Reclaiming an Occasional Hobby

Lately, I seem to have rabbits on the brain. I recently read a long interview with the now elderly Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, the book that anchored my childhood reading. A friend’s rabbit surprised her by having kittens (which is what baby rabbits are called–it didn’t spontaneously produce baby cats). One of those little baby bunnies has gone to live with another friend. And of course this is the time of year Midwesterners start pining for spring and all that comes with it–warm sun, flowers, rabbits munching the new grass. We know it will be long in coming, but…can’t we have dreams too?

Anyway, all this ruminating on rabbits reminded me that I had planned to mosaic a little half-circle table that I saved from a neighbor’s dumpster with the image of a rabbit poised in mid-leap. Maybe now’s a good time to start moving on that project. So this morning I quickly sketched up what I’m thinking.

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Mosaic is the perfect mid-winter project–indoors, slightly tedious, and you come away from it with something beautiful. I’ve got a few manuscripts for work that I need to listen to. Making a mosaic at the same time would be a lovely way to get double use out of the time. So if you’re looking for me next month, you’ll probably find me in the sunroom, snapping little porcelain tiles into smaller pieces and arranging them in such a way as to suggest a rabbit where before, there was nothing.

Cultivating Reasonable Expectations of Life in a World of Hyperbole

Perhaps like me you have noticed that we are living in an age where everything is AMAZING! Watch this video about this AMAZING girl! Look at photos of these fifty AMAZING bedrooms! Check out this AMAZING restaurant or this AMAZING cockatoo! If it’s not AMAZING, it’s STUNNING, SHOCKING, INCREDIBLE, LIFE-CHANGING, or UNBELIEVABLE!

At the risk of stating the obvious, most of this stuff isn’t AMAZING or any of its synonyms. At most, it’s amusing or interesting. For a moment. And then it’s forgotten.

Now, marketers and advertisers have always used hyperbole to sell products, but I find myself wondering if our age is perhaps unique in trying to sell ordinary life as AMAZING with, say, seriously overreaching claims about how much watching a two-minute video will alter your experience of the world FOR ALL TIME! Because these claims aren’t being made for products that might be sold and thus earn someone a profit. No one is making money from you watching a cute video about a cat who adopts an orphan piglet. And yet the online clamoring to get views and comments and likes is overwhelming.

I get it. No one wants to be ordinary. I don’t either. And to be honest, I’ve caught myself overdoing it when it comes to adjectives. But we seem to be living in a time where, rather than do something extraordinary, something worthy of comment or praise, we elevate the ordinary to the level of extraordinary, until everything we do, every meal we eat, every trip we take, every single thing that our child says is presented to others as a phenomenon unequaled in the history of the world. And this makes the truly ordinary stuff in your life, my life, seem pointless by comparison. Which seems dangerous. It seems like thinking that leads to depression or feelings of worthlessness or futility.

Conversely, the opposite also becomes true–that every little negative thing that happens is the WORST, most HORRIFIC, most HEARTBREAKING, most CULTURE-DESTROYING thing that has ever happened. Fearmongering news anchors or op-ed pieces chip away at our joy and our confidence. Unhappy Facebook friends drag us down with their consistent negativity.

What does this do to us, to our collective psyche? It breeds extremes of emotion and opinion that we probably wouldn’t have otherwise. We become living pendulums, swinging wildly from elation to despair, all imposed on us from the outside, from YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and the 24/7 news cycle. Rational thought and measured responses are employed less and less. After all, no one else in the comments section is thinking deeply and attempting to have a rational discussion about this issue, so why should I? I get more immediate reward for that zinger I just flung into the fray than for a long, drawn-out discussion based on empathy and research.

