Monday, November 28, 2011

Why Are You So Scared??

Many thanks to Penny, who made me experience waves of heavy guilt for neglecting The Backstory for so long. Actually, Penny, I have a good excuse ... I was writing millions of words for my latest WorkInProgress. I have been doing my own version of NaNoWriMo, I like to call: WriteAsMuchAsYouPossiblyCanAndAttemptToStayOffOfFacebookAndTwitter.

Getting the work done can be daunting for a lot of reasons. But I have decided that the biggest reason has got to be fear. Not the DougCleggDeanKoontzStephenKing-imposed kind of fear. I'm talking about the scaredy-pants kind that is much more terrifying, and comes in a variety of shape-shifting forms.

Writer fears tend to multiply because you have time to sit back on your WriterCouch and let those anxieties swirl about and fester. These can develop into bonafide nightmares.

You have to refuse to let these paralyze your writer selves. I will address some of the most common ones.

One of my favorites is Fear
of Becoming the Crazy Cat Lady. That's a very real fear; I know this from personal experience, because I have been called that by various family members. Writing means you are left alone for hours at a time with no human conversation. But this can actually work in your favor. My cat is awesome. He lets me read my WIP out loud to him and he doesn't check his text messages. Sometimes he even sticks around for the whole chapter.

Another common one is fear of never finishing your manuscript, or worse ... only being able to finish it in TwitterSpeak, which basically amounts to pages of disjointed paragraphs of 140 characters or less. Show up to your WriterCouch. Punch the time clock. It'll get done.

Yet another one that is so unbearable to many writers and would-be writers that it is often uttered no louder than a faint whisper: FearThatSomeoneWillStealMyIdea. Sadly, there are those who find plagiarism to be an acceptable form of behavior/sport. But unless there is some really cool X-Files Mind Feed thing going on, and unless you are actually tweeting your 140 character paragraphs, nobody is going to steal your story. And nobody can ever steal your Voice. It's your writer fingerprint. It's impossible. And as far as I know, Milli Vanilli is long gone, or in some abandoned cave somewhere being forced to listen to a continuous loop of one-hit wonders.

So ... put down that People Magazine crossword, open up that laptop, and punch that time card. Write that book. You. Can. Do. It.

What is your biggest writer fear? Put it in the comment section, and I will round up some of my FabulousWriterFriends to help you chase them away.

Friday, September 30, 2011

I Dare You

My mom and dad taught my brothers and me to love and value books. They read to us, even after we could read by ourselves. We talked about books. We quoted great lines from books. We went to the library once a week.

Oh no, you're probably thinking. They probably ate wheat germ and lived twenty miles down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.

Um ... no. We ate Hamburger Helper and ate Kool-aid popsicles, lived in suburbia, and watched plenty of TV, including some heavy doses of All My Children. We could tell you about the latest Pop Tart flavor, what was happening to Erica Kane, and who Marcia Brady's latest crush was.

But we also read. And the best part of it all, was we were allowed to choose our own books. If my brother, Tom, wanted to delve into a little history and memorize all of the presidents in order (at around age six), my parents didn't judge. If Tim wanted to check out six books on football, my mom helped him carry them to the car. And when I wanted to read a book by an author whose work was being challenged, my mom helped me find the book. Some places weren't allowing Judy Blume on their shelves. But my mom made sure to get her books in my hands.

We learned to hear what others had to say. We learned to listen, before we spoke.

It is Banned Books Week. Many of the books that have been challenged over the years are from people who haven't even taken the time to read the book in its entirety. They often take a word or a phrase out of context and decide that nobody else should read the book.

I can't think of anything more terrifying than if book banners ruled the world. What if we'd never been able to see Alice fall down the rabbit hole? What if we'd never been able to Go Ask Alice? What if Alice Walker had never been able to tell us Celie's story?

Go read a little Judy Blume. Go listen to Allen Ginsberg howl. Go read about Scout and Atticus and Boo Radley. Go get a little Annie on your mind.

I dare you.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Mad Men Me, Please

Why did you let me wear that? I can remember asking my mom that question several years after the purple eyeshadow fiasco of my seventh grade year.

She gave a nonchalant laugh. It was in style.

