Friday, May 29, 2015

Eighty Day Weekend (Brian Katcher)

I'm a school librarian. That's kind of like being a regular teacher, except I have no homework to grade, I only write three hours of lesson plans a week (I teach the same lesson to each classroom), and rarely have to deal with irate parents. I read with children, help them select books, buy books that I think they will enjoy, and open the world of reading to them.

I have over two months off every summer (starting now), a wonderful library aide at each of my schools, and extra duty days in June to catch up on the inventory, etc.

Seriously, can you imagine a better job? Plus, due to my writing, I can guiltlessly not sign up to teach summer school.

On the down side, I'm in charge of the school computers, which means I'm cornered by desperate people several times a day, and I have to keep the kindergartners from shoving the mouses in their mouths.

But now, as I stay up until two in the morning working on my next book, then get up at ten in time for Maury, I realize how blessed I am to have a job like this.

At least until Hollywood calls.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Artistic Me

Growing up, I knew I was good with words. I wrote story after story--when I should have been paying attention in class, when I should have been sleeping, when I had free time and when I didn't. My stories saved me. As a teenager, I could put into story format what I couldn't say out loud. My dream was to be a published author, and whether they were close friends or acquaintances, everyone knew that was my thing.

But if you asked if I was artsy or creative, I'd say no. Building a world with my words was one thing. Creating something with my hands? Quite another. I don't know when I first decided I couldn't paint or draw or sculpt, but that self-fulfilling prophecy followed me around to the point that I wouldn't bother trying. It didn't help that when I took sewing classes in middle school, I barely scraped a D.

My ineptness was further confirmed a few years ago when I thought it would be fun to try knitting. I'd recently had a baby and thought it would be awesome to knit something for him. Plus, it was the hot trend. Everyone was doing it, including Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, and David Arquette. I had visions of making booties, a hat, a scarf, a shawl. The teacher sat with me for ten minutes, her frustration growing by the second. Finally, she (literally) threw up her hands and said she couldn't teach me. She also said I was the worst student she'd ever had. I tried to say the problem might be that I was a lefty and she was a righty, so I couldn't hold the needles the way she explained. But she said no. It was just me.

I told this story often. A big part of me found it funny, but a small part was sad. I wanted to learn to do something with my hands. I wanted to be artistic. This year I got my chance, thanks to another hot fad: PaintNite. It's this thing where you go to a restaurant (or wherever) and everyone makes the same painting, under guided instruction. My first painting came out better than I expected. The second wasn't too bad either. My third was my favorite. It didn't look exactly like the teacher's, but I liked it more. I was excited I finally learned how to properly mix colors and proud of myself too. That painting (see below) is now hanging in my family room. In fact, I got so inspired, I bought pastels and am going to try to make some other pictures. Left totally to my own devices, the next picture could be a mess, but in the words of Melissa Lawson, "What if it all goes right?"

My painting success inspired me to try sewing. Before starting classes, I told the teacher my knitting story and tried to shake off my lack of confidence. And guess what? This teacher was AMAZING. I was able to follow her directions and make a pin cushion. I don't know if anyone has ever been this proud of a pin cushion before. Unlike my 8th grade debacle, my work with the sewing machine was not a disaster. This teacher even asked if I'd used this kind of sewing machine before.

So, on the topic of change and growth, these experiences taught me not to be afraid of trying new things, that positivity goes a long way, and that the only way we can keep getting better at something is to keep trying.

 My painting

 Pincushion Front
 Pincushion Back

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Spring cleaning (Jennifer R. Hubbard)

There is an expression, “spring cleaning,” which describes an activity of which I have heard tell, but have never undertaken myself. I clean whenever I have time and inspiration, which is rarely. Usually it’s just the superficial act of clearing papers off the floor, reshelving books, wiping food smears off the table. Sometimes, when I get really ambitious, I wipe dusty surfaces, or vacuum, or bang crumbs out of the toaster. I have lived in my current house almost fourteen years and have washed the windows exactly once.

But at some point within the past couple of years, I developed the urge to clean out my living space. By which I mean: own less stuff. Over my lifetime, I have accumulated without ever questioning: Do I still need this? Do I still want this? Which was how I came to have files full of old electric bills, insurance forms from policies I no longer hold, socks whose partners escaped into the wild long ago, books I would never reread, etc., etc., etc.