The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with ordinary. It’s where we spend most of our time. It’s work, family, faith, and friends. It’s enjoying a concert (which, while not AMAZING or LIFE-CHANGING was enjoyable and entertaining). It’s helping your kid with his homework (for which parents should not expect accolades–it’s part of the job). It’s shoveling the driveway (without whining about it on Facebook in order to get sympathy from everyone else who also had to shovel). It’s folding the laundry (not the MOUNTAINS of laundry that are your own personal cross to bear). It’s feeding ordinary dog food to your very ordinary dog.

Why are we so afraid of this ordinary life?

I get the desire to “sell” one’s experiences as bigger and better than they are. I’m in marketing. My whole job is to persuade you to exchange your money for a book that, let’s face it, probably won’t CHANGE YOUR LIFE, even if it does help you in some way. But as much as our self-centered, consumer culture pushes us to make our lives appear AMAZING, we are most of us very ordinary. And that’s fine. If you’re looking for a reason to feel special, looking for deeper meaning in this life, I would advise you to look somewhere other than the internet. Look to God. Look to the impact you are having on your kids. Look to a service you can perform on behalf of your fellow man. Look to charity and forgiveness and truly loving your neighbor. Most of it could not honestly be described as AMAZING or SHOCKING or UNBELIEVABLE. But it would make a heck of a lot more difference in the world than another damn BuzzFeed article.

An Incredible Weekend with Literary Agent Donald Maass

Phew! What a week and what a weekend. By the grace of God, the prayers of many, and the workings of modern medicine, I was able to function on Friday and Saturday for Write on the Red Cedar. I also managed to get quite caught up today at work, despite almost a week of painful delirium where I think I may have answered a dozen emails, all with a mere sentence if possible. And now I am almost at 100% again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne of the highlights of my weekend was driving Donald Maass from the airport to the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center, chatting about my writing. Don gave a fantastic, uplifting keynote address Saturday morning before launching into two hours of instruction on Writing 21st Century Fiction. As insightful and winsome as he is in writing, he is even more so in person. I was lucky enough to sit by him at lunch while our table shared stories of family, publishing, MSU shenanigans, and Michigan’s natural beauty.

After lunch, Zach and I answered questions about traditional publishing at a “roundtable” discussion, which I think was helpful and enlightening for the participants. Then I presented a workshop I’ve done at the Breathe Christian Writers Conference called Finding Your Writing Rhythm. I felt a little rushed with only 45 minutes, but I got some good feedback from attendees and, best of all, my voice held out.

Next I attended a great workshop on character led by author Kristina Riggle. She had some wonderful insights about how to create characters that walk off the page and feel like real people.

After a quick agent/author panel, I tried my first real solid food in nearly a week and managed not to choke (huzzah). Then I settled in for four hours of Writing the Break-Out Novel with Donald Maass. Wow. Writers, if you ever, ever have a chance to sit under this man’s teaching, you need to do it. Don is engaging and funny and challenges you–commands you, even, but in the nicest of ways–to think differently about your writing, to forego the easy solution for the creative solution, to raise every aspect of your craft to the next level, to take control of your fiction and thereby take control of your reader’s emotions in order to create fiction that moves and sticks with people.

I have a notebook full of ideas that Don drew out from me through his probing questions and exercises. I’m excited to get back into my first draft of I Hold the Wind and to get The Bone Garden back out to make even more improvements.

But I think the most important thing that Don said, for me at least, was this (I’m paraphrasing): You have the time. No novel is so timely that it can’t wait a few more months or a year or more for the author to make it better, to make it as good as it can possibly be. Don’t be in such a hurry. I’m going to try to take that to heart this year and truly enjoy every minute of the process of writing rather that always wishing for the next step to be here.

There is time. There is always time.

