Doing It Old School

Do you ever feel as though the universe is trying to send you a message? When many signs converge to point you in a direction you hadn’t anticipated swerving toward?

1. A few weeks ago, my friend posted a link to the blog Hands Free Mama. This mother blogs about unplugging, setting aside the smartphone in favor of connecting with her kids. Not on a permanent basis; just as a way of being in the moment. Hm…. (at this point I begin to get twitchy at the thought of setting aside my phone for an hour or two).

2. I left for my friend’s house last Tuesday night for our weekly girls’ night, and forgot my phone. Left it at home, charging. Yeah, I got twitchy. But once at her house, I quickly got busy, had some great chats with my friends, made a few cards, and actually got work done. Continued “Hm….” and add a little chin stroking.

3. In planning for the summer with the kids, I knew I have to put the laptop back in my office. I also know I need to give them a couple of quality hours of “Mom time” before I can ease off from them and do my own thing. Which means…being more connected. And less connected to the outside world.

4. I read this morning that Neil Gaiman is planning a sabbatical from social media for a few months. 

OK, that’s just crazy.

5. I recently had to take a few days’ break from reading novels. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes I find myself between genres, and need a breather. A palate cleanser, if you will. Magazines fill that position for me nicely, and since I usually have a tall stack in our bedroom, which I have been eschewing in favor of books, I figured I’d take a couple of days to catch up on “Good Housekeeping.” Well, there’s some good information in there! I have been searching for a good way to degrease my kitchen cabinets and ceiling fan. With all the chemical research we have going on today, you’d think we could come up with the perfect thing. I’ve been all over Pinterest and pinned a ton of pins, but haven’t used any of them.

You know what (Hints From) Heloise’s favorite degreaser is? Ammonia. Lemon ammonia, to be precise, but I have regular ammonia in my cleaning cabinet, so this morning, I was finally inspired.

Picture this: it’s 2013, I live in an old house in the city, I set aside my smartphone for the morning, dress in cleaning clothes, and my husband uses an old-fashioned screwdriver to remove the fan paddles. I fill an old metal washtub (yes, really!) with a mixture of hot water and ammonia, and let the paddles soak. A few minutes later, I’m in my driveway, crouched over the washtub with a rag, scrubbing off years of accumulated grime. 

I felt like Laura Ingalls. It was freaking brilliant.

Now I have this incredible sense of satisfaction. My kitchen is brighter, cleaner, and I have a bizarre feeling of anachronistic accomplishment. 

The old ways are, indeed, sometimes better. I hate to admit it. But, as much as I love blogging from my Droid and well, doing everything from it, I suppose I know now that I need to set it aside for a little while each day.

Maybe I can even use my antique typewriter to write my best seller!

Wait, no, that’s definitely crazy.

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Extroverts vs. Introverts: A Scientific POV

First: I have no idea what had happened to Wednesday’s post. If you got the notice it was up and came here to read and found it was gone, I’m sorry. Hopefully it’s there now.

For today’s post, I just read this article, and found it absolutely fascinating. It’s often said that many writers are introverts, that we prefer to interact with the world through our writing, rather than directly. It’s certainly true for me. Though, at times, I prefer not to interact much at all!

You other writers out there, are you an introvert or an extrovert?

http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/3438078

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I Have a One-Track Mind

No, not like that, you perverts!

It’s just that I only have room for one–well, maybe two–obsession(s) in my mind at one time. And while I keep meaning to get back to writing, the kids’ lives intervene…I pick up a good book…I start training for my annual triathlon…and writing falls by the wayside. Not because I don’t have time, but because I apparently don’t have the mental capacity. Am I the only one who feels like this? That I must empty my mind of all else before I sit down to write? I try to sit down and do it, but see the pile of laundry out of the corner of my eye, or remember I’m supposed to make a doctor’s appointment for the kids, or realize I should really, really go out for a run. As it turns out, my best writing time, the first couple of hours after the kids are at school, is also the best time of day for me to work out. Crap.

And the worst part: school ends next week. Which means I will never be alone with my thoughts. Oy.

So: time for a plan. Perhaps it will work better than my office. (Ahem, currently typing on the sofa in the living room again, but I swear, I will put the laptop back upstairs, I promise).

