Writing in the Fast Lane

The fight to stay focused when my husband talks tech

software-computer-code-1940x900_35196My husband is a software engineer, and he loves his work. He writes and troubleshoots code for a graphics card company every day. Then he comes home and writes more code.

Because it’s so much fun.

But when my husband wants to share with me the thing he’s devoted most of his waking life to, I feel like I must strap myself to a rock and let the waves hit me.  I buckle down, grit my teeth and lock my eyes onto his in a listening stance. I maintain constant vigilance over my thoughts. If left untended, they will wander the room like one of those Roomba automatic vacuum cleaners, pinging randomly off walls and veering under the furniture.

This morning was a good example. My husband and I went out for a breakfast date. After listening to my conversation, my husband said, “Can I tell you now? About that modification I made to the Minecraft clone I’m working on?”  His eyes shine with the wit and elegance of the breakthrough he’s made in the game he’s programming. He’s been thinking about this for two weeks. This is big. He wants to share this with his wife.

So he begins. I try hard to focus. I try to picture what he’s saying in little drawings in my mind so that I can relate to all the intangibles. I have Sal Khan from Khan Academy in my head, helping me out with a play-by-play explanation on a white board. My husband is using words like stack and arraymemory and processing speed.

Then suddenly, I veer. A fly is hovering over my husband’s head. Will it land? And where? Does my husband know there’s a fly over his head?  

I start eating my food, and continue listening. He’s saying something about cubes in a stack. Okay, got it. Dang, this linguica is good.  I’m smelling tarragon somewhere in the restaurant.  Now that’s interesting. What breakfast food would have tarragon as an ingredient? Who would even think of that?  

Sal Khan is rolling his eyes at my distraction, but he gently nudges me to return to the topic at hand. He draws a cute picture of Minecraft cubes in a stack to cajole me into listening. I return to the information I stored in my head–the last thing I remember my husband saying before I drifted.  Something about some images in the game being stored as half cubes, not full cubes.

In an unexpected leap, my brain translates the information my husband has given me into big picture form. I am able to grasp what he is taking about. So this is it: He’s figured out a way for vertical stacks of repetitive graphics to be stored more efficiently so the game runs faster, and a way to make water look more realistic on the screen. I get it.

Sorta. Kinda.

“That’s kind of a big deal,” I tell him. “Doesn’t it make you want to go home to your computer and do this, right now? This is so much better!”  In some weak way, I have been able to connect with what he’s been so excited about.

My husband’s face is lit up by the enormity of what he has done. And I see, through all my inattention, that it’s worth fighting the fight. It’s worth trying to stay connected through the techie bits.

If not for the subject of programming, which doesn’t interest me, then for my husband, who interests me very much.

How not to dread writing

img_20180330_080013-e1532978494452.jpgI am a writer and a writing teacher. So I deal with my own writing motivation issues, then I turn around and help high schoolers with theirs.

My personal catchphrase and what will inevitably be engraved on my tombstone is: No one should have to dread writing.

But I do, sometimes. If I take the time to analyze why, there are usually two reasons:  1) I’m afraid I’ll fall short of my own expectations; and 2) I’m not excited about what I’m writing.

There is a great quote by public radio personality Ira Glass about the gap that creative types experience, between what they churn out initially and what they know in their hearts to be really good. Here’s a short, creative video rendition of the quote: https://vimeo.com/85040589

As you hone your craft, you will be painfully aware of how short you fall of your own expectations. The only way to close that gap is to practice more of your craft. The more you write, the better you will get.

There’s one magic solution to this–don’t quit. If you keep writing regularly, closing that gap will be inevitable. One thing that encourages me is to go back and re-read an old draft or a story I wrote a few years ago. Then I see the truth. I’m getting better.

The other reason why I and so many of my students dread writing is, we’re writing about something we’re not excited about. So here’s my oh-duh solution:  write your passion. Write about something you daydream about. Or about what you fear most. Write about something that’s stuck in your head, that you’re trying to come to terms with. Write about something that pisses you off.

Last year I had a freshman who hated to write and did the very minimum on his writing assignments. When I asked him what he loved to do, he said, “Play the video game Fortnite.”

Screenshot_20180730-121346_2I asked him what he liked least about the game. He said, “Bush camping. It’s unfair and I hate it. Players hide in the bushes, and they ambush you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

That next week, he turned in the best piece of writing he’d done in the class, a persuasive essay arguing in detail that bush camping should be taken out of the game!

If you’re writing something you’re not passionate about, write about something else. If that’s not an option, research angles on the subject till you find something you do care about. Pick at it. Find something that gets your emotions going, for good or bad.

