I, Wanderer

The commencement address at university is supposed to inspire the graduates to go out and conquer the world with great deeds and a vision of peace for mankind. Or at least to get a decent job and pay your own bills. I panicked when I graduated from college. It was the moment when I realized I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t attend my college commencement; the keynote address never reached my ears. If college was a five year delay before starting my adult life, then the day after graduation was an immediate decline into crap-what-do-I-do-now. Nearly everyone I knew was ready to start grad school in a few months or had a terrific entry level position in a company that would lead to a productive and independent future. So I thought. So they thought.

I’d been lazy about my life till then, getting homework and assignments completed but without the proof of solid accomplishments that look great on a resume. I’d worked too, at a bunch of dead end jobs that kept me fed on fried rice and bologna sandwiches, and housed in roach infested apartments in the run down sections of a graceless city. The idea of being a writer had been sustained by only marginal success in college. I’d earned a degree in creative writing validated by a few essays and short stories noteworthy for nudging by professors toward possible journal submission. But there were no jobs in the classified section of the paper advertising for entry level writers. (If you’re 30 or under, you don’t know about the classifieds – no worries.)

Over the next decade I wandered into a roll call of aimless jobs. Employment in lackluster positions paid bills until marriage. Then children sidelined me even further from any serious expeditions toward a writing career. Not wanting to risk my sons’ safety at daycare, I stayed home with them, dodging regular work until they were in elementary school. For a person full of remorse over many squandered opportunities, that’s not one of them. I’m not attempting to persuade you that my decision was the only one you should consider, but for me, it was right. I nurtured my children with celebrations, play, music, trips to beaches and nature parks, sports, museums visits, scouts, theater outings, picnics, friendships, fun, and challenges.

I loved those years and I harbor no regret.

The next derailments happened because I pursued a different creative path, first as occasional work while the kids were small, and then as a full bore career because it became the path I traveled. At-home work as a free lance artist eventually led to paid art teacher positions through a city rec program, then as a volunteer artist at my son’s school. (I don’t know which of those words paints a funnier picture: “Free” because of how little I got paid by people who thought they were doing me a favor by letting me do something constructive with my time by designing logos and signs for their businesses, or handmade invitations for their weddings. “Lance” because I felt pierced by every person who paid me less than promised after demanding more work than we’d agreed upon. Or “artist” because I never got to sign my name to a single piece of artwork. Still, inks and paints were used, and I was never lashed to a mast to do the work. And yes, I do know that “freelance” is a legitimate word without the separations.)

Those experiences segued into a stint as a commercial artist in a studio where I learned to paint under pressure and with peculiar requirements. Like board short designs with no orange as the owner of the company simply didn’t like orange, damn that the buying public at the time, teenage and college boys, loved it. I also found that office politics is the norm, stealing credit is standard, and jealousy of anyone else’s artistic skills the motive for lies (art director, “She didn’t paint that,” pointing to what was clearly my design – everyone had seen me paint it and it was my identifiable style) and theft (“I did,” as she held aloft a barely altered piece of my work and claimed it as her own.) More than one artist has stated that commercial studios raze your soul, but maybe you have to be there to understand such truth. Too many episodes down that miserable path and I gave it up, joyously.

At any rate, I took what I’d learned – to paint fast and accurately – and marched off to the first of several positions as an art teacher in private schools. I’ll leave out the administrative/business dealings and report only that I loved working with kids, kindergarten to twelfth grade, and exposing them to the creative energy that every child owns. You just have to help them unlock what’s percolating there, show them how to hold a brush, how color suggests mood or seasons, how to move a pencil to craft the line they envision in their head, and that less glue is better than more. Children can learn to capture what they dream and record it as painting, drawing, original print, sculpture, or ceramic art. It’s a remarkable experience when a child hangs a work of art on the wall and says, “I made that!” Yes, with my guidance, but a few thousand kids did in fact make thousands of pieces of art. Many went on to become fine artists, designers, sculptors, art teachers, architects, art historians, commercial artists, docents, and all manner of professionals and lay people whose lives are touched and enriched by exposure to art.

I taught children to paint, I loved those years, and I harbor no regret.

