Wednesday, January 28, 2015

When We Care

According to most media, we live in a society that doesn't care enough. We are surrounded by images of starving children and abused animals that we don't consider often enough when we're sipping our lattes and buying our doggie day care passes for our designer mutts. When we shop, cashiers ask us to give a dollar to a national or local cause so we can hang a star on their wall and express to the world that we did something good that day.

I don't buy into that message. In my life, especially my most horrific days, I saw that people care a lot more than they are given credit for. When I felt the biggest void of my life, friends, family, co-workers, neighbors and strangers reached out to me and let me know they cared. Some of them didn't even know Warren and they still offered a sympathetic word, offered a listening ear, or gave me a hug that sometimes literally held me up.

I think that if we don't care about something, then we don't have the most essential tool for writing. Writing is so much of a reaction to what we feel, that without feeling we can't tap into the deeper portion of ourselves that holds the stories we need to tell. Rarely do I write just for me, even if I am the only person who ever sees what I write. What happens more often is that I have an audience in mind, usually someone I know, and I write as a reaction to how that person makes me feel. It makes the experience more intimate, personal, less lonely, and better connects me to what I'm writing. I write to explore their response to how they impact my world.

I care about every word that lands on the page, but I also care deeply about what is happening in the world around me and I put that into my work. The nods may be subtle, but there's no way I can escape doing so. When I am feeling especially vocal and bold, I write as though the whole world is going to read my words and it is going to change them in some way. This is a lofty approach and I don't do it all the time. When I'm addressing something I care about, it moves me when I think of who might read my words and somehow be changed by having read them. In order to write this way, I have to believe that everyone cares intensely for some of the same humanistic issues as I do. That is when what I write becomes a dialogue between myself and my imaginary audience. At those times I feel that I am creating a space to share in our compassion, and empathetic understanding.

Those times of connection make me think about who my reader might be, why they would want to read my work, and how they might internalize it. I am forced to make decisions based on what I want that reader to get from our interaction, to consider what their expectations are when reading my work. Once I consider that, my writing takes on another dimension in its tone, my word choices, the level of detail required, and even which grammar rules I am going to follow. Caring about my reader's reactions to what I write influences every facet of the work, and that is a good thing.

Think about a piece you read that you did not connect to. Chances are it wasn't about the book being poorly written. Most likely, you became disengaged because at some point you did not feel that the writer cared about your experience as a reader. That detachment took you out of the story, away from the point of the writing. You were no longer drawn to what the writer had to say. That does not indicate that you don't care, it just means that what you care about does not align with what the writer cares about.

So the next time you feel that you're being forced to believe that you live in a society that doesn't care, remember that as long as the written word exists, you are surrounded by caring.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Planting the Seed

Today marks my mother's fifty-seventh year of life. I deliberately steered clear from saying that she celebrated 57 years, because if you know my mother, you know that she doesn't celebrate things that have to do with her. She leaves that for the accomplishments of her grandchildren and her kids. But that doesn't mean that I can't celebrate her.

My mother was the first person to read to me. Before child psychologists were posting articles on HUFFPOST about the importance of reading to children in the womb, my mother did that. I had a library of age appropriate books since the day I was born, thanks to her. She loved to read and worked hard to pass that on to me. As you can tell by reading my posts, her work paid off.

My mom looks insanely happy to be carrying me in her womb
I have followed in her footsteps and have made sure my daughter has books that challenge her, among the old stand-bys she loves. Like my mother did with me, I take my little girl to the library regularly and she loves checking out books. Growing up, I remember my mother reading in bed, her books usually found in various places in the house where she found a moment to read a few pages between caring for us. I have always made sure my daughter sees me reading, too and I can definitely say that she associates me with books. 

Like most kids, I had my favorite books that I would beg my mother to read over and over again. I don't recall her rebuking my requests, or making me feel silly for wanting to hear the same story night after night. Many of those books are still my favorites and I have enjoyed reading them with my daughter. I am incredibly thankful that my mother saw value in reading to me because from what I know about her childhood, she didn't get read to, books were not a part of the landscape of her home, and her parents emphasized other priorities at the time. 

I was just about to be born. I'm guessing that's why she's smiling
Raising three children in the heart of Chicago isn't easy or cheap. Despite this, my mother was always buying me books. I'd come home from school sometimes and there would be a bag full of books for me. The built-in shelves that separated the living room and dining room of our house was filled floor to ceiling with my books for years. In sixth grade, I started selling my books because my mother warned that if I didn't get rid of old books, there would be no room for new books. That was not a risk I was willing to take.

