Change Is Good, Right?

First off, Happy St. Patrick’s Day to my fellow Irishmen and to all those who wish you were!

Second, my Act Like a Writer workshop ended last week, and I have had some time to think about the things we’ve learned. One of the biggest things about the workshop was facing your fears. Honestly, if you step back, what’s the worst that can happen if you flub a pitch or a panel or a reading? Dreadful embarrassment, most likely, and that has never killed anyone.

Even though our logical mind tells us this, fear is not logical. We spoke about our fears in the workshop, and they were familiar. Fear of babbling or stammering or not being able to speak at all. Fear of fainting or throwing up or falling down. Fear of embarrassment or insulting someone or provoking a confrontation. Fear of looking like a fool.

All of the above are very real fears. I share all of them, as do most people. They all stem from that little voice instructor Keith Strunk talked about, the one that whispers to us, “You’re nothing special. You’re not good enough. Just who do you think you are? Why should anyone listen to anything you have to say?”

I’ve heard that voice. We all have. But those fears, prompted by that voice, are not the fears that paralyze me. Face it, you don’t reach (mumble, mumble) years of age without having actually had many of those fears manifest themselves. Although those incidents were deeply uncomfortable, I’m still here. They didn’t kill me.

So what is scaring me so much?

You see, I also hear another voice, different than the “you’re not good enough” voice. (Did I mention that, as a writer, you are allowed to have voices in your head and still be called sane?) This other voice whispers, “But if you succeed, everything will change.”

Ahh, there’s the rub. Change and I, not good friends. I like my routines. Having a baby has made me a lot more flexible, but still…I like my life. If I get an agent, and we sell the book, everything changes. I go from being able to stop writing to play with my daughter to having to tell her occasionally that Mommy can’t play with her now. I go from being able to schedule my life around my family to adding in deadlines and crises (in business there are always crises—I remember that distinctly).

More than that, I go from being able write in comfortable anonymity to having to be public author persona. To have readings and signings and be on panels and do interviews, and all of those things that are so far out of my comfort zone that I can’t even see them from my spot here on the couch. What sort of an idiot deliberately places herself in situations she equates with being in front of a firing squad?

Apparently…me.

Because I want this. I want my work out there. And this is what it takes to be an author in today’s world.

I can do it, too. Act Like A Writer showed me that not only could I do it, I could do it well. And if I continue to work hard at it, someday it may even be fun.

Panels & Pitches

Last week in our Act Like A Writer workshop, instructors Jonathan Maberry and Keith Strunk staged mock panels. All of us had a turn sitting on the panel. I never thought I would say this, but it was…fun.

Part of the fun was, of course, because our little group has gotten more at ease with each other, and we felt a measure of safety in being among friends. Had it been a hundred strangers’ eyes staring at us, that might have been a different story!

I’ve never been on a panel before, real or mock. The thing I found most comforting about it was that you are not up there alone. I felt a great deal of support from having others at the table and not because we were familiar with each other—but because we were all in the spotlight together. We were all in the same boat. We were facing the audience together, so for that moment we all became comrades in arms.

In this final week, we did our pitches again—this time standing up in front of the camera with lights and a background! Like a TV shoot, only not as hectic. As I stood, all miked up and waiting, the cameraman started talking to the assembled class about some technique or other to look more natural on camera. All the while I am standing there, sweating under the lights, forgetting to breathe, and generally screaming in my head, “SHUT UP AND FILM ME ALREADY!”

When he did finally say “Action,” I thought I might faint, because I could literally feel the blood pounding through my neck veins. I figured that couldn’t be a good thing. I did finally remember to breathe about halfway through the pitch, which helped somewhat. I finished up, got kudos, and very quickly found a place to sit down!

I haven’t seen the footage yet, but I’m not worried. Why? Because in spite of the blood-pressure spike and lack of oxygen, I did NOT have the same out-of-body experience I had in the first week’s pitch session. I controlled my mouth, rather than simply listening to it babble on without me. I consider this amazing progress in just four weeks!