And so I began a slow decluttering process which has extended into this spring and will probably still be underway next spring. I have always been slow to let go of things, difficult to persuade that I will not at some point need my fourth-grade report card, my eyeglasses from two prescriptions ago, or pants that I might fit into again if I lost twenty pounds. Maybe I will start wearing pantyhose again; maybe I will finally read that classic book I should’ve read but have never felt like reading; maybe these little jars will come in handy. Aside from the “might need it someday” roadblock, I have had to fight the “but so-and-so gave it to me” and “but nobody else wants it and it’s too good to throw away” obstacles.

I’ve noticed a new willingness in myself to let go of things I previously “needed” to keep. Part of the reason is that I’ve lived long enough to realize how much of this stuff I haven’t needed so far. It’s also satisfying to organizing the remaining items in a way that allows me to see all of them at a glance. It makes me realize that I do have enough pairs of black socks; that we will never need to buy pencils again even if we live to be three hundred and six; and that we should use up our four rolls of Scotch tape before buying any more. I found two books I had been looking for and thought I might have lost. I am discovering the restful atmosphere that comes from having an empty tabletop here and there, of having shelves with some space on them. I’ve also brought out things I had hiding in storage for years and have made use of them. I've put up pictures and a poster that were in my closet. And this effort is also making me more mindful of what I bring into the house now; I think twice or thrice before buying new stuff.

I’ve made vast inroads on clothes, linens, and the medicine cabinet. I’ve made good progress on my bookshelves. But I’ve barely begun to dent my collection of paperwork and mementoes, so my “spring cleaning” will continue for a while yet. It has already given me some breathing room, though, and even inspired a piece of writing that I’ve been working on.I feel as if I'm making room for newness, because I can't fit anything new in my life if all the space is still stuffed full of the past.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

It's Spring. We're Awake. (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

When you have an 8-month-old, "awakening" has a whole different meaning from the lovely reawakening of nature in spring. For us, this year, "spring's awakening" has been my baby's tendency, since she turned six months in March, to wake up every morning at 2:30 and sometimes also at 5:30. It also refers to her sudden refusal to nap. What happened? She was right on track, sleeping through the night, napping twice a day, and then it's just Nope, nope, nope, no nap. I'm going to fight it with everything I have, and I would also like a three-course meal at 2:30 a.m. now, okay?

My journey to motherhood was not easy, and I know how annoying and superior and self-centered the mommy club can appear when you're not in it, and I still want to slap people who say their books are their children. There are tons of similarities—I myself have even written about these similarities—but it is not the same thing at all. Books can be your legacy, maybe, but children are a whole different ballgame. With extra innings, as my mother would no doubt argue, based on the number of times per month I call her in (usually temporary) crisis. There's also no chance anyone is going to give you a medal for raising children, unlike books, which sometimes do win awards. THE LAST SISTER, for example, tied for the 2015 IPPY silver medal in historical fiction. (I was wondering how I was going to work that in. Seamless, no?)

Unlike THE LAST SISTER, my daughter will never sit quietly on a shelf while I write my next book, nor would I want her to. That would be boring and weird for both of us, plus shelf space is at a premium in our house and reserved for books. (Who are these people who have shelf space for knickknacks? I don't understand.)

So my task now is to figure out how and how much and when I can write with an active baby who doesn't love naps and is going to crawl any day. But the good news is that there have been so many other times in my life when I've thought I have no idea how this is going to work or  how I'm ever going to get all this work done, and some of those times have been in the last eight months and every time, all the work has gotten done. I have learned how to do it. (Example: When I was in college, I didn't have time to write longhand, so I taught myself to compose on the computer. That was hard, but second nature to me now.) So I trust that it will get done this time, too, and once we get back from all the (first-world problems) traveling we have to do this summer, I am going to look into childcare options.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Part We Don't Talk About -- Natalie D. Richards

Today is Memorial Day, which doesn't seem to have much at all to do with growth.  Memorial Day is for remembering, right?  This is a day to look back, to cherish old memories and place flowers and little plastic flags on graves.  I think it's critical to remember and honor the men and women who've served our country.  I think it's critical to remember all the people we've lost.

I'm remembering today, too.  Eleven years ago, I lost my mom to lung cancer.  About three months ago, I lost my dad to melanoma. 

Ouch is right.

Needless to say, this isn't going to be a post with snarky artwork and wokka-wokka one-liners.  But it IS going to be on topic.  Eventually.

See, here's the thing about death that no one tells you.  It doesn't end at the funeral.  In fact, the funeral is quite easy.  You're incredibly busy calling people and gathering photographs and doing Very Important Things.  The busy of it fills the hours, holding real grief back with one hand. 

The pain really hits after the funeral.  One day you take a breath or open your fridge or walk outside and it's just...different. For the first time, none of it feels like a bad dream.  It feels like reality.  You loved them, and they're gone.

