Grateful at the End of a Frustrating Day

The other morning Lionel tried to convince me to stay home. “Meow, meow,” he said “rrrmmeow.” I should have listened to him.

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Be warned: There is much grouchiness in this post.

The train was slow, so I missed my regular subway and took the next one. So far, not too bad–a couple of minutes behind schedule. But then, the third subway was crowded and late, and worst of all, I missed the announcement that it was going express. I ended up 11 blocks past my destination and had to walk back. So, instead of getting into work at 7:20, I arrived at 7:40–and I had a coverage first period. (For those of you not in the teaching profession, this means that I had to cover a class for a teacher absent today instead of having the prep period I expected.) No time for breakfast.

For the previous two days, my classroom had been boiling; the head had been pumping full force, so I dressed a little lighter: cotton top with 3/4 sleeves, long skirt, no tights. Naturally with Murphy’s law in full force, after first period there was an announcement: “There is no heat today. Students may wear non-uniform hoodies and jackets.” Great. Just Great. It was cold in there!

Luckily, though, it was a half a day with no faculty meeting following, and I had plans to meet a friend to see Da Vinci’s Salvatore Mundi at Christie’s. Yes, Leonardo Da Vinci. This painting had been in private and royal collections for the past two hundred years. It was being sold that night and will probably not be seen again for another two hundred years. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. And, I missed it. When we got to the auction house at 1:30, they informed us that the viewing ended at noon. So much for my attempt at buoying my creativity with a 500 year old masterpiece.

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Nevertheless, I still tried to muster some creativity. I went to a public atrium to write, but alas, there were no seats left. I trudged over to Barnes and Noble only to discover, after buying a tea that I really didn’t need but bought because I wanted to settle in at their cafe, that their wi-fi was not really working. I wanted to edit something on my Chromebook, so I needed the wi-fi to access it. UGH! I began to feel like I was wasting the day. It’s not often that I have an afternoon with neither classes, meetings, nor make-up tests and the like. And here I was traipsing from place to place, carrying a laptop, but getting nothing done.

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Annoyed and a bit aimless, I went back to the public atrium and, lo and behold, found a spot! PHEW! I popped open the Chromebook and started writing. FINALLY! And like that–WOOSH–the day was saved. So in this week of Thanksgiving, I want to publicly express my gratefulness for words-words on the screen, words on the page, words typed by my hands, words inked by my pen, words shared by others, words by the greats, and words by the small.  Let me remember to let writing, and reading, take me away from the grouchiness of the world when the best laid plans lead me to one obstacle and then another. Let me read my way to another reality, and write my way out of a funk. Thank you. Word.

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I Read, Therefore I am

I am sure you remember me saying here again and again how much work I have to do: the piles of papers to grade; the notebooks collected to be checked; the tests and quizzes to make; the after school clubs to moderate…the list could go on and on. My teacher friends know of what I speak. From September to June, I am swamped, overwhelmed, and behind the eight ball.

In addition to work deadlines and pressures, there are the added commitments of “trying to have a live.” I know, I know, it’s a crazy idea for teachers–trying to have a life outside of summer time. But, there it is. I will not give up my painting time on Saturdays, and I want to find time whenever the weather is nice enough to play golf with my husband. And of course, humans are social animals, so I must find time to get together with friends. (It’s never enough time, but even to touch base and say hello is so important!) Let’s not even mention time needed for grocery shopping (ugh!), cooking (love it, but am often too tired), and cleaning (a never ending process). Don’t forget about laundry!

Then, there is this blog and my other writing. I’ll be honest; I don’t write much aside from the blog. I have great ideas and works in progress but little time (or energy when I have the time) to execute them. Plus, as a member of this blogging community, I want to read and respond to my fellow bloggers.

Eventually, something’s got to give, right? For the past few months, that has been my recreational reading. On my commute, I began spending less and less time reading fiction for pleasure. I either snoozed or browsed Facebook or read some blogs I follow. None of these are bad things. In fact, they are all good things. BUT. There is always a but. I didn’t feel good. I was getting testy, cranky, out of temper. My patience was wearing thin. As a teacher of teenagers, this is not a good thing. The ironic thing is that what I push for my students every single day is that they read. And read. And read. But, I wasn’t. I truly believe in the power of reading in increasing one’s academic success, even when one reads fiction–any kind of fiction. And I’ve always belived too that we learn how to handle situations outside our ken by reading. We escape; we experience worlds beyond our own. But, I wasn’t following my own advice.