My kids are too old for naptime, but perhaps an afternoon quiet time? Maybe if I give them a few good hours of quality Mom time, I can talk them into leaving me the heck alone for two hours so I can write.

I have my fingers crossed.

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Meeting My Tribe

As I posted the other day, yesterday was my first meeting of my local RWA chapter, the Central New York Romance Writers. As it happened, it was the annual Conference, and not just a meeting. The great Patricia Kay had been engaged to come and speak to us about creating an emotional connection with the reader, and about Scene and Sequel.

Both were fascinating; I’m so glad I joined! As a new writer, I’m still in the stage of wanting to voraciously ingest all the information I can on the craft of writing. The concept of following scenes with sequels was rather new to me; I have certainly read examples of such but now have a name for it. 

And creating the emotional connections with readers: KEY. There are only so many plots out there, particularly if you’re writing romance but really, for any genre. What I love: exploring my characters’ feelings. And then you can do anything with them, once you get to know them.

When I think back to the books that have kept me up all night, made me cry, or affected my mood during and after the reading of them, I can’t pinpoint any plot device in particular that did it. It’s because the author did such a fabulous job of making me care what happened to that character. So I feel like the emotional stuff is the most important.

On the shelf above my new desk I keep an array of craft books but also some classics and a few of my favorites: the books I’ll read over and over again. A number of the craft books I’ve perused recommend often grabbing your favorites to see how they handled such-and-such, so I like to keep them within reach. How does Nora Roberts keep me coming back again and again, even though I know how every one of her books will end? That freaking witch trilogy– why does it stick with me? Diana Gabaldon– such a long-winded series but I love every one of those characters, even the ones I hate, if that makes sense. How is it that I feel as though they’re my family? Harper Lee, Janet Evanovich, Eloisa James, Stephen King…a disparate group of authors, to be sure. But they rest next to one another within easy reach.

Just as I love to meet other authors in person, so do I like to surround myself with the masters while I work. 

And, Ms. Kay teaches online classes and is available for speaking engagements, so I highly recommend you check her out:

http://www.patriciakay.com/classes/index.php

Now, I’m off to torture my characters a little bit more.

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A Time and a Place

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I have been struggling with how to fit writing into my life. I could say I haven’t had the time, but that’s not true. I’ve lacked the focus needed, that’s for sure. I am the obsessive type, but unfortunately I only have room for one obsession in my mind at a time. So while I’d love to write and ignore all else, I can’t do so because there’s always something else nagging at me.

How do I solve this? Well, my first step was to designate a small area of the house as mine. I’m a stay at home Mom of school-age kids; you’d think I could find some space where I wouldn’t be disturbed. But, that’s the problem. I’m home all day. There is no differentiation between sitting in my spot on the sofa on Pinterest and Facebook, and opening up a Word doc and writing.

Finding a separate space in a house that we’ve outgrown isn’t easy. Nearly every square foot is spoken for. We have a small cubby under our stairs where we store games, and that was my darling husband’s first suggestion. OK, I know I’m short, but c’mon. As much as the nerdy part of me was squeeing over the possibility of feeling like Harry Potter…no.

Hmm… at some point I had written a much longer post. It would seem my laptop is unhappy in its new location.

Anyway, so another option was this small area between our closets in the bedroom. Normally, we are very careful about keeping our room “sacred.” We don’t bring the computers up here, no phones, and while we have a TV it’s only for me to listen to when my husband is away, to drown out the noises that would otherwise keep me awake all night.

But, beggars can’t be choosers, as they say. We’ve outgrown the house for the most part, so this is it. I have to say, I like what I’ve done with it. I can come up here, shut the door, and write. Of course the kids love this too and I’ve already had to fight them off. Naturally, they want to be where I am. But…I can close the door!

I have my autographed swag from some of my favorite writers, my books on writing, my favorite fiction books–lots of inspiration. I can already feel it working.

And when I’m done, I can close the laptop, close the desk, and put it all away until tomorrow.

Speaking of which, tomorrow I will attend my first writers’ conference, a meeting of our local RWA chapter. I’m pretty excited! A huge step. I am looking forward to meeting even more writers and learning about the craft. And hopefully, I will update! You know, from my new office!

