Filling the Writing Tank

Sometimes a writer’s life ends up with very little writing in it. This past week has been one of those weeks for me.

Saturday my family attended the first annual Color Fun Run. Lots of colored powder, lots of laughs, and no rain! Then I stayed for another couple of hours to help clean up. 10,400 steps by 11:30 AM. Whew!

Sunday I dragged my stiff-muscled self out if bed and the family headed to a local farm for their Strawberry Festival. More sun, a hayride, animals, and, of course, strawberries.

Most of Monday was eaten up catching up on PTA Treasurer work, which leaked into Tuesday. Tuesday also found me frantically reading and assembling my weekly post Top Picks Thursday, which isn’t due until Wednesday night, but…

On Wednesday my daughter’s class trekked to the Academy of Natural Sciences for their field trip. The kids had fun, no one got injured or lost, and only one instance of tears. I rule the day a success!

And so here we are, Thursday, and I have no deep and meaningful insights into writing to share, as I have been doing everything but writing this week. Still, they say you can’t write if you don’t live, so I suppose this week was about filling the writing tank.

On Friday I head out to the Philadelphia Writers Conference, so I will get the tank further filled by hanging out with fellow authors. Look for nightly updates on the Conference over on the Author Chronicles blog.

How do you fill your writing tank? However you do it, go and fill it up—and then get writing!

Devon Horse Show 2019: Lessons from the Ring

Over the weekend, my family made our annual pilgrimage to the Devon Horse Show. We usually go to the closing weekend, rather than the opening weekend, but our schedules didn’t line up for that this year. So my mom, my 9-year-old daughter, and I had our girls’ day out this weekend instead.

My daughter is not as horse-crazy as my mom and I are, but she loves the rides on the Midway and claims that Devon pizza is the best pizza ever, so she is happy to come out with us. My mom and I enjoy watching the horses do their thing. The beauty and power of the horses leave us breathless.

We got rained on twice, but not too badly. Got a little wet the first time, but happened to be having lunch under a tent the second time, so it was all good. It’s all part of the adventure—I recall having to hide in the bathroom tunnel at other times when thunder and lightning rolled through. The rain kept the heat from becoming too intense, which was a relief.

 

 

 

As is my tradition, I bought a Breyer horse at the Devon Shop, and my daughter found herself a book and a couple of small toy horses. We stowed them in the car, got our also-traditional ice cream, and made our way to our seats for the big evening showcase event.

Usually we time our visit to the Gold Cup show jumping competition on the last Saturday. Because we came a different day this year, we saw a different style of jumping—eventing, also called cross-country. This consisted of 26 obstacles spread between two rings, testing for both jumping ability and endurance. Eventing had different jumps than we were used to—a few of the “normal” barred jumps, but also hedges and wooden objects, which tested the versatility of horse and rider.

The class was large, and the final jump-off didn’t end until about 9:30 PM, but there were no falls or injuries and it was exciting. My daughter was happy because the horse she rooted for came in 4th and so still got a ribbon. As the eventing went on, my daughter asked why the riders kept going once they knew they couldn’t win. And so a metaphor dropped into my lap.

They don’t give up, I said, because in life it’s not always about winning. Every one of these horses and riders are learning something new about their job and about themselves, and that is more valuable than winning. They are getting better at what they do, even if they are making mistakes now. It’s how you improve yourself. Life is about keeping going even when it’s hard, even when the obstacles seem insurmountable—and even if you knock one down.

There is nothing more vivid when trying to explain the value of persistence than watching a horse refuse a jump (sometimes violently so) and then the rider bring him around and go at that same jump again and clear it beautifully.

That obstacle that seemed too hard the first time might be overcome the next time.

Don’t give up.

Comparing Yourself to Others…and Your Past Self

This week Jami Gold had a blog post that reminded all of us that we cannot judge our own progress by that of other writers. I am terrible about doing this. One writer I know has 4 young children and another on the way, yet she writes about 100,000 words a months.

Talk about demoralizing. I’m here with my one kid who is getting old enough to take more care of herself, and I’m struggling to get 100,000 words a year.

I can’t help but wonder what’s wrong with me.

So Jami’s advice is good for me to hear. But it’s not just me comparing myself to other people that’s the problem. It’s also me comparing myself to a younger me—and in some ways that’s worse.

