Finding Grace: Reading and Writing

I went for a walk yesterday, needing to clear my mind. During that fast-paced walk, I wrote a long, angry blog post in reaction to Charlottesville and to the reactions from others from the top of of our government on down to my friends on Facebook.

I’m not altogether sure I shouldn’t still type out and post all that I wrote in my head, except I have an interview today and while they’ll want to see my passion, it’s probably better if I don’t yell at them. So maybe I should exercise the grace I’ve sought and let the rage settle, at least for today.

As you can see, though, writing has ultimately done its job. While that angry post was only written in my head, it was, in some ways, still written. Catharsis still had its moment.

I didn’t start the summer with a lot of words. I’m not ending it with a ton more. However, I’m once again finding my voice. I’m finding the grace to accept my process, which can move very slowly at times. Part of that process has been these posts on finding grace. Another part was finding that precise song for my playlist to help me tap into a character I’d not yet fully embraced. I wrote about that song last week and how that works for me. And that story is coming back to life, the one I started over a year ago, but had to set aside for awhile. Ideas for how to fix other writing are coming back, too.

This re-awakening has been a long time coming, and with it comes an excitement that settles in and in turn, when passion re-ignites, so does grace, because it’s easy to fill up on courtesy and goodwill when your passions swell.

It’s not just writing, of course. The corollary of writing is always reading (and for me, vice versa) and this summer I read a lot. I had the time to do so and I took full advantage. I also allowed myself a luxury I hadn’t taken advantage of for many years. The joy of re-reading. I used to do this a lot more when I was younger. In recent years I’ve gotten caught up in trying to read All The Books. Trying to stay current. Trying to catch up on all the greats – all the backlisted ones for authors I’ve discovered have more titles to their name. Sometimes I re-read something when a new book in the series is coming out and I want to refresh my memory, but mostly I feel an urgency to keep moving forward, although I can understand the problem with viewing it as such.

Thanks to Netflix airing “Anne with an E”, I got the bug to re-read Anne of Green Gables. And if you give a mouse a cookie, well… you know the rest. Reading the Anne series was like visiting a dear, old friend. It felt lovely. So I alternated: “new” book, old book. I found titles that I knew would make me feel good. Authors that never let me down. Books that soothe. Here’s my list so far:

Anne of Green Gables -L.M. Montgomery

Anne of Avonlea – L.M. Montgomery

Anne of the Island – L.M. Montgomery

Anne of Windy Poplars –  L.M. Montgomery

Anne’s House of Dreams – L.M. Montgomery

Anne of Ingleside – L.M. Montgomery

Bet Me – Jennifer Cruisie

Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell

Simon and the Homo Sapiens Agenda – Becky Albertalli

Along for the Ride – Sarah Dessen

Don’t know if I’m done, yet, and have also remembered that there doesn’t ever have to be a “done” with re-reading. Middle Child is reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees for his English class’ summer homework, so I might have to add that to my list.

Here are some new titles of books I’ve read this summer that I’ve also really loved that were new reads:

Binti – Nnedi Okorafor (A)

Mango Delight – Fracaswell Hyman (MG)

As Brave As You – Jason Reynolds (MG)

Once and For All – Sarah Dessen (YA) < — Really, you can’t ever go wrong with a Dessen

Finding grace is always a work in progress, but for now, this is my final installment of ways that I have deliberately sought it over this past summer after realizing a lot of it had slipped away. I welcome your stories on finding grace, too.

Sometimes, “all we can do is keep breathing.”

 

 

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When Music Makes the Story Come Alive

A fellow writer in my writing organization recently asked what song we imagine for the ending credits for our novels-turned-movies. Easy! I know ‘em all. Novel 1: “The Sound of Sunshine” (Michael Franti and Spearhead) first, then “Jabulani – Rejoice” (Ladysmith Black Mombazo). Novel 2: “Brighter Than the Sun” (Colbie Caillat), then “Good Life” (OneRepublic). Novel 3: “I Lived” (OneRepublic), then “Nothing More” (Alternate Routes).