Lately, I’ve gotten back on track. I’ve been reading Light Between Oceans. It is heart-breakingly beautiful. The prose is poetic and lyrical. I knew from the beginning that something was going to go terribly wrong, and now I know what it is; how it will be resolved, I still do not know, but I know I be both crying and smiling. And, I feel better. I’m calmer. I’m more patient. Most importantly, I learned that I need to read. I cannot live without reading. How can anyone?

A Rose by Any Other Name…

Recently,  my husband and I went to a local animal shelter to adopt a cat.  Leo, my feline love,  has recently passed away,  and while we were (and are) still grieving,  we missed having a cat presence in the apartment.  We still love our lost Leo, but we knew we have enough love in our hearts to welcome another shelter cat into our home.

Before we left,  I took a quick look online to just get an idea of the cats available. I wanted to meet the cat in person before we brought one home,  but it’s still fun to look. And I noticed two things: there are an awful lot of black cats in the shelter, and many shelter cats have crazy names. It is this latter point I wish to address today. I told my husband that if the cat which chooses us has a crazy name, we’re going to have to change it. I’m not gong to call out “Hey Chizzy Chaz, I’m home” for the next 15 years.

So off we go, and after some time we are chosen by a ginger tabby, a marmalade some say, of considerable heft named Lionel.  Rich asks me,  “Are we going to keep his name?” “Lionel,” I think. “That’s pretty normal. I can deal with it.”  “Sure, ” I say.

Now take a moment and think before you read on.  What is your first association with the name Lionel?

Then, I turn to the solid mass of fur purring next to me and sing, “Hello, is it me you’re looking for?” It certainly seemed appropriate for the situation and indicates my first association with the name Lionel. Lionel looked up and kept purring.

After bringing Lionel home,  I called my mother to tell her about her new grand-cat, and her response is “Is his last name Hardcastle?” You see,  she is a fan of the BBC series As Time Goes By, and Jeffery Palmer’s character is Lionel Hardcastle. So, Lionel will now be called Mr. Hardcastle by his Nana.

Next,  I went on Facebook to announce the arrival of the newest denizen of our apartment. Along with the many congratulations and exclamations of how cute he is,  there were a few more Lionel associations.  One friend asked if he likes train–ah,  yes, Lionel trains,  THE standard of toy  trains. Another noted that like his predecessor,  he bears a leonine name–seems like a tradition forming here.   A couple of friends referenced Lion-O from the ThunderCats–not a bad allusion, but there is no way my Lionel will wear a blue leotard! So many associations from a limited group of people.

This got me thinking.  What would come up if I googled his name? Most of the first page of results are links about Lionel trains, then Lionel Ritchie does show up as well as soccer player Lionel Messi (at least he’s not the biter). Then,  I clicked the related searches tab for “Lionel name.” Here were the sites related to the meaning of names.  To no one’s surprise,  Lionel means either little or young lion. It is from the French, the Latin, and the Greek. Every culture seems to have a little lion in it!  In Arthurian legend,  Lionel is Lancelot’s cousin. (I feel like I should have known that.) Interestingly,  according to one site,  people with this name have a deep inner desire for love and companionship.  I hope that proves true for cats too.

Every year, I have my students research the meaning of their names and ask their parents why they choose the name they did.  Then we examine the names of the characters in the novels and stories we read.  Often,  these names are indicative of the character’s personality or circumstance or cultural heritage. And unlike parents who cannot know their child’s likes and dislikes when they name him/her,  we writers know our characters intimately before we publish. We must choose those names with care so that our readers can see them as we do. Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre seems stony when we first meet him as his rocky name would lead us to believe, and Jane describes herself as plain. In Gabrielle Zevin’s novel All These Things I’ve Done, the teenage boy who is a bit of a, let’s say jerk, has the last name of Ardsley. You know what you’re hearing there, right? That’s purposeful. And the good guy is named Goodwin who goes by Win. Yes, we know who to root for. Which association do you as a writer hope to conjure up in your reader when you name your character?

And sometimes, we writers may find it necessary to rename our characters as we move through our drafts. We get to know them better as we create their worlds and see them move around in them. Sometimes a name change clinches together pieces of his/her character that had seemed tenuously connected. And  sometimes, the chosen name is too real. I once named a minor character Steve Stricker. I liked the alliteration and the strength of the name, both of which fit his position in the story. Then, one day my husband and I were watching golf, and there he was! Steve Stricker is a real person, a pro golfer! I had to make a change so that people who know golf weren’t bringing their associations of the real person to my story.