As the years drew on and our schedules became more hectic, I didn't see my mother reading as often, or find her Danielle Steel books around the house anymore. At the time, I didn't notice the change but I notice it a lot more now that she lives with me. I still have shelves (and boxes) of books that I sometimes see her rummage through and sometimes she even thumbs through one, but its been a long time since I've seen her curl up with one and to be truthful, it makes me a little sad because that sight was a comfort in my youth. It came to symbolize something we shared and gave me a feeling of peace. I understand that her eye sight isn't what it used to be and that her attention span and energy level has waned, but I still miss that sight that is so much a memory from my childhood.

I doubt that I would be where I am today if it hadn't been for the groundwork my mother laid. Making books such an integral part of my childhood was one of the most impacting things she did for me. It accelerated my speech, expanded my vocabulary, enriched my spelling abilities, and elevated my confidence. Those affects linger to this day. But it did more than that. Books were an escape from the mundane. They were a place to go that did not involve poverty, discrimination, violence, and the hustle I saw around me. When life got overwhelming I had a place to go where I didn't have to figure anything out. Authors took me on journeys that cracked open my imagination and helped me become an innovative thinker. That is a skill for which I can never thank my mother enough. 

With my mom and her mom, my grandmother
In the daily grind of life I don't tell my mother often enough how much of a savior she has been for me. Even though we live together, most times when our paths cross we are tired, distracted or busy with commitments and I don't take the time to thank her for giving me the most wonderful gift I have ever gotten. She planted seeds that have grown roots and branches in my life in a myriad of ways that trickle into every single aspect of my life. Those seeds became the foundation for how I see and interact with the world. Those seeds have been replanted in how I am raising my daughter, and hopefully she will pass it on to her kids. That is something that should be celebrated every day. 

Thank you mom. I love you and appreciate all you sacrificed for me. I am honored and lucky to be your daughter.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Joke's on Me

Earlier this week I was announced as a 2015 Honoree for the Business Record's Forty Under 40. According to their website:
These 40 local business leaders, who were chosen by past award winners, are under the age of 40 and have demonstrated impressive career achievements and unparalleled community involvement. 

This is a huge honor and I was surprised to be recognized. There have been very few Latinas who have been honored, although I know so many who are deserving, so I was touched and humbled to be selected. The person who nominated me is a phenomenal woman in her own right, and to think that she thought of me to follow in her footsteps means a lot to me.  It was also bittersweet because I am also following in Warren's footsteps.

Warren received this honor in 2008. I remember going to the ceremony with him. I was SO proud to be there. I was beaming the whole time, feeling so fortunate to share in his moment. As he often did, he held my hand during most of the reception and whenever he was congratulated, he'd squeeze it a bit and tell the person that he wouldn't be there without my love and support. He looked at me with pride in his eyes, even though he was the one being celebrated. His praise embarrassed me and I asked him to stop, to just soak in the recognition. He hugged me and told me that he couldn't accept the praises without giving credit where credit was due. On our way home that night, he joked that he was going to nominate me so that he and I could make history as the first Latino husband and wife to be named Forty Under 40. 

When nominations came around the next year we didn't talk about it, and knowing how busy he was, I doubt he had time to nominate anyone, myself included. I didn't think about it again until his funeral when someone (I think it was someone from Coopera, or the Iowa Credit Union League but I'm not sure) gave me his commemorative plaque that had been hanging in his office. Today, it is displayed on my wall, along with the newspaper articles about launching his company. I pass by it every single day but  hadn't given it much thought in a long time.

The day I got the news that I was among this year's Forty Under 40, his joking words rang across like I had just heard them. His playful smile, his hand on my knee, the feelings I felt that day all flooded back. I couldn't help but think that perhaps he was doing a little work from afar to make his prediction come true, even though in my heart I don't believe that's how death works. 

The excitement of the news was dampened by an overwhelming urge to see him, tell him, talk to him, see his smile again. It was a pull so strong that it twisted my insides and it took an hour of yoga to feel like I could breathe normally again. 

That's how good news is to me. It comes with the weight of knowing that the first person I want to share it with is no longer here to rejoice with me. I know that I am blessed with wonderful people in my life who cheer me on, encourage me, and motivate me and I am not discounting them. But, I haven't gotten to the place where I don't think of Warren immediately when good things happen. This rattles me because it feels like a set-back, and a punch-in-the-gut reality check that my best friend is gone. I am hopeful that it will not always be this way. I am anxious for the day when good news, happy occasions and exciting celebrations bring me deep joy. I long for the day when it connects me to Warren with genuine exuberance that isn't tainted by feeling the loss, but gracious that he set so many things in motion that led to my happiness. I want for the day when I see all the positives that come my way as an extension of what we had. I can't wait to smile again with a happiness that is pure and celebrate with a light heart, because I know that is what he always wanted for me.

