#Sharing #Blogging & #Writing #Love Around the #Campfire With Delicious S’Mores of a #CoverReveal & #Giveaway

While on a brief family holiday in the North Woods of Wisconsin I find myself blessed with another award from fellow writers JI Rogers and Ann Marie Swaim. I do hope you will check out their stories and sites—they never cease to amaze me!

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Let’s settle in around this campfire, well stocked with boxes of crackers and chocolates, marshmallows and cider, and talk as the cedar’s smoke soothes us from a long summer’s day in the water.

Do me a favor—keep Bash away from the extra kindling, please.

What’s your favorite water sport? To play and/or watch.

Apart from kid-watching, you mean?

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Look, my son Biff’s over there in the yard now. You hear him with that soccer ball? He’s throwing at the campsite’s sign and yelling, “I tackled it! Home run points!”

That should tell you how involved we are with sports in my family.

What book would you recommend that everyone read?

13140843My answer hasn’t changed in years: Diana Wynne Jones’ Reflections on the Magic of Writing. There is so so so SO much here to unpack. She’s got lots to share about craft in the way only Jones can: with firm experience and wicked humor. She’s also open to sharing her thoughts on the stickier points of being an author, like conflicts with publishers and horrible school visits. But what I love the most is her openness about her life. She had a nasty childhood during World War II, and learning how she battled such dark years with stories made me feel like I could battle my own depression with stories, too.

What book do you wish you never read?

The fourth and final book of the Twilight saga, Breaking Dawn.

And that’s all I’m going to say about that, because if I start, I will not stop.

What can move you more, images or words?

This is a tough one. Often I daydream in words, but I find myself more often moved by images around me. I can see something—a peculiar clump of trees stranded in a corn field, for instance—and a story just, well, comes. I wonder what’s in the trees, and can imagine a long-forgotten cabin, walls cracked and falling in, mold creeping in from every side, bat scat and raccoon refuse littered about…save for one corner, where a trap door remains, pristine and perfect, waiting for just the right curious hand to open it…

Who in your life (living or dead) provided you with the best inspiration?

You know, a year ago, I’d probably have said my dad. After all, he and I spent hours together going over my stories, polishing them to perfection for school.

Now, I answer: my children.

It’s not so much because of the yarns Bash spins—just as he does now, turning his chocolate into a superhero to save his marshmallow from falling into the fire. The stories he spins have certainly inspired me in the past.

No, it’s that I have children. My children need me sane.

I am their caregiver. I am their lap, their hug, their kiss goodnight. I am their maker of macaroni and cheese. I am their bedtime reader. I am their music finder, movie player. I am their clean underwear finder and silly face laugher. I cannot be any of these things unless I have a clear head and steady heart. How do I get these? By dumping all the nastiness of me onto the page before it infects them.

Biff, Bash, and Blondie are my drive to write on. I write to be what my kids need me to be.

What I need me to be.

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What has been the hardest struggle to overcome to keep on blogging?

So often I worry that what I’m writing isn’t worth reading. Why should anyone care what I think about this composer/author? Who really wants to read m’ramblins’ about raising children?

Speaking of which, mind Blondie doesn’t eat another hot dog, that crazy little carnivore. Biff, stop throwing marshmallows into the fire!

Ahem.

In the Writer’s Digest article “Bare Your Soul,” Maria Walley makes an excellent point about the power of vulnerability:

Your writing will make you vulnerable. After all, we’re taking the innermost parts of ourselves—our ideas—and translating them into words intended to provoke thought and, in some cases, emotion.  It can be painful to do, but it’s also what makes good writing worth reading. It’s what make stories resonate.

Over the course of three years, I’ve learned that artists don’t just struggle with craft, but with Life. They’ve got their own issues with kids. Their battles own with grief. Their injuries with abuse, with depression. When I feel like I have nothing to say as a writer, then I write as a parent, a child, victim. There is always a part of me that has something to say. It’s just a matter of finding that part.

 What do you feel is the best blog post you’ve written to date and why?

Oh man. Um…let me get the kids into the cabin first. I need to move my chair, too…the smoke always finds me, draws tears from my eyes.

 “The Machete and the Cradle” is the very first post I published on Jean Lee’s World, and it deals with just how dangerous my postpartum depression became during my children’s early years. It’s a time I cannot think upon without cringing from myself. I look at my sons now, poking each other with a koala and a bunny while nestled into their Planes: Fire and Rescue sleeping bags, and to think how close I came to abandoning one of them…

It’s…hard.

But I overcame that shame in the shadows, and managed to find the words to cast those shadows into the fire. This burning is one of the most difficult things I ever did, and considering where I and my family are now, it is most definitely one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Do you plan your blogs in advance and schedule their release or just blog by the seat of your pants? Or a combo?

It’s a combo. Sometimes I get a fire of ideas I want to share and I whip out a month’s worth of blogs in one afternoon, while other weeks (especially this past summer) I’m up late Wednesday night typing for Thursday’s post.

When you’re being creative, do you prefer quiet or some form of sound (music, audiobook…) in the background?

Always music, always! I get frustrated when I don’t have the right music to write, so much so the story gets muddled in my head. 95% of the time I use instrumental music, but every now and again a song with lyrics hits the atmosphere just right, especially when the words speak to the characters’ feelings.

Favorite composers include Alexandre Desplat, Mychael Danna, Ennio Morricone, Hans Zimmer, Daniel Pemberton, Peter Gabriel…obviously, I can go on.

 

Cat, dog, or other?

DOG.

If your home was on fire and you could only save one book, which would it be?

I wouldn’t go for a typical book. I’d grab whatever creations my children made: the boys’ drawings, Blondie’s stories. Those will always mean more than any other book. There could be a signed copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in my house, and I’m still goin’ for the kids’ work, because THOSE can never, ever be found anywhere else.

If you had to choose one of your current projects to tell a group of strangers about, what would it be?

As the stars take hold of the sky behind the plume of fire’s smoke?