Here are two books that have inspired me and some of my students:

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life  by Anne Lamott
Tips and encouragement for any writing process, whether it’s fiction or an essay for school.

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland
A sparkling and encouraging book for fiction writers, filled with the author’s sense of humor. Gets to the heart of why we want to write and how to move forward doing it.

 

What the fork

My husband has this thing with forks.

He picks up the fork he’s been given and examines it carefully, turning it on its side. He inspects the alignment of the tines. If one is bent, he sighs. He calmly gets up from where he is seated and goes to the utensil drawer to find a more acceptable one.

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photo and fork by Claire Ellen Keyes

It drives me crazy.

I can’t understand how the misalignment of one tine can be such a dinner-disruptling thing.

“It bothers me when it’s bent,” he says. “I can’t eat with it.”

I nicknamed my husband the Princess and the Pea because he reminds me of the fairy tale. The one where a young woman is proved a princess because she can feel the irritating presence of a single pea under a stack of twenty mattresses. My husband is overwhelmed by a pinch of lemon pepper in the mild sauce on his chicken. He is…special that way.

My feelings finally peaked at the intersection of annoyance and curiosity. I decided to see if this fork thing was real. Or if he was maybe making this up to be stubborn. So I asked if he would do an experiment. I would blindfold him, and he would use five different forks, some of them bent, some of them not. And he would tell me which forks had bent tines and which did not.

“But you understand that the conditions of this experiment are not valid,” my engineer says in his Spock voice. “I already know what I’m looking for, and that will influence the results.”

And that’s important because I’m writing this up for Scientific American.

So I blindfolded him. And I slid a homemade piece of his favorite pie, Banana Cream, in front of him. I started handing him forks. I had two pretty obviously bent forks, then one in which one tine was slightly off, and one fork in which all tines were perfect.

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Side observational note: It is very hard to eat cream pie blindfolded without assistance.

The final results:

  • Forks with multiple bent tines: called it within seconds
  • Fork with one slightly bent tine: (after almost a minute) unsure, maybe bent
  • Fork with perfect tines: called it–within seconds

My husband isn’t making this up. He is fork-sensitive. Maybe it’s his super power.

Of course it does seem a bit petty to me, especially in comparison with really big issues–like insisting that the hand towels and tissue container in the bathroom maintain my Pantone 14-1116 color scheme.

Packing up my horcruxes

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My siblings and I have been cleaning out the house we grew up in (see previous post), as my dad prepares to sell it.

A lot of the stuff we’ve gone through is already in the dumpster or the local Goodwill truck. Whew.

At times throughout the process, I’ve found a treasure. Something that jabs me in the heart when I pull it out. A memory hotspot.

Forget efficient clean up and packing. I pull up a chair and take a breath. Let the memories wash over me.

These are my horcruxes. In the Harry Potter books, horcruxes are pieces of a dark wizard’s soul. Keeping them intact ensures the wizard’s immortality. But in my world (and my parents’ house), these are pieces of my story, and they are now assembled in a Home Depot box. Unlike Lord Voldemort, I didn’t have to murder anyone to create them.

Here are a few. My dad’s light meter. He used it to measure light for taking photographs. When I was six, I firmly believed he used the dial to control the sun. I watched him develop the photos in his basement darkroom, under the glow of a red light. When the images appeared in the developing liquid, it was my first sight of magic.

A photo of my Japanese-born grandmother, who babysat me while my mom worked. In the photo, she’s eating a goodie on her front porch on a Nebraska summer evening. I remember her as very strict, but she always had time to sit down and tell me a story.

My mom’s old silver flute, which she’d played in band through college. In fourth grade I threw it against the wall in frustration, when I was learning how to play it. Then I hid it. She cried when she saw the dents. Then she forgave me, which made me cry.

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For some reason, I wrote this caption for Mao: “So long now, I’m off to watch Joanie Loves Chachi

A post card of Mao Tse Tung that I sent my parents when I was in college. I told them I’d run off to become a communist. I made up an elaborate story as to how it happened. They took it well.

A photo of my middle child at the age of three, with Shirley Temple curls, wedged into the bowl of a sink. One of many photos of my child happily sitting in a sink. It seemed to be AJ’s happy place.

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Each one of these has power for me. Chapters in a story of family. A story of beauty, redemption, loss and many, many plot twists. A story that will live on, either through my children or through what I write.

That’s how horcruxes work. They’re pretty hard to destroy.

Just your average superhero family

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I loved The Incredibles. When the trailer for The Incredibles 2 came out, I was skeptical that a followup after 14 years would be as good as the original. How could it?

