Monday, April 28, 2014

Four questions, many answers, lots of links

The quirky and wonderful Magpie has tagged me for a blog tour titled, "My Writing Process". This is not the type of thing I usually do, but hey -- it's worth a try. Maybe I'll learn something. Or perhaps you will.

1. What are you working on?
Way, way too many things. Last week I finished four editing projects that will pay most of this month's bills, and I have two books-in-progress of my own (one fiction, one non). I also write a weekly blog for Guideposts, the quarterly newsletter for the Mood Disorders Support Group, and a monthly direct mail letter. I have contributed to Daily Guideposts annually for the better part of two decades. I write a lot.

2. What makes your work different from others' work in the same genre?
I love to connect disparate ideas. One of my key beliefs about life is that there's always another way to look at it. This gives me the courage to pick up a problem or thought and turn it over and over and peer at it from many angles. I step into it, I step back from it, I walk around it. To me, life is very much like an impressionist painting, and I find that what seems entirely dark and blotchy up close may have context from a distance.

3. Why do you write what you do?
Because it might be helpful (or at least interesting) to someone else. I used to journal regularly, but haven't for 15+ years. I find writing for myself is boring. I have to listen to myself all day long in my head, anyway; it's more productive to think outside myself, to try to move from a specific issue to a meta-problem.

I also think that being transparent about my struggles is sometimes the one way I can bring something good out of what appears to be bad. Parenting is sometimes very hard. Having a child (or children) with a mental illness is awful; having a husband who is clinically depressed is an enormous challenge; being in financial straights for year after year is draining. I'm not the only person who goes through tough stuff, and even if you haven't gone through the exact same things, if my inch of progress translates into a single millimeter of making your life easier, that helps us both.

I also write because I get paid. This may not be a lofty reason, but feeding my children is not a crass goal. They have a way of wanting to eat, every day.

I write the way that I do because it's through wrestling with words that I gain clarity of thought. Seeing words written out makes me weigh them: do they ring true? Are they an accurate picture of what I believe? Can someone who doesn't have the same beliefs still understand what I'm writing about?

4. How does your writing process work?

Since I work on many projects at once, people tend to assume I am a master multitasker. I am not. Multitasking is like letting all my kids talk at once: it's inefficient. What works for me is to be 1000% attentive to one thing at a time. What's unusual (I guess) is that I can handle disparate projects in rapid progression. I am good at working intently for even a 10-minute block of time; much of the thinking and organizing happens when I'm not at the computer. This is partly a matter of temperament, but mostly a matter of self-training. I usually don't have time to be inefficient. I have a lot of back burners.

Most of my writing is non-fiction that ranges from 300-1200 words. Most of it is centered on my own ideas, not facts. This means I have to generate ideas constantly, and distill my thoughts so each piece has no extraneous thoughts in it. 

Many people think that writing is about wordsmithing, but for me the hard work lies in thinking clearly and organizing ideas well. I prioritize flow over phraseology; it used to kill me to have to toss out exquisite lines, until I realized craftsmanship is about the overall message, not individual sentences. 

People occasionally note that I don't provide a blogroll on this site. I actively rotate the sites I follow so I do not live in a bubble of my personal interests. I currently follow Scouting NY (by a guy who scouts movie locations), Mind Hacks (neuroscience), Hack Education (education reform), Katya's Non-Profit Marketing blog (what it says), the British Library's site on medieval manuscriptsPsych Central News and the philosopher/teacher/author Diana Seneschal

Another reason I don't have a blogroll is because I dislike being labelled. I am a practicing Catholic whose three best friends are a liberal Jew, an athiest, and a conservative Protestant. When I write on this blog I want to be able to communicate with any thinking person, not just those who share my faith or political beliefs, or personal interests, or...

As part of this blog tour I'm to tag two other writers. The first person I want you to visit is Elizabeth Duffy, a mother of six who lives in rural Indiana and blogs for Patheos. If you're not Catholic, read her anyway; she's thoughtful and strong and honest about her weaknesses.  

The second person is -- well, I didn't find one. I asked several writers who shied away from wanting to "tag" someone for the next round. Then there are a couple of wonderful writers who either don't have blogs, or have lives that so full right now that I didn't want to ask (Maggie May Etheridge, I loved this poem.)

Perhaps that makes me a dud on the blog tour. But there are many wonderful authors out there, and perhaps you can share some of your favorites with me. That will expand my world. 

Oh -- and go visit Magpie's blog. She tagged me for this shtick. And she's a great human being.


Saturday, April 26, 2014


Way back when Little Guy was in kindergarten, I went to parent-teacher conferences. As I sat down in the pint-size chair, the teacher smiled and said brightly, "You have a really out-of-the-box kid!"

This threw me a bit. The out-of-the-box spectrum in our family is pretty broad, and on that scale and by my reckoning Little Guy is fairly conventional. My instinct (which I did not indulge) was to reply, "Oh. How big is the box?" It's one thing to think outside a small shoebox, and another to think outside of a stone sarcophagus.