So, remembering his pride, his smile and his quip about making history, I choose to follow his example. I am thrilled to be honored, but I will not forget to give credit where credit is due. This comes on the backs of many who believed in me, who saw passion in what I did and who took the time to express what they saw. I accept this as an indicator to pass it forward and pay tribute to the legacies of all those who work tirelessly to improve this world for everyone in it.

main image
Warren receives his Forty Under 40 award
March 2008

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Inspired by Love

On January 17th I was lucky enough to attend a beautiful wedding of a dear friend. I met the couple in graduate school and it was a great opportunity to see other members of my Tribe for the weekend. 

Aside from being a fun wedding surrounded by friends, it was more to me. The groom had lost his first wife and as a widow, I watched with admiration at his being able to open up to love again. His love and happiness was without question and it was inspiring. I saw in his eyes feelings that I have often wondered if I will ever feel again. It also made me face some questions that have been dormant for a long time in my mind.

Will I ever be able to love so wholly again? 
This question haunts me because the answer is so unclear. It brings up more questions that make my head spin. Do I want to love again wholly and without reservation? Definitely, no question. Will I be able to is where it gets tricky. Opening myself up to love means taking the risk that I will be hurt again. Not only by loss of life, but also by the normal pains that come with new relationships, growing as a couple and deciding to put someone else's happiness on par with my own. After the hurt of such a grave loss, will the normal growing pains of love feel more pronounced? Am I more sensitive to the normal dips that come with any romantic relationship? I don't have answers to that. I know that only giving in to love will yield answers, but do I even have the courage to find out if I can? 

This question weighs heaviest on me because at 35 years old, I don't want to face the rest of my life alone. I enjoyed being married. It was awesome to have my best friend be a part of everything I did. Planning for our future together made it feel more worthwhile. His successes were mine and vice versa. I miss having someone think about me, considering my happiness with their own. I sometimes get anxious thinking that most people spend a lifetime looking for what I had, and that for me to expect to have it twice in one lifetime is selfish and unreasonable. Then I see a display of second chances like I saw at my friend's wedding and it reminds me that what is unreasonable is my negativity and that I need to continue to work on that. 

Is there someone out there willing to take on the whole package?
When I met Warren I was fresh out of college, in my twenties and felt optimistic about the future because it seemed so infinite. I had no children to think about, no mortgage to pay, and my family was over 300 miles away so I was able to live an independent life. 

Today I have a ten year-old daughter who has told me on several occasions that she does not want me to date. For those of you who know my parenting style, you know that I did not pacify her request. I made it clear that man or no man in my life is my choice, but I did assure her that her happiness is a factor in my decision. As a widow I don't have the divorcee's "the kid's are with dad" to rely on so I have to make sure not to compromise my time with her (not to mention also making time for work, writing, staying healthy, my family and friends) when making time for a relationship. 

I always had a job, internship or variation of both in the days I dated, but today I carry a mortgage. In addition I have the sole responsibility of caring for someone else, as all single moms do. I can't spend frivolously on new clothes for dates, or on expensive luxuries like regular manicures and pedicures. I have to be careful with expenses and make sure that if I do indulge in these types of excesses that it doesn't get in the way of meeting my financial obligations that others depend on me to fulfill.

For Warren, family was ascendant. He was the biggest advocate of having my family move to Des Moines. He opened his bachelor pad to my brother and father and became their roommate before we were engaged. During our engagement he lived with my entire family while I lived in Kansas City. We started our marriage with a full house of Fernandez' and he never indicated that he wanted it otherwise. He doled out keys to our house and always saw it as the family home, even when I protested in favor of some privacy and boundaries. But then again, Warren was also young at the time and missed his family. He grew up in a close family as well and surrounded by his family was when he felt most loved. Embracing my family came natural to him.

To think that I will find another man who is as receptive seems incredibly naive and delusional. Most marriages cannot survive the weight of more than one family, which is why some couples choose to put some distance between themselves and their families. It is hard enough to nurture one family, but when you have to keep more than one afloat, it can have disastrous results, no matter how much love is at the core of those relationships.

My parents live in-house and down the street. The privacy and independence I had as a twenty-something no longer exists when your dad walks into your house whenever he pleases, and your mom sleeps above your bedroom. I am lucky to be part of a close-knit family that I spend time helping, sharing with and celebrating. Any man who wants to be part of my life must understand that they are part of the package deal.  

