Hope and Grief, Connection and Creativity: An Interview with Cara Martinisi

Cara Martinisi is a writer, advocate, certified grief counselor, and mom to three little boys, one in heaven and two on Earth. She lost her 6-year-old son in a tragic accident in 2014. She blogs about her journey, sharing with others the beauty and wisdom she and her family have found in the pain they experience. Visit her blog at Christian’s Red Balloon and her new foundation Love From Heaven to support grieving families. You can also connect on Twitter at Grief’s Guiding Light @lightofgrief.

Cara, you have a beautiful blog about dealing with the loss of a child, and you’ve published other articles in a variety of blogs (including this one) besides. What is it like trying to capture your experience, your emotions, in words? 

Self-expression in words has always come easy to me. In fact many times, I find myself narrating situations in my own head as they are unfolding. The physical act of writing is soothing. I love the way pen and pencil feel on paper. As my emotions leave my body and the pen glides along the page, a certain sense of calm overcomes me.

There are some emotions that are more difficult than others to put into words. When I have trouble finding words that fit my emotions, I turn to meditation. Often this works, but not always.

Photo by Aung Soe Min on Unsplash

After Christian passed away, my ability to read was gone. The concentration and focus needed to delve into books had vanished. It pained me. It was over a year before I could pick up a book again. Now I read even more ferociously than before. The more I read, the more I am able to express myself. Reading, all different kinds of texts, has proven to be a wonderful compliment to my writing.

Were you a writer before 2014, or did the need to write arise out of your experiences? 

I have always considered myself a writer. English was my favorite subject in high school and my major in college. While many students bemoan paper writing, I enjoyed it. My confidence never paved the way for me to believe that I was good enough to do much more than write school papers. Although I was employed as a Deputy Managing Editor at The Economist, it felt as though it was more my attention to punctuation and detail that landed me my job.

After we lost Christian, writing was my way to carry on his memory. I would post a photograph, accompanied with a blurb about him, each day. At one time photography was a large creative outlet for me. That outlet seems to have dimmed since losing Christian, while writing is taking center stage now.

Grief is a powerful emotion.  Does it serve as a motivator or demotivator for you? 

Grief is an intensely powerful emotion. Most of the time it serves as a motivator for me. Many blog posts are derived from my own real time emotions surrounding grief. It truly helps me to keep the blog flowing, as emotions are always flowing. Grief will always be a part of me. With time and growth, my relationship to it changes, but it will always be there.

There are days, and sometimes more than one strung together, when grief is a demotivator. When these dark days descend upon me, fewer than in the past thankfully, it is difficult to do anything that brings joy. There are times when focusing is difficult. Eventually the fog lifts and I find myself returning to writing.

What did you hope to achieve when you started the blog, Christian’s Red Balloon?

My goals have always centered around helping others. It is all about healing. The hope has been to help others heal as well as to continue walking my own healing journey. I have received messages from grieving parents, those who have experienced grief in the past, as well as people who have just walked through tough times telling me that my writing is relate-able and helpful. While I am aware that my blog speaks most poignantly to grieving parents, I am also aware that none of us escape the world without running into some trouble.

It has been over a year that I have been writing my blog and it has become abundantly clear that a strong message is hope. Hope for those grieving, hope for those who are sick, hope for those who are experiencing tough times. We cannot control what comes our way in life, only our reactions. We need to move through the pain, the troubles that arise, and find light. For that is the only way to live again after you have been burned by the fire.

Continue reading “Hope and Grief, Connection and Creativity: An Interview with Cara Martinisi”

Creativity: Mysteries, rituals, and the power of practice

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

For the artist, the wellspring of ideas is like the Holy Grail: the elusive key to eternity, the stuff of legend. Creativity goes by many names: inspiration, invention, genius, The Muse. Where, though, does it come from? As writers, we’re obsessed by this question, desperate to derive a map to it, that we might come and drink from it as we desire, fearful that at any moment we may be cut off from it forever. 

As parents, you are confronted daily by the spontaneous creative explosions that are the norm for kids. What’s the only thing more creative than a bored child? A group of children. Hyped on sugar. 

