An Idea Becomes Reality

It was the last class. The last day of school. Spring 2011. The kids were done with their final and sat in small groups, chatting, glancing at the clock, waiting for the empty, long, lovely days of summer to begin.

One group sat clustered around my desk discussing their writing. One student had written a screenplay but didn’t feel it was quite done yet. One had completed NaNoWriMo and had several more pieces in progress.  Another was looking for a publisher for his newly finished fantasy novel, and the fourth had been inspired by Ayn Rand this year and had a novel outlined with one or two chapters completed.

I listened to them, stunned. They were 14 and 15 years old and had novels completed!! I had just begun mine . . . at age 40.

I suggested that they trade phone numbers and emails, so they could workshop their pieces over the summer, and I offered to help. They liked the idea, but the bell rang, summer vacation began.

I thought about this group over the summer and wondered how I could help them with their writing. I had a few ideas but the seed for a website for them, for teen writers who LOVE to write, had been planted.

The next fall, I had a new incoming group of Freshmen and within weeks, a few asked if I would be willing to supervise a Creative Writing Club. Really?!? As soon as I started writing myself, teen writers began to appear in my life, but I had no time between working, coaching Speech & Debate, and being a mom to help them get a club started. Finally, in mid-winter, I proposed my website idea – what if we had a space online where they could post their writing, comment on it, maybe even take Creative Writing Classes? They loved the idea and the seed began to take root. Silly me, I thought it would take less time than a weekly club!

I still worked on getting these kids’ needs met at school and got my administration to approve a Creative Writing class. I wrote a course description and submitted it. Unfortunately, the powers that be “forgot” to put our newly approved course in the course catalog for registration, so no Creative Writing class. Back to my website idea.

Last spring, I resigned my coaching position which freed up my time, but the school year ended with no website and no upcoming Creative Writing Class. I spent my summer and early fall fixing that state of affairs.  The process has been a three steps forward, one-step back process. I tried to design a site myself: fail. Hired a web designer: some good but overall fail. Took a web design class online: WIN! (The Girls Guide to Web Design Rocks!!) but definite learning curve there! Took an online course on running on online business/website: WIN!! (Marie Forleo’s B-School also ROCKS!!).

I started this fall with a website in the works and a PLAN. This past fall, the Creative Writing Club finally launched. We had our first meeting in November and its been going strong. We meet every Thursday to write, learn, and workshop pieces. I completed building and designing my website and shared it with them in December – they loved it and this amazing group of young, talented creative writers helped to found . . . www.whereteenswrite.com.

They have been the most excellent group of “Beta” users, finding all kinds of elements of the site that needed tweaking, posting their stories, sharing, and being overall an amazing group of kids. Last week, I decided its ready to go “live” to the world. I “un-hid” the site from google’s search engines and so far, we’ve had a few more kids find us and log on. The seed that was planted the last day of school in 2011 is finally beginning to grow.

The site is designed for teens, ages 13-18, who love to write, who spend their free time writing and dreaming up their stories. If you know any teens who fit this description, I’d love it if you shared the link with them, so they can check the site out and possibly join our little community.

My ultimate goal is to offer online Creative Writing courses through the site. Few schools offer Creative Writing, and there is definitely a need there.

If you’ve wondered why I haven’t been posting here much, it’s because I’ve been posting there! If you’d like to join the email list without joining the community, you can do that on our Facebook page. You can also get updates in your FB news feed if you “like” our page.

What can you do?

  • Share the site with teens who love to write,
  • Check it out yourself and comment below with any suggestions you have for improvement/changes,
  • Go to Facebook and sign up for “email updates” and “like” our page if you want to stay connected to http://www.whereteenswrite.com.

Forgetting Fear

I forgot my fear and went right on out there - a much happier feeling than sitting and watching my sister have all the adventurous fun!

I got back from Sedona yesterday, and my husband commented on the picture of me on Devil’s Bridge that my sister had sent him.  “How in the hell did she get you to go out there?” he asked. He is used to me refusing to even ride a ferris wheel because it will, at some point, stop at the top and sway which strikes sheer terror into my heart. I can ride roller coasters because even though they go up high, I’m not up there long enough to think about it.

Generally, I avoid any rides or situations that put me up high where I can see down below me and think about awful “what ifs,” but in Sedona I forgot to be afraid! It didn’t even occur to me not to go out onto the bridge.

