Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hurricane


Well, if all had gone according to plan, I’d have written this blog post this morning as I flew toward Syracuse, NY.  My school’s on break, so I had planned to spend a few days in upstate New York at Vasnefy’s house.  My plans did not come to pass, as not infrequently happens.

Instead of travels, my vacation involves apples!
However, I can definitely say that the reason for the failure of my plans has never been quite so extreme.  This time it wasn’t a family emergency or an impromptu gathering of friends or unexpected teaching work…Instead it was Hurricane Sandy, barreling her way up the East Coast.  I called the airline; I called my parents; I called my uncle in Pennsylvania; I called Vasnefy.  It became obvious I had to cancel my flights. 

So I’m still home, and thankful to be here – and I want to tell anyone from the Northeast who reads my blog that I wish you all well and pray for your safety in the storm.  The images of devastation that I’ve seen are terrifying and awe-inspiring.  I hope Sandy dissipates quicker than expected, so that no more damage will be done. 

What have I been doing since the utter reversal of my plans, though?  After all, I planned to edit like a veritable editing fiend while flying around the country this vacation.  Also, in order to justify my taking the trip, I had to plow through a notable stack of school preparations.  I graded 32 tests, read 15 books of the Iliad, composed a recommendation letter, answered student emails, wrote Latin lessons and Greek tests—all within two days, so that I could fly with a free mind.  Well, now I’m not flying, but I still have that free mind, plus unexpected quantities of time.

I had to create a new plan.  This one might fall through, too, but it probably won’t crumble quite so spectacularly as my trip!

Voila: tiny, doughy hurricanes...
So, as a way to ease into my transformed vacation, I decided to bake.  It’s soothing – helps me hit my stride again.  After all, yesterday became rather stressful after I discovered that I’d be flying into a hurricane and scrambled to salvage the situation.  The stress apparently declared itself by prompting me to make spiral-shaped baked goods…I promise I didn’t do it on purpose, but after I finished I realized both my cinnamon buns and my apple ‘cart’ featured miniature culinary hurricanes of their own.   The power of suggestion…

Anyway, while baking, I worked out a new plan.  First of all, I had to finish the Iliad (I had 6 books left), so as to bring my school preparations to an end.  Of course, I also want to get lots of editing done.  I owe letters to two friends, and my younger brother realized he suddenly had someone to hang out with on his day off tomorrow.  So today was Iliad and baking day; tomorrow will be letters and fraternal socialization day; finally, Thursday and Friday should turn into edit-like-crazy days.  A schedule like that is good enough to make sure I stay productive. 

The danger with a sudden change of plans, I find, is that it can discombobulate us enough to dissipate our energies.  We had splendid hopes of working on various projects – but then a circumstance alters and in surprise we can’t recover.  All the progress we had imagined for ourselves comes to nothing.  We find ourselves watching reruns on Hulu, instead of opening our files or notebooks.  (Perhaps you can tell that I’ve done this before…)

So from personal experience, I can say that the best way to avoid such a lapse into inactivity – in case of hurricanes and other shocks – is to give yourself a day to regroup.  Don’t vegetate, however; vegetating is strangely addictive.  Instead, pick something that’s fun to do, but not stressful, not complicated.  I’m sure everyone has a hobby or interest along those lines – I cook; the Fashionista quilts; Vasnefy reads fantasy. 

Relax with some cake and tea, for example!
The best thing about such an occupation is that it should give you time to ease into a new course of action.  The human constitution doesn’t seem to be well-adapted to instantaneous changes:  in other words, don’t try to force yourself to change instantly.  For myself I find that if I don’t stress over being flexible, I can actually bend to suit almost any situation.  On the other hand, if I keep pushing myself to flex, I feel the resistance building up (that’s when the Hulu reruns suddenly sneak up on me).

So, since we all have plans which go astray or even fail utterly, I guess my advice is, ‘Relax!’ Don’t panic too much, if possible, and I think a new direction will quickly emerge.  

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Little Feeling of Accomplishment

The road to becoming published can be a long, discouraging one.  I know that statement is trite, but I'll say it anyway.  After all, we writers need to be able to take a moment to groan collectively over the many, many disappointments we can face.

I looked blank when I won - mostly from surprise!
However, every once in a while, something nice happens: a little success, a little encouragement, a little praise.  Even if it is just little, though, it can be a writer’s lifeline. 

When I was in college, I sent a short story to a library competition.  I won first place, and somewhere in that library is a dusty tome in which that story is published and forgotten.  Ever since then, my submissions to contests have not been smiled upon. 