Eventually a roadblock stopped me. A horrendously unjust situation developed and I couldn’t control or reverse it. Truth to power is a noble cause but sometimes you just can’t win and I didn’t. Knowing that it was up to me to heal, I sought a creative outlet. Unable to continue to teach art, I returned to my first love, the one I’d identified as a child. I began again to write. Three completed novels, another well on its way, short stories and poetry as proof: I am a writer.

Finally I knew what I needed to know after college graduation – it was up to me to write my own commencement address, so here it is:

Do whatever you do as well as possible. Make deep and wholesome imprints on earth and in the hearts of others. When you go, it will be all that’s left behind. Listen to your adversary and be vulnerable to change, because you may have made the first mistake. Compromise is often the most fair solution but sometimes justice is not. Work at granting forgiveness and be grateful to those who have afforded you theirs. Stake high standards for yourself, slightly less for acquaintances, and none for those who are unable to bear the weight. Be authentic in voice and action, and do something instead of nothing at all. You were not born when your parents were: stop blaming them for the miseries of their lives. Be angry and then make something wonderful from your anger. Forge friendships as if you are forging new stars. Hold your loved ones as if their lives and yours depended upon it. Fix what you broke and then help someone else fix what they broke. Build something new and keep what’s old in good repair. Bless those around you for their presence in your life. Thank God in whatever way you find meaningful. Do this every day.

And harbor no regrets.

 

mortarboard art courtesy Clip Art

 

 

 

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Letting Go a Dream

dreamsI began writing The Inlaid Table the last week of April, 2003 and completed it in early 2009 – the first time. It was my first adult novel and it placed in the top 250 entries for the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award – ABNA – competition. Out of 5,000 entries I was thrilled to have done so well. Such heady achievement fortified me to continue to work on it, generate early readers, and to query. My critique group provided support along with suggestions for improvement and sometimes sharp criticism.  About two months ago I suffered a serious injury to my right arm (it’s healing) and used the downtime to undertake an absolute final edit. Nothing could deter me. The final final version satisfied me. Until a few nights ago when I tossed through the early hours of a new day, anxious and battling with my conscience and my brain, unable to sleep at all. I woke unrested and finally realized that I will no longer attempt to publish the book. Though I still love the characters and the idea, I’ve concluded that this one will live on my computer and nowhere else. Sometimes you just have to let things go, and for this book, with literally thousands of hours devoted to researching, writing, and editing, it is out of publication contention.

It was a tough decision but one I had to make. The premise of the book is overdone and outdated. Over the last eight years, while I worked on Table and also wrote two other novels, both now complete, the ground for this story turned swampy with politics and emotions. There won’t be the readers I expected, and the book will generate controversy I never intended.

Yes, I cried. Yet other people face more vital, more dire situations than having spent so many years writing a book that will never get ink. I wiped those tears off my cheeks. It was not a complete failure though I probably should have sensed the impending implosion years earlier. I learned a lot from the experience, all the things one should expect from such an undertaking and a few things I never anticipated. The wisdom learned in any endeavor can be applied to trying to write, then concluding it isn’t the right manuscript, it’s not the dream to pursue.

Two of the best attributes of engaging in competitive sports are learning to win honorably and lose graciously. Accepting rules and standards allow games to be played on common ground. Dignity and confidence at trying new challenges are gains measured outside the score board. Persistence regales effort even in the face of failure. Cheering for individual excellence surpasses fawning over athletic super stars. Standing up after you’ve been thrown to the ground reminds you to be grateful you can stand at all.

In the same vein, I’ve grown as a person and as writer. I listen better, think more clearly, share fairly, try harder. I know the value of staying up late to work and getting up early to do the same. My ABNA moment gave me the confidence to go back and do a better job on something I’d thought was finished. I spent my 10,000 hours honing my craft, and my current writing exhibits more mastery than when I started writing Table in 2003.

My biggest regret is that I won’t get to publicly acknowledge the many people who helped me travel the path of writing the first book. Those folks gave me their very best effort with no more expectation than a thanks from me. So here it is: Thank you, dear family, friends, and believers. You made it possible for me to fail with dignity and to stand up again.

