Wednesday, January 20, 2016

January issue of Literary Mama live!

Attention parents of boys: January's poems, published in Literary Mama today, feature stages of raising sons, from Julie Stotz-Ghosh showing her infant his First Snow to Rebecca Lanning speaking To My Son on the Morning of his Scholastic Aptitude Test.

From toy trains to Bottlecaps, the relationship mothers share with sons as they grow into men is a challenge and a joy.

And if you have daughters, please enjoy these poems as well as last month's poems focusing on raising strong girls!

From Rebekah Denison Hewitt's "Pantoum of Divided Attention":

To understand what a door is,
to understand that something opens,
to see the line of light behind it,
pull and go through.


Friday, January 15, 2016

An off-the-cuff book review: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

Carrie Brownstein is a personal hero of mine. She is cool. At least, she seems like it, from a distance. How could the guitarist/vocalist of Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag and the writer/actress from Portlandia not be cool? In that self-deprecating, sense-of-humor as well as sense-of-style way the truly cool have. I mean, what a bad-ass title for a book!

So when I got her memoir for Christmas (thanks, honey!), I sat down and read most of it while the kids ran around with their new loud toys until I realized I needed to shower and get dinner going before our guests arrived.

It's that good.

It's like reading a really smart and funny friend's letters, in the days when such things existed (letters, not friends). She writes about growing up in a confusing family, with her mom hospitalized for anorexia and her dad coming out as gay when she's in college. She manages to convey a young girl's confusion and anxiety, while also analyzing her own past from a somewhat dispassionate adult perspective. She never grows maudlin and doesn't want the reader's pity; rather, the section about her childhood serves as a launching pad for her drive and ambition to focus on something else--which for Carrie was her guitar, getting out of her small town, and belonging to something bigger than herself.

I could relate. And that's what makes this book so great. It's completely relatable. I grew up in the same era, under completely different circumstances (although I also had a shitty old Honda as my first car and pink hair at one point), but I found solace in the hollers and screams of punk, particularly of punk girls, and I couldn't wait to get out of my small town and into something bigger than me.

For Carrie, that was Olympia, and eventually Sleater-Kinney, and the section of the book describing its formation and early days is fascinating. It all seems so accidental in some ways, luck and a sense of just doing what everyone in Olympia in their twenties was doing: making music. But it also seems preordained, and we know--by what she's already told us about herself, as well as by reading between the lines--that Carrie works her ass off. And when someone finds herself by being onstage, it's going to be damn hard to get her off of it.

Her voice is both analytical and poetic, making sure that the facts are presented clearly and accurately, with her own interpretations and lovely turns of phrase. She never gets stuck in navel-gazing. In fact, such self-absorption seems anathema to her, which later in the book becomes a source of trouble when the band tours repeatedly and she develops health problems from the stress of touring, and troubles among the band members, and relationships that keep falling apart. Some parts seem almost glossed over--especially relationship details--but it seems in keeping with Carrie's style. She's not going to exploit anyone's privacy (awww...collective disappointment from the peanut gallery) and that includes her own.

By the end of the book, I felt like I knew who she was, but I also knew that she wasn't baring everything. She gave as much as she felt was worth giving, digging into her personal history, her own psyche, and her work, but letting the reader know that she is still a private person who is not open for dissection. A healthy division between performer and fan.

I particularly enjoyed her descriptions and analyses of being a working artist; where she and the band were comfortable, where they pushed themselves, what felt like success to them and what didn't work (even if it was popular). I don't play guitar (might learn someday) but I felt what it was like to create with one, and then to wield it with power and intention. I loved what she had to say about feminism, about riot-grrl, and about how labels (such as "selling out") can be detrimental to creativity because of the boxes they trap artists within.

The book focuses on Sleater-Kinney and ends with its end and subsequent revival several years later. She touches on what it was like to suddenly be without the band, in a funny and touching chapter about becoming volunteer of the year at her local animal shelter. Acting, Portlandia, and her work in other bands is barely mentioned. Perhaps she'll write a sequel...or maybe she's just leaving her fans wanting more, like any good rock star.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Self-editing Round 1

I finished a draft of my book the other day. Eleven chapters, 43 pages, 12,000 words. Yay, right?

