Wednesday, September 1, 2021

How Do I Know When I've Succeeded?

Welcome to the first Wednesday of the month. You know what that means! It's time to let our insecurities hang out. Yep, it's the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. If you're a writer at any stage of career, I highly recommend this blog hop as a way to connect with other writers for support, sympathy, ideas, and networking.

If you're a reader, it's a great way to peek behind the curtain of a writing life.

Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG.

September 1 question
 - How do you define success as a writer? Is it holding your book in your hand? Having a short story published? Making a certain amount of income from your writing?

The awesome co-hosts for the August 4 posting of the IWSG are  Rebecca Douglass, T. Powell Coltrin @Journaling Woman, Natalie Aguirre, Karen Lynn, and C. Lee McKenzie! Be sure to check out what they have to say, and visit other writers in the blog hop!

I've had some great successes in my writing life so far. There are plenty of moments in my career that feel like accomplishments and achievements. It's important to remind myself of that from time to time, because success is an ever-moving target and it's easy to feel like a failure and dismiss all the successes you've already had getting this far. 

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So, in the spirit of remembering my successes while I strive for new ones, here are some of my highlights (the brag book!)
So, by a lot of standards, I've already been pretty successful as a writer. But I'm an ambitious gal. I want more! 

I want to make my living (enough to pay the bills) from my writing. I want to see my work translated into other languages. I'd love to see my work picked up for television or movies (and to receive the paycheck that goes with that). I'd like to finish the book I'm working on now, and the several other projects languishing on my back burners, and do all those stories and characters justice. 

So, I think that's the trick with success. 

We're always succeeding, with each teeny tiny baby step we take toward meeting our goals. But we're also always failing, because if you accomplish a goal, you tend to set a new one, further out on the horizon and start striving all over again. 

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Just remember that there are MANY definitions of success, and you need to define it for yourself. Don't worry about what other people are doing--they're not you, and comparing yourself to other writers and their careers can be maddening. 

How do you define success for yourself? What do you do to remind yourself of all you've already accomplished? 

Monday, August 30, 2021

August Reads

School started in mid August for me, so that really put a dent in my reading time. Still, I managed to finish a few books: 

A little romance, a little horror, some supernatural happenings, a heist or two, and a health dose of wit and humor. Really, quite a good month for reading. 

I started with Eleanor and the Egret, a graphic novel by John Layman and Sam Kieth. My local coffee shop keeps a spinner rack stocked with a variety of comics and when I buy my "hurray! It's Friday!" treat of a pastry and a fancy coffee, I also often buy myself a comic. That's how I found the first issue of Eleanor and the Egret and I loved it so much, I ordered the trade. 

I'm so glad to have run across this bizarre and good hearted story of a young woman and an egret who become art thieves together. 

Alexandra Christian and I share a publisher, and I got her new book, Dr. Watson and the Ladies' Club Coven, as soon as it released in May 2021, but I hadn't read it yet! Wanting something short that I already knew I would love, I put this book next in my e-book queue. Like her previous Shadow Council Archives novella, The Ghost and Dr. Watson, this novella features Dr. John Watson after Sherlock Holmes has died in a world where supernatural happenings don't turn out to be phosphorescent paint and humans with ill intent, but the real deal. Highly recommended for fans of Sherlock Holmes and the supernatural. 

Earlier this summer, I read Monster, She Wrote by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson, a sort of annotated bibliography of works of speculative fiction by women across history. In that book, I learned that Edith Wharton, an author I knew from her literary, historical classics like The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome had also written a number of Gothic tales. So when I was offered a good deal on a collection of her Gothic tales from Chirpbooks (a discount audiobook company), I jumped on it. The Wharton Gothics included stories with real ghosts alongside atmospheric tales in which the dread came from natural instead of supernatural causes. 

Meanwhile, over on my Kindle, I pounced on the next of Lucy Blue's Stella Hart Romantic mysteries, just released in July. You might remember that I read two of them last month and enjoyed them immensely. The third one, The Baronet Unleashed, was just as much fun. This one took us into old Hollywood which was a fun setting, and kept all the witty dialogue and charming romance going. I'm already looking forward to the next in the series!

Sad that I couldn't immediately read another Stella Hart, I dug through my Kindle library for something else that might scratch that particular itch and found the first of the Miss Fisher's Mysteries series by Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues. I bought it some time ago, when I was watching (and LOVING) the television series, but I hadn't read it yet. 

Like Stella Hart, Phryne Fisher is a firecracker of a woman, though she's more adventurous and less concerned about what other's might think of her than Stella. I quite enjoyed this introductory adventure with Miss Fisher and will definitely be back to read more of them. 

So that was my August in books. Right now, I'm in the middle of two books: The Count of Monte Cristo, which I'm reading for my first Monday Classics book club and quite enjoying as an audiobook and 2,000 to 10,000: How to Write Faster, Write Better, and Write More of What You Love by Rachel Aaron, a very practical book I'm hoping will help speed my process as a writer. In paper, I'm mostly reading comics right now. 

How about you? Read anything fabulous this August? I'd love to hear about in the comments! 

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Not a Superhero

They probably meant well. 

It seems flattering at first blush, being called a superhero. 

It implies that I'm special, someone who handles work that an ordinary human would not be able to do--jobs that require super-human strength, endurance and effort. 

But the problem with that overblown, hyperbolic, and manipulative rhetoric is that teachers aren't superheroes. We're people. 

Don't get me wrong. I'm an amazing person. I can do more with 90 non-supervisory minutes a day than some people do in entire eight hour work days. I'm a master of efficiency, and surprisingly good at improv, too, given how often the rug is pulled out from under me mid-stride. Many of the teachers I work with are as amazing as me. Some are even MORE amazing. 