Well.

Campfires are the perfect place to share the darker stories. Be they the fantasies of my childhood, like Dark Crystal or Witches, or the epics beloved by my father like Highlander and Dune, we sit here with the dying embers surrounded by countless dancing shadows of tales. Anyone, anything could be prowling around out there, beyond the fire’s reach, just waiting for its moment to sit, be seen, be heard.

My Fallen Princeborn Omnibus dances among such shadows. It comes from the hidden lands of magic, escaping from shapeshifters cursed and gifted, wielding weapons wicked and beautiful. Not only do these stories come for the thrill of the spirit and heart, but to help define what it is to be a family.

I hope that, after all is packed back into the truck and we’ve returned to civilization’s  plumbing, you’ll stop by for my cover reveal and ARC giveaway.

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I’m giving away 1,000 copies of Stolen through BookFunnel and Instafreebie starting September 1st. Yup. One THOUSAND. That be a whoooole lotta copies! But this is my first novel, and I’m keen to hear how readers see the world I’ve seen in my head for years. Next week, as I sit us all down in the cluttered living room for punch and a slide show from my vacation, I’ll start the countdown to the cover reveal of Stolen and the giveaway. Don’t be late, now!

If you’re like me, and you need stories to survive the long drive home, I’ve got three short stories from the Omnibus available for free download:Athanasius-TitleImageStory #1: “The Boy Who Carried a Forest in his Pocket”

Rural Wisconsin. A warm lazy Sunday after church. Perfect for goofing off with friends, comic books, and lemonade under a big shade tree. But something’s off at Blair farm—stay away from the old stone wall. And whatever you do, don’t talk to strangers walking in from the woods. Welcome to the magical world of River Vine, where things are not what they seem.Stray-TitleImage

Rural Wisconsin. Eight-year-old Millie loves to play make-believe with her new friend, a cat from the woods. But something’s off about Captain Whiskers…. Not all strays should be rescued.
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When does the hunter become the hunted? When the hunter fails in her hunt. Ember was sent into the human realm to select the choicest prey for her Master. But she set out to teach him a lesson instead, and now she must pay for her defiance.

Three more stories will be published in the next couple of months, with Stolen hitting online bookshelves this Halloween.

Now, before I look into the cabin to see who’s jumping on top of whom for a comy circus show, I’d like to nominate 11 more artists for the Liebster Award. Wander this endless campground and stop by their sites sometime. Their fires each burn with unique passions in art, photography, music, writing. Rekindle your own creativity with a shared s’more and smile.

Questions to pick my nominees’ brains on creatin’ and stuff:

  1. What would you consider to be your earliest creative work that foreshadowed the passion to come? Be it taken on a disposable camera, doodled in a school book, or tooted on a kazoo, those school-day scribbles count for something!
  2. If you could gain you favorite living artist’s permission to create an homage of their work (for example, writing a fan fic story with your favorite character), who would you approach and what character would you write with?
  3. I’m always looking for strategies to fight back the distractions. How do you focus yourself in the sea of Life’s Noise to create?
  4. What are the three most inspirational places you’ve ever visited?
  5. Time for the dead artists now! If you could sit down for a cuppa or a pint with any dead artist, who would it be and why?
  6. What’s one stereotype people always apply to you because of who you are/where you’re from? Just for an example—I grew like a corn stalk when I was a kid, so EVERYONE assumed I was really good at sports like basketball. Guess what I suck at? ALL SPORTS. Because I live in Wisconsin, people around me just assume I’m a fellow Green Bay Packers fan. Guess what I hate watching? FOOTBALL.
  7. If there’s one book on craft in your passion you’d recommend to every fellow artist in your field, what would it be?
  8. Favorite grilled food? The answer should be bratwursts, but because you’re friends, I’ll try to keep an open mind. 🙂
  9. Okay, I’m not, I repeat, NOT, a huge Disney fan, but even I’ve got a few favorite Disney films, like Something Wicked This Way Comes. What’s your favorite Disney film? No, Pixar doesn’t count.
  10. And speaking of films, what’s one movie you’re kind of embarrassed to admit you like, but you just can’t help yourself? (Krull, since we’re sharing.)
  11. Share your current endeavors! C’mon, you deserve a chance to plug your work. 🙂

I hope to inform my nominees over the next few days.

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

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#Summertime with #Family & #SummerReads with @ZoolonHub, @chloekbenjamin, @naominovik, & @ChuckWendig ‏

When there’s deadlines for two novels and six short stories, it can be pretty easy to forget about little things like family time or relaxation.

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Bash and his favorite comfy, a rabbit named Hoppy

It’s bloody hard to write when the kids are home, but sometimes they manage to occupy themselves creatively while I work. Blondie works on her comic book starring Ruff Ruff and Stormfly…

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…while Bash draws picture after picture of Star Wars droids. “Is that R2-D2?” I’ll ask. “No, that’s Q3-5A,” I’m corrected. Okie dokie!

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Biff loves to read, but he’s not much for writing or drawing like his siblings. He gets his creativity on with Legos, which suits me find for this little engineer.

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We’ve taken the kids to the North Woods a few times, and hope to do so once more before the school year starts. Princeton’s not far from the family cabin, and it hosts a weekly flea market throughout the summer. Bo has many treasured childhood memories of this market, so we always take care to visit it at least once a summer. He gets to dig through old comic tubs, and I get to take a gander at all the people.

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The booths are filled with everything from liquidation buyouts, bottomless tubs of toys from the last fifty years, handmade doll clothes, or antler home decor. Who wouldn’t want a fireplace poker made of deer antler?

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Plus there’s always a few tables laden with books–hooray! I didn’t know I needed a cookbook by the Dixie Diamond Baton Corps, but come on–you know there’s got to be good stuff in there.

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I don’t know what qualifies as “antique” outside the US, but I just cannot consider ’90s nonsense as “antique.” (I went to elementary school with people who wore those buttons, for cryin’ out loud.)

