Monthly Archives: August 2009

Writing from the Womb

I read a post recently on agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog about not saying in a query how long you’ve been writing unless it’s relevant. Apparently, some people like to include that they’ve been writing since birth, thinking that will impress an agent, or that it serves as valid publishing experience. I am not such a prodigy. I don’t remember birth. In fact, like most people, I don’t remember much of the first 4 years of my life.

However, I remember writing a mystery story in 7th grade. It took place on a cruise ship and was influenced by Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames and Agatha Christie. A friend read my first 12 pages, hand-written of course, and told me it was “vivid”. I lost steam after that.

Next, I wrote a song on the piano. I think that was in 9th grade. Oh, let me clarify – I wrote lyrics and a melody. My brother can still sing it more than twenty years later:

I’ve worked hard the past few years,
Now it’s gonna pay off.
Hard work, persistence and talent
Are all I need,
To go to the top… (la la la la la)

Here I go,
I’m on my way,
Not gonna let anything stand in my way.
I’m goin’ all the way
To the top.
Gonna be number one
When I go
To the top.

Not surprisingly, my career as a songwriter was short-lived.

In high school I took a creative writing class, wrote poetry, and even entered a contest (got an Honorable Mention!). I also lazed around a lot on the hammock strung between two huge trees, and sang to myself in English and French, while contemplating the big issues in life. Crushes, avoiding helping my dad in the garden, friends, where do people go when they die, how annoying my little brother was…

In college I took a course on reading and writing short stories. I wrote three short stories and had them critiqued by the class. We then revised our stories and had a private conference with the professor. This definitely prepared me for my life as a writer today. Critique groups, conferences, consultations with editors and agents.

I started writing a novel in graduate school (I have a Master’s in International Relations), influenced by my year as a student in Paris. Unfortunately, my computer kept crashing in the middle of writing papers. So my father replaced the mother board. Bye-bye novel. That experience taught me to always have a back-up.

Now here I am, all this time later, four manuscripts under my belt, the fifth underway. Querying agents, attending conferences, critiquing and being critiqued. Most of this information won’t end up in a query letter, but it has made me who I am today.

Maybe I should revisit that novel set in Paris…

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Enthusiasm

I learn so much from my kids.  My three-year-old shows such enthusiasm for things that seem minor and mundane to us grown-ups. 

Here’s a conversation I’m sure you are all familiar with, but with my son’s special twist: 

“Mommy, what’s for dinner?”

“Sausage, peppers and onions,” I say.

“Sausage?” he squeaks, with eyebrows raised all the way up to his curly hair.  “I love sausage!”

“I know,” I say.  “With tater tots.”

He gasps.  His whole body seems to contract.  His smile widens to cover even more of his elfin face.  “Ooh.  Tater tots.”

My husband and I have been known to have such reactions to certain foods, too.  We tried a new fish dish the other night that just about had us moaning.  Grilled fish, a rosemary and caper vinaigrette, cannellini beans with spinach from the garden.  Oops, I digress.

But the little one gets this way about all kinds of things (depending on the day, the time, his level of crankiness and the cycles of the moon) – the playground (“Kelly Park?  I love Kelly Park!”), the library, picking up his older brother at camp, phone calls from grandparents (“Nana?  I love Nana!”).

People always talk about bottling the energy of children.  I want to tap into that enthusiasm and excitement for things that no longer seem new and exciting.  Imagine feeling happy and eager to go to work each day.  To see the sun shining down on the flowers you planted three years ago.  To drive your child to yet another soccer game, piano lesson or other extra-curricular activity.

I get this way when I start a new book.  I just have to figure out how to sustain that feeling through the entire process of drafting, critiquing, revising, re-writing, querying and submitting.  Maybe my enthusiasm will be catching.  Maybe I can get a book deal in the near future.

And maybe I can brighten someone else’s day.

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Filed under The rest of my life, writing

On Vacation

Silly me.  So much for techno-savvy.  I had a post prepared for this week then forgot to make it accessible for posting while on vacation.  That wonderful post about my youngest child is still on my laptop at home, and I’m not.  We will have a blog break for the week and I’ll post it next weekend.

In the meantime, what is your favorite thing about summer?  Post your answer in the comments.

A bientot…

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Rwanda FYI

The New York Times reported on August 12th (click here to read the article), that indicted Rwandan mayor, Grégoire Ndahimana, was finally captured, after 15 years.

He is accused of conspiring to kill 2,000 Tutsis taking refuge in a church and ordering a bulldozer to raze the church to end a siege, during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda consider Ndahimana among the chief planners and executers of the genocide.

Mr. Ndahimana was caught looking for food in a village in the Northern Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he has been hiding out and inciting the local population to rebel against the government of the DRC.

Score one for the good guys!

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Trekking in Rwanda

Imagine climbing through cold, misty potato fields in the early morning toward a thick bamboo forest. Scrambling across slippery nettles I accidentally touch a leathery leaf and get stung.  I climb farther between massive, moss-covered East African rosewood trees (also called hagenia trees) with reddish bark and a wide canopy of foliage that blocks out the sun.

I am in the Parc National des Volcans in Rwanda, a central African country smaller than the state of Maryland. And I am about to meet the inhabitants of the park’s rainforest.

For an hour or so (it may even take as long as four hours) my Rwandan guide, fellow trekkers and I follow nests made with nearby vegetation, such as hagenia branches and bamboo leaves. The damp earth smells spicy from nettles and leaves. Eventually our guide will point out the nests constructed just the night before. That means we’re getting closer.

The forest is so dense that I can’t see very far in any direction. I can’t see the town of Ruhengeri below. I can’t see the six volcanoes of the Virunga chain that make up the national park. And I can no longer see the potato fields that I walked through earlier.

