Setting: Different Perspectives

Last week during Teachers Write (which I am trying to keep up with!), there was a prompt about setting (you can read it here). Setting is a weakness of mine, an inconvenience at best. I usually just scan right past the setting in the books I read. I never thought about it as a way to reflect character, like Elana K. Arnold talks about in her blog post.

The exercise she had the teachers/librarians do was to observe a place near us. I, of course, was at Starbucks, so I wrote about the table I was sitting at.

Mahogany but a false one. Irregular grooves to look authentic. A little space between the edge of the table and a dark brown rim that mysteriously catches crumbs—useful to keep the floor clean, but a little odd to look at. What are the stories of these crumbs? Usually eight chairs, but a few taken to add to other tables. After all, this is a working table. The light is the best here. Not the place to be comfy and cozy with friends, but sometimes used that way when there’s no other space. For four people, two frappuccinos, one iced latte, one iced tea; tall, tall, grande, grande. One book, three phones, two computers, one tablet. The future of the coffee shop.

table

Then, a challenge: write about the same table, but this time, from a few different perspectives.

Lost 6 year old: I sit at the huge table. All these people here, and I don’t know who to ask about my mommy. Maybe Mommy is in the bathroom or maybe I’ll see her out the window. These people all look too busy to talk to me so I look at the table again. They don’t even look up at me. I lay my head down on the hard wood and try not to cry.

Satisfied house cat: Ah, a lovely place to stretch out. I sniff at the table and smell bitter and sweet. I stretch out like a tube. Not comfortable yet. I stand up and walk in circles until I find the exact spot to flop down. The wood is hard but the space is mine. I give my best glare to the people around me and they get up and leave, one by one. The table, and the universe, is mine.

15 year old, just heard about her parents’ divorce: I stumble over to the long table, the only area not crowded. I’d much rather be on one of the comfortable red chairs near the fireplace. Why am I here if all I want to do is hide? I open my journal and pretend to write, but all I do is sketch, my mother and my father, and then me and Skye, with a jagged line in between us. I want to take a paper clip and carve the picture into the table, because this is permanent and there should be a permanent record.

Fun! Maybe I’ll even examine the setting of my book. Maybe.

Time to admit it: grad school is kicking my butt

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I looked up the last time I posted, and it was… a few days before the semester started. Coincidence? I think not.

I’ve back at work full time (finally!), and trying to keep up with two Library Media Studies classes (Information Literacy and the School Curriculum; Electronic Media and Design). I’m learning a lot of interesting things. In the Info Literacy class, we’ve been doing things I’m enjoying like a 25-hour pre-practicum and taking both sides of a position for and against the Common Core standards (I know, I know, but it was fun to me to have to ‘believe’ in both sides. I should have been in debate, huh?) The Electronic Media class is kind of odd… So far I’ve made Power Points about cross sections and halftone technique, and now I’m researching schizophrenia for a unit on perception. It doesn’t seem very relevant to being a librarian, but… it is what it is. At least I’m improving my research skills and making Power Points better than I used to.

So, obviously I still have my family obligations and family fun, and the occasional spurt of housework (VERY occasional). Can you guess what’s losing out?

Could it be… WRITING? (I hear that in a Church Lady voice from SNL past…)

So. Writing. I was diligent for a week or two, carving out an hour here or there to work on my MS. After all, I’m in love with my concept, and I’ve had a few new ideas (in the shower, of course) about how to increase the tension and the stakes. But I’m so overwhelmed…

I guess I need to give myself the advice I’d give a friend. Set aside even one hour a week for now, and make it non-negotiable. Even if I’m behind on classwork, I’ll still keep the commitment to myself. Because it’s really for myself – it’s no one’s assignment to me. Writing isn’t my paycheck, or my required coursework. But it is necessary to me. I commit to me.

Personality Tests: You and Your Characters

Last night, I remembered a personality test I’d taken once at work. All I could remember is that it gave you four letters as a response, and it told you about how you learned and worked best. I looked up the test, and it turns out it’s called the Personality test based on C. Jung and I. Briggs Myers type theory. I found it at http://www.humanmetrics.com/cgi-win/jtypes2.asp.

brain

I took the test for myself, and my husband did too. I found out I was an ISFJ, meaning introvert/ sensing/ feeling/ judging. He came out the same except thinking rather than feeling, which makes total sense if you know the two of us. Anyway, according to the website, I am “the nurturer,” I have a rich inner world, I feel a strong sense of responsibility and duty, have a strong sense of inadequacy, and desperately need positive feedback from others. I will let anyone who knows me decide if that’s accurate. 🙂 Famous ISFJs include Jimmy Carter, and Frederic Chopin. Good jobs for me include social work, teaching, and jobs in the medical profession.