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Now I do not know how this guy does it. Poetry on demand? Brilliant! And he always had someone waiting for a poem. Either he’s that good a writer, or Wisconsinites are just that tired of all the booths selling crocheted Green Bay Packer hand towels and beer cozies.

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Speaking of writing on demand, let’s see what could make for some awesome reading for August. I’ve added these to my TBR list–I hope you will, too!

Indie Writer

51s18opOlnL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Words & Thoughts of a Dyslexic Musician by George Blamey-Steeden

George has been an amazing support over the years in the blogosphere, so when he announced he put a book together, I had to give it a shout-out! He shares pieces of life and inspiration that help him create his lyrics for his three published albums. Do check this out!

Zoolon, the alter ego of George Blamey-Steeden, is a musician & sound artist living in Dover. He has a number of albums to his name, ‘Liquid Truth’ (2012), a concept album themed around Plato’s ‘Allegory of The Cave’; ‘Cosa Nostra’ (2014) a sound art creation based upon ‘Romeo & Juliet’, plus his two latest albums displaying his songwriting skills, presently on sale via Bandcamp, namely ‘Dream Rescuer’ (2017) & ‘Rainbows End’ (2017). http://www./zoolon.bandcamp.com An accomplished musician, he has a BA (Hons) Creative Music Technology (1st Class Degree) and his passion for composing is only matched by his love of wildlife and his support of The Arsenal football club. http://www.zoolonhub.com

Wisconsin Writer

51Hr9CCR8FL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

I saw this at the bookstore under “Local Authors” and became intrigued. There’s a supernatural element here, but a family drama at the heart. The allure of such a mix can’t be denied!

If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?

It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists probes the line between destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next. It is a deeply moving testament to the power of story, the nature of belief, and the unrelenting pull of familial bonds.

Fantasy Writer

61s8VWfHrwL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

I am so stoked about Novik’s latest! Uprooted was a joy, reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones’ quests and battles with quirky yet complete characters, so when I heard Novik’s got another fairy tale in bookstores, I had add it to my list.

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders… but her father isn’t a very good one. Free to lend and reluctant to collect, he has loaned out most of his wife’s dowry and left the family on the edge of poverty–until Miryem steps in. Hardening her heart against her fellow villagers’ pleas, she sets out to collect what is owed–and finds herself more than up to the task. When her grandfather loans her a pouch of silver pennies, she brings it back full of gold.

But having the reputation of being able to change silver to gold can be more trouble than it’s worth–especially when her fate becomes tangled with the cold creatures that haunt the wood, and whose king has learned of her reputation and wants to exploit it for reasons Miryem cannot understand.

 Writing Craft

sku.jpgDamn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig

While it’s great getting perspective on strictly characters or strictly world-building, I want to study the art that is storytelling. Writing beautiful prose always a sweet endeavor, but to keep readers gripped, to keep them from putting down the book because they need to know what’s happening to characters they care about–now that makes me writer-proud. I’m looking forward to this one!

What do Luke Skywalker, John McClane, and a lonely dog on Ho‘okipa Beach have in common?

Simply put, we care about them.

Great storytelling is making readers care about your characters, the choices they make, and what happens to them. It’s making your audience feel the tension and emotion of a situation right alongside your protagonist. And to tell a damn fine story, you need to understand why and how that caring happens.

Using a mix of personal stories, pop fiction examples, and traditional storytelling terms, New York Times best-selling author Chuck Wendig will help you internalize the feel of powerful storytelling.

And of course, because I’m a writer…

If you’d like a little breather from your typical summer reading fare, stop by my own short story collection Tales of the River Vine. It’s been an amazing adventure exploring the world of my Fallen Princeborn Omnibus,with special help from my children now and then. The Boy Who Carried a Forest in His Pocket” and “The Stray” are already available, while my third story, “Dandelion of Defiance,” comes out later this month.

When does the hunter become the hunted? When the hunter fails in her hunt. Ember was sent into the human realm to select the choicest prey for her Master. But she set out to teach him a lesson instead, and now she must pay for her defiance.

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

 

 

 

 

 

What’s the dearest gift a #writing #Parent can give a #Daughter? Time.

 

Blondie zips her Mega Man sweatshirt and pulls its puffy hood up over her long, tangled hair. It’s a Friday night. Daddy’s home. Biff and Bash are racing each other to see who’s going to need stitches first. I ain’t stickin’ around for that.

I’m going to take my daughter out for her birthday.

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What else does a writer give her daughter for her birthday? Her own creative writing handbook, of course!

When writing grew in its priority, it swelled most in my daughter’s space. I’d make her go play on her own when the boys napped, always busy with “school stuff.” She’d even “teach” on a toy computer next to me, just to be close.

I see her now, on the verge of 8, and pray I haven’t set the “Cats in the Cradle” prophecy in motion:

As a parent working from home, it’s already a challenge finding those hours when I can teach kid-free, let alone grade papers and handle student questions. Plus, there’s that awful tradition of the American Summer Vacation. What kind of society demands parents handle their own kids all day for three months in a row? Outrageous!

Blondie’s equally annoyed. “I wish school was all year,” she says in the car, half-reading, half-looking out the window. “I never get to see anyone in summer.”

I wince at this truth. Planning play-dates with kids across three different towns sucks. Other parents put their kids in half a dozen leagues and classes every summer. We can’t  afford a birthday party for Blondie, let alone soccer club. “At least you can attend summer school in the morning like your brothers this year, and make some new friends.” I silently thank God yet again that the school administration allowed Blondie to sign up for their free summer program even though she’s enrolled elsewhere for the regular school year. With all these kids on our street, she’s bound to connect with somebody, and then all the cross-county play-dating could stop. What a time-saver!

Blondie winces at this truth. “I guess.”

