Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Zen of Splitting Wood

The cool, crisp days of autumn have arrived, and that means it’s time to split wood. Squirrels stockpile acorns for the long, cold days ahead. We stack firewood.

In the first days of the splitting season, there is a kind of charm—even novelty—to the task. With the hot doldrums of summer over, a welcome, cool breeze blows. All around us trees in spectacular stages of golden yellow and fiery red send leaves to swirl around us.

But after half-a-dozen or so occasions of splitting, the novelty has worn off (for me, but not for my husband,) and I can think of a hundred other things I’d rather be doing—cleaning out litter boxes, paying bills, writing the ending to my novel.

I’m kidding, really. I enjoy the splitting process. After all, my only “chore” in the routine is to stand by the splitter and raise the handle that controls the hydraulics up and down, up and down, while my husband does all the heavy lifting and positioning of the trunk segments. Not difficult work at all. In fact, it’s rather meditative.

Today, as I watched the pile of tree trunk segments shrink and the pile of split wood grow, I compared it to writing my book—the one I should have been working on instead of watching a splitter move up and down, listening to wood creak and crack as it splits and shuddering at the myriad of bugs that skitter around, alarmed by the rude light of day brought by the splitting.

Tree trunk by tree trunk. The process reminded me of Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird. In her memoir about writing and life, she tells the story of her brother, who as a boy sat in tears at the kitchen table the night before a report on birds was due—he’d had three months to write it, and hadn’t begun. In her words, her brother was “immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.” She writes:

“Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

So much of life is that way. Even before I’d heard of Bird by Bird, I remember consoling my son as he sat in the middle of his messy room I’d just told him to clean. As with Anne Lamott’s brother, Adam was “immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.”

“I don’t know where to begin, Mom,” he had complained.

“Pick up your toys first. Then, your dirty clothes. Then, your books . . .”

Bird by Bird, even before I knew the meaning.

So, today, we split trunk by trunk. Then, we stacked log by log. Tonight, I’ll grab a good book and take pleasure in a warm, crackling fire.

And once I post this blog, I’ll get back to my book, Broken Dolls. I’ll write word by word. Page by page. Chapter by chapter. And maybe one day, I’ll have the thrill of knowing someone took pleasure in it—maybe sitting by a fire, after a day of splitting wood.


"Booger," our little stray puppy who found us.

The Splitter

Bear and Booger

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Going Tapeless

I may have missed my window of opportunity in posting about NPR firing Juan Williams, but the subject matter—that of political correctness—still weighs on my mind.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the story, the evening of Wednesday, October 20, NPR fired Juan Williams for comments he made to host Bill O’Reilly, Monday on The O'Reilly Factor:

"But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they're identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous."

Later in the interview, Williams said it was wrong to generalize about Muslims, just as it is wrong to generalize about Christians, such as Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. His point was that Americans need to come to grips with their prejudices.

However, NPR chose not to take the entire context of Mr. Williams’ commentary. I believe they were wrong for doing so. Though I do not agree with Juan Williams on many issues, I listen to him often, and have a high respect for his honest, respectful and open dialogue. Are we supposed to express only that which is in total agreement to the opposition?

It is NPR’s loss.

More and more, I am frustrated by the degree to which “political correctness” limits our freedom of speech. It is turning us into mealy-mouthed wimps, afraid of speaking our minds about a variety of subjects. We should always seek to be respectful, but if we are so afraid of being offensive that we don't express our opinions, we might as well walk around with duct tape over our mouths.

Over the last week, as the news media bloviated about the right or wrong of Mr. Williams’ firing, I tried to put myself in the position of those who may have been offended by his statements. I imagined someone being afraid of me, a half-Japanese mother of two, a struggling novelist who lives on a dirt road and therefore drives a dirty SUV. Whether or not that fear was rational, I came to the conclusion I would want to know about it, so that through open dialogue, we could hopefully alleviate those fears. Whether or not I was offended, I would want to know.

I'll admit, I am sometimes one of those mealy-mouthed wimps, afraid of expressing an opinion that might offend, hurt or anger someone. I often walk away, and miss the opportunity to have an open dialogue. Sadly, it means we also missed learning something about the other that might have brought us closer to understanding.

So, thanks to a fellow writer friend, Greg Camp, who posted a blog about Juan Williams’ firing, I decided to “go tapeless” and post this blog. Better late than never. And, if I have offended anyone, I’m sorry. At least now, you know how I feel.

