Thursday, November 10, 2011

Allowing Yourself to Write Badly

I'd rather not try than fail.  - Esme Rajii Codell, Sahara Special

I'll admit it... I'm a perfectionist.  I hate it.

Of all the areas of my life that perfectionism affects adversely, I think it's my writing that suffers the most from it.  Why?   The quotation above says it all.  I simply can't stand the idea of failing at something I consider myself good at.  I can read as many inspirational quotes as I can stomach about how failure is essential to success, about how nothing great was ever achieved without failure.  It doesn't make it any easier - so I stagnate. 

I think it's because, for so many years growing up, I considered myself a failure at pretty much everything. Writing was one of the few things I knew I did well... knew I did better than most.  I was terrified of failing at it, because if I did, I'd have nothing.  The fear is still with me, even now.

I tell my students that first drafts are just that - first drafts.  That all writers revise.  That nobody - but NOBODY - gets it right on the first try.  The only student who doesn't believe it is the sixth grade girl who still lives inside of me, clutching her journal and refusing to let anyone read it. I get so worked up, sometimes, trying to get the story perfect in my head that it doesn't LEAVE my head - just like so many stories back then never left my journal.  And that, I think, is the kiss of death for any writer.  If you don't write, you can't ever be published.  You can't ever be a success.

My goal for tonight, then, is to allow myself to write badly.  To force myself to write badly, if the words won't come out any other way.  To write CRAP, if that's all I can manage.  To just WRITE, and to get the silly story about the ninja gerbils out and down on paper so that I can go back to it later and make it better.  After all... writing something is better than writing nothing at all, isn't it?

Monday, October 24, 2011

Animal Magnetism

I was kissed by a wolf the other night.  It was a dream come true. 

He was black with silver-tipped fur, luminous eyes, and had the startling ability to vanish entirely into the darkness of his pen - but there he was, bouncing and leaping against the chain link fence, wagging his tail for all it was worth, whimpering and whining in an ecstasy of greeting - "HEY!  New people!  Hi!  Hi-hi-HI!  You're here to see ME, aren't you?  GOSH, I'm glad to see you!  Got anything for me to eat?"

Of course, it wasn't exactly sanctioned or approved, that kiss.  After the fact, the staff in charge of the two "ambassador wolves" did ask all visitors not to put our fingers or hands through the fence... and I suppose, that being the case, I was obeying the letter of the law, if not the spirit.  I did NOT put my fingers, hands, or any part of my body through the fence.  I did not press any part of my body against the fence.  Zephyr, the wolf pup in question, did that all by himself... poked his nose and half his muzzle clear outside the fence, slurping the air with his tongue, so I decided that it couldn't hurt to give him want he obviously wanted so badly - to kiss one of these new humans who were so tantalizingly close to him and his sister.

I was, as could be expected, in heaven for the rest of the night.  Not even taking a tumble off the bleachers by the pen later on could take that glow away (in fact, it bought me a few more precious moments in the company of Zephyr and his sister Alawa, nursing my bruised dignity and trying to stretch my banged-up joints and muscles into cooperation).  Long after we left the Wolf Conservation Center, I was thinking of the kiss, remembering in, feeling it again... and that, in turn, triggered my mind to ramble backwards.

I've often wished my life was more interesting.  A teacher by day, a writer by night, a wife and mom, my life is anything but poetic or mythic.  But when I stop to think over the animals who have shared my life... well, suddenly, my story seems worth telling.  Being kissed by a wolf is only the latest in a series of exotic and unusual creatures who have crossed my path - in the good company of countless dogs and cats, gerbils and rats. 

When I stop to think about it, really, it reads almost like one of my stories.  In my life, I've played ball with bottlenose dolphins, befriended beluga whales and young sea lions, fed sharks and octopi, sung with coyotes, and "talked" in trills and chirps with raccoons.  I've looked deep into the eyes of a gorilla at close range, defended the rodents in the Mouse House from harassment by ignorant zoo visitors, and been waved at by an elephant.  A baby corn snake once twined itself through my fingers and finally settled its chin on the pulse-point of my wrist; I swear I felt a wave of pleasure and satisfaction coming from the little one, the first time I'd ever felt such from a reptile.  I've rescued thrown-away rabbits and abused rats and found loving homes for both.  None of these were "for pay" encounters... I either happened upon the animal, or earned the right to be with them through volunteer duties. 

