Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary

It’s spring, FINALLY.

finally

The daffodils made their glorious debut a couple weeks ago with their sunshiny yellow heads, but they are already on their way out, shriveled on their stems. Nature is not sentimental, but it is beautiful.

daffodils

Spring always feels so fresh and new, full of possibilities and new beginnings. But also endings. School is nearly over. Just another month until the heat jacks up and I spend long sweltering days negotiating screen time with my kids. I can hardly believe my son, who just started elementary school in September, will soon be a rising first grader, and my daughter will begin her last year before middle school.

kiddos may 2018.JPG

I ask (yet again), how did this happen?

Time just rolls on through like the grimmest of bulldozers, all business, move along people, nothing to see here, but wait, I want to shout while running alongside and trying not to get run over, there’s so much I want to see, please slow down!

Even though time seems to fly by at unreasonable pace, there is often something to show for it. New growth, new goals.

Two years ago, this coming June, I made a decision to write a different kind of book, shifting gears from fiction to memoir. At first, I could barely say the word, memoir, without cringing and apologizing.

Aren’t you a little young to write a memoir? several people asked, though not unkindly and I understood their perspective. I used to think you had to be a certain age to write memoir, and more than that, you had to have an extraordinary story to tell, but fortunately that is not always the case.

As Mary Laura Philpott, who wrote the recent article, “Surviving the Ordinary” explains:

“High stakes make for great reading, but examine any life, and you’ll see the stakes get pretty high for all of us at some point, even if the only decisions we ever make are the ones billions of people have made before us and billions will make again.”

Ah, my ordinary life has a place on the shelf after all. It’s called the universal connection, and if done right, that is extraordinary enough. As Cheryl Strayed says in an interview on Brain Pickings, “When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.”

Another misconception people sometimes make when thinking about memoir is that it’s supposed to span an entire life. YAWN. But (thankfully) this isn’t true. Writing a “memoir” is different than writing one’s “memoirs.” That is called autobiography and should not be attempted by those of us with regular lives. Think historical or cultural figures. Think celebrities.

For us mere mortals, imagine your life as a pie. Memoir is but a single slice.

The memoir I’ve been writing for the past two years is about grief and identity. It’s about losing my mother and becoming a mother in less than a year; how illness and motherhood can transform, and in some cases shatter, an identity. It’s about putting myself back together.

Way back in the summer of 2016, I started writing a mess of scenes. Literally. A MESS. My goal was to reach about 60-70k, a semi-arbitrary number, by my mother’s 10-year death anniversary. And I did. Then, somehow, over the summer I knocked out 20k more words.

In September 2017, with both kids in full day school – FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER – I sat in my empty house and began the behemoth task of shaping my book, finding its center. The goal was to transform a flood of memories into art. No easy feat, and there was no road map, either. I had to do it intuitively, hoping all the craft books and memoirs I’d read over the past year plus had seeped into my brain in some usable form.

For me, revision is always harder than an initial draft, which I wrote about in a post last October. Instead of entering the dream state of memory catching, I had to think analytically. I had to create a chronology and a structure. I had to nail down a verb tense (present? past? both?) and make some rather cutthroat decisions about the scope of my story line. (Remember, just ONE slice of pie, Dana.) Let’s just say my “Darlings” folder in Scrivener is VAST.

Eight and a half months later, I finished my first major revision. As in, I no longer have a towering mound of words. I have a story.

draft

Of course, my work is far from done. I am reading the draft now – and so far not hating it, which is huge! – and then another revision will take place.

My ultimate goal used to be a published book – and in some ways it still is – but I also realize that particular element is beyond my control. All I can do is write the very best version of this book, and that is what I intend to do.

What kinds of projects are you working on? Do you struggle with one element over another? 

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Finding Time

I’ve been quiet in this space, but it’s been a busy few weeks in my life. Back to back birthday weekends (my daughter and husband) with a grand finale of Mother’s Day, which always stirs up my emotions. I’m relieved it’s over.

I prefer the quiet lulls between celebrations. Must be that introvert side of me, relishing the chance to duck back into my shell and recover.