I used to be a writing machine. Words would pour out of me and my word count was astronomical. Now it’s…not. I’ve improved a bit over the past couple of months, but I really miss the writer I used to be.

So I think I have to work on accepting that I am not the writer I used to be, not for lack of talent or desire, but just because life is different. There are things taking up time and energy now that were not there before. More things to navigate and juggle, but also stressors that impede creativity and make it difficult to access creativity when I do have time.

I’m working on fixing some of these things, but mostly I’m working on being kinder to myself and accepting that this is my “now”. In a year or two, I will have a different “now”, and who knows what that will look like, writing-wise?

Are you your own worst critic? How do you deal with accepting the limitations you have on your writing life?

Mirror, Mirror: Valjean & Javert in Les Misérables

**Spoilers if you have not yet seen Les Misérables or know the story.**

Les Misérables has been one of my favorite musicals since I first saw it in Philadelphia while in college. One of the main drivers of this play is the conflict between escaped but reformed criminal Valjean and pursuing police officer Javert. These two characters aren’t just antagonists, but mirror each other.

We see this clearly in the song “The Confrontation“, where their different trajectories are laid out. Valjean, a decent man trying to live right but driven to break the law by desperate circumstances, and Javert, born in a prison and rising to become a true believer in the law he upholds. Their views of the world are opposite but related: Javert’s is unquestioning black and white, while Valjean sees shades of gray. They both feel people should do the right thing, but they differ on the role of mercy in dispensing justice.

A brilliant mirror effect in Les Misérables is the mirroring of “Valjean’s Soliloquy” and “Javert’s Suicide” (see here for lyrics and comparison). These songs are the same melody,  but different words–belying the very words Javert sings “there is nothing on Earth that we share: it is either Valjean or Javert.”

Each character experiences the same event: an act of mercy that saves his life and gives him freedom. The same act, but with two very different reactions.

In Valjean’s case, a man of God breaks the law to give Valjean a chance at redemption. In Javert’s case, Valjean refuses to kill Javert when he is outed as a spy. Instead, he frees Javert and forgives him for his relentless pursuit over the years.

For Valjean, the priest’s act of mercy is life-changing. “What spirit comes to move my life? Is there another way to go?” For Javert, Valjean’s mercy is life-shattering. “And must I now begin to doubt, who never doubted all these years?”

Valjean sees the act as a gift: “Yet why did I allow this man to touch my soul and teach me love?”. Javert sees the freely-given mercy as a power play: “How can I now allow this man to hold dominion over me?”

Ultimately, their different world views lead to opposite outcomes when this same act of mercy challenges their current belief system. Valjean accepts the mercy as a chance for redemption: “Jean Valjean is nothing now; another story must begin.” Javert, however,  cannot let go of his unyielding belief that the law must not be questioned. “There is nowhere I can turn; there is no way to go on.”

This intricate play of similarities in protagonist and antagonist should be a lesson for all writers. When the characters have certain beliefs in common, it makes both accessible to the reader. The mirror differences in the characters explores an issue confronting the human condition. When characters have similar base beliefs, it creates tension by opening the door for EITHER the villain’s redemption OR the hero’s fall. This dual possibility will help keep your readers engaged to the very end.

What other stories have great mirrored characters? Do you use mirroring in your work?

Goodbye, Uncle Dennis: Lessons Learned from a Life Well Lived

Two Sundays ago, my husband’s Uncle Dennis passed away. The death came suddenly, unannounced by any previous illness or medical condition. A shock.

The 3rd of 10 children, and the eldest boy, Dennis was the first to pass on. That is a different sort of shock, when your own generation starts to die. The remaining siblings look at each other and think, “Who’s next?”

Dennis was a man who never complained at hard work, and who would show up on the doorstep of anyone who needed help. When I heard the phrase “salt of the earth” I thought of him.

He wasn’t a perfect man, as he would readily admit, but strove to be better every day. Religion was his strength. Farming was his passion. Family was his life. His death has left a huge hole in many people’s lives, but left all of us with essential lessons:

Live your truth. Own your mistakes. Make amends as best you can. Work hard. And most of all, in word and deed, love the people you call family.

Because you never know when this time will be the last time.