In fact, the one time I did pay to do one of those "swim with the dolphins" encounters, I got the distinct impression that the dolphins were considerably less than enthusiastic about the meeting... I was just part of the job for them, and they'd oblige by pushing me through the water and letting me touch them, but didn't particularly care for me one way or another.  "Just doin' our job, lady - time's up."

I don't think I'll pay for encounters with wild things, anymore.  I'd rather meet my fellow mortal creatures on their terms, through shared aquaintances and happenstance.  That sort of thing can't be purchased, can't be coerced.  I'd dearly love to be kissed by a wolf again... maybe without a fence between us, next time.  But that will have to happen in its own good time.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ode to Joy - Beaker Style!

I had an utterly horrendous day at work yesterday, and today was saved from being much the same by two facts:

  1. I took a "mental health" day.  It does NOT do to have a complete nervous breakdown in front of one's students. 
  2. I found this clip on YouTube while looking up Victor Borge's phonetic punctuation sketch for tomorrow's mini lesson on types of sentences.  "Ode to Joy" is one of my favorite classical pieces... and the Muppets are one of my favorite joy-bringers.  And so, I share this, hoping it will bring joy to someone else as well.

Here's the Victor Borge clip I was looking for...

And this is just too cute, and must be viewed after watching the Victor Borge original.

- CV

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Lessons, Novels, and Life - When Planning Goes Wrong

I'm a fairly good teacher.  I am not, nor will I ever be, Teacher of the Year material... I don't think I even WANT to be that.  I know I am a writer first, a teacher second.  But one thing teaching, writing, and being a wife and mom have in common is my bete noir... planning.

I am not a good planner.  When, once upon a time, a professor made all us teachers-in-training take a learning styles inventory that classified us as concrete or abstract, sequential or random... well, I was one of two people who turned up as abstract sequential.  The professor didn't know what the hell to make of us - his words, not mine - but my colleague and I looked at each other, raised our eyebrows, and then told him, "Give us specific instructions for what you want, then get the heck out of our way."*

When it comes to my lessons, I am easily overwhelmed looking at the big picture.  Without a published curriculum for my writing classes, I struggle to follow the lead of my teammates, who all seem to understand perfectly well what they are doing all the time.  I yearn to teach a curriculum that has a textbook, through which I can proceed in order, supplementing and diverting as my students' needs dictate.  As it stands, I need to teach grammar, composition, editing, and revising without a textbook, without a scope and sequence, and without concise resources I can print off or photocopy easily.  There's a wide range of books out there - but I simply don't have time to read them all.

When it comes to my novel, I have an internal compass.  I don't need to plan things out on paper - I know where things should go, and when I try to set things down in writing (often to try to show my students How It's Done), I get frustrated beyond belief.  Happily, so long as I can carve out time to write, I can generally make the most of what's in my head and the draft becomes the long-term plan.  I guess this is what happens when you're able to follow your heart - you Just Know, and planning - if it's done at all - is done for your own clarification, not as a necessary precursor to the actual heart's work.

And my life.  Oh, god, my life.  I need a plan.  I need to get a schedule going, as I know that I'm not spending anywhere near enough time with my husband and son as I should be, as I want to be, but with the myriad of other things tugging at me - and refusing to give up my writing - it's becoming a morass.  But planning requires time, and to find the time, I need to plan for it...

I. HATE. PLANNING!!!!!  I wish it wasn't so bloody necessary to success!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Maybe I *WOULD* Like To Live On The Moon...

... I'd like to visit the moon
On a rocket ship high in the air
Yes, I'd like to visit the moon
But I don't think I'd like to live there
Though I'd like to look down at the Earth from above
I would miss all the places and people I love
So although I might like it for one afternoon
I don't want to live on the moon.
                                            - Jeff  Moss

This was the song I named my blog for - a gentle song from my son's Sesame Street CD, one that touched me in a way I didn't think children's songs could.  It seemed, at the time, to sum up everything that I was - tone and lyric, mood and innuendo.  Of how I dream of Going Places and Doing Things - Great Things, Important Things - but how I am tethered to the present, to my current place, to the life that chafes at me, sometimes, but that I am mostly comfortable with... even when I dream of more.

