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Two years ago, on May 17, our lives changed abruptly. It was 8 a.m. on a pastel Spring Sunday morning; my husband was on his way to work in New York City; our daughter, a high school senior, and son, a college sophomore recently returned home, were zonked out in their rooms. I’d fed the dogs and cats, and settled comfortably into the chair at my desk in my upstairs office with a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of joe to catch up on a few things before church.

Something smelled strange. Did the neighbors have a fire in their fireplace? It seemed early in the morning and late in the season. I opened the window, then walked the hall; nothing suspicious.

Three minutes later, the smell of burning. I walked the hall again. This time, there was thick black smoke pouring out of a vent by the stairs. The fire alarms went off.
“Fire!” I said, pounding on each of the kids’ bedroom doors. “Fire! Get up, get out!”

That’s when I discovered you actually can get teenagers out of bed immediately at 8 a.m. on a Sunday.

We leashed the dogs and shooed the cats out and my daughter grabbed her hamster. I scanned the house for any other living beings; within three minutes, smoke had become so intense you could barely see your hand in front of your face.

Rhetorical Question: What would you save in the event of a fire?

Actual Answer: Your family. The rest is commentary.

The volunteer fire department arrived quickly. We live in a large town but a small community; as the address went out over the emergency band, the kids’ phones lit up. Our street threw an impromptu “come as you are” early Sunday block party.

house on fire

Those first hours are a blur. Eventually,the neighbors went home, the firefighters and police packed up and the ambulance was dismissed. My closest friend, without being asked, came and sat on the porch with me while I figured out what to do next. Newly homeless, I called the 800 number of our insurance company, State Farm. They asked for our policy number, which was in the remains of the house, and tried to find us by address. They had no luck. According to their computers, we weren’t in the system.

I hung up and called again. This time, they found the policy, took my name and phone number and said someone would get back to me by Tuesday. Seriously?

Then our neighbor Trish called our local agent, and, like a good neighbor, within the hour, Bonni Oswald, was there. It was clear a) she was a truly caring person, and b) this wasn’t her first fire-demolished rodeo. She contacted the company for us, and the necessary folks started rolling in. The Loss Unit turned us over to the Large Loss Unit. Bonni gave us cash for immediate needs and instructions for us to rent somewhere to stay and charge it to State Farm.

All of this happened when I was in Adrenaline Mode. I couldn’t process the fact that many of my Earthly possessions had gone to heaven before me or that our cats were out in the coyote-infested wild or that I didn’t live on my street any more. I was focused on the knowledge that, as a parent, it was my duty to keep my family and other dependents housed, fed and safe. Those first days, nothing else really mattered.

Even while charting the map through New Normal, as the size of the loss and complexity of rebuilding our lives became clearer, there began to be glimpses of gold nuggets amongst the ore. I decided the only way through would be to grab onto the positive, to keep watch for things we’d eventually gain in the fire. Here are six long-term positives that came out of one massive negative–and I suspect they’re the same for many types of adversity.

Resilience. The week after the fire, there was a Time Magazine article on the psychology of resilience. Dr. Philip Keller, one of the field’s leading researchers, explained that a key elements of a psyche that can bounce back is a history of hard times. It turns out facing challenges and difficulties is the only way to learn to flex and strengthen the “meeting challenges” muscle. People who have an easy life are those who sink when faced with catastrophe. Dr. Keller believe this to the extent that he felt, as a father, it was his duty to teach his offspring to face life-threatening challenges. As a result, when his children turned 18, he took them on a life-threatening adventure, to fight their way out of the Amazon jungle or up and down an oxygen-deprived peak. What his children had in common, upon returning home alive, was two-fold. The progeny now knew they could survive almost anything—losing that job interview wasn’t that big a deal—and, each told their father they never wanted to speak to him again. Lucky me! Our family was facing a true life challenge and it wasn’t my fault! I didn’t set the house on fire. We could face this ultimate challenge together, and the kids didn’t have to hate me for putting them through it.

Identity. It’s funny, how much of our identity has to do with this is where I live, this is my stuff; my grandmother’s rock collection, my mother’s beloved Lladro angels, the ribbon I won at the 3rd grade science fair. Each reflects a time and place, a series of choices and experiences. When they’re gone, who are you? With the exception of my children’s first two years, we had always lived in this house. Now, when the kids came home, we lived somewhere temporary. And it was okay—good, even. It proved that we were a family no matter where we were. I was a writer even without my office or my books or papers. I found I had to write, to remain sane. In fact, the things that were authentic held fast and proved to be strong and deep. And we put up a sign in the foyer: Life takes you to unexpected places. Love always brings you home.

Endurance. Anyone who faces a disaster quickly discovers that there is a community of people who dwell daily in the detritus of your particular catastrophe. While it is new and abrupt for you, it is their same-old-same-old. We were fortunate to have good insurance. It didn’t bring anything back, but the house was immediately taken over by people who knew what they were doing. One thing they were doing, was making an inventory and packing up every.single.thing.in.the.house, at which point our lives became a two-year journey along the Drowning in Paper Trail..