But the new movie is action packed and (in my opinion) even funnier than the first. Since I’m working on a sequel to my novel, I’m still analyzing how Pixar put it all together. They tell a story so well.

One thing I like about both Incredibles is the idea of superheroes trying to get along as a normal, suburban family. Their fights are so relatable. They’re the same fights my siblings and I had growing up. But with superpowers, they’re a lot more interesting.

They know how to push each others’ buttons. Yet when they face a challenge, everybody knows what everybody else does best. When one person can’t handle something, they let someone else step in. Their combined efforts save the day.

My father is in the process of selling the house our family has lived in for 40 years, so my parents can move to a home suited to my ailing mom’s needs. It’s a huge undertaking. There are tons of repairs to be made, attics to clean out, and monster-truck sized dumpsters to be filled. It’s not just hard work, it’s emotional hard work. A lot of rifling through boxes, pulling out things and either sobbing or laughing hysterically over them.

The cool thing is, we’re doing this as a family. And everybody is playing a part. I’m The Communicator, making sure the realtor, contractors and family know what’s happening when. My brother is The Bulldozer, stepping in to throw clutter away when we’re too sentimentally attached to it.

One brother-in-law, The Prioritizer, excels at creating lists and visual timelines to keep us focused; the other, The Mover, works with incredible endurance and speed, moving furniture and boxes. One sister, The Decider, is ruthlessly no nonsense when it comes to finances and helping my dad make decisions; the other sister, The Guardian, lives in the house and has the biggest heart for my mom’s needs.

What one of us can’t do, someone else does. So far the arrangement is working out pretty well.

When we have survived all of this, and my parents are settled in their new place, we will be exhausted. I hope we’ll all still be friends. We will have gotten through it together, which will be incredible.

I want to write a badly written book

Disclaimer:  Oh, dear. The blogger was clearly not in her right mind while writing this post. She was last seen logged into Amazon, buying up every book she could on plot structure, suspense and character development. Please accept our apologies. 

Lately I’ve been reading whatever I can get my hands on that will make my novel better. Blog posts on how to create characters flawed in just the right way—enough to draw in the reader but not enough to get the book thrown against the wall. Books on how to create micro tension, so that your taut sentences are filled with that soupçon of contradiction that beckons the curious reader to read on. Articles on how to write your first five pages so that an agent will not be able to put them down.

I’m exhausted.

At a meeting of one of my writer groups (see previous blog post), I told my patient and supportive friends: I want to write a really bad book.

I have the urge to write something that completely veers off the road of good taste into the murky pond of self-indulgence. I want to pour out my wildest dreams into a story of forbidden love that I publish myself and put the six-packed torso of a man on the cover, drawn badly by my best friend.

Last school year, I taught a creative writing class to middle schoolers. Middle schoolers get bored easily and have short attention spans (hormones). So they write about people murdering each other on camping trips, about unicorns appearing in their backyards and mermaids having a babysitting service.

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They aren’t usually well written, but they’ve got passion and chutzpah. The stories are filled with relentless action. The kids write with confidence, because they don’t know any better.

I can use words to tell this crazy story that’s in my head. So I’m going to do it.

That’s what I want.

I want that sense of fun, that reminder that I’m the only one who can tell this crazy story that I made up, so you’d better listen. I want to write with a confidence that I don’t deserve to have. Because ultimately, while rules are important, every one of us can name a rule-breaking book that became a bestseller—or just near and dear to our hearts.

Writing is not a game you “win” because you follow all the rules. Creativity doesn’t work that way. But despite my frustration, I realize knowing the rules helps. My dad is a painter and when I saw my first cubist painting, I asked him if Picasso always painted that way. How did the guy get away with painting like that? My dad answered that Picasso studied painting for years–and had been painting for years. He knew all the rules before he decided to break them.

Maybe I’ll take a break from reading the rules now. And try some writing.

Why you need to be in a writers group

The life of a writer is solitary work. And that’s good.

When you’re by yourself, planted in front of your computer, or bent over a legal pad with your pen, the creativity flows without distraction. You have time and space to imagine your world.

I have a memory of being 11 years old, lying on my stomach on my bed in Bellevue, Washington, with a giant newsprint tablet and a pen. Just me and my story, which I also illustrated. No annoying younger siblings, no mom nagging me to do my chores. When I think of my happy place, that’s it.

If you are creating your story for yourself, for the love of it, that’s perfect. The problem comes when you are writing for an audience beyond yourself and your bedroom. When you’re going to submit to an agent or self publish.

