Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Yoga Writing

The longer I practice my art, the more I'm convinced that the difference between those who succeed at finding an audience for their art and those who don't is the ability to maintain focus when life conspires.

Every new project has what I call a honeymoon phase. During this phase I'm so eager to get to work that I rush the girls to school, grab a quick breakfast, put up the tea kettle, and spend hours at my computer. More often than not my muse is so jazzed at this point that I'm unable to keep up as she introduces characters, places and world events, and offers me insights into the story.

Exciting and energizing, each day is a new discovery. Unfortunately, this inspirational phase doesn't last. After awhile the newness of the project wears off, and the breathless time spent typing my first draft turns into months--and in some cases years--of re-visioning.

Here's where the persistence, patience, and, more importantly, the ability to focus comes into play. During the re-visioning phase, life can and does conspire. Jobs come and go. Children enter our lives or set out on their own. Significant others come. Or go. Illness strikes. Our priorities shift. Our to-do lists grow.

Good or bad, happy or sad, our lives both inform our work and distract us from it. The challenge during times like these is keeping our work a priority, enough so that we're able to maintain the momentum created when our muse first whispered in our ear.

As the mother of three girls, one with significant special needs, keeping my focus as I re-vision my current work-in-progress, KM, has been one of the biggest challenges of my writing life. This isn't a complaint. It's a statement of fact. Realizing that my girls inform my writing in addition to challenging it was the key to making my process work for me rather than against me.

For the record I'd be lying if I said that tossing aside KM rather than finishing it hasn't crossed my mind. The difference here is that I refuse to let the fantasy go any further.

I am and always will be a writer. Which means that honing my ability to reclaim my center whenever life conspires is an essential skill.

Striving to write two pages a day is one way I keep focused. I have one of my VC advisors, Jane Resh Thomas, to thank for this practice, and the benefits it reaps.

Jane's mantras are simple:

1. Do your work.
2. Write two pages a day.

My two pages are rarely great. And I freely admit that lately I haven't come close to attaining such a simple goal. Yet, pledging to make it so means that more often than not I'm writing something each day, and when I finally sitt butt in chair to work on KM I'm able to enter the flow of my story much easier than if I'd waited until it was "convenient" to do so.

Another way I maintain my focus: yoga. Last night's class was a prime example of why I must continue my practice, especially in the face of E's illnesses.

Each pose, each asana does more than improve flexibility and core strength. Each posture becomes a moving meditation, one that requires such intense concentration that my worries slip away. The present is all that matters during that hour.

Each stretch and breath is in the here and now. And inevitably, by the end of the hour, something amazing happens.

My characters step forward. Sometimes as a group. Sometimes individually. They don't always have much to say, but it's enough to know they're there, waiting.

Remembering last night's class recalls the sense of peace and clarity I found there. And remembering that clarity reminds me my characters haven't deserted me no matter how much I fear that they have done so in the face of life's challenges.

Yoga is a gift. It brings me closer to my writing, reminding me that when I'm ready to work, my characters will be ready, too.

All I need to do is find my center--the place of clarity I've discovered through my yoga practice--and call.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Breathing Treatments, Allergies, and the Reluctant Muse

E's coughing again, and her nose seems to fill up as soon as she's done blowing it. Here's my theory why:

The forsythia's are blooming. The grass is greening up. The Weather Channel is warning of higher-than-usual pollen. Seasonal allergies could very well be to blame for this most recent setback.

Poor kid. She's off for spring break this week, which means we should be relaxing, chilling, doing all the things we'd hoped to do: a trip to see Bridge to Terabithea, a visit to Bath and Body Works to use old gift cards, planning and planting of flower and vegetable seeds for this year's garden, a walk to the library for a long overdue visit, a sleepover with friends. Unfortunately, at the rate the week's shaping up, we may very well spend the rest of it hunkering down and doing doctor visits. I'll be curious what we learn because E's already a walking cornucopia of allergy type meds.

Breathing deeply. Reminding myself that weeks like this one (when finding the uninterrupted time to write is damn near impossible, and writing anything meaningful if I do manage to find the time is even more unlikely) are a natural part of my process.