When you move on purpose, you have a chance to choose what to take and what to get rid of. We had no such opportunity. They cataloged everything. And, once this was done, things that had survived the fire—non-working light bulbs, VHS tapes, junk in the junk drawer—were packed into hundreds of the nearest boxes and put into storage. (A month after we moved back, I unpacked a box containing my half eaten bowl of oatmeal, spoon cemented to its contents for eternity.)

Then a list of things that did not survive the fire, 3,000 of them, from Mario Kart game cartridge to living room sofa—were presented to us in a grid. I was to go through these items and give the insurance company the price for which they were purchased, any time during the last 30 years. To get any money, this multi-page document had to be finished. It became the storm cloud over my head. No matter how much I got done in a day, if I hadn’t correctly priced 3 Energizer 160 blue flashlights and a 6 specific Hummel figurines and 60 other line items, I was cursed, a failure, a lay-about. There aren’t words enough to thank the friends who helped take on this task as we all became Internet mavens.

It became a year of slogging. Not only through unending paper work, but of phone calls and meetings and suddenly redoing—not just your kitchen, but every room in your house! Usually, if planning to remodel, I would have spent months looking at various options. But now, I suddenly needed options for everything. And it had all be approved and fit into the reconstruction budget. Also, the house had to be brought up to current code—no grandfathering in! That meant, among other things, a brand new $10,000 egress from the basement.

You get the idea. Even with a contractor we trusted and insurance adjusters who were on our side, It was never-ending. (And TiVo, stop charging us for service to an empty house and dead machines. This is my fifth call! Stop it!) Meanwhile, none of my other obligations had gone away. Prioritizing was key, and keeping on keeping on, even when it felt like another day of chewing Kleenex, was absolutely necessary. When life becomes a marathon and you have no choice but to run it, you find an endurance you never knew you had.

Letting go. The hardest day of clean-up at the house was when we found a boxed wedding gown in the basement, and it was so badly burned that I couldn’t tell if it was mine or my mother’s. It was tangible proof that the past had been taken, forcibly, and the physical proof of it was gone. Somehow, the fact that we lost so many things, that their discovery was unrelenting, on a daily basis, made it a dwelling place with which I was familiar, and eventually, comfortable. I recognized a stark demarcation between people and things.

There also became an obvious choice between holding on and mourning each thing, making life a continual pit of quicksand, or, (as was popular at the time), thanking each thing for its service and continuing on. Until I was shopping on Thanksgiving weekend with my then-college freshman daughter, and she said, “So we’ve lost all our Christmas ornaments—even the ones Jonathan and I made when we were little?” Somehow, that did it. I became the unhinged woman sobbing in the lighting aisle of Lowe’s.

But there was also a different, deeper, process of letting go that was triggered by the fire. I was doing fine, hitting my marks, doing what needed to be done, keeping it together—and suddenly, driving alone in the middle of a Tuesday, I couldn’t breathe. Could pull no oxygen into my system. I had to steer onto the shoulder and turn off the engine. The second time this happened, I realized what was going on. My subconscious was coming to grips with the fact that, in reality, any control I thought I had over my life was an illusion. We are all going to die, it could be in 50 years, it could be in thirty seconds. Worse, our loved ones will die. We’re all one phone call away from disaster, one bowl of oatmeal and smell of smoke from our lives becoming something completely else. And there’s not a damn thing I can do about it, except acknowledge it and do my best to come to terms. The funny thing is, once I was freed from trying to control my life, I was able to dwell much more spontaneously in, and be more appreciative of, the moment at hand.

Gratitude. Once you’ve had a catastrophe, it becomes open season for everyone else’s horror stories. You hear of people who lost loved ones or pets in their fire, of people who had no insurance and lost everything, of people who had insurance that would only repaint the puce wall puce and replace a 23-year-old red fringe chair with an identical 23-year-old red fringe chair. We’re grateful that State Farm (who has now dropped us, by the way) wanted what our mortgage holder wanted: the dwelling to be worth as much or more than it had been, pre-fire. It could have been so much worse. Even our cat Crystal, who was so freaked out by the fire and all the subsequent strangers that she ran away and refused to be held and put into a carrier to move to our Meanwhile House, was eventually caught in a Have-A-Heart trap and is now back, calm and happy, in the bosom of the family.

We also became newly grateful for our neighborhood and our neighbors, who sent us a Thinking of You card with money enclosed, that we used to buy a rug in their honor. Our temporary neighborhood had seemingly cranky people living in close quarters, and one neighbor who called animal control and the police every time we let our Siberian Husky (bred to be fine in Alaska, where it’s up to -20 degrees) be outside when it was below 50 degrees. (“It’s a husky!” said the police, after the second call. “She has a dog house, food and water and can get to the door to come in any time. Does your neighbor have some sort of personal vendetta against you?” “We don’t even know her,” we explained.) So relieved to be home, as are the dogs.

Shortly after my Great Lowe’s Meltdown, I went onto Facebook and asked any family and friends who might be inclined to send us a Christmas tree ornament that would, in some way, remind us of them. The response was overwhelming. We got ornaments from all over the U.S., as well as overseas. The ornaments came from people who celebrated Christmas, and those who did not. Our children’s first nanny sent ornaments made from photos of the children in their first years. One friend of my daughter’s, only home from college and in town for an hour, spent much of that time running into our house, hanging an ornament on the tree, and running back out.