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Philosophy…not just the talk on a cereal box

I attended a small, Jesuit, liberal arts college. They had a fantastic Biology department, which is why I chose them. That, and they freaking loved me. I mean, “they mailed me blank applications weekly until I finally turned one in,” loved me. The interview was amazing, I fell in love with the campus at first sight, and although I am not technically using my degree, I have never regretted my decision to attend. The fact that I had nearly a free ride helped a lot, too; my family had very little money by then so the financial aid package rocking harder than the state schools was a huge plus.

One thing I adored was that I didn’t have to take a math class. I enjoyed math in high school, until 11th grade when I bumped up to honors just when we were getting into Trig. Ugh. Still hate Trig. But Geometry was fun and Algebra (O Algebra!) was magical.

However, Trigonometry and I did not get along, so when, as a Biology major, I found out I could earn a degree without a math class, I was all over that. What I hadn’t counted on, however, was my college doing away with the “Physics for Biology majors” class that wasn’t Calculus-based. The only Physics left: the one requiring Calculus first. But they didn’t tell you that; it wasn’t technically a prerequisite listed in the catalog. I didn’t find out until midway through, and by then, well… I was struggling. Eventually I prevailed, and passed the course (it was a close thing).

But this one little choice–to not take a math class in college–resulted in my having to choose a minor in my junior year. I’d also been in the honors program and had the opportunity to take quite a few unique seminar classes that satisfied various core curriculum requirements outside of my science background. They left me in the position of being only two classes short of a minor in a variety of fields: Chemistry, Psychology, and foreign language (Spanish), and three classes short of a minor in Philosophy. Why did I choose Philosophy? No idea, even after all these years.

However, I’m still glad I did. One reason: I made one of my best friends; one of the few with whom I’ve kept in touch since college. I figured out immediately that she knew her stuff in those classes and I made it a point to befriend her for that alone, but then we wound up really getting along as more than study partners.

The other reason is that writing a Philosophy paper was a far different cry from writing a technical paper. We laughed at those in our class who used “references” beyond the text about which we were writing. Write a paper on Leibniz? You cite Leibniz. The text you’re reading, and if you want to create extra work for yourself, you can refer to his other works.  If you’re writing about “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” by John Locke, you don’t need to refer to anything else (though I wrote a fascinating comparison of the two men for a mid term paper. “Fascinating” in that I wonder just what I was on at the time, and how I managed to pass).

This allowed me to explore my own feelings when it came to writing. I’d read, imbibe some kind of mood-altering substance (caffeine or alcohol, depending on when the paper was due) then write in a stream of consciousness and explore depths I didn’t know I had. Such a far cry from the science papers necessitating multiple trips to the library, Internet searches (such as they were in the mid-90’s), and endless nights in my study carrel perusing my notebooks.

At some point, probably when I was earning a living as a medical/technical writer under the stringent requirements of pharmaceutical companies and FDA-mandated wording, I lost that ability. I began to rely again on supporting texts, on the how-to, endlessly researching the “why” and “how” and specifically, “which.” I lost that ability to let go and drift, and see where the current of my mind took me.

I’m still trying to get it back. But I think the realization this weekend that that’s how I used to do it may have helped me in some small way.

Philosophy…is a walk on the slippery rocks.

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Cabin Fever

Never have I had it so bad as I do this year. My husband does, too. I don’t know how people survived in the “olden days”, when they truly were trapped in their cabins for months on end. No visitors, no trips. Never feeling warm. 

We have hit that point in winter when it feels like it may never end. We had those few days here and there of warmer weather, but they were just a tease. It’s funny; we haven’t even had that much snow (granted, more than we did last year) but I think it’s just that this is stretching ON and ON…

I want to run outside. I want to smell that amazing smell— do you know the one I’m talking about? That fragrance created when sunlight hits the few emerging green leaves and blades of grass; it emanates from the green. It is green; it is the smell of spring, of new growth, of pure sunshine. 

I want to feel the sunshine beating down on me, turning my cheeks pink with the freshness of it. Until I can feel the freckles emerging on the surface of my skin. Until it burns away the last of the gray ice frozen on the edge of everything–the figurative ice, and the literal.

Soon, I know it is soon.

In the meantime, we have a lake effect snow warning. 

Happy Spring!

