Neighbor to Neighbor

I’ve written more than once about Little Free Libraries. My neighborhood is in a warm, dry climate, with an engaged community, so we have dozens of these free standing tiny display boxes with books and magazines to share and exchange. But lately, there’s been a new trend. The owners are often sharing additional items as well, perhaps, or perhaps not,  inspired by the current health crisis. Some examples:

chef boyardee

A can of cooked pasta and sauce

yarmulkes

A selection of yarmulkes

dvlfl1

A Darth Vader piggy bank

Of course, since these little “homes” are so small, you won’t find anything like a lawn chair or child’s bike. But, in addition to the intended use of sharing literary finds, it’s fun to see what else these installations might offer. The next time I visited these particular ones, the non-book items had all been claimed. By someone. Not me, but someone. Have I myself benefited from any non-book finds? Well, there was that package of whole wheat linguini. . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

abacuSometimes I wish I were an accountant. I’m actually good with numbers. So, I could have been, back when I was supposedly “choosing” a career. But nooooo, I had to do something with more romance, more cachet. Like being a writer. But man, I sometimes envy accountants, bookkeepers, actuaries and the like. After all, the numbers either add up, or they don’t. If they don’t, there are various tricks and techniques to help you figure out the glitch. Then, AHA, problem solved. Numbers are not subjective. There’s no judgement from them or from an unseen “editor.” You never have a bunch of fellow accountants sitting around a table, making suggestions on how they would add up the numbers if it was their balance sheet. There’s never a need to stare at figures and wonder, is there a more accurate, more descriptive number, the way I sometimes agonize over word choice. It’s either the correct number or not. And numbers, too, can tell a story. The dwindling totals in a bank account. The set number of days between exposure and symptoms. The timelines that don’t add up, revealing gaps in an alibi. And bankers can be detectives. See Emma Lathen‘s John Putman Thatcher novels.

But I didn’t. I coulda, and maybe I shoulda. But bottom line, there is no woulda. I would never have given up my writing for another career. Not that any of us really has to choose. Lots of writers have, or had other careers. Cops, lawyers, university faculty, news reporters, social workers, longshoremen. Mine was community college librarian, a path that suited me, in which I made a contribution, and which served me well. But still. The clarity, the simplicity, the transparency of numbers will never lose their appeal for me. But then, neither will words.

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Reboot

new floor and catI recently had new flooring installed in the upper level of my townhouse. This involved moving everything out of every room including the closets. I mean everything. Clothes, books, papers, small furnishings, the entire office setup. I was able to leave a few major pieces of furniture in place, namely the beds and one empty bookcase, which the installers were willing to maneuver around. As always, even though I had been on a weeding binge for several months leading up to the project, there was still a ton of stuff to deal with. The installers took two days for the job, but the staircase and landing were being recarpeted in a different material, which was backordered. They had to return the following week to finish the job. I couldn’t have been luckier, as they finished, literally, the day before the “stay-at-home” orders were broadcast. Now I have all the time in the world to put everything back in place. I can do it in a thoughtful, mindful way.

Having all the leisure to reassemble the rooms is like a reboot for my upstairs life. Not as much an upheaval as actually moving, it’s still an opportunity not ot be wasted. I have the time to reconsider each item. Do I really want this? Would this be better relocated to another part of the house? Can I arrange the furniture some other way? Does anything need to be mended before being put away? It was a chance to see everything in a new way.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, there was a pause in some of the mental aspects of my life as well. Having new flooring and the new “look” it created also caused a sort of reboot in my emotional life. And consequently, I felt an accompanying “reboot” of my writing life. Packing up all my chaotic “notes,” clearing off the bulletin board, seeing a completely clear desk for the first time since I brought it into the house, made me take a fresh look at my writing practice. Are these the projects I really want to pursue? Is this an opportunity to change up my writing routine–for the better? Have there been distractions in my writing space that I can now see for what they are and move to another space? Are there resources and knowledge I’ve been putting off pursuing? Is it time to ease into that super challenging major work I’ve been putting off?