When we began to climb back down from the bridge, a family arrived. The mother was terrified. My sister and I listened to her continually yell “stop” to her husband and son as they ventured across the rocks. You could hear the fear in her voice. It was then that I realized I hadn’t felt even a little afraid.

They say that the opposite of love is fear, and I’m beginning to think that I agree. Fear stops us in our tracks.  If I think of all the things I am afraid of: heights, something happening to my children, not finishing my novel(s), not ever getting published, teaching high school for an indefinite number of years my heart starts to race. In fact, just writing that list made it race a little bit, but if I approach all of those endeavors with love and a positive attitude or if I just forget to be fearful, life instantly becomes much easier. It is no longer a struggle. I can do things like walk out onto a rock bridge and enjoy the view. I can finish and submit my novel without worrying “what if.” I can love and enjoy my life.

If that is the only “souvenir” I take away from this Spring Break, it is a great souvenir. Now I just have to remember to forget.

Keep Your Day Job AND Write . . . How?

This summer I attended the Willamette Writers’ Conference.  Many of the writers and presenters there kept saying, “keep your day job.”  There’s even a pretty good blog that I occasionally read called www.writerwithadayjob.com that offers tips and motivation to keep going in the face of a busy life.  She also has a companion book that I haven’t read but it’s on my list.

Some of the reasons successful (read published) day job writers give for keeping the job are:

  • It keeps you out in the world with real people, not locked away in solitude.
  • It gives you something to write about
  • It helps structure your day
  • It keeps you focused.
  • Health  Insurance
  • A steady paycheck so you can relax and not feel pressured to write

While I actually agree with many of those reasons, in practice it’s tough.  Now that I am almost a semester and a half into the school year, I’ve been thinking about my progress on my writing thus far.

It’s been a struggle to meet my teaching, coaching, wife, and mom obligations and still find time to write.  Last week, I did alright, but during the two weeks prior, I failed miserably at the writing part.  It seems to work like this.  I have a great week and churn out two blog posts and two thousand novel words and other weeks, it’s a struggle to get one blog post done.

My new writing goal is to write something every day.  I started the school year with the goal to write 4000 words per week.  That soon got reduced to 2000 words until I finally decided that writing something every day was better than nothing and demanding a word count from myself only made me feel like I was failing, which I am not, at all.  It’s just that writing in the large chunks of time which I prefer has been difficult to achieve.

So my question is this:  How do published writers do it?  They give reasons to keep the day job but then how do they achieve their writing goals?

What are the specific strategies?  On the one hand, I like the structure and focus my job teaching gives me, but on the other hand, my job is a time suck.  Right now, I have a stack of research papers to grade; I had to be at school at 6:00 am this morning to take four students to town to speak to the local Rotary club; I am sending 18 more students to Reno for a tournament at 6:00 am Friday morning with hotel arrangements etc., and then I’m driving a school vehicle down with four more students after school gets out.  I’ll return home midday Sunday.

Oh ya, and then I have a novel to finish.  I am not complaining. I am happy . . . just busy.

My life is full.  Each minute is precious. What are strategies that any of you found that work?  I’ve tried a bunch, and I’m open to suggestions.

Fear of Finishing

Last week I pulled out a bunch of fabric to start a new quilt.  It’s not that I don’t have enough current projects to work on, (there are at least eight).  It’s that I like starting projects.  There’s so much potential at the beginning of a project, whether it’s a new quilt or a new story.  In my mind, it will turn out amazingly well.  I can picture the beauty of the quilt, feel the flow of the words.

The fabric I pulled sat on my ironing board for about five days, right in front of a quilt that is stuck to my mini-design wall and has been either on the wall or shoved in a basket on the shelf for, well, about five years now.  Obviously, that project has not had my undivided attention.  It did at first, when I started and tackled it merely for the challenge.  This project entailed drawing a picture (I don’t draw), enlarging it at the print shop, tracing it all onto butcher paper, labeling each little piece, ironing it to the back of the fabric, and stitching it all back together again.  It was a long tedious process, one of those that you get halfway through, start drinking and then think “what the hell was I thinking?!?” We’ve all had them.

The first part looked like this:

The stars have TINY pieces!

This took FOREVER, so I bagged that plan, and went with this:

The pieces are slightly larger and easier to work with here.

The entire quilt is now done except for the hands.  I appliqued them on, decided they looked like lobster claws, and shoved the thing back into the basket for another year.

