I Am Building a World for You

For the past several years in my creative writing life, I have been developing a parallel world. It is not a huge departure from reality. It’s not fantasy or sci-fi. It’s not a world that you would not recognize. In fact, you may find yourself very much at home there. It’s a mere side step, the sort of shift you make to get out of someone’s way when they are moving faster than you’d like to move. It’s stepping off the sidewalk and onto the grass where it’s more interesting anyway.

This world is located in my very own state. Its cities and lakes and rivers and other features are all born from reality before they go through a subtle metamorphosis in my mind. And when they come out of my fingers, they are new. Because the writer of fiction does not merely record. He interprets. What to our eye may be a leaf of a certain shade of green becomes something more in fiction. Raindrops become tears, shafts of light become memories, birds become souls, forests become prisons, parties become battles, and folds of blankets become entire histories laid out in cotton.

It’s useless to attempt to keep the writer’s mind centered on what is. It is so much more satisfying to build what isn’t…yet. I’m readying a new manuscript for submission to agents that I can envision as the first in a series of three. I’m already developing the stories for the second and third. And yesterday, while I was driving my son to karate, the germ of a new story wormed its way into my mind. A different setting, but the same world, and connections to a character or two in this possible series of three. An expansion of the world I have been building in my mind and on paper. Nods to earlier work are winks to the loyal reader, an inside joke just for her.

I’m drawn to literary worlds like this. Wendell Berry’s Port William, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Careers made largely by developing a parallel world and staying in it for decades, learning all of its secrets. Even the series we read as children carry shades of this — Madeline L’Engle’s stories of the Murry and O’Keefe families, L. M. Montgomery’s Prince Edward Island, even the world of The Baby-Sitters Club. Places and characters we didn’t want to leave.

I’d like my own fiction to be like that — stories you want to stay inside.

So I am building a world, street by street, field by field, house by house, character by character, secret by secret. And I’m more hopeful than ever that I’ll be able to share it with you someday.

A (Mostly) Living Nature Diorama, or What I’ll Be Doing with My Time as an Old Lady

For the past few weeks my son and I have been gathering materials and building an Itty Bitty Bungalow for a contest being run at our local greenhouse, Van Atta’s. After many hours of hunting down the perfect materials and construction, this is our entry:

itty bitty bungalow

The house walls are last year’s Japanese anemone stalks from the garden. The roof is shingled with pieces of pine cone (that took forever). The little trees on either side are maple seedlings growing as weeds in my garden. The door is pine bark. The lawn is moss from my driveway. The flag is yew bark and a bit of dried oak leaf shaped like Michigan’s lower peninsula. The acorns are a bench for the star of the whole scene: a dead stag beetle we came upon last summer.

Nature diorama cuteness

Our handsome beetle is raking his moss lawn with a rake I made from toothpicks and epoxied to his body. Then I suck a needle in his..ahem…nether regions and stuck him into the soil. Every time I look at him I crack up.

Nature diorama cuteness

I can see myself doing a lot of this sort of thing when I’m an old lady. So instead of being the crazy old lady with the nine cats, I’ll be the creepy old lady with all the dioramas of dead bugs in her house.

Yeah. That will definitely be me.

Voting on the entries happens this weekend at Van Atta’s Spring Open House. I won’t be there (I’ll be in Colorado visiting a friend) but my boys are going to vote in my absence. We’ll let you know if we win anything next week!

Lessons We Can Learn Halfway to Black Belt

Last weekend our son was awarded his red belt in karate (which is just our shorthand for the real name of the marital arts system he practices — the American Advanced Combat System — which was developed by Sensei Dan Timlin and is based on Bruce Lee’s system of Jeet Kune Do). At his dojo, this means he has moved up to the advanced class, and he’s still just six years old.

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When we started him in martial arts about a year and a half ago (largely due to his obsession with TMNT and ninja stuff in general) we talked to him about the investment of time and money it would entail, about how when we start something, we don’t just quit when we get bored or tired of it.

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We needn’t have said a word about it because his enthusiasm and dedication has not waned one iota. The young guy next to him in the photos above and below is one of his instructors. He’s a fantastic teacher and incredible to watch on the academy’s demonstration team. He was just sixteen when Calvin started as a white belt in the basic class. He started at the dojo at age eight. When Calvin is eight, he will already be a black belt. When I think of my son someday being able to do the things that this young man does, I get giddy with anticipated pride.