Wisconsin doesn’t feel like stepping out tonight. Thick grey clouds block any sign of sunlight. The rain is cold, but not hard enough to clean my windshield of some presents dropped by the robins. “You’ll have lots of time to work on your stories this summer, too. And your inventions.” Every story Blondie has written over her 2nd grade year is now piled on my desk. I want to keep them somewhere special. I want to show her in ten years’ time how she loved writing about puppies and dragons going on adventures despite family funerals involving cancer. I want to show her how smart she was with punctuation and grammar at such a young age, how her voice was already taking shape, even then.

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For now, I get a shrug. “Can you tell me where we’re going now?”

“Nope.” When I told Blondie we couldn’t afford a party…when those big blue-grey eyes looked down, and her big-girl nod of, That’s okay, Mom, like all the other That’s okay’s when I needed to teach, to write…for once, I just wanted to say:

No, that’s not okay, Kiddo. You and I are gonna have some fun together. No boys, no work. We’re gonna go to a party place with lots of music and lights, and a giant disco ball just like you wanted. We’ll have pizza and roller skate and fall on our butts and laugh. For one night, I want you to be the center of my world.

I wanted to tell her all these things, but Bo and I decided it would be better as a surprise. The girl never expects me to be the one to take her anywhere. I’m hoarding my time like coins in an R2-D2 piggy bank: ten minutes reading here, half an hour editing there. A free hour is like finding a soggy ten on the sidewalk. Two hours? A twenty wedged in a park bench.

But when I got that big-girl nod, I locked myself in my bedroom and pulled the R2-D2 piggy bank out of the closet. The minutes jingled like so many pennies scrimped and pinched from across the years. My daughter’s years.

That’s okay, Mom.

I bring the hammer down.

~*~

“We’re here!” I turn off the engine. Skate World flashes on and off in bright yellow. Clusters of families and teens already line up to enter. “This is gonna be so much fun!” I unbuckle my belt and turn around, ready to take her hand and step out and under disco lights.

Her belt is not unbuckled.

Blondie’s eyes dart between the sign and people, never me. “Oh.” Pause. “I didn’t know we were coming here.”

“Surprise!” The bubbles grow in my voice to counter the confusion rooting within. “I know you had so much fun here last year with your friends, I thought this year we could come together, just you and me. No brothers or anything.” I grin.

She does not. “Oh.” Pause. “Are you skating, too?”

“Of course! I’m gonna fall on my butt a lot, but it’ll be fun!” My voice keeps sliding down exclamation marks. I don’t know how many more are left before the bottom.

“But,” Blondie fidgets with her belt—not the buckle, “that’s just a friend place.”

“I see other kids going in with their moms and dads. We can too!”

“But.” This “but” shakes in the air, left out in the cold, rainy space, “but someone bad might be in there.”

I have no exclamation points to counter this. “Someone bad? Kiddo, what are you talking about? It’s just all kids skating and falling on their butts, just like us.”

“But, but, but—”

“But WHAT?” I snap.

Now, she looks at me. Her tears sparkle beneath the Skate World light. “What if someone laughs at me?” Her mouth trembles, and she sobs with such a fear that I am dumbstruck. “Please don’t be mad!”

She must see my face and I can’t lie: part of me is.

I smashed that bank. I brought all those coins and ripped bills of time to exchange for some memories, dammit. I didn’t give up an entire evening of work time to drive through four towns to pull into a parking lot only to have a sobbing child refuse to leave the car over made-up situations about a place she’s only visited once before in her life.

I. I. I.

I take one last look at the flashing lights and laughing kids. Start the engine. Turn around.

“That’s okay, Blondie.”

~*~

Mullen’s is an ice cream parlor on the edge of Watertown’s main drag. I went here with my grandparents after walking the river’s boardwalk to feed ducks. My friends and I often walked here on weekends at the boarding school, eager to trade some cafeteria wages for fried cheese curds and a sundae.

Tonight, it’s just Blondie and me.

Blondie pokes a pink finger through a hole in the brick wall. “Woooow, this place is oooold.” I glare right back at the old biddy with her tidy glass of ice water tisking Blondie’s impertinence and let the waitress show us all the available flavors. Blondie picks two scoops of vanilla with lots of sprinkles, and leads me to the red vinyl seat by the window so she can watch the cars rush by in the rain.

I tell her stories of running through the downpours back to school to make curfew, of the loud screen door always slamming on my little fingers when my own grandmother would get me a treat after an eternal visit to the fabric store. Blondie listens, eats. Smiles.

No disco ball could possibly shine brighter.

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#writerproblems: #technology #grief

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I stand in line at Geek Squad. Again.

The staff has grown accustomed to me over the past year, after my old workhorse of a Toshiba laptop died. Bo and I had just gotten a new desktop to replace the dead one; the budget for yet another technology expense was not there. But Bo couldn’t deny the need for a laptop–if I couldn’t, I couldn’t keep my job.

So when the staff, already astonished my Toshiba lived eight years, pointed to a Lenovo on sale for under 200 bucks, I bolted for a box and checked out. It’s not like I needed anything more than bare bones.

Silly me that “bare bones” meant a computer screen that turns off when I have more than four tabs open online. “Bare bones” meant a power cord port that breaks after six months. “Bare bones” meant a memory card that’s soldered onto the hard drive, so I couldn’t get a bigger memory card. “Bare bones” meant a memory that’s so shitty it couldn’t even function with Microsoft Office downloaded because Office is too big and I couldn’t delete the Office programs like OneNote or Access because Office is a UNIT. You want a taste of Word? Then you swallow Office whole and like it, bitches!

Barely a year owning the laptop–yes, just after the warranty expires–and I’m in line at Geek Squad because no power cord of any kind will work on the laptop now. It’s down to its last ten percent of battery. Windows 10 refuses to properly update due to lack of memory.

I put the Lenovo on the table. Again.

The Geek tries my cord. Goes into the back. Tries one of their cords. Then shrugs. “Yeah, you’re not gonna find anything. It’s a cheap computer. You need to spend at least five hundred to get a good one.”

End of service.

Fuuuuuck.