I had a front stage pass to this innate, if raw, creative capability recently. When the play-date ended and I had a few minutes of quiet to work in my office, I sat staring at the cursor while it blinked at me. I had just been tossed about by a whirlwind of creative play, and yet found myself unable to articulate an idea, let alone a useable sentence for my Middle Grade fantasy-in-progress. (O! The irony!) Instead, my mind kept wandering not only to the question of where ideas come from, but to why it is it that kids and adults experience creativity so differently. 

Photo by Nick Hillier on Unsplash

So I turned to Google. What could it tell me about the sources of creativity? Apparently, it doesn’t exist in any one part of the brain. According to professor of psychology Arne Dietrich, author of How Creativity Happens in the Brain, creativity taps into many different mental processes. And contrary to the old adage that ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’ this 2016 Scientific American article from Tim Vernimmen posits that plenty may actually foster greater creativity. Very Maslowian. The other key factor? The degree to which we are interconnected as a society, at least according to psychologist Michael Muthukrishna. He’s supported by evolutionary biologist Joe Henrich, who (in the same paper) states, “History shows that inventions invariably build on earlier findings that are recombined and improved upon. Most of the things we use every day are inventions that no single human being could ever design within her lifetime.” 

So there are really no new ideas? Just new combinations of ideas? This sounds not only like it could be a quote from Audre Lorde or Mark Twain (which it very nearly is) but like we’re getting close to the idea of a universal mind, or “Over-soul” as Ralph Waldo Emmerson dubbed it. If you think this concept belongs purely with the Transcendentalists and psychologists (a la Carl Jung’s collective unconscious), then you might be interested to learn that eminent physicists David Bohm and Erwin Schrödinger (who won a Nobel prize) also support the theory that there is a single human consciousness which we only perceive as being individual.

I guess it could explain how multiple individuals, or even groups, can arrive at the same point of invention at the same time without communication: whether we’re talking cave paintings, pyramids, or plot lines. But why do kids seem to be able to tap into it so much more readily than those of us with a few more years under our belts?

It all basically boils down to consistently opening the door to invite the creative into our lives. The more often we open the door, the easier it swings on the hinges.

Continue reading “Creativity: Mysteries, rituals, and the power of practice”

Pregnancy, Miscarriage & Poetry: writing through the changes – an interview with Amanda Mahan Russell

Continuing our effort to spotlight parents who are also pursing creative endeavors, this week we’re talking to Amanda Russell, a poet whose debut chapbook, BARREN YEARS, is coming out in June. Amandais a native East Texan who has been writing poetry for over 15 years. Currently, she lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband and two children.

Photo by AprilMay Photography

Congratulations on the upcoming publication of your first chapbook BARREN YEARS from Finishing Line Press. How long did you work on this collection of poetry? 

The earliest poem in this collection is “Sonogram (16 weeks).” It was written in 2010. I started to envision this bundle of poems in 2012 when I wrote the poem “Barren Years.” I have been working on this collection since then, so for six years. 

How are you feeling about seeing it finally in print?

Ecstatic! To be a writer has been my dream as long as I can remember.

What inspired this collection? 

This collection started coming together when I worked in a writing lab as a tutor. I had just graduated, gotten married, worked at Barnes & Noble. I had been struggling to find my path and then my spiritual father challenged me to make it a practice, to write every day. That was the start of what I began calling my “writing experiment.” On the way home from work I would stop at the grocery store – it had a really cool back patio – and I liked the feel of it, so I would stop there and keep my pen moving for 20 minutes. Several things came from that practice, including many of the poems in the book. Sometimes I’d just be writing “I have nothing to say, nothing to say, nothing to say,” and I wasn’t writing with any specific goal other than to write. But sometimes I’d have a topic. I continued it for three years, and then I’ve been off and on with it since my first child was born. And whenever I start writing again after a dry spell, that’s the method I go back to. 

BARREN YEARS covers a span of about five years of my life. The writing started out as just my own personal processing of these events. The most obvious event covered in Barren Years is miscarriage. I was 22, newly married, and pregnant with twins when it happened.  I was completely devastated. I had never felt such a deep sense of grief, guilt, and loss. It caught me by surprise and I had no idea what do with it. I kept thinking I should be able to snap out of it. But I couldn’t.