When Dad died, I wrote in his eulogy that I felt like my foundation had been washed away, that my pain was oceans deep.  Three months later, it still is. Good loss support groups will tell you that grief is a journey and that it often comes in waves.  The world is different now, and it takes time to adjust.

Most people know, or at least suspect, that losing a parent changes you.  The thing no one tells you is that you will grow.  Hard things do that to a person. 

Know what I know about growth?  It hurts.  If you work out to build muscle, those muscles are sore as crap the next day.  A baby learns to walk?  Sure, after he falls down four hundred times.  You finish your first novel?  I bet you've spent a lot of late nights writing until your hands and wrists were burning when you could have been eating pizza and watching Blacklist. 

I still miss my mom every day.  Every. Single. Day.  But my mom's death was the catalyst for me becoming a professional writer.  I learned that life is precious and limited, that dreams can slip through your fingers if you don't hold on tight. 

Don't get me wrong.  I'd have never traded my mom for these changes, but death, like many hard things, doesn't leave you with a choice in the matter. 

Today, I'm smack dab in the middle of the grief journey with my dad.  I was incredibly close to him.  He was smart and funny and grumpy and in so many ways, the best friend I've ever had.  Some days, the pain is so big it terrifies me.  How is this going to work without him?  Who the heck am I now that I'm not a daughter?

I have absolutely no idea.  But I'm pretty sure I'll find my way.  I'll learn things about myself, about the world, and about my dad.  I will grow, and I am so grateful for that. I'm not sure there's a better way to honor him.

Dad, Karen, and Me in a monkey hat

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Romulans, Semisonic, and the jumbled mess that is both spring and my blog post

May has always been my month for spring awakenings and growth—whether I was ready for it or not. It’s when I graduated from college. Met my husband. Became a mom. Published my first book.  
These seminal events were wonderful, joyous, and exciting but at the same time, they were also tinged with a smattering of sadness, apprehension, and straight-up fear. When I left Penn State I had to say goodbye to the cosseted world of eighteen to twenty-two-year olds and my prolonged adolescence and get…gulp…a job. When I met my future husband, I had to drop the tough-girl act and open my heart. (The Romulans had an easier time convincing Captain Picard to lower the Enterprise’s shields.) When I had my daughter, I had to face the terrifying realization that my heart no longer belonged to me. I had gratefully and willingly given it away to this tiny human being who was astonished to discover that she had feet and, yes, if she tried hard enough, she could chomp on her own toes. When I published my first book, I had to allow strangers—some of whom were only a mere mouse click away from a one-star review—to judge the stories and characters that up until then had only belonged to me and a very select group of people.

All of this scared the crap out of me. Beginnings scare the crap out of me. That’s because they’re intrinsically tied to endings. “Every new beginning comes from some other beginnings end.” Perhaps I could have dug deeper for a more literary quote, but at the moment, the 90s band Semisonic is all I’ve got. In fact, that song lyric has been bouncing around in my head since I knew what we’d be blogging about this month.

I planted these flowers in front of my house at the beginning of April. Since then, the originals have died and new ones have bloomed. On this one plant alone there are decaying flowers, full blooms, and new buds waiting to open.
Spring is such a complex and unsettling season. It’s moodier and harder to pin down than the others. One day it’s 82 degrees, the next it’s 60. Blossoms give way to green leaves and flowers die to produce fruit. Beginnings and endings. Life and death. Hockey and baseball are happening at the same time!!! It’s all a jumbled mess and it throws me.
Earlier this month, in keeping with the May theme in my life, my third YA novel debuted. I’ve been busy promoting my new book, but I’m also stressing about the WIP that I’ve yet to finish, and trying to decide what to write next. Reading the posts of all my fellow YAOTL bloggers has given me some great ideas. I’ve added to my reading list, looked into some summer writing courses, and thought about taking the summer off from writing to fill the well.
During a recent blog tour, one blogger asked me to finish this sentence.
If I could write just one more book, I'd write.....

I didn’t know how to finish it. Do you? But it gave me something to think about.

Sometimes growth is tied to big, life-changing events, and sometimes it happens in smaller, imperceptible increments. Spring is about big awakenings and changes, but the slow ones? That’s what summers are for.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Ready or Not (by Patty Blount)

All this month, we Outsiders are blogging about growth and spring.

Truth be told, this is my favorite time of year. I love the thaw when we may finally put away snow shovels and boots for the season. Everything is (re)new(ed). I've always felt we should change the calendar so that this is when we celebrate New Year's.