Would any man be brave enough to be Act II?
Warren wasn't perfect by any means. But, he had an abundance of great qualities and a heart for giving that has so far been unparalleled in my life. He never bragged or did anything for recognition, yet if you Google him you will see an impact that goes way beyond his 34 years on earth. He often told me that he felt that his role in this life was to help make it better for others. I saw him do it on a daily basis and it made me a better person. Upon his death many recalled how he had impacted them and I learned of good deeds he'd done that I had no idea about. It was moving and still brings me tremendous pride. But it also leaves a huge shadow that looms beside me. 

I know that anyone I enter into a relationship with will be outstanding by their own merits and be unique in how they love me. I am committed to seeing them for who they are and not comparing them to Warren. It won't be easy, but I know that if I fall in love with someone I will be excited about who that person is, and it will make it easier to see them for who they are, and not for who they are not. I am confident about this because I am still drawn to the values that drew me to Warren and can't imagine being with someone whose values differ from mine. It doesn't mean that the person will choose to execute them the same way Warren did, or even how I do. It just means that I want to be with a person who meets my core beliefs, however it is they do so. What worries me is the reactions of others. 

I know that as long as I'm happy I shouldn't care what other people think, but I value the thoughts of those closest to me. I don't want to make them worry about me, or disappoint them. Having a bevy of opinionated women in my life, I know they'll have regular comparisons and I don't want anything new to be tainted by comparing it to something that no longer is. Hearing how a new person or relationship is like my old one will do nothing to help build something new and can be poisonous to starting over. It carries the implication that what can be is not as good as what was, even though what was can never be

Ultimately, I know that the only way to answer any of these questions is to live. That is the only way to know how I will react when love finds me again. As much as I wish it to be, there is no crystal ball, fortune teller or medium who can tell me with certainty where life will take me, and whether a new love is part of the journey. Every day I must be ready to face what comes and have the courage to step up to whatever happens.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Those Words

Every writer has those words they rely on that really don't add anything to their manuscript. For me, I use "just" way too often. It's just that... No I mean... What does it mean when one does this? Aside from needing a good dose of copy editing, I think it shows where a writer's head is when enveloped in story. 

I have found that when I use the word "just" repeatedly when it's not necessary, that I am doubting my ability at that point in the story. Perhaps I don't feel thoroughly in the story, or I'm not feeling the character or scene at the time, so subconsciously I begin to operate on a tide of uncertainty and begin using passive language. By passive language I mean that I start to write with a tone of hesitation and I need to take a step back and ask myself if I am staying true to the story.

One thing I learned about myself in graduate school is that I need to stop and gauge where my head space is as I work on a story. If I don't do that then I tend to write scenes that stall the action, and get bogged down in capturing details that can easily be left to the reader's imagination. I don't often catch myself doing these things, but when I read through, those points tend to have a lot more passive language than when I'm on course to make things happen.

When I use active language my character is doing something, but when my voice becomes passive, I'm not making anything happen. That's not to say it is inherently bad, but when I'm trying to move a plot along, or get through a twist, I want my characters to be sure of what they are doing. 

In an effort to control the amount of times I use "just" I do a word search and MS WORD finds and highlights all of them. I read through the line it appears and ask myself whether it helps with the tone of the moment in the story (because sometimes you want your character to be a little passive). If it doesn't serve a purpose I remove it. I have yet to regret removing them.
Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. – Mark Twain
When I come across a lot of passive language in my writing, I tend to get down on myself and feel like I'm being a lazy writer. But after having done this word purging exercise a lot of times, I realize that it doesn't indicate laziness, but rather avoidance. I noticed that I shy away from active language and action when I feel intimidated by what's going on in my story. For example, in one of my current works in progress a girl's face is mangled in a roller coaster. The scene in which she sees her face for the first time post-accident was so passive that I wanted to shake myself after reviewing it. I was going for shock, awe, fear and wonder at what she saw. Instead, it sounded like she kind of didn't believe what happened. It was frustrating and I re-wrote the scene (I'm on version four so far). I forced myself to take it up a notch wherever I thought it was weighed down. But what was really happening was me tapping into my own physical insecurities. It took me back to those times when I look in the mirror and all I see are my flaws and imperfections. I was avoiding the true feelings I experience at those times because they make me feel weak and shallow and I don't like to think of myself as being like that.

In order to make the scene as powerful as it deserves to be, I had to acknowledge that I can be shallow. I had to accept that I worry about my appearance and wish I looked this way or that to fit the beauty ideals I buy into. I had to assure myself that those are normal feelings that everyone feels. I had to allow myself to work through them as though I was fourteen and had just been deformed in an instant. When I allowed myself to really go there, I didn't have a place for the passiveness that had slowed the flow before. It aroused deeper feelings that when embraced, led me to write the scene with emotion and sincerity. I was proud of what came out, even as I know it still needs work.