According to the Mayo Clinic, miscarriage effects up to 20 percent of known pregnancies. That percentage goes up as women age. Common convention that I heard regularly after my miscarriage was that it impacts 1 in 4 women. Had you heard these statistics before your personal experience? What do you think of this information now?

I had no idea about the statistics. I felt so alone, and didn’t even have the words to talk to anyone about what had happened to me. I didn’t know if other people had experienced this same thing, this same guilt. In fact, I came across the same data in a middle of the night internet search after the miscarriage. The first time I read it, I remember being shocked. And since then, I have been friends with many women who have also experienced miscarriage. Now I just wonder, why it is that the topic is not discussed more openly? Why do we isolate ourselves and suffer alone?

How did you feel as you were going through the miscarriage and the time after? What sort of support were you able to draw on to help you through this tough time?

As I was going through the miscarriage, I was drawing immediate support from my husband, as well as other members of my family – especially my mom and mother-in-law. But it was hard because I found myself unable to talk about it. I started sleeping with a Care Bear every night. I often carried it around the house when my husband was at work. I cried a lot. It took me quite some time to realize I was grieving and therefore needed to be patient with myself. I wanted to snap out of it, but couldn’t. I realized I needed something to take care of, so my dear friend, Linda, taught me gardening. Taking care of my plants, together with writing and many long talks with some of my spiritual guides helped me through. It took me a good five years to begin feeling like myself again. 

Many women struggle with feelings of guilt on top of their grief, feeling they must have done something ‘wrong,’ when, in fact, most miscarriages are the result of a chromosomal abnormality that occurs early in the pregnancy and is in no way preventable. The fact that it’s often a taboo topic means, however, that women struggle with these difficult emotions in isolation. What was your experience like? Was guilt a part of it?

The hardest thing for me was the lack of explanation and the helplessness of not being able to reverse it. I also felt a sort of distrust in my own body – how could this have happened without my consent? This was not my intention. 

The guilt was … huge. And for me, at least, it lingered on until over the years I pieced together my innocence and worked through my grief.

Amanda Mahan Russell

During the pregnancy I had a very hard time adjusting to all the changes that occur in the body – low energy levels, suddenly not liking things I’d loved – like apples – the changing shape of my body. I felt judged by people who had advised me to get on birth control before getting married when I desired a more natural approach to life. So, yes – the guilt. Was I not happy enough about being pregnant? Maybe I should’ve taken birth control? Maybe I would not have been a good mother? If only I had done…. 

The guilt was definitely there, and it was huge. And for me, at least, it lingered on until over the years I pieced together my innocence and worked through my grief. 

That is such a powerful phrase “pieced together my innocence.” Can you elaborate on that and tell us how you did it?

I had so much guilt. I had so many questions. Did I do something wrong? And no one had any answers. But over the years, the pieces of information came together really slowly, and finally I was able to see the picture in retrospect and I was able to come to internalize that my intentions were always good and the miscarriage wasn’t my fault. There was not anything inherently bad inside of me. But I had to do a lot of self-work to get to know myself better. I had to do a lot of work to know that the miscarriage was not my fault. 

Continue reading “Pregnancy, Miscarriage & Poetry: writing through the changes – an interview with Amanda Mahan Russell”

Trying to Re-enter the Workforce: An Adventure Tale

by Susan Silverman

I miss the working world. Plain and simple. Sure, being a stay-at-home-mom (SAHM) has been rewarding: I’ve been able to witness my child evolve on a daily basis. But since my first day of maternity leave, I have missed—no, I think the word is ached—for the professional world. That was two-plus years ago. I have been out of the professional game for that long and I’m freaked out that no employer in my field will want me. Why? Because research by the Center for Talent Innovation shows that only 73% of highly qualified women who wanted to return to work were able to do so, and just 40% of those landed a regular full-time job. 

And you wonder why I’m freaked out about not finding a job?!?! I’m already starting with people perceiving me negatively. Or even worse, not even perceiving me at all.