Not that I’ve thought about it that much.

Ha! If you’ve followed me at all, you know that music plays a heavy role in influencing my writing. Every manuscript has a playlist – and it’s almost essential. It’s what I listen to non-stop during my commutes or when I’m cleaning or whatever because it gets me deep into the mood of my story and my characters and who they are.

For my current WIP, I’ve struggled. I started it over a year ago and I have some good scenes written from that time, but then I stalled out. I put it aside to re-work my current project that I’m querying and that was after just stalling out of writing, period, from about November 8 of last year until almost May of this year.

I really love the characters, though, so I delved back in, and am even doing the craft book thing to help me develop the story, because that has been the missing piece.

Until I heard The Song.

One of local radio stations has been playing an old Kelly Clarkson song – “Breakaway”. A few weeks ago, I heard it, but no effect. Then I started really digging into the WIP and heard this song last week and BAM! I thought, THIS is Lizzie at the end of the story. Or not. Somehow, though, even if the lyrics don’t fit – and even if it won’t actually be the end of the story, the tone brought Lizzie to life for me in ways I hadn’t been able to grasp until now.

Though it’s still going s-l-o-w-l-y, I actually have scenes coming to me. Ideas are starting to loosen up. The characters are starting to move in and set up house in my brain. Maybe I’ll even be able to write more than 100 words in a sitting someday soon. Ha.

Does music have the same effect on your writing or ideas? What helps inspire you when you’re stuck?

The Song:

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Finding Grace: Morning Walks with Youngest Child

I’m a walker. I love how it’s basically a super easy exercise that gets me outdoors and enjoying the fresh air. Even better, it shakes loose all the tension and packed in thoughts. It gets me working through problems and best yet, it helps me work out story – scenes, plot points, characters, dialogue – all of it. And, to make it more of a “workout”, I take looong walks. 50-60 minutes, when I can.

This summer, however, I’ve kind of given some of that up. Not all of it, mind you, just some – for now. I’ve replaced it with shorter morning walks with my 10-year-old.

Part of me misses my long, solitary walks. I do still take them on the weekends and the only one to blame for not taking them during other days is myself. And changing up this activity is definitely my choice. Part of why I changed it is that while Youngest Child does sleep in on these summer days, he still doesn’t sleep as long as Middle and Oldest Child, which means, in spite of my best efforts, Youngest Child is drawn to the screen instead of many other, more worthwhile activities. And so, I decided that to encourage him to at least get moving and spend a little more time outside, I voluntold him to join me for daily, morning walks.

Not gonna lie, he was unenthused the first two days. I chose shorter routes and let him make some decisions on where we would go, of course, too. And, Youngest Child being who he is – ie: Joyful Child, Never-Upset-For-Long Child – there was never any sulking on those first couple of days. He still bounced. He still had cheerful conversation.

By Day 3, he finished breakfast and said, “I’m ready for our walk!”

That was easy.

If this were a middle grade novel or an NBC family drama, the next part of this post would describe our amazing conversations on those walks and how it’s really bonded us together. Look how close we are with our mother-son relationship now!

Nah.

Youngest Child and I already have a pretty good relationship (because he’s not a teenager, yet). And while it would be cool to say we’ve embarked on some deep conversations, we have not, and whatever, I don’t care about that at all. Unraveling the mysteries of his life – or lack thereof at this point in his life – was never a goal. We chat like we would even just sitting around at home, and sometimes we don’t chat at all. And that means I still get my brain-wanderings… and so does he. He has an active imagination, so our silences together are not stifling or uncomfortable.

While sometimes I might rather take a longer walk on my own, ultimately, I enjoy this routine of ours. I like that I’m helping him get moving and I like the companionship. I like his random observations, even if he doesn’t have them every day. I like this way of hanging out together, especially since as he enters middle school, he will start that process of slipping away from us, which makes all parents both sad and proud at the same time. I like the motivation to get myself moving, too, instead of thinking “maybe I’ll take a walk later” and letting “later” get to be “not at all” because I let other things take priority.