As with anything, there is a place for passive language and repetition. The word "just" isn't taboo or illegal. But, I know that when it comes to that word, it is a mask for something more, something that is preventing me from making my writing stronger. When I see that, I have to step back, reassess and dive back in with honesty and write the words that are truly supposed to be there.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Beautiful Soul

My heart is heavy with grief. On January 13, 2015 I, along with the rest of the children's writing community lost a wise, funny, kind-hearted soul when Bonnie Christensen lost her battle with cancer. She was particularly special to me because she was my first advisor at Vermont College of Fine Arts. 

I vividly recall the day I found out she would be my advisor. I was nervous about working with her because I didn't want to write picture books and she was a master at it. When I met with her one-on-one I apprehensively told her about my preference for young adult novels. She instantly put me at ease by saying, "Oh good because I don't want to read of bunch of picture books, I like variety." Overcoming that hurdle, I was excited to get to work with and learn from such a respected, award-winning writer. 

Fast forward to my first packet. Packets consisted of a minimum of forty pages of new material, plus annotated bibliographies of the dozen books we read, plus critical essays. In my first semester I had to complete two critical essays per packet. Packets were due to our advisors once a month. Each advisor administers packet feedback differently. Bonnie required a phone call to talk about the written feedback she provided. When the day came for our phone call I was nervous once again. I had never had a phone conversation with a professor. My first critical essay was horrendous. Was I ready to hear how bad I'd done? It was hard enough to stomach her written comments, even though she delivered them gently. Aside from nerves, I was embarrassed that my essay was so bad and knew from her notes that it would a big topic during our call. 

When the hour came, I set my cell phone on my lap and waited for Bonnie to call. She was about four minutes late so my anxiety had time to grow. She was breathless on the phone. She opened the call with, "Sorry I'm late but I was unclogging my sink. All these gray hairs cause havoc on my pipes so I have to play plumber once in a while."

Her voice was warm and I could feel her smile through the phone. My anxiety melted and I knew that our conversation was going to come from a place of genuine desire to make me a better writer.

I was correct. We talked for about forty minutes and while she asked that I re-write the essay, she also gave me a ton of ideas and examples that steered me in the right direction. She assured me that I was not the first (nor would I be the last) student to write a less-than-stellar critical essay, and that as long as each essay improved with time and practice, I would be fine. 

As the semester went on, I worked on a short story that featured a feisty Latina teen protagonist who enters a mixed martial arts reality television competition as way of surviving her drug addicted mother. Bonnie loved my character. She said there was more there than a short story. She challenged me to find the rest of the story. She planted the seed of the novel I used to land my first literary agent. It hurts my soul to know that she won't be around to see how that story ended, where it went after her delicate touch.

She did something else that semester that I will never forget. She told me to play. As you know from an earlier post, I have a Type A personality. I don't play, I work. That advice was hard for me to follow. Play? How? I didn't want to play. I took my writing seriously, I wanted to improve. Bonnie informed me that I would improve by playing, and proceeded to give me writing exercise options to help me learn how to play while getting work done. I enjoyed those exercises. They were like the old days of extra credit work, and as a Type A, that worked for me. Through playing I got to interview my character. Even in draft I-don't-even-know-anymore of my novel, there are elements from that exercise that have survived. To this day I still refer to those exercises when getting to know new characters, or a new story. I can never thank her enough for teaching me the importance of play.

When I went to Vermont for my final semester, full of the dread and excitement of graduating, I noticed that Bonnie looked thinner and her hair looked like something out of a hair care magazine. I wasn't sure what product had tamed her wild hair, but it looked very pretty. But, something seemed off. She was still often smiling and funny but something wasn't there. I couldn't pinpoint what it was and since I didn't want to pry, I didn't ask. 

I attended her lecture, as many did, expecting to hear some brilliance about how to create and nurture a strong writing life.  She opened up the conversation with jokes about how life sometimes decides to give you a hard time and keeps piling up the hard knocks. She went on to share with the entire VCFA WCYA community that she was battling cancer. The room went silent and for me, all I saw was her. 

She was at the front of Chapel Hall, the largest lecture hall on campus and no one else existed around me at that moment. I tried to listen respectfully as she went on to tell us that she was fighting it like she had fought all other obstacles in her life. I gripped the chair and stayed put, even though all I wanted to do was run up there, hug her, and protect her from what was to come. I knew I couldn't do that. It wouldn't have been appropriate to run up to the front of the lecture hall while she was still addressing us and throw my arms around her, and even if I could, it would not negate what she had been through, and what she was about to face. 