As much as I’m aching to go back to the working world, I am filled with dread. No matter what I read about companies touting their reputations of wanting to hire SAHMs, or others who took a break from the professional world, I firmly believe this is a crock of bologna. A Harvard Business Journal article backs up my gut feeling. In a study that kept popping up all over the internet, Kate Weisshaar, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill found that, “The results show just how heavily parents reentering the workforce are penalized for their career gap: 15.3% of the employed mothers, 9.7% of the unemployed mothers, and 4.9% of the stay-at-home mothers received a callback.”

But even more telling, Weisshaar

found that people viewed both unemployed applicants and stay-at-home applicants as less capable than continuously employed applicants, perhaps thinking their skills had become rustier while they were not working. Respondents viewed stay-at-home parents as less reliable, less deserving of a job, and — the biggest penalty — less committed to work, compared with unemployed applicants.

Weisshaar, “Stay-at-Home Moms Are Half as Likely to Get a Job Interview as Moms Who Got Laid Off.” Harvard Business Review, 22 Feb 2018.

Gap on your resume: So, do I include this two-plus year gap on my resume or not? The jury is split on this one. Some suggest a “functional” resume format, which allows individuals to play up skills and downplay dates and gaps, `a la this Monster.com article. However, others recommend against this as hiring managers may perceive it as “hiding something.” Others advocate listing the time as SAHM on your resume, complete with skills – like multitasking, budgeting, operating under pressure – that comes with full-time parenting, but some hiring managers strongly recommend against this, even demeaning it as ‘cutsie.’ For myself, I’ve decided not to include the gap or even mention parenting on my resume. Rather, in cover letters and interviews I will highlight: 

  • Our family’s decision to live overseas, with all its benefits 
  • Regular engagement with former contacts 
  • That I continued to read up on developments in my field
  • Volunteer work I’ve done 

Know your strengths:I recently had the opportunity to sit down with two of my favorite mentors/bosses, or as I prefer to call them, “she-ros”, to discuss strategies. They both said that I need to know my strengths so I know what to play up in networking and interviews; and as former supervisors, they are the perfect ones to point out my strengths. They held up a mirror that allowed me to better appreciate what I would be good at, which will help me in my search. By asking the question, they also helped me prepare for a favorite interview question: “What are your strengths?” Best of all, former bosses who understand your strengths make for great references.

Network, Network, Network: During these years away, I regularly emailed my former colleagues, clients and contacts. It was just to keep me in the minds of these people, kind of like me waving a loud “Hi! Remember me?!?!?!” In many of these emails I remind people that I’ll be coming back in the summer of 2019 and will be job hunting. If you haven’t networked or kept in contact with people, start with friends and family members. Let them know you are looking—be as specific as possible regarding what you are looking for. See who they know.

In addition, I updated my LinkedIn profile regularly to show contacts, recruiters, and potential employers that I am still actively tracking the field. If you aren’t familiar with LinkedIn, think of it of a 21st century Rolodex (and if you don’t know what a Rolodex is, hit up Dr. Google). I include articles that are of interest to others in my field and regularly comment on other contacts’ postings. I want them to know I’m still here and have value to add.

While writing this I stumbled upon The Mom Project. Its tag line, “we’re committed to helping women remain active in the workforce in every stage in their journey,” is a LinkedIn-esque website for Fortune 500 companies and women who want to work for them. What a great idea! Time to create a profile.

A Job is a Job: One of my she-ros reminded me that she took an interim job at a retail store after leaving a job without having a new one lined up. She had a very difficult time finding a job that was fit for her, as she is a top brass in her field. For us Type As, that’s a hard one on the ego. But, she said it was one of the best times she had. She successfully balanced part-time work and job hunting/networking. And, money is money; every little bit helps. Especially if you’re facing the chicken/egg conundrum of exorbitant child-care costs.

So I’ve read the advice, I’ve got a plan, and still I am terrified about this search. The statistics are against me getting a job, in my field, at my level, at my salary grade. It drives me insane to know that in the 21st century we are still having to address the penalties of balancing motherhood with the professional world. So, dear reader, wish me luck! I will keep you updated of my search and any other tips I come across. 