As I was writing, I was thinking: did I know my main character well enough to take a personality test as her? I gave it a try, and I was pleased that I could answer the questions easily. According to the test, Alexis from my first book is an ISTJ. Her numbers on the scales for introversion and judging are high, much higher than mine. (Interestingly, she is the exact same type as my husband, and I wouldn’t say there were alike at all!) ISTJs are “inspectors,” concerned with right and wrong, and can sometimes be perceived as aloof. They are frustrated with the inconsistency of others. Famous ISTJs include George Washington, Andrew Johnson, and George H.W. Bush. Good career choices would be in management, accounting, and computer programming. To some extent, these aspects reflect Alexis; she’s certainly an “inspector,” and the other traits fit. But I certainly can’t see her with any of those career choices or having a similarity with presidents and generals!

Anyway, this was an interesting exercise, and I think I’ll try it with the main character of my second book, Rachael. I’m pretty sure that answering the questions as Rachael will show me how very much I *don’t* know this character, so it should be a valuable exercise.

Has anyone every taken this test? What were you? Dare to try it as a character?

What’s Up Wednesday

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WHAT I’M READING:

Right now I’m reading Elin Hilderbrand’s Summerland. The premise of Summerland is that there’s been a fatal car accident on the night of high school graduation. Penny, a junior, was sober, but driving too fast, and dies in the crash. Her twin brother, Hobby, is in a coma. Demeter and Jake (Penny’s boyfriend), the other passengers, are unhurt, but scarred by the whole thing, emotionally. The characters also include their parents, particularly Zoe, the mother of the twins, and Jordan, Jake’s dad, who had been having an affair before the accident.

I’m about 2/3 through it, and I’m enjoying it so far. I don’t always like books written from multiple perspectives, but it works in this book. The only odd thing is that occasionally through the book (including the first chapter), there’s no clear person narrating. It’s almost like an anonymous person from Nantucket is narrating, or even as if the island itself is narrating. So far, I’m most interesting part for me is Zoe and Jordan’s relationship: what happens when your child survives, but the other child (who was driving) doesn’t? I love books with “what if” questions.

summerland

WHAT I’M WRITING:

I’ve switched back to my first book, Outside In, for a while. I’m back to some revisions (again!), and right now I’m focusing on how clinically accurate my main character’s experiences in therapy are.

Since I’m obviously not a therapist, I’ve consulted 4-5 therapists/ social workers in the last week or two. I’d vetted my scenes with one therapist before, but I’m looking at my scenes with more people now, because I want to make sure I’m not writing inaccurate experiences. The current question is whether my character’s therapist should’ve been more concerned about suicidal risk. Of course I’m getting different answers from different people, but I’m figuring out what makes sense based on their parameters.

WHAT ELSE I’M UP TO:

We leave for California on Sunday!

golden gate

It’s a family reunion of sorts: my grandmother lives in Modesto, CA. My family plus my parents are flying out, and meeting up with both of my aunts, my uncle, and all three of my cousins. I can’t believe that all of us are coming from so many different places (MA, HI, the Canary Islands…). My grandmother is 94, and it’s time to go see her again.

We’re also doing some sightseeing in San Francisco–I’ve done it before, but my kids haven’t ever explored the city.

WHAT’S INSPIRING ME RIGHT NOW:

Switching manuscripts is inspiring me right now. Although I’m so wrapped up in my second book, it’s been a breath of fresh air to go back to the first one. I heard someone say once that the first book you write is the “book of your heart.” This one is. It’s my baby, and the one that will probably always mean the most to me.

How’s your Wednesday going?

In Search of Inspiration, NWP-style

In my “What’s Up Wednesday” blog post, I said that I’d felt no writing inspiration lately. Even though I feel like inspiration should be a grand, sweeping thing – artwork, nature, music – I remembered back to my days at the National Writing Project in 2008.