I learned a ton in the Act Like A Writer workshop, and I would recommend it to anyone who can take it—you can use the tools they give you for a whole spectrum of public and social situations, not only those having to do with writing. I will also be taking it again, closer to when I am going to the Philadelphia Writer’s Conference, so I can practice. Until then, I will practice pitching to my toddler. If you can hold a toddler’s attention for 3 minutes, you can enthrall anyone!

I just have to remember to breathe.

The Confidence Game

“Fake it ʼtil you make it,” advised our Act Like A Writer instructor, Jonathan Maberry. Instructor Keith Strunk showed us how to use body language to hide our nervousness and appear more at ease. Although that sounds like they are teaching us deception and downright fraud, they are not.

They are teaching us confidence.

Scientific evidence demonstrates that when you act confidently and put your body in the postures of confidence, you really do feel more confident. The body positions trigger a chemical response in your brain, making your “faking it” closer to reality.

Also, with every successful public interaction, your confidence does in fact build. It layers upon itself like a pearl, accreting until your confidence becomes a real gem instead of costume jewelry.

All of us taking this workshop need confidence. That’s why we are there. But last week, when each of us read an excerpt from our work, I noticed an interesting phenomenon.

Everyone did a great job—which is not surprising, since everyone there had a good story and an obvious passion for their work. What was surprising is that every one of us—who had struggled and sweated over the pitches the week before—had fun with it.

I figured out that the reason I had such fun with my reading: I have full confidence in my work. I enjoy sharing it with people. I have no trouble letting it speak for itself—that’s when I am most comfortable. Speaking for myself, well, that’s another issue. I don’t yet have the same level of confidence in myself as I do in my work.

But then I realized something else: when I am out there as my author public persona, I am not speaking for just myself. I am speaking for my work—the work I am so proud of, the work I have such confidence in. I am a representative for that work, and I need to advocate for it as I would for my baby girl.

I am not afraid to speak up for my daughter. My anxiety falls away and I do what needs to be done because she cannot speak for herself, and no one else cares for her welfare as I do. She needs me.

My work needs me, too. I am its strongest advocate. I must use the confidence I have in my work to represent it with boldness, tenacity, and passion. There is no room for fear.

Fear still comes, of course—a mere four-week workshop can’t rid me of it completely. But I am learning the tools to conquer it. Learning to put things in a new perspective. Learning to turn my show of confidence into true confidence.

I’m fakin’ it, but I know someday I’ll be makin’ it!

What was the best advice you ever got about how to tame your fear and gain confidence?

Epiphany

Okay, so I’m taking this workshop called Act Like A Writer. It’s supposed to help nervous-wreck hermit-type writers like me build their public persona and gain confidence in all sorts of public situations, from pitching agents to meeting fans. 

I was scared down to my socks.

My wonderful musician aunt told me to “breathe to the floor,” but I focused more on not collapsing onto the floor because my legs trembled so badly. Instructors Jonathan Maberry and Keith Strunk threw us to the wolves immediately—into the hot seat to pitch. And just to make our terror complete, they VIDEOTAPED us for critique purposes!

When my turn came, I could barely walk to the hot seat. I sat there on the tipping point of a panic attack. The mess inside my head whirled around like a tornado, and I thought throwing up, passing out, or having my head explode was a real possibility. The oddest phenomenon—that of sitting on my own shoulder listening to my mouth talk—capped the out-of-control sensation.

Then I was done. Until the video got posted online.

Due to technical glitches, I did not get to see my video until the day of the next class. One by one, as others watched their videos, they posted traumatized messages about how hard it was to watch themselves. I agonized as I waited—I’d been such a mess, how could this not be painful to watch?

So I held my breath and pressed “play.” And…elation! Far from being the travesty I’d expected, I looked calm. I sounded coherent. I appeared so…normal. Sure, I had things to work on, but I was overjoyed all the same. If I take away nothing else, I will take away this valuable lesson:

My external presentation does not reveal my internal panic-stricken maelstrom.