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Coming Up For Air

I just finished Justin Cronin’s The Passage. Now, I have a soft spot for post-apocalyptic fiction; King’s The Stand is one of my favorite books. My very first one, though, was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a book that still gives me chills to think about (especially in this day and age).

So I have spent the last two days immersed in this novel, to the point of nearly ignoring my children (thank goodness they’ve gotten pretty self-sufficient), going without food or water for long periods of time, and almost giving myself a UTI because I didn’t want to stop reading long enough to get up and visit the bathroom.

Probably a good thing I wasn’t drinking much.

Anyway, I love that feeling, of being drawn so deeply into a fictional world that I can’t easily claw my way out. Or, don’t want to. One part of me is paying attention to the technical aspects: can I describe a scene like this? Can I come up with amazing ideas like these? Can I evoke such emotion in the reader?

And the other part of my brain knows it won’t happen, and recognizes that it’s all right. The world needs masters, and the world needs people who are just OK. It’s OK that reading this makes me want to drop to my knees in front of authors like these and do my best Wayne impression, bowing low, forehead to ground, repeating “I’m not worthy!”

I’m not worthy to even contemplate the wish that someday, I might call myself an author, a title this amazing writer shares. 

But thank God, I can still read his books.

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Tradition!

Fifteen years ago, my then-boyfriend and I decided to cook a corned beef and cabbage dinner together, for another couple. Afterward, the four of us crowded around a small table in his apartment’s kitchen and enjoyed the simple meal. I am of Irish descent, and my family always celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in the traditional Irish-American way, so this just seemed natural. It felt so right, that the next year, we invited a few more people.

After we got married, the dinners got bigger and bigger, inviting more people, making more dishes. We decided to limit it to our closest friends, the people we see often, to let the kids play together and the adults relax. At some point, we had to switch to paper plates and serving buffet-style. Last year, the weather was beautiful and the kids played outside, so we began a new tradition: we adults ate a lovely, quiet meal first, before feeding the kids. Fantastic.

Yesterday, we cooked 11 lbs. of corned beef, 4.5 lbs. of beef in the form of Guinness stew, a large bowl of colcannon, another large bowl of boiled cabbage and other veggies, 2 loaves of “soda bread” (really, just a lovely tea cake but The Joy of Cooking calls it Irish-American soda bread so we serve it) and 48 potato rolls, my grandmother’s recipe. There were about 25 people in our home, about half of them children. Who, I was impressed to see, ate quite a bit of the meal themselves. Today, we are having my family over for leftovers, and I actually have to make more buttery potato rolls because we ate nearly all of them last night. This doesn’t hurt my feelings.

The potato rolls take me back to holiday dinners at my grandparents’ house. My grandmother passed away almost 30 years ago; I only had 10 years with her, but I was so lucky to have them. So many memories come back when I bite into one of those rolls. They take a while to prepare: a real labor of love, and worth every hour involved in the baking and calorie in the consuming. The potato rolls have become my only contribution to this dinner, as my husband has completely taken over. But for me, they are the center. Eat them right out of the oven and they are just soft, comforting bundles of butter. They are the perfect vehicle for sopping up gravy in the Guinness stew. And leftover, toasted, topped with even more butter or some homemade jam…delectable.

It’s a lot of work to prepare the whole meal, to do all the shopping, clean and decorate the house, plan activities to keep all the children busy. But we love being able to share my family’s heritage with our closest friends and family.

Well, I need to get moving to bake more. Prepare the mashed potatoes, scald the milk, mix, rise, shape, rise, bake, share. Raise a glass today, but do it safely, please.

Sláinte!

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When Tragedy Strikes

Too many horrible things have happened here this week, and today’s news was the worst. I can’t get into it, but it involved a mother and child. So very few words today. I held my children close, and said a thankful prayer; as I feel I’ve had to do too often lately. And as I did so, I couldn’t help but think she must have done the same with her daughter after Sandy Hook. Did she hold her child that day, and think “Thank God that wasn’t us”?

Thank God.

I remember a friend asking that day, “How did those parents take another breath? How did they go on after what happened?” That question has stuck with me for months.

There is a quote about making the decision to have a child meaning you will forever carry your heart outside your body, unprotected.

Never before has that resonated as much as it does today.

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