There was never a trace of woe-is-me or pity in her voice. She was upbeat and full of smiles, even as she delivered what was probably the most raw and personal lecture of her life to a room full of eager students who hung on her every syllable. Those who had worked with her in workshops or as an advisee were no doubt thanking their lucky stars that they had the chance to learn from her. Students who had not had that honor were most likely experiencing the disappointment that they may never get the chance. I was among those who was grateful, but I quickly became angry. 

Again, life was showing me who was boss. It was reaffirming that it wasn't fair and never would be. Bonnie was one of the kindest, most generous, giving spirits I have ever met. She offered smiles and warm words like butter on toast - smooth and plentiful, spreading through the recipient like a hearty meal. She delivered her feedback, even when it was unpleasant (RE: my horrible first essay) as though it was a hiccup on the road to success, something to acknowledge, learn from and move on from so your talent could be strengthened and shine through. I couldn't help think, "God, what is your problem? Why must you be so selfish and take those who offer so much to the world?" 

Bonnie had been on faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts for years and had impacted so many writers. Many students exceeded their own expectations under her encouragement. So many of her advisees went on to write beautiful and well-written books of all kinds. She was working on her first middle grade novel that she was so excited about. It was funny and had charismatic, varied characters that may never get in front of children and that thought burned me to the core, and still does. 

As I've been told many times in the last two years, God works in mysterious ways. I agree with that statement, although I often change it up in my head to read, "God works in crappy ways that hurt." I know that is harsh, but when your heart aches and you see and feel the pain of loss, your thoughts tend to get a little severe. 

I don't feel that way all the time, but when I got the news of Bonnie's passing, my adaptation of the passage seemed fitting. It is crappy that she is no longer imparting wisdom on her students. It is crappy that her novel may not get published, even though the snippets I heard were excellent and moving. It is crappy that she won't be at any more residencies to offer kind smiles, jokes and uplifting anecdotes to nervous first semester students. It is crappy that her daughter has to face the rest of her life without her mother to share it with. It is crappy that she will never get to read the final version of the story I have been dedicated to since she first pushed me to see it for more than what I first imagined.

Bonnie's legacy is rich and encompasses so many facets. From her mentoring students who aspired to write as well as her, to the young readers who marveled at her words and art, to the countless family members and friends who lost someone who added so much to their lives. The world is more colorful and whimsical because of Bonnie Christensen and I will forever be grateful that she ignited some of that color and spark in me.

Bonnie Christensen
Artist, Illustrator, Award-winning Author
Trusted Advisor, Friend, Mother & Colleague

Books written and/or illustrated by Bonnie Christensen:
I, Galileo
Plant a Little Seed
A Single Pebble: A Story of the Silk Road
Fabulous!: A Portrait of Andy Warhol
The Princess of Borscht
Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told
Magic in the Margins
Pompeii, Lost and Found
I, Dred Scott
The Daring Nellie Bly
In My Grandmother’s House
Woody Guthrie, Poet of the People
Moon Over Tennessee
The Grapes of Wrath
Rebus Riot
Breaking Into Print
Putting the World to Sleep
An Edible Alphabet
Green Mountain Ghosts

Monday, January 12, 2015

Looking Back While Looking Forward

This week marks the first post-graduation residency at my alma mater that I am not required to attend. This time last year I was attending my fourth residency in Vermont. I was surrounded by other writers who were just as passionate and excited about children's books as I was. They had just survived another semester of reading at least 60 books, and writing over 100 pages over the past six months. My class had turned in their critical thesis, a paper that explores an element of writing in almost painful depth. We were facing our last semester together before graduation. We were planning the good-bye party for the class before us, and cheering on the newly named class that would follow us. The snow and cold did nothing to dampen our excitement at being together, at facing another residency of lectures, workshops, readings and campus traditions. We loved being there, at what we deemed as something like an adult writing camp of like minded writers who were striving to become better, emulate their literary heroes, and support each other along the way.

Seeing Facebook posts of classes that came after me who are still in the trenches stirs mixed emotions. On one hand, I wish I was there among the supportive, creative, and inspiring masses working towards their MFA. I miss the feeling of community that welcomed me every six months for the last two years. I wish I were facing the excitement of having an advisor assigned to me who would coach me through the next six month of intensive writing and developing of skills that would make me a better storyteller. It makes me miss my Allies tremendously.

Dr. Seuss quote: Don't cry because its over, smile because it happened.

Yet, it also makes me feel accomplished. It reminds me that I have come a long way since my last winter residency. I have more confidence in my writing abilities. I have stories I am excited to work on. I have an agent who believes in my story. I have a blog that helps me flush through my feelings and experiences. I have a degree that I never thought I'd have. 

It also challenges me to put all these things into practice. I can't sit on what I've learned, or what I've done. I have to move forward with my writing. I have to push myself to write on the days I feel like I'm all out of stories. I have to read even when I feel like my eyes are too tired from the rest of my day. There's no excuse not to try different genres and get to know characters that have stories for me to tell. 