*         *         *          *

When my older kids were little and we read the Little House books, I was struck by how much Laura and Mary Ingalls did in the way of chores. My awareness of this was probably heightened because my children were not particularly cooperative about helping out. I realized that part of this was because I saw chores as a way to teach my children responsibility. I didn't actually need the kids to work to keep the family afloat the way Ma and Pa needed all hands at work.

Kids understand that kind of difference intuitively. Who wants to do work that's not strictly necessary? Who wants to do invented chores? Not me. Not them.

What my kids did need was play, so we played Little House. We used masking tape to measure out the size of a covered wagon on the floor, and then they had to decide what to bring along for the trip west, and fit it all in that rectangle. I think they did that for a full week, day after day, in costume, eating molasses on bread for lunch, and drinking cold water from a metal cup.

Eventually I asked them which chores they thought it was fair for kids their age to do in our day and age. At that point they were able to consider the question honestly.

I learned that it was better to ask "How much time do you think is fair for you to contribute to helping keep the house in order?" and "If you don't do it, then I'll have to. Do you think that's right?"

Reframing responsibility changed the shape of the box. But to change the box we all had to pretend to ride for a while in a covered wagon.

*        *         *         *

The very first day we began homeschooling, when Eldest was just-turned-five, I felt very far out of the box. It was scary and I thought I must be an Extremely Brave Woman.

By day two it wasn't so bad. We'd survived, after all. As with many things, only the first step involved bravery; often whatever's outside the box is intimidating simply because it's new.

It helps, when I'm feeling anxious, to determine how much of what I'm feeling is due to the existence of an unknown. It helps even more if, once I've admitted that I'm nervous about stepping into new territory, I remind myself, "It won't be new for long."

*         *         *         *

We have an inordinate number of boxes around our apartment these days. That is not to say that we are anywhere near ready to move. We still have a lot of painting to do before we can sell.

Anything I take out of a closet gets sorted into one of three piles -- keep, toss, give away -- and the things that are retained are boxed up before going back on a shelf. I'm intentional about what goes into my boxes nowadays.

I set aside a thing or two for Eldest, who is graduating from college a month from now, and has accepted a job at an ed-tech firm in the midwest. It is in a city I have never visited, a place I do not know.

Her move forces me to step out of a box I know and love, to let go in a way I have never had to let go before. Hopefully I will acclimate quickly to this new stage of being a mother, a mother-from-afar.

Boxes. Moving. Moving on. Sometimes the heart hurts when it's being stretched.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Self-reliance, ceilings, and learning

We've had workmen in the apartment all week. I hired them to fix the ceilings, a job I am utterly unwilling to do. A lifetime or so ago I spackled every joint in every piece of sheetrock in a three bedroom house. I didn't mind doing the walls, but I learned that the ceilings are worth paying someone else to do. They are a pain in the neck in every possible way.

I'm not sure I've ever hired someone to work before. It has been a learning experience, the kind one appreciates because it's useful to know how to do it. I have a deep aversion to hiring people to do what I think of as "my" manual labor.

Still, we have 1933-era ceilings, which means that when one scrapes a crack and a whole patch clunks off there is a real-plaster disaster. Had I done the work myself, the living room ceiling would have come partway down and I would have stared at it dolefully, wondering, Now how do I fix that?!? I am certain I would have spent three months learning how to properly repair a 3'x7' hole. Which would be fine, but at the moment it's better that I should learn to let a professional do it.

One side of my family is as classically do-it-yourself as it's possible to get. My dad grew up chipping old mortar off of used bricks after school, to use in the house his family was building (they did have help with the construction). When I was a kid, if something needed fixing, my dad looked at it and tinkered with it and ordered parts and patiently figured it out. That was good: children tend to think that adults were born knowing how to do everything perfectly and that it's just that they are inept. My dad wasn't shy about dispelling that notion, and I benefited from that. I think kids need to see their parents learning new things, and struggling to learn them. They need to see that perseverance is acquired, not congenital. (It is, admittedly, easier for some people to acquire than others!)  

Dad rototilling his garden at age 81.
Another influence in this vein was a friend in college who had an endless to-learn list. He was an architect and a mechanical engineer, a splendid photographer, a graphic artist, and a bit of a philosopher. He had languages he wanted to learn to speak (at the time he knew four), countries he wanted to explore, skills he was eager to acquire. Years later he put himself through an MD/PhD program by working as a caricaturist at corporate parties.

I thought that was cool; it hadn't occurred to me to envision a whole list of possibilities for myself of what to learn; I kind of thought one just meandered through the vague interest of the moment. To have a burning interest in expanding one's capabilities is awesome; heck, even to be willing to expand your competence beyond what you already know how to do is often unusual.

I do believe that a whole lot of our "I can't do that!" thinking boils down to "I don't know how to do that!" When you append the word yet to "I don't know how to do that!" it transforms your attitude. It shifts the focus away from the fear, and centers it squarely on something we do know how to do: learn.

So... I'm learning. This week I learned how to pay someone to fix my ceilings. Learning not to be entirely self-reliant is an important lesson, too.