This time of year is when I became a mom. My son was born on the Friday before Mother's Day that year. My mom, who'd had only girls, was ecstatic over Matchbox Cars and baseball caps. I was ecstatic, too....

Except for one thing.

I don't know who made this up (and if I did, I'd hit him over the head) but people just love to tell mothers of sons A son is son 'til he takes a wife but a daughter is yours all of her life.

Forgive my coarseness but if that isn't the biggest pile of horse hockey I've ever stepped in, I don't know what is.

Are they warning me not to fall in love with the child I birthed? Impossible. Are they preparing me for the inevitable second cutting of the cord? Sorry, but you have to let girls go one day, too. So what's the point?

It's a cruel thing to say to a mother.

The truth is every child grows up. Every child moves out. Every child becomes an adult. Our job, as parents, is to arm them with all the tools they need to not only make this transition, but be happy in it.

This spring, I did that.

He studied journalism and said he wanted to be a motor sports reporter. And then he made it happen.

Last week, he moved out and now lives out of state. This was the first May since his birth when he was not home for his birthday or for Mother's Day. Did I cry? Of course I did. There will always be a part of me that wants to protect him with a sheet of bubble wrap and put him high on a shelf where nothing can ever touch him but I know that's just the memory of the new mom getting to hold her baby for the first time speaking. But my tears aren't just wistful for the baby he used to be.

They're pride for the man he's become, a man who won't settle for less than the goals he's set, and for me, for doing all that I could to make these things happen for him.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Never Stop Learning (Alissa Grosso)

A couple of years ago I was at a book festival. The author seated at the table next to me had some fliers for a writing conference that he had helped to organize and was passing them out to authors at the festival. So, when another author stopped at his table handing out postcards about the book he was selling my neighbor game him a flier about the conference. To which the other author somewhat rudely explained that he had no use for writing conferences, as he already knew everything he needed to know. When the postcard author was a few tables down, my neighbor turned to me and said that if he ever got to the point where he felt he could no longer learn anything, he hoped that somebody would be kind enough to put him out of his misery.

There's all sorts of evidence to suggest that learning new things is actually good for you, and keeps one's mind from rotting away. When I look around me I see a lot of people who are keeping their minds fresh by learning all sorts of things.

My father is well into his sixties and is teaching himself to play the guitar, and is working on producing a regular weekly podcast.

My once techno-phobic mother is now addicted to her iPhone and posts an impressive number of pictures on Facebook every day.

My boyfriend has been a musician since about the time he could walk, but now has taught himself how to produce elaborate songs digitally, all without playing a single, actual instrument.

My sister who has always been creative and artistic recently took a stained glass class, and is now making some really striking stained glass creations.

My own growth includes some recent writing projects that are taking me beyond the familiar world of YA literature as well as learning the ropes of some new side businesses that pay the bills while I try out some different literary styles.

Between the resources offered by your local public library, in-person classes and workshops, and the treasure trove of information that is the internet (Believe it or not, besides funny cat videos, YouTube has how-to videos on pretty much anything you could ever want to learn.) there's no excuse for not taking the time to learn and grow. Unless, of course, you're like that author handing out postcards and are under the impression that you already know everything you need to know. In which case, I feel sorry for you.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The End of Self-Discovery (Natasha Sinel)

Life is a series of slow self-discoveries and sudden a-ha moments.

I love writing about teenagers because the amount of both kinds of growth and awakening during those years is amazing. Everything is big, exhilarating, terrifying, and dull at the same time. During high school, we begin to figure out who we are and how we might like to change—and maybe even how we would like to stay the same. We make mistakes and we learn from them (hopefully). We discover that things we thought were absolute truths maybe aren’t so much. We realize we have choices that we never knew we had. We discover there are gray areas and we decide which gray areas we can tolerate, and which we can't. We love our parents but we also need boundaries so we can grow into our own version of flawed adults instead of theirs.

Sound like the present as much as the past? It does to me. Even though I’m an adult (at least according to my age), I’m still doing all of theses things—growing and awakening all the time—just like a teenager. Of course, I have more responsibilities and more experience under my belt—some degrees, jobs, spouse, kids, house, bills—but the self-discoveries and a-ha moments never end. And I hope they never will. 

Natasha Sinel writes YA fiction from her home on a dirt road in Northern Westchester, NY. She drives her kids around all afternoon, but in her head, she's still in high school, and hopes that no one near her can read minds. Her debut YA novel THE FIX will be out from Sky Pony Press/Skyhorse Publishing September 1, 2015.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

See Jane Fly (by Jody Casella)

A few weeks before my daughter was about to graduate from preschool, she panicked. Apparently, the kids were practicing walking across the small stage to get their little diplomas, and Jane refused. 