But not the way I applied it. I didn't wear any other makeup, besides Bonnie Bell Dr. Pepper Lipsmacker, so there was nothing to offset that thick stripe of chalky purple.
The eyeshadow,
itself looked like a large, wind-up purple crayon, and I passed it around to share with my friends in front of my locker. I can vividly remember having made one too many applications of the purple mess, and feeling my eyelid actually stick and catch for a second on the skin under my eyebrow.

I had many sad fashion mishaps, where my kindly mother just looked the other way.

A couple of them ended up in class pictures ... like the one-piece floral romper, paired with unfortunate bangs, and finished off with scuffed up orthopedic-strength saddle shoes. But in my own defense, I hated those saddle shoes with a passion. I got my sting-ray going full speed
down sixteenth street and used the toes for brakes, hoping and praying that my mom would buy me new ones. But she'd just hum a jaunty little tune and apply a couple more coats of beige shoe polish. Those things could withstand a nuclear war.

Two years later, I moved up to the suede version of my saddle shoes, and my fashion
forward mom made me the mini dress which had the potential for awesomeness, but ... the hair ... Marcia Brady gone very wrong. And then I had to go and accentuate the ensemble with the thick orange yarn ribbons and the brown stop sign glasses.

Ten years later, you would have thought I would have learned. Or at least
gleaned some of my mother's fashion sense. But I'm pretty sure some synthetic animal
died for this sweater. And
no matter what anyone tells you ...
a mullet is never the right answer for a new
How could someone who dresses like this:

have a mother who dressed all amazing and Mad Men like this?

Sadly, I'm starting to worry that I take more after the Joad side of the family.

Thanks, Great-Grandma. You could write like there was no tomorrow, but I'm concerned about the accessories.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book Nerd Anxiety

You may have played the game before. It has several variations on the theme: What's the worst thing you've ever eaten? What's the scariest thing you've ever seen? What's your most embarrassing outfit from high school?

Writers love to play this game. It can get really creative and cut-throat, so much more than your average game of Scrabble or Mystery Date.

The last time I played that game was with a group of writers at a conference. Someone asked, If you could only have one book of fiction to read, what would it be?

This created a stressful anxiety cloud over the group. Nobody wanted to be the one to answer first, and the game just fizzled out. I'm pretty sure it was because that question created Book Nerd Anxiety. It's not difficult to raise the anxiety level of a book nerd. All you have to do is to make them recall how they felt when they'd finished all of their library books on Monday and their mom wasn't due to take them back to the library until Wednesday. Noooo!!! My heart is racing just thinking about it. I couldn't re-read one of my Nancy Drews. It just wasn't done! Once I already knew the secret of the old clock or I'd discovered the clue of the tapping heels, it was past news. There is nothing that has lost its magic more than an already-read pile of library books!

I was at Defcon 12 with my book nerd anxiety this week. I was in the Azores on vacation with my family. My husband's parents are from there; it's a group of island off the coast of Portugal and everyone speaks Portuguese. All I can say is yes and no, and a mangled version of thank you. You may see where I'm headed with this ... all the books are in Portuguese.

And I had read all of the books that I had brought. In case you haven't yet grasped the gravity of the situation, I'll say it another way. I. WAS. ALL. OUT. OF. BOOKS.

There was rumored to be a little cafe/coffee shop on the Air Force base on the island, and my husband wanted to go check it out. The thing is, we almost didn't stay, because there was a little boy using a dead cockroach as a soccer ball. I almost didn't discover the magazine rack on the back wall. The magazines were worse than the doctor's office variety, the most recent being from 2010. Just when I was going to resign myself to reading seventy-five different ways to make a chicken casserole, I saw it. It was a bookshelf. A bookshelf full of paperbacks. I could have imagined it, but I was pretty sure there was one of those misty, glowing lights surrounding it.

Before we left the Air Force base, I made my husband go back to that coffee shop. I was on a mission. I had one of the paperbacks that I had brought with me on the trip; the one I had finished reading that morning. I put it in a prominent location on the bookshelf and left. The whole way to the airport, I imagined someone discovering it. Someone who had run out of books to read. It made me nerdily happy.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

In Which We Have a Family Vacation in the Logan Airport and I Try to Get Arrested

I think I'm starting to hallucinate. I've had about two and a half hours of sleep. I thought I was going to a little island, in the middle of the Atlantic, off the coast of Portugal. Sounds amazing, right?