Now our tree has come to have a wonderful, happy new meaning for us each December, as it is a virtual hug from friends and loved ones, far and near. We are grateful for each and every one. The ornaments stand for everyone who helped us through the hard time, from the fire fighters, to the insurance adjusters, to the neighbors, to the people who worked at the utilities, plumbers, painters, drywallers. There are many good people in this world.

Fresh start. Now, two years beyond the fire, we can be profoundly grateful for the fresh start the fire gave us. Neighbors whose kids have grown are having to update their homes for sale. Ours is completely updated! Kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, wiring, plumbing, you name it! We have that double oven I always wanted and the gourmet cooktop my husband lusted after. The basement is large and light and legal. The paint is not puce. All the stuff we’d saved for decades, and would have to go through someday? Gone. (Well, except for one garage bay. And if you’re interested in half price Lladros or Hummels, let me know.)

Mostly, oddly, I have let go of even the things we still have. I know I could walk out the front door of our beloved house, leaving everything but living beings behind, and be okay. It’s nice to use this stuff, but it no longer defines who I am. That kind of makes every day a fresh start. And I am grateful.
christmas tree

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World Book Day is celebrated this month in the United Kingdom (here it is World Book Night in April). School children are urged to dress up as a fictional character. Apparently one little boy has already been sent home for coming in a “Christian Grey” suit. (If he was in my class, I’d have him go back to the hall and re-enter as Willy Loman. Problem solved.)

So, while it’s not OFFICIALLY World Book Day here, it did get me thinking that ANY day is the perfect time to celebrate books.

In that spirit, let me celebrate the books I am reading right now, or have recently finished. I don’t usually read 5 books at a time, but I am just now, all very different, and for different reasons.

station 11STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel 

You might have heard that I’m not a big fan of end-of-civilization novels (scroll down to the post, “Hi-tailing It Out of Distopia” for an explanation). But my husband went out of town and left me this book with a note saying, “I think you’ll love it! Enjoy.” Now, my husband is sparing with his exclamation points, so I took the note seriously. The book is about a time in the not-too-distant future after a pandemic thinned the population by, well, almost everyone.

The story follows a small travelling company of actors and musicians who perform classical music and Shakespeare in the small settlements that remain. Granted, I haven’t finished the book, but the characters are interesting and real, and the book does seem to celebrate the good in humanity and even the “magical” everyday things we current readers take for granted.

DEAD UNTIL DAWN by Charlaine Harris

Yes, I realize I’m about 10 years behind everyone else, but there was a copy left by the bathtub and dead until Darkwhat is a girl to do? Isn’t it great that once books are written, they continue to exist and be unique? I’ve met Ms. Harris, she is a down-to-earth person who is nice to other writers and willing to dish about Alexander Skarsgard. I’d heard the Sookie novels were “episodic,” and the series was a little much for me. But what the heck?

Here’s the what: Sookie jumps in on the first page, a fully-realized character with a clear eye, a sense of humor and a big chain. There isn’t much she isn’t afraid of, and her crazy Southern world is introduced as normal-wacky. Vampires? Shape-shifters? Southerners you recognize and a town that feels like a real place? Obviously, a kajillion people read these books because they’re just plain fun. So what if the plots aren’t exactly tightly woven? And my best guess about the series is that somehow the men–the showrunners, the producers, writers, directors–co-opted Sookie and struck out on their own. Obviously they were successful, but it’s not the same thing.

Kaiulani Crown Princess WebbKAIULANI: CROWN PRINCESS OF HAWAII by Nancy and Jean Francis Webb

This one might strike you as kind of odd, after all, I did write a biography of Princess Kaiulani myself (that won the Carter Woodson Award, yay), and this biography was written back in 1962.  But here’s the deal. During the time my husband and I honeymooned in Hawaii, we saw a small newspaper article about Princess Kaiulani, and I fell in love with her.

I found the Webb’s book (and every other book on Hawaiian history in print) and then, we found the Webbs. They lived in Manhattan, as we did. By then, Nancy was battling Parkinson’s, but they welcomed us, time and time again, into their apartment. We would sit and talk for hours. A lot about Kaiulani and their journey to write the book, but also about their journey(s), period. They wrote radio dramas in the Good Old Days and had wonderful stories of a New York and a writing life not long gone. There is a new edition of their book out now, in paperback. My copy of their book is the hardcover, and it is signed. It is also falling apart. It is a prized possession.

Why did I pick this book up to start reading it? It was the beginning of a long journey, and I hadn’t read it in a long time. Some of the language used in 1962 sounds outdated now, even a bit insulting, but back then it was the politically correct speech of the day. But, they were a step closer to 1899, when “our princess” died. When they wrote, people who remembered Kaiulani were still alive. Honolulu was different 50 years ago, as it had been 50 years before the Webbs. But I’m loving it. Like a visit with old, beloved friends–and I mean both the Webbs and the Kalakauas.

LISTENING FOR THE HEARTBEAT OF GOD by J. Philip Newell

Every year, our church reads a book collectively during Lent. We are a church of people who love to learnListening for the Heartbeat and to discuss ideas. This is a book about Celtic Spirituality, and it is fascinating. Oftentimes we Christians don’t realize how much of what we find in the Scriptures has to do with the lens through which we read the text. For example, the idea of Original Sin was pretty much plunked whole into Church theology by Augustine, who did us some mighty favors and some mighty disservices.