NWP

If you’re not familiar with the National Writing project, it’s a program for teachers K-12, and the theory behind is that no matter what subject you teach, you also teach writing. Part of the premise of the class was that in addition to learning about teaching writing, you needed to walk the walk, and do writing yourself. My NWP experience was life-changing for me – it’s where I started my first novel, and made the habit of writing every day.

One of the things we did every day was a quick write, about 7 minutes writing to a prompt, pen moving the whole time to increase your writing fluency. The instructors always mentioned that you could write about your own topic instead, if you felt you needed to.

Today, I started writing to a prompt, but I couldn’t do it. I was too bothered by something that had happened last night, at a neighborhood party. I dashed off two notebook pages, and felt more peaceful about the situation.

And then, inspiration NWP-style hit! During class one time, we’d turned some prose into poetry, using phrases we liked from the narrative. I like arbitrary rules sometimes, so I underlined every 20th word, and first put them in order, hoping for a poem, only playing with line breaks and punctuation:

Vodka, too

I think, to I sleep

6:30

Asked to to a Jeff

her

if I

Here’s taken

Parties

Hmm, not too interesting, so I reorganized the words and tried for another poem:

6:30-

Jeff asked her to parties too,

I, I think-

If taken, I sleep

Here’s to a vodka

Definitely not a good poem either, but man, it was fun to play with the words. I miss that playfulness when I’m caught up in revisions, that sense that language can be a game, with zero expectations. And in NWP style, I’m sharing my work, knowing that the product is the process, and that everyone supports process.

What’s Up Wednesday – on Thursday

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Ugh. So apparently it’s Thursday. But I’m going to do What’s Up Wednesday anyway, okay? It’s an easy way to blog. Did I mention that before?

What I’m Reading: I finished a book this morning, “Anybody Out There?” by Marian Keyes. It’s one of her books about the Walsh sisters (Claire, Maggie, Rachel, Anna, and Helen). I read the one about Helen earlier this week. It’s so much fun to read about the sisters from each other’s perspectives. The one I finished today was about Anna, but I was so curious to hear about Helen, who was completely fascinating in her book (“The Mystery of Mercy Close”) – a P.I. with a hard exterior and deep depression underneath (very interesting combination). In Anna’s book, she’s had a huge thing happen, but I can’t get say what it is because it’s a total spoiler!

What I’m Writing: I met with my critique group last week, so I’m working on their revision ideas for ch. 8 of “Marianna.” (I’m still compelled to mention that I don’t like my title.) I love their ideas. And I absolutely LOVE that they talk about my characters like they’re real. I also wrote two blog posts this week. I’d like to keep doing that, but we’ll see.

What Else I’ve Been Up To: My kids finally had their last day of school. My older one graduated from elementary school. It seems like such a trivial thing to me (back in the day, we never got to graduate from elementary school! We were lucky if we just got out at the end of the day! Uphill! Both ways!) but for her it was meaningful. She was one of the emcees, and did a great job speaking loudly and clearly. She was rather ungracious posing for pictures, but she’s 11, so…

What’s Inspiring Me Now: I hate this answer, especially when I look at other people’s blogs, but nothing. I’m still in the same funk I was last week, which is probably why I’ve done so little revision. I still want to do some writing prompts, and maybe if they’re in a nice pretty notebook that will inspire me.

Until next time…

Writer-Teacher Conferences

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Two weeks ago, I conducted 18 parent-teacher conferences over the course of three days. Intense, but crucial. Conferences are a great opportunity to share a child’s progress with parents, and to talk about the  next steps in the child’s development. We go over the report card and I show evidence of their learning, like journal entries or math tests.

I started to think: I wish there were such things as writer-teacher conferences, or writer-mentor conferences. Of course if you pay for a class, or go to a workshop, you can participate in a mini-experience like this. But how amazing would it be to have an ongoing relationship with a writing mentor, who discussed your progress and next steps with you every few months?

It’s a pipe dream for sure, but let me pretend. A writer would mysteriously have a (free)  mentor, who reads their ongoing work and offers comments. So far, like beta readers or CPs, right? But every few months, you would meet formally, and your mentor gives you some kind of writing report card. Not intimidating (who needs that? Writers deal with enough rejection as it is!), but a friendly checklist broken down into discrete skills, along with evidence of learning.