I am amazed by, and thankful for, Susan’s article on the biases parents face when they try to re-enter the workforce. Even as I am grief-stricken to learn how much bias is still out there. Even as I wonder, why haven’t more boutique career placement services, organizations like The Mom Project but keyed to geographical or functional economies, popped up to serve the market of women with amazing skills seeking to bring those skills back to the workplace? Good luck, Susan – and keep us informed! And to the rest of you, if you’ve made the leap back into a career and want to share your story, or if you see interesting data about the back-to-work challenges SAHPs face, or if you know of groups seeking to address this gut-punch bias, please, please share it with us! Share the links in the comments here, or stick the articles to our Facebook page

-Thea

Thank you, Susan, for all of your research. I know it sounds cutesy, but man, it would be great to explain to prospective employers how your multi-tasking abilities improved whilst shopping at Target with toddlers – how you got everything on the list, kept screaming tots amused with dollar bin finds, and managed to have a 30 second conversation with another mom in passing. The next sales meeting with President Cranky Pants will be a walk in the park! My friends who have returned to the workforce after stepping away to raise kids for a while have had a broad range of experiences with getting back in. Some of them more discouraging than others. But, parenthood has shown us how resilient and creative we are – and I look forward to hearing more about your experience, Susan. You’re gonna be someone’s she-ro!

– Julie



The Space Between in 2019

Greetings In-Betweeners!

Can you believe it’s been a year already since our little community began to coalesce? And WHAT a year! We’ve pondered issues of identity, mental health, advocacy, and intentionality. We’ve strategized on how to manage technology’s impact on our kids, set up a successful summer camp schedule, and achieve your writing/revision goals.  We’ve celebrated the seasons and shared tips for surviving the holidays. We’ve been buoyed by guest bloggers and touched by hearing from you about the issues that impact your lives.

The common thread that strings our articles together has been our desire to support and grow a community of individuals busy raising kids while at the same time trying to find time and space for creativity. This year, we’d really like to grow the community aspect of this endeavor. We value each and every comment we receive on our website. You have no idea how much happy dance goes on every time one of you writes us a comment there. (Want proof? Write a comment, particularly a comment telling us what you want to see more of from the Space Between in 2019, and Thea will video a happy dance and post it back – use #proof in your comment to get the dance.)

We get that some folks just don’t feel comfortable posting to a blog space. We also understand that social media is much more in your face daily than our little site. We know because social media is also way more in our faces than our little site. “If you can’t beat ‘em…” as the old saying goes. So you’ll find that we’re upping our Facebook activity. Perhaps you noticed even in the last week that we’ve been posting a number of articles that relate to Julie’s latest post on implementing your words for 2019. We would be delighted – we would do more happy dances – if you would join our Facebook community (if you haven’t already) and post your thoughts on the articles we’re sticking to that wall. In fact, consider our locker your locker, and feel free to stick up articles that you’ve found, or questions/tips/funny memes (Thea particularly loves a good meme) on the site. We want it to be a community site. Our intention for 2019 is to take the Space Between from a website designed to support you to a community where we support each other.

You might also notice we’re shifting from publishing a new article on the website every week to every other week. We’re taking it down a notch while we focus on community engagement. You’ll still find guest bloggers (there’s a great one coming up at the end of January!). You’ll still find advice and insights and musings. Tell us what you want (see happy dance promise above) – either on the Facebook page or here on the website – and we’ll do our level best to serve it up.

Thanks for helping us grow and connect in 2018! Here’s to continuing our journey together in 2019!

“More” versus “Enough”

“More” is a lure. It’s the tantalizing bait always catching the eye. For me, it’s not so much about stuff as it is about all the things I want to do. There’s just so much great experience to be gained, in so many different flavors. Creative. Athletic. Musical. Social. Natural. Service-oriented. Friendship-based. Family-centered. If each event or activity is like a scoop of ice cream, then sign me up for the triple banana split! Not only is it sure to be yummy, but by opting for ALL of it, I don’t have to go through the painful process of choosing.

Never mind that I really can’t eat a triple banana split. Never mind that even trying is sure to lead to other forms of discomfort.

One of several books I’m reading right now (see, I can’t even limit my reading selection to a single scoop) is The Book of Joy by Douglas Abrams. In it, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu share their thoughts on how to lead a joyful existence. Unsurprisingly, both mention gratitude for what we have as being a key factor in lasting joy. Recognizing when we have “enough” is the trick here. Abrams writes,

 “Yet scientists have found that the more we experience any pleasure, the more we become numb to its effects and take its pleasures for granted. The first bowl of ice cream is sublime, the second bowl tasty, and the third causes indigestion.”