Click here to read Greg Camp's blog.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Automatic Time Machine

If you could have an ATM spit out something other than money, what would it be?

The first thing I thought of when I considered this writing prompt was the conversations I used to have with my children. Though they took place two decades ago, I still remember them well.

“Sorry, we can’t afford it,” I said, when one of my kids asked for something—maybe new jeans, new shoes. Or, maybe they’d asked to go out to dinner instead of staying home to eat tuna casserole again.

Sorrowful whines followed in reply. “Mom, can’t you just write a check?”

“It doesn’t do any good to write a check if there’s no money in the account to cover it,” I replied, umpteen times.

But, my little darlings would not be stifled. “Then how about getting more money out of the ATM?”

I’m not sure exactly when my daughter and son learned that money didn’t grow on trees—that it certainly didn’t magically appear from ATM’s—but eventually they quit asking that question. But until that point, the only thing that powered my patience in repeatedly replying with the same answer was the sheer humor in their innocence.

So, I started daydreaming about this prompt, and it allowed me a bit of that innocence.

What if I could have an ATM spit out anything I want?

I thought long and hard about it, and here is my answer.

Time. But just as an ATM doesn’t spit out single dollar bills, I wouldn’t want it to spit out just any old time. No, I want the “twenty-dollar bill” of time – quality time. The time that comes AFTER the time I waste on the internet, talking on the phone, etc. Unfortunately, like money that is eaten away by expenses that must be paid between paychecks, productive, quality time dribbles away between wasted time.

So why not go to the ATM to get some more? Then, maybe I’d get my book finished. Only problem is, time – especially quality time – like money, is limited and can be easily wasted. Unfortunately, it’s no more possible to “just go to the ATM” for more time than it is for more money.

The innocence was fun while it lasted.

What would YOU like to have from an ATM?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Power of Imperfection

"People throw away what they could have by insisting on perfection . . ."
                        -- Edith Schaeffer

I recently went to a local pizza parlor to pick up a "to-go" pizza. As I waited, I smiled at the artwork of children who had entered the pumpkin contest. I'll admit, my eye was first drawn to the "perfect" pumpkin - but only because it is the very one I would have drawn as a child. Orange, with black triangular eyes, and not a single mark outside of the lines.
But the picture that really made me smile was a yellow pumpkin with red circles all over it. The one called "pepperoni pumpkin." It made me think, "Now, that's creative!"
I recalled my own childhood, when I wanted anything and everything I created to be perfect, whether it was my school work, artwork or writing. Perfection was such a goal that I often tore up anything that did not attain my idea of perfection. In frustration, I believed anything less was garbage.

Fortunately, as I've gotten older I've seen that true creativity is imperfect. If artwork is to be perfect, why not just take a photograph? If writing is to show a reader the human condition, then surely it should not be flawless.

There is beauty in the imperfection of creativity, and it should provoke a variety of thoughts and emotions in its beholder. So, go ahead - color outside of the lines. I've learned (and am still learning,) it makes life a whole lot more interesting.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Conversation with Linda C. Apple

Inspiration. Motivation. Grace. These are words that describe Linda C. Apple as a friend, writer and speaker. I have learned so much from her and I appreciate her support, so I thought I'd "share" a bit of Linda with you.

Linda and her husband, Neal, live in Arkansas with their children and grandchildren. Linda is a writer and a speaker. Her writing includes both fiction and non-fiction. In addition to CONNECT! A Simple Guide to Public Speaking for Writers, her books include INSPIRE! Writing from the Soul, as well as publications in over a dozen Chicken Soup for the Soul books. She is the Arkansas regional speaker-trainer for Stonecroft Ministries and speaks for women's groups and writing groups.

I hope you enjoy the conversation we had over a "virtual cup of coffee!"

1) What made you decide to write Connect! A Simple Guide to Public Speaking for Writers, and why is it important for a writer to speak publicly?

I came about the idea to write Connect! after reading posts by writers on listservs about how frightened they were about speaking in front of people. I actually train people in Public Speaking, so I thought I'd write a short and simple how-to to ease the fear and give helpful tips to make the experience a pleasant one.

As for why it is important, Public Speaking is the best way for a writer to build his or her platform. A platform is your visibility to editor, agents, and readers. Without fail, editors and agents will ask about your platform because they expect you to sell your book.