But, they're not superheroes. Neither am I. I'm just a middle-aged woman who's fed up with this particular method of dodging discussion of real issues. 

I know superhero imagery is appealing, and has become a favorite metaphor for lots of overworked, underpaid public servant sorts of work. But a lot of the people using this comparison don't know superheroes. 

I, do, though. I read, watch, and write superheroes. I know them well. 

And here's something we all need to remember: 

Superheroes are fictional.

Real heroes exist. Some of them are teachers. But superheroes are imaginary. 

Only imaginary heroes can shoulder the load alone, out of the goodness of their hearts, with no thought of reward or rest. Superheroes don't need help from ordinary folk. They don't need things like reasonable workloads, safe working environments, a living wage, or even our respect. 

But if society can cast teachers as superheroes, it lets the rest of the people off the hook. We don't have to make any sacrifices for the public good, like paying higher taxes so that students can learn in buildings that aren't falling apart, or paying teachers enough money that young, passionate, talented people might be attracted to this line of work. 

When I am called a superhero, I remember James Jonah Jameson, editor of the Daily Bugle, the angry spittle-flinging man ranting about the ineptitude and untrustworthy nature of the very superheroes who continue to save his butt and the butts of all the ungrateful citizens of imaginary New York and the world beyond.

Superheroes *do* get thanked from time to time, mostly in moments of crisis like alien invasions and such. 

Real heroes get thanked under similar circumstances, like a teacher throwing herself in the literal line of fire when another problem society ignored too long walks through the front door with a gun, or dying during the pandemic because they went to work in person despite the risk "for the kids." 

Remember those five minutes at the start of the pandemic when parents all over America realized what a teacher's job actually was and expressed gratitude? 

Yeah, that was over as soon as it went on "too long." When the superheroes were revealed as all too humanly vulnerable. A grateful public turns into a resentful public very quickly when the superheroes stop saving them. 

If teachers stumble--regardless of why (or even if they don't stumble, but someone manages to spin the story just right)--those teachers we were just praising as superheroes are suddenly on the front page again, but this time as the recipients of blame, anger, and ire. We're called selfish or incompetent, accused of indoctrinating students when we try to teach them to think for themselves. All from people who have never done our jobs (and honestly probably couldn't handle the job if we got them to try it). 

So, instead of throwing empty compliments like "superhero" at teachers, how about working to increase the likelihood of success? Remember that teachers are ordinary human with ordinary limits. If the job truly requires a superhero, no wonder we're going through a giant teacher shortage. Superheroes don't exist and ordinary people trying to be superheroes can die trying. 

I don't need flattery, and I'm not accepting more than my share of the blame. Instead, I want to see a world where success is possible and the work is sustainable. It's possible . . .it's just expensive. America has gotten off cheap on education so far, and we're starting to see the truth in "you get what you pay for." 

But, for now, what I really want to say is: take that cape and shove it. 

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Summer's Over and I'm Not Ready for School to Start


I still love teaching. Helping kids find their way in something they're trying to learn, getting to know the future generations as people . . . these are deep joys. Still. After 26 years of classroom life. That's saying something. 

But here, four days before my first teacher workday of the new 2021-2022 school year, I am absolutely not ready to go back. 

Teaching is always exhausting. Getting through to kids requires huge emotional investment, and the system is set up to undercut teachers at every step of the way: paying us so poorly that we struggle to make basic ends meet, trying to legislate things that should be professional decisions, piling on extra documentation requirements without providing time in the schedule to do the work, blaming us for every problem a child faces without giving us the corresponding credit when a child succeeds. 

Luckily, 90% of the time, it's just me and kids in my classroom. Their parents, school administration, and politicians may try, but they cannot really intrude on that relationship . . . not at the level of spending they're willing to do anyway (spies, whether digital or in person, are expensive). They're simply not there when the rubber hits the road. The kids and I are on that journey alone. 

Last year, teaching was a whole new kind of exhausting. 

One thing I value about the work is the predictability. Kids, of course, are not predictable, but generally, my classes meet at the same time every day with the same people in them studying the same things. I know when I can go to the bathroom and if I'm going to get to eat lunch or not (yes, that is often an "if"). I need those parameters to work within. 

Starting in March 2020, there was no predictability. I was sent home from school with directions to prepare for 3 or 4 weeks of asynchronous teaching and didn't start working in a classroom again for a year (and even then, it wasn't "normal" since I had to teach kids at home via zoom and kids in my room at the same time, with all new health precautions and the rules changed roughly every three days about what was and was not allowable). 

And 2021-2022 promises more of the same. 

I've been handed a set of parameters for 2021-2022. Who knows if these are the rules for three minutes, three months, or three years? 

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I'm glad, at least, that it appears I will no longer be asked to teach in two environments at the same time (online and in person). Just just looking at this list of restrictions depresses me. 

I'm trying to trust that my immunization will keep me from becoming too sick (like hospitalized, life-threateningly sick), but I have little doubt that I or my child (starting high school this year) will catch it this year. 

There are roughly 600 kids in my school building, 200 of whom do not qualify for immunization yet. There are roughly 1020 students in my kid's high school, all of whom are eligible for immunization. If county stats average out among children, 78% of them are immunized (Hurray! Last I heard, we only need 60-70% for herd immunity to help, if it's going to help with this).