I’ve got life experience to back up Abrams’ metaphor. My first job back in high school was at the local ice cream shop. The owner, bless her, allowed us to liberally sample the products free of charge. I can therefore attest, there is a point where “more” – even just one bite – tips over into “too much.” (Sorry, Lorna – and thank you for this and many more valuable life lessons!)

Sometimes the effect of this indulgence is as temporary as indigestion, but sometimes too much can turn you off of something completely. I rarely eat ice cream to this day – and it’s got to be a pretty special flavor to pique my interest.

For me, the sweet hook of “more” has always been the potential missed opportunity. My brain paints visions of the joy an activity could bring in the nanoseconds it takes to contemplate whether to take my child to visit Eggbert the talking Christmas Egg, or if I should set my alarm to get up early to meditate. The thought of my child smiling with the surprise of holiday magic, or of myself, calm and centered at the start of the day – how could I possibly miss these opportunities to better our lives?

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Yes, Virginia, You Can Write During the Holidays

Julie got us organized for the holidays back when November was new, sharing tips for gracefully navigating the holidays. Then NaNoWriMo came and blew November out of the water. But now you’ve got several thousand more words written than you did at the start of the month. Congratulations! Time to celebrate! Everyone who writes toward their goal is a winner. Pat yourself on the back, take the credit when it is offered, and then keep on writing – because NaNo is always just the start of the journey. In December, the real work begins.

“WAIT!” you say. “I’ve been putting in extra hours in November that I mentally borrowed from December.” You feel like you need a little break from the fevered pace that brought you across the finish line. Plus, the looming list of holiday events and preparations is a great excuse to put your WIP on the back burner and give back to the creatures (by that I mean family) around you.

It’s tempting to walk away from that work right now.

Don’t do it.

Your project needs you still. Unless you’re waiting on the proofs to come back from the publisher, there is work to be done.

Consider the holidays for a minute, and prepare for an analogy. You’ve bought almost all the presents. You peer back down at your binder (thanks Julie!) and realize there’s one more person to shop for. And you need a couple more stocking stuffers. Not to mention you have to pick up the key ingredient for that special holiday treat that defines the season for your family. You groan. You sigh. You purchase yourself another cup of coffee. AND. YOU. DO. IT.

Why? Because to not do it is unthinkable. You can’t ignore the person in the binder. You’d give anything for the smiles on your kids’ faces to last one more minute on Christmas morning when they’re rooting through their stockings. The family looks to you to make the mood with that special dish – and you’d hate to disappoint them.

Continue reading “Yes, Virginia, You Can Write During the Holidays”

Eeking out time to write

Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash

It’s mid-November and the scent of NaNo is in the air. No matter the chill northerly breeze pulling the last leaves from skeletal trees, I keep getting whiffs of that funky mixture of exertion, stress, and self-doubt that fogs high school locker rooms at half time.  And the scent of hope – of potential victory – tingles at the edge of our senses.

But you’re against the clock! The minutes seem to fly by in the blurred manner of hundreths of seconds. You’re frozen by the escape of time, watching the flock of numbers wing south, while you gape at the white expanse before you.

No fear! You’re already deep in and the only way to truly overcome this challenge is to slay it. YOU CAN DO IT! Even if it feels like time itself is arranged against you, here are some bona fide cheats that can help you bring your manuscript (whether it’s a NaNo enterprise or other) home before the clock runs out.  And because the holiday season is practically upon us (another period when writing time runs thin as deadlines draw near), think of these tips as gifts you can give to yourself.

1. Give yourself five minutes. If the average writer can hack out 50 words per minute, then five minutes will give you 250 words. Now, clearly 250 words per day isn’t going to get you to 50,000 words in a month. But if you can give yourself 5 minutes to write, 5 times per day, that’ll get you to 37,500 words by the 30 day mark, which is getting pretty close. So even on the days when you feel like there is JUST NO TIME to write (or do much of anything else besides survive), challenge yourself like this: get up five minutes earlier and use that time to write. Stay up five minutes later, in order to write. See if you can squeeze five minutes of writing into each meal, and voila – you’re on your way. (Don’t believe me – check out Jeff Somers’ great article “The 9-Minute Novelist” in Writer’s Digest. The numbers don’t lie.)

