You know, it’s funny. The last thing I posted to my blog was a poem about all the things I hadn’t accomplished yet this summer. A poem about letting the to-do lists go and enjoying the moment for what it was. A poem that exuded relaxation and an appreciation for “slow and steady.”
Then, about an hour after posting it, I began the longest, most energetic, creative binge I’ve had in a long time.
Maybe writing the poem unlocked something. Maybe accepting the fact that I couldn’t do everything allowed me to do something. Maybe the summer solstice got into my blood. Whatever the reason, during the past six days I gave my website a complete makeover, opened an Etsy shop, started several projects for my shop, and rearranged my office. (Well, actually, I’m halfway through rearranging my office. Meaning my office is a mess. Meaning I had to find my computer in order to type this.)
This week, I spent several nights staying up until 3am, flitting like a hummingbird between projects until I eventually fell asleep and dreamed of things like photo layouts and fonts. This morning when I made my bed (for the first time in days), I found a pen in it, nestled between the sheet and the comforter. The last time I remember writing anything in bed was Tuesday, which means this pen and I have been bedmates for several nights. At least the cap was on.
These summer creative binges are fun, and very productive. But they can also make a person feel a little unstable. Waking up and wondering if it’s four in the afternoon or four in the morning can be disorienting, and shopping for craft supplies on Amazon after midnight should not even be legal.
Luckily, I balanced my nighttime-crafty-hermit tendencies with daytime social events out in the real world. To all the friends I hung out with this week, I want to say thank you. You may have thought you were just having coffee or a beer with me, but really you were helping to keep me sane. (And making sure I got some vitamin D.)
It must have been a good combination because I’m pretty happy with what I accomplished.
When you get a chance, take a look around my new website. I added some color and more photos, updated my About and Favorites pages, and tried to make my Published Work easier to navigate. I also added a Shop page where you can access my new Etsy store, as well as links where you can purchase some of the books that include my writing. Let me know if you come across anything that doesn’t work or if you find that one typo I always miss.
In the meantime, I’m going to finish rearranging my office. When I’m done, I think I might sleep for a day or two.
I just came across this unfinished blog post from a year and a half ago, and it made me laugh, so I decided to finish it. I no longer spend all day writing in coffee shops, and the manuscript I mention here has been collecting dust for months, but come summer, I hope to be having more awkward conversations in public and putting more words on the page.
The Unexpected Evolution of Character
I spend a lot of time writing in coffee shops. Recently, I walked into one and saw a man standing in line with his little boy. The man looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. I claimed a spot at my favorite little table in the corner, grabbed my wallet, and headed to the counter for my large café au lait. The man was still there. Worried that perhaps I did know him and was being weird by not speaking to him, I said, “You look familiar. Do we know each other?”
He said, “I don’t think so. I’m Jeff,” and he offered his hand to shake.
A brief conversation led us to the conclusion that we didn’t know each other but both frequent this coffee shop and had probably seen each other here before. By then it was his turn at the counter. He handed the barista a large glass jug and asked for a refill of the shop’s cold brew coffee while his toddler toddled around between us. By this time, a woman had entered and was standing in line behind me. Out of the blue, she said to me, “Do you like to heat it up?”
I stared at her. I said nothing. No appropriate responses came to mind. After standing there awkwardly for a moment, wondering if her words would make sense if I’d already had some coffee, I said, “Um… what?”
She nodded toward the man in front of me and repeated, “Do y’all like to heat it up?”
Well, this was completely inappropriate. No, I did not like to “heat it up” with this man. I didn’t even know this man. I suddenly, desperately wanted to be safe in my cozy corner table with my headphones on to block out the world, especially crazy women who asked me shockingly inappropriate questions. Seeing the confusion in my eyes, the woman said, “Oh, are you not together?”
Me and Jeff? No! We just met, barely, sort of, in line. It turns out the woman was referring to the coffee. She also likes cold brew coffee, but in the winter she likes to heat it up. Well, not Jeff. He never heats it up. In fact, he likes it better cold in winter. I stood there while they bonded over their favorite beverage until it was finally my turn to order my café au lait and scuttle back to my corner table, slightly scarred by the whole ordeal.
In a way, though, it fit perfectly with what I was struggling with in my current manuscript: I didn’t know who my main character was. I mean, I knew who he was in general. He was a kid being haunted by ghosts who were mad at him for skipping Halloween. But the specifics of the kid—his age, his family situation, his attitude—kept changing, making him feel vague and hard to pin down. I was employing the bracket method I learned in a workshop at The Writing Barn with YA author Ashely Hope Peréz. While writing my messy first draft, I placed brackets around prose that needed to be fixed or blanks that needed to be filled in or story ideas that I wanted to come back to later. It’s a great tool to keep you typing when your brain wants to second-guess or micromanage every little thing, but my brackets were getting out of control.
In one paragraph, my character (whose name kept switching from Donald to Miles) went from being a carefree, ten-year-old orphan to a surly, twelve-year-old kid who resented his parents for going on a vacation without him. At one point he even (briefly) changed gender. I was feeling discouraged about my lack of consistency.