It’s interesting to hear the argument for the theologians who lost the argument at that one specific time in history. “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Suppose that theological statement is actually fact?  Wonderful, necessary discussions. I LOVE ideas. I LOVE discussions. I LOVE books.

Here are two books I just finished, and I found them interesting counterpoints to each other.

Boston GirlTHE BOSTON GIRL by Anita Diamant

The Boston girl is a grandmother who is telling the story of when she became herself to her granddaughter. It’s a very workable conceit. The main character came from a family of Jewish immigrants who arrived stone poor to live in the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side. Times were tough. Money was tight. Loved ones were lost. Marriage prospects were not happy ones. The possibility of education for girls was a far-away thought. And yet.

YET. Our heroine has pluck, she has hope–but mostly, she has friends. Her world broadens. Her thinking broadens. Her prospects,–finally–broaden. It is a specific person’s story, but in many ways, it is every immigrant’s story. It is a fast read, and it is wonderful.

WE ARE NOT OURSELVES by Matthew Thomas

Another immigrant saga, this one of poor Irish in the mid-to-late 20th century, it takes place in the Wwe are not ourselvesOuter Boroughs of New York City. Our heroine is also from a family who arrived stone poor (actually, drunk poor). Times were tough. Money was tight. Loved ones were lost. Marriage prospects were not happy ones. She managed an education. And yet.

YET. Our heroine is stoic, not plucky; without hope that things will get better (not because they couldn’t, but because, well, wherever you go, there you are), and most trenchantly, she has no friends. She is completely self-contained and self-absorbed. Friendship is dealt, like cards, not fallen into. It was the kind of book you admire greatly and don’t enjoy for a minute.

At least, that’s me. But the great thing is, there are books out there for everyone! There are new worlds and new ideas and new ways to think and to view the world and make us appreciate what we have, and then, on to the next. It’s quite the most marvelous thing.

julia-child-my-life-in-franceOkay, last one up: My Life in France by Julia Child

Very possibly, one of the most wonderful books, ever. And not because it’s Dostoevsky or even Mary Stewart. Simply because Julia Child is an  indomitable woman, who can find delight in any situation. If you have trouble sleeping at night, keep this book by your bed. When you wake up, start reading. The phantoms of the night will fade into the France of the 1950s, your worries will fade into butter (it is Julia), and you will soon drift off, with a smile on your face.

 

Did you watch the Oscars this year? It was my favorite Oscars, ever.

I am usually ambivalent about awards that pit artists against each other. Talent is unique, material is unique, and deciding which actor, musician or writer is “better” than others at the top of their game is a stunt pulled by and for marketing. What I especially hate are the “losers.” Yes, everyone feels sorry for the nominees who don’t win, but, honestly, they’ve been feted and will continue to be. They’ve grabbed the brass ring. Then winners inevitably give “the speech.” You know the one–“Hey, kid in the middle of nowhere who doesn’t fit in! I once was you, and here I am! Your dreams CAN come true!” Obviously for the statue-holder, that is correct. He was feeling alone and misunderstood in Paducah, yet here he (or she) stands. Can’t argue with that.

If your dream is to live through middle school and high school and eventually end up somewhere where you feel comfortable in your own skin, absolutely true.

If your dream is to win an Emmy or a Tony or a Grammy or an Oscar–no, those dreams CAN’T come true, unless you are one person out of 500,000 truly talented working professionals in any art form during any given year.

To my mind, the real “losers” on these shows aren’t the non-winning nominees. They’re the uber-talented, hardworking artists who aren’t in the auditorium and will never be. In other words, most of us. Talented artists who spend hours doing art and also work at the hardware store, the library, the community college because we live in a society where bankers and plumbers are valued and dancers and poets and painters and singers and writers are not. The losers are also the general public who are only made aware of certain easily-accessible pieces of art which are mostly “entertainment.”

But this year showed there was another possible way to win.

Okay, as far as entertainment value, it wasn’t close to the best Oscars. The opening number was XXX 2015_OSCARS_RD025_20150222_APS.JPG A  ENT USA CAinfectious and jaw-dropping as far as the special effects. The rest of the show proved that even Neil Patrick Harris, who rocked the Tonys and the Emmys, could not hold up the behemoth that is the Oscar telecast. It still implodes under the weight of its own importance. This year’s ceremony was crippled by the fact that all the winners were givens. (Although I’ve got to say that Meryl sold the grief bit before the “In Memorium” better than anyone ever has and proved her worthiness for yearly nominations all over again.)

But the reason it was great was that it was the first time I remember that we were all called to remember WHY we do art.