And so, this activity turns into a conscious decision and activity for seeking out grace. It doesn’t just fall into our laps, you know. 😀

I think we all have small things like this that we share with each of our individual children. What is one that you share with yours? Or one that you have shared as a child with an important adult in your life?

Lyrics like part quoted below from Joshua Radin’s “We Are Okay” are what keep us connected to younger, more innocent days… and summer, don’t you think?

“Build me a home from a cardboard box
Many windows never locked
This is how we used to play
Shorter nights and longer days
With faith we would not fade away”

 

 

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Saturday Summation – 22 July 2017

Bits and pieces of things that caught my eye not only for my own interest, but enough to want to share with you, too…

Writing Stuff:

Think an editorial checklist might be handy? How about one that a literary agent uses? Agent Jenny Bent tweeted out her list and seems like it would be pretty handy if you are finalizing a manuscript that you are getting ready to query…

Sometimes, getting dialogue right – as in natural-sounding while also avoiding all the mundanities of it – lies in what’s consciously or unconsciously hidden in the conversations. Maybe a character is well practiced in not talking about a certain time period in her life that she’s already developed ways to deflect or evade without even thinking about it. Becca Puglisi describes ways to develop the surroundings of dialogue that will bring authenticity to it. She gives some good, concrete, suggestions.

 

Reading Stuff:

“We need to stop judging people who don’t read a lot”, Clay Andres says and I agree, though I confess that I’m not always great about this. In truth, I can be judgy towards those who don’t read at all, as that situation pains me. If you don’t read much? I seriously don’t care about that. I’m just happy you’re reading something. Also, let’s not judge what someone is reading. (Although, you’ll take suggestions from me, won’t you? smile)

I’ll admit to not having quite read this whole post about teaching students about our own personal biases and how they contribute to stereotypes when I discovered the sole focus was on gender roles. However, there is a lot of good in it that can also be applied to other situations – culture, race, religion, etc. I think this should be part of the basic pre-reading strategies teachers employ, don’t you?

 

Song of the Week:

When the song “Not Easy” came out featuring X Ambassadors, Elle King, and Wiz Khalifa, I remember reading about how it was written by Alex da Kid, who got part of his inspiration from an IBM program that helped discover what lyrics and song structures appealed to human emotions. And for me, anyway, that song works. I definitely feel the bittersweet heartache of that song. Yesterday, one of our local radio stations talked about this article, that says neuroscience tags Toto’s “Africa” as the best song ever. It’s no wonder that it’s been showing up in all kinds of unexpected places for me in the past couple of months, if that’s, you know, true. Ha. Here you go. Let your brain soak it up:

 

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Finding Grace – Family Music Goals

Each year my husband and I challenge our kids to come up with a personal project they’d like to complete – or some kind of goal they’d like to meet – by the end of their summer vacation. We used to try to give the extrinsic motivation to it by tagging a reward like going to Valleyfair (our local outdoor amusement park) upon achievement or completion, but to be honest, that only sort of worked once. So now that has sort of fallen away and we rely primarily on intrinsic motivation instead – which is really the best way, obviously, but you know how parenting goes.

Often it’s been thematic. Build something. Ride a certain number of miles. (< — This one was a collective one as a family. We aimed for 1,000 miles. Success!) This year, the theme is music. We’ve acquired a fair number of instruments, and my husband, especially, has been working at learning them all. My oldest (the marching band kiddo) has aspirations of music in his future – probably music education – so he sees the value in learning more. My middle child has a lot of natural musical talent like his dad and enjoys just picking up an instrument and trying stuff out. My youngest likes the idea of it all more than the actual implementation… but he’s getting there.

And so, the kids said, what if we had a contest to see who could play the most instruments by the end of the summer?