I may not have a packet due to an advisor, a lecture to prepare, or a reading to look forward to, but the fruits of my labor in earning my MFA have just begun to blossom. It makes me excited for the future of those who are just getting into the swing of the winter 2015 residency. As I look on from afar, I know that I am still part of a warm and enthusiastic community of alumni who, like me, are nostalgic, envious and happy for those still on their way. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Reading From the Inside Out

When I got to my first residency for my MFA, one of the things the other students who had been in the program would tell me was that I would never read the same again. I had no idea what they meant, but not wanting to show my naiveté, I nodded as though I knew what they were talking about. Then I went on to complete four semesters and five residencies that made clear
 what they meant.

At some point during late high school/early college I taught myself how to speed read. I read an article about how to skim a page in certain patterns to grab the main points and connect them in half the time it takes to go through line by line. That skill helped me get through the 1,000+ pages of my business law textbook in one semester during my undergrad years, and I figured it would help me get through the 12 books per month I had to read during my graduate program. It took my first packet to realize that I was very wrong.

My reading was not meant to determine what the book was about. I was expected to read to determine how the book was written. If I began to write about what happened in the book, I didn't read it correctly. That meant that I had to read slowly to identify techniques that the author used throughout the book, and try to determine whether the technique was successful. It took a long time to understand what that meant. In the process, I learned that I had been very forgiving of most writing. 

I didn't care if authors did an info dump to tell me about a character or event. I wasn't looking to be shown what was happening, I was OK if the author told me. Characters and books evoked feelings in me but I was fine when a book merely entertained me for a while, even if I forgot all about the book the second I finished reading it. There's nothing wrong with reading for pleasure and not giving a rat's ass about how the book is written, but that wasn't going to cut it for this degree. I had to re-learn how to read.

Re-learning how to read was frustrating. My advisors gave me many tips and I read tons and tons of books about the craft of writing to try and learn what techniques writers used and what effect they had on the reader and the telling of the story. I learned terms I had never heard before, like objective correlative, and terms unique to my peers, like "cheese sandwich" moments. It was comforting to know that in some cases, I was already using the techniques in my writing, even if I didn't know what they were called. On the other hand, I was learning new ones that I wanted to try. But, I didn't always identify those methods. Sometimes I read a book and nothing stood out to me. That didn't mean it was poorly written, it just meant that I wasn't experienced enough to figure out what the author did to tell the story. That also meant that if I couldn't identify a learning in the book, it didn't count in my monthly quota of books and that was beyond stressful. 

As the semesters drew on, I got better at understanding what authors were doing well in their books, ways that I would have worked the plot differently, and how different approaches could be beneficial to my work. Reading became more of an analysis of writing than entertainment. Now that I've read over 200 books in the last two years, I completely understand what my peers told me about how I would never read the same again. 

Now when I read, I look for what the author is doing with her words and how she presents them. I try to determine her goals in choosing certain writing elements and I pay attention to my reactions. Books that I would have enjoyed and thought nothing of before my MFA, are now examples of how I want to write, or techniques I want to avoid. Knowing the incredible amount of work that goes into writing a book, I don't feel it is fair to knock any writer's effort, so I won't bash any books, but when I see books that fall short of their potential it makes me sad and I wish I could go back to reading like I did pre-MFA. But, as far as I know, I may never be able to do that again, so I constantly remind myself that reading from the inside out is the price I pay for writing from the inside out.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Books Come Through For Me

When Warren died, there were a lot of things I couldn't do for a long time. One of them was read. I had no idea why I couldn't do it because it's such a solitary thing that I've done all my life, and not necessarily connected to Warren (although everything felt connected to him at the time). I wanted badly to read because I knew it could soothe my mind. I also knew it wouldn't be a permanent handicap, so I was patient with myself.  

Those months that I couldn't read were terrible because many people gave me books but I'd just stare at the covers, not able to crack them open. My daughter got some beautiful picture books about loss that I was able to read to her with no problem, but the ones about widowhood were another matter. Maybe I was in denial, or maybe I wasn't ready to apply that word and its meaning to myself. As something to do, I posted the books to my Goodreads account. The next day I got a message from a widow in Australia who had read one of the books about loss that I had posted. She reached out to me and offered her condolences. She shared her story about being a widow, too. We sent a few messages back and forth. She assured me that I would get through. 

I didn't know this woman. We lived on opposite ends of the earth. But she understood what I was going through first-hand, as she was raising children alone, having lost her husband unexpectedly about two years before. In our messages she was so open and honest about her journey. I hadn't met any widows under 60 yet and it was comforting to connect with her, even if only via messages. She offered great advice and it was amazing to me that a complete stranger would reach out and offer such comfort at a time when comfort was so rare for me. 