The complicated thing about contests is that a thousand poems or stories or even novels are sent, possibly from all over the world, to a few judges.  They have to choose just one or three or ten creations worthy of a prize or an honorable mention.  And yet these judges are human and have tastes and interests, like any human does.  They cannot resist bias, so of course they chose what they love.  Since they are usually the ones who fund and support the contest, it’s only fair that they should get to praise the discoveries that delight them. 

On the other hand, if their taste leans one way or another, or their personal philosophy excludes this or that viewpoint, then they may accidentally be blind to the quality of some stories that are sent in.  So, the writers at home who receive the news that their story did not place are doomed to wonder forever if it was because their story is terrible and worthless, or because by a fluke it didn't please the judges (though secretly it’s brilliant), or because it was truly a good story, just not as good as the best. 

The difficulty, of course, is that we writers are as biased as those judges.  When we do get to read the winning submissions, we often shake our heads and think, ‘But my story was that good.’ 

The thing we have to remember, though, is that our work might indeed be ‘that good.'  Even so, there is always room for improvement.  If we didn’t win the contest, we should view it as a personal spur to move on to better and better things. 

In spite of such a heroic attitude, however, losing over and over again is discouraging.  Especially if at the same time as you are losing contests, you are receiving rejections from agents.  I’ve been there and done that, along with (I’m sure) countless other writers.  We have to have occasional good moments to keep from descending into depression.  These can be a nice comment on a blog post, a helpful critique on a story, praise for a poem…but for those of us who want to be published the most uplifting moment is – getting something published.

One poem featured the beauty of Autumn!
Therefore, in the spirit of a recent post from Along the Write Lines, I will take a moment to declare that I recently had one of those uplifting moments. 

Some young writers and poets and scholars in Fort Worth, Texas, have banded together to start a journal of literature.  They follow principles of literary criticism which I also was taught in college, so I was intrigued when one of the fledgling editors wrote to me and asked me for a submission.  I sent four poems, and I’m happy to say that two were chosen for the inaugural issue of The Lost Country

If you’d like to read them and investigate the journal, please follow the link!  I’ll be intrigued to see how the journal develops in future issues.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that I now feel much more energized and encouraged.  I’m even sorting through various publications to decide which might be a good fit for my poetry, so that I may submit more soon.  The positive reinforcement of being chosen for any publication at all immediately makes it seem easier to try again in other places.

However, none of that nullifies my original point.  I think it was Samuel Beckett who said ‘Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’  He was very right.  Even if we are discouraged (in whatever undertaking – writing, art, work, relationships), we have to try to improve after every setback.  That is the way to become a true success.

The happiness of outside acknowledgment is just the icing on the cake.  Icing may be delicious, but it’s only meant to lead us into the cake – the substance of what we do.  

Although some might argue that the substance of red velvet cake is the icing...

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Incredibusy

It happens to everyone sometimes – those weeks when everything is work and free moments are few and far between.  In fact, that’s been my exact status recently.

Lately my life has been too full of teaching stuff like this...
Did I manage to get any writing done during this time?  No, I did not.  Also, I’m not ashamed to admit it.

You see, usually when I am suddenly plunged into a whirlwind of activity, I feel panicky and wonder if life will ever calm down again.  The ideas in my head and the stack of editing papers on my desk alternatively shriek or glare at me accusingly.  I become very antsy.

This time, though, I’m proud to say that I managed to keep my cool – more or less.  (I did get extremely tired, but that’s only to be expected!)  So I thought to myself, ‘What’s different this time?  How did I manage to stave off the writing withdrawals I usually go through?’  Of course I came up with a few reasons and of course I thought it was high time to use them for a blog post. 

First of all, let me set the scene.  My second niece was born at the beginning of this month.  About a week and a half later, my mom visited my brother’s family to help out.  This was necessary because Niece One is a bundle of inexhaustible energy.  Niece Two, on the other hand, is very calm and sweet and desires sleep above all things, but still – new babies take a lot of focus, and so do two-year-old toddlers.  Hence Mom’s trip. 

Now this would be fine and dandy, except that Mom has so devotedly taken care of my dad during the thirty-three years of their marriage that he is a bit helpless in the kitchen.  He can grow vegetables; he can grill a mean steak, but for the rest, he leaves it happily to Mom.  The danger, therefore, was that he would spend a week subsisting on take-out and pizza – not a very healthy diet.  Instead, I volunteered to take care of his dinners during the week. 