The Hits Just Keep Coming

2015 doesn’t seem to like me much. My stitches are gone–removed by yours truly when I just couldn’t stand them anymore. But I’ve recently been laid out by tonsillitis and a sinus infection. Boo. I’ve just started antibiotics and the doc says I should be able to talk like a normal person soon (which is good since I’ll be doing a heck of a lot of talking on Friday and Saturday at Write on the Red Cedar). I’m hoping that perhaps the year is getting all the bad stuff out of the way early on and after this it will be smooth sailing.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far from this experience:

  • Any time you’re offered an antibiotic, you should take it, even if the PA at the urgent care says she’s not sure it will help.
  • I don’t like seeing a medical professional who asks me what I want her to prescribe (see above). Seriously? That fills me with confidence.
  • You should take the extra effort needed to make an appointment with your real doctor rather than going to the urgent care that is two minutes away (see above again).
  • There is something about being in bed for days that really makes my hips and lower back ache.
  • I have the sweetest and most helpful husband in the world (I already knew this, but it just reinforces it).

If you’re reading this and you’re a praying person, I would appreciate a prayer that I’ll be in top form on Friday and Saturday, not just for the workshop I’ll be teaching, but to get the most out of the sessions I’ll be attending as well!

 

Accepting the Pace Life Wants to be Lived

I’m a week away from the writing conference I am helping to put on (Write on the Red Cedar). We’re sold out. All the nitty-gritty details are being dealt with. I’ve been busy updating the conference blog almost every day, which may partially explain my slow posting on this blog. And even though we haven’t run into any huge snafus yet, I still feel a bit like this guy…

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Like I have one little part of this thing in hand, but also I am going to trip up at any minute. I’ve started having dreams about things going wrong, like back when I was in high school plays and I would have dreams of shoddy scenery falling down during a performance. But mostly, I’m excited.

I am still slowly plugging away at the first draft of my current WIP. My ideas are at a slow burn. I type a paragraph then do other things, come back and type another. I stopped drafting the other day to jot off a very short story (fewer than 1,500 words) as a fun diversion. The novel draft won’t be done by conference time, but it should be finished by the end of the month, which is fine with me. That will give it enough time to sit and simmer before Zach and I take a long weekend writing retreat during which I can do the first big revision.

As frantically busy as November and December were, in writing and in life, January has gotten a slow start. And I’m okay with that. Winter’s really here now, and it bids us take our time.

What I’m Reading in 2015

Well, I ended 2014 with what I’m assuming was a mild case of the flu and the news that our church had been broken into. I began 2015 with four stitches after a blunder with an extremely sharp knife that seemed to want to separate my right thumb from the rest of my hand. I also turned 35 on Friday. So there’s that.

Today was better, though. I’m healthy, my hand is healing, and I’m hoping to finish up the draft of my work in progress, a novel I’m currently calling I Hold the Wind, in the next couple weeks. I am also making preparations for what will probably be a full year researching for my next book, a historical novel set in various locales in France, Austria, and Germany during World War I and the years preceding it. I’m calling that one Enough of Peace at the moment. Here’s what I’ll be reading in 2015…

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Since Christmas I’ve been hip-deep in failing aristocracies, rising anarchy, the Dreyfus Affair, and various other social and political upheavals as I read about the decades that led up to the start of WWI in Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower. I’ve also been reading Mein Kampf, which has been alternately fascinating and horrifying.

Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century was glossed over a bit in my history classes. Except for the requisite pat on the back for ending the war, the First World War was not a subject upon which we lingered. Generally, we stuck to American issues: Reparations after the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, the Roaring Twenties, and the Depression, only concerning ourselves with Europe again when we were sucked into the Second World War. For that reason, I’ve never truly understood the causes of WWI. All I remember learning about it was that it was the first truly mechanized war, it was the first war to be fought partially in the air, there were lots of trenches, and the colossal loss of life was all in vain. So I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

Also on the immediate horizon is the Write on the Red Cedar writing conference that my writing group, the Capital City Writers Association, is putting on. We’re officially sold out (!) and taking care of all the last-minute logistics. I’ll be sure to share pictures from and thoughts on the conference in late January.

Oh, and in the past couple days, it has finally snowed. 🙂