Where does this leave us on Lionel’s name? He seems to respond to it,  and I’m just trying to not call him Leo.That’s a fifteen year habit that is hard to break, especially with both names beginning with L. But, I think in time he’ll live up to the little lion that he is, and I hope he’ll continue to exhibit his desire for camaraderie.

What association do you have with the name Lionel? What characters have you named for a specific reason? Have you ever had to change a character’s name? Why? Join in the conversation below.

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but it will not create the same response from the reader if you call it an Eastern skunk cabbage.

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Likes, Revision, Imitation, Comments

Today I received a notification from WordPress of a new like for a poem I wrote in April, “Take Off.” This particular like did a few things for me. It reminded me that I have been remiss in writing my blog this past month. I have allowed myself to get bogged down in I don’t even know what, but I have also been spending some time revisiting and revising stories and poems as well as writing new ones. Hopefully, I will have something to share with you soon. However, that reminder was not the only benefit of the new like. Of course there is the gratification of hearing that someone likes something you have written. We all crave that, do we not? Why else would we blog, if not to be heard and interact? Without that desire, we could write and simply store our writings on our hard drives or in desk drawers. But writing is about communicating. This particular like spoke to me in that it sent me back to the poem I wrote in  April. And as I have been experiencing this summer, rereading and revising are an important part of the creative process.

When I received the notification that “Take Off” had received a new like, I immediately thought of the poem, or at least I thought I did. I remembered a poem in which I compared starting a new career later in life to a plane readying for take-off. I remember writing the poem; I remember what I was thinking and whom I was thinking of when I wrote it. I smiled thinking about that. Then, I clicked on the poem’s title and realized, oops, that’s not the poem that was liked! “Take Off” is a poem about imitation–both good and bad. The poem I was remembering has the words “take off” in it, but the title is “Departures.” So, I reread both poems. And I have to say, I still like them both. Even though “Departures” received no likes on WordPress (though it did receive some small notice on Facebook), I still think it is a good poem. But it is churning in my head now; perhaps because I have reread it and am willing to revise it, I can make it better. Let’s see what I come up with in the next few days!

Rereading “Take Off” also reminded me of the importance of practice and imitation. We learn from those who have gone before us. If we want to write poetry, we must read poetry too. Let’s comment on each other’s poems with something more thoughtful than “I like it.” Though it is always great to hear that, let’s tell each other why we like it. Let’s help each other develop the better parts of our poetry. Let’s also read some of “the greats,” the established poets, and imitate them. Try writing in the style of Wordsworth or Cisneros or Komunyakaa. These may end up being the poems that stay on our hard drives or in our journals, but it is an age old practice to imitate others in order to learn and to find one’s own voice. We cannot stay there in imitation, but we can start there, learn, and then take off on our own.

Shout Outs to Some Creative Ladies

I am blessed to have friends who share my love of creative endeavors.  Today,  I would like to celebrate a few of them.

My good friend Alyson  and I met many years ago in Cambridge where we each went to study one summer.  So, our first shared love is literature (and the cute professor who taught her class 😉 ). Over the years, we found we shared more creative interests, especially regarding fabrics and yarns, until we finally started our Etsy business together. It’s pretty slow going,  but we still have fun creating the inventory.  Check us out: alycatcreations1.

Another creative friend who deserves some support I met at art school. Actually, she’s my teacher,  Julieann.  She helps me see, so I can paint.  (Let’s give a shout out to the whole Roslyn School of Painting while we’re at it. Charlie and Lydia create a warm environment and open studio so we can learn at our own pace.  My friends and classmates-Meera, Kelly, et. al.-are so encouraging too. It’s a wonderful place to paint. Check out their Instagram feed.) Julieann currently has a painting of her adorable Scottie, Violet, entered in a pet portraits contest. Why not check it out and vote for her!

I’d also like to acknowledge some newer, virtual friends. In this blogging universe there are many pretty creative people who nurture and support each other. Connie@BohemianArt is one such new friend who recently nominated me for a Creative Blogger Award. I am honored.  Check out her blog where she muses, much like I do, on a variety of creative topics. Sarah Dougherty at Heartstring Eulogies shares poetry worth checking out, full of vivid images which will pluck those heartstrings.

Two more blogs I recommend are by women whom I know in both the virtual world and the real one. Moira Donovan offers us her thoughts on fashion,  family, and fun at Nine Cent Girl. And Gerri Woods keeps me laughing with her snarky observations on grammar miscues at Grammarian in the City.