Just having the money to get the kids shoes is a problem. All three needed new sneakers this spring. That’s a hundred bucks right there.  The boys shredded half a dozen pairs of jeans this winter.

At least they’ll have cutoffs galore for summer.

I’m happy to wear stuff until the holes are so prominent I could be arrested for indecent exposure. I’ll eat what everyone else hates, what’s expired. Hell, I’m starting to give plasma to help cover the grocery bills.

Where the hell’s five hundred bucks going to come from?

~*~

If your only knowledge of pastors comes from the televised evangelists, you might assume pastors are quite the affluent folk.

If you know what a rural church is like, you know how that’s utter bullshit.

Every dollar counted at home. We lived on the hand-me-downs of relatives, on rummage sales, on gifts from farmers. Christmas meant presents from the elderly of our church, rarely from our parents.

So the useful going unused always stings me. All the more for my mother, as much of my father’s things still stand, sit, lay about. His books on doctrine. His comics. His carefully gathered Dr. Who canonized novels. His thousands of recorded sermons, bible studies, coloring pages for Sunday School. All just…sitting.

But today we’re not looking at those things. Today Mom’s pointing to a little Lego display Dad had in his study of Lex Luther in his robot fighting Superman and Wonder Woman. “Think Blondie would like this for her birthday?” she asks.

“Of course!” I say, happy every time Mom’s able to let something go without tears. I glance at Dad’s crown, wishing I could ask for it, but I know Mom still uses it with her own students.

I spot something else.

Dad’s computer backpack.

“I thought Pierce took Dad’s laptop.” Dad had bought a Sony Vaio the year before he died. Spent at least a thousand on a top model, knowing he’d need it for producing services for local broadcasts, bible study presentations, liturgy projections, the lot. Thankfully the church covered a chunk of the cost. That’s probably what kept Mom from going crazy about the price tag.

“He did. He tried to use it, but, you know. It’s hard for him.” Mom sighs and moves a few preschool assessments across the desk. Dad’s old desk.

Yeah, it’s hard.

But sometimes we don’t get to leave something untouched just because it’s hard.

“Are you using it?”

~*~

The first thing I do is change the picture: Dad and Mom outside their mission church in the Dakotas. That much I must do, because seeing him laughing there and knowing my kids have forgotten what his laugh sounds like turns the skin beneath my eyes hot.

Much of the software’s out of date, but Office still works, everything still works. The battery’s not much, but an hour of work time in the car is better than nothing.

I scroll through the files.

There’s so many.

Pictures. God, the pictures.

Pictures of my childhood, of his. I’m seeing more relations here on a dead man’s computer than I have since his funeral.

Hymns he wrote. Sermons. Notes for come-and-gone weddings and funerals.

A newsletter he was working on for Mom’s preschool to be handed out the month he died.

So many writings, begun.

Unfinished.

~*~

“Dad’s computer working okay for you?”

“Great. It’s really helped a lot.” I don’t tell Mom about the scraps of Dad I found in the backpack: post-it notes about contacting Grandma’s doctor. An old bulletin with bio stats and hospital info, all in Dad’s thin, clipped scrawl. I doubt Mom ever looked inside his backpack. I wonder if Pierce even made it so far as to open the laptop itself, with Dad’s highlighters and notes still jumbled up in the power cord.

“Good. It just seemed so wasteful, sitting here.”

I don’t tell Mom I still feel like I’m borrowing this technology with the intent to return it to Dad, say thanks. Share the struggles I’ve had with parenting, faith, maybe even writing.

But Dad’s heart broke a few months shy of his 60th birthday. Despite repair after repair to his throat, his stomach, his legs, one bad break rendered the whole lifeless.

End of service.

~*~

“Ooo, Mommy, you got a new computer!” Blondie peers over from her sketch of the Nautilus. After reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Bo, she’s fascinated with technology altered by fiction–especially if it involves a church organ. “What’s the sticker for?”

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I’ve put such a sticker on every laptop I own, A) because I love the coffee, and B) because it separates this one thing from all the other stuff in the house. I’m the only coffee drinker. Bo hates laptop-sized keyboards. Blondie wants a mouse when she plays computer games. Don’t ask what the boys do with a working piece of anything.

Now Dad’s good and faithful servant holds chunks of my own fiction, analyses, and interviews. It keeps me connected to my students. Right now it’s letting me type this post while “attending” a meeting about cornerstone projects in liberal arts education while also pulling Bash off of Biff in a fight over worms and dump trucks.

My words may not be poetic hymns or thoughtful sermons, but they are filled with study, feeling, and imagination. And now they share a space, however small, with the words of my father.

I think Dad would like that.

#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.

34043886Light 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.

 

#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 DietLose 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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Hard #Blessings

 

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Not my family. Too expressive, don’tcha know.

Summer sweat is always sweetest for the mosquitos on a Wisconsin farm. They grow fat on the lot of us, sitting in the tents my mother’s cousins constructed for the 80th H- Family Reunion. Gone are the days of riverboat races, volleyball tournaments, grill talk, and smoke-rimmed cackles. Many of the original siblings–11 in all–have become one with the Rock River farmland they so dearly loved. Yet still the cousins come together this one weekend in the year, dozens upon dozens of them, to meander through the past and catch up on the new generations. In the pauses between socializing, families tend to regroup: restock their coolers, check on their casseroles for the dinner, mind the children dumping bubble solution everywhere, nap under the maple trees, and so on. During one such pause I sit next to Mom and her boyfriend, sharing cookies and lemonade with Blondie, listening to the drawls and old laughter, when my elder brother Pierce speaks:

“Did you know Grant hasn’t made up his mind about The Call to Milwaukee yet?”

I flick an ant off Blondie’s cup and purse my lips. I do not want to be the first to answer.