Talk about a confidence booster! The way I felt and the way I looked could not have been farther apart. I realize that my fear of the fear’s effect on my performance had been more debilitating than the anxiety itself. It was an epiphany.

Will I still be nervous when I pitch? Absolutely. I will always be nervous. But now I will not be a nervous wreck.

Into the Woods

The fairy tale has always exerted a powerful pull on our psyche. That’s why re-envisioned fairy tales by such writers as Robin McKinley, Mercedes Lackey, and Gregory Frost in his Fitcher’s Brides are popular. One of my favorite musicals is Into the Woods. The writing is fantastic and the cast of the 1991 television performance (including Joanna Gleason, who won the 1988 Best Actress Tony for it) was spectacular.

A large part of the charm of the show (at least for a writer) is how Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine wove together several well-known fairy tales into a single narrative. A Baker and his Wife go on a quest to lift a curse from their family, tying together the tales of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel. One by one, the characters go into the woods, that archetypal metaphor for the darkest parts of human nature. There their paths cross as they face the evil in the world and the worst in themselves.

The tales are woven seamlessly, the lyrics are witty, and the emotion is true. It is fun and funny while being true to human nature. It is no wonder that it won Best Score and Best Book Tonys in 1988. But also, as I writer, I enjoy premise of the (much darker) second act. This is a look at what happens after “happily ever after.”

**SPOILER ALERT**

What happens is that happily ever after isn’t what any of them expected, and even though they had achieved their wish, they now wish for something else. When an angry giant attacks the land, they all get thrown together to try to stop it.

Another twist that appeals to my writerly heart is when the characters decide to sacrifice the Narrator to the giant. They reason that since he is the only person “outside” the story, he is expendable. He argues that he is the only one who knows how the story ends, so he is essential. When he dies, the characters are left on their own to make decisions for the first time in their lives.

The musical is a study in the law of unintended consequences. The pursuit and attainment of seemingly harmless wishes (to go to the ball, to have money for food, to have a child) have disastrous repercussions not just for the wisher but for those around them. As the cast sings in the show – “Wishes come true, not free.”

One of these unintended consequences is the lessons we teach our children by what we say and do. Anyone with children in their lives knows all too well that nothing escapes children’s sharp eyes and ears. They see and emulate everything. The writers of Into the Woods (a show definitely NOT for young children) are acutely aware of the powerful effect our actions and our stories have on our children. Stories are magical, a spell woven with words rather than potions. One of the final admonishments of the show is a piece of advice every writer should take to heart: “Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell. Children will listen.”

What fairy tales still haunt your dreams? And what lessons did you learn from them?

Guest Blog at Backspace’s STET!

Hello all! Today I’m guest blogging at Backspace’s awesome blog STET! So come on over and visit! Enjoy!

Haven

Last week I returned to Chincoteague. For eight months last year, this little island and its wild companion Assateague fed my soul and sheltered me from the hustle and bustle of the hectic pace of modern life. Going back, even for a couple of days, felt like returning home.

Is it possible to have a soul-place, the way people have a soul-mate? Some people don’t believe in soulmates but I do, having found mine. So is it possible that a soul has a place, or at least a type of place, where it can grow and expand and utterly belong?

If so, Chincoteague and Assateague are mine. The first time I set foot on the island, it felt like home. Not because I felt I knew it, but more like the island knew me. Like it had been waiting for me to find my way to it–to find my way back where I belonged. Sounds weird, perhaps (or eerily like the premise to Lost). All I know is that after several days there I was more at home than after several years in Jersey.

On my recent trip back, I of course had to visit Assateague, the wildlife refuge next door. Assateague in winter is bleak, but hopelessly beautiful nonetheless. Birds, ducks, and geese populate the pools, wild ponies and deer roam the marshes and forests, and squirrels flit through the underbrush. The beach, empty and wind-lashed, stretched to the horizon, and the waves reached for the sky, foam blowing off the crests in horizontal streams.