"There's always one kid," her preschool teacher told me sympathetically.

And I was like, Yeah yeah yeah. But why does it have to be MY kid?

A bout of stage fright before a preschool graduation seems like a silly thing to stress about now, but back then I took stuff like that seriously. Each Parenting Moment felt critical. So there was lots of flipping  through my parenting magazines and discussing the issue with the other preschool mothers, who were all cool and helpful, but most likely, secretly judging me. 

At first I played understanding mom with Jane, listening to her fears, letting her know that I supported her decision to sit out of the ceremony. Then it was on to stage two: encouragement of the I know you can do it, honey variety.  

With flashes of irritation in between. 

It's a preschool graduation! It's not a big deal! You're walking across a tiny stage! It's going to take thirty seconds! No one will even be looking at you, I promise! (In retrospect I should've been saying these things to myself.) 

Final compromise, I would walk with Jane across the stage. 

All the while I was sure that at the last minute, Jane would buck up, discover her inner courage, and walk across the damn stage alone. 

Spoiler alert: She didn't. 

The real crisis looming in the background was the approach of kindergarten. Jane was turning five that summer, so she was on the young side to start school. My husband and I were thinking about keeping her home another year, but Jane found out and was not having it. 

As little as she seemed at times, she was hyper aware of what the others kids in her class were doing. They were all going to kindergarten, and damn it, she sure as hell was going too. 

Spoiler alert: She went. 

I approached the first day of school with a joy that I didn't dare share with the other teary moms. 

The era of Mommy of Little Kids at Home was coming to an end and I was pumped. Goodbye boring cartoons and endlessly cutting up bananas into chunks and cleaning chocolate milk out of sippy cups. Adios stressful trips to the grocery store or post office with whiny kids in tow. 

FINALLY my life would be my own again. 

The day we dropped our older son and Jane off at school, I returned home elated. I shut the front door and I walked through the quiet empty house. I shocked myself by bursting into tears. 

In two weeks Jane will be graduating from high school. When she crosses the very large stage in a stadium with two thousand people looking on, she will not be holding my hand. 

At the end of the summer she will go 600 miles away to college. 

My era of Mom of Kids at Home will come to an end. 

I suspect there will be tears.

Friday, May 15, 2015

I'd Like to Stop Banging My Head Against the Ceiling, Thanks (by Amy K. Nichols)

I have a problem. I keep banging my head on the ceiling.

Not the actual ceiling. That would be weird, like a problem with gravity, or maybe a caved-in roof. No, I keep banging my head on the invisible ceiling above me.

See, I have an upper limit problem.

I didn't know what it was called, or even really what it was. But I did know it was there. I felt my upper limit every time I bumped into it.

For example: I'd get an email request for an interview--something really cool and flattering and without a doubt an opportunity I'd want to accept--and then I'd dawdle and procrastinate responding to it until I absolutely had to. It would take a huge act of courage to hit reply and respond. After, I'd sit back and think, "What is my problem?"

I wondered if maybe I was depressed, or overwhelmed, or just scared. The truth is, maybe there were (are?) tinges of all three in there.

Then I came across this blog post by Marie Forleo: Stop Self-Sabotage With This One Vital Step. In the blog post is this video, which kind of blew my mind.

Holy light bulbs, Batman! I bought The Big Leap (the book mentioned by Marie in the video) and dove in to understand better what my upper limits are and how to overcome them. 

I swear by The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, and I have to say, upper limit problems feel and behave a lot like Resistance. (If you've read The War of Art you understand what that is.) Maybe because they're tied to a self-limiting belief or programming, upper limits are just specific and individual forms of Resistance? I'm not sure. But even being able to identify an upper limit when you encounter it is a huge relief. While I'm still working on the "overcome" part of the plan, now when I get an email and that overwhelming urge to hide comes over me, I recognize it for what it is. Oh look, there's my upper limit problem. That alone feels like half the battle.

So, that's my big spring awakening. My big opportunity for personal and professional growth. I'm determined to break through this barrier, because holy guacamole, I've been banging my head against it for a long, long time. It's exhausting to have big dreams and then hold yourself back. I'm ready to move on. To move through. To see what's above that ceiling. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Fifteen Minutes of Sunshine (by Nancy Ohlin)

Just recently, some authors I know shared what they’re like when they’re in writing mode.  There were several recurring themes:  “wearing the same clothes every day …” “not showering” … “forgetting to eat” … “living on M&M’s and cold coffee” … “letting my house go” … and so on. 