Thankfully, Mom complies. “I know, I talked to him last night.” She reaches for James’ hand. Some walks into the past require a strong hand to hold. “Figuring out where God wants you to go. And it’s not just you, it’s your whole family, even though The Call is for you. It’s…it’s hard.” Blondie leans in on the pause to make a silly face at her grandma–she can sense Grammy’s sad voice from across the picnic table. “Every time your dad took a Call, I thought, ‘Okay, where does Bea fit this time?’ Like I was boxed up with the rest of his books. Unpacked at his church office.” White Christmas lights in the shape of an “80th” flicker behind her. “It’s hard,” she says again.

I kiss Blondie’s head, and wonder how she’d have handled it: to find out she has to leave her home, school, and friends because a church Called Daddy to be their pastor and Daddy said yes, so it’s time to box everything up again, won’t a new school be exciting again. To do that all, just, again.

It’s hard.

~*~

When Grant was old enough to say he wanted to be a pastor, and not be answered with a “That’s so cute!” from old ladies, Dad reminded him, and all of us: “Your family has to be a part of it. You can’t just make these decisions on your own. Any time your mother stayed quiet and insisted I had to decide, and I decided to accept, she’d be so angry she wouldn’t speak to me for weeks. One time it lasted a whole year.”

Pierce had little to say on the matter, being undecided about college and life yet again. My own direction in English, writing, and teaching outside the ministry had been grudgingly accepted by this point. Grant was still in high school. He still had a choice.

Are you sure you want to get into all this? I’d say in those rare moments the two of us were alone. Always working. Practically no time off. Almost always broke. Never really sure where you’ll be in five years. And what if you have kids and stuff? You know how damn hard it is. You, of all people, know how they’re almost never home, and even when they are home, they’re working on shit.

Grant’s face was often quiet in these times: his forehead smooth, mouth a line, brown eyes not quite in focus on the present. Facial hair struggled to frame his baby face, but to no avail.

I know. But it’s important, too. I want to help people. And there’s a lot of people who need help.

I did my damndest not to call him crazy.

~*~

Today, a few days before Thanksgiving, I write without fear of mosquitos. I write without my father, who’s last Call came from God Himself three years ago. I write without my kid brother, a pastor himself with a wife, kids, and a mission in Arizona. The possibility of seeing him more than once in summer is always impossible. Too much to do with outreach in the town, and don’t forget the special services, the bible studies, and now his firstborn’s in school, just so much to do…

Some blessings sure as Hell don’t feel like blessings. Pierce and Mom were both deeply disappointed Grant didn’t take The Call to join a team of pastors in a mega church here in Wisconsin. No more running everything solo. No more 80+ hour weeks. Surrounded by family and friends. Perfect, right?

Yet Grant said no.

Because some blessings are meant to be hard. Yeah, Grant’s on his own in a mission, but the church has blossomed under him and his family. Yeah, we moved around a lot, but every time, we connected with at least a few others who were feeling just as cut off, just as unsure of things. Such friendships would never have been made if not for these Calls to pack up, move forward. Yeah, I endured years of abuse. Yeah, I struggled for years with postpartum depression. But I’m still here. I now know what disguises monsters wear among us. I now know what it means to fight oneself, and win.

These blessings are the forge of the soul. They are what burn us, bend us, beat us down again, and again, and again, until that moment we think that surely we are too brittle, we shall break, we cannot take anymore–it is then we realize:

We are unbreakable.

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#Writers, Find the #Adventure in No-#Writing Time.

“Didn’t you know school’s cancelled for today?”

My sons’ backpacks sit alone by the door. My car is the only one in the parking lot. Biff and Bash ask yet again where the other kids are, why can’t they say hi to Mrs. L., why can’t they stay…and I’m wondering all these same things inside, but outside I say, “No, I thought, you know, since they had three days off last week, they had school this week.”

“Oh, never for parent-teacher conferences,” Mrs. A., says with a wave of her hand and a doughy grin. She’s the shape of a cupcake, and just as sweet–Bash adores her, which has helped make the shift to a new school all the smoother. But out of two months, the boys have only had three full weeks of school. There’s always been something to cancel pre-school: screenings, conferences, in-service. For all the teachers’ talk about routine and structure, how on earth is a kid supposed to know that structure if his school can’t function for more than a week at a time?

I could go on. I was ready to go on then, but another parent had come for conferences. I had to figure out what the hell to do with two little guys who didn’t want to leave. The playground was still wet from rain earlier that morning, the air chilly. But by the look of them running up and down the halls, locking them indoors was out of the question. So:

Nature walk!

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I take them down the path I visited alone just a few weeks ago. It was a peaceful refuge then.

Now, not so much.

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“Mommy, I can give the forest raspberries!”

Yes, I suppose so, Biff.

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Bash takes a break from his hunt for caterpillars and wooly bears. I try to tell him it was too cold, but he would not be daunted.

Keeping up with these two is nigh impossible, and there isn’t much for color…

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But I remembered my foolish disappointment from cloudy days before. Even in these days, where autumn wraps itself in a mourning shroud, I find life.

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Even in the days we have no control, the days where writing time is all but forgotten, there is life. There is life with the little ones who imagine worlds all their own…

 

 

“Mommy, this is where we go up!”

Up where, Bash?

“Up into the trees! We’ll walk into the sky!”

Biff is skeptical.

Yet there it is: a story. We could sit and tell a tale of a boy who walked the trees into the sky, who found his wooly bears and caterpillars, who helped them become the rainbow butterflies of dreams.

We could sit. And talk.

Or we could explore and see what else awaits us round the bend.

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It is such a day as this, filled with raspberries, chilled fingers, and leaf-covered suckers, that remind us the no-writing time is just as important as the writing time.

Never squander it.

Conflict of Interest

“Don’t waste your time on something you don’t care about,” Michael Dellert warns as I pour through my old posts on Diana Wynne JonesMy presentation for N– University’s Literary Conference is in just a few days. The theme for 2017 is Lessons Learned–perfect, right? Half of what I do on this site is share lessons I learned from novels. If someone could present on the costume design changes in Pride and Prejudice films at a LITERARY conferencethen surely, I was fine with my collection of past lessons.

