The Writing Life

The Unexpected Evolution of Character

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.

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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.

 

Keeps Typing

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Creeeeeeeeak.

[Sticks one arm tentatively inside. Feels spider webs. Flips out. Does hippity-hoppity screechy octopus-style dance move until all spider webs are off.

[Reaches in with broom and clears entryway of cobwebs.]

[Lights match. Sees angry homeless spiders. Drops match. Screams. Runs. Screams some more.]

[Eventually comes back to make sure has not started fire by dropping match. Match is out. Spiders are gone. Soft bluish glow emanates from rectangular device in corner of room. Device beckons.]

[Tiptoes toward light. Sits down on slightly familiar wheeled object. Wiggles until feels more comfy.]

[Blows dust off tray of clicky things. Coughs. Sneezes. Looks for tissue. Finds none. Wipes nose on sleeve. Looks around. Pretends did not just wipe nose on sleeve.]

[Pops knuckles. Pops wrists. Pops neck. Pops knuckles again. Takes deep breath.]

[Types.]

[Smiles. Types some more. Backspaces to fix typos. Curses. Types again.]

[Checks Facebook. Goes back to typing.]

[Keeps 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?”

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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.]

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How to Make a Clay Dog; How to Do a Perfect Plié; How to Make a Ninja Star; How to Make Space Buns (still not sure why she only brought in the Barbie’s HEAD to use as a model); How to Draw a Ninja; How to Make Cookie Dough

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.

Montana Collage

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!

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There it is! Right next to Pete the Cat!

IMG_20170315_144204ANYTHING 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.

Anyway, I promise to keep typing.

Inspiration Only Gets You So Far

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Austin is such an amazing town for writers. Independent book stores, author events, poetry readings, book festivals, literary archives, professional organizations, classes, workshops, meet-ups, indie presses, conferences—we have it all. I gushed about some of my favorite local literary highlights in this post, and I stand by everything I said.

I have friends in other parts of the state/country/globe that don’t live on such fertile writing ground, and I feel a little sorry for them. They can’t even imagine the number of opportunities I have for networking, listening, and learning. There’s just so much inspiration here!

This summer alone, I participated in a writing conference and an online workshop, attended a panel discussion and an author interview, led a write-away day at The Writing Barn and met up with various writer friends to drink coffee, share ideas, and bond over this strange and wonderful writing life. All of it was excellent.

But… (Yeah, there’s a but.)

This may sound a bit blasphemous, but I’m actually starting to envy those writers who DON’T live in a thriving writing community because, well, I bet they get a lot of work done.

The thing is, inspiration only gets you so far. Eventually, you have to actually sit down and WRITE. Otherwise, all those techniques you learned and exercises you practiced and great advice you heard and connections you made don’t matter. You have to put the inspiration to use or it doesn’t mean anything. The writing is the key.

Calendar

I recently went back to work full time-ish. (I’m a substitute teacher, so my job is pretty flexible, meaning random and confusing and literally all over the place, but I’m trying to book a job every day because I like having money to buy things.) All of a sudden, my available hours have shrunk and my available hours that I am awake and running on at least 70% brain power have shrunk even more.

This weekend, I looked at my calendar for the month and—man, oh, man—it is full of so many amazing things! Volunteering for one writing organization and monthly meetings with two more. Two book launches at my favorite local book store and one poetry reading followed by an open mic. An author interview, and a meet-up with writer friends, and a panel discussion, and a poetry festival, and one event that even has free wine. Yes! Yes! Yes! Wait… Noooooo! When am I supposed to write???

I sat down, put my head in my hands, and wished I lived out in the country or possibly in a city of illiterates. I found myself envying those friends who don’t live in thriving literary communities.

Which is silly. Utterly and completely silly. Because, obviously I don’t have to go to all these things. There is literally ONE event on my calendar that I have to go to because I’m assisting at it. The rest? I can just say no. Remember that, kids of the eighties? JUST SAY NO.

But it’s not that easy, because I WANT to go. The book launches are both for friends of mine, and of course I want to celebrate their amazing successes. The poetry festival is always so much fun and all my poet friends will be there. The author interview is with someone really interesting who I’ve been wanting to meet. And free wine? Come on!

Sadly, though, I can’t attend everything. I will have to pick and choose. I will have to say no. I will have to live vicariously through others when it comes to some of these events because I am a writer, so what I have to do is write. There’s no point bottling up all that inspiration if I don’t make time to let it out.

So here I sit, erasing some events from my calendar. I’ll miss you, friends! But if you don’t see me at a meeting or a workshop or a festival in the coming weeks, don’t fret. If I’m not there, it means I’m writing. And that’s a good thing.