But after my encounter at the counter, things suddenly seemed less dire. I mean, here, in real life, in less than five minutes, a man had gone from being a familiar-looking stranger, to an acquaintance, to my husband with whom I possibly liked to “heat it up,” and back to an acquaintance again.
So I dove back in to my messy manuscript, and I allowed my character to be whoever he/she wanted to be in that moment. I typed and typed and bracketed and bracketed, the only rule that I keep the momentum going forward. And after half an hour, I actually felt closer to my character, who at this point I was sure was a boy named Miles with parents who were alive. Slowly but surely, he began to reveal himself to me, and I felt more comfortable about where we were going together.
Much like Jeff. After all the confusion, I can now say with certainty that Jeff is a man who lives in Austin, has a young son, and likes cold brew coffee, even in the winter. That is all. Our story ends there. Miles’s however, is still going. I can’t wait to see where it takes me.
[Smiles. Types some more. Backspaces to fix typos. Curses. Types again.]
[Checks Facebook. Goes back to typing.]
This is all just to say… I know. It’s been a really long time since I’ve posted anything to my blog. It’s been so long that WordPress is sending me emails like, “We recommend you post at least once a month!” and “It’s been a while since you posted,” and “Hey, you still have a blog, right?” Even my adoring fans* have started asking when I’m going to post something again.
* Ok, mainly just my dad.
So, here I am. I’ve clawed my way out of the piles of student papers and located my cute little office with my cute little computer with its cute little keyboard, and now that I’ve dusted off the cobwebs and sent the spiders scurrying, I plan to visit more often. I’ve missed it.
WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?
At school mainly. And at home grading papers. And at coffee shops grading papers. And sitting in my backyard grading papers. I graded, among other things, 174 expository essays, which took me roughly… hang on… carry the one… subtract the sleeping… FOREVER.
It wasn’t all bad though. Some of the essays were quite good, and others were funny. One student wrote in her introduction to an essay about benefits of learning from your mistakes, “Why does failing feel like climbing up a giant mountain, but when you get to the top, the view is nothing but bricks and bones?”
Nothing but bricks and bones? That’s some creepy stuff from a seventh grader. I may have to borrow that image for a short story.
My students also learned about procedural texts by writing how-to manuals. They had to write the step-by-step procedure for any simple task that could be done in less than fifteen minutes in the classroom. When they were finished, they brought all the necessary supplies for their task, swapped booklets at random, and proceeded to follow the instructions. That was a very amusing day. There were students making origami, braiding hair, doing push-ups, eating cereal, drawing penguins, and learning to throw a softball all at the same time.
The most unique manuals were:
How to Clean Your Teeth (complete with toothbrush, paste, floss, and mouthwash)
How to Make Cookie Dough (This involved a LOT of supplies and other students kept having to be shooed away from it, like flies.)
How to Do a Perfect Plié (This involved extremely detailed instructions about “squeezing your butt” so it didn’t stick out.)
How to Reverse Dab (described as “the move that took the world by storm”)
How to Play the Cello (yes, she really brought her cello)
How to Tell Time in a Room with No Clock (This manual gave step-by-step instructions for raising your hand, asking to go to the restroom, and then using the break to check the time on the clock in the hall.)
How to Get a Girlfriend (which was adorable)
How to Annoy a Teacher (This one was well-researched, thorough, and expertly executed. My “favorite” step was #3: “Raise your hand. When called on, pretend to think about a question for about 6 seconds, then say, ‘I forgot.’ Repeat this step 3-5 times.”)
[Note: This lesson was not my idea. I got it from one of my awesome coworkers.]
However, it hasn’t all been red pens and progress reports. Last week, for spring break, my hubby and I spent a few days at a cabin in Montana with no TV, no internet, no papers to grade, and no SCHOOL! Er… sort of. Actually the cabin was renovated from an old one-room schoolhouse, so it did have a chalk board, and some of the original desks, and pictures of the students, and several vocabulary flashcards. Yeah, now that I think about it, that was a strange choice of spring break getaway. But it was beautiful and severely lacking in stress. We saw lots of elk and bison, and I read a lot of books and made my first snowman. It was wonderful.
ANY WRITING NEWS?
A little. Back in January, I forgot to share the link to my story “Reap,” which was published at Daily Science Fiction just after the new year. You can read it for free here.
And last month, the nonfiction beginning reader I wrote about octopuses and squids came out through the Scholastic Reading Club. If you have a kindergartner or first grader who’s interested in the ocean, you should check out the Smart Words Beginning Reader Pack #6: Ocean Animals in the April Seesaw catalogue because it includes my book and four others!
ANYTHING ELSE WE SHOULD KNOW?
Um… Staedtler Triplus Fineliners make excellent grading pens. And lukewarm coffee is better than no coffee at all, especially when a student is following detailed instructions about how to annoy you. And you should always stay on the path at Mammoth Hot Springs so you don’t accidentally get boiled alive. And the next time I blog, I’ll try to be a little more focused and a little less covered in dust and cobwebs.