Our district's year-round elementary school has already had several cases (I'm vague on numbers because there isn't very good transparency: the district is trying to ride that line between sharing information to allow people to protect themselves and avoiding causes panic). A colleague who just put her baby back in day care so she can return to work just found out that her baby (not old enough to be immunized) has caught it (thankfully, a mild case, so far). 

I'll do the best I can, of course, to give my students a good experience within these limits, but it's challenging. Finding a spark of joy and enthusiasm is difficult. I already feel snowed under and I haven't started. 

I took my summer as slowly as I could, trying to balance taking some rejuvenating opportunities (like seeing my family and attending author events) with self-care. But eleven weeks wasn't enough to find my balance and recharge. I can't even imagine how my colleagues who took on summer work must be feeling (luckily, my husband gets paid better than me, and funds my nasty teaching habit, letting me stay unemployed during summer hiatus). 

So, to all the teachers out there, take care of yourselves. Push back when the world pushes too far--you know they'll eat us alive if we let them. Keep working on the balance between dedication and burnout.

To all the kids and families of school children, remember that teachers are people, and when you feel you need to advocate for your children, do so with kindness and a heart to help, not blame. 

For everyone else, pray for us, if you're people who pray. Vote for us and policies that support us, if you're people who vote. Remember that these kids will take care of you in your old age--don't you want them to grow up whole, hale, and educated? 

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

IWSG: Craft Books: Thinking ABOUT writing, or writing?


Welcome to the first Wednesday of the month. You know what that means! It's time to let our insecurities hang out. Yep, it's the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. If you're a writer at any stage of career, I highly recommend this blog hop as a way to connect with other writers for support, sympathy, ideas, and networking.

If you're a reader, it's a great way to peek behind the curtain of a writing life.

Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG.

August 4 question
- What is your favorite writing craft book? Think of a book that every time you read it you learn something or you are inspired to write or try the new technique. And why?

The awesome co-hosts for the August 4 posting of the IWSG are PK Hrezo, Cathrina Constantine, PJ Colando, Kim Lajevardi, and Sandra Cox! Be sure to check out what they have to say, and visit other writers in the blog hop!

I don't read a lot of craft books anymore, though once I did. They are a pleasure, and can be inspiring and encouraging, as well as instructive. 

But I don't read them very often anymore. 

It's not that I don't still feel like there's a lot to learn about writing life. I definitely do!…it's more a matter of time management and HOW I do my learning these days. 

Since my first novel was published in 2015, I've considered myself a professional writer. Currently, I stuff a full time writing life into part time hours, working 1-2 hours a day during the school year and 4-8 hours a day during summer hiatus, so that my day job (teaching middle school) can provide money, insurance, retirement plans and other staples of stability. 

It's not enough time for all the work of writing, rewriting, networking, marketing, etc., but it's what I can afford (literally, in the dollars in the bank, sense of "afford"). Plus, I'm finding there's something to be said for "hands-on" learning or "on the job" training. Theoretical consideration and hypothetical situations will only take you so far. 

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So, while I loved Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and Stephen King's On Writing and Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones when I was younger, it's been years since I read a book on the craft of writing, though there are plenty of them on my bookshelves still.  

That's not to say I'm not studying. I just tend to combine that with other tasks these days. When I get stuck, I read a few articles or posit a question to one of my writing communities to get real-time advice from others in the thick of the struggle themselves. I learn by doing and by talking to others who are doing. 

For Lamott, King, Goldberg and other giants of the field, my level of struggle is a memory. They no longer worry about building an audience, navigating the shark-infested waters of publishing, or balancing quality with quantity of output to keep a career from languishing. 

For others in The Writing Tribe, Works in Progress, or Area 42 (three of the writing communities I work with), that battle is being fought right now, and for that reason, the advice is very pragmatic. These groups linger less over the philosophy and ideals and concentrate more on the practice. 

If I let myself wander down those philosophical paths too long, I find I just stay there. I spend a lot of time thinking ABOUT writing instead of actual writing, and that might feed my practice in the long run, but it doesn't feed my career here in the short run. 

So, once again, I'm back to seeking a balance, this time between thinking and doing. 

How about you? Do you fall into research rabbit holes as easily as I do, and spend too much time thinking ABOUT what you want to do instead of doing it? Or have you found a better balance of learning and doing? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments! 

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

July Reading


I missed the end of July! Here we are already three days into August before I noticed it was August. 

To be fair, I WAS at a convention all weekend (Galaxy Con, Raleigh). I barely knew what time it was, let alone what day it was. 

Me with all my book babies at GalaxyCon

But I did want to tell you about what I read in July, because I read some excellent books :-) (as always, you can click on the link in the book's title to see my fuller review on Goodreads--I don't review on Amazon anymore because Amazon decided I was up to nefarious things and won't respond to my queries . . . apparently writers aren't allowed to also be readers?). 

I started off the month by finishing The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, which I began in June because I wanted to talk to play along with the #WeeklyLitChats #BuddyRead over on Twitter with Manuela Sonntag, DB Carter , and the rest of the regulars. It's one of those books that everybody knows in a sense, because it's so steeped in our culture, often adapted and parodied, but I had never read it. I found it a bit disorganized by contemporary standards, with plot lines dropped for a hundred pages and then picked back up, but the characters I knew and loved from popular culture sang on the page and it was well worth the read. 

After all that bro-mance, though, I was ready for something very different, so I picked up Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a book that had been in my TBR since its release. LOVED it. So much great Gothic atmosphere with extra layers of horror in the form of colonialism. 