A couple of years ago, I was eNYTM_Actors_71diting a really wonderful book in which working actors talked about their craft, and how to have a successful life while being an actor. One of the best was Eden Sher, who plays Sue Heck on THE MIDDLE. She is phenomenal. USA TODAY and other periodicals have gotten tired of trying to call the attention of Emmy voters to this consistently bravura (and totally funny) show. They have never gotten the respect they deserve, but Eden is committed to her art and to her character (even at the expense of having “the Hollywood look” every week.)  Another mega-talent in the book was an English actor named David Oyelowo. I know lots of actors, and each actor has a pet project they will produce/star in some day. They also have a reasonable plan about how this is going to come about. Usually, this plan is in its 13th or 14th iteration. Mr. Oyelowo had played Henry VI for the RSC almost right out of drama school. He had then done a couple of interesting turns in quality BBC shows, after which he moved to the States. He was in EVERYTHING. In tiny roles. He was the pastor in THE HELP. (Do you remember there was a pastor in THE HELP?) The school principal in INTERSTELLAR. One of the Union soldiers who recite the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln in LINCOLN. The bag guy in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES.  The other bad guy in JACK REACHER. So he was working all the time. But he had this pet project. He was going to play Martin Luther King, Jr. By the time he was interviewed for the book, he was on plan 12. Everyone in Hollywood knew that the project had been bouncing around for years and had lost funding (and directors) more than once. A lot more than once. But this one felt different to David. He is a man of principles and faith, and he felt the MLK movie was about more than David advancing his career. It was why he acts. He spoke about it in his NOW YOU TELL ME! entry. I thought of those as “genre comments,” filed under pet project.

You might notice I haven’t blogged much lately, even though I’m under strict instructions to be habitual. But I was tired of being a writer. Not of writing, but of being a writer. Making artistic decisions that are market driven. Trying to be fun and myself and yet do my part to market and sell my books. Watching famous friends who have grabbed the ring do it more easily than I (or at least in bigger houses and at fancier events). Truthfully, they often have people who do it for them. I thought, maybe I’ll just go back to writing little things that I like and that no one else has to like because no one else has money riding on it. (We writers often default to the introspective cave mentality.)

Now You Tell Me! 12 Actors Give the Best Advice They Never Got with all this wonderful acting (and artistic and living) advice came out, and it did fine. No brass bands, no brass ring, fine. Like so many wonderful books by wonderful people. Fine.

After the big push for my most recent novel, I was tired. I didn’t blog. I didn’t write. (I also didn’t clean the kitchen, lest you get the wrong idea.) I was just kind of worn down.

Then, last Wednesday night, I turned on the television, and THE MIDDLE was on. It was a 2-parter, in which Sue (our friend Eden) had to tell her boyfriend why she couldn’t marry him. This was just a regular sitcom on a regular night, not even a “very special episode.” And at the end of the show, Sue finally gaveeden middle Darrin her answer. It was one of the longest monologues I’ve ever heard on television–but you didn’t think of that, then. Because to “Sue,” every word of it was new and being discovered as she spoke it and deeply true. It was one of the most bravura pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. I was agog. This is WHY she acts.  (It is also WHY I watch actors.) If she isn’t nominated for her performance in “The Answer,” there is no justice in the world.  There’s every chance she won’t be. But as she was doing that scene, through however many takes, her WHY was plainly and proudly on display. Eden Sher, you GO, girl!

Which brings us back to the Oscars. You probably heard that David Oyelowo played the radical son of Oprah and Forest Whttaker in Lee Daniels’ THE BUTLER. He and his family spent Christmas with selmaOprah, and David told her about his pet project. Lo and behold, it’s 2015 and SELMA, starring David Oyelowo, is up for Best Picture.  You probably also heard that his performance was overlooked for an award. So, in the eyes of many, he was a loser. In fact, the Hollywood Reporter always runs “brutally honest” ballot deconstructions in which various anonymous members of the Academy tell why they voted as they did. One woman said she found it very distasteful that the cast and crew of SELMA actually took a stand on current matters of civil rights. Apparently, they should make movies about it, but not actually DO anything about it. But that was David’s WHY.

On Sunday night, John Legend and Common performed “Glory,” the Oscar-nominated song they’d written for SELMA. The production of it was stirring. At the end, the audience in the auditorium leaped to their feet in an ovation that you knew was not just for the song, but for the film, for Martin Luther King, Jr., for nonviolent resistance, for the call for justice in this broken world.

The camera cut to David Oyelowo, who was doing his best not to cry. And then he was crying. david-oweloyo-crying-selma.ls.22215

And it had nothing to do with winning, or even with whether he was nominated or not.

It had everything to do with the WHY.

And I thought, God bless you, David. God bless everyone who is brave enough to speak up and speak out and work for justice. God bless everyone who holds onto the pet project that encapsulates her WHY.

And hell no, I’m not crawling back into any cave. I’m writing what I want, what I’m SUPPOSED to be writing, the things that feed my soul and tell me WHY I write. And I don’t care about the “voters” who want us to write about things but not DO things. This is about LIFE. It isn’t about awards. Or marketing.

David, man, you awakened courage and purpose in many of us, not by winning, but by caring.

And to my fellow artists, writers, actors painters, I say, “remember the WHY. And let’s go.”

 

 

Last week I was the guest at a library book group. The librarian who booked me warned that they were a feisty group who would speak their minds. They were reading my movie murder mystery, THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS.

crazy writer on bedThey were a feisty group, all right, and we had a fine time. They were an intelligent group, also, who spotted and wanted to discuss not only plot and characters, but ways I’d decided to work with the literary references and mystery tropes. One man said, “I admit it that at first I thought the book had a little too much estrogen for me, but then I started seeing how you were playing with the reader, and I became fascinated. It became a great psychological game of cat and mouse.” We talked about the writing process and the reading process and the contract implicit between author and reader.