My first reaction was, “Yay, I’m not alone!”  My second reaction was, “Wow, I really need to stop doing that stuff.”

Because for the last couple of years, 90% of my life was about finishing my novel.  The other 10% was about my family, my health, my mental health, my home, and, well, basic grooming.

During those dark days, I knew what I should be doing.  Eating real meals.  Drinking more water.  Exercising.  Going for walks.  Washing a few dishes occasionally.  Washing my hair occasionally.

Yet each time one of these activities beckoned to me, my laptop would pull me back in, Godfather-style … and the next thing I knew, it would be 3:00 p.m. and I’d still be in my PJs, wondering if I should make some popcorn for lunch. 

Now that it’s spring, the season of new beginnings, and CONSENT is all done and set for release, I’m trying to change my ways.  So far, I’ve managed to do the following:

*I finally cashed in a spa gift certificate that I’ve had for ages and got a massage.  I thought of this as my post-novel “detox.”   It was very, very awesome.

*Each morning, I make a big pitcher of water with cucumber slices in it and sip at it all day.  This way I stay hydrated, plus the cucumber slices can double as a meal in a pinch.

*I bought a meditation app for my phone, and I may even use it. 

*I promised myself at least fifteen minutes of sunshine (or what passes for sunshine in Ithaca, NY) daily.

I know this all sounds pretty minor.   But for me, these baby steps are huge.  And hopefully, as I begin new writing projects, I will maintain these routines and add a few more.

What about you?  How do you take care of yourself when you're in writing mode?  

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Never Stop Learning (Stephanie Kuehnert)

I am a proud nerd. I've always loved school. I was the kid who secretly looked forward to September instead of dreading it. I was the teenager who smoked pot and skipped class, but still made time for her homework and especially for her own reading. The bleakest part of my life was the two-year period that I dropped out of college, barely read, barely wrote, just drank and partied and watched TV in a hungover daze. One of the brightest parts of my life was in the fall of 2000 when I decided to go back to school for my BA in Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago. I felt more alive than I had for years sitting in a sunlit patch of cool grass in Grant Park, poring over Kafka's diary entries and essays about censorship and pouring out my own words about a character named Kara who hung out in a park--a very early draft of what would become my book, Ballads of Suburbia. It was like falling in love. Those quite memories of just me and my books, I cherish them the same way I do the memories of falling for my husband.

Addicted to all that I was learning about the craft of writing and to the stories, I went straight from my BA to my MFA. I was on a roll. I was learning so much. I'd gone from being that girl who hated revising and honestly believed her first draft was closest to her Original Vision to the girl who eagerly awaited notes from trusted critiquers and professors so she could puzzle out the ways to take her story apart and put it back together again, making it stronger, more compelling. I devoured all of the information I was giving about character building, about story structure, about the publishing business. Still the nerd, the Lisa Simpson-type overachiever, when I walked across the stage in 2006 to collect my Master's degree, I had a finished novel under my belt and another one in progress. Also, because I was quite lucky, I had an agent--I'd met her at a literary festival that my school put on--and she was already shopping that first novel.

When it sold a little less than a year later, I met my next teacher--my editor, Jen Heddle, who called me out when my writing was too flowery/"purple," when my point-of-view slipped, and who challenged me to get closer to my characters, to get into their heads, to dig into the hard scenes instead of summarizing. Admittedly, despite six years in creative writing programs, I was still fuzzy on what exactly "show don't tell" meant until working with Jen.

This was also the time period that I fully immersed myself in the YA writing community. I took one YA Fiction class while in school, taught by a woman named Laurie Lawlor who became one of my biggest mentors both as a writer and a teacher. (And she is included in this recent feature in my alumni magazine which also includes an interview with me about my writing journey.) But during 2008 and 2009 when my books came out, I lived and breathed and very, very seriously studied YA.

The next few years were hard. I wrote and got frustrated, blocked. I wrote and didn't sell. I became obsessed with the business side of things, of writing as "career." I got depressed. I struggled to read. Creatively, I was in a rut. Two things kept me going: I started teaching YA Fiction classes and I started writing essays and other fun, non-fiction pieces for Rookie. My editors there--Anaheed Alani, Phoebe Reilly, Danielle Henderson, Lena Singer, and Amy Rose Spiegel--helped me to focus my ideas, to nail getting my thoughts across in this shorter form, to zero in on each word and phrase. My fellow writers there challenged me. Their ideas and innovation, the way Rookie blends writing and image--a modern version of the cut-and-paste zines I made in high school, it made me hunger to do something new. Meanwhile, my teaching did the same. Additionally, as I looked for new ways to help my students examine the writing process, I applied them to my own work. I taught myself while I taught them. Maybe this isn't something I should admit to. I'd always thought of teachers as all-knowing, which perhaps is why I was always scared to be a teacher. But this is the teacher I am, one who is still learning, still growing, still discovering.