                                

Last summer, I got it out again and added some thread to try to add some shadows and fingernails to the hands.  It helped, but they still don’t look like I want them to look.  So I shoved it back in the basket.  It came out a few weeks ago.  Now, it’s on my wall, sitting right next to where I write.  Or, more accurately, where I haven’t been writing, but where I’ve been sitting, staring at the screen or the paper, trying to finish the last stretch of my novel.

I’ve spent a lot of time the past few weeks thinking about “finishing.”  I have two projects that are two of the most difficult I’ve ever done: my hand quilt and my novel, and I’m struggling to finish them.  I’m learning that I have a hard time finishing hard projects. I start to doubt myself, decide it’s going to stink anyway, and start on something new and easier.  I realized that’s what I’d done this past week when  I pulled fabric for a new and easy quilt, one that I know will turn out, and also one that I know won’t challenge me at all.

I have never thought of myself as someone who avoids a challenge; I take them on all the time.  My hand quilt, my novel, even this blog are all challenges I’ve taken on.  However, somewhere along the way, I must have decided that it’s the finished project that is the most important element.  Intellectually, I know that is a fallacy.  The finished project is not the most important thing.  Really.  I learn something every time I work on the damn hand quilt as I do every time I sit down to write. It’s all about the journey . . . right?

Emotionally, I’ve decided my problem with finishing a difficult project is that it just might suck.  My hand quilt might look like lobsters trying to sew and my novel might serve better as kindling for the wood stove, but if I don’t finish, they’ll always have the potential to be perfect!  I’d love to say I’m mature enough to finish a hard project, accept the lessons of the journey, and move on, but I’m finding that the reality is, I’m not.  I’d clearly rather keep working on these projects indefinitely rather than face the fact that they might not live up to my expectations.  I might let myself and everyone else down.  That’s scary, and in a nutshell, I don’t like it.

However, to try to overcome this new little core belief I have discovered about myself, I’ve decided that I’m not starting any new projects until the hard ones are done.  I put all the fabric I pulled for the new easy quilt away.  I’ll try to make the lobster claws on my quilt magically transform into hands, and I’ll also create a fabulous resolution for my novel . . . hopefully.  In any case, they’ll be done, perfect or not, and I can start fresh.

Writing Strategies to get the Novel DONE (hopefully)

This Thanksgiving season, I’m thankful for this blog.  It has given me the courage to make my writing public, something I have never done before.  It has forced me to stick to a writing schedule.  I’ve posted every Monday and Thursday, except for a few misses here and there, since April.  It has pushed me and even gotten me to believe in myself as a writer. Amazingly, people actually read what I write, and some even comment on it and “like” it.

However, since school started this fall, blogging has taken a huge chunk of my precious writing time during the work week.  During the week, I’ve focused on my blog posts, and then I work on my novel on the weekends.  I’ve turned into a weekend warrior writer, and its killing me.  So far this fall, I’ve had a 10,000 word weekend, a 6000 word weekend, and a 4000 word weekend.  I realize for those participiting in NaNo, this is nothing, but for me, they are exhausting weekends. While I’ve learned that I can produce in large chunks, I have also learned that I don’t necessarily like to.

After I  have a “writing warrior” weekend, I take a break from my novel as I’m drained, and I tend focus on blogs, mine and everyone elses, all week.  This is a problem because my intended little break turns into a big break, and then I need a super productive weekend to maintain my goals and my vicious cycle starts all over again. I’ve decided that it would be much better for me to write on my novel a little bit each day rather than in giant, draining chunks.

This past weekend I didn’t get much written at all because I kept thinking I MUST write 8000 words. I got completely overwhelmed with that amount, so I didn’t writing anything.

Yesterday afternoon as I was not writing and distracting myself with activities related to writing, I was reading an article in Poets & Writers Magazine by best-selling author Ellen Sussman titled “Four Steps to Higher Productivity.” Yes, I note the irony here. Unfortunately the article is not available online as it’s a great piece.  She offers four steps to increasing writing productivity. They are:

  1. Do ten minutes of pre-writing meditation to clear your mind of distractions.
  2. Block the internet – it is NOT ALLOWED during writing time.  Research time is different than writing time.  The internet is a major distraction for me, so I think this one will be helpful.
  3. Write in 45 minute chunks and then take a mandatory 15 minute break before writing again, even if you’re on a roll.  As a full time writer, she is able to repeat this cycle three times a day, five-six days a week.  I can’t imagine having the time to write for three hours uninterrupted each day, but I can try for smaller chunks.
  4. Write daily. I try to write every day, but there are days when I don’t or I just focus on my blog and never write a word on my novel.  I need to be focusing on my big project at this point, and I need to focus on it every single day, not just on weekend marathon writing sessions.