Naturally that wasn’t going to fly, and so we helped tweak it. What if we determined, individually, what our music goals were that we thought we could achieve by the end of summer? The key is that we are all still working at a common goal of musical accomplishment, but it’s personalized to what we want to do. I mean, I have to admit that I do not care at all about learning to play the saxophone or violin. I also know that I have other things on my mind (ahem, writing is supposed to be one of them) and I need to make time for that. But I am absolutely game to be a part of it. I love the idea of pulling my flute out again because I really enjoyed it when I was younger. I love the idea of learning the piano (sort of re-learning, as I did do an independent study in high school to teach myself how to play) because I’ve always imagined being able to play beautiful music, with that effortless look. (Imagined being the key word there.)

Spring Break is when the kids created their musical goals posters and two of them jumped right on it. What impressed me most was the thoughtfulness behind the process. My older two kiddos, who are already musicians, really honed in on where they wanted to go and how to get there. One of their things is that they wanted to work on new instruments. (Oldest Child already plays tuba and Middle Child plays cello). Youngest Child’s first attempt was pretty vague and probably over-ambitious, but it wasn’t until this summer, when he decided he would take up the baritone for school, that he re-did it and I think it is much closer to what he is likely to attempt. Check out below to see all of our musical goal posters. (Click on any individual one to embiggen.)

 

Interest and dedication has flagged a bit for some members of the family as summer has progressed, but regardless of the specific goals, we have music in this house during many parts of the day and hearing myself do basic songs on the piano that sound like real songs is exciting. Even though my novels have not been sent out into the world, yet, the joy of writing – of creating art – is highly rewarding. And no, I’m not creating music – but I am making it happen and I feel so accomplished as I start internalizing things like the bass clef, seconds, thirds, etc.

And then there’s the flute – I loved playing the flute when I was younger. (BTW, did you know that there are personalities associated with what instrument you play? Somehow, only playing up through grade 9, I missed this. I totally see it now, though…) I wish I had continued in band through high school, but I did manage to keep playing on my own for fun, at least, throughout those high school years. And then I didn’t play much at all for a long long time. And now – it’s taking me a bit to re-train the embouchure and there are several fingerings and scales I can’t quite remember – but what a joy to relax into it again! While I am not playing stuff that I used to be able to play (yet), it’s not like the piano, which takes a lot of extra concentration in these early stages. Instead, it’s like catching up with an old friend.

I’ve written before of the importance of music and its connection not only to memories and experiences, but also to my writing – and thus far, all of my adult novels have incorporated it in some way. One character is a piano player. Another is a drum player in a jazz band. Another sings. I have playlists to accompany each manuscript and when I haven’t written for a while, I play those songs to help me slip back into things.

Thus it is for finding grace – it is like slipping back into music and letting myself float into the beauty of making it happen. This music goal is good for me and definitely good for my family.

How does music play a role in your life?

Below is a video of a stretch goal for me. It’s not one I’ll accomplish this summer – I don’t remember that I ever even “mastered” this piece way back in my lesson days. I figure it’s a decent thing to aim for, though (on the flute, not the piano).

Handel’s Sonata 5 for flute

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Saturday Summation – 08 July 2017

Bits and pieces of things that caught my eye not only for my own interest, but enough to want to share with you, too…

Today’s post is brought you by: I Have Thoughts.

Writing Stuff:

I don’t read many craft books. I think if I were much younger or totally brand new to the idea of writing [fiction], then I’d be more likely to explore them. They have their uses, but like anything else, in moderation. We have to pull what is useful to us and not necessarily abide by any one thing as IT. I am reading a craft book now, and it has definitely been useful, but what frustrates me is that the author spends a lot of time saying so many other processes are wrong. THERE IS NO RIGHT WAY. This isn’t science, folks. This is art, craft. It isn’t without structure, but it isn’t a precise thing. The only other craft book I’ve read is the one everyone swears by: On Writing by Stephen King. I sometimes wonder if they do so simply because it’s the thing to do. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed that one, but I liked it because it read more like a memoir combined with King’s personal writing process. I’m sure I took away some good nuggets from it, but can’t specifically name any of them… which is the point of this post from Larry Brooks as he talks about the “Big Lie” about writing compelling fiction. I tell you, I was with him on this post thinking “yes” until…. he gave his 6 “truths”. “The sooner you get these six truths into your head (among others, including the drilled-down subsets of each principle), the sooner you can truly begin to grow as a storyteller.” Sigh. What he says isn’t wrong (my whole point), but I fell into the “this is the only thing” trap of his game. (He wrote a craft book, naturally.)