My yoga teacher J would probably have something reassuring to say about this place in which I find myself. Her advice would be wise, knowing, non-judgemental, just what I needed to hear.

"Don't worry about where you are or aren't," she's been known to say as we move from one pose to another. "Where you are is right for you. Honor where you are."

I want to believe this, need to believe this. Most days I do.

Today? Well, let's just say that after nearly a month of shepherding E from one illness to another with less than a week inbetween each bout, attending tonight's yoga class is crucial on so many different levels. For me. For my girls. For P.

And for my reluctant muse.

Monday, March 26, 2007

One Writer's Rationalization: Why Being Sick For a Week is Good Thing

E missed the entire week of school last week.

An entire week.

Normally, I'm able to write through E's illnesses. Not this time. The round-the-clock nursing required to keep E comfortable sapped me so completely that the need to sleep when E did trumped any hope of working on KM. I lived with this--accepted it as an inevitable part of my process--until Thursday or so when a mutated form of E's bug infected P and I.

Then I got mad--or would have--if I hadn't felt so crappy.

So, instead of spending the weekend catching up on writing and promised SCBWI-Illinois work, I hacked and coughed and tagged-teamed with P for the right to crawl under the covers, all the while attempting not to reinfect E.

One saving grace: E continued to get better despite our rotating sick ward.

Another saving grace: Friday's teen writer's group was a hoot, and the library asked us to extend our run indefinitely. Woohoo! A paying gig. How cool is that?

And yet another: This most recent illness of E's was her first sick week for the school year, making a comparison to last school year statistically remarkable. By this time last year, E had missed multiple weeks, enough that by the end of the school year illness had kept her away 25 percent of the time.

Hear that KM characters? In a weird warped way, the fact that last week was the first E missed this school year is encouraging news. Good news. Fighting news.

And now that we're all in a fighting mood, there's the matter of the sub for next week's crit group. Before we can finish it up I need to face my inner critic. It escaped its cage last week, and is more than a bit feisty about being returned to it.

So, I need a favor of sorts. Shouldn't take long, and might even be therapeutic. Take up a sword (there are plenty of them laying about the stage of the story) and help me subdue this foul beasty.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

E Report, Coming Up Out of the Trenches, and Good News for the Muse

E's finally on the mend. She's not yet back at school, but we're giving certain meds less often, and I can actually envision sitting down with KM today instead of crawling under the covers when E takes her nap.

By the way, we ended up starting steroids over the weekend. As much as I hesitated doing so, it was the right decision. Within 12 hours we noticed a difference. E was still coughing, but the cough had changed, sounding less labored, more productive.

E still has a ways to go before she can return to school, but we're headed in the right direction, thank God.

Current read: Back to The Higher Power of Lucky after being seduced away by Cynthia Leitich Smith's Tantalize and Sharon Creech's Pleasing the Ghost.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Werewolves, Vampires, Coughing Fits, and Other Seductions of the Night

Another rough night, filled with coughing fits and too little sleep. Trying to keep ahead of the meds. Doing so seems to give E the best chance at grabbing a moment of uninterrupted sleep. One thing that seems to be helping: P and I have resorted to logging each med after we give it, and setting alarms so we don't sleep through the next one.

As for today, the jury's still out on whether or not we'll need to add steroids into mix. I think E's fits are less frequent and intense, but then again my assessment might be the result of wishful thinking.

On an up note, I finished Tantalize last night, curled up on the sofa and read about Quincie and Kieran rather than sleeping like I should have when P was on duty with E.

Wow-za. This book has it all: werevolves, vampires, seduction, murder, intrigue, red herrings, plot twists, and an irresistable (or should I say tantalizing?) page-turning pace.

Few books weave this kind of spell over me. Usually, the need to sleep trumps everything.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Doctor's Visit Cliff Notes (Or Why--in a Wacked Out Way--My Muse Might Just Find This Situation Inspiring)

Here's a Cliff Notes version of what the pediatrician had to say after listening to the list of E's symptoms (coughing, sore throat, nasal congestion, coughing, coughing, coughing) and checking her out:

1. After struggling for so long to bounce back from her cold/ear infection/cough, E's suffering from reactive airways, which in layman's terms means she's experiencing asthma-like symptoms and attacks.