It seems that a fresh look, or fresh start in one area leads to a fresh look at related or even completely unrelated areas. Like when you get a new haircut, you have the urge to buy new clothes. Or maybe it’s just all part of the same process or mindset.  I think it’s always healthy to take a break now and then. These days, we can’t do it with a vacation, even a day trip. But I stumbled into this option. Maybe there’s one for you, too, during this time of “pause” in the rest of life.

 

 

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Spring Cleaning

spring cleaningI’m lucky. I’ve always been a bit of a homebody, so extra time at home during these highly unusual circumstances doesn’t weigh on me as much as I know it does on others.  Besides, there are all those sometimes boring, sometimes just challenging, chores that I never get around to because it’s hard to fit them in during the normal course of life and work. Sometimes, in order to do certain things, I feel like I need a substantial block of time without interruptions, which I rarely get–until now. Maybe you’re in the same boat. One way to use the time effectively ( other than plugging away on that WIP) is to refurbish your website or blog. Here’s what I’m doing:

  1.  learning new features, functionalities, skills, techniques.
  2.  checking links to make sure they’re still active and accurate
  3.  previewing new color schemes and themes that might punch up my blog.
  4.  uploading pictures that I took years ago, intending them for possible new headers, but never actually trying them out.
  5. revisiting older (I mean old) blog posts to see if I can update, or rewrite them to create new posts.
  6.  re-writing my bio page, since it was never very good to begin with and I’ve accomplished a ton of stuff since then.

These are all tasks that I tend to put off because they’re tedious, not urgent, or I just plain forget about them most of the time. Of course, there’s always more to do, both with writing and with the household. But for me, this is an opportunity too good to waste. So, be safe, my friends, fellow readers and writers. I’m wishing the best for all of you.

 

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We, Readers

blitzI love this picture of London during the Blitz. These diehard readers didn’t have to cope with “safer at home.” But they still were under grave stress and the chance of very real physical attack from the German Luftwaffe. Yet, they couldn’t, or wouldn’t stay away from their favorite bookstore. These days, we readers are luckier than those were. We can order books through mail order, get ebooks from paid sources or through our libraries, and listen to audio books. Of course, if you’re like me, you had a ton of books piled up anyway. In fact, since all the libraries hereabouts have suspended operations, they have also stopped all returning of library materials, and extended the due dates uniformly till some future date. Right now, it’s June 1, but it could go longer. This is a real boon to me, since I had, at the time of the freeze, way more books checked out than I could possibly have finished in the normal time allowed, even with renewals. This is on top of the hundreds of currently unread books on my shelves and several audio books queued up. But if you’re still in need, here’s my new favorite mail order bookseller: https://bookshop.org. And over at the Writers Who Kill blog, there is an entire post that lists non-Amazon booksellers. I’m only passing on this information, as I heard somewhere that Amazon was giving priority to essential products during this time of crisis, as well they should, causing some delays in orders for books and the like. So, whether you’re reading something light, to ease your mind, or something harrowing, to distract you from the present situation, you have plenty of choices and plenty of company. I wish you all safe and healthy reading.

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I’m Not Sure I Can Do This

theatreI don’t think I can go negative in public. In these posts, I always want to be positive, encouraging and supportive of my fellow writers. So, I hate to be critical. I know how hard writing is. Plus, in this case, no one is asking for my feedback. But here it is, anyway.

I saw a one-woman show a few days ago. I’ve seen many one-women or one-man shows over the years and most of them were outstanding. Even those slightly less stellar still left me envious of the quality of writing and the courage to perform them. But this last one, well . . .