While I’ve given up on this dream of publishing The Inlaid Table, I have others to pursue, and I will. I remain determined to see my books to publication, whether via the cachet of the traditional print houses or the more likely independent route.

There is value in letting go this dream. The next dream is still viable.

 

Clip art courtesy: end of a daydream by astridle

 

On Schedules and Routines

I’m sitting here this Wednesday morning feeling completely out of phase with the world.  It’s a feeling I get whenever I oversleep and today I overslept.  I have to assume I hit the snooze button a few times this morning, but it’s more fun to think that some aliens from a distant planet had a hand in this. Well, the aliens or my evil cats.  Either way, I awoke at 5:07am… a full 30 minutes later than normal.  At 5:07am I’m usually already at the gym, not just getting out of bed.  I hurried through my routine, got myself ready and walked the dog, then scurried off to the gym for a truncated workout.  Officially, I’m back “on schedule” now, having cut my workout short so that my shower and subsequent trip to Starbucks could occur “on time”.

Yet, I feel completely out of sorts.

It gets me to thinking about the importance of routines for me.  My life is ruled by schedules.  Get up at this time, do this at that time.  The kids’ schedules are also my schedule, so I have to be sure they get to their baseball games or dance classes or parties on time and that they get picked up from the same on time.  The dog’s and the cats’ schedules are also my schedule owing to their demands to be walked or fed or pet as needed.  Even the garden has a schedule which is my schedule owing to the need for watering, harvesting and weeding.  You’ll note I haven’t even mentioned the real dictator of my life’s schedule: The Day Job.  You’ll also note I haven’t mentioned writing.

Where I am going with this is simple: schedules and routines are important to me because they are what drives my day.  This has been the case for my entire life, really.  But writing was one thing I never wanted to schedule.  It is the only thing in my life where I don’t plan anything at all – no outlines, no idea where a story is heading before I write it, nothing.  I’ve attributed this to me wanting something in my life that was not schedule-oriented and not dictated by the clock or the calendar or some sterile design document telling me what the result needs to look like.

I’ve also sometimes thought my lack of a writing schedule could be due to the fact that in high school English class we had journals and every day we had to spend ten minutes writing.  I hated it.  Loathed it, really.  I spent ten minutes each day repeating “I don’t know what to write… I don’t know what to write…” over and over again for pages on end.  At the time it looked like an enormous waste of time to me.   Recently, though, I came across one of those old journals and I flipped through it.  Yes, as I recall, there were plenty of those pages of repeated negativity.  But mixed in with them were pages of real writing ideas – dialogue between characters, descriptions of distant, alien landscapes,  ideas for stories or poems.  I do not remember writing those passages, but they are there, in my own horrifically bad handwriting, buried and hidden within the obvious distaste for the forced writing exercises.

Many people have routines for writing.  There are as many ways to schedule yourself to have time to write as there are writers out there.  I’ve read about these ideas (morning pages, dedicated writing times, word sprints, etc.) but I’ve only utilized them in November during NaNoWriMo.  And now, if I’m being honest with myself, I can look back and see that back when I was working in an office my routine included getting to the office early and spending that hour writing.  I suppose that was “scheduled writing”, but it was never required and if I spent that extra hour working on my day job instead of writing I wasn’t feeling like I had done anything wrong.  And since I’m being honest with myself here, I can admit that I’m not really getting any good writing done now with my anti-schedule mentality.

So where does that leave me?  I’m going on vacation next week (which as we all know comes with its own overpowering need for a schedule).  I am considering trying a “forced writing” routine into it.  Just for a little while, just for the week. That’s how I’m selling it to myself, at least.  I haven’t decided if it’ll be on paper or on the laptop. I haven’t decided if it will be in the morning or evening (most likely morning, since no one else will be up early). I haven’t decided if I’ll just allow myself to write “I don’t know what to write” over and over again until something better shows up on the page, or if I’ll dedicate the time to writing a vacation blog post each day or if I’ll try to flesh out some of the story ideas for which I haven’t done anything yet.  My not-so-secret hope is that if I do this every day for a week it will be easier to incorporate it into my regular routine at home.  I have no idea if this will work for me but I need to try.