FYI, if I ever suddenly feel like I MUST write a book on the craft of writing, please tell me first that no, I don’t HAVE to do this, and if I don’t listen to you (I am pretty stubborn), tell me to follow the way of Stephen King because now I understand why his is so highly recommended.

There’s always a lot of debate about “platform” for authors and whether or not they should be highly active on social media. I think the most common agreement for those who truly understand social media, is that it should not be used simply for constant self-promotion. It’s all about engagement. And it works. I’ve read authors that I might not have because I follow them on Twitter and eventually thought, huh, if I like what they have to say “here” I might like what they write for fiction. And when that happens, I will help promote them. This post by Evie Gaughan talks about pros and cons and I’d love to add that personally, I love when authors throw out the occasional tweet about progress on their current WIP or even their ideas. It makes feel a little kinship with them and as a reader, it helps me anticipate their next works.

This post by Lily Iona MacKenzie is a very specific one about setting – France – but it brought about the question of how we can make a setting that is outside of our experience an authentic one in our writing. At this point in time, I cannot really imagine being able to write about a different country that I haven’t visited because when you include something like that in a story, you – or maybe it’s just me – want to feel that difference. In one of my books, I have scenes that take place in Nicaragua (I lived there for four months – long ago) and I knew that I needed to make that environment come alive. I needed sounds and smells. And I look at this paragraph and realize, it needs more:

We’re on the outskirts of central León and at night the diesel fumes that normally populate the air finally diffuse. Citrus scents from trees like the madroño take over and mix in with the smoke of cook fires. By day, the groans and rumbles rustle up polluted smells again, but also fresh bread, tortillas, and chicharrones join in.

How do you focus on settings that you have never experienced first-hand?

 

Reading Stuff:

Looking for your next book to read? My writing organization – Women’s Fiction Writers Association – holds a Star Award contest each year and you can read more about these debut finalists. Not sure what women’s fiction is? If you’re of my generation, think “Oprah Book”. 😀 Also, books by the likes of Jennifer Weiner, Susan Meissner, and Barbara Kingsolver.

I got a kick out of this post about “weird quirks” by avid book lovers – and yes, of course they are all justified. (BTW, #7: “Experiencing irrational anger when the price sticker doesn’t peel off neatly without leaving scuffs or sticky residue” is definitely one of mine.)

 

Recommended Reads:

The Song Rising – Samantha Shannon (YA/NA/A crossover) (My review)

Honestly Ben – Bill Konigsberg (YA) (My review)

Once and For All – Sarah Dessen (YA)

The Bookseller – Cynthia Swanson (A) (My review)

The Thunder Beneath Us – Nicole Blades (A) (My review)

The Light We Lost – Jill Santopolo (A) (My review)

Setting Free the Kites – Alex George (A) (My review)

 

Summer Re-Reads:

Anne of Green Gables -L.M. Montgomery

Anne of Avonlea – L.M. Montgomery

Anne of the Island – L.M. Montgomery

Anne of Windy Poplars –  L.M. Montgomery

Anne’s House of Dreams – L.M. Montgomery

Anne of Ingleside – L.M. Montgomery

Bet Me – Jennifer Crusie

Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell

 

Currently Reading: Binti – Nnedi Okorafor

Song/Video of the Week:

Why yes, I’m a Hamilton fan. One day I might even get to see the musical. In the meantime, other fans who are important enough to be able to hob-nob with him contribute in their own ways. This the latest –  a powerful remix of a famous line: “Immigrants, we get the job done”.