And do I dream...!  Here I am, a four-decade-old wife and mom, and still I daydream the way I did when I was a gawky, gangly adolescent... of what life would be if I could be a cherished member of an elite fighting force, not strong or swift but loyal to the core and valuable to my team; the confidante of wolves, keeping their wisdom, knowing their stories, a member of the pack; the rider of a dragon - not a Weyrleader, no, not I - but a dragonrider nonetheless, bound heart and mind to a beautiful, intelligent beast who shared my soul. 

But I'm none of that, and sometimes - like now - even writing these figments down seems silly.  Unworthy, even.  It stretches imagination too far.  I could never manage a military life - I'm too soft of heart and spirit, too gentle in voice and manner, shaped more like a picture book snowman than like a hard-bodied female warrior in a comic book.  If Beachhead, drill sergeant for the G.I. Joe team, were to chew me out, I'd likely burst into tears!  Confidante of wolves?  HAH!  I hate sleeping in anything other than a proper bed, have no tolerance for gnats or biting flies, and take "weather wimp" to entirely new levels (it should be noted that this past Columbus Day weekend was the first time all year I went to the beach).  Besides that, if wolves truly are sticklers for pack order and dominance, I'd be the omega, likely as not.  I'm not exactly alpha-tough.  And as for being a dragonrider... well, on my bad days, I wonder what dragon would ever have ME, flawed and insecure as I am.  On my good days, I figure I'd at least be a likely candidate for a fire lizard... maybe.

I would like to visit the moon, metaphorically.  Is it so bad to know that I wouldn't want to stay there, forever?  Dreams are all well and good - but you can't live in a dream, can't feed your family on starlight and moondust, and if you hold out for Prince Charming for too long in the love department, you wind up very much alone and disillusioned, wondering why you didn't take that honest frog when he presented himself.  I can't ever give up my dreams... it would be the end of me, if I did.  But I can't ignore reality, either.

I think it's easier to kick Reality in its derriere, anyway, and invite the dreams in - rather than the other way around.

So if I should visit the moon
Well, I'll dance on a moonbeam, and then
I will make a wish on a star
And I'll wish myself home once again.
Though I'd like to look down at the Earth from above
I would miss all the places and people I love
So although I may go, I'll be coming home soon...
'Cause I don't want to live on the moon.
No, I don't want to live
On the moon.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Strange Way to Make a Living...

Writing is a strange way to make a living, and I had sold many books by the time I was forty but was not making enough money to live on.  I worked construction, ran heavy equipment, tracked satellites, taught - did many things to support life - and by the time I was forty I was working very hard and had become almost completely broke, living with my wife and son in a small cabin in northern Minnesota with no plumbing, no electricity, and no real prospects.      
                                                                                                                    - Gary Paulsen, Woodsong

I read that quotation aloud to my sixth grade students the other day, when one of them asked me if I would quit teaching once I got rich and famous as a writer, and I laughed.  They were astounded that Gary Paulsen - himself probably one of the most famous writers they know at their young age - would write such a thing.  They seemed equally perplexed that a teacher who is a published writer had such a pessimistic view of her chances of becoming wealthy doing what she loves.  Many of my students come from families who pull, if not six figure incomes, at least in the high fives.  They cannot concieve - though this is partially an aspect of simply being twelve - of not actually achieving one's dream career, however lofty it is.  They've been raised to believe that as long as they dream it, they can do it.

I wish I still held that lie as convicted truth.

I am a writer who teaches.  I love being with my students, but as each successive year wears on, I hate with greater passion what teaching has become.  I don't like to talk about it.  I don't have the statistics readily available in my head, can't counter the arguments of the other side, don't really have a better solution.  But where I once felt that teaching was my Calling, one that could live happily beside my heart's dream of writing, I now see it as the lesser of evils.  I can teach, or I can work at Wal Mart or some dead-spirit business office job, or I can force my family to do without health insurance and the income my teaching provides.  I can't support my family on my writing.  Not yet.  Maybe not ever.