2. Give yourself a break. It’s true that you can’t do everything – at least, not until you get your hands on Hermione’s time turner. You’ve got to focus on the thing you want to win. Every coach and every player – every fan even – knows that you’ve got to have your head in the game if you’re going to stand a chance. The player thinking about that school assignment, or the crush of their dreams, or whether they’ve got the ingredients to make mac n cheese from scratch, because even though it’s yummier, the mac n cheese from the box is probably loaded with chemicals – THAT PLAYER – is going to miss the chance to shine. So order take-out for the family (bonus if you can get someone else to pick it up), let the dust bunnies frolic for another week, and focus on what counts (your words!).

3. Give yourself permission to say ‘yes.’ We all know that kids aren’t supposed to have unlimited screen time anymore (even though Scooby-Doo and Johnny Quest were my after school nannies and I think I turned out fine…more or less). But that doesn’t mean that if you let them binge on a little extra TV or game time in the next two weeks that their brains are going to be forever damaged. In fact, isn’t this why you regulate their electronic consumption the rest of the time: so that you’ll have the spare hours to toss at them when you need it? Well, your need is now. Spend that credit.

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Building Your Writing Community

(Meme credit to Kristen Hogrefe)

 

You’ve been hard at your keyboard, and have a work in progress burning a hole in your soul. You know that you need feedback on it – at least that’s what the professionals all recommend, but where to get it? If you’re on social media already, you know the virtual opportunities are endless. Editors for hire. Online critique groups. Competitions that foster writing communities and hashtags that form the basis of communities. But sending your book into the ether can also feel overwhelming and/or impersonal. And there is no substitute for sitting down with someone who’s read your words to hear and see what they have to say about your creation. But finding that in-the-flesh feedback group can be hard! There’s the scheduling to begin with – a major hurdle for sure, but one that we’ve all got to contend for any allocation of our time. Some of the other things to consider are geography, genre, experience level, and let’s be honest, emotional fit. We’ll take a closer look at each of these below, and at the end, I’ve got a few suggestions for where you can find the materials to build your writing community, as well as a few suggestions for good writing community etiquette.

Geography. If you live in a major metropolitan area, this may not be as much of a challenge. I’m close enough to NYC to be aware of some of the writerly activities that go on there – and it’s enough to make my head spin! Writing groups abound, as do workshops, courses, book readings, editor panels, conferences, etc. If you live in an urban environment, you may have several groups to choose from (more on that below). For those of us who live more rural existences, you may have to cast a wider net to build a community. You can either open yourself up to traveling longer distances to get to more selective groups (keeping in mind how that commute may impact your ability to attend regularly) or you can seek to build a more diverse group closer to home. Personally, I do both. Once a month, I drive 60-90 min each way to meet with a group of children’s books writers. It’s worth it to me to go the extra distance (literally) to connect with a great group who are all writing toward the same audience. I’ve also been working to establish a group close enough that my commute does not equal or exceed the quantity of time spent connecting with the other writers– definitely a personal preference. This local group includes poets, novelists, bloggers, memoirists, and picture book creators, bringing together a range of interests and experiences that I’ve already been fascinated to see helping each other.

Genre. If you’re writing a romance novel, it seems common sense that you’d want to connect with a group of other romance writers. There’s a lot to commend this approach: you can share information on trends and tropes, agents and publishers looking for submissions, and key each other into contests or award opportunities. Having been a regular member of a children’s literature writer’s group has really been an education for me about what is going on in this specific sub-field of writing, and I’m extremely thankful to the other group members for all they are willing to share.

Depending on the availability of resources in your area, you may have to weigh commute times against specificity. It can also be helpful to get feedback from those who aren’t mired in the daily dramas of the field. Sometimes the feedback you get from those individuals can feel more authentic – like you’re getting it from real readers. Consider too whether you are planning to write exclusively within a genre for your entire writing career. Not planning on solely writing Middle Grade Space Operas? Then it’s at least worth stopping to consider how widely you want to cast your writing group net, since hopefully these writers will be with you for success after success.