Meanwhile, things in my brain haven’t been much quieter, but that kind of work I can manage better. I’ve been tearing through memoir and craft books, inhaling podcasts, and basically gorging on this new (to me) genre. I’m filling myself up with as much knowledge as I can before taking my own leap.

memoirs

 

I never thought I’d be doing this, writing a memoir, and yet here I am, about to begin, beginning. I bought a designated notebook, a special pen, and I’ve been taking notes, writing out scene ideas. I feel like a train, its engine rumbling, steam rising, the whistle about to blow.

But once I get going, how will I continue my momentum once summer begins? The two words “school’s out” used to bring on waves of panic, but this year I’m not feeling as concerned. In fact, I’m making goals.

What the heck?! Two new words spring to mind:

Early rising.

(Well, that’s the goal. I won’t make any promises since this is quite a departure for me.)

sunrise small

Now please understand, I always get up early. My kids still wake in the night, and at least one rises with the sun (since birth, since birth!) and her clomping steps to the bathroom (if she doesn’t stop to peek in my bedroom first) always rouses me. Even if I pretend to ignore it, the cat doesn’t.

My old way was to grouchily flop back into bed and squeeze out a little more sleep, even the restless kind, because getting up at dawn felt like admitting defeat. I’ve fantasized about being the kind of writer who sets the alarm at 5am to write, but after being deeply sleep deprived for eight years, it seems sacrilegious to wake before absolutely necessary.

But then Saturday happened. I slept poorly (thanks kids and cat) and woke in a foul mood. The whole day I felt off, grouchy. It wasn’t until later that I realized why. That morning I had a chance to get out of bed before my kids. I heard my daughter close her door and knew she had turned on her requisite morning show on her iPad, but I forced myself back to sleep. Yet, for the first time ever, I understood that sleep was no longer winning.  What I needed even more, at least in the hour of dawn, was solitude.

I read this post by a fellow writer-mama Sophie a couple weeks ago, Why Early Mornings Are Good For My Well Being As Well As My Word Count, and this line in particular struck a nerve.

“If I don’t take charge of my day, and instead fritter away the beginnings of it in broken sleep, then when I am finally forced out of bed by a hungry toddler I am way more weary than I would otherwise have been.”

I’m more pissy and grumpy, but same idea.

The sleep I get from 6-7am does NOTHING for me. So why not write, or read, or watch the birds flit around the feeder in peace, with no one clamoring for my attention?

I tried it on Sunday and it was like a miracle. Not only did I get some writing accomplished, but by the time my daughter appeared at 7am (as per my firm request and the assistance of Netflix) I was feeling generous and sated as opposed to annoyed and disgruntled. I may have been spotted humming while cleaning the bathroom later that morning, but that cannot be confirmed.

It’s been five days so far, and though I slept in a bit this morning (due to staying up too late writing this!), I’m going to keep on with this habit. There is something incredibly peaceful about being the only one awake and drinking my coffee in silence.

Will I ever set my alarm for 5 or 5:30am? I don’t know, but the idea no longer seems unattainable.

This summer instead of surrendering my writing time, I’ve decided to set some goals. Not small ones either:

  1. Record all 12 video lessons for my grief course (coming to The Gift of Writing in October 2016 if all goes well, click here to be put on the waiting list!)
  2. Write 50 pages of my memoir about me and my mother

mom watching me

The trick is walking the tightrope of trying to meet my goals and not beating myself up if I don’t. All I know for sure is that there is no certainty, not in parenthood, not in life. I can’t predict what this particular summer is going to look like. Can I rise at dawn and still have my wits about me to deal with my two (often sparring) children? Will a babysitter be able to wrangle them or will I have to intervene?

I want to enjoy summer – the laziness of it, the surrender – without stress. Well, without the added stress of deadlines. But at the same time, having a goal to lean toward could serve as my fuel, what gets me through the bickering and squabbles, knowing I have my mornings, whatever may come of them.

What are your summer plans, and do you make goals, or play it by ear? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What I’m Writing

One of the reasons I started this blog was to find and foster community among my fellow mother-writers, and I’ve already found a lovely one in Maddy over at Writing Bubble. She invited me to join her weekly link up that she co-hosts with Chrissie over at Muddled Manuscript (oh, I love that name) called, “What I’m Writing,” which of course I can’t resist.

This week I’ve spent much of my (minimal) writing time polishing up the rusty bits of a blog post and formatting my very first newsletter (!) that I will be sending out shortly. I really enjoyed writing the newsletter, but felt a bit guilty that I wasn’t working on the novel.