2. Our last-ditch effort at 4 am to give E a nebulizer treatment for her hack-up-a lung coughing attack was the right course of action.

3. Round-the-clock nebulizer treatments should help reduce the swelling in her airways, which in turn should reduce the frequency and intensity of the attacks.

4. If treatments don't help after 24-48 hours, we bring in the big guns: a course of steroids.

5. In the meantime the usual: keep hydrated, keep up the heavy-duty cough medicine (the kind the pharmacist keeps under lock and key). And prepare for a few more nights of little or no sleep until the treatments have time to work. Or not.


Even if I convince my muse to sit down with me at my computer (assuming I find the uninterrupted time to do so) I doubt that anything she says will make sense in the morning.

Then again, my muse has been known to work under intense and surprising conditions. Perhaps sleep deprivation and a quarantine at our house will work in my favor...

Writing Hard...Or Hardly Writing?

Ack! Thursday already and I've a handful of pieces left to quilt together before I can sub to critique group members for next week's meeting.

I have little to say in my defense, except that my behindness is not for lack of trying.

Last week I succeeded in digging through my office for the multiple files I've made while visioning and re-visioning KM. And I spent considerable time organizing said notes by character, chapter, motivation, etc., distilling them down for use during this current (and what I hope to be) final re-vision.

All very useful tasks and long overdue. Unfortunately, in the middle of this process, life conspired in unpredictable ways. An uncle died this week, one whose death came so rapidly that we're all a little breathless. Then there was the fact that E and I spent most of the day at Children's Memorial Hospital Monday for tests, tests, and more tests. All "routine" prior to a doctor's visit in April.

Losing a day of writing--no problem. I'd worked it into my schedule. But then the proverbial shit hit the fan.

E's sick again. Earlier in the week, we blamed the change in the weather for her increased coughing. After last night, P and I are convinced it's definitely more than that. We're heading to the doctor shortly.

I'd rather be writing. I'd rather be accompanying one of my main characters on his quest to the save the maiden whom he'll soon discover can take care of herself thank you very much. Instead, I've a feeling I'll spend much of the next few days holding barf buckets, doing breathing treatments, and making apologies for missing deadlines.

Of all the things that'll slide to a stop while I'm wearing my mom-of-a-special-needs-child hat, the one that hurts the most: the high probability of having to miss Pam Munoz Ryan's school visit in Carpentersville tomorrow.

I wasn't going to be the only SCBWI Illinois chapter member in attendance, but I still feel horrible about missing this one. Why? Because when I agree to do something, I want people to know they can depend on me to follow through on that commitment. The fact that I'll likely have to bail is--well--I don't even want to go there. E's had such a good year, I thought we were past the need to apologize for things missed or forgetten in the face of her illnesses.

Ooops, need to go. Wish us luck at the doctor.

Current read: Cynthia Leitich Smith's new book Tantalize. Yummy. The best dark fantasy I've read in a long time.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Writerly Experiment--Part II

First earth tones, and now--with a quick flick of the publish button--variations on a flowering meadow look.

I launched my blog with this template way back when, and since I continue to be drawn to its fresh, organic look, I'm trying it out once more.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Writerly Experiment...It Must be Spring

Bear with me as I experiment with a new look for my blog. My only excuse for this inanity: it must be spring..and it feels like it's time for a change. It's an odd notion deciding to switch looks because it feels right. And yet, of all the lessons I've internalized about the creative process since graduating Vermont College, trusting my gut is one of them. So far I'm leaning toward this template. However, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, "It ain't over till it's over." Fair warning: I may try on a number of different "outfits" before I decide which one suits me best.