Some would call the beach desolate. Indeed, my baby girl was frantically signing, “All done! All done!” just a few minutes after we got there. The grey sky, clouds roiling farther than sight, the raging water, seething as it ate away the land… I can see how some people would feel isolated and insignificant.

Not me. Standing there, the chains of our hectic lifestyle fell away and my soul stretched. The untamed wind filled my lungs, the sea roared in my ears, the salt coated my lips, and the sand shifted beneath my feet. But instead of feeling small and isolated, I felt small and connected. The vastness didn’t swallow me, it took me into itself and made me more than I normally am.

So Assateague and Chincoteague are my soul-places, where I can sense the thrum of life itself. And although I cannot be there always, I can retreat there in my mind whenever needed. That wild wind will be my Muse, swirling my writer’s soul and calling forth words I hope will soar as high and as far as the wind itself.

What are your soul-places?

Fallen Heroes

Twenty-five years ago today, the seven Challenger astronauts lost their lives in the pursuit of knowledge. Other people, like Martin Luther King, Jr., have given their lives standing for principles and speaking for the oppressed. Still others give their lives protecting other people—our police, firefighters, and military. These people, and others like them, are undeniably heroes. But in every person’s life, there are personal, private heroes—people who profoundly influenced their lives. My best friend Donna was one such person.

Donna made me laugh. She was just funny. We would laugh until we cried, until we could barely breathe. It wasn’t that she told a good joke—it was never anything I could explain to people and make them laugh, too. It was how she said what she said, and the timing with which she delivered her skewering deadpan sarcasm. I miss the laughter.

Donna could talk with the best of them (I have phone bills to prove it), but she could also listen. One of her gifts was to make you feel like you were the most important person to her at that moment. She could be hosting a party (something she did often), but when she spoke to you, you had her full attention. When it was just us alone, we could talk about anything—she never judged, never made me feel like my opinion or beliefs were irrelevant. She heard what I really meant, even if I couldn’t find the right words, and she always responded from her heart—a heart that was more generous than I can fathom.

Donna was a writer, and we grew as writers together. Would I have been a writer without her in my life? Certainly. I wrote before I ever met her. But I would not have come as far in my craft as fast as I did without her support and her passion. As many writers know, having a community of writing friends can rekindle the flame when you hit a rough patch. The solidarity of having a best friend who understood completely and shared the excitement of finding just the right word, or finishing a chapter, or hitting upon the perfect title was a tremendous boon.

Donna taught me how to be a true friend. Her loyalty was fierce. She never gave up on a friend and she never walked away from a friend in need. If she was your friend, it was for life. She put her friends ahead of herself. She listened. She consoled. She laughed. She accepted you for you, no questions asked, no demands made.

The final two lessons I learned from her came at the end of her life. I watched her face death at age 32 with dignity, with pride, and with a stubborn determination that this would not be her legacy. She once said to me, “I am not just my cancer.” While those around her raged at the unfairness of it all (and I know she did, too, from time to time), she told me “I’m so lucky, to have all these people that love me.” While those around her tried so desperately to hide their tears, she cracked jokes. While those around her worried endlessly for her comfort and prayed for her health, she worried about all of us. About who would take care of her husband when she died. About how he would cope. About how we would all cope. I promised her we would all take care of each other, and we have. We all learned that lesson well.

The last lesson was simply this: life is short; live it every day. Even before she was sick, Donna lived her life fully. After she got sick, she still found the joy in life. That lesson seems so obvious, but it is so hard to remember. I have to be reminded of it often.

Today is a day we remember Challenger’s fallen heroes. Today, also remember the heroes who have touched you in your life. Count your blessings. Find the joy.

Life is short.

Graphic Novel Experiment

As part of a workshop, we took a scene from our novel and wrote it as a graphic novel script. I was quite eager to try it, as I have always felt that my middle grade novel is very visual and would lend itself to a movie or graphic novel.