2) What is the biggest mistake people make in speaking publicly?

Not being prepared. It is disrespectful to your audience to "shoot from the hip." They have paid money or taken the time out of their day to hear you because they need what you have to give. So give them your best.

3) You always seem so comfortable when you’re speaking. Are you a natural speaker? Do you have “the jitters” before you speak?

I may get a few butterflies, but the minute I stand before a group we connect. I remember that I'm not up there for me, but for them. I also remember that I'm just a writer telling other writers what's worked for me. Anyone can do that.

4) On the flip side, you talk about “blunders” in your book. If someone so poised as you can blunder, maybe it will help us beginners to know you’ve had embarrassing moments, too. Care to share one – or two?

Just one or two? I make them all the time. It is how I recover that makes them no big deal. Just last May at the Oklahoma Writers Federation Writer's conference I was speaking about the importance of writing our connection with the historical events that have occurred during our lifetime. "For instance," I said, "how about John Glenn, the first man to walk on the moon?" Of course, I was quickly corrected since Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon. I smiled and accused them of being too nit-picky, we all laughed and went on. Another time, for some reason I can't explain, I decided to wear leggings under my skirt. However, after sitting down waiting for my intro and then getting up on the platform, my "stretched out" leggings started working their way down. I was paranoid that they would soon fall to the floor. Situations like that make it hard to think. So I now recommend putting on the clothes you plan to wear before speaking, sit down in them, then stand up and walk around.

5) In your book, you talk about how “platform” brought together your speaking and writing. Can you tell us how platform “married” speaking and writing?

Speaking takes writing by the hand and introduces it to the reading world. Speaking showcases writing and opens up wonderful opportunities that writing otherwise would never have seen. Writing is the poet. Speaking is the singer.

6) You’ve mentioned that “Your Speaking Style” is your favorite chapter in your book. Tell us why.

Most of us have the habit of comparing ourselves to others. However, when I realized how my personality was "wired" I understood how unique I am. I also understood I have unique strengths and weaknesses. No one could improve me or change me. I had to do that myself. Now that I have embraced who I am, I can enjoy others without feeling inferior or superior.

7) If you could give one piece of advice to someone who will be speaking publicly, what would it be?

Practice! and after you've practiced, Practice more!!!

8) And finally, would you like to tell us about upcoming projects?

I am currently rewriting my novel, a historical around the 1850 Gold Rush. I am scheduled to speak at the Missouri Writers Guild Writers Conference April 8-10, 2011 in St. Louis, MO,

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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Hidden Treasures

In the last few days, I've been working on a scene in Broken Dolls that centers around the celebration of Obon, a Buddhist custom to honor one's ancestors. It has brought back many memories of when I was a teenager and danced in my first bon-odori.

I remember first being awed by the beautiful assortment of kimonos. Women and girls wore every color and pattern imaginable. And when they danced, their long sleeves floated beside them like kites in a breeze. As I followed my beautiful mother, trying to mimick her grace, always a split second behind as she dipped and rose, clapped her hands, I felt like an awkward albatross among beautiful cranes.

I'd already felt out of place, even upon arrival at the celebration. I watched all of the petite Japanese girls and wished I weren't so tall and gangly. I admired their coal-black hair and wished mine wasn't a mix of reddish-brown. And when I heard them speak Japanese in their soft, feminine voices, I felt unworldly with my dull Okie-tinged accent.

They are still vivid memories to me - that desire to fit in and be like everyone else. It would be easy to blame it on the folly of being a teenager. But it seems even today, people fear differences and are most comfortable with that which is the same.

As I write Broken Dolls, my characters - especially Sachi and Jubie - speak to me, and I've seen how joy can come from accepting and learning from differences. In the 1940's of Broken Dolls, America fears Japanese-Americans and is racist against its African-Americans. But these two little girls, Sachi and Jubie, are unafraid of their differences. Their relationship begins with what they have in common, the deaths of their fathers, when each experienced prejudice and fear in their lives. In their forbidden friendship, they share their differences. Jubie teaches Sachi about the meaning of Juneteenth and Sachi invites her to celebrate Obon. Sachi teaches Jubie how to dance in a kimono, and Jubie teaches her the Jitterbug.

I've envied Sachi's and Jubie's innocence - wisdom, perhaps - that allows them to find each other's hidden treasures. And I'm grateful that in my real world, sometimes I'm lucky enough to find a few of my own.