I did cook yummy meals, though!
Usually my schedule is busy, but still incorporates plenty of leisure in the evening: there’s work, plus some dinner, some exercise, some school prep, some editing and some television.  That pleasant balance suddenly changed to rushing wildly home after work, unloading dishwashers, running loads of laundry, cleaning so that Mom wouldn’t return to a pigsty, preparing dinner, cooking, eating, cleaning up, mopping, getting ready for the next day’s meals.  I usually didn’t finish until 8:30, and then I still had to shower and face school preparations.  You see why I was tired.

Granted, I had some free time.  I squeezed in a tv-show or even a movie every night, as a way to wind down before bedtime.  The hard-core writer might therefore sniff superciliously and wonder why I didn’t get some editing done.  My unabashed answer would be that writing is lovely, but it’s still work.  It’s hardly effective to relax from a superlatively busy day by taking on yet more business.  Common sense, therefore, was one element in my success at pushing away guilt. 

There's only one palm tree, but who's complaining?
The other, more pleasant one is that I’m rapidly approaching my fall break.  The school where I work takes a week off at the end of October, so that the students – but more importantly the teachers – can catch their breath after 8 weeks of uninterrupted classes.  That means that I have a writing oasis approaching me.  Like a weary traveler in a vast desert, I see before me the fabled palm trees and fresh springs of vacation.  I'll use my week off to edit as much as humanly possible. 

This second element of success was, I think, the real thing that kept me calm during a hectic month.  It appears that when I suddenly wake up to find myself swimming in a sea of duties (or should I stick with the desert analogy?), my main life support is to find a goal somewhere on the horizon. 

I’ve said before that we need patience and we need to forgive ourselves if we're writers or hobbyists or creators or artist who suddenly have no time to work on our projects.  However, I think that we also need something a bit more tangible to survive.  Everyone has busy times, but almost always down the line we can see some opportunity to escape the grind and take a breath and do what we want.  Even if we only foresee such a chance a year away, I recommend that you still cling to the hope of reaching that chance.  Make extravagant plans for how you will then use every second to create the great American novel! 

The thing is, if we have no hope of an eventual break, even far in the future, there’s also no hope of keeping the creative mind awake We might start pushing away our little thoughts about this character or that plot twist or such-and-such a timeline.  What’s the point of thinking about something which will never be realized, after all?  It’s just a cruel tantalization. 

However, when we feel tired and dispirited and worry that perhaps nothing creative will ever emerge from us again, we can remember that in fact there'll soon be an opportunity to break out of the rut.  That in itself gives us a reason to indulge those little flashes of inspiration. 

If you’re like me, inspiration – even the tiniest – is one of the great pleasures of being a writer.  Finding a reason to be receptive to that pleasure, then anticipating when we can at last explore and develop it: that’s the way to make the busy times less burdensome, more a part of our writing life.  

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Blog as Punishment?

Keep time with your blog!

Since starting Balancing Act a few months ago, I’ve also begun to read a lot of other people’s blogs.  This is a very interesting and enlightening pastime.  It’s nice to get to know the wide community of writers on the web.

I’ve also noticed something.

It’s not uncommon for professional bloggers and members of the publishing industry to offer advice on how to become super successful.  This is amazing and wonderful, because of course they know all about the writing industry and how to survive within it.  I’ve learned fascinating details about writing for a living and getting published which I never knew before, or at most only vaguely realized – so a big thank you is due to all agents and editors who kindly run a blog. 

On the other hand, perhaps because the thing foremost in their mind is the financial state of the published author, they place enormous emphasis on the responsibility we writers have towards blogging.  ‘If you started, then keep it up,’ they say.  Many of them even emphasize that you should post on the exact same days, with the exact same frequency, week after week, year after year…apparently until you die. 

Now, I am a scheduled person; I appreciate the rhythm of routine.  For the most part, therefore, I find it easy and enjoyable to stick to my twice a week posting schedule for the blog.  And of course it’s true that if you want to promote yourself, actually being there when you say you’re going to be is helpful.  No one would patronize an insurance company if its ads proclaimed 24 hour service, and then it could never be reached.  Similarly, no one will faithfully read a blog if the writer promises regular updates, and then they never come. 

However, let’s be real:  life happens. 

My creativity is a German Shorthaired Pointer!
As a creative person I already feel a huge sense of responsibility, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who does.  Our artistic powers needs to be fed and exercised and spruced up and given rest.  Sometimes my creativity pesters me; sometimes I pester it.  When I’m tired it clamors for attention, and when I’m rested it just gets louder.  (Creativity is amazingly similar to a very needy pet…)  If I ignore my creative side – which I sometimes have to do, in order to take care of pressing duties – I miss it like I might miss a friend, and I feel twinges of guilt for not paying more attention to it. 