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Come out of your cave and find your squad!

This will be a long road. So crawl out of your writer cave and gather people around you. People who will encourage you. Call you on your bad self talk, cheer for your victories.

A writers group will help you keep writing and get better at it.

I’ve been in two different kinds of writers groups. A few years ago, I was in a critique group where each of us read a chapter at our meetings. I saw how my writing came across to a variety of people. Over time, these people got to know me and helped me grow within my unique style and genre. I learned what works in storytelling and what doesn’t. I also grew a thicker skin—something you need if you’re writing for publication.

Right now I belong to two writer groups, one that grew out of a novel-in-a-year class, and one that spun off from an arts program at my local church. My novel-in-a-year group has given me some great beta readers. We also share tips on how to find agents and how to market ourselves.

My weekly writers group is all about encouragement and accountability. We have virtual writing times, which are fun and often hilarious, using google Hangouts and a productivity app. When one of us has a victory, we celebrate. We also call each other on our bullshit:  You’ve only sent out six queries, and you got two rejections—and you’re discouraged? Come back when you’ve sent out 20 or 30.

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Actual productivity app screen from one of our virtual writing sessions (unfortunately crashed by ME).

If you’re writing for more than yourself, find a group that works for you. The support will keep you going when the journey is discouraging and you’re feeling—as all writers do—that you’re not cut out for this.

The joy of the road

Road trips are in my blood. Nothing shakes me from my stupor and pries my fingers off my tired routines like a good, long road trip.

Last week my youngest and I drove to Austin, Texas, taking a southerly route through California’s Mojave Desert, across Arizona, New Mexico and a good chunk of rural Texas. We put a total of 3600 miles on my still fairly new Honda CRV. Also, quite a few dents, but I’ll get back to that.

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Wigwam Motel, on old Route 66, Holbrook, AZ.

Road trips are an honored institution in my family of origin. I remember being bundled into the car, in the flimsiest of car seats, for long drives to visit my grandparents in Nebraska. When my brother and sisters came along, my dad built two low benches, which he inserted over the folded down middle seat in our station wagon, so we could bundle up in blankets and sleep. Horribly dangerous and with no protective restraints, but we loved it. I remember rocketing down the interstates of the midwest, Colorado and Wyoming, my head thrust out the window like a dog, singing and feeling the wind in my face. When we didn’t stay with relatives, we’d stay in cheap motels off the beaten path, similar to the kind we saw along Route 66 on this trip: a tiny room, close quarters, but with full kitchens and usually a pool or kids playground.

A road trip that gives you that rare feeling that you’re getting somewhere. Your progress is clear, tangible. You can see it on the map (Now it’s Google maps for me). For my dad, the distances he drove were a mark of pride. He once drove us from Denver to the San Francisco Bay Area in one day (an 18 hour drive). I have no desire to equal his achievement, because while I love being on the road, I also love to get out of the car and see things. And I like to sleep.

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Arizona. It’s all orange.

Back to the dents in my car, which brings me to the unpredictability of road trips. Some of the best stories I remember from my childhood road trips are when things went horribly wrong. When we got lost. When the car broke down. When someone in the back seat started throwing up.

Last Monday, we’d just crossed the Texas border from New Mexico, when we saw the creepiest clouds I’d ever seen: dark grey, dense, and with appendages hanging down that I can only describe as fur-like. It began to rain, and suddenly it seemed like it was raining hammers. Hail pelted the car, growing in size until it resembled small golf balls. We were out in the middle of the great flat nowhere (or as my youngest calls it, BFN, Bum Fuck Nowhere), no shelter in sight. I drove, my hands rigid on the wheel, until we came to an overpass in Roscoe, Texas. Everyone crowding under the overpass got out and examined their damages. My windshield was split down the middle, and the hood and roof were covered with deep dimples like you’d see on a golf ball. I still can’t bring myself to look at it.

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My Honda’s self esteem took a hit.

We loved Austin. After we limped into town from that experience, we started having so much fun, we almost forgot the torrent we’d driven through. An auto glass repairer replaced our windshield quickly and we started enjoying the music and food that makes Austin so great. I even got some writing done.

It will be a while till we do another long road trip. Eight hour daily drives are exhausting, and my poor car needs time and body work to get back its sheen and mojo.

On our drive back, my youngest and I talked about the meaning of adventure—something we’d been looking for on the trip. If everything went precisely as you predicted on a trip, it wouldn’t be an adventure. We wouldn’t still be talking about it.

I’d say on this trip, we found the adventure we were looking for.

Growing a confident writer

Today I had my lesson plan preempted by an eleven year old with a story to tell. I let her tell it.