 

 

 

 

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Finding Grace – Marching Band Season

I know, you might be thinking, what? That’s kind of an… interesting… place to find grace. I think we sometimes assume that “grace” sounds like such an eloquent word that we must associate it with nature and poetry, but like anything, it’s in the hands of those who behold it.

Before I share more, let me back up. A friend of mine commented on my last post, In Search of Grace, by indicating possibly seeing me post about my journey towards re-discovering my grace and at the time, I hadn’t thought there would be more, but then, recently, I thought, why not? (Wow, that was a lot of commas in that last sentence. And the fact that I left it as is tells you how much editing I [don’t] put into blog posts. I promise I am far more diligent with my fiction writing…) One of the things I know will help me is writing, and why not put some of that directly to use in the public journaling. The content in these kinds of posts is not for everyone, but sometimes I pull useful bits from others’ posts like this that help me, so perhaps some of you can find a useful bit, too.

In my original post, I did not talk about a larger root cause to my trampled grace. It’s pretty obvious to me that our current political and social climate are the underlying factors, but there’s no point in dwelling on that cause because I’ve long since accepted our nation and society’s situation, and as this therapist’s post talks about, “to accept is not to say, ’This is okay.’  It is to say, ‘This is what is.’” And so, that is why I seek rather than dwell.

So, back to the journey. Marching Band Season. For most of you outside of Minnesota, your reaction might be like my friend Kathleen’s, which is “Huh? Already?” While larger Minnesota bands certainly participate in the fall rendition of the season with field shows, we here also have taken field shows to the streets for parades. The season is short, but intense and I love it.  It fills me with joy and pride to watch my oldest child (tuba player)

Oldest child playing tuba in marching band 2017

My kiddo is the one on the right.

in a leadership role and to see how strong and solid the band becomes by the close of their competitive season at the end of June in Alexandria, MN.

I talked with another marching band parent earlier in the month about how I don’t live and breathe it like my husband, but that’s only partially true. He loves to help out all over the place with practices, camp, and during the parades. I’m happy to do some of that, but in truth, I mostly just like to watch. I can watch these kiddos perform their show over and over and over again (and I do – both live and through video).

The band director, Amy Powers, every year talks about how it’s not about winning awards, it’s about character development. Growth. This is what I see when I watch my kid’s particular band vs any others in the parade. I mean, obviously I will always feel differently watching my own kid and the band play than any others, but there’s an added piece to it. A couple of schools can awe me with their size, sound, and smooth formations, but they still none of them compare to watching my own kid and his band mates, who I’ve heard about all season through the marching band staff and through my son as they’ve worked their butts off to pull it all off. They learn marching style first, then build up stamina, style, and sound.

Their shows tell a story, of sorts, and that is where the color guard comes in. I know that “twirling flags” is not for everyone, but I will tell you that for our small band (58 total members, including the color guard), it’s what pulls the whole thing all together and what contributes to the awards the they do win.

marching band at the ready before starting their show

This is one of my favorite moments – when they are lined up and ready to start. Anticipation!

I know every band puts in the hard work, but as I’ve mentioned, there’s a certain amount of extra pride that kicks in when you know first-hand of it with your own kid and his band mates. We parents and students talk of the marching band as “the little band that could” (four years ago they were down to 35 members, but came in first place in their class at the championship parade, which then bumped a class up in subsequent years, but also increased their membership – still small and competing against much larger bands while still winning awards) and when I see the tremendous sound they had at the championships this summer – stronger than I’ve ever seen them – I have so much pride in this strength that they share together, as a single team unit; and I feel good.

The video below is one of their performances at the championships this year. The theme was “Marathon: We Got This”. As an outsider, I’m sure no one can actually figure out what is going on with this or any other band’s show that has a specific theme, but that’s okay. Just know that it is all part of the visual effect, which is part of the judging. And the band knows, which is part of what gels them together for the performances.

 

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