Thursday, September 27, 2012

Emotional Garbage Truck

Okay, so here's what last week's crazy parenting moment reminded me of: 

I was writing a novel while I worked (at my fancypants corporate job I was required to look busy but there was often no work to be done) and one day found myself in an all-out war with a secretary over the office supply products that kept vanishing from my desk. It wasn't exactly a "stapler" moment (have you seen Office Space?) but very very close. I resolved to leave as soon as I got into an MFA program. And luckily it was the right time of year and I was able to schedule and take a GRE within a week and the applications sent by the end of the month and I was in by the end of the year. Never looked back. 

That's how I tend to deal with situations in which the emotional weight is preposterous compared to the actual reality of the situation. I assess, I change things, I fix it or I go away from it.

But last week, I got caught up in a stupid emotional undertow that was all about parenting. A riptide of useless anger at things that I have no business being irritated by. Normally, I would tell myself to asses, change, fix, or go away. How can you do that as a parent? I find myself in emotionally overwrought situations daily, if not hourly. I discover I am yelling over the fact that a kid wants to wear a summer dress when it is obviously a fall day outside. I find the last, uneaten bite of scrambled egg can give me hives. Pajamas on the floor? Look out.

It's not like I can give up parenting and go to grad school. I haven't even paid off the last one.

This is what a time-out is supposed to be about: this stepping away from it to asses and destress. But we don't usually. We have too much to do. If we manage to extract one kid (by giving them a time out for yelling back at us) we usually still have another kid or spouse or bills to pay or someone texting us or a dog to feed or garbage to take out or god knows what to deal with - we can't just duck into our laptops and try to write about it. 

And yet, writing your situation into words helps a lot - write it down, get it out of your head. Use the back of a receipt or email it to a close friend. This is why Facebook posts are good, or Tweeting. Because it forces you to take your emotions and turn them rationally into words. In order to do that, you have to assess. 

On the other hand, be sane about it - FB, Twitter, even emails - you're sending out this stuff into the universe. People are going to respond. Think before you publish! 

And that's hard as a writer. We love to publish.

Here's a tip: write and then assess. Was I writing this down in order to clear my head? If yes, then it's emotional garbage. Don't try to publish every piece of emotional garbage that was cluttering your head. You're writing to get it out of your head, not to put it into the world. Put it away. Post in on FB if you have set up appropriate privacy standards. Or better still save it in a file. Don't look at it again. Head cleared, get back to your real work.

Obviously if your real work is a memoir, well, it's interesting isn't it? Memoirs and creative nonfiction are such a delicate balance of the author needing to process his own feelings (listen to our podcast of Darin Strauss discussing why he wrote his memoir) and wanting to advise others on how to deal with the issues you faced (Abby Shur, our very first Pen Parentis Fellow, wrote a memoir about obsessive praying. The podcast of the panel discussion that night is available to logged-in members of Pen Parentis.) And the noise of the garbage in our head can be so damned loud sometimes that it's hard to find the creative space to actually write fiction. So maybe that memoir is important. But take some real time assessing whether it's important because it cleared out the creative space in your head, or if it's important because it will actually help other people get through what you went through.

We as writers forget that writing does not necessarily equal readers reading. So many writers publish too quickly and are appalled at the horrific feedback they get in comments (too easy for response, no one writes you a letter flaming your book, they just post it to the whole world after they give you one star on GoodReads.) So think twice before you publish your personal junk. Be sure. And then treat it like any writing - get an editor, make every word count, and like I said last week, make sure your main character (that would be you) is clear on what they want. In a positive way.

Remarkably? this helps with parenting too. If you are clear on what you want "I want you to wear shoes that will not get damaged in the rain today." Then your kid can assert what they want "I want to wear my diamond studded felt-and-cork flip flops" and you can discuss without fighting. "Will your diamond-studded shoes be damaged by the rain?" "Yes, and I don't care." "I'm sorry you don't care. However, you must find shoes that won't get damaged by the rain." "I hate you, you are a horrible mother."

Well, it's dramatic, anyway. Write it down on the back of that receipt for those shoes (what possessed you to buy those in the first place??) In the novel you're writing, that girl would have put on her rhinestone-studded rubber flip flops and gotten to school on time. When you drop off Princess at third grade, come home and change the scene to reflect the much-more-entertaining reality of conflict. Or have your character wear the shoes to school and they'll dissolve into a puddle of actual money that slips down into the sewer...