I’m curious about other people’s routines and methods for carving out time to write from a busy life. Do you have any habits you think help you to focus your writing energy into whatever time you have? Any tricks or routines that you think might seem weird to others but work really well for you? Share your ideas in the comments below… maybe I’ll incorporate them into my experiment next week.

Goals, Realities, and a Coffee Comfort Contradiction

January passed a mere 5 months and eons of seconds ago. Somehow it’s the sensation of eons that stick. Way back in January your dedicated contributors posted some thoughts about goals. February passed. March. April. May remains, for a bare week more. This is my first post in eons.

I enter every school semester intending to write at least once a month. It feels like a realistic goal. One piece of something—probably a Today’s Author post—once a month. As I end every school semester I realize I wrote less than the semester before and I acknowledge to myself that I defined my goals before I understood the realities of my schedule.

A friend recently commented that my creative self must be screaming. Yes. Oh, yes. And at times—not too often, but occasionally—it screams itself into an outright tantrum that would make a 2 year old take notes. It’s oddly self-defeating, as the internal monologue of “when do I get time for MEEEE” steals the very time and energy so necessary to the creative process.

During this school year I ran into this. I found myself thinking, in the stuttering fashion of the often-interrupted, something along the lines of “I’ll have some coffee while I grade this, then when I get to the end I’ll still have energy to write!” Or, even less realistic during a grading and planning intensive semester, “Coffee now will be smart, then I’ll still be alert enough to write while the kid is falling asleep.” Then I’d drink more coffee, grade furiously, get within one or two assignments, and have to pick the boy up from school or go in and assure him there were no monsters, no real monsters, and wait in his room, twitching—not to get back to writing the monsters away, but to the grading so there was space in my head for monsters to even lurk.

It finally struck me one day, reaching for the dregs from the coffee pot after a short bout of yard work, what a contradiction a strong relationship to coffee can be.

When my son was little, and a determined non-sleeper, coffee was the fake energy I pulled from throughout the morning. He sleeps now, mostly. Yet still I look forward to that first cup, and still I pull the dregs from the pot hours later. And still I expect that humble little cup of darkness to produce miracles.

Here’s the contradiction: it’s a stimulant. It keeps the brain awake even when the brain would like to saunter off into deconstruction mode. Yet drink too much of it and I become grumpy, jumpy, and fidgety – all behaviors that doom me creatively. Then I become tired, yet unable to sleep.

Miracles do occur, by the way. I wrote a poem during the semester. It remains handwritten; I think I know which notebook I jotted it in. Still, I wrote a poem, in the early evening, while my husband read books to our son in the other room, on a day I left the coffee pot behind at 7 am, and taught and graded, and ran errands, and generally juggled the dishes of daily life. The secret to miracles, it turns out, is a peaceful interlude.

Sitting in my son’s room waiting for him to fall asleep doesn’t appear to count, by the way. My creative side flatly refuses to see it as time to myself.

Sometimes I find my goals lay themselves out before me, stepping stones through the chaotic garden of thought. The first stepping stone is to rid myself of my delusions – such as coffee’s usefulness in creating interludes. The next is to find, within the realities of my life, the consistent moments where I am my own person, one where the monikers of “mother”, “wife”, “instructor” or even “woman” do not exist, or at least do not take precedence. In other words, I intend to find and to create peaceful interludes. To do so requires I change, not my space, not the realities of my daily life, but my expectations of my space.

A friend once told me—a writer and instructor like me but with far more experience in both—that summer was his time to reflect and regenerate. Summer has begun for me and so has creative regeneration. I’ll share my writing reflections here this summer.

Clutter – it’s messing with my writing

Six years ago I undertook a major home renovation project by adding a great room addition to the rear of my Cape Cod style home.  Even before the construction contract was signed, I visualized the space doubling as a weekend writing lounge for myself.

I imagined two glass French doors propped open on spring-like mornings while I was serenaded by fluttering wings of songbirds landing in the shrubbery—a welcome contrast to the backdrop of a soft trickle of water from a small nearby stone fountain.  The sweet-and-salty conflict of nature’s wild honeysuckle and mankind’s deeply-roast coffee steam would mingle through the room, encouraged by the flirtatious east-coast breeze.  No doubt this would be a writer’s paradise.