Still I was restless and frustrated, though. I needed to shake up my life like I had when I went back to college. So I moved to Seattle. It gave me a lot of things. Among them: a new environment to explore, an incredible YA community, and two new jobs. My day job is on a college campus. It's just office work, but being around students every day increased my desire to learn, learn, learn. I started reading more, a lot more than I had been in the past few years, and not just fiction. I read non-fiction about the environment, essays on feminism. I started listening to the podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class.

My other job is at an organization called Hugo House, a place for writers. Not a college, just a space where bright eager people in various stages of their writing career come together to continue learning. "Home. Home. I knew it entering," reads a sign on the building, a quote from a poem by Richard Hugo, the house's namesake. I smile every time I see it because that is exactly how I feel when I am there. I am home. I am ready to write. I am ready to learn.

Last summer, I finally broke my dry spell and sold another book. It's a zine-style YA memoir, inspired by Rookie and the part of my teenage writing life that it helped me get back in touch with. I have a new teacher, my editor Julie Strauss-Gabel, and according to the New York Times, she's a tough one. I'm definitely a little scared, but mostly I am eager. I want to shake up my writing the way I shook up my life when I moved to Seattle. I'm ready for the next phase, not just in my career but in my lifelong education as an artist.

There are still things I need to learn and I know it, especially about plot and structure. I want to do things that I've never done. I want, I realized at the beginning of this year, another MFA program. My first one taught me what I needed to know a decade ago, but now I need new things because I want to keep growing and achieving. Getting an actual second MFA is not feasible and kind of silly--I'm still very in debt for the first one and will be for the foreseeable future. But I realized, I have Hugo House. At the beginning of spring I took a class with the YA author, Karen Finneyfrock. She is as genius of a teacher as she is a writer. (I recommend her classes if you are in Seattle and her books if you are anywhere.) I absorbed everything she shared about plot and structure, about creating conflict between characters. I took copious notes and am currently applying them to one of my books that did not sell in hopes that I can get it to live up to the possibilities I saw for it. Additionally, I am re-reading The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler, and about to start The Anatomy of Story by John Truby, both of which Karen used heavily in her class. I'm also thinking of creating a self-designed course in mythology for myself (if you have book recs, I will eagerly take them) and making a list of other topics that I think will inspire my storytelling and/or grow my writing abilities. Between this reading, Hugo classes, conversations with my writer friends who are also devoted to expanding their knowledge of the craft, and the work I'll be doing with my new editor, I'm creating my own self-designed MFA program, the thesis of which, I hope, will be new novel!

What about you, what do you do to keep learning and growing as a writer?

Monday, May 11, 2015

What is So Cliché as a Day in June?

by Tracy Barrett

I grew up near New York City and went to college in New England. When the first real spring day arrives in either of those places, it really is intoxicating. A cliché, I know.

Then I went to graduate school in Northern California.

I was studying medieval literature of Italy and Southern France—the birthplace of many poetic clichés: the adored lady is placed on a pedestal, love is like a rose, etc. Old and tired as these clichés are now, they were fresh and new in the Middle Ages.

One of my professors, who came from Illinois, said that it was frustrating teaching this poetry in Northern California, because when a medieval poet says, “Love is the same as the feeling you get in your heart in the spring,” a lot of his students didn’t get it. The only difference between winter and spring was that there were a few more flowers than a month earlier. The lemon tree outside my window merely slowed down in its production and picked right up again as soon as the days started to lengthen.

The intoxication of spring meant nothing to many of my classmates, so that simile didn’t work for them. But to the poet, it might have been a brand-new idea.

When I do workshops with young writers, I challenge them to come up with new similes and metaphors, and what they come up with is so fresh and exciting that they sweep the dusty old ones away.

So that’s a challenge I’ve given myself. When I find myself talking about “a lump in my throat” or someone’s face looking “like a thundercloud,” I try to pull back and imagine a new way to say it.

What are some of your favorite cliché busters?

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Spring Reading (and writing)

After a crazy snowy, cold winter in Boston, Spring has sprung! Finally!

But even as the flowers are opening and the leaves are budding on trees, there's something that has me warm and fuzzy on the inside. And it's been a long time coming.