One day you'll be stuck in your writing and you can go to your file of angry moments and you can harvest it to get your characters in a scene again: all scenes have drama and as a writer said at our salon, Kids are drama all the time. For them the stakes are life-and-death over everything: which shoes to wear to school, who took their chair at the table, the fact that they erased something they meant to keep. Use these moments. Be inspired by them. It doesn't have to be a memoir or a blog - it can be inspiration to get your paper characters acting like flesh and blood. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Take a chill pill

I sat down to my laptop intending to write about my stressful morning - perhaps you can relate - but when I tried to come up with a title that was properly blog-positive for what was basically going to be a rant about other parents, I found myself stuck. I discarded words like hate, frustration, grr, colossal idiots, and started rethinking from the positive: finding peace, enforced relaxation, mom time out... and wow. My actual mood changed. Then I recalled the phrase "take a chill pill" that I haven't used since I was probably ten. I suddenly understood what those words really meant - take a sedative, you are overwrought, and I thought, I used to say this when I was in second grade? Horrific thought, how slang filters down into the mouths of the young. Like "sucks" as in "life sucks" or "this meal sucks mom" - I remember my mother being aghast that I would say such a thing. But then, I wasn't saying what she thought I was saying. I was just using a word. I bet you say it too, and your kids likely as well. We don't think about the words we use in conversation. They're placeholders. But when we write, they have evocative power.

The power of words. 

See? and now all the parenting stress that was tightening my neck and shoulders is gone. Vanished. I'm in the land of words. It's amazing what power words have.

but I just re-read the beginning of this blog and want to talk about this concept of thinking from the positive.

I had an acting teacher back before having kids (I'm from the pleistocene era, originally) and she used to tell us to find positive motivation for our characters. When she used the word positive she didn't mean smiley-face, she meant active. Characters with negative motivation "I don't want to be stuck at home all day" or "I don't want to eat that for dinner" are characters we hate. They're basically whiners. Turn it around "I want to travel more" or "I want spicy food" and we have characters that are tolerable. Make the desire specific, "I want to go to Thailand and climb the face of a god," or "I want to try a ghost pepper omelette," and we are dying to see what will happen. 

Crazy isn't it? I didn't even know that until I just typed it.

Writing is awesome. I really was in this preposterously stuck mood when I sat down here. I had rushed to get my first-grader to school on time and we were going to make it -- barely -- but we ran into some twins she knows and the girls walked together and I felt the clock turn to mush. I couldn't get her away - the girls were sweetly hugging and giggling and all I could think was "oh god, they're going to make her late and they'll get into Harvard because their parents who are both here and both dressed in Gucci will simply buy their way in, meanwhile my daughter will have her attendance record checked and it will be obvious from her first grade records that she has a tendency to arrive to school tardy - and she will have to go to a tiny community college in Appalachia. If they let her in." The designer parents told my daughter to wait for their daughter (one twin shares a class with her) and so my daughter did. While the parents removed their D&G sunglasses and hugged first one twin, then the other, then "hey! what about my kiss!" then same for the other. And my inner clock was covered in oozing taffy, the second hand was moving like a superhero and the bomb was going to go off anyway. My daughter went upstairs three minutes late, with two giggly happy girls on either side of her, and I went home gnashing my teeth at...what? at family love? At joy?  

It reminded me of the reason I finally applied to grad school. I'll tell you about it next week. 
For now, keep your characters active. 
Make their motivations positive: Susan wants X. 
And specific. Susan wants capital X in courier font, 12 point type.
Get to work!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Actually helpful writing sites

I keep wanting to write a post about actually helpful writing sites because it's rare to find a parent who has the time between marketing him/herself, social networking, earning a living, and actually (ahem) getting some creative writing done, to browse random writing websites in search of helpful places to bookmark.

So back in June, I started trying to collect websites that I found actually helpful (as opposed to those that are good for marketing - like Goodreads and LinkedIN - both are very useful, but not particularly helpful. They tend to suck your time as often as not.)

Well, I did find this great website called - it seems to have a plethora of good advice and doesn't demand a membership fee (always nice).  But other than that, I found a lot of fantastic articles spread out across lots of various writing websites. So I approached it differently, I tried asking this question as a poll on Facebook and then on LinkedIN, but I guess people don't do polls.

In my own browsing I found a lot of sites that claimed to be great, but they were often rehash of the same lame articles "how to get an agent" and "how to write a character" - these are questions better asked in the Google Search bar because you'll get a list of articles that actually refer to your issue.

And that's what I left off at - we who hardly have time to get through an issue of the New Yorker, much less checking a website every day or two will likely do best by just Googling our questions at the universe. Someone has certainly written an article about every one of our writing issues.

Yet, in this age of something-for-everyone, I keep wishing there was some website that was just perfect for me, as a writer.