Oh, the novel! It’s like my albatross, but a very special and beloved albatross that I tend to with absolute devotion despite its overwhelming weight and refusal to budge off my neck.

Photo Credit: ultomatt via Compfight cc They look so innocent flying in the air.

Photo Credit: ultomatt via Compfight cc
They look so innocent flying in the air.

But I will say, I’ve made progress on it this year. Last January I dusted off my woefully neglected albatross, I mean, manuscript – one that sat in a safe (literally, a safe!) for five years. I had finished it just two days before giving birth to my daughter…who is now six and a half. Do the math if you must. It’s not pretty.

Photo Credit: elseniorfox via Compfight cc Ok, it wasn't this old.

Photo Credit: elseniorfox via Comp fight cc
Ok, it wasn’t quite this old.

One day while my daughter was in kindergarten and my son with his sitter, I read the whole thing, from start to finish. I don’t know what I expected, certainly not perfection or genius (I’m not that deluded), but I also didn’t think it would be total garbage (though parts came close). When I finally put the pages down I felt a strange sense of relief. I knew what I had to do. Start again.

I salvaged what I could, about sixty pages, and then cut the rest of it. There is still a file on my computer with 200+ pages that should for all intents and purposes be deleted but I can’t bear to do so, yet. Since then I’ve written many, many more pages, some of which have made the cut while many more have not.

You have to be ruthless as a writer, but you also have to hold onto a certain naiveté or willful ignorance. Dani Shapiro says it well in her book, Still Writing:

“So how do we make peace with the knowledge that every word, every sentence we write may very well hit the cutting room floor? Well, we don’t make peace with this knowledge. We willfully disregard it.”

That’s what I’m doing as I work on my novel. Some days the task feels so monumental, so overwhelming, it’s like chipping away at a glacier with a toothpick.

Photo Credit: blue polaris via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: blue polaris via Compfight cc

But I keep on going, not knowing what will be saved or cut, not knowing if this latest draft will be good enough to merit an edit, and then, after that, if it will ever be read by eyes other than my own.

I’m writing in the dark, slow and steady like the tortoise because my kids are young and underfoot, and that’s how it has to be, for now.

But I sense with a kind of animal instinct, or maybe just a writerly one, that I’m approaching something with my novel. There is a quickening, a slight uptake in the beating of my heart. I feel as though I’m on a roller coaster, ratcheting up the tracks. Before all I could hear was the steady clacking sound, but now I can see something too, a glimmering in the distance. I am getting closer to the top. Closer than I have been. If I keep going I will finish. And that is my goal.

What are you working on? Are you chipping away a sliver at a time or are you making great gouges?

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5 Ways to Finish

Photo Credit: Vic de Vera via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Vic de Vera via Compfight cc

That’s the goal, isn’t it? To finish, to sit back and say: Yes, this is DONE.

I’m not talking about finishing a draft of something (short story, novel, play, painting – you get the idea), although that absolutely IS its own awe-inspiring feat.

I mean finishing to completion, realizing you’ve done all you can to say, a manuscript. You’ve toiled and rewritten, edited and deleted, you’ve pounded your desk in triumph and cried into your coffee. You’ve cycled through euphoria and depression, you’ve persevered and come out the other side.

You’re ready to share your creation with others. Perhaps this means pursuing traditional publishing á la querying agents, or going DIY and self-publishing. But the point is, you’re ready. Your work is ready.

The goal could be to end up on a shelf. Photo Credit: isayx3 via Compfight cc

The goal is to end up on a shelf.
Photo Credit: isayx3 via Compfight cc

Some days this feat feels attainable, and other days (um, most days) it feels like trying to touch the moon.

The world is full of finishers. They’re all around me. From the author blogs I follow to the lovely women I write with on Wednesdays.

This is a good thing, an inspiring thing, but if I’m not careful, it can turn ugly – in my brain. That’s when doubt and fear try to wrestle me to the ground. Voices snake into my ears, tunnel into my heart. They say things like this:

How can you call yourself a writer?

You’ve been working on your novel for how many years?

Look around, everyone is ahead of you by miles, light years. You might as well quit now.