Tantalizing Offer: Free Books

Who can resist free books? I can't. That's why I was thrilled to learn YA Books Central is offering free copies of Cynthia Leitich Smith's new book Tantalize (which is already in its third printing since being released February 13th, according to Spookcyn), and Lauren Myracle's new book Twelve. For details on the giveaways, surf on over to YA Books Central. Enter to win now through the end of the month. Good luck.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Crit groups, Scrotums, and Other Writerly Topics

E's finally on the mend which means I'm slowly digging myself out from under my to-dos. So far this week I've finalized:

1. Crits for critique group. This included reviewing and making comments on J's and A's submissions prior to today's meeting. I've heard some people refer to crit groups as time sinks. This might be true in some groups. Thankfully, this isn't the case in ours.

The way I see it, reading J's and A's work is both a privilege and a blessing. Doing so allows me to think about craft in concrete ways so that I can articulate what's working and what raises questions in everything I read and write, even my own work. For example, critiquing has trained me to identify the elements that help make a scene sing.

Questions I might ask as I study a piece: What techniques is the author using to bring this scene to life? Poetic language? Sentence structure? Dialogue? Details? Pacing? All of the above? How? Ideally, identifying and articulating the specifics an author uses to accomplish one thing or another will assist her the next time she returns to her story, and, suprisingly enough, the next time I return to mine.

The same thinking applies to areas that raise questions. If I can't picture what's happening on the stage of a story, I look for reasons why this might be the case. If an scene isn't working, dialogue sounds stilted, or a character falls flat, I look for areas that might be tweaked or reworked to achieve greater power or clarity.

Our group meets biweekly. Each time we meet, I come away having learned something...a technique to use in the next scene or snippet of dialogue in my current work-in-progress, another way to establish setting, a fresh way to describe something or someone, solid tried and true ways to inform and improve my own writing.

For me, participating in a crit group--the right crit group--isn't a time sink. It's an investment.

2. Edge of the Forest interviews. One--A Day in the Life with author extraordinaire Laura Ruby--is in my editor's inbox (unless cyber gremlins have intercepted it.) The other---
What's in Their Backpack with author/independent bookseller Elizabeth Bluemle--is nearly finished.

3. My sub for crit group. Okay, so technically, I didn't sub in time for crit group. But I'm listing it as done anyway because I made good headway on the next J chapter despite illness and life in general (more than I would have done had crit group deadline not been staring me in the face.)

On tap for the rest of the week: KM and nothing but KM

Current read: The Wall and the Wing by Laura Ruby.

On deck: The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. (Especially curious to read the scrotum reference in context so I can decide for myself if the hullabaloo about the word so many believe Should Not Be Said in the middle grade classroom is worthy of so much drama.

(ETA variety of comments 3/8/07.)

Friday, March 02, 2007

On Deadline Days and Herding Cats

On deadline today for:

1. Two articles for the upcoming issue of Edge of the Forest Children's Literature Magazine. By the way, did you know you can subscribe to the Forest for free? Don't miss the next issue. Surf on over and sign up today.

2. Revisions and another new chapter of KM for critique group. Subs are due at least a couple days ahead of time. We meet next Wednesday. So far so good on making this deadline. (As long as E continues her recovery, and my characters continue to grace me with their company. ) Knocking on wood. Crossing fingers and toes.
Edited to add: Did I mention S and E are home today because of a teacher's institute day at school? Marking off a to-do list on days like today reminds me of the feeling one experiences when herding cats.

Current read: The Wall and the Wing by Laura Ruby.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Coaxing the Muse

E's fever broke late yesterday afternoon. She's wilty now after four days on Motrin and Tylenol at 103. But we're seeing signs of recovery--less coughing and a tad more energy. And her appetite's returning (which is good given the fact that at her extremely small size she has so few reserves to begin with.)

Thank you, God. This news is good. No, not good. Excellent.

*Hovers over her computer, glances longingly at her idea spiral.* With the right amount of coaxing I might just convince my characters to come out of hiding long enough to write something today.

*Gestures wildly to win the attention of her retreating muse.* Wait. Listen. The words don't need to be great. They don't even need to be meaningful. All I'm asking is two pages.

Just give me two pages inside KM, and I'll go to bed content.