Then one woman spoke up. “Well,” she said. “You surprise me. You’re not what I expected a writer would be like. I mean, we hear so much about writers being loners and anti-social. You speak English really well. I mean, you talk really interesting. I mean–well, you know.”

Green quoteThe thing is, I do know. Truth is, if you’re naturally gregarious and a doer rather than a ponderer, you’re probably not cut out to be a writer. (At least not a fiction writer. You’ll likely do well at writing and selling self-help.) Fiction writers are made from the stares of kids looking out the window during class, often accused of “being somewhere else” while something not as interesting (say, math or the rest of life) is going on.

It’s not that we writers are an unfriendly bunch. It’s that we keep to ourselves for a living. In fact, I belong to a group of professional fiction writers who work hard at helping their aspiring counterparts and giving opportunities to each other. I brought a friend to a recent party. No one talked to her. I posit this is because chatting is not a writer’s strong suit. (In fact, during my formative years,  my father was the pastor of a large Midwestern church, hence, my definition of Hell is still “a coffee hour you cannot leave.”)  On the bright side, the aforementioned gathering was at a painter’s club andl the painters were thrilled to meet my friend. She is planning to start taking watercolor classes there.

Now, there are sometimes when being something “for a writer” comes in handy. For example,  sitting around a pool in Hollywood, surrounded by people with body types unavailable to most of us, it helps to think, “Hey, I look pretty good for a writer!” Or, perhaps you’re in an endless PTA meeting where a few completely jerkish parents are STILL holding forth on an issue of seemingly no consequence, and you think, “wow, I haven’t killed anyone. Great self-control for a writer.” Or, you’re watching a TV show in which they’re having “adventures” with the ghosts on the Queen Mary, but the voice over is using the word “ironically” in such an egregiously incorrect way that it’s much more jolting than ghosts talking–but you don’t throw anything heavy at the television. “Wow, staying really calm…for writer.” (Okay, I turned the show off. Couldn’t take it any more.)

Most fiction writers would likely agree with John Green’s quote, “Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.” I know the feeling.

And yet. Yet, now, somehow I’ve slipped over. I do love telling stories while looking people in the eye. More that that, some of the most fun times of my year are the “The Book Inside You Workshops” I lead  with fellow author and editor Tom Mattingly. It surprised me when I realized this had happened–this morph into a novelist who enjoyed standing in front of others and talking out loud.

I know exactly when it began to happen.

I started working in book publishing in New York while I was still at NYU, and I continued after graduation. My first two editorial jobs, at William Morrow and Taplinger, opened my eyes and taught me so much about books and authors and publishing. When visiting my parents in California, the writing teacher at the local community college asked if I’d come and talk to his creative writing class about publishing. I said sure. As I prepared my notes, I began to get excited. There was so much insider information I could give these writers that I would have loved to have had when I was starting out! I went to the class, and we all started talking–and talking and talking. Afterwards, I realized it didn’t matter what I’d worn or how I’d come across, all that mattered was the exchange of information. We were in it together.

storytellerSlowly, that’s what changed everything for me. It no longer became about me talking and others watching, it became about the exciting information I had to share, or the wonderful adventure of a story we were going to go on together.

Oddly, I stopped dreading looking people in the eyes when I realized that, instead of looking at each other,  we were looking together in the same direction. I got to be the one holding the lamp.

I’m pretty sure that’s the only reason, when I talk to others such as the library group, I seem pretty sane. (Also, I now realize that people will think you’re stuck up if they talk to you and you’re gazing into the distance so I’ve cut down a lot on that.)

Perhaps when we meet up, we’ll get into a stirring conversation about fantastical things. Perhaps we’ll use the word ironically correctly. Perhaps we’ll even discover we speak pretty good English for writers.

Until then, perhaps I’ll meet you in the middle distance…just beyond the next horizon…

1typewriterSo. This book you’re writing. That you mean to write. That you’ve written some of. That you mean to get back to.

You’ve got the idea. You’ve got the talent. You’ve made the commitment. Why aren’t you writing?

You tell people it’s Writer’s Block, which can be kind of a catch-all, but usually means you’re unable to interact with the material in a meaningful way. Thousands of pages of advice on getting past Writer’s Block have been written.

But what if it has nothing to do with the material? What if you know what happens next, or you need a next book and your mind is as empty as the cornbread shelf at the grocery store on Thanksgiving?

Or you mean to write, you want to write, you know what to write…and it’s not happening?

Here are three possible culprits–once you’ve identified the suspect, it’s easier to make the arrest.

1)  Place in your creative cycle. 1 kayak over falls

This is something I’ve seldom seen discussed, but the fact is that human creativity has a cycle. Unless you’re a machine, you can’t constantly be on the “output” setting without taking time on the “input” setting. You need to see new places, talk to different people, read new books, think new thoughts, or you’ll have nothing to write about. Sometimes you’ve put all your creativity out there, and you simply need time to refill and replenish. Don’t beat yourself up about this. Think of it as a new beginning, a an important, wonderful phase for your personhood. Dive into that stack of novels awaiting you. Take that trip. Drive around your town at 5 in the morning or email a blogger or journalist whose thoughts you’ve admired. Watch documentaries. Listen to NPR. Agree or disagree and have a fine time doing it. When you start feeling feisty or excited or surprised or wonder-filled or ticked off, you’ll know it’s almost time to enter “output” mode once again.