Basically the show was a series of events and incidents from the author’s life strung together. Other than chronology, there was no organizing principle. There was no overall theme tying them together. She made a stab at presenting a thesis at the beginning and the end, but the part in between didn’t flow organically from the ostensible motif she attempted to develop. They were just, you know, anecdotes. I won’t give specifics. I would never in a million years hurt this woman’s feelings. She performed well, the accompanying graphics and music were spot on. But, let’s say you and your friends and family are all sitting around after a nice meal. One person tells a story about how a few days ago he lost his keys! But, guess what, after some searching, his found them. Then everybody else chimes in with stories about things they lost and found. It’s a fun way to bond over shared glitches in life. You care because you already care about these people. But in the end, the response is “so what?’ Is there a point? No. Do the stories have impact? are they memorable? do we learn anything? No. My first writing teacher, in fact, called these “so what? stories.”

The entire one-woman show was a string of these “so what?” anecdotes. Amusing, self-deprecating, with lots of concrete details, but there was no insight, no growth of character, no struggle, and thus no chance of a satisfying resolution. This woman put a lot of work into this performance. But it fell flat. Sad. Here’s the thing, though. It was a clear demonstration of what I must guard against in my own work.  There has to be a reason for the reader to care, to keep reading, to stay engaged, to care about the characters and what happens to them. I learn about my craft in many ways. I’m grateful for all of them, even this one. It’s a reminder of what I must not do. A reminder to dig deeper, to take risks, to put it out there. It was an object lesson in one of the reasons a piece of written work might fail.

Usually we don’t get to see the failures in the work of others. Editors and other gate-keepers stop them from being published. We might see them in a critique group or workshop. But my task is to spot them in my own work. Then, fix ’em or toss ’em.

Okay. I went negative. I hope I don’t have to do it again.

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The Antidote to Panic

panic1I saw a call for a new anthology. I thought had a story in inventory that would work. I had written it a few years ago and run it by my critique partner. Stephanie made some astute comments and I revised the story accordingly. So, it was pretty much ready to go–or so I thought. Then I pulled out the hard copy and starting reading, ready to make a few minor tweaks. After the first two sentences I was appalled. “This is awful! Unreadable. Boring,” I thought to myself. “Why didn’t I see this before. And more important, how can I fix it?” And still more urgently, how can I fix it in time for the anthology’s deadline?

Yep, thinking the story was nearly ready to go, I had waited till a couple of weeks before the deadline. I had other projects to work on, after all. Surely it would be easy to work this story into the schedule. But no, suddenly I was faced with some major revisions. At one point in my writing life, I might have given up in despair, believing I couldn’t fix the story in time. And at one point, that would have been true. But I’m way beyond that point these days. From years of experience, in reading, writing, revising, critiquing and listening to the critiques of others, I had a pretty good idea of what the story needed: change the point of view, add more dialogue, develop one of the secondary characters a bit more. It was also those years of experience that had enabled me to see how bad the story was in the first place. Stephanie had pointed out the most egregious problem. Silly me, not to have seen the others. But that was then, this is now.

I made the changes, re-read the guidelines for formatting one more time, then sent it off. It still may not be accepted. Might not be good enough. Might not be as close to the theme as the editor wants. Or, while it may be good enough, she might get dozens more that are better. But if I had succumbed to my initial panic, I would have stopped myself cold, and wouldn’t even have the chance for an acceptance. The cure for panic is two-fold. First, get that experience, then have faith that that experience is enough preparation to handle whatever writing challenges come up. Repeat.

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It Depends

pine strawBack when I was a Girl Scout, I went to camp every summer. Even the littlest campers were expected to help out with chores, both in their individual units and in the larger campground. One week, I was assigned to rake the pine straw off the sandy path from one area to another after breakfast each morning. One day, I was making progress, raking the path in long steady strokes. A counselor I didn’t know came up to supervise. Unhappy with my progress, she shouted, “Speed it up!” I was stunned and hurt. I was doing the best I could with my scrawny, little girl arms.

The next morning, I different counselor came along to monitor the chores. She said, as best as I can remember, “You’re doing a great job. You must have a lot of experience raking.” Now, of course, I was doing the exact same job in exactly the same way, which was the best I could and the only way I knew how. What changed was the viewer, not me or my work. I remember this every time I send out a submission. You don’t know who’s on the other end, the reading end. So, if you’ve done your best work, had it critiqued if possible, made revisions, followed the guidelines meticulously, then you can’t control the reaction of the editor or first reader.