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Now, I’m posting about this partially to share my joy in my son’s dedication and his achievements. But it’s not all about bragging (it is a little about bragging).

It’s also about persistence and drive and dedication to an art. It’s so easy to start something big and then quit when we feel like we’re not making enough progress. Calvin could have watched his teacher do incredible takedowns and disarms and flying kicks and thought to himself, “I’ll never be able to do that. It looks too hard and I don’t think I’m fast enough or strong enough.” But he didn’t. He saw some majorly cool moves and thought to himself, “I want to do that.” And then patient and caring teachers came alongside him and said, “You can do that — but it takes discipline, training, and focus, and we’ll help you get there.”

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And his parents came alongside and gave him encouragement, took him to practice three nights a week, reinforced the lessons he was learning at the dojo, trained with him at home. Because while in some ways martial arts are an individual sport, no one learns best in complete isolation.

What about you? Are you trying to write all on your own? Trying to figure out your camera all on your own? Trying to figure out how to make a certain effect in a painting or Photoshop or a recipe all on your own? What are you trying to do solo that would be easier if you had support, if you had a teacher or a more experienced friend who could answer your questions?

It’s tempting to do art alone, especially if you’re an introvert. And there are plenty of opportunities to practice alone, and that’s not bad. But who do you have who can encourage you and help you adjust your technique if you’re doing it wrong or perhaps just not the easiest or most efficient way?

When I went out to take pictures of the aurora on Saint Patrick’s Day, it was a friend who told me that the aurora was active. That same friend was there when I had questions about how best to photograph them because he and I once had almost the exact same camera. There were a few things I had to figure out by myself, but he was there on the other end of the phone when I had questions. And when I posted a photo on Facebook, he was the first to compliment me on it. How encouraging!

In my writing, I have two great groups of writers who can encourage me to stick it out when the going gets rough and who can share expertise and advice. One is online (Women’s Fiction Writers Association) and one is in the flesh (Capital City Writers Association). Another writing community that is so instructive and encouraging is Writer Unboxed. Beyond that, my husband and a few close friends serve as encouragers, first readers, and sounding boards.

You can do so much more and so much better work when you have a community of like-minded individuals supporting you. If you quilt, join a quilting group or guild. If you paint, organize outings to paint plein air. If you love to bake, create your own informal school or throw a recipe sharing party. If you write poetry, find a local place that can host readings and put the word out to poets in your area. If you’re a musician, schedule a jam session.

When things get tough and your art won’t cooperate or you’ve faced rejection, that’s when you need support. And you’ll find that if you cultivate a community intentionally, that support will be there for you the moment you need it. Those people will keep you from quitting, they’ll celebrate your successes with you, they’ll help you grow, and they’ll feed your desire to succeed.

Your initial passion and intensity may come from within…

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…but you can bet that it’s easier to maintain when others are there to hold you up.

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Mosaic Madness…and an Animated Gif

It seems I have gotten myself on a regular crafting schedule this year. I recently finished a baby quilt. Now I’m closing in on another project. Last night I managed to finish getting the tiles for my rabbit mosaic glued to my dumpster table.

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I used four different greens. I did not measure or plan anything as I went along in this project. And this is what was left of my green tiles at the end.

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Essentially one tile, some shards, and some dust. That’s what I call lucky. And that’s generally how I do crafts — kind of a seat-of-your-pants philosophy that has rarely failed me.

Here’s the table now, ready for grout.

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I’ll grout it next week if I can find the time.

And since everyone loves animated gifs…

Mosaic

The Only Stuff You Can Control

Today I was with my first grade son in line at Jo-Ann’s to buy elastic (part of a TMNT shell modification to hold smoke bombs, of course) when the older gentleman directly ahead of me turned around and asked me if he could speak to my son. I said, “Sure.” The man said, “Young man, do you want to hear a joke?” It went something like this:

“What did one snowman say to the other snowman?”

“What?”

“Do you smell carrots?”

It took a little explanation for my boy to quite get it. But then he thought it was funny. The man took his turn at the register, we took ours, and I’ll probably never see him again.

Why do I tell this story? Mostly because I’ve been thinking a lot about control this week. I have been really up and down creatively and professionally. Few would know it because I generally keep my struggles to myself (that’s the German Protestant side of the family coming out). I don’t broadcast my troubles to the world. Except for my husband and a few very close friends, no one would know the mental and emotional state I’m in is anything but balanced and generally positive. This isn’t because I’m putting on a front or trying to craft a life that seems perfect. It’s because 1.) everyone has enough troubles of their own (many light years worse than my own) and 2.) it’s no one’s business.