There are many more of you creating out there and sharing your talents and encouragement.  Thank you all.

Keep blogging, painting, sewing, knitting, ladies! Keep creating! And most of all,  let’s keep supporting one another. Creativity does not occur in a vacuum.

A Man Called Ove and A Blog About Creativity

I recently started reading A Man Called Ove, a book by Swedish author Frederick Backman. My mom recommended it to me after it was recommended to her by two of my sisters-in-law. I was instantly hooked. What strikes me about it is that Ove is quite the old curmudgeon,  yet I find myself liking him. He’s rude and gruff,  but I feel like I understand him. When other characters are frustrated with him or fed up or rude themselves in response to his taciturnity, I want to take them aside and help them understand.  And, yes, sometimes I want to take him aside as well and help him understand his world or express himself better. But, of course, I  can’t do that,  exactly.

What does this have to do with a blog about creativity?  I’m taken with Ove not only because of the charm of the story or the clarity of the prose  (nod here to translator Henning Koch as well), but also because I am writing a story, have been writing a story for some time now, featuring a curmudgeon.  Readers of early drafts commented that my character was too nice, not curmudgeonly enough,especially for someone named Billy Codger. Ove, and Backman,  inspire me to return to Codger’s story and revise.

In a different story, another of my characters has a horrible boyfriend whom  (spoiler alert) she dumps by the end.  A friend who read an early draft advised that I give the boyfriend “a few more hateful lines.” I happily complied. It is easier to write negative dialogue for a character no one is supposed to like. But, striking the right balance of  rudeness and reticence with likeability is tough.  With Ove,  Backman has hit a bulls-eye.

Of course, my prose and Backman’s differ,  and it would not do for me to simply copy his style into my story,  but I am gleaning ideas to help me create a more believable Billy. This summer will see a new, expanded version of my story. Ove has lit a fire in my creative heart.

It is a wonderful book that can both charm the reader and inspire the writer in you. A Man Called Ove does that. Now,  let me get back to Ove.

Germinating Seeds

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This showed up on my Facebook feed today. Katherine Neville  is so right, and not just for teen writers.  I’ve been derelict in my duties as a blogger lately, I know.  I’ve started several posts,  but abandoned them before clicking “publish.” If they felt trite, banal to me, then how much more so would they seem to you, my readers. I didn’t want to waste your time. Yet,  instead, I fear I did something worse, I neglected you. I’ve kept at my painting and drawing which is always a long term project; crochet, my fall back, easy craft, has been slow going; and my writing has been stop and go.Instead, I’ve feed my brain with light fare-fan fiction, pulp fiction, and blog posts. Let me try to make it up to you.

We all know about the winter blues, and when our mood is affected, so is our creativity. Yet, despite the snow in the air this morning, spring is on its way in. I noted with joy that there was light in the sky both when I left for work this morning and when I came home again this evening. Daylight has been creeping up on us little by little, and today I noticed. Next weekend when Daylight Savings Time rolls around, I may find myself in the dark again on my evening commute, but not for long! I am a teacher, so naturally, summer is my favorite season, but spring also has its advantages, and I am feeling them this year. Even though the temperatures have dropped again, and the winds have been fierce, there is something different about a 30° day in March than in January. Even when March comes in like a lion, we know that soon enough she will lay down with the lambs. That knowledge sustains us till it happens and the bloom is once again on the rose.

What does this meditation on weather have to do with creativity? I believe we all go through seasons in our creative lives as well. Sometimes it seems like the soil is barren; there is nothing growing in our brains, that we have lost our inspiration, yet like the seeds of winter, there is germination quietly happening. So, keep observing; keep jotting down notes; keep starting blog posts. All of a sudden, the light will be there. All of a sudden, the crocuses will be blooming even though you didn’t notice the green shoots poking through the cold ground. Trust in your creative power; it will return to you many fold.

Now I promise to click “publish” this time!

Why Writers Must Read: A Book Review That Becomes a Meditation on Craft

Do you have a “regular” bar? The other regulars become a sort of extended dysfunctional family. You know each other well. Some know each other intimately. There’s a camaraderie that revolves around hopes and dreams, mostly dashed, and daily frustrations. This is what Rebecca Barry’s Later, at the Bar, which I recently recommended to my book club, is about. Labeled a novel in stories, she shares vignettes of various members of an unnamed Upstate New York small town. The prose flows. You feel like you know the characters as you do the regulars in your own bar. They keep making the same mistakes, again like the regulars in your own bar. They definitely drink too much, still like the regulars in your own bar. The difference, I guess, is that you leave your own bar and re-enter the real world.