I know I’ve told the story before of a piece I submitted to an anthology many years ago. The piece was not selected. But when I got the scores from the judges, it was more amusing than hurtful. One judge had give the story high marks on all criteria. One judge scored the story right down the middle. And the third judge had given the story all low marks, right down the line. So, what the heck? The wildly different reactions to the exact same story could only be the result of something in the judges themselves. I know from this and other experiences, rejections don’t mean my work is bad. It just means, not here, not now. I also know this because that same story was accepted and published in a different anthology a few years later. Keep writing, keep believing in yourself, keep submitting, keep finding new markets–keep trying. That’s my plan.

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Breakthrough

victrolaNo, not with my writing. (I wish.) But with my consumption of books. Years ago, I had a super long commute to and from work, 75 miles each way. I naturally thought it would be a great time to listen to audio books. Total failure. My mind was too busy with planning work projects or with problems there or at home. I just couldn’t pay attention. So, I gave up, thinking I just didn’t have the kind of mind to absorb audio books. Then I married a man who was nearly blind. I began to get him audio books in various forms, some from the library and some from a paid subscription service. He gobbled them up, and I was a bit envious that he had that option. Somehow, after he died, I never canceled his paid service, but also never thought I’d use it. After all, I had plenty of money to buy books, and had several libraries nearby. BUT–

The time arrived when I wanted to save more money. The time arrived, as it does for so many of us, when the pile of unread, or half read books became too much for my peace of mind. The time also arrived when I wasn’t able to get the books I wanted from any of my libraries. Either the collection development librarians didn’t choose them to buy, or they were so wildly popular the waiting list was a year long. So, I decided to give audio books another try. This time, it worked! Why now? First, the pressure of the above mentioned conditions. But moreover, I’ve stumbled upon the joy of the convenience of “hands-free” reading. Listening during mealtimes is the greatest discovery ever! Sure, there are gadgets that supposedly cradle a book while your hands are doing else. But I never found that any of them worked very well. You still have to turn the pages, after all. You really can’t read a print book while eating corn on the cob. Also, as with books on e-readers, you can carry a whole shelf of them with you anywhere you go. (Earphones or ear buds a must for public places.)

And the ways to get audio books are many. As I said, of course, there are the paid subscriptions, some of which offer free books as well. There are “playaways” offered by some libraries. And those same libraries have a both books on CDs and audio versions to download, just like checking out a print book.

Print books are still better for some topics, especially those with lot of illustrations, instructions to follow, or poetry. I’ll never give up my addiction to print books and I also have always enjoyed my various e-readers. But thanks to my willingness to try, try again, I can take advantage of a whole new source of book delivery. For a reading addict, nothing can be better than that.

 

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A Choice Every Minute

choiceOr maybe even every second. I have a writing project on my desk. I’m stuck. Can’t think of  new idea, can’t think where to take the ideas that I do have. Should I sit here until I have some kind of breakthrough? I’ve already been doing that, for an hour, with no tangible results. Judging by appearances that method is not working, even though it has in the past. BUT–there’s this program at the library that I told everybody I would attend. It starts in 15 minutes. Should I abandon my temporarily stuck project? Or stick to it till I muddle through, knowing I can fix it later.? But, if I’m not getting anywhere, aren’t I just embedding the sense of failure and ineptitude? If I go out, be amongst people, learn something new, will I then come back refreshed and, likely, with new ideas or a new direction? Or do I judge solely on what’s most important to me. Well, it’s all important to me. New experiences, as well as my work. As a writer, as  human, as someone who wants to “have it all”, I make these choices constantly. Do I choose wisely? I can’t say that I always do. And I won’t tell you what I’ll do this time. What choices do you make in your life. Which ones further your writing. Which ones bring you the most joy? Can they be the same? Yes, or no?

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