Monster, She Wrote
by Lisa Kröger and Melanie R. Anderson was probably a dangerous choice in that it added a hundred or more books to my TBR. It's a historical overview of women in speculative fiction and there are so many more things I now need to read! 
Becky Chambers has become one of my automatic purchase authors. When I need a boost of optimism and hope, she's just the ticket. Her newest is a short book, A Psalm for the Wild Built, which takes place on a far-future, post-factory earth and chronicles a friendship between a human man and a robot. 

I finally finished Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit. I started it some months ago as an audiobook, and the narration was so flippant that I found it off-putting. While there is certainly some snark in Solnit's book, the narrator read it like it was a rom-com, so I put it down. When I came back to finish it on Kindle, I liked it much better, though I still it's a bit "feminism 101" for a woman like me, now over 50 and hardly new to the battlegrounds of feminism. Maybe better if you're a newb? Still, more power to Solnit for getting a whole book out of a single funny/sad incident at a party. 

I wasn't sure what I felt like reading after that, so I went to my Audible library, organized by "not yet read" and "by length" and picked something short: The Dispatcher by John Scalzi. I have enjoyed all of the Scalzi I have read, and this one was quite interesting, too. Noir-esque, but not so very gritty. Very interesting world/central concept. 
Then, I realized that Lucy Blue was about to release a new romantic mystery in her Stella Hart series. Lucy and I share a publisher, and I've been hearing such good things about her books, so I figured this was my moment to check them out. I read Guinivere's Revenge and The Passion of Miss Cuthbert back to back. They're short, fast-reading, and delightful. 

They're set in the early 20th century and combine mystery-romance-historical elements into witty and charming stories. I LOVE Stella and George, and appreciate romantic stories that aren't all about prolonging the chase, but instead let the romance progress. The third is next in my TBR, so tune in next month to hear about that one. 

After that, I was once again unsure what I wanted to read, so I went to short books already in my Audible library and found Nim's Island, a middle grades adventure story with shades of Pippi Longstocking and Swiss Family Robinson. I'd seen the movie some years ago, and enjoyed it, and I also quite enjoyed the book. Light and fun, whimsical. 

The last book I finished in July was Yo-Yo Ma's A Beginner's Mind, a short memoir combining recordings of his performances with anecdotes from his journey as an artist. It made me wish I could invite myself to Ma's house and just listen to him talk for a few days. He's such a kind-hearted, open person, with quiet grace and I was already a huge fan of his musical performances. His mini-concert videos on Facebook were part of what saw me through the pandemic. 

I tried and failed to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude for my First Monday Classics Book Club. Too free-wheeling and unmoored for my mindset right now, and I finished the month still in the middle of two books: The Wharton Gothics by Edith Wharton and Dr. Watson and the Ladies' Club Coven by Alexandra Christian. Tune in next month to see how those shook out for me (spoiler: I'm really enjoying both). 

What did you read in July? I'd love to hear about in the comments! 

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Introducing: The Newest Bryants

Friends and followers might remember that we lost our boy-o, O'Neill, back in February. He'd been part of our family for twelve years before cancer got her claws into him, and we were broken-hearted to lose him. 

Since then, we've been talking about when we might feel ready to open our hearts to a dog again. The kid-still-at-home was all for adopting a new dog immediately and funneling grief into love for a new dog, Sweetman needed longer to heal, and I was somewhere in the middle. 

But we finally agreed that July was good timing, since the kid and I will be mostly at home for several more weeks yet (until school starts) and can devote time to training and acclimating our newest family members. 

So, let me introduce you to Pumpkin and Ghost!

In the car for the ride to our new home!

These boys are about three and one half years old, both rescued from the same home, where an elderly woman had become overwhelmed by the work of caring for too many dogs. Before CARA (Carolina Animal Rescue and Adoption) came into their lives, they had never seen a vet. They had also never been house trained, leash trained, or learned to respond to names. 

O'Neill had also been a rescue dog, found wandering in the woods with his brother. We sometimes wondered if it might have been better if we had also adopted his brother when we took him in, so he would have had his brother when we couldn't be with him, so we decided to look for a pair of dogs to adopt together this time, if possible. 

Neither Sweetman nor I have ever had a small dog. These guys are both Jack Russell Terrier mixes (mixed with what? I dunno . . . other dogs?). Ghost is around 17 pounds, and Pumpkin around 20, which means the two of them together is still less poundage of dog than O'Neill had been. It's a different ballgame, having small dogs and having two dogs. But I think I'm going to love playing. 

They are quite playful and surprisingly comfortable with people overall, given their lack of previous socialization. They like women better than men so far, but I know Sweetman will win them over to full trust. They are also cuddly little guys, and it's definitely handy that I can just pick them up if I need to (without needing to visit the chiropractor afterwards). 

So, there they are: the two additions to our family. Wish us luck!


Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Flung Back Into the Universe

Wow! That was fast. I mean, after nearly eighteen months of hardly going anywhere and seeing only the people in my bubble, you'd think I'd be ready for some travel, some parties and gatherings, etc. But I feel like Wile E. Coyote just after the giant rubberband has snapped, realizing that I've got no control over my speed and trajectory: 

I know, I know. I'm in charge of me and I can say no, but it's not that easy to do. Can I really say no to all my family when they want to see the hubby and me and our kiddos in person at long last? Can I really turn down chances to get back out there at live-in-person author events building some momentum for my life's dream of living off my writing? 

I can . . . but I probably won't. 

That won't stop me from whining a little bit though. I was out of pocket 11 days in June and I'll be out another 9 in July by the end of things. Thankfully, the July stuff is a little more spread out and I'll get 13 days in a row of being close to home between things. 

The tricky bit for me is that I WANT to see all the people and take all the opportunities, but I also rely on time at home during these non-school months to make some serious progress on my writing goals during days with fewer commitments than school-year days. 