Contrary to my vivid imagination, the momentum of my writing has suffered for the past several months due to mental clutter.  Partially to blame was the long slog of job-hunting that, fortunately, led me to an exciting and enjoyable new opportunity that both stretches and monetarily-rewards my creativity.  Also to blame is the desire to maintain a regular cadence of physical-fitness; activities that directly compete with my pre-dawn writing time.

If mental clutter wasn’t enough, at present my physical writing space is cluttered, too.  My large dining table is sans tablecloth except for a white protective padded cover that annoyingly shifts and slides whenever I’m trying to write.  At the right of my keyboard is a stack of paid paper invoices waiting for shredding or filing, while at the left stands a small stack of unpaid bills and unsorted mail that creeps atop my mouse pad with each passing day.  And finally, there’s the assortment of home improvement implements—tape measure, electrical testing equipment, and bright-yellow twirled mess of an extension cord—occupying the other side of the table waiting patiently to be properly stored in the basement.  Granted, this physical clutter is certainly in my control for quick remedy, but it’s been here for four weeks now.

Speaking of my imagined garden view, there’s definitely a stark difference between fantasy and reality.  Sadly most of the time the French doors remain shut to block out the constant barking of the Bumpus’ nineteen (okay, three? four?) dogs from the rear adjoining yard, courtesy of a dog door sized to accommodate a Siberian tiger. It’s that, along with their proffered view of an above-ground pool ladder straddled with shocking-colored pool noodles and sundry flotation devices that can be seen just above the sight-line of the six-foot privacy fence I installed last summer.  But I’m to blame as well.  In the five years since completing my home’s renovation, I’ve yet to install any trees, shrubs, bird feeders, or water features to invite songbirds and restrict the view to my property.

There we have it.  Clutter is messing with my writing.  But which is easier to remedy—mental clutter, or physical clutter?

How to Talk to a Writer

writerMy efriend, Kirk Allmond, had a hilarious run down of what NOT to say to a writer. Well, they were all true, but I still couldn’t stop laughing. Truisms like, “Leave a writer alone when they’re writing. You have no idea how difficult it is to enter the zone.”

So I decided to put together my own list of how to talk to a writer. See if you agree:

  • You can’t scare me. I’m a writer.
  • Patience and writing is an oxymoron
  • Patience and writers aren’t friends
  • Must. Remember. To. Eat.
  • Some days, writing looks a lot like work.
  • I successfully spelled ‘Worcestershire’ today in my book.
  • There are days I wouldn’t know a good plot twist if I woke up next to one.
  • Trying to write good dialogue is like trying to ignore a rejection letter.
  • Life after the 100th rejection is what Oprah might call a life-defining moment.
  • Understanding a writer who’s in the zone is like understanding the meaning of life.
  • Some days, I need a map to find my muse.
  • This is my writer’s face. This is my ‘go away’ face.
  • My head is like a bad neighborhood none of my characters want to live in.
  • Despite my past experience with agents, my mind is open to a miracle.
  • I keep a portrait of Mark Twain in my attic.

I have more pithy ideas for you, but I have a book to write. Well, I’ll just look in on Twitter…

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Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for five blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a weekly columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blog, IMS tech expert, and a monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculum, K-8 keyboard curriculum, K-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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We’re Back!

TA helloToday’s Author has arrived just in time. You can only say WTF so many times a day before you decide to start drinking.

But I don’t drink, so I turned to that sister of creativity, sloth. Well, they look alike.

Don’t get me wrong. When I’m not doing my day job–which is teaching–I write columns and reviews and articles and blogs and lesson plans for lots of people, but what I get little chance to do is

write

imaginatively.

To me, that’s fiction. My novel–a techno thriller–is with an agent and if–WHEN, though I’m realistic enough to know my chances are slim, none and you’re kidding–a publisher arrives, they will make changes. I don’t want my head into a different plot so I am writing everything BUT the sequel.

Thanks to the Universe, I will now be writing twice a month for Today’s Author, a new writer community who’s goal it is to foster creativity “through a healthy and supportive environment which encourages participation via articles, comments, and writing prompts”.

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