I am going to experiment over the next few weeks and try her four steps.  The first step I am going to take will be to limit my blogging to once a week, each Thursday, with the occasional Monday.  I want to focus on getting my novel done.

Hopefully, her steps will help me do that.  I will let you know how it goes.

First Day of School Nightmares

I’ve been attending the first day of school either as a student or a teacher for well over half of my life (at 41 that’s a lot of first days of school), yet I still get nightmares about them.

They always follow the same sort of pattern:  I enter my classroom completely unprepared without a single lesson plan written or syllabus copied.  Sometimes the administration has moved me to a different classroom without telling me, another teacher has absconded with all my stuff, and my new class is full of boxes and stacked desks.

I even dream of natural disasters like lightning or floods hitting, and I have to rescue a whole group of kids I don’t know.  In every scenario, I have absolutely no control over anything; I flounder, panicked, trying to survive, as I sometimes do in my actual classroom.

I had another first day of school this past Monday, and in some ways, the nightmares aren’t so far off.  I have classes of up to 33 teenagers and see well over 150 total students.

I have students who read at a fifth grade level sitting next to students who read at a college level; kids who read classics for fun next to fifteen year-olds who have never completed a single novel; students who have traveled the world next to students who have never left this corner of rural Nevada; semi-homeless kids who bounce around from one parent, to another parent, a grandparent, or to a friend’s house sitting next to kids who have two supportive parents at home with high expectations for their success; kids who want to learn next to kids who don’t care, whose families don’t see the value in getting an education; kids who can write beautifully next to kids who struggle to write a single complete sentence.

Last week as I prepared, and during the past few days as I started to learn names and read through the first pieces of writing they submitted, I’ve been pondering if it’s at all possible to prepare enough to teach or even reach every kid that walks into my room?  The honest (and depressing) answer I’ve come up with is no, though I will try, even though it will give me more gray hair, but at least then I get a quiet moment at the hair dresser while she covers it all up.

On the bright side, I also know that I’ll teach some of them something.  There will be great days, and that is what I look forward to as a teacher.  I’ll do my best to teach each of them the power of words, to help them find and share their own voices through writing and speaking.  Some kids will discover their voice, or they’ll discover books and finish reading their first novel ever or maybe they’ll even write one.  (I actually had three students do that last year.)  I teach for those “aha” moments kids get when they understand they have a voice, they have a story, and it matters.  That is my passion; it is why I teach.  It is also why I write, to find and share my own voice.

So far, the past three days have gone well.  I haven’t had a nightmare since last weekend, and thankfully, my classroom hasn’t been struck by lightning yet either.  We’re off to a good start.

Just . . . Keep . . . Writing

I’ve read lots of books on writing over the years, but I’ve always read them from a teacher’s perspective ie. how can I use these ideas to help improve my student’s writing?  Now that I’ve begun writing, they’ve taken on a whole new meaning.  I have to improve my writing?!?

I haven’t written much in the last week or so due to lack of time and (I’ll admit) commitment.  So last night as I was watching a movie with my son, playing Words with Friends (a highly addictive app for scrabble people like myself), and not writing, I was thinking about why I’ve been avoiding my story.  I like my plot, my characters, my setting, but I don’t really like what I’ve written so far.  I’ve always been a decent writer.  It’s something that has come fairly easily to me.  But my novel is fiction, something I’ve never really tried and fiction is hard.

As I was pondering this, I thought of Annie Lamott’s book Bird by Bird.  It’s one of my favorite texts on writing.  Chapter 3 is titled “Shitty First Drafts” and chapter 4?  “Perfectionism.”  I realized that this is where I am.  I’ve written scenes and even whole chapters, and well, I’ll admit, some of it’s pretty shitty.  I’m not used to writing “shitty.”  And, I don’t really like it.

Apparently, I have to get used to it.  Lamott says, “All good writers write them [shitty first drafts].  This is how they end up with good second drafts, and terrific third drafts.”  I know I’m a good writer in the sense that I can write concise clear sentences, but can I build a story?  That’s a whole different ball game.  I’m not sure why I expected myself to do this really well, my first time.  Thinking about it, it’s a little bit (a lot) ridiculous.