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I'm also finding that I'm seriously out of practice. I've always need a bit of introvert recovery time after a big get-together, but my recovery period is longer now, like my social muscles have atrophied. I had barely recovered from my mother's birthday party when it was time to hit the road again to welcome a new baby into my husband's family. 

Thank G-d for coffee. At least my drug of choice is legal. 

As always, I'm seeking balance, because the truth is that I want it ALL but there are only so many hours in each day and only so much Samantha to go around. 

So how are you guys managing the world opening back up? Is it a relief or a new kind of stress for you? 

I'd love to hear about how you're doing in the comments! 

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Never Going to Give It Up!


Welcome to the first Wednesday of the month. You know what that means! It's time to let our insecurities hang out. Yep, it's the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. If you're a writer at any stage of career, I highly recommend this blog hop as a way to connect with other writers for support, sympathy, ideas, and networking.

If you're a reader, it's a great way to peek behind the curtain of a writing life.

Our Twitter handle is @TheIWSG and hashtag is #IWSG.

July 7 question - What would make you quit writing?

The awesome co-hosts for the July 7 posting of the IWSG are Pat Garcia, Victoria Marie Lees, and Louise – Fundy Blue! Be sure to check out what they have to say, and visit other writers in the blog hop!

About the only thing that could make me quit writing would be loss of cognitive function. Meaning, I would quit writing if I found I actually could no longer do the mental and physical work of it. It's too important to me to ever just let go entirely. Sometimes I feel like I'm incapable of understanding the world around me except by processing it in writing. It's how I see. 

Now, quitting publishing, on the other hand…that's a different kettle of fish. Publishing is not nearly as fulfilling or fun as writing. It's time consuming, whether you're working with traditional publishers or taking on all the work yourself as an indie writer. It can drag you up and down emotional roller coasters and leave you feeling bruised and sick. 

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But I persist. Writing itself is the most important part for me, but I also want an audience for my work. I wouldn't be content to leave all my words unshared. So publishing is part of the writing life for me, even when it is less than fun or takes an ugly turn. 

I'm a stubborn sort, so I wouldn't give it up easily. I'm not going to be that person who rage quits over a bad review or publishing politics or anything like that. I read threads all the time about someone who just chucks the whole thing when things go badly and I can't imagine making that decision. I'd just seek another way. 

My professional writing life has been pretty short. I've only been at it for six years. But in those few years, I've had a range of experiences with publishing from the affirming and joyful to the disheartening and upsetting. I had a publisher fold on me, I've collected quite a little pile of rejections, I've had bad reviews. I've also been recognized with an award, received money for my creations, and made some great friends who really understand this part of me. 

So, I expect to always be a writer and to always seek publication for my work. The good outweighs the bad. I'll remain the Rick Astley of the writing world, refusing to give it up. 

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

June Reads: Short, but not Sweet

Here I am halfway through the year, and I've already nearly met my yearly reading challenge. I always plan to read 52 books: one per week. Generally, I read a bit more. This year I'm already at 41 books. 

I read nine books this month, though to be fair, they were mostly quite short. I found my attention scattered, what with end of school year burnout and a suddenly very crowded social calendar with family obligations and writer-life opportunities now that vaccination has re-opened some possibilities. I was out of pocket for 11 of June's 30 days which is quite a lot, especially after my homebody habits of pandemic life. 

I started with Colson Whitehead's Nickel Boys, a choice by my neighborhood book club. I had previously read his Underground Railroad, and liked it overall, but was a bit put off by the intermixing of fact and fantasy. This story was much more succinct and tight and I think that's part of what kept me engaged a bit more. Now that I've had a little time to think it over, I think I prefer Nickel Boys which stuck closer to actual historical events and realistically likely events. But it was a heartbreaker. 

So after having my heart broken, I picked up Un-Girls by Lauren Beukes. At some point Audible had offered me this book and others in the Disorder series for free or at low cost (I don't remember), and since I already admired Beukes's Broken Monsters, I accepted the offer. I found both these works horrifying and creative, taking angles I'd not seen before. Her body horror is shudder inducing. 

Having peeked into the series, I became curious about the other five books in the Disorder series and quickly read the rest of them: the twisty and ever-changing The Beckoning Fair One by Dan Chaon, the fascinating but inconclusive Loam by Scott Heim, an Edgar Allen Poe retelling in Will Williams by Namwali Serpell, the all too realistic Anonymous by Uzodinma Iweala, and the deeply sad Best Girls by Min Jin Lee with its echoes of Thomas Hardy. I recommend the entire series. Each is 1-2 hours long and each takes on horror from an unusual angle. 

After that horror, I was ready for something lighter so I chose The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by RA Dick (the pseudonym of Irish author Josephine Leslie). I already knew and loved this story from the 1947 movie edition.

I was happy to find that much of what I loved about the movie was also present in the novel and was especially touched by the plight of "poor Lucy" who had to learn to stand against that most difficult of obstacles to an independent life: people who love you.  

Quite a charming and romantic story which also has a lot to say about the importance of taking charge of one's own life. 

I finished with Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, a story I knew from the 1983 movie, but had never read. It, too, was a relatively short work I had purchased some time earlier and found waiting in my Audible library when I sought short books to read. 

I have really enjoyed a lot of Bradbury's short stories over the years, though some of them can feel "quaint" these days in that they are less cynical and less concerned with startling and unpredictable plot twists. His mild paternalistic misogyny can be annoying, but like Asimov, he mostly avoids the problem by having very few female characters and never focusing on them if he does have female characters. 