Then I hear the snapping of twigs and munching on leaves. Right in front of me is black fur, long arms reaching to the ground and an expressive, almost human face. I’m looking at a mountain gorilla, an endangered species of great ape.

I hear more noises to my right and realize that there is a whole family of gorillas within feet of me. This particular family includes about ten individuals, and is led by one dominant male gorilla, called a silverback because of the silver streak on his back. 

“Gorilla families are very stable,” the Rwandan guide tells us. “They can have up to fifty animals, but usually there are only ten or so.”

I watch a gorilla of about five feet tall continue to eat leaves and stems. 

“She is almost as tall as you,” the guide says, smiling broadly. “She probably weighs 175 pounds. These gorillas will travel about one mile today between feedings.”

The silverback gorilla watches me. 

“He is almost six feet tall and weighs 350 pounds,” the guide says. “Don’t get him angry!  He is the defender of the family and will roar and beat his chest, and possibly charge at you if he finds you threatening.”

“I thought gorillas are very tolerant of people,” I say. 

“Sure, just don’t look him in the eye, and move slowly and carefully. Don’t give him any reason to get mad.”

I look down at the leaves in front of me, thinking about the most vulnerable of all the great apes. Losing their forests to farmland and fuel; wars in Rwanda and its neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo; and poaching have left only a few hundred mountain gorillas on the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes. 

My visit can help save the gorillas.  Eco-tourists pay to visit the mountain gorillas, a primate species they cannot see anywhere else in the world, except in a zoo. The money is then used by conservationists to save the gorilla populations.

Too quickly my hour with the great apes is up and I must leave the forest. Sliding back down the mountain through the cloud forest, fragrant bamboo trees and the potato fields, I smile. I may be sweaty and aching, but I will never forget the trek that brought me face to face with a mountain gorilla.

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Serendipity and Creativity in the Writer

Today we have a special treat – a guest blogger.  Suzanne Lilly is a writer and an elementary school teacher (and an awesome critique partner) who finished three novels, Gold Rush Girl, House of Chimes, and Blooming with Hope, and is busy writing another.  When not busy writing, she enjoys swimming, knitting, reading, fine arts, cooking, and blogging about teaching, writing and cooking.  She lives in California with her family and has yet to feel an earthquake. 

To learn more about Suzanne, visit her at www.suzannelilly.com.

Serendipity and Creativity in the Writer

As I tossed several new story ideas around recently, I began to wonder about serendipity and creativity. What is it, and why should we invite it into our lives? According to James H. Comroe, a biomedical researcher,

“Serendipity is looking for a needle in a haystack and finding the farmer’s daughter.”

It can’t be explained much better than that, which may be why the word serendipity defies accurate translation into many languages.

Writers need serendipity. To see a kernel of an idea germinate from a seed into a full grown novel, takes a huge amount of hard work, and a tiny bit of chance happening. Serendipity is when things happen by chance that lead to wonderful discoveries, inventions, creations, artistry. Serendipity is when events and thoughts align to bring success to the writer’s work. Serendipity is the seed that germinates into the root of the endeavor and then, after much time and care, becomes fully formed.

Just as a seed needs water to germinate, writers need serendipity. Yet the seed doesn’t get water by working for it. It receives it when it rains or when the farmer decides to water the field. The seed has no control over when the water will come.

So too, with writers. We have no control over when serendipity will enter our creative lives. We just have to be open and receptive. It won’t happen while we are straining and pounding our keyboards in anguish over the dearth of writing ideas. Rather, serendipity tiptoes into our writing mind secretly, silently, sometimes fleetingly. We can only catch it if we are relaxed.

“Love happens when you least expect it.” How many of us can remember our mothers saying this adage? Love is serendipitous. Some of the best creative writing is serendipitous.

Writers are creative people. Yet creativity doesn’t simply mean coming up with new ideas on demand. In fact, every plot conceivable has already been done. For a writer, creativity consists more of the sagacity to make connections between two things that are unrelated, or that haven’t been brought together into the same thought frame before.

Bette Nesmith, the mother of Michael Nesmith of the Monkees, a 1960s pop band, developed Liquid Paper quite innocently. She needed a way to erase mistakes made on the typewriter she used as a secretary. She thought of putting white tempera paint into a nail polish bottle, and voilá, Liquid Paper was born. Bette didn’t invent anything. She simply thought of combining things in a way no one had done before. She didn’t even plan to make money on it, yet as things worked out, she died leaving an estate of $50 million dollars. Now that’s serendipity.

As a writer, any chance event may be a spark that can be nurtured and allowed to grow until it becomes a bigger idea. Something as mundane as a trip to the grocery store may bring a wonderful happening that is a new story spark. A news article may trigger a reaction that begins a creative process. Even something as simple as dropping an egg on the floor could be the impetus for a new children’s book.

Serendipity happens all the time, but we may not recognize it because we are too focused, our vision has narrowed with our life expectations, we are too overworked and we’re trying to get it all done, or we have a negative view of life. Release all those things and let your mind open wide to new possibilities.

Serendipity arrives without warning, on silent cat’s paws. It sneaks up on us. It isn’t found when we’re looking for it. It’s found by relaxing, and being aware. Let’s all agree to keep our eyes open with no judgments, no expectations. Then serendipity will be free to enter.

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Speak

I recently recommended Laurie Halse Anderson’s powerful book, Speak.  I have just discovered a movie was made in 2004 based on the book, starring Kristen Stewart – now of Twilight fame.  The movie will be shown on the Lifetime network this Saturday at 9 pm (EDT).

Would love to hear from others who have read the book and/or seen the movie.

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