It was all because of books. It was one book in particular to be exact, but still. It broke through my reading barrier. I starting reading books about grief and they were helpful. I read autobiographies of widowers who raised children in spite of their pain. I absorbed the advice and related to the writers. I learned that what I thought was madness was normal to grieving. I read blogs and posts on websites dedicated to widowhood. It was sometimes painful but it was also enlightening and served as a testament that if those people could survive, then so could I. 

I never expected that posting about a book would lead to such a powerful connection, but I shouldn't have been surprised. Books have always been where I went for so many things, so why wouldn't they be a landing place at my darkest time? I found so much in those books, but it wasn't just the lessons they laid out. The act of reading was something that I needed. It grounded me, giving me something back at a time when I had lost so much. Those days that I could only look at books but not read them felt like I was losing something that had always been there for me. I remember wondering if I would ever be able to open a book and get lost in it again like I had done since as early as I could remember. It made me so angry not to be able to do that anymore. I didn't want to lose that. I didn't want death to take anything else from me. 

I don't know what it was exactly about that exchange that allowed me to read again. All I know is that it was such a relief to be able to read again. It infused me with a sense of normalcy that I clung to, a glimpse into the strength I possessed that would get me through those horrible months after his death. I welcomed books back into my life, and I can't imagine anything that can separate me from them again.

Books that got me through those dark days:

Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love  I'm Grieving as Fast as I Can: How Young Widows and Widowers Can Cope and Heal  5546004  Healing a Spouse's Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas After Your Husband or Wife Dies

Blogs and websites I frequented:

Friday, January 2, 2015

Book Covers are a Big Deal

I may not be anywhere near having to consider a book cover design yet, but I have begun to notice them more and more. When I browse book shelves I look at the cover for a while before reading the back of the book, the book jacket, or the blurbs. I want to see what the image evokes in me. Humans are such a visual species, so I have started taking time to allow myself to feel something for the book as a whole, not just the words. Slowing down has also helped me notice the book layout. Some books have extra elements meant to create a whole experience. For example, some books, particularly books involving magical worlds, include maps to help readers orient themselves. Books with lots of characters will sometimes include a family tree or list of characters and their relationships to one another so readers can keep them all straight. These tools add an extra layer to the book, and involve not just the writer, but a designer as well.

Designers play a significant role in creating another level of interaction that happens as the reader is transported into the author's words. This is different than an illustrator. They too have a critical role in books, but that's a whole other topic. What I have been noticing is how most books have more than just the words to entice readers to get inside. Sometimes books have chapter headings that are especially designed to clue the reader into what's coming up in that chapter. Aside from a chapter title, they might have a small illustration, varied font, or a quote.

Those may or may not have been the idea of the writer. As I've said in other posts, there are many people involved in publishing a book. The designers have to get to know the book so they can form the visual layout. That includes anything that supplements the words. Perhaps there is a letter in the story. Rather than come out and state what's written in the letter, the letter could be drawn out so the reader feels like they are experiencing the letter along with the characters. There could be lists, notes, underlying themes, etc. that can be shown visually, making the book that much more engaging.
But before the reader even gets to those chapter headings or realizes they are reading an epistolary novel, they interact with the cover. I'm the first to admit that for most of my life, I never spent much time looking at book covers. I often knew what I wanted to read and looked for titles and authors and jumped right to the content. I'm trying not to do that anymore because I've learned how much work goes into the cover. Aside from trying to sell the book, the cover also serves as the first connection between the reader and the story. Just by looking at the cover the readers can form opinions about the book, the characters or the author before reading the first line. I think this is especially true in children's books.

Most younger kids I  know choose a book by the cover nearly 100% of the time. In seconds they take one look at the cover, evaluate their feelings about what they think the book is about, and either keep looking or pull it out. Even adults tend to do that with childrens' books. How many of us haven't looked at the cover of a picture book and without knowing what it's about, chose it for our child because it looked like something she would like? I know I've done it. One thing I've noticed is that I'm drawn to books with characters on the cover. In particular, books with children of color, or showing some cultural element have caught my eye lately. As I've posted before, there is a push to get more diverse books in the hands of kids of all ages. Perhaps that is what has made me conscious of children of color on book covers.

I also find it fascinating to see how book covers change over time, especially books I love. Here is an example that makes me smile:

          Original Cover                                  Revised Cover
Hopefully one day, I'll be working with designers to create an integrated experience for my readers that goes beyond the printed word. If I'm lucky, I may even get a say in my books' cover designs.

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