In trying to describe this one, I said: 

"This book is a celebration of that cusp moment of childhood into adolescence (particularly for young boys--one of Bradbury's consistent failings is creation of meaningful female characters). It's a meditation on aging and regret. It's nostalgia brewed into a fine tea that, while faintly bitter, still pleases the senses."
I finished the month with Alexandre Dumas's The Three Musketeers, which I have not yet finished, so I'll have to tell you about it next month. So far, I'll say that it holds up quite well and that much of what you know and love about these characters from all the movie and television adaptations came directly from Dumas's pen. 

How about you? What did you read this month? I'd love to hear about it in the comments!

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Flirting with Feminism, 1940s Style

Coincidentally, I picked two movies that premiered in 1942 for my watching this week: Now, Voyager with Bette Davis and Woman of the Year with Katherine Hepburn. Both are striking for their exploration of roles of women, and both left me frustrated by not quite being willing to go all the way. 

In Now, Voyager, Bette Davis plays Charlotte Vale, a woman from a wealthy and respectable Boston family ("Oh, one of the *Boston* Vales"). When we meet her, she is thoroughly cowed by her overbearing mother and deeply unhappy, though her very frustration with her role points to a stronger spirit beneath than sometimes makes itself known. Her story is one of coming into herself. 

In contrast, Katherine Hepburn's Tess Harding in Woman of the Year is a woman very much in charge of her own life, sure of herself and cutting a wide swath in the world as an activist, columnist, and speaker on a variety of social and political issues. Her story is one of coming out of herself a bit. 

Both roles were well suited to these iconic actresses. Who better than Bette Davis to drown us in big, emotional eyes and delivery fiery lines with passion? Who better than Katherine Hepburn to hold tears in a tightly controlled face, resisting the revelations of self laying themselves before her? 

But neither story satisfied me. 

I am wary of stories that romanticize infidelity, due to my personal feelings about marital infidelity, so Now, Voyager had a hard row to hoe winning me over, since a central tenant of the story is the love between a married man and a woman who is not his wife. We're meant to sympathize with the man who made a bad match and is now "trapped" in a loveless marriage (though we never see that wife or marriage for ourselves). To his credit, he was never dishonest about the fact that he was married and had no intentions of abandoning his family and starting anew with our heroine. 

So, one could argue that our heroine knew what she was walking into. I found I had complex emotions, watching the way that they influenced each other while still maintaining separate lives: he returning to the work he loves with her encouragement, she finding confidence to stand up against her bullying mother with his support. Was he an obstacle to her finding happiness with someone else? Or was her own heart the true obstacle?

The story gives Charlotte the opportunity to marry someone else and she turns it down admitting to herself and her potential husband that she doesn't love him. 

What the story doesn't quite make clear is the line between self-sacrifice and self-determination. I could read her eventual care for her would-be-lover's daughter in either light. I've ordered the novel, hoping that I'll get a bit more of the interior life of the main character and understand better why she made the decisions she did. 

In the end, Charlotte made a life for herself that was truly independent, without a mother, husband, or even would-be-lover to tell her what to do, but she still seemed apologetic about it, and I guess I wanted her to embrace it fully. 

That ending line is a honey though, full of ambiguity and poetry.  

(And oh my, how sexy they make cigarettes. I wonder how much the tobacco industry paid for that placement). 

In Woman of the Year, I found myself wondering why two intelligent people like Tess Harding and Sam Craig could ever have believed a marriage partnership between them would work. Maybe it's intended as a lesson about how a sexual charge isn't enough to base a marriage on? (They do really sell that sexual charge, though): 

It's not as bad as Bringing Up Baby where I find myself screaming "Run!" at Cary Grant's Dr. Huxley, hoping he does not get eaten alive by Hepburn's manic pixie dream girl. 

But all the same, Spencer Tracy's Sam Craig seems to be a man who knows what he wants and all signs point clearly to danger! I don't buy that he didn't see it. 

Tess doesn't see him as an equal and shows him again and again that he is not first in her heart, or even second or third, but quite low down the list with things nice to have, but not truly necessary, like a pretty lamp or a pet poodle you pay someone else to walk for you because you don't have time. 

But he marries her anyway. And Hepburn gets her trademark self-realization moment, which she sells beautifully, but at the end I still don't really believe they're going to work as a couple. Honestly, the only thing that holds the romance together is the on-screen chemistry of Hepburn and Tracy, because it's not there in the story. 

While Tess is arguably a feminist character, having built an impressive brand as "Tess Harding," the story falls back on the old saw that ambitious women must feel the lack of love partnership in their lives. Certainly some women (me, for one) want both a husband and a career and manage to have both, but there's nothing in this movie to convince me that Tess ever felt the lack of a husband in her life or wanted to make significant changes to how she lives her life to make room for one. Other than possibly sexual spark, I never saw anything in the story to explain why she wanted him at all. 

One of the keys to traditional romance stories is that the reader/viewer should be cheering for the couple to get together, and I wasn't actually doing that in either of these films. Yet, I liked both main characters and hoped for their happiness. I guess they work for me as sort-of anti-romances. 

If you've seen these films, I'd love to hear what you think in the comments. Same if you have suggestions for other films of the 30-60s with strong female leads for me to check out!

Thursday, June 17, 2021

The Uninvited, Revisited

I haven't written about it much here, but I am a bit of an old movie buff, particularly films of the later 1930s to 1950s. Black and white. Classics. I inherited this interest from my mother and throughout my childhood, we watched lots of such films together, whenever they were on TV. 