My book club found it difficult to discuss. Why? I think the answer has to do with reader expectations. The label “a novel in stories” builds expectations of plot, conflict, and characterization. Later, at the Bar has only the last one. However, Barry herself describes the stories as vignettes which Merriam-Webster defines as brief descriptions or episodes. That they are. And they are well done. I did not want to stop reading (though some in my book club did), but by the end, I missed the rising action, the climax, the falling action, the resolution, the point. As a novel in stories, I expected these elements to appear to a certain extent in each story and in a larger part over the course of the whole book. They do not. Each vignette is well crafted; the characters are so well drawn, you do feel you know them. But the time shifts between stories is left unexplained. You don’t know what happened first. This is another challenge to creating a narrative arc. This leads me to wonder: what do we as writers owe to our readers? How far can we challenge their expectations without losing their support?

It is precisely because the book is labeled a novel in stories that I recommended it to the book club. I am currently writing a book that also has stories within it. I wanted to see what Barry did. I wanted to know if my book was going in the right direction. On that point, this book has made me think about my own book’s completion. I know I need to create a stronger narrative arc than what I experienced here. For me, it’s less important that the stories be able to stand alone than it is that they stand together. The small stories inform a larger one. My work still challenges readers’ expectations as there are multiple narrators and shifting time periods, but there must be (and is) a conflict, a mystery, a reason to keep reading–a larger narrative arc.

The funny thing about this book, though, is that I keep thinking about it. I lent it to my mom, and we had our own “book club discussion” while getting pedicures, and we had plenty to say! She didn’t miss the narrative arc the way I did; she felt it there in the humanity of the people. We found ourselves creating lives for them outside the novel, and hoping for them to escape the small town and bar culture they were in. The last story indicates that one character did move on; we were so happy for her. That is certainly a success for the writer. Don’t you love it when you read a book that feels so real? That even if the characters are somewhat pathetic, you still root for them? Isn’t that what we want to create–a story that lives on in the readers’ minds long after the book is closed? I know I do.

So, I take what worked, the beautiful characterization, and what didn’t, the lack of a larger story; the need for more connection between stories and clearer indications of time, back to my desk. This is why writers must read, and read widely, to enjoy a beautifully written sentence, a captivating characterization, and to learn from that which we both like and that which we do not so that we may one day bring our own work to the world.

PAD 27: Looking Back

Today’s prompt is looking back. And, looking back over the past year, I thought of all the time I spent lesson planning. Teachers, I am sure you can relate.

Lesson Planning

Do I need to read

This book, poem, essay

Again? I have taught it

Year after year. I have lesson

Plans, tests, quizzes, ideas-

Folders full of material. I will

Just look back over the notes. I will

Just skim a few pages…

Until hours have passed, and I

Am rereading it all over again,

And creating lessons anew because

I see a new angle; because

The class’s last discussion lead us

In a new direction; because

I wanted to try a new technique.

Whatever the reason, I, again,

Have spent hours when I could

Have reasonably spent minutes.

When will I learn to look back

And learn to work smarter?

Probably, never. Not until I stop

Learning myself. But sometimes,

I wish I could just use last year’s

Lesson plan.

PAD 9: Work

Today’s prompt is work. This was a little tough for me when I first read the prompt because for April 6’s prompt of things are not what they seem, I focused on working through vacation, as most teachers do. I felt as if I had already addressed this prompt. But, in the spirit of Poem a Day, I knew I had to write something new today, something different. So here is my offering, a little poem on doing what you love.

Do What You Love

What happens when

Play becomes work?

Do you love what you do?

Or begin to dread what

You loved?

Is a passion made

Business

A passion still,

Or does it become a duty?

Don’t get me wrong-

You should “love” what you do.

Choose a profession that

Fulfills

That

Speaks to you

That

You feel is worthwhile.

But,

We all dream of playing

And being paid.

Sports, of course, but

Other pursuits as well.

Could I read books for a living?

Of course!

But then, I’d have to edit them,

Or review them. There’d

Still be deadlines.

Would that deaden the joy

Of reading?

Could I crochet or sew,

Create scarves and blankets and purses?

Yes! But, there’d

Still be the website to set up,

The customers to woo,

The packages to mail.

Would that lessen the relaxation and delight

Of creation?

Could I write for a living?

Would anyone publish it,

Would anyone read it?

Would I be able to buy groceries,

And cable, and Internet,

So I could procrastinate my time

Away from writing for a living?