Photo Credit: HQheart via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: HQheart via Compfight cc

Once you start down this road, it snowballs fast. One of my favorite bloggers, Chuck Wendig, of terribleminds.com, describes the feeling in a post titled, “There’s This Thing That Happens Sometimes.” Here’s a snippet:

“You step onto this grease-slick slope, sliding down through the shadow of envy, doubt, uncertainty. You feel smaller and smaller as you fall farther and farther. You tumble face-first into the revelation of your own inadequacy, your grotesque and unconquerable imperfection, your worst failures… ”

His advice? Step away from the pit. As soon as you sense it, the second you smell it. Really, it’s all you can do.

Because if you don’t you might get stuck, and if you’re stuck you’re not writing, and if you’re not writing you won’t finish.

Thinking about the ever present quandary of pit falling versus goal finishing inspired me to come up with my own list of advice. While certainly not foolproof, this list has served me well thus far in my attempt at finishing my novel.

5 Ways to Finish

1. Be selective with your recreational reading.

Read books, blogs, and articles that inspire you, offer tangible advice, that buoy. Stay away from the sinkers. When I say “sinker” I mean what sinks you. There may be nothing inherently wrong with that person’s words, in fact, they may buoy someone else, but if it makes you question or second guess yourself, it’s best to step away from the book, blog, Twitter feed, or whatever. Just STOP. Use your reading time for sharpening your skills or boosting your confidence, or – hey, here’s a crazy thought – enjoying yourself.

For me, examples of this is devouring posts on Positive Writer (the name says it all) and Writer Unboxed. I’d love to hear what it is for you.

2. Zip it, lock it, put it in your pocket.

That’s a phrase my six-year-old daughter says, and I kind of love it. Besides saying it to both my kids on a regular basis, I say it to myself.

What does this have to do with finishing? Here’s what: Don’t talk about your work. Too much. Or at all.

Maybe I’m suspicious, but I find when I talk too much about the story or novel I’m working on, the magic fades. It’s like a balloon slowly leaking air, I don’t even realize it’s happening until it’s too late.

Photo Credit: Laizee via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Laizee via Compfight cc

Sometimes it’s crucial to talk shop, especially when trying to untangle a knot, or brainstorm an important plot element, but for the most part, keep it to yourself. When you feel a rise in excitement and feel like you’re going to bubble over, instead of talking about it, write.

3. Set realistic goals.

I try to keep my expectations and goals reasonable – as in doable. Otherwise my self-esteem takes a nose dive when I inevitably fall short of say, a five-page-a-day kind of goal. Two pages a day? Much more doable (for me).

I’m not saying sell yourself short, but figure out a daily or weekly goal that works for your lifestyle and do everything in your power to stick to it. When life – inevitably – backs up into your writing time, brush yourself off and start again. It will be harder to get back on track. Dani Shapiro likens the spurned page to a jilted lover (see #5), but if your goals are on the reasonable side, it may be a faster recovery.

4. Indulge in some fantasy.

Um, I’m talking about visualization here. Don’t get any funny ideas.

For me, the ultimate fantasy is seeing my book on a bookstore shelf, or better yet, a display table. (Hey, I worked in a bookstore after college and spent much of my restocking time daydreaming about this.)

Photo Credit: Ruth and Dave via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Ruth and Dave via Compfight cc

This kind of indulgence is a nice counterbalance to a writer’s usual modus operandi, which resembles a huge twitching ball of anxiety and self-doubt.

A little time spent fantasizing is fine, but beware of relying too heavily on these lovely interludes when you should be writing. FYI (to myself), nothing actually gets accomplished while you imagine yourself alone in a room surrounded by hundreds of boxes of your published novel.

5. Don’t Stop. No matter what.

Maybe you haven’t written in a few days, weeks, or months. Perhaps even years. It doesn’t matter. The thing about writing is that it’s always there waiting for you. I love this quote from Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing:

“Writing is hard. We resist, we procrastinate, we veer off course. But we have this tool, this ability to begin again.”

When we stray, the return can be tough. The longer we wait, the harder it is. Shapiro also acknowledges this, saying, “The return won’t be easy… The page turns from us like a wounded lover. We will have to win it over, coax it out of hiding.”

True enough. But on the upside? It’s always possible to begin again… and to finish.

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Maybe you’re a finisher, or in the thick of it like me. Either way, I’d love to know if any of these tips resonate with you, or what you do to keep yourself on track.