Writing IS a strange way to make a living.  You either carve time out for it, or you feel yourself begin to wither a bit inside.  You know that you MUST do other things, as Gary Paulsen writes, "to support life" - but you know, unless you're a rare creature indeed, that these "other things" are not what you REALLY want to do, and every moment you're attending to the needs of what brings in the money is one less minute that you're writing.

Then, too, is the issue that writing is not something that one can schedule.  If you're in a creative mood and in the middle of something else, you either drop that "something else" and scribble like mad for a bit - or you lose that spark, which will never again burn as brightly or as clearly as when the Idea first struck you.  I've taken to spending a good chunk of my teaching "downtime" - meaning, my lunch - writing.  I no longer visit with my peers, and sometimes, when they come visit me, I find myself vaguely irritiated - something I instantly quash, as having peers who care and want to spend time with me is as necessary as writing is to keeping my sanity.  But I need that time to write, because otherwise, I'm wandering through the day half a person, my creative spark snuffed.

I hate that I can't make a living by writing.  I dream, even now, of being "discovered" - some editor of a publishing house, some agent, maybe just some writer at a comics publisher, will see a fragment of my work and will Know.  It's replaced my dream of being carried off by a white knight or a black-clad ninja, romantically whisked away from the mundane and onorous into a world of magic and Happily Ever Afters.  But it's not going to happen... not without a ton of work on my part.  Luckily for me, it's work I'm happy to do.

And while I work at being a writer... I really am grateful that I have paying work to support myself and my family.  I may hate teaching as a profession most days... but I truly enjoy being a teacher.  A teacher who writes... and a writer who teaches.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

So, What's a Fritter?

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.
Henry David Thoreau
US Transcendentalist author (1817 - 1862)
... and most of it is in our drawers and cabinets.
          US Children's book author (1970 - present)

I should have written this post at the end of the last school year, as I was hauling everything out of my desk to see what I could feasibly rid myself of.  Teachers and writers are pack rats, I think... we follow the motto of "You never know when you might need this."  As a result, the contents of our desks, drawers, cabinets, and closets create inventories of the unseen that would do the Smithsonian credit: Museum of American Paraphernalia.  I dumped my fritters wholesale into a storage tote, planning to carefully sort and organize before returning to school.  The tote, half emptied, is still on my son's train table in the living room, its fritters now in untidy piles and sharing space with Lego Ninjago ninjas, cups containing the remnants of my husband's experiments in making hot apple cider, and several pairs of socks rescued from our 6 month old puppy.

What are my fritters?  From school, at least, they include
  • Motivational stickers - Snoopy, smilies, scratch-n-sniff (the most desireable)
  • Sharpies, multicolored, thick and fine point
  • Notepads of many varieties
  • Reversable wrist brace for when typing starts becoming too much for my tendons
  • Polished leopard stone
  • Unpolished river rock with visible amethyst crystals
  • Letter from the former governor of Connecticut about my first picture book
  • Letter from a former student, now in the Army, when he was twelve and leaving my class
  • Band-Aids
  • Ibuprofin, monster-sized bottle, expired
  • Fork
  • Small yellow plastic penguin - Neopets?
  • Two dozen used manila folders, varying condition
  • "Student of Merit" certificates
  • Four bookmarks
  • Photo of my husband in a hotel room
  • Business card from a reptile breeder
  • "Once Upon a Time" card game
  • Pencils, 5
  • Half-filled boxes of staples, 6
  • Something white, round, and plastic. Inside of a roll of tape?
  • Pre-stamped cards to send to Grandmother
  • Tiny decorative post-it notes I never  use, but keep because they're pretty
  • Packet of tissue that reads "I didn't make the honor role."  (Bought because of the typo - "role" should be "roll")
  • Three journals, nowhere near filled
  • Bella Sara and Magic trading cards
  • Screwdriver shaped like a battery
  • One G.I. Joe comic book
I could go on.  Nothing can be sorted, really, as there are few categories I can lump "like" things into.  Some will wind up going back into the desk... some into my memory box.  Others?  Geez.  I'm telling myself I need to live by the rule that if it hasn't been used in a year, get rid of it.

But... who knows when you'll NEED some of this stuff!