If on top of all that I add more pressure to produce a blog post on cue, I’m just asking to get fed-up with writing.  There has to be flexibility built into life, don’t you think?   In spite of the best intentions, now and then everyone fails  to finish the to-do list.  If we don’t  include some forgiveness in our schedules, I think the result will be a major burn-out: writer’s block caused by sheer exhaustion. 

So, while it may seem incredibly presumptuous to argue with the agents and publishers and money-making bloggers of the world, I humbly beg to differ from their opinion. 

The blog is important, and yes, it can be a helpful tool for self-promotion, whether for the published or unpublished author.  More important, however, is maintaining sanity.  If an artist is keeping up a posting schedule at the expense of needful recreation, if (even worse) he or she gives up a chance to work on their actual projects in favor of the blog – then my thought is that a new point of view is necessary. 

Here's a LOT of perspective!
No amount of blogging will turn someone into a true artist.  That’s why I’ve stepped back from Balancing Act for a couple of weeks.  I’d rather know next weekend when my daily life calms down that I’ve managed to stay abreast of my editing and to write a new poem, than look back and only see six blog post to which I’ve sacrificed all my writing energy. 

In short – have a little perspective.  Maintain any blog you may be writing as faithfully as possible, but also remember that ultimately other things take priority.  I've been impressed by the kindness of the online community since I joined it; I’m sure they’ll be understanding if someone in their circle has to take a break from the blog world for the sake of the real world. 

And my thought is that if the community can be forgiving, we can forgive ourselves as well.  Don’t turn your blog into a scourge.  It will live longer if it remains enjoyable!  

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Feel Better


This school year has been a bit challenging for me – even in the first month.

Do I feel like a wimp for admitting this?  You betcha.  Usually I’m the type who stays on top of things and feels confident of success.  Granted, I often enter the doldrums during January, when I’m low on vitamin D, and generally hate my job and everyone involved in it.  For the rest of the year, though, things go pretty well.

I strongly sympathize with the stag ...
That’s why I’ve been a bit shocked this year.  It started out with panicky feelings about never finding time to write.  That turned out to be untrue, thankfully, but then, a week later, I began to be tortured by my 8th grade students.  I teach at an all-girls school, which I enjoy.  On the other hand, there is the attached danger of having to deal with anywhere from 12 to 25 thirteen-year-old female beasts.  (I can call them this, because I went through the stage myself! Adolescence...it's a terrifying thing.) 

This year’s 8th grade is particularly beastly, so I spent a week having existential angst.  I wondered if I was a good teacher, or if I should ever teach again.  I even asked myself if my students would ever like me again, since I was forced to penalize an entire class for misbehavior. 

All this may sound ridiculous, but I assure you that these are the things teachers experience. Pity us, please! 

Anyway, I was in sore need of a break.  After all, once you reach a certain point of frustration, it begins to affect everything.  You can even start to resent the students for pushing you into such a state – and a resentful teacher is never a good teacher.  Moreover, in order to remain creative, an artist needs a certain amount of composure, and I was rapidly losing that as well.  I lacked the energy to do even one page of editing (hardly the most strenuous writing work). 

So, in order to restore myself to balance, I went out with The Fashionista

Everybody has their methods of personal therapy, by which they help themselves to recover sanity, or peace, or contentment in their lives.  If we didn’t have those methods, we’d quickly go insane, don’t you think?  I myself have several: sometimes I throw myself into some writing project or other; sometimes I take refuge in pleasant but non-taxing entertainment.  My final method – which can even be the most helpful – is to turn to my friends.

Sometimes seeing yourself everywhere ruins the view!
It’s easy to get absorbed in oneself, and not even in a bad way.  We simply become involved in our personal woes, and forget that there’s a bigger world out there.  Other people have troubles, too, some worse than ours, some lighter.  Also, at least a few of those same people are concerned about our troubles and are ready and waiting to help as much as they can. 

The beautiful thing about someone like that is that frequently all the help you need is their company - pleasant for both sides!  The Fashionista and I ate dinner together, indulged in some retail therapy, and chatted about all sorts of interesting matters for a whole evening.  What was the result?  I felt one hundred percent less stressed and frustrated.  My problem with the 8th graders was not perfectly solved, but it was put into perspective. 

I don’t know about you, but my difficulties can sometimes loom so large that I can hardly see anything else.  Each of my therapy methods is a way of reminding myself that there is in fact something else out there.  Besides work there is writing; besides work and writing there is the need to sometimes totally relax; besides work and writing and the so-called ‘me-time,’ there is also the stimulating and restorative reality of friendship. 