For example, maybe there would be a section for characterization. I could be evaluated on using dialogue to build character, showing body language, or physical descriptions. My mentor could show me example of when I used the techniques effectively, and some other examples of my writing that could be improved. We could talk about how to improve them.

Man, this could take hours. Hey, it’s my fantasy. There would be lots of coffee and chocolate involved, that’s for sure. And my mentor would be kind, knowledgeable, empathetic, and wise. And love helping me, of course.

Anyone want to mentor me?

The Return of the Day Job

As some of you might know, I’m an elementary school teacher in “real life.” And any teacher knows that as soon as the calendar flips to August, a tiny egg of stress lays itself in your belly, grows into an caterpillar, wraps itself into a cocoon, and then becomes a beautiful butterfly – wait. Stop thinking about Eric Carle, Lisa. It’s only August 7th!

Nevertheless, August marks The Return of the Day Job. Now don’t get me wrong. I love what I do, especially teaching reading and writing (shocker). I love younger kids, and there’s nothing better than to see them grow in their understanding and love of learning.

And yes, I’ve been home with my children all summer, and of course that’s work, too – shuttling them around, playing Clue a few too many times, “Mommy, look at me” about a thousand too many times, that sort of thing. At least it’s more laid back. Best of all, I’m lucky enough to have a husband with flexible hours who understands that I NEED to go to Starbucks to write every day if he wants me to be sane (which he really does).

But along with the return of structure and early hours, August marks the reduction of my writing time. During the school year I write between the end of the school day and picking up my kids from their after school program – maybe an hour and a half a day when I’m lucky. This year, though, I’ve changed schools, and my commute has doubled, so I’ll be on the road 40 minutes each way. I’m worried.

Also, it’s the return of work brain mode.  I went into school for 3 hours yesterday. 3 hours, and my brain was dead for the rest of the day. Instead of writing, I cocooned (stop it, Eric Carle!) under my covers and lost many games of Words with Friends.

So how does that bode for the school year? I guess the answer is the same it is for anyone else that works full time, has children, and writes: I suck it up and find time, and make the time I find count (no Twitter, *cough* *cough*).  I know that I’ll need to be vigilant to protect some writing time, though–unless my husband wants a lunatic on his hands.

Life 1, Writer 0

Over the last two months or so, I’ve been facing difficult *stuff* happening in my personal life.

Lately, I arrive at Starbucks during my protected writing block, only to avoid any serious thinking or creativity. I’ll get my venti iced skinny vanilla latte with three Splendas and sink down into a comfy chair instead of a well-lit table as usual.

And then, I open up my computer and I… can’t face writing. I go onto Twitter on my phone instead. Or Draw Something. Or Words with Friends.

The ironic thing is that if I could write, really immerse myself into my stories, it would probably make things better. What better place to escape?

I know my creativity isn’t gone. It’s there. It’s just that there’s a force separating me from it, like until things are easier in my life, it has to be barred off. I’m not sure how to break the wall down unless I just keep tapping at it when I can.

I guess in the meanwhile I’ll keep reading and at some point I’ll be magnetically drawn back into the world of my stories.

What do you do when it’s Life 1, Writer 0?

Showdown: Writing vs. Exercise

It’s fairly well established that I get to take two hours kid-free to write on the weekends (at Starbucks, of course). And I squeeze about an hour or an hour and a half, three out of five school days between work and kids. (The other two days are lessons days for the kids.) Since that’s all I have, I usually am pretty effective and efficient.

But I was thinking, back in the day (pre-2008, when I discovered this writing obsession thing), what did I do with my “me” time? And then it came to me: I exercised.

(very clearly not me)

Anyway. I didn’t exercise every day, I was never hugely devoted to it, but I tried.

So now, if writing is my time to myself, what happened to exercise? It’s gone. Now, I’m not saying that writing took over and now I don’t exercise. Well, I kind of am. It’s just that there’s only a certain amount of time when I’m not at work or with my family, and this is how I choose to spend it.

Maybe I need the mental engagement. I know that exercise can clear your mind. But writing feeds my soul and I’ve come to need it to stay mentally healthy.

I should make time for exercise. I know I should. And I know it’s not one or the other.

So here’s my proposal: writing should burn calories. The more you write, the fitter you are.

Anyone with me here?

#notgonnawork