Blondie and her awesome braces

Day 2: Okay, back on track…aw man, this meat’s gonna go bad if we don’t make something with it. Should probably taste it to make sure…with those leftover noodles, and that scrap of cream cheese…don’t forget the veggies, at least….

Day 3: Who dares order pizza when Mommy’s got to have soup?! I demand a slice in sacrifice!

Day 4: BACK ON TRACK. Soup for breakfast this time, we’ll just switch things up, with a shake for dinner. And apple crisp.

Day 5: You think you’re so funny, Biff, wheeling those precious chocolate chip cookies around the table like they’re race cars. Well it ain’t funny! Taunting Mommy is a Thumbs Down Thing!

Yeah, I don’t think this writer’s butt is going to get smaller any time soon.

Oh, I’m not giving up. But I’ve got to be okay with my body as is until time opens for me to change it.

As Hawkeye would write to his father on M.A.S.H.:

“The war goes on.”

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#writerproblems: Taking a Break

Four weeks.

Four weeks of rewrites and hours locked away in the basement to the screams of “I want my MUMMY!” Four weeks of barely saying more to the kids than, “Good morning,” “Eat,” “Get dressed we’re late,” “Stop sitting on each other,” and “Goodnight, I love you.”

Three weeks of that had the additional fun of writing to eighty new students, grading their work, and answering those who don’t get why they can’t just write about how obesity is bad and wonder why I don’t hand out my phone number so they can call when they need me.

Damn, I cried. Hard. And often.

I wasn’t being a mom. A wife. I was just glued to the stupid screen to grade yet another round of papers, tackling another dozen pages of rewrites and DAMMIT, I lost three days’ worth of work, and–

Bo played with the kids. He kept them upstairs with books, video games, food–anything he could. He sat with me as I cried, and reminded me, time and again:

“Focus on what you’ve achieved, not on the hell right now.”

To which I often spat something back like, “And how’s that going to give me time to respond to two dozen students and edit thirty pages?”

Because that’s the killer, isn’t it? Time. We writers are desperate for it. It’s lousy timing when the fun writing hour we save for ourselves gets nixed for an obligation. But when writing is¬†one such obligation, suddenly we realize just how little daylight we have for¬†family, work, and writing.

~*~

When the term started, my mother offered to watch the kids for a day so Bo and I could get out.

Bo offered to go off on his own. “You should use that time to work.”

My immediate thought:¬†Yes, I should. Several hours of peace. No “Where’s Mom?” No forced interaction with my family…that just want a little time with me. Any time.¬†

Bo looked so tired. He fell asleep in the chair next to me yesterday, exhausted from his new double-shift life of ten hours at the postal service every day and Prime Caregiver every evening and weekend.

I set my screen aside.¬†“Yeah, I should. But I need some time with you, too.”

~*~

Since neither of us were keen on the current films, we decided to visit the¬†Milwaukee Art Museum–this time, for art we kinda actually knew.

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I partially kid. A traveling exhibit of early Modern works was in town. Photography wasn’t allowed inside, I’m afraid, so I can’t show you how unique the exhibit was. Much of the work consisted of early sketches and practice drawings; for instance, one Toulouse Lautrec sketch of a horse was bordered by various drawings of hooves, just hooves, because he was trying to capture them just so.

Seems a familiar practice between writer and artist, that constant running of the pen to find the perfect strength in chosen lines.

The other big theme in those sketches? Women coming out of the bath. Not bathing, but coming out and drying themselves. Always drying the legs, too. Well, I suppose armpits aren’t exactly a sexy location to sketch.

Anyway.

When I was a kid, the museum building consisted of a 50s rectangle made of gravel¬†that is actually a War Memorial (I still can’t tell how), but since 2001 we’ve had the very fancy-pants edition of¬†the Quadracci Pavilion.¬†The outside is built in the shape of a bird, complete with wings that open and close.

The inside of the Pavilion is pretty swanky, too.