But I want to be better than fine, dammit. I want to prove I’m not just another schlub trying to get an hour or two of professional development. I want my colleagues to see that I give a damn about myself as a reader, and as a writer.

I receive notice of the conference schedule: my nonfiction reading is midday. My DWJ presentation is just after Blondie’s school gets out.

Four hours apart. I’m solo with the kids. Bo can’t get out of work. I can’t hire a babysitter for that long when the presentations themselves are barely twenty minutes each. My appeal for a schedule change is denied. If I’m going to do it, I have to do it with the kids, and trust them to not burn the house down.

~*~

I’ve written before about the rare gift that is time for writing, but I don’t think I’ve ever said how bloody hard it’s been to maintain a job while being a full-time parent, let alone a job like college adjunct. Maternity leave, vacation? Those words mean nothing for those paid only $1,700-3,000 for a semester’s worth of class. If you take a break, you are out of the loop for upcoming courses, and Lord knows when you can get another one. I graded student outlines hours after giving birth to my daughter. I hauled myself from the hospital room to a computer lab during the boys’ first day in the world to lead a discussion on critical reading. A term only lasts a few months, and you don’t know if you’re teaching the next term until it starts. As far as stable employment, it’s about as unstable as it gets.

The ability to teach from home made it tolerable, in its way. I could do schoolwork when kids slept. Audio classes only happen once a week, so I scheduled those for when Bo was home, or when the kids were in bed for the night.

But as the kids got older, they needed more of me. And more. And more. And the postpartum depression snicker-snacked through, and creative writing gave my soul strength…at the cost of more time.

Which, until that point, had been for school work. You know, the thing that earns the grocery money around here.

~*~

“Can we go to the library after school?”

“No, Mommy’s got a special presentation for her school today.”

“Let’s go to the park!”

“No, Mommy has to talk to other teachers today.”

“But I don’t wanna go home!”

None of them want to go home. It’s a beautiful day, Blondie just finished her first day of 2nd grade, but Mommy can’t care. She’s got to drive through construction while dodging the books flying in from the back seat because we’re not going to the park, we’re going to fight, we never want to go home….

“Here, watch Dragons,” I give Blondie a kiss on the head as I hop over a pile of wrecked cars to open the DVD player. “When my presentation’s done, I want to hear all about 2nd grade.” Because I do want to know, but that presentation just eats the forefront of all thoughts. Don’t forget to mention this, and note that book, and make this reference to that event, this thing about her father, that quote about Tolkien.

“Snack?” Biff throws himself at the rocking chair where his posse of Blanket, Grandpere, and Mel the Koala await. “Let’s have a snack. Fruit Loops!”

“Can I go outside?” Bash asks as he runs out the screen door.

“Bash get in here NOW! Fruit Loops and Dragons, come on, dude!” I say as I hoist him up and under one arm while thrusting the door open and I’ve got FUCK ONLY FIFTEEN MINUTES.

Cereal dumped in bowls. Dragons on. “I’ll be in my room. Just…please, sit nicely, and stay inside. We’ll go outside and talk about school stuff when I’m done,” I say as I back-run down the hall, trip into the Mother’s Day flower Blondie had taped to my door. I use tape from one of the fishy Father’s Day pictures to fix it (“We’re hooked on you, Daddy!”) and then frantically press computer buttons. My mic is a go, I’ve got my notes set, T-minus two minutes…

“Mommy I WANT to go outside!” Bash stamps in the doorway.

“Jean, everything okay?”

“Fine!” I say into the mic as I hiss at Bash. “When. Mommy’s. DONE.”

“No. NOW!”

“Bash, I am not doing this now. Go watch Dragons.”

He fights as I close the door. He bangs the door. Kicks the door. Screams into the door.

“Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Jean Lee as the next presenter of–“

Screaming triples. Blondie’s voice pierces: “Mommy, you have to open up! Open up NOW!”

Oh for fuck’s sake–

“Jean, is something wrong?”

“I am so sorry, just one moment while I deal with…” I have no word for what I’m dealing with. I’m too angry, nervous, frustrated–all the things I feel when the boys erupt and try to destroy something a family member’s done for them, or when they lash out at a complete stranger for coming too close. I rip open the door, where all three of them stand with tears streaming down their faces.

“Biff threw a toy at me. And Dragons is done.”

“And I am in my meeting right now, and you’re just going to have to handle it.”

“No I don’t, YOU have to!” Blondie says with all the authority a seven-year-old musters.

And I’m…I’m done. “No. You have to work it out with Biff. Bash, move.” And I close the door in their faces. Lock it.

The banging is downright thunderous. Comments have sprung up in the presentation: Uh oh, someone’s in trouble. Oh those poor little guys! Sounds like someone misses Mommy. Etc.

“Again, I apologize for that delay.” I can barely hear myself above their roar. I carry my books in one hand and the computer with the other into the bathroom, where I close the door.

This professional, literary conference. This chance to showcase research and criticism to colleagues. Me, presenting next to the toilet.

~*~

Twenty minutes later, I open the door. Screaming and fighting: over. Biff plays with cars in the boys’ room. Blondie’s door is shut, but I hear her talking to her “pet puppies.” Bash sits alone, sniffling, rubbing his eyes, legs and floor littered with shreds of construction paper.

“Bash, what did you…” My voice crumples. Tears.

The door is bare.

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Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie, My Children, & Batman: A Single Quirk Can Go a Looong Way.

When we create characters, we want them to be a person we can reach out, touch, talk with. And they must be more than mere dolls with that scratchy speaker embedded somewhere inside its stuffing that rasps out a limited number of lines. We want to create people who have thoughts and beliefs all their own. We want characters to be.

But how to grow such characters? Sometimes, one quirk is all it takes.

20170829_120446Take my kids, for instance. Bash often lays on his back with his legs crossed in the air. It’s a startling image: my father used to do the same thing all the time. Bash often crosses his legs while sitting, just as my father, grandfather, and uncles all did. It’s a strange habit that, once noticed, reveals a familial connection.