Celebrating the Small Victories

Face it, we live in a world where society only celebrates the big victories. But many of us don’t have huge victories to crow about, and therefore feel like we’re not enough. I’ve got good news for you, though–even small victories are victories.

Small victories are earned, just like the large ones. In fact, most often the large victories can’t even happen without the small ones happening first. Can’t publish a book if you don’t write it first. Can’t write it except one chapter at a a time. Can’t write a chapter without sentences.

So it ALL COUNTS.

Words on the page. Forward progress. Baby steps. It all adds up, and it all becomes something bigger than the sum of its parts. A lot of us have family obligations, day jobs, other must-do things on the To Do List. So just showing up to do the work is a victory.

Why am I thinking of small victories today? Because in April, I racked up almost 16,400 words for the month. Which is more than twice as much as the previous best month of 2019. Even more exciting to me is that 10,500 of those words were revision of my YA novel Veritas.

April's small victories

I have not worked on Veritas in any word-countable way since September of 2018. Half a year ago.

I was working on it, in fits and starts, but not in the computer. I revised longhand, working from a printed copy. The revision is still far from finished, but I’ve made substantial progress–enough to put my revisions to date into the computer and print a new version to move ahead with.

It’s gratifying to see the longhand-work translate into word count. A small victory, slow in coming, but I am happy with it.

Maybe next month I will break 20,000 words.

Small victories. What victories are you celebrating today?

Spring Break Road Trip!

There is a saying among writers, “I don’t like writing, I like having written.” I feel much the same way about traveling.

I don’t like traveling. But I like having traveled.

Being at the destination is always fun. The people, the new experiences, the change of scenery is always welcome. But getting there…ugh.

I hate the hours in the car, or the plane. They feel endless and they wear me out. They grind on me like sandpaper. I am exhausted by the time I get there, and I don’t even do the driving.

I am a person who likes my routine. Anxiety disorders are often best managed with routine and predictability where you can get it. So driving long distances, with the unpredictability of traffic and the lack of schedule for meals and stops grates on me. And I am also food-anxious, so the looming specter of “will I find something I like to eat?” and “will I be able to eat when we stop?” is always hiding in the background.

I won’t mention some of the bathroom facilities we have stopped at along the way. Because some things are better not thought about too much.

As wearing as traveling is to me, the end result is always worth it. Time with family, time to think, time to drink in different life experiences.

I hope anyone on Spring Break this week is enjoying some time to relax and regroup before heading back into the work-a-day world.

Notre Dame Cathedral: The Rise of the Human Spirit

I have never been to Paris. I have never visited Notre Dame. But I was still brought to tears by the sight of the Cathedral structure engulfed in flames. You don’t have to be Christian to appreciate the history and artistry of the structure. You don’t need to be religious to feel the sacredness of the place.

So I watched Notre Dame burn with tears on my face and an aching heart. Taken with all the other nastiness lately, it felt like the whole world was burning. Watching the flames devouring the building, the spire toppling, the roof caving in…it seemed impossible that anything would survive.

And yet much did survive. The main structure. The bell towers and bells. The huge stained glass rose windows. The titanic organ. The altar. Many of the artifacts and artwork.

All saved by the efforts of humans who looked insignificant pitted against the enormity of the flames.

Humans working together toward a single goal, with no selfishness, no thought other than to help.

The worst tragedy brought out the best of humanity. Which us how I know that Notre Dame will rise from the ashes, powered by the best in the human spirit.

The moments of profound darkness reveal the true brightness of the light.

Revision Difficulty? Maybe it’s your theme

I’ve been trying to revise Vertias for a long while now. I’m struggling with it, which is unusual for me. I normally love revision. So what’s the problem this time?

My first thought is perhaps I subconsciously don’t want to make the suggested revisions. This idea has merit, since none of us like to hear that our work is not quite up to par. However, I can see the value of most of the suggestions, and the changes I have already made have strengthened the story.

That should have been enough to get me excited, but it hasn’t. I still find myself procrastinating. Avoiding. Making excuses.

Truthfully, I’ve found it hard to get excited about anything writing related for a while. The burnout is real, and could also be why I’m struggling. But I don’t think it is—or at least isn’t the whole answer. Because when I get past the procrastination and into the work, it feels good.

