Friday, May 21, 2010

My Treasured Community

Last weekend, I attended the quarterly meeting of Ozarks Writers League (OWL) in Branson, Missouri. ( I always come away from the Saturday meetings with new or affirmed knowledge and best of all, a shot of motivation.

This time, I came away with a prize beyond knowledge and motivation--a prize I always knew I had, but perhaps didn't appreciate as deeply.

In the past, I have always attended only the Saturday meetings, leaving home early Saturday morning, and returning that evening. But last weekend, I decided to try out the Friday night dinner and open mic, where the member writers read samples of their works aloud. An agent and an editor, both from New York, would be present to listen to the readings, and one of the many things I've learned in my ongoing writer's education is to take advantage of every opportunity.

So I selected the piece I would read, a chapter from my novel, Broken Dolls. Night after night, I edited and re-edited, over and over, to make it just right. And though my husband often asks, "Why do you keep changing it?" he cooked dinner and cleaned up while I was upstairs, editing and re-editing.

Friday night at OWL, I sat for dinner with good writer friends. We chatted, probably all trying to loosen up before it was our turn to read. Then, it was time. Dusty Richards announced the first reader. We all applauded, and she began to read.

I must admit, try as I did to focus on the reader's story, my mind had a mind of its own. It wandered from wondering to worrying. Maybe I should have included that part I deleted. Should I have chosen a different chapter?

One by one, authors stood behind the podium to read short stories, poetry, excerpts from their novels. At times, my heart pounded so loud in my ears I could hardly hear the words, especially when my inner voice kept screaming at me. What if I'm missing a page? What if their eyes glaze over?

Two hours into the readings, everyone had begun to fidget. It was getting late, and it was obvious everyone was tired. Finally, Dusty arose and said, "That's all, folks. Unless there is someone else who was supposed to read."

I'm not sure what I felt more--disappointment that I didn't get to read, or elation that I wouldn't have to read. I debated whether or not to raise my hand to let Dusty know I'd requested to be scheduled to read. Everyone was ready to leave, and I didn't want to be the one to make them have to sit another five minutes.

But, opportunity knocked. I made the decision I had to take advantage of it, or I'd kick myself mercilessly. As I raised my hand, I heard my writer friends chime in:

"Don't forget about Jan."

"Jan was supposed to read."

If one's whole body could smile, mine did, at the sound of my friends' support. Though nerves still tickled some, all those things I'd worried about as I sat listening to the other readers vanished. I was among friends.

The next day, as several of us prepared to meet with the agent and editor, we huddled around each other, role playing, offering advice and trying to calm nerves. When each of us came out of our meetings, we could count on being greeted with enthusiasm to hear how our pitches went.

When the agent asked me to send him the first few chapters, yes, I was on Cloud Nine. But best of all, was that others shared that cloud with me. My writer friends and my husband.

We writers strive to create our best works and to get our treasures out there, hoping that we might somehow make a difference. But I believe the real treasure is the true friendship we writers share, and the support we receive from those who cheer us on--our families, our loved ones, our friends.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Joy Beyond Technology

On Sunday, President Obama spoke at the commencement of Hampton University in Virginia, saying technology "puts new pressures on our country and on our democracy." In his speech, he told the graduating students, "With iPods and iPads; Xboxes and PlayStations; information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment."

"Information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment."

I agree with what President Obama said, though I believe that as long as we are aware of the potential to be a distraction, technology can also be an enhancement to our lives.

I had an interesting discussion with my dad's wife the other evening. We come from very different backgrounds. She was raised without television and computers, and I was raised in a family that kept the television on most of the day, if nothing else, as background noise to drowned out the chatter of my four siblings and me.

In our discussion, she expressed her frustration at technology today, and how it takes us away from being "real human beings," about how we've forgotten how to write letters, sit and talk, ponder another human being's feeling, rather than rushing a conversation between texts, phone calls, etc.

I'll admit, at first I felt defensive, knowing I struggle and sometimes fail to completely set aside my technology to have a focused one-on-one conversation with a real human being, as opposed to a virtual one. But, I let my defensiveness go. After all, I've thought those same thoughts as I've watched people walk down the street, focused only on their cell phones while talking, texting, or listening to music. Whatever the techno-buddy cell phone provides, it permits them to shut out the real world. It's the same in coffee shops or restaurants. We sit at tables with REAL people, but can't seem to completely let go of our virtual world.

Is the once-removed communication cell phones and computers provide a wall of protection? And if so, what are we afraid of?

I will be the first to admit. I love email, enjoy the occasional text, participate fully in the Facebook world. All of that has made communicating with a wide variety of friends so much easier, and I'm back in touch with people I knew decades ago. Without technology, that never would have happened.

But, it has been unsettling a few times, when on Facebook, I discovered that a friend was ill, had surgery, or lost a loved one. So strange to learn of a major life event on a computer screen. But then, if it hadn't been for Facebook, texting, whatever virtual source, I might not have known at all. Is this good or bad?

I'm thankful for the expanded ability to communicate through technology. But more and more, I also believe it's important for us to remember to write a snail mail letter every once in awhile -- they're so much more meaningful, and now, even nostalgic. Send a real card by snail mail, rather than an e-card. I know I miss those days of watching the mail box for a letter or card. Go have coffee or lunch with a REAL friend. Watch his or her expressions or body language as you speak.

Technology has saved us valuable time by making communicating faster and easier. So, rather than filling up our extra time with even more technology, I believe we need to remember to use that time to exercise the things that make us human -- those things that were so much a part of us before technology: tingling at the smile of a friend or loved one, feeling the warmth of human touch, or your heart flutter at the sound of joy or sorrow in a voice.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Passing on the Write Stuff

On my four-hour drive home from the OWFI Writers' Conference in Oklahoma City this weekend, I had plenty of time to reflect. The common thread through all of my thoughts was how good I always feel after attending a writers' conference.

Probably the first good feeling that comes with attending a conference is motivation. When I see the list of contest categories, my mind often races with story ideas. Add my competitive spirit and a deadline to that, and you have one motivated writer!

Meeting new friends and getting reacquainted with old ones is another treasure of these conferences. I think all of us writers know we are a different sort, sometimes quiet, maybe a little introverted. Certainly we all live in our own imaginary worlds much of the time. But put a bunch of us together, and we open up and share to our hearts' content, as though "we were lost, but now we're found!"

But, I think it's the wealth of information shared by other writers that leaves me with the best feeling, long after the conference is over. I never cease to be awed by writers who continue to share knowledge in a variety of areas -- technique, marketing, motivation -- with anyone who asks, all for the simple reward of helping a new writer succeed. When you think about it, in this sometimes ruthless and competitive world, that really is amazing.

The conference was filled with such sharing writers, who brought a variety of up-to-date information to an audience hungry to learn. It not only inspired me to write, it gave me the confidence to go beyond my writing, to the necessary next step of marketing. (Oooh, not something that comes naturally to most writers!) And the biggest surprise was that I daydreamed about one day being one of those presenters who might share some valuable information with other writers.

On a personal note, Dusty Richards and Velda Brotherton, founders of our writing critique group, are two people who consistently help me (and countless others) with improving our writing skills, as well as keeping us motivated. They have set the example for all of us writers to help other writers -- to pass it on. As friends and mentors, they definitely have the "write stuff!"