But the closest I've gotten is some angry people speaking Portuguese in the middle of Logan Airport.

Our plane is supposedly broken, so a ten o'clock in the evening departure ( last night), turned into a 3:00 a.m. departure, which turned into a 10:00 a.m. departure...which turned into me still here at the airport longing for my Tempur-pedic and making u
p things to do in Terminal E.

I could eavesdrop for ideas for my novel, but that would require my husband to translate for me, and he is, quite frankly, undependable. Portuguese was his first language, and he should have no trouble translating conversations fro
m the homeland, but my husband has been known to tell a few stories, himself.

Which brings me to my new favorite game I like to call, "Will They Arrest Me If? There's still time to join the game--so come on down to Terminal E. Here's what you've missed so far...

My daughter is trying to round up an elderly Portuguese man in a hat to flash mob with her, and she is now planking around the terminal. She'll either get arrested, or end up on You Tube.
I've moved all my stuff to the luggage belt at the check-in counter. They won't give me my luggage back (it's still on the broken plane), so I've made myself comfortable--comfortable enough to take a nap, if they turn off the don't-watch-anyone-else's bags warning and the canned music.

As soon as they open the Duty-Free shop, I'm going to figure out how many perfume and lotion samples I need to apply, before the family of twelve feels the need to vacate their pri
me bench location next to me.

Face it, spend a little sleep-deprived time in the airport and the world is your oyster. It's lunch time on day two and I think I'll go a little crazy and live a little. I'm going to have one of those eight pound Toblerone bars from the Duty-Free. It might cost me a couple hundred, but it'll be worth it.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The One-Up and the P Word

So I'll admit it...I've been known to eavesdrop. But it's okay--I'm a professional. It's part of the job description. Writers have to write authentic, believable dialogue, right? Yesterday, at the soccer field, was a perfect opportunity. At first I thought there was a fight breaking out. But I soon realized it was merely a "one-up". Here is how it went:

Five-year-old #1: "He's Mr. Big Ears!"

Five-year-old #2: "He's Mr. Big Ears Poopy!"

Five-year-old #1 (Determined not to lose): "He's Mr. Big Ears Poopy Head!"

Five-year-old #2 was unable to respond, because he was laughing uncontrollably when the P word came out. He was also looking nervously, and a little frantically over his shoulder for his mom.

There are definite rules and specific game strategies for the one-up. You have less than a second to respond--any delay in action and you forfeit to the other player(s).

If the one-up is of the insult variety, the player has to make sure they drum up the worst word possible, while staying in the safe realm of the Webster's dictionary (the one that sits on the big podium in the library--no online pseduo-dictionary words allowed.) Also, if a parent is within earshot, said word must be strong enough to only get you in the minimum amount of trouble--say, a knock-it-off look from yours, or someone else's parent. (The five-year-olds at the soccer field were definitely riding the line on that one. The P word is not one to be used lightly.)

If the one-up is of the I'm-cooler-than-you variety, player has to make sure they toss out something sort of believable, but not too over the top. If you're not sure what I'm talking about here, just listen in on a conversation between a few of the dads at the soccer field. I'm not talking about the nice, mild-mannered Dads shouting out, "Good job!" from the sidelines. The ones I'm referring to are easy to find. They're standing so close to the sidelines, no one can see past them. They are multi-tasking--carrying on their one-up while barking out "coaching" tips from the sidelines, and offering up friendly advice to the refs. You'll also be able to spot them by clothing. They may have come to the field right from work, but they managed to do a quick change into their soccer shorts from high school, so as to appear more professional in their one-upping and sideline coaching. Unfortunately, they are sometimes still wearing their work socks and shoes.

In case you are still foggy about this kind of one-up, I'll provide an example. We'll use a high school aged girls' soccer game as the setting:
Dad #1 (He toes the sideline and pushes his shorts down a little, because his post-post high school waistline is pressing at the waning elastic. ): "My daughter's looking pretty good out there. She's only a freshman, but as soon as the coach
learns her last name, she'll be off the end of that bench and starting."