A few years ago, I tried snowboarding.  I’ve been skiing since I was seven, so I didn’t think snow boarding would be that hard.  They both entail coming down a mountain attached to a board, right?  Wrong!  My skiing skills did not transfer even a little bit.  I never got off the bunny hill on the snow board; I was bruised and battered, both physically and mentally, and I gave up.  I have not picked up a snowboard since; instead, I’ve stuck with skiing, something I know how to do really well.  Learning to write fiction has been a little bit the same way.  I think I expected the transfer of my writing skills to a new genre to be a little bit easier . . . or maybe less painful?

I’m not giving up; this is just another mountain to go up, so I can have the fun of cruising down the other side.  But this is the hard part for me.  The initial excitement of this project has worn off a bit, and now I’m really having to work at this.

Annie Lamott’s book goes through the entire writing process.  Her last chapters deal with publication.  I wish I was there, but I’m still at chapter 2.  So, I’ll keep plugging away on my shitty first draft and hopefully, at some point, it will be a “terrific third draft” and worthy of a reader . . . somewhere.

My Weekend Epiphany (or “Oh . . . duh!”)

During the past two weeks, I have made no progress whatsoever on my novel, so yesterday I decided to celebrate Mother’s day by quilting and continuing to ignore the whole book project.   I began cutting and stitching fabric I had pulled a few weeks ago for a new project, but after I had it all cut and sewn a bit, it was awful . . . ugly even.  After quilting for fifteen years, I know that I always get to the “I hate this hideous quilt” stage at some point during construction.  When I first started quilting, I would stop working and set the project aside.  Now, knowing that this stage is normal, I sometimes I set the piece aside, but more often I just power through it, knowing that my planning will pay off, and the quilt will ultimately shine.

Yesterday, when I hit this stage with my quilt I had a huge “well . . . duh you idiot” moment, as I was struck with an epiphany about my creative process.  This is exactly where I am with my novel.  I have this great idea that at one point I really liked.  It’s all plotted.  I’ve written a few scenes, but for the past few weeks, I haven’t written a word because I’ve been at the “this book is awful and I hate it” stage.  There are two major reasons I’ve told myself this:  one, I can’t think of name for my main character, and two, a large part of the setting is historical and set in the west (both of which I love), but I do not want to write a “western” – ick!  Can I write historical western fiction and have it not be a western? I think that’s another post.

I have to say this discovery made me sigh with relief.  If I get to this stage for every single quilt I’ve ever made (and I’ve made a lot) but end up loving it after I force myself to keep working on it, then clearly this is normal for me during my creative process.  So these past few weeks that I’ve set my novel aside to read, quilt, write a short story, and write blog entries haven’t been wasted.  They are obviously part of how I work.  I just had to figure out that my creative process applies whether I’m sewing or writing.  I feel much better about my novel project now . . . and I also feel ready to start writing again, knowing that I just need to power through this.  It will all shine in the end.

Name Block

When I had my children, the first one had a name way before he got here; the second one took a little longer.  She was here, in our arms, for a few hours before she had a name.  Now, I’ve given birth to a slew of characters all of whom need names.  Most of them have names, and they seem to work, but naming them all of them is tough, much more difficult than naming my own children.  My main character has gone through three or four names.  Now she’s just ______________, literally.  Somehow, she has rejected all my ideas.

Juliet says, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Essentially, we can call a person or thing by any name, and it won’t change the essence of that person or thing.  I don’t disagree, but names definitely have differing connotations.  For example, to me a “Priscilla” would be, well, prissy, while someone named “Scarlet” would probably be a much more sexual character.   When I named my children, their names “fit” them, but they also “grew” into them.  Now I can’t imagine calling them anything else, well, okay that’s not entirely true (if you’re a parent of teens, you know what I’m saying).  But generally, their names “fit” them.

Now, I’ve created a character who is fully grown and developed.  I have a picture of her in my head; we’ve had conversations.  (That may sound crazy, but if you write, I think you understand what I mean.)  I know her strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, all kinds of interesting details about her life.  But I don’t know her NAME!!!  It’s driving me crazy.  I think the hard part is that her name has to fit her right away; she can’t “grow” into it like a baby does.  I have looked through books about the time period to help create a list of names.  I’ve looked at the etymology and meaning of different names. I’ve written about her using different names, but none seem just right.  And she’s not a newborn staring at me, waiting.  I’m stuck.  I have name block.