Then I read K.M. Weiland’s post about plot and theme. And I got to thinking that perhaps in the almost 2 years since I first finished it, the theme had shifted. Now the plot and theme might not be working together seamlessly, and that’s why the revision is hard.

A lot has happened since I first wrote Veritas. Trump became president. My husband was away for nearly 10 months. The world has changed. I have changed. I am not who I was when I wrote that book…and maybe now I’m trying to say something different.

Every story has multiple themes, as evidenced by how many different ways readers interpret the same story’s meaning. The theme that I am working with now was in the original, but was a sub theme. Now it wants to take center stage.

If I let it, the revisions will be deeper and wider than expected. They will be more difficult. But maybe they will also finally be exciting again—a challenge to be conquered rather than a chore to be avoided.

Have you ever had a theme change in mid-stream? Or a life change that makes you see your book in a whole new way?

Mary Hobson Warren (1821-1904)

People often ask why I love genealogy so much. I think it is because of the stories. So many of my ancestors struggled and worked to give their children better lives. The stories themselves are compelling, but also I realize that without their work and sacrifice, I would not be who I am or where I am today. Their story is also mine.

Here is the story of my 3rd great-grandmother  Mary Sellers Hobson Warren (1821-1904)

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In 1852 Philadelphia, Mary Hobson Warren’s  life was good. Her family had been in Philly for generations, well established and fairly comfortable.  Her father Benjamin was a tailor, and her mother worked as a layer out of the dead, so Mary and her five siblings were secure growing up. On 18 September 1839, at age 18, Mary married James William Warren (age 28), an immigrant from Nova Scotia, Canada.

Now, 13 years later, they were well set. James had begun his career in men’s apparel, but now was a conductor on the railway. They had 5 children: Clara (age 11), Thomas (8), Benjamin (7), James Jr. (4), and Henry (2). And another growing in her belly. Life was going to plan.

Then, on 5 October 1852, came the knock on the door. Men from the railroad told her that James would not be coming home ever again. He’d been killed by a train. They spared her the details, but they were in the paper the next day. He’d fallen from the roof of a rail car, and been crushed by the wheels. He had died instantly. A small mercy.

But here she was at age 32, with 5 children, and her two months pregnant. As an immigrant, James had no family to step in and help. Her family could only do so much. They buried James in a grave in Monument Cemetery owned by Mary’s sister-in-law, Margaret Seward Hobson.

Mary took up washing and sewing, some of the only jobs open to honest women. She worked her hands raw…but her troubles were not over. James, Jr. died of typhoid fever just shy of 4 months after his namesake father. For the second time, Mary stood at the Monument Cemetery gravesite, mourning the loss of her 4-year-old son.

James William Warren (1853-1920)

But Mary didn’t give up. She kept washing and sewing, putting food on her table and a roof over her family’s head. 22 May 1853 saw the birth of her son, whom she named James William Warren after his father and brother. The family got along as best they could.

Then on 31 March 1857, she married Daniel Leinau. He was a businessman from Tennessee, a veteran of the war of 1812, and 25 years older than Mary. Clara was aged 16, Thomas 13, Benjamin 12, Henry 7, and James 4. Daniel and Mary had no children together, but Daniel was the only father young Henry and James ever knew.

Mary’s life got easier with Daniel to provide for her and her family. Slowly their house emptied. Clara married Frederick Valletto McNair in 1862. Clara and Frederick’s eldest son Warren Leinau McNair died in 1865 at age 1 year and 9 months. They buried him in Monument Cemetery with his grandfather and uncle. Thomas married Emma Spooner in 1872. Their first children were stillborn twins, in 1873, and they were buried in the Spooner family plot in Laurel Hill Cemetery. Thomas died young, at age 35, in 1879 and joined his children in the Spooner plot.

Daniel Leinau died 9 March 1883, widowing Mary again. He was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, and Mary moved James, James Jr., and baby Warren McNair from Monument Cemetery to the new family plot in Laurel Hill. Mary’s children were now old enough to support her, as she had done for them.

James married Clara Godshall in 1884, Benjamin married Emma Kinsey in 1887, and Henry married Mary Drew in 1888. Mary lived out her life with her youngest son, James William and his family.

Upon her death at age 83 on 23 May 1904, she joined both her husbands, her son, and her grandson in Laurel Hill. Three of her other sons are also resting in nearby plots.

 

 

 

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