A friend helps us support even the weight of the world!
So what’s my advice tonight?  If you are feeling jaded – do something else.  If you are feeling angry – do something else.  If you are feeling sad – do something else.  (Are you getting my point?)  The best remedy of all will be to do it with someone whom you can rely upon to be comforting simply by their presence.   The Fashionista is one of my oldest friends, so I can count on her to whisk my stress away.  Having a friend or two like that is a real gift for anyone, don’t you think?

Anyway, with my new dose of perspective, I have realized that part of my blues were caused by a packed schedule.  You may have noticed that I didn’t post last week, but in fact that was part of the effort to help me regain balance. 

This week and next, I plan only to post on Tuesday, so that I can recalibrate and keep up with grading and writing.  I’m helping my dad with his dinners while my mom takes a trip, so I’ll be busier than usual.  Rather than write hasty posts on the normal schedule, I’d like to provide just one good post a week, before returning to my twice-a-week pace at the end of October.  Please look forward to more news in a week, and cheer for me as I deal with a full plate of duties!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Grand Theme


Too small to hold more than one of Daddy's fingers!
Today my niece was born. 

This has little to do with my life as a writer, besides the fact that it got me thinking.  You see, I have lots of stories tucked away in the back of my mind. 

Sometimes they fade away quietly back there, and I never hear from them again.  Sometimes they reemerge melded with another idea - all very much to my surprise, since my conscious mind would never have realized they went together.  Sometimes they pop up once every six months for four years and each time they reappear they’ve apparently been through a transmogrifier – to borrow a Calvin & Hobbes word which I’ve always wanted to use (thank you, Bill Waterson).

In any case, all these stories share some specific themes.  Apparently I can’t invent a story if it doesn’t involve a) art and/or b) passionate people and/or c) families. In fact, the giant folder in which I throw all of my stories has a small label on it which says: Lovers and Artists

I know perfectly well why I want to write about artists.  It’s because I myself hope to be one – perhaps already am one.  We should write about what we know, so I write about art.  Granted, I know next to nothing about rock music, or sculpture, or painting, but I at least know how an artist feels about their art.  That’s the chief ingredient; the rest can be covered by research and experimentation. 

Also, for why I want to write about passionate people – people who love things intensely – see above.  It follows basically the same reasoning as my theme of art. 

Here's a family I'd write about!
However, I’ve never been quite sure why each of my story ideas ends up being about some sort of family relationship - usually ones that are semi-ruined.  After all, my own home life is perfectly normal.  Both my parents  are present and loving.  Now that I’m an adult, besides occasional, inevitable frictions which are quickly forgiven and forgotten, we get along splendidly.  I'm also very close with my two brothers.  There are no skeletons in the family closet, no tragic history lurking behind my shadowed eyes.  Actually, my eyes aren’t shadowed at all. 

So why do I have this fascination which prompts me to write about a suicide’s daughter, a drunkard’s son, an autistic child’s parents, a rape-victim’s husband.  Why do my recent stories feature an orphaned girl, a single mother, a manipulative guardian, an unfaithful wife?  Somehow in every story, the plot touches back to what seems to be my universal theme:  the chance that art can redeem the pain of human experiences and relationships. 

My basic theme is hope. 

When my older brother texted me this morning to tell me that his daughter had just made her way into the world, I felt a great rush of happiness.  The feeling is inevitable after the birth of a new person, I think – and of course it’s all the greater when that person is your adorable niece (or sister, or brother, or, best of all, your daughter or son).

There is a sense after a moment of birth that anything could happen: a vast horizon opens before the child, in which he or she can fulfill all the heart's desires  I feel the same horizon when I think about art.  It frees the spirit and allows it to go wandering into infinite spaces of possibility.  Perhaps that is the connection in my plots between art and family. 

Family:  a lot of work, but always worth it!
Each parent, each lover, each child should feel the same awe before their children, their beloved, their parents, that we do when someone new is born into our family or circle of friends.   And yet, so many don’t feel it at all, due to disasters or tragedies or even simple human stupidity. 

Art, however, can awaken the sense of awe, and therefore it offers a chance to heal the breaches in our relationships.  An estranged son can learn to love his alcoholic father again, through telling his story through art.  That at least is my hope, and why I’ve chosen to make that sentence the starting point of a new story. 

I’m sure other writers and artists out there have had similar, overarching revelations about their art, thanks to important events in their lives - perhaps even the births of new people to love, just like my niece.  I’d love to hear what and how you all have learned from these unexpected moments!