Almost immediately I felt dissatisfied. It wasn't working. I couldn't even complete the final chapter. I was bored by my own book. Who would read it if I didn't want to?

Let me back up. I'm working on a historical fiction chapter book, a short novel for kids ages 7-10 (or thereabouts). My characters, who I've made up, interact with real people from history in a place and time that really existed. Hello, research!

Trouble is, too much of my story involved the characters sitting around talking. Because kids are crazy about My Dinner with Andre.

So the day after I finished, I mapped out the chapters on a whiteboard so I could see where the lulls were, where things got too long or talky, and to get an idea of how to add more action. I did a bunch of research and discovered Kathleen Temean's blog about writing and illustrating for children, which was hugely helpful. I zeroed in on how to create compelling chapter books and focused on how to build plot structure.

Following Dan Wells' Seven Points of Story Structure, I altered my story's focus and timeline to make the action more immediate. What if my characters could take part in a historical event, rather than just hearing about it? I was excited about the idea, but frustrated at the thought of losing so much of what I'd already written.

But that's the thing about writing, right? Kill your darlings. If I hang onto what's not working, I'll never make room for something that will work.

After a few hours, I had a breakthrough and started creating a new outline. Now that is scrawled across my whiteboard, and I think it's much better. I'm hoping to reuse some of what I've already written, but I have a lot of new stuff to fill in, and even more research to do.

So my triumph is not in finishing a draft, but in deciding how I'm going to unravel and reweave what I did. I'm starting over, but I feel much better about where it's going. And I'm not bored, so hopefully my potential readers won't be either. Back to writing!

Here's Dan Wells' video about the Seven Points--for watching when my fingers won't type anymore. Part 1 of 5!

Saturday, January 2, 2016


Happy New Year!

It's funny that this new year is marked, for me, by anticipating an winter break. I should have no complaints, but man, do I feel like complaining. So here goes.

When I was working office jobs, winter break was a source of stress. The kids had two weeks off of school, but neither my husband nor I could afford two weeks off of work, so we had to juggle one of us working from home (with the kids plugged in to various electronic devices for hours) then switch, playdates with other desperate parents, begging relatives who'd come to town to visit, and a general sense of too much going on and not enough to do it all.

This year, with me freelancing from home, winter break is still a source of stress. The assumption is, well, I'm home. Might as well take care of the kids. For Two. Solid. Weeks. My husband was extra busy at work, too, coming home at 7:30 or 8 each night, and on one lovely evening, 10. At night. And I felt I couldn't be angry because he was so wiped out.

And what did I have to complain about anyway? I got to spend the whole day at home with the kids hanging out! Making crafts! And lunch! And dinner! And laundry! And dishes! And do it again the next day! And the next! Wash, rinse, repeat! (Oh yeah, they're overdue for baths...)

Relatives are in town again, and they watched the kids a little here and there, but two energetic boys are pretty exhausting for grandparents, and the older folks ended up coming down with nasty colds (not from us, I swear!). Not a reliable source of kid-sitting, plus heaping helpings of guilt. Yum.

So the boys and I made and bought and wrapped presents, made ornaments and gingerbread houses (a whole village!), crafts, stews, cornbread, YouTube yoga, movies, the zoo (which was a bust when the kids were cold and wanted to go home after 15 minutes and me yelling "I told you to wear coats!" Lovely.) Too much TV and video games, too many bored games (ha), too many fights and "Go to your room!" and "There's nothing to dooooo."

And not enough writing. Almost no writing. All kids and no writing makes Mom dull, listless, frustrated, angry, irritable...

...and two weeks seem like an eternity.

No wonder I have been having such a hard time getting out of bed this week.

Although part of me feels bad for not doing more (the aquarium! museums! playdates! cleaning and rearranging their rooms like we've been talking about for months!) and for being SO HAPPY to ship them back off to school (sorry guys, I know it's going to be like this for the rest of your lives, having to get up and be somewhere every morning and do what you're told and be cheerful about it)...

...most of me is looking forward to Monday like it's Christmas.

(ps--I hope that I don't even need to mention that I love my kids, I love that I am able to be home with them, I am blessed by their presence and all of our health and grateful beyond measure for all of the good things we hold and the small things to complain about. But Erma Bombeck is my muse. Complaining is healthy. Internal sensor, and potential trolls, be quiet.)