 

2)  Priorities. 1 Yoda

Let’s get down to it. If you really really want to write but you just don’t have the time, well, you don’t really really want to write. Harlan Coben points out that Mary Higgins Clark was a single mom with 3 young children and a full time job when she wrote her first book. She did it by getting up at 5 in the morning before anyone else was up. James Patterson had a family and a high-powered 20-hour a day job running an ad agency, but he started coming in an hour early and closing his door and writing his own stuff. If you want to do it, you can find a way. Get up early. Stay up late. Bring a sandwich and write at lunch. Don’t watch a favorite show.

Some very important caveats: a) If you don’t have the time because you’re feeling too guilty because other things like housework and shopping and waxing the floor and seeing your mother and baking cookies for the bazaar are getting in your way, have a very stern talk with yourself. Explain that nothing trumps writing. Your writing time isn’t time you’re stealing from others, it’s a commitment you’ve made to yourself. Say that until you mean it. NOTHING TRUMPS WRITING.

b) Carve out that time on purpose: when and where it will be. In your home office at 5 a.m.; in your work office an hour before you’re “on call.” Make that sacred. You’re working.

c) Create your boundaries and explain them to others. Then make them actual boundaries. If the door to dad’s study being closed means kids, dogs and neighbors can come in and say, “what are you writing?” or “where are the car keys?” it isn’t a boundary. Kids, spouses and friends are remarkably trainable. If 5 to 6 is your writing time and you won’t be answering the phone, opening the door or responding to texts, give them a week, they’ll stop calling/knocking/texting. But your boundaries are only as firm as YOU make them.

3) Resistance.resistance

This is the internal force that fights against the undertaking of any creative project. It’s what makes you decide to mop the floor instead of working on your book when the floor isn’t even dirty. It’s what gets you to log on to your computer, open your manuscript–and go play games or watch videos for an hour. Steven Pressman, in his book (and his discussion with Oprah, below) claims Resistance rears its ugly head whenever you are poised to start something that will “move you to the next level” creatively or personally. It’s why there’s something important you need to do, you want to do, you know how to do–and you can’t make yourself actually do.

How do you overcome resistance? Apparently, there’s only one way. You identify it, call it by name and then run the creative ball down the field, knocking it down in the process.

In other words, you JUST DO IT.

(Of course, sometimes you might need encouragement and a plan. If that’s the case, you’re invited to one of the next TheBook Inside You workshops, in which Tom Mattingly and I work participating writers through whatever is stopping them and into a functional plan to finish their book and get it out into the world.  February 7 & 8, 2015 at the Middletown Courtyard Marriott and April 10 & 11, 2015 at Hyatt Place in Mystic, CT)

The Book Inside You Workshops

Meanwhile:

You Write

As you know, we writers spend our days in deep philosophical reveries, contemplating Life, the Universe, and Everything. However, there are some questions that seemingly cannot be answered, even by fiction. I have started keeping a list, and I present some of them here. If you have any more of these questions yourself–or, have answers to any of these questions (huzzah!) please weigh in.

+ Why is the song “My Way” only sung by known jerks?

blue roses

+ When did flowers cease to be about fragrance? The idea that we invent roses that look pretty but have no smell amazes me, and not in a good way.

+ Do we really need both “hearty” and “hardy”? It seems either will do.

+ Why do they make it so an $800 dishwasher depends on a 3 cent piece of plastic that holds the detergent chamber closed?

drink dispenser+ Why are the spigots in those lovely beverage dispensers so high up? A good quarter of the drink will be un-pourable.

+Why do people who make toothpaste, dental floss and mouthwash assume everyone likes the flavor of mint?

+ Why do so many people think you need to come to a complete stop in a car before turning right?

+ Why do drivers now assume they MUST pass left-turning cars on the right, even if it’s dangerous, when they only save 10 or 20 seconds?

+ Why do people use “vanilla” to connote something boring or uninspired? I believe the flavor vanilla is phenomenal.

+ Why do they make pens that don’t write? Or at least don’t write for long, and are so choosy about types of paper and surfaces?

+ Why have police vehicles gone from flashing lights to a roadside light show extravaganza that blinds passing motorists?

+ Why do butter pecan and chocolate ice cream taste better when they come together in the same carton, rather than if you scoop them from separate cartons into the same bowl?

+ If the flies who are buzzing against the screen have lived their entire lives inside the house, are they suddenly really confused if they’re loosed into the vast expanse of sky?

+ Does Benedict Cumberbatch smoke simply to keep from being perfect? And can he not think of another fault that wouldn’t kill him?

+ Did they need to pay to install this sign?

not a through stree

 

sex wedding nightThere’s been some hoo-ha lately over the sex scenes in the Starz drama OUTLANDER, based on the popular series of books by Diana Gabaldan. Seems the sex comes to us via the sensibilities of the protagonist, Claire, who is–as her name might suggest–a woman.