What does this have to do with snowmen smelling carrots? (It’s because their noses are carrots, by the way.)

There’s so little in life over which we exercise any real control. Most of the time, we can’t control who talks to us or what they might say. I was so taken aback that this man asked my permission to talk to my son, it shook me out of my standard way of interacting with strangers (which is basically to ignore them unless they engage me, and then, using lightning swift and probably premature judgment based on age, sex, dress, and whether or not I’m hangry, to determine if I will immediately be on the defensive or will give them the benefit of the doubt). This man gave me the option to shut him down before the conversation even started. Of course I didn’t (who would?) and of course after I said he could talk to my son, he might have said any number of inappropriate or terrible things. But he put the control in my hands.

I can’t make my house worth what it was worth when we bought it. I can’t give myself a promotion. I can’t make people take a chance on my writing. I can’t make an overly sensitive person chill out. I can’t raise the temperature outside above freezing (or even raise it one degree). I can’t stop my son from growing. I can’t make my dog’s back legs work better.

But there’s a lot I do have control over. I can keep my house clean and livable. I can do my best work each day. I can keep improving. I can disengage from people that baffle me and go buy a plane ticket to visit a childhood friend I miss terribly. I can put on another pair of socks. I can enjoy this moment in time. I can let my dog lick leftover syrup from the breakfast plates.

Writing this post won’t get me over what’s bothering me right now. I wish it would. Time, prayer, and likely the changing of the seasons in a month or so will help. But in the meantime, I’m trying to focus on what I can control and leave the rest up to Providence.

Capturing Inspiration

On Friday it was only five degrees colder at the North Pole than is was in some parts of Michigan (-39 in Roscommon, which is about 2 hours north of Lansing). It was cold here too. School was cancelled because of wind chill temps in the -20 range and dangers of frostbite on exposed skin within 30 minutes.

However, it was a warm day in my brain. It was like the spring thaw up there, with great ideas for three writing projects — one big backstory/plot change for my WIP I Hold the Wind, one idea for a completely new novel, and both a new plot idea and a new POV idea for a story I haven’t worked on in over a year called Life in a Minor Key. I love days like that!

The first idea came from a little news clip I heard on NPR when I was in the shower. It will help me fix an issue that has been nagging and nagging me as I’ve drafted I Hold the Wind. I captured the idea on the waterproof notepad in my shower that Zach bought for me at Christmas. The second came from a New York Times article my husband shared on Facebook. I quickly printed the article and made some notes on it at my desk. The third came as I was listening to Billy Strings and Don Julin, a fantastic folk guitar and mandolin duo I heard at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival last month. I popped in one of their CDs as I brought my son to karate Friday evening and was actually happy for the stop-and-go traffic through East Lansing so I had time to write it all down on one of the notepads I always keep in my purse.

Yesterday the ideas kept coming. On the drive home from Grand Rapids last night I had another fun idea for Life in a Minor Key. Since it was dark I didn’t want to go digging in my purse and possibly run off the road, and I didn’t want to ask my husband to write it down for me because I was hoping he was asleep after a completely sleepless night the evening before. So I repeated a key word in my head until we got home, then wrote it down while I was still in the car on the driveway. Then as I was settling into sleep myself, a great reversal for the very end of The Bone Garden popped into my mind. Again, not wanting to wake my finally sleeping husband, I carefully reached over in the dark and snagged a little notebook from the nightstand. I wrote slowly in the pitch black and was happy to see this morning that it was indeed legible.

Inspiration can come from anywhere — and everywhere! — so be ready for it. Never be without a writing utensil and something on which to write or I promise you even the best idea will vaporize.

 

Making Mosaic Preparations

The drawing has been transferred to the table, the supplies gathered, the colors chosen.

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Long ago I ordered a bunch of really nice, high-quality porcelain tiles from some website (I can’t remember anymore what it’s called) to have on hand when the mood or opportunity struck.

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The only thing I’ve made up to this point is this. (I can see from this photo that I need to get some kind of grout cleaning agent for the sky above the flying sparrow.)

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I saved the table from the church dumpster (just as I saved my rabbit’s table from a neighbor’s dumpster) and spent many hours snipping and gluing in the basement.

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I think I’ll enjoy working in the light of the sunroom this time around.

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.