Dad #2 (Quick nod, which is the equivalent of the oh, yeah?): I don't think you were here yet, but did you see my daughter at the warm-up? She was really moving that ball. I saw the coach looking at me when she was sprinting up the field. He probably heard about my game back in '87.

Unfortunately, Dad #1 lost by forfeit. He was unable to go on, because Five-year-old #1 chucked a Nerf ball from behind and he was doubled over with a hamstring injury.

Five-year-old #2 clinched the competition when he pointed at Dad #1 saying, "He's Mr. Big Mouth Poopy."

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Blood, Frogs, and the Wicked Witch of the West

It was dark out there. There were shadows shaped like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz--in fact, I was dead sure I saw her riding her bike in the air past my window. Who could sleep with all that going on outside?

But he was patient and reassuring and even though I clung to him like I was being sucked under the pull of a rushing river, my dad took me outside. "See?" He pointed at our little tree in the front yard--the one that had transformed into the gnarled tree in the Wizard of Oz. "It's just our tree. It's the same as in the daytime." He pointed out everything in the yard and waited for me to stop shaking.

He killed the wasps that had stung my brother and me in the backyard of our new house, going in like a superhero to get rid of the nest. My brothers and I watched from behind the safety of the sliding glass door.

A lot of the other dads in the neighborhood worked at Boeing, with nothing very interesting to share, and they mowed their lawns in embarrassing outfits. My dad changed the oil in the car in his old Air Force pants and a pair of his old wingtip dress shoes. But he brought home amazing things from work--like the frog from his biology lab at the high school. Nobody else in the neighborhood got to dissect a frog or type their blood on the kitchen table.

He laughed when I practiced forging his distinctive signature.

He'd listen to entire plots from the Nancy Drew book I was reading and make funny comments. Even now, he'll listen to entire chapters of a book I'm working on, over the phone, from 3,000 miles away.

He got me a coveted spot on a soccer team, taught me the rules, and acted like I was good, even though everybody knew I sucked.

He taught me to appreciate what you have, to treat people with kindness, to share with others that don't have what you do,
and to never forget your sense of humor.

He taught me the importance of the written word, whether you are reading it, or writing it, yourself.

I love you, Dad! Happy Father's Day!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Sneaky Kicks, NPR and the Sharp Scissors

There's nothing like a fight between siblings. My legs were skinny and poky and spindly when I was nine. Perfect weapons. My brother, Tim, was eight, and I'd wait to strike. I'd wait until he was watching TV--preferably a commercial, because that's when he was most engaged. Then I'd move in for the kick. It was a basic karate front kick, and it was delivered sharp and fast. Even though it seemed as if there was some planning involved, I never quite thought it all the way through. Because then it played out like a grade B horror flick. I'd run for the bathroom and lock the door. Really dumb, because you didn't have to be MacGyver to pick the lock in our bathroom. And there was no alternate escape route.

Sometimes I think our parents would wait to intervene, probably knowing I deserved what I got. But eventually they would step in. Our older brother, Tom, would scoff at us and tell us we were stupid-- or give Tim fighting tips.

Then there would be a cool down period and we'd be friends again.

It was worth it to be nice to my brother, because he was so much fun to play with. He's the type of person who can invent and create and imagine right on the spot. We made up an entire TV variety show in our backyard once, complete with opening theme song.

One thing that I know Tim and Tom and I shared, without a doubt, was the love of art, including music and writing, because our parents always provided musical instruments, sketch pads, special markers, and writing paper. They let us use the sharp scissors.

So now as twentysomething adults (okay
, twentysomething plus a little), the fighting has gone by the wayside, and we all still play music and draw and write. Hear from Tim today in his NPR interview at KUOW in Seattle!

And in honor of Father's Day, you can hear him read a very funny essay from his blog, Reflections of a Shallow Pond, on another NPR station, KPLU, where he publicly lambastes me for all of those nasty surprise kicks when I was nine--just kidding--he probably should, but he doesn't:

Monday, June 13, 2011

Band-aids, Throw-up, and Ghost Stories: Who Doesn't Live for a Little Good Conversation?

