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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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.

A #summer of #writing & #motherhood, part 4: Know When to Collaborate.

Time is not my friend this month. Hell, it ain’t even a church acquaintance. It’s more like the medical assistant at the kids’ clinic that I had to call once a week for two months straight due to stitches in and stitches out and sickness and more stitches in and more stitches out: initially helpful, then busily surprised, then downright annoyed I need time made for me yet again.

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Good morning!

So yesterday I woke up, struggling to keep my face above the flood of first week student issues, and wondered: What can I possibly blog about this month? I really want to study Agatha Christie’s use of multiple povs in And Then There Were None and how despite being inside everyone’s heads, we still didn’t know the killer until the epilogue. I want to explore the struggle of following God’s Calling in life when all the certainty of that road is thrown asunder by yet another Calling…also, apparently, from God.

But, as said, time is not my friend, not with a literary conference to prep for, school prep for my own kids, my own school to work for, some birthdays to celebrate, and grieve, too.

My mind remained muddled as the boys launched themselves out of bed and right into their sister’s room. Blondie was having a special sleepover at Grandma’s, which meant all her toys were up for grabs. Eventually I lured them out with breakfast and books, especially Truckery Rhymes, our latest acquisition from the library.

Mornings are slow-going here even on school days, so I didn’t think much of their gabbing instead of eating. But then I listened…

Mind you, this isn’t all of it, and of course I wrecked the moment by opening my big mouth. In those minutes, though, I forgot my stress…well most of it. Collaborative story-telling can quickly digress into fighting when Bash won’t say what Biff tells him to. But this moment of imagination shared reminded me what a difference a partner makes.

Writing can be like that.

I still haven’t told many friends, and hardly any family, about the writing life. That lack of “real life” support means more freedom to write about the raw, festering pieces of my past, but also means I can’t count on others to help me in, well, months like this, when time is too beleaguered by “real life” to give any more for our passions.

That’s why I thank God every day for you, Friends, for being here. For sharing how you struggle to balance writing with everything else. How despite it all you still create because you must. Me, too. And that “me, too” ties all the unseen in me with you.

middlers-pride-7Now sometimes, that sharing goes one step further. Last year Michael Dellert gave me a character and a corner of his fantasy world to make my own. It seems he approves of what I’ve done so far with young Gwen in her story Middler’s Pride, for he’s asked to co-write a short story starring some of his Droma natives and my pompous–but decent (mostly decent)–Shield Maiden. It promises to be quite an adventure for me, since I’ve never written a story with another writer before.

Like Blondie, I usually do my creating solo.

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Blondie & her first epic, “The Wrong Pants.”

Jean LeeCurrently she’s got her heart set on making comic books, starting with a special edition collection of Super Mario Brothers stories. Me? I try to write about Gwen’s fellow Shield Maidens whenever I can, which hasn’t been more than once a week, if I’m lucky. But I’ll be damned if I give that scrap of time up to despair. If I only get one hour a month to write, then that’s what I get. The light is brighter in me when I write, stronger, happier. To give this up will only darken the way I see the world and myself. My family will not be submitted to that darkness, not again.

Bloodshed aside, summer has not been without illumination. Books are explored, toilets are used without a battle, and friendship continues its tenuous wrappings from one child to the next. They drive each other crazy. They make each other laugh. They lock each other out. They smell each other’s feet. They thrive together. They thrive apart.

And I love it.

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Biff of words, Bash of action, Blondie…um, gone at Grandma’s. 🙂