Off and on for the past couple of years (interestingly: about the same amount of time I've been trying to write my own Gothic romance novel), I'd been thinking about the film The Uninvited, from 1944, with Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey, and Gail Russell.  

At first, I couldn't even figure out what movie I was remembering, or if I'd made some kind of amalgamation of several old films in my brain. I have watched and read more than a few things in this genre. 

I remembered that it was Gothic and scary, set in a stunning clifftop home, and some particular images and plot points. It took a bit of doing before I came up with the right search terms and learned the name of it. 

I requested it at my local Retro film series, but so far, they haven't shown it. And it's never on any of the streaming services, so I finally just bought a disk of it, the Criterion edition (a distinction other old movie fans will appreciate). 

I got Sweetman to watch it with me last night. 

I'm happy to report that it held up well. I fell in love with Windward House again, and so wish it were real and that I could go stay in it for a while, scary crashing waves at the foot of the rocks cliff and all. If you're a sucker for Gothic mansion settings like I am, this film is worth watching just for the house. 

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Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful use of shadows and reflections amped up the atmosphere, and the trick photography used to more fully materialize a ghost still looks classy and "real" if that's an adjective one can apply to a spirit created by camera trickery. 

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As one expects in Gothic tales of this sort, there's a terrible secret in the past and it threatens our young ingenue in the present. It's quite convoluted, and I found myself pausing to untangle the threads for my husband more than once (he's less steeped in this kind of fiction than I am). I won't spoil the story here, in case you want to seek this out, but it had all the right elements of betrayal and questionable motivations for this kind of story. 

If you speak Spanish, the fuller story breaks more quickly when our ingenue is briefly possessed by a Spanish-speaking ghost who tells us very directly what happened, but I'm quite sure the film-makers did not anticipate the audience understanding what the ghost actually said in that scene because it all comes out again more slowly. 

A secondary plot took me by surprise. It had probably gone over my head when I watched the film as a child, but really added a level of threat and upped the ante with a side character (Miss Holloway) determined to keep certain secrets buried, regardless of the cost to others because of her obsessive love for one of the deceased characters.  

Shades of Mrs. Danvers and Rebecca, with room in the story that the feelings were mutual this time. Cornelia Otis Skinner's Miss Holloway was a different kind of threatening than Judith Anderson's Mrs. Danvers, but they might be sisters under the skin. 

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Implications of lesbian love were strong in that thread, and not portrayed as healthy and romantic. Holy subtext, Batman! More dangerous obsession, and dark secret sorts of themes.  

I'd love to write something playing in the backstory of this world, with the thwarted love, later love triangle and jealousies, and who exactly that missing father was, or what the grandfather did and didn't really know. The story did a lot with what it didn't tell us, even though it told us a lot. 

I'm also curious as heck about our outside interlopers, the brother and sister (Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald) who pooled their funds to buy the mansion together, only to become embroiled in a local tragedy and haunting. Neither of them married, neither of them seeming to have any particular ties in this world, and unusually close for adult siblings. What past tragedy had they survived together? 

Lastly, I was impressed by the mix of humor and horror. It's always a tricky balance to strike, and bringing in the wrong note at the wrong time can ruin a story, but The Uninvited beautifully blended lighthearted touches with a dark and troubling storyline.  Ray Milland was at his most Cary Grant-like, conveying a lot with a sideways glance or body language, revealing an inner little boy who wanted to run away from the scary things but was held in place by his sense of proper duty as a grown man. 

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The final minutes of the film wrapped everything up in a neat bow, delivering two impending marriages, happy pets (a dog and a cat), and every sign that the future will now be rosy for all involved now that the ghosts have been laid to rest. Practically Shakespearean in the rush to matrimony for all involved. It was charming how quickly everyone's future was settled now that we got that pesky troubled past dealt with. If only it were nearly that simple in real life. 

So, if you haven't watched it yet, go check out The Uninvited. It's well worth the watching. 

Wednesday, June 9, 2021


As glamorous as I've ever been
(and I'm wearing Converse under there)
Glamour is a lot of work, so I only consider it "worth it" for truly special occasions: weddings, graduations, ceremonies, theater dates. 

Even on those days, my routine pales compared to many of the women of my acquaintance. 

I fuss over my hair a bit, curling and arranging it or if we're going hardcore, hiring someone with a stronger skill set to do that for me. 

I select and wear jewelry. 

I don't own any makeup--I think it's itchy. 

But, I might wear shoes that aren't Converse sneakers, if there isn't going to be too much standing and walking at the event. 

In contrast, on an average summer morning when I arrive at the coffee shop wearing stretchy pants, looking as though my hair might be a wig that I put on sideways, I catch a fair amount of fish-eye from the the poshier women around me. 

I'll never be that lady described as "well-coifed", "elegant", or even "well put-together." Most of the

How I look on a day that ends in Y

time, I look like a six-year-old whose mother just called them inside from a morning's romp in the creek. 

Maybe it's a breed of impatience. 

I'm too anxious to DO things to wade through the processes of beauty before I go. Hence, I've never developed the requisite skills or collected the tools and equipment. 

I'm sure many people think I've "let myself go" but the truth is, that by this definition, I never "held myself" to begin with. 

The work of beauty does not interest me as much as learning new recipes, exploring new paths, writing another book, fighting with my garden, and reading. No matter how lovely the results might be. 

I live in the South, though, where I definitely seem grubby next to many of my neighbors with perfect highlights, manicured nails, and artfully applied makeup, especially women my own age or older. 

On the occasions when I do glam up, it's a revelation--a shining spotlight moment like the ugly duckling reveal in a 1980s "but she wears glasses" makeover moment. Lots of "oooooh." It's gratifying. But if you're glamorous every day, where do you go from there? How do you up the ante for something special? Tiaras? 