Blondie, my amazing girl: gifted with my memory for words and her father’s humor. A girl of giving heart…and also some of the worst traits of her parents. Like Bo, she does not like to work very hard on something for very long. A task will get a flurry of attention, and then is left to rot into the oblivion. Like me, she is quick in temper and prefers screaming at her brothers rather than talking through the problem. I still struggle with staying calm and not blowing up at them for throwing toys or fighting.

And then, of course, there are the quirks that are unique to each child. Biff, who is no longer constipated, thank the Lord, insists on being Master of Toilet Flushing. The second anyone uses the facilities there comes a frantic, “Can I flush it can I flush it FLUSH IT?!?!?!” He doesn’t throw anything else into the bowl–hell, he doesn’t even stick around to watch the swirling. He just needs to be the one who pulls the handle. My aunt, my husband, and I have all made the grievous mistake of flushing on our own. The tantrum that results is both epic and pathetic, nor will it not stop until someone else uses the toilet so he can FLUSH IT!

Like the food coloring mixed in the water for carnations, singular quirks can influence other traits. Yup, Biff has moments of extreme OCD. He may leave a pile of crashed cars in his wake, but don’t you dare leave any book face down. Blondie will freeze when school work gets hard and gets extremely frustrated when the solutions don’t come via guesswork. Bash loves using found things to tell a story, just as the grandfather he barely knew would do for his sermons. (Though I don’t recall my dad insisting on eating with several forks so every kind of food had its own utensil. That’s just weird, Bash.)

Fictional characters can grow a good deal from a single trait, too. Say what you will about toy-driven movies like The Lego Batman Movie: it took a single character element–in this case, Batman’s ego–to extremes both hilarious and fitting for the story. I wish I could share the entire opening sequence, but this song should give you a fairly rough idea on how Batman views himself:

No one can tell Batman what to do or how to handle the bad guys. He’s the best at everything, and “no one [else] has ever had a good idea. Ever.” It takes getting captured by the Joker and being sent to the Phantom Zone for Batman to see just what kind of jerk he’s been. It’s a change of heart that might seem obvious to adults, but that means kids see the transformation clearly as well.

51688eac587843905538e43286823004--famous-books-crime-booksI recently saw this single-trait strategy work well for Agatha Christie, too.  In Thirteen at Dinner (also known as Lord Edgware Dies, a far more fitting title) we meet Jane Wilkinson, a selfish film actress who wants her husband dead. But since she doesn’t “seem to run to gunmen over here [in England],” she asks Poirot to persuade the Lord Edgware to divorce her so she can marry a duke.

“I think you overrate my persuasive powers, Madame.”

“Oh! but you can surely think of something, M. Poirot.” She leaned forward. Her blue eyes opened wide again. “You’d like me to be happy, wouldn’t you?”

Her voice was soft, low and deliciously seductive.

“I should like everybody to be happy,” said Poirot cautiously.

“Yes, but I wasn’t thinking of everybody. I was thinking of just me.”

“I should say you always do that, Madame.”

He smiled.

“You think I’m selfish?”

“Oh! I did not say so, Madame.”

“I dare say I am. But, you see, I do so hate being unhappy.” (7)

Well of course, someone murders Lord Edgware, and of course, everyone suspects Jane since she’s been talking of nothing else but wanting her husband dead. Of course, clues arise to clear her. Of course, Poirot and Hastings visit the widow:

She looked like an angel about to give vent to thoughts of exquisite holiness. “I’ve been thinking. It all seems so miraculous, if you know what I mean. Here I am–all my troubles over. No tiresome business of divorce…Just my path cleared and all plain sailing…I’ve thought and I’ve thought lately–if Edgware were to die. And there–he’s dead! It’s–it’s almost like an answer to a prayer.”

Poirot cleared his throat.

“I cannot say I look at it quite like that, Madame. Somebody killed your husband.”

She nodded.

“Why, of course.”

“Has it not occurred to you who that someone was?”

She stared at him. “Does it matter? I mean–what’s that to do with it? The Duke and I can be married in about four or five months…”

With difficulty Poirot controlled himself.

“Yes, Madame. I know that. But apart from that has it not occurred to you to ask yourself who killed your husband?”

“No.” She seemed quite surprised by the idea. (49-50)

Selfish to the extreme, I’d say. But this selfishness is both a clue and a red herring because it’s Agatha Christie, and we should all know better by now.

Jane’s obsession with her own life and goals gives readers the impression of someone so self-involved that she doesn’t get how the world works. “Things just go right for me,” she says, and believes it. Other scenes in the story show her lack of knowledge about the law, culture, politics, etc. She comes off as, well, a bit of a bimbo.

Yet by story’s end we learn she’s not dumb at all. Oh, she’s selfish, make no mistake, but she’s not dumb. She found an actress who does impressions and had that actress impersonate her at a dinner party to provide an alibi. In the end, Jane did indeed kill her husband, since the duke did not believe in divorce. Jane wanted that duke; therefore, the present husband had to go. This then means that answering Poirot’s question seems rather silly. Of course she knows who killed her husband: she did.

The book ends with a letter from Jane in prison addressed to Poirot, explaining how she had managed to murder three times and elude detection for so long. Even here, the selfishness shines as brightly as ever:

 “I thought of that all by myself. I think I’m more proud of that than anything else. Everyone always says I haven’t got brains–but I think it needed real brains to think of that…I wonder if you are ever sorry for what you did. After all, I only wanted to be happy in my own way. And if it hadn’t been for me you would never have had anything to do with the case. I never thought you’d be so horribly clever. You didn’t look clever. It’s funny, but I haven’t lost my looks a bit…” (125-6)

It’s so easy to get caught up in the idea of making “complicated” characters, with all sorts of goodness and wickedness and everything in between. And sometimes, complicated works very well, just as several different flowers together make a garden. But a single seed grows, too, in ways both beautiful and unexpected. You’ve but to plant it, care for it, and see.