Her eyes got wide and she leaned forward so I could feel her breath on my arm. "It's a true story, Mrs. Leal! It's really true!"

We were reading good old HENRY AND MUDGE, and Henry, the boy in the story, was scared. We could see him cowering in a corner of the room. Why, you might ask? Because Henry's mother loves to tell ghost stories on Halloween, and Henry's mother thinks he loves them, she tells him a headless horseman-type story.

As my reader reads aloud the story-within-a-story, she nods, emphatically. "It DID happen, Mrs. Leal. That guy without a head? It happened in the nineties. You weren't born, yet. But my grandma was." Then she sat back in her chair, a satisfied smile on her face. She had just shared a valuable piece of information with me.

I also had a self-satisfied smile on my face, because I realized I was a much better story teller than I thought I was. All those times when they asked me how old I was? I responded, "23," of course. (...depending on the day; sometimes I am 28.) So she was off a little on her math...double digits don't come into the first grade curriculum until late spring.

As I'm writing my end-of-the-year report cards, I always do it with a little sadness, because I realize they are moving on. I think about the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding: "Why you want to leave me?"

So I thought I would relay a few quotes that show what truly awesome little beings first graders are...

They are generous...well, most of the usually means they don't want whatever it is anymore:

"Mrs. Leal? I have a cookie, and I only ate a little bit of it. I could give you half."

They are brutally honest:

"Mrs. Leal? Usually, when I swing this high, I get throw-up in my mouth."

And my favorite from last week:

A girl is proudly holding up the tooth she just lost and a boy next to her says, "Is that old?" She shakes her head and says, "It's yellow, because I didn't brush it last year. I got an electric toothbrush. I'm going to brush it tonight."

They often get sidetracked:

"Mrs. Leal? I wish I lived here. Each classroom would be someone's house, and I would watch the (security) cameras all day. (Pause) Who watches the cameras at night? A robot?"

They are incredibly intuitive:

(A boy was commenting on a fight that had just broken out next to him.) "They just need to be by themselves. They need a vacation from each other."

They are terrible liars (most of them):

"I didn't mean to pee on the wall." (Truly, I did not made this up.) "I just had to go real bad."

First grade is not for the squeamish. There is blood, Band-aids, throw-up, and the occasional missed urinal. But it is worth every minute of it.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Say What You Want

I've decided that when I get old, I'm going to say whatever I want. I haven't decided exactly when that will be yet -- if it will be a magic age or a particular date... maybe I'll just be at the grocery store one day and my filter will suddenly be gone.

I'll make loud comments about the contents of the shopper's cart behind me. Should you really be buying all of that full fat ice cream? I'll say. And when I see that person's kids running all over the place and climbing on the candy racks, I'll make a public critique of their parenting skills.

Those will be the days. I can't wait.

There's something incredibly freeing about not caring what anyone thinks. Everyone should be like my first graders. They're never worried about the public opinion. They know they're awesome, and they often make grand announcements for all to hear.

One of the girls in my class came back to the reading table. She pulled her chair out, sat down with style and said, "I'm speaking English today. I like English." (I feel the need to point out that English is her first and only language...)

Later on in reading groups, we were reading a story about animals. One of the boys stopped reading and tapped the page with a baby lion. "Baby lions," he said, as if he was making a mental note. "I've gotta get me one of these..."

One of my first grade girls is the third of three sisters who have all been in my class, and they have all had great things to say. As I was passing her desk, I heard her tell her neighbor, "We're not doing math today. It's too distracting." I've decided to use that handy statement whenever I can at home...I'm not making dinner tonight. It's too distracting. I'm not vacuuming anymore. It's too distracting...

One of my all time favorite first grade quotes was from last year. A boy said, "Mrs. Leal, I'm really tired today. I got up at 5:08 a.m.!" Really? I said. That's awfully early. He looked at me like I was missing brain cells and said, "Wizards have to get up early." I passed the same boy a few days ago when he was talking to one of his classmates. He was saying, "I can walk through walls."

The thing is, that kid has so much self confidence, I don't think I would have been surprised to see him do it.

So go ahead. Let your inside voice come out. It'll feel great.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Can't we all just play nice?