My second YA book, The Book of Luke, came out almost eight years ago. And from the very beginning I got emails from readers asking about a sequel. I always told them the same thing - not in my plans. After all, when we write stand alone books, the last thing we're thinking about when we type The End is how the story will continue. The whole point of endings is wrapping things up! I had no idea what would happen to Emily and Luke after that.

But then about two years ago I just knew how Emily and Luke's story continued. So I started writing. It was so awesome how Emily just appeared in my head again, I could hear her talking just like old times.

It's been a totally different experience writing a sequel, and not one I'm sure I would do again. It's hard! How do you take characters you thought had resolved everything, and create new challenges for them - without them being ridiculous?

That's why the next books starts on graduation day - in the Spring. After a rocky winter, things are finally looking up, the world is becoming bright and sunny. It felt like the right place to begin. But Spring also brings with it the end of the school year, the end of spending every day with friends, the end of routine. And Summer can bring a whole new set of challenges that are very different.

So until the real start of Summer comes along I'll enjoy the promise that comes with Spring... and prepare for the long, hot summer ahead for Emily and Luke.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Every Spring (Joy Preble)

I've been the subbing for a former English teacher colleague the past few days. Her husband won a beach vacation and so they are drinking fruity cocktails with umbrellas while I take her classes. In May. During the end of state standardized testing and the middle of AP testing and right before Prom and the rest of the end of the  year stuff.

Spring is crazy time in the public school system. In any school system, I suppose.
Especially later spring headed toward summer when all anyone can think of is when when when when will it be over?

This morning I walked into the building and in the Commons area, two boys were wearing rubber horse heads, wrestling, and, unless I was mistaken neighing. As boys do in the spring. I texted my friend/fellow YA author/fellow English teacher Jennifer Mathieu to tell her what I'd just seen because, yeah. "I'll give you ten years," she wrote back. "If you don't put it in a book by then, I'm totally stealing it." Done.

Read the poster about the prom dress code, which included such gems as "You must wear underwear."
Because by the time we get to spring of senior year, these things must be said, I suppose. Although honestly, I don't think it's possible to buy a two piece dress and not have your midriff show when you raise your arms, which was rule number eight.

And on like that.

Engaged in a lively discussion with two girls in one of the classes about boy names they like. I'm changing the name of a character in a project I'm working on and I was interested to see what they came up with-- and what they thought about some names I'd thought of as well. "Will is nice," one of them said. "But he'll change in the middle of the story, you know? Will makes you think he's one way and then you discover he's something else."  Keith, they told me, was a solid sort. Like an older brother. Robbie is a nice guy. Jack has the potential to be a bad boy, although you don't know it at first. and Oliver -- well, Oliver, they both agreed, had slightly too long dark hair and light eyes. He was artsy and troubled but fascinating.

This is the stuff I MISS SO MUCH about spring and school.

It was, despite a morning thunderstorm, a lovely spring day.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Get Lucky Every Day (Delilah S. Dawson)

I have a strange affliction every spring.

The behavior confuses everyone from the neighbors who slow down to watch me to the army guards at Arlington National Cemetery, who couldn't quite decide if I was a threat when they caught me doing it.

I like to find four-leaf clovers.

If I'm walking along and see a ripe and promising patch of clover, I'm compelled to stop, squat, and hunt for treasure. And the thing is? I'm seriously good at it. I find dozens of four-leaf clovers every year, and it's extremely rare that I'll stoop over a burst of bright green and quit before I've found what I'm looking for. If you buy one of my books and email me your address for a signed bookplate, the chances are good that you'll find a pressed clover in your envelope.

I'm a creature who thrives on hope. Writing can be a bleak exercise, lonely and riddled with rejection, but I'm always putting my eggs in the next basket, getting excited about the next book or project. Hope is what keeps me going. Writing a is actually a lot like looking for four-leaf clovers: It's only over when you give up. As long as you keep looking, as long as you're looking with a positive outlook, it's only a matter of time before you find one. You will eventually get lucky.

Spring is always a well of hope for me, especially after a long, dark winter. Standing outside in the sunlight, toes unfurled in soft green grass while hunting for bits of luck, has become a ritual. Passing on that luck to others brings me joy. I love the thought of someone buying a book from me at a con or opening an envelope and finding an unexpected four-leaf clover.

The funny thing about four-leaf clovers is that people say the same thing about them as they do about writing a book. Wow! I can't believe you can do that! I've never done that! It's impossible!

The secret? It's not impossible. It's a game of time on task, positive outlook, and hunting for patterns. The clovers are there, I promise you. You just have to seek them out. This spring is a great time to start. You might get some strange looks, but it's worth it, knowing luck is in your pocket.