Let’s get right down to it. Sex on cable is often fantasy sex. You can see provocative body parts of Hollywood-beautiful individuals, usually well-oiled and lovingly lit. This is certainly true of OUTLANDER, the same way it is true of, say, GAME OF THRONES, which is written by a man. So why all the fuss?sex well oiled

Well, for one thing, Clare isn’t just there to satisfy the man, she enjoys herself. But so do the willing lines of strumpets in GoT–or at least, they pretend they do, if they know what’s good for them.

But in the OUTLANDER books(which, by the way, are great), as in virtually every book I’ve read that has steamy sex scenes written by women, there is one major difference: the sex, for better or worse, is all about relationship.

I write mysteries and thrillers, so I’ll admit that there are many fine thrillers out there now that are written by enlightened men, and have strong, intelligent, brave female characters. Robert Langdon, of DA VINCI CODE fame,  couldn’t get along without one. These women are, not surprisingly, gorgeous to a fault. And after our heroes are through racing along the razor’s edge between life and death, they will inevitably act on the fact that they find each other incredibly attractive. They’ll fall into bed, both willingly, as equals. And, next book, our hero will have hit the reset button, and do it again with another incredibly smart, remarkably lithe female companion.

In other words, men’s fantasy sex seems to include a gorgeously unavailable, yet (just for you!) willing partner who is also, for some reason, just passing through.

In women’s fantasy sex, the men are also built, gorgeously unavailable, yet (just for you!) headlong in love, and…willing to talk. A lot.

Kristen Stewart, James PattinsonI’m not saying that Clare’s first lovemaking with Jamie in OUTLANDER quite matched my favorite girl-fantasy conversation of all time. That was from TWILIGHT, in which Edward Cullen actually says something to the effect of, “If I have sex with you, it would be so powerful that I would likely kill you. So let’s just talk. What’s your favorite color?” On a “Yeah, right” scale of 1 to 10, that definitely comes in at a 15.

In the book of OUTLANDER, Claire and Jamie, who’ve been circling each other with interest, are suddenly forced to marry to save her from the Redcoats, and to save him from the lonely life of a man on the run. It’s vitally important they fulfill the letter of the law and consummate their marriage, and the group of “witnesses” gather below their room to make certain they do just that. So, they get married, repair to their room…and start talking. In time, for hours. In book talk, pages (and pages) of exposition. Of course, once they jump each other bones (finally!!) they pretty much can’t stop. This scene in the book always earned a 12 on that “Yeah, right” scale of 1 to 10. I was doubtful that even the talented Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie, was going to be able to pull off that much of a female fantasy and make it seem realistic. He kind of did. He added a “you’re joking, right?” laugh as they started into the clinch, and then Claire pulled away and  said, “Tell me about your family.”  Which is apparently the Scottish clan version of “what’s your favorite color?”

sex fifty shades

Even in 50 SHADES OF GREY, which featured lots of sex written by a woman (though women of the world seemed startlingly unaware that Romantic Times Book Review has reviewed actual, well-written erotica for decades) the entire point was that our heroine was willing to play along with Christian Grey’s sexual proclivities because, unlike his long line of former submissive partners, she was able to LURE HIM INTO A RELATIONSHIP. Not just sex. A RELATIONSHIP for which he was willing to face his demons and maybe even occasionally MAKE LOVE instead of just have sex.

I’m not saying that female writers don’t enjoy writing hot things about their male protagonists, and even some pretty heavy duty s & m. OUTLANDER’s Jamie Fraser is a prime example, because there are thousands of pages already written about him, and inside the first book ALONE, he is shot, stabbed, beaten, spanked (and these by his friends and family), has his shoulder dislocated, is whipped (multiple times and nearly to death), tortured, and brutalized. He shows his manly virtue by shooting, stabbing and fist-fighting legions of Redcoats, deserters, and drunken MacKenzies. Which makes him manly enough to admit to Claire that he’s a virgin at the beginning of their (lengthy) wedding night. Yet he’s such a fantasy-NICE GUY that I was almost relieved when he finally stood up to Claire when she is sulkingly withholding sex.

So, using an admittedly small sample of female-written sexuality (although including in the background sex scenes in my latest mystery THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS, in which an actress is torn between her co-star and her director, and in the most recent Eden Thrillers, especially TREASURE OF EDEN, which has the infamous cave scene, and PLAGUES OF EDEN, in which our Army chaplain heroine must choose between the secret agent she just married and the philanthropist rock star who burns for her), here is what I conclude.

When women write sex scenes that are meant to be violent and harrowing, they are just that. Especially because the reader often experiences them from inside the mind of the female.

But, when a female author writes sex scenes in which the female protagonist is a willing participant, while the sex itself can be as hot and creative as possible, it is in the context of RELATIONSHIP. And there is often a lot of TALK to get them there. While male heroes can pretty much be turned on by the sight of a naked woman, a female protagonist has to be fully on board. Her mind has to be engaged. And it helps if the man finds her SO FREAKING ATTRACTIVE because of WHO SHE IS that he can’t help himself–but he DOES, DAMMIT–barely–until she gives the nod.

If that’s causing a big hoo-ha on television these days, well, it’s about time.

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