I don't usually get too political in my blog posts. Sarcastic? Maybe. But I usually leave the politics to those who are so in the know and passionate about the issues, that they can't help but make their voices known.

Today, however, I just had to say something. President Obama is giving his State of the Union tonight. Nothing unusual. But tonight they're making the Lefties and the Righties sit together...horror upon horrors!

I'm thinking about all of the kids over the years who would have rather sat by their friends in my class, but who were MATURE enough as FIRST GRADERS to sit with someone who was not their closest friend and to--again horror upon horrors--get along quite nicely!

No, they might not like the way the other guy always hoards the cool wheel accessories for the Legos. And they might be disgusted with the way the other girl always picks her nose and wipes it under her desk. But they get along anyway.

Okay, I'm done. more many of them do you think will show up with notes from their mommies tonight, so they can sit where they want?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Betty Crocker is Politely Making Me Nervous

I inherited my grandma's old Betty Crocker New Picture Cook Book circa 1961.
I love this cook book, because it doesn't make me take out the lard or the sugar or any of the white flour in any of my recipes. Go ahead, it
seems to tell me. Deep fat fry away. And while you're at it, double the portions. You need to put some meat on your bones. (Right now I'm picturing Jillian Michaels, outside my door, ready to whack me over the head with some kettle bells and take a torch to my fabulous book.)

I just realized that in the years that I've had this great collection of recipes, I have grossly neglected the section on page 5, "Kitchen Know Hows: Hints for the Homemaker". All of this time, I could have been starting my day off in a calm and organized manner, as outlined in the section, "Refresh your spirits":

"...Every morning before breakfast, comb hair, apply makeup and a dash of cologne. Does wonders for your morale and your family's, too!"

As I look down at the espresso and and mocha-stained dribble on my bathrobe and my Christmas-themed footies, I realize I could have been looking like this:
When sadly, I have been looking more like:

or this:

I am perking up a bit, because as I read on, I realize there's still time. Betty tells me to "have a hobby. Garden, paint pictures, look through magazines for home planning ideas, read a good book or attend club meetings. Be interested--and you'll be interesting!" But I'm also feeling the anxiety creeping up, because I'm not so sure Betty would approve of what goes on at my book club meetings.

Betty then says, "if you have a spare moment, sit down, close your eyes and just relax." Betty. Really? How can I possibly sit down, when you just told me in the previous section to
"plan ahead". You just told me to "make several cakes, pies, cookies, main dishes or sandwiches at a time and freeze some for future use."

Luckily, I can hear my grandma's voice drowning out Betty. My grandma just hit Betty over the head with one of Jillian's kettle bells. Betty's now knocked out cold next to her deep freeze and my grandma's telling me to put my bathrobe on and get back to my writing. I had always wondered why the spine
was torn off of that cookbook...

Saturday, January 8, 2011

When All Else Fails, Write About Star Wars

I might have to start taking writing tips from my first graders. They have no anxiety at all about the writing process. They're not worried about bad reviews, and their stomachs don't get tied up in gassy knots when they have a plot problem.

First graders merely put their little bottoms in their chairs (or hovering in the vicinity) and apply the pencil to the paper. They're not afraid to take chances with their writing and go beyond their comfort zones, because, quite frankly, as long as Mom or Dad has remembered to drop the good fruit snacks into the lunch bag, nothing ever gets that uncomfortable.

If a six-year-old wants to kill off a main character (or laser them to smithereens), he or she just makes it happen. They never have any trouble with story endings, either. When they decide it's time to end the story, they just have everyone go home.

There's no worry there that they'll repeat the plot of another author, either. In fact, if it's good enough to happen to Sponge Bob, it's good enough to happen to their main character.

First graders also have figured out that no character is ever totally bad, or completely good. There's a very blurry line between the heroic status/behavior of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.

I'm going to start the new year off right, and look to my small students for writing advice. I'm going to relax, eat snacks, hover my butt in the vicinity of my chair, and let the words flow. Because if all else fails, I can write literally pages about my Jedi friends.
Karen Haney over at Bookin' With "BINGO" has just posted a review and GIVEAWAY of A FINDERS-KEEPERS PLACE. Click HERE to enter! Thanks, Karen!