So, dear reader-of-this-blog, I leave it in your capable hands. What is your favorite website that is actually helpful to your writing? Maybe the question is too broad because a beginning writer and one that is published several times over might need different advice.  So I'll alter it a bit: what is your favorite website that is actually helpful to your writing--and why?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Just in time for Grandparents' Day

A lot—maybe too much—has been written and philosophized about the effect of our parents on our lives. But what about their parents, Dr. Freud? Once upon a time, Oma and Poppy, Gramps and Gramma were the loving/hateful monsters that our own parents would have discussed to pieces with a therapist—so why don’t we ever stop to wonder how Nana or Grandpere have influenced our own lives?
They’re just stories. That’s why.
Just stories.
The last AARP Grandparent Study was in 2002 and at that time the average age of becoming a grandparent was 47 with eventually, an average of six grandkids... Now? Merely ten years have gone by and the average age of becoming a first-time mother is climbing every year. In 2010, the American Fertility Association (AFA) reported that 20% of American women wait to have their first child until after age 35; meanwhile the average death age in 2010 was 78.7 (numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics).
Do the math.
But does their death make their influence irrelevant?
I’m an author; stories are my living. Stories are the most memorable means of transference of an idea from one person to another. Stories can expand horizons, quell fears, expose the reader to new situations, and teach them appropriate behavior. So let’s take a close look at grandparents-as-stories:

·      The ambitious guy who left everything to come to America
·      The desperate guy who lost everything gambling in Vegas
·      The brave woman who was the first in the family to earn a high school degree
·      The feminist who abandoned her husband and kids to start a career in law
·      The tailor who slaved his whole life at a job he hated, just to make ends meet
·      The couple who celebrated their 50th anniversary and divorced the next year

Just stories: easily summarized in one sentence. I submit that we routinely undervalue the influence of grandparents on our life-stories because we are looking at the wrong part of their lives. We are looking at the biological entity we met when we were kids. We look at them as Grandparents, every one of them old, and therefore “irrelevant,” as MIT software guru Phillip Greenspun argued in a 2009 blog post. Few of us ever got a chance to really know them; they had little direct influence on us.
But think of them as stories: who were your grandparents? I’ll start.
My grandfather was a smart and determined guy who ran away from home at 19 so as not to have to fight on the wrong side’s army.
My other grandfather grew so angry at being called a stupid immigrant railroad worker that he earned a living winning word contests by converting a language he barely spoke into math. Then he  got a job as an engineer and returned to spit at his ex-boss' feet.
One grandmother was a famous opera singer who left her career behind to raise a family and always regretted her decision.
The other invented her own medium in visual arts at 40 and continued to gain respect as a visual artist until she had her first public art show in Manhattan at the age of 90, which is also when she started winning prizes.
See? Just stories.
But oh, their resonance.
Like the memoirs, blogs, and reality TV that have captivated and nearly taken over the general entertainment industry (With the notable exception of epic movies with crazy special effects. Hang in there Hobbits!) these stories are true. These heroes are real. These stories actually happened.
Truth has resonance.
In practice, the direct influence my grandparents had was to introduce me to their hobbies: fishing, word games, chess, sewing, music, art, fashion, and heavy drinking.
You probably have a useless passion that some grandparent inspired: crossword puzzles, knitting, a card game, cruise ship travel, genealogy. Grandparents have been studied, of course: one study in 1994 by a psychologist named Laura DeHaan described their direct influence as “significant others who have a great deal to do with one’s view of life.”
But I submit, based purely on anecdotal evidence, that our parents give us our limitations while our grandparents-as-stories offer us our ambitions. The web is full of blogs of grandkids eulogizing the deaths of grandparents by following in their footsteps in some way. In the introduction to their book Grandparents/Grandchildren: the Vital Connection (Transaction Publishers, 1985), Arthur Kornhaber and Kenneth Woodward complain that “the literature of social science treats the three-generational family as a myth” – but isn’t that its very strength?

  •      Madeleine L’Engle's granddaughter, Léna Roy (one of our devoted members! yay!) has a young adult book of her own, Edges.
  •     Gifford Pinchot III, the grandson and namesake of the former Pennsylvania governor and first head of the National Forest Service, is carrying on his famous relative's legacy of conservation.
  •       Fabien Cousteau is following in the footsteps of his famed grandfather, ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau 

A myth is a powerful story usually concerning a hero experiencing a series of events. Want to know what characteristics your kids will admire as adults? Stop looking at your aging parents. Instead, listen to the stories you tell about them. These are going to be the main characters in your kid’s life story. Not the complex psychological inner-demons you deal with: no. Your parents will become the simple heroes of a bedtime story. But one that is true.
Don't forget to help us out by blogging, Tweeting, Facebook liking, and word-of-mouthing the fact that the Pen Parentis Literary Salons season opener is THIS COMING MONDAY, yes, September 11th. We have spectacular writers in a stunning location. You'll need every adjective you know. Come! We offer wine! Books for signings! It's fabulous! You'll be so happy you live in NYC! 
here's the link:
cheers! I for one am desperately sad to see Summer slip away. But Fall is notorious for getting people working, so who's complaining?