I don't judge women who focus more energy on beauty. Sometimes I envy them. It's a choice, like any, and as valid as any. I know many intelligent, vibrant, hardworking, and accomplished women who are also glamorous. 

It's not an either/or. 

Some friends treat it like armor. For others it's self-care, self-love, a way of boosting themselves. For some it's a game--a kind of play. I've only known a few that I worried might have raised it to a pathology. 

I'm being photographed this weekend. As a 50th birthday present to myself, I have hired a photographer to get some new author shots, a documentation of what I look like now. I thought about going fancy, but in the end, I decided I want photographs that look like me. 

No matter how much I sometimes wish I looked like Audrey Hepburn, that's just not who I am. 

Thursday, June 3, 2021

A Teacher Who Writes, or a Writer Who Teaches?

I began my dual career path as a teacher-who-writes twenty-six years ago, give or take.  Honestly, trying to do both meant I didn't write all that often or all that much. Teaching, especially when you're new at it, will swallow all of you, if you let it--demanding your time, your energy, and your love and leaving you depleted. Not the best recipe for a creative life. 

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Like most teachers who survive in the field long enough to be called veterans, I did eventually learn to set some boundaries and work on that ephemeral dream we call a "work-life-balance." 

That required being strict with myself, some compartmentalizing, and fighting off the guilt goblins barnacled to my soul. Not easy for a someone with an empathetic soul with a strong drive to help--you know, the kind of people who becomes teachers. 

But, creative life aside, it's essential to avoid burnout and make teaching a sustainable career choice. 

Failure to do so is how you win teacher of the year, but it's also how you end up quitting the career after only a few years. 

Even after I'd established some boundaries and limited how many hours a day my teaching life got, my writing life still came in fourth most of the time, after teaching, family, and community. 

Writing, after all, is solitary, just for me, and that seemed selfish. There are healthy forms of selfishness, but I was raised a lower middle class American woman in a blue collar family AND became a teacher, so finding a healthy level of selfishness and accepting the idea that self-care is not immoral . . .well, that took some time. 

Until I was in my mid-thirties or so, writing was something reserved for moments of passion or crisis--a way of processing and coping, or expressing feelings so strong they could not simply be sublimated into other kinds of work. 

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Then, after my second marriage when my second child was born, I had a bout of post-partum depression. I'd never dealt with the more clinical, longer-lasting side of depression, and honestly, I wasn't doing very well. I didn't understand why I wasn't happy when I "ought to be." 

Sweetman, ever observant and kind, had noticed in our courtship and marriage what a solace writing was for me. He pushed me to make regular space for it in my life, even helping me find a local critique group so I'd have a schedule. (It's like he *knows* me :P).  

It worked, at least in terms of the post-partum. As it had always been, writing was a solace and I felt so much more balanced when I gave time to my voice and my heart's truths in this way. 

And I started writing more regularly--still in fits and starts in the corners of my life, but SO much more often than I had ever done before. And my new writing community made my writing better than it had ever been before. 

I might have stayed there--a happy hobbyist--the rest of my life if not for the next moment of crisis. 

I turned 42. 

Now, as all readers of Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy know, 42 is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Even though turning 30 and 40 had not phased me, turning 42 did. 

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So far as midlife crises go, mine was mild. A haircut, some new clothes, lots of fantasizing about exotic travels. I didn't run off and join the circus, adopt up any new addictions, or take up with a younger man. 

I did, however, wallow in a feeling of dissatisfaction and low-key restless anger (mostly directed at myself) for a bit. 

That's when I decided to make a commitment to my writing life. To give it a *real* go. So, what did that mean? 

1. I stopped teaching English and become solely a Spanish teacher. Most of my jobs up to that point had been some combination of the two. The feedback load and external scrutiny for English teachers is crushing AND the literature and writing work pulls from the same energy as my writing life, so doing both was more than I could handle. 

Spanish is an elective, and at the beginning levels, where I teach, feedback on writing amounts to reading a few sentences and assessing whether the kid said what they meant to say. MUCH simpler. 

2. I laid claim to more time. We had a family meeting. By this time, my kids were older: 14 and 7, so they didn't need me at the same levels they had when they were younger. They were able to take on a little more independence, and it turned out they were willing to do so, because a happy mommy who is sometimes unavailable was preferable to a grumpy mommy, even if she was there all the time. 

Since it was hard for me to get enough separation and focus at home, I went elsewhere to write. Coffee shops, the library, the park, even just sitting in my car. When my own discipline got better, I started being able to work at home, even without an office. I shot for 250 words a day at first. 

It worked! I began to finish things, polish them, submit me, and see them accepted and published! I collected external validations like books contracts and royalties . . .even an award!  Over the next few years, I noticed the shift. 

I was now a writer-who-teaches, instead of a teacher-who-writes. 

My core identity centered around writing instead of teaching. When I met new people, I mentioned writing first. I've now written every single day for more than seven years. 

I still love teaching, and I still invest in my students and their success, but I no longer base my own feelings of success and worth on it. Too much of it is beyond my control, and making it the center of my identity was eating me. Teaching has always been both a calling and a job, but I've decided it should not also be my identity. 

Writing, on the other hand, is mine. And whether anyone ever accepts another piece of work for publication or not, I will still be a writer and I will still have all my creations, and what they have meant to me.

So, as I move into summer and shift gears into my yearly couple of months of being *just* a writer while I'm on summer hiatus from teaching, I feel a joy akin to coming home after a long journey.