 

 

 

 

The art contained within is something of a quirky hodge podge. And I say this as a Philistine who never took a lick of art history in school, so feel free to turn up your noses at my ignorance on the subject. All I know is that if your chosen first impression on visitors is a giant trowel in dirt, “classics” are not going to come to one’s mind.

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Take this creature, for instance.

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Yes, that is a machine projecting a man’s face onto a balloon. He says things like, “Life is but a tunnel of darkness. Are we truly alive, or are we toys?” And yes, it’s all with a drowsy monotone.

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Is this normal, to have captions of guesswork?

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This Garden of Eden painting creeps me out. An attendant noticed me with my camera and mentioned that the dog had originally been covered by a bush, but in restoration they discovered him there in the corner. Just look at that thing. No one else is looking out at the viewer. Why that dog? And those eyes follow you everywhere in the room.

Creepy demon dog.

And some pieces…look, I don’t get super-modern stuff. I just don’t. When an empty acrylic case can be put on display¬†as art,¬†and labeled as such and donated as such, and things like big pieces of blue plastic are leaned against the wall and declared art, I just…

I like words.

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Not that all pieces are like this, to be clear. There’s this beautiful creation by artist¬†Dave Chihuly¬†in the Quad Pavilion:

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Some other pieces that are just plain neat, such as the powder-wig boys up for some badminton. (Yes, the maintenance fellow is a sculpture. He’s been around for decades.)

 

 

 

 

In our sojourning through the exhibits we came across a suitcase.

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I got super excited. I was determined to take a picture to show you all the inside: a pond swimming with life. A statue of a father’s feet can be seen, with part of a baby’s body, its toes just above the water.

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But try as I might, I could not get a good position. Bo reluctantly offered to hold information card about the sculpture.¬†Here’s a little more information about the piece.

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Anyway.

I hulked over, on my knees, on my toes, shoving my camera in. Bo gave up on me and looked at another piece in the room.20180113_131621

BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP

Outside of my head, I slid backwards and whirled around the corner, poking at my phone under the guise of sending a text. A security guard walked briskly by as I approached Bo with my phone and said, “Did you see this? This is very interesting.”

Inside my head: “OH SHIT! They’re gonna fine me and ban me from art! Run for the post-moderns, RUN! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!”

Bo, of course, found this to be hiLARiuos. “You know, I can’t take you anywhere. You bonk your head into display glass at the public museum. You walked into a glass wall when we came here last year. Now you’ve got The Man after you.” He proceeds to then make “BEEP” sounds any time I try to take a picture.

A little later we came upon a strange room of pottery without captions. There’s a little model room display behind some glass.

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Hmmm.

Next to this little room is a bellrope marked “Pull.”

Hmmm.

“Don’t you touch that,” Bo said.

“But it says, ‘Pull.'”

“BEEP!”

“Shut up.”

“Well I don’t know you, Miss Whoever You Are.”

I pulled it.

(I know, I’m as bad as Alice in Alice in Wonderland.)

 

 

 

 

A recording started: a wee ghost stepped into the miniature room and described the pottery collection around us. It was neatly filmed: she pull pottery out of the trunk nearby, sat in the little chair, laid things on the table.¬†Here’s a little more information about the room, as I’m clearly not doing it justice.

“See? I was¬†supposed¬†to pull that cord,” I declared triumphantly to Bo.

And proceeded to walk into the glass door of an uber-bright Spanish exhibit of “playful art.”

Bo laughed. And despite the annoyed security guards, I laughed, too. Because it’s moments like these make breaks from writing so very necessary.

We can’t create life in stories if we don’t live a little. And sometimes that living does seem little–I’m not trying to rescue refugees from Mexico. I’m just going to the art museum with my husband.

But it’s in these everyday moments that we remember what it’s like to be around other people, listen to other people, roll our eyes at other people, skee-daddle from other people. It’s in such moments that we remember what it means to hold another’s hand, share a smile, tell a joke that sets the other groaning. And through these everyday moments we find new imagination to channel into our worlds.

So don’t forget to take a break, writers. That giant green ceramic chicken ain’t gonna rock itself.

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