Experience. This is probably the most loaded topic – should your group include writers of all experience levels? I say ‘yes,’ and not just because I’m still at the far left on the experience bell curve. I have always believed in mentorship and the benefits it can bring to both parties. Having people of varying levels of experience in your writing group brings the benefits of experience and (perhaps) connections together with a fresh eye and (perhaps) less jaded approach.

Emotional Fit. This was the aspect that I didn’t anticipate being so crucial but which has had a considerable impact on my inclination to continue with various groups – and which has made me consider carefully who I think will gel with others in my own efforts to gather a group. It ties into etiquette for sure, but also into motivations for joining a writing community. Some people want a group to validate their value as authors, and are not interested in being critiqued or in critiquing others. Some people feel their value is in providing extensive levels of feedback, and almost seem to relish tearing a draft apart. Both are fine, as long as everyone else in the group is fine with those approaches. However, mix those two together and you’re going to have a fairly unpleasant encounter sooner or later. It’s worth considering, and discussing openly, how the other members approach participation and criticism.

When you enter into a writing group, you are exposing yourself in a very real way. You’re taking draft work that you know isn’t it’s finest yet (though you are probably secretly in love with large sections of your own genius, as you should be) and putting it before other people, whom you may or may not know well, awaiting their judgment. Yikes! It makes my heart race a little just thinking about it.

Some trick(s) to making it all work? Kindness. Professionalism. Clear communication. Commitment.

Continue reading “Building Your Writing Community”

Ready…Steady…NANO!

“Patience” is a word my five-year old meets with a face like someone who’s just licked dish soap. I’m pretty sure that in his world, “patience” is equivalent to a four-letter adult word. Now and again, I’ve heard him creating dialogue between his toys, and one will counsel the other to ‘just be patient.’ The toy being counseled usually responds by knocking down, jumping on, and otherwise assaulting the toy that sounds a lot like me.

I smile to myself and try to remember how hard it is to be patient when you’re small and all the world is a great adventure full of mysteries to be explored. I pack him off to preschool with a hug and a kiss, and then I sprint for my writing nook, anxious not to waste a second.

Alright, alright. I do NOT generally sprint for my nook. I want to. Desperately. Sometimes it feels like my brain makes the mad dash, and the anguish when it hitsthe end of its tether and recoils back into the reality of what my body is doing is no joke. Some days, it’s enough to make me want to cry.

At least, that’s what life’s been like for me since July.

It’s one of those ‘seasons of life’ things we all read about. One of the fallow ones. Like early spring, when the ground is still too hard or too mushy, the night air still too fickle to put the seeds in the ground and expect anything to actually grow. This one is taking waaaaaay longer than I thought it would when I planned to take some time off from writing this summer. It’s time filled with 1000 other good things. But between all that good stuff, and challenging schedules, and a perpetual need to address the other issues that have also been neglected for months, I’m lucky if I manage to creep to my desk for five quiet minutes to reflect on my day or make a to-do list (and we’re talking the ‘no-kidding-do-this-today-or-suffer-the-consequences’ kind of list) in my daily planner.

Having read and reflected and counseled others through these periods, I know I’m supposed to grant myself some grace. That life sometimes takes us on surprising detours, and with grace that exceeds the merely human, the detours usually end up having greater meaning than we realized they did at the time.

But as I was sitting in my nook for 30 hectic minutes — each of which I spent gritting my teeth and telling myself that if I could just get through one more to-do list item THEN I could reward myself with writing time — I felt like my son must every time I ask him to do a chore before getting to the thing he really wants. And I just wanted to smash the obstacles that are keeping me from writing.

That’s when I realized: it’s mid-October already! For once, the recognition of time having passed isn’t accompanied by harsh self-judgment of all that I’ve yet to accomplish. Instead, hope hangs on it like the hint of rain in the wind.  Mid-October hold the promise of unbridled creativity the same way the scent of September always spurs me to run, the smell of wet earth and cooler weather triggering the Pavlovian instinct to lap the soccer field or rugby pitch. Only, mid-October is the time to clear the deck to make the time in November to put everything else to the side in order to write a new novel: NaNoWriMo.

Continue reading “Ready…Steady…NANO!”