The scene I chose had action at the beginning and dialogue at the end. The action portion practically wrote itself – I had so much to show! The unexpected stumbling block was the dialogue at the end.

The dialogue worked well in the novel – about a half-page of quick back-and-forth. And it would easily work well in a film, cutting back and forth between the characters as they spoke. But in a graphic novel, all I could envision was an entire page of panels that looked like carbon copies – just these two characters’ faces alternately repeating.

Since this was an experiment and I am not yet well versed in graphic novels, I muddled through as best I could. I inserted several panels that were wide shots of the scene, to break up the sameness. I pared the dialogue down as much as I could without losing the voice of the characters or the necessary information in the dialogue. Is it enough? I will find out when my instructor looks at it.

When I first approached this assignment, I felt my many years in video production would work in my favor. I even found myself wanting to use film jargon in the panel descriptions. For the most part, my ability to see the action framed in my mind did help with the project – until the dialogue, when the static nature of graphic novels made it different from a film, where within each alternating perspective you can have the actor portray a small movement that speaks volumes, or use slow zooms to emphasize emotion.

My struggle with the dialogue also made me wonder if I needed to do more with it in the novel. Did I need to have action? Did I need to spice it up somehow? I decided I did not. Novels and graphic novels are two different media. Their requirements are different. A half-page of staccato dialogue flies by in a novel, but doesn’t work as well in a graphic novel – at least, not the way I did it!

I look forward to learning more about graphic novels, and trying to improve my skills.

Have any of you adapted your work to a graphic novel? Have you considered it?

Internet Down, Productivity Up

My Internet was down for three days. Now, I use the Internet for communicating for work, but also just to stay connected with the outside world. Any of you who have been stay-at-home parents will understand the need to reach outside the house every now and then. The need to communicate with someone who can actually speak in complete sentences! So it has been something of a lifeline in that way.

That said, I had an extremely productive three days. Got lots of projects done, things I’ve not gotten to because I didn’t have the time. And so I started wondering, “Do I really spend THAT much time online?”

Although I do check in with Facebook, and check emails when they come in, and have certain blogs I follow daily, I am pretty good at not getting sucked into the time warp that can happen online. It is so easy to follow an interesting link that leads to another and another…addictive. But I’m fairly adept at avoiding that (unless it’s during genealogy research – which is why I don’t do that during work hours!). So probably my actual amount of time spent READING what I get online is between 1-2 hours a day – not a workday, but a full 15-hour day. That’s not bad.

So why was I so much more productive without the Internet? I think it was a combination of two factors: information and fragmentation.

Everything I read – blogs, status updates, and emails – contains information. And if I could just read the info and walk away, that would be fine. But a certain percentage of that information demands a response. I may want to comment on a blog, or a friend’s Facebook post. And emails, whether for work or pleasure, often demand a reply, if only a short one. All of which eats into my time, but in such small increments that I don’t notice how much it’s taking.

Those increments are insidious because they are fragmented – I don’t notice them in bits here and there, yet at the end of the day they have added up to a larger number than I expected. But the other killer is a different kind of fragmentation – the fragmentation of concentration.

When the Internet is functioning, there is the pressure to deal with things as they come in. Someone responded to my Facebook status? Gotta see what it says, keep the dialogue going. A new email in the Inbox? Hafta see who needs what from me now. The Internet is wonderful in facilitating fast communication – but it also brings the pressure of instant communication. Like I have to respond now, at once. And this constant checking to see what’s going on out there breaks up the large chunks of uninterrupted concentration I often need to get projects, both work and home related, done efficiently.

So what to do about it? Self-discipline. I have to devise a strategy to somehow avoid the pressure to check frequently. It may be as simple as actually closing my browser except at certain times of day, so that I don’t see those updates popping up, demanding my attention. We’ll see how it goes.

How do you avoid the lure of the Internet?

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