I teach Creative Writing to middle schoolers through a charter school. Last year, I had a group of high-achieving kids, studious and driven. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those students in particular ends up publishing a book before she turns eighteen. Her writing style and voice are finely tuned, and she knows the craft of telling a story. I had her sign up for the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program. Her mom can’t stop her from writing. She’s twelve.

This semester, I have very different kids. These kids are in it for fun, and for the cookies I sometimes bring to class. They’re funny and snarky. Minor things like spelling aren’t a priority for them. And sometimes—well, they lose focus.

A few minutes before class, Jade asked me if she could draw on the white board. I let her do it, as we waited for the rest of the class to arrive. She began drawing a character, whom she named, and told me his back story and character attributes (clearly she had been listening to our previous lesson). As she drew, she described her setting in detail (she’d listened to that lesson, too), and added another character as a love interest, with a complication:  her parents disapproved of the match (Lesson on conflict–check).

When the rest of the class came in, I let her keep going. She was on a roll, telling the story with flair, as she moved all over the board, illustrating like crazy. Her two characters find a portal in a tree and travel to another dimension. After a series of adventures involving ogres and dungeons, the two characters manage to get back home, where they are welcomed by their parents and live happily ever after. Or as Jade scrawled on the board ominously when she finished: Or do they?

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The rest of the class chimed in with questions and suggestions, totally into it. The story ended up taking up half the class. When I finally got to my planned lesson on description and setting, I used Jade’s story for the examples. What seemed like a long diversion became a great teaching moment, something I never could have planned. And, in line with my class’s taste, it was a lot of fun.

One of the most important things you can have as a writer is ballsy confidence. A belief that yes, you do have a right to tell your story. And if you put your story out there, people will listen. How do you grow this in someone? On my own path as a writer, I’ve struggled with this.

Today a kid got time and space to tell a story. I didn’t just give her that, the whole class did.

I hope this gives her confidence to make more stories.

Remodeling the Hero’s Journey

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We’re finally finished with our kitchen remodel. This was a big one. We completely gutted the aging kitchen we had for seventeen years.

Thanks to a five-year-old who liked to swing on cabinet doors, we’d been displaying our mismatched dishes and pantry contents for the world to see for years now. And because of an odd kitchen layout, a sink with dirty dishes was the first thing anyone saw when coming through our front door.

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Before: Proud display of dirty dishes

I knew the remodel would be a chaotic inconvenience. Microwaved food on paper plates for at least six weeks. Strangers in our house every day, sledgehammering, dry walling, cranking classic rock and Mexican tunes on the radio and yelling at each other. There would be dust in all our rooms, because there is no place that stuff doesn’t reach. My noise-averse husband and son would burrow into their respective hollows, with their headphones on.

That’s exactly what it’s been like. Some mornings I’ve walked through the kitchen and reminisced about the semi-darkness of our old kitchen with its flickering 1970s fluorescent light. Was it really that bad?

I’m a writer and an English teacher, so I know a messy middle when I see one. In a story’s messy middle, the protagonist has left the land of the ordinary, often reluctantly, and entered into the crazy, hostile world of the extraordinary. Think of Bilbo Baggins leaving the peace of the shire, at the wizard Gandalf’s urging, to steal the dwarves’ treasure from the dragon.

Bilbo doesn’t think he’s suited for this adventure. Gandalf thinks otherwise, calling Bilbo “the Burglar.”

I like living in the shire. I like tidy, peaceful places that are quiet. I don’t like being in messy, in-between states where power and water are turned off and perfectly good dishwashers are accidentally carted off to the dump.

My toddler-sized brain looks at the daily chaos and thinks only, This will last forever.

But like so many transitions we deal with in life, this is not true. Things do resolve, and the reason we human beings love stories so much is, their beginnings, middles and ends are so comforting. We hold on to this cycle for hope. When we are old enough to have gone through enough messy middles, we know in some way, things will change. This too shall pass.

A remodel is not up there on the scale of life changes. It isn’t divorce, death of a parent or spouse, or the loss of a career. At least one of those things will come my way soon enough.

This remodel is a light practice run.

The kitchen is looking wonderful, thanks to the contractors who have worked till dusk over the past six weeks. After everyone’s packed up at night, I walk on the smooth, new tile floor and think, Is this really my kitchen?

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After:  All done!

Oh, yeah, that’s another thing. I didn’t even do the actual work myself. I’m thankful for that, because I’m not a fixer-upper person. The results would not be good.

Here’s to life’s transitions. And to the good that awaits on the other side.

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Home again, but better.