Obstacle Course

I want to be writing a post right now, but a dark cloud has settled over both children and they are taking turns waking and crying. There was only a half an hour during which they were both quiet today. It involved one taking a really late nap and the other building heroes and monsters.

So I summon up patience reserves and ask softly what they need. I don’t want them to need right now. I want to write. I put off what I want all day to do what they need, and now I want to write a blog post.

I want to be writing a chapter right now, but the house is a mess and the lunches aren’t made. I did a darned fine job making three nice meals and two snacks today.

But there are no milestones. There is no “done.” Relentless. It’s not back-breaking or war-torn or subsistence-level. But it’s relentless.

Now I summon up the will to tidy, clean, and slather protein goop onto bread for lunches tomorrow. I don’t want to think about other people’s food right now. I want to write. I’ve been putting it off all day, mindful of what my two small creatures need, and now I want to write a chapter.

I want to be reading a book right now, but I’m unfocused and can’t give the words the time they deserve. I try twice and give up. I hear another crying child, see a pile of clothes for the laundry, and smell leftovers waiting to be tucked into the fridge.

Now I try to summon the maturity to give up for the night. I don’t want to call it a day. I want to write and read and create and marvel and think. I put all of those aside today, promising myself “later” while I enjoyed the play and resented the battles and joined in the lives of other people. I’ve been answering requests for 22 hours. And now I want to be me.

The day started at midnight when the littlest one woke crying for water. He chases away my REM cycles every hour or so after the night is enumerated in single digits. The older one woke before dawn and started whistling the joyful chorus of those without front teeth. They both pushed hard all day, trying to fill every moment with fun and beauty and learning. I tried to keep up. And be responsible and tidy and mindful and nice. I tried to feed them and teach them what they need to know to be decent humans. I did a fine job considering how little I sleep each night and how mad I get when Elvis Costello tauntingly reminds me that every day he writes the book. Every day. The book I’m neither writing nor reading.

So if I quit and go to bed, Elvis Costello wins. And I can’t have that.

Consider the post written and the lunches done. Next: draft a chapter. Then: read one sentence and fall asleep.

Win-win-win-win. Take that, Elvis.

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Nobody Listens to Turtle

Criticism is a wonderful gift. If articulate and well timed, it can give us the bridge we need to make our lives better.

I really need to learn to hear criticism.

I listen to it. I do. And I acknowledge its inherent usefulness, even if mean-spirited or misguided. But genuinely constructive criticism is an opportunity I apparently miss. In trying not to wince in pain at the idea of needing improvement, I found out today, I effectively block out the actual useful bits of criticism.

I thought I was rather self-aware. But today I realized I need more often to listen to turtle*.

Back story: I’ve been working on a novel for a while. I wrote it as a screenplay more than a decade ago. Once it was done I put it away and forgot it until Peanut was cooking and I finished teaching. I needed a project, and thought the script would be a good book.

So I transformed it. And edited and polished and sent it to agents.

And some sent feedback. My memory of that feedback is “It’s fine, I like the characters. It’s just not the right project for me. By the way, the language at times is too showy, so watch that. And nothing good happens until page 300, so move the action up if you want to sell it.” My memory has served me for three years.

I got the feedback while pregnant with Butterbean. I spent nine months rearranging the scenes and cutting the showy language. Then the little guy was born and all work ceased.

Fast forward. Peanut is in school. Butter is in a home-based day care three mornings a week.

Work is proceeding apace. But I’m not sure how much of the action to move, nor how to juggle the characters. Five main characters. Hard to time the introduction so many since I don’t want to focus too long on anyone, nor jump around like a narrative ping pong game. I’ve been rearranging scenes on index cards and a corkboard for years. I need a new perspective.

So I map the book. But then realize: most of what happens…really happens…is in flashbacks. Nothing much actually happens. Lots of feelings, minimal plot.

[Bear with me. The graphics below were penned without intention of making them public, but there’s no way in h-e-double-hockey-sticks I’m redrawing this exercise just to look good for you lovely people.]

The emotional maps, overlaid, look like this.

Exciting, no?

But the actual character arcs, overlaid, look like this.

Cue sad panda music, ‘cuz that’s one pathetic book right there.

So I ask a dear, brilliant writer friend two questions:
1. does stuff that happens in the past just color how a reader sees a character, or does it actually count as action?
2. how do I introduce all these characters without lingering too long on any of them? Should I force them together more?

While I wait for a reply, I stumble upon the agents’ emails, which I haven’t opened since 2009.

More than half mentioned that
1.not enough happens
and
2.there are too many characters and we need to see them all together doing something.

D’oh!

The good news: I’m asking the right questions.
The bad news: I had the answer three years ago.
The good news: I now, finally, have time to do this work.
The great news: I still want to.

*Bonus points if you get the reference. Actually, genetic test if you get the reference because I think you and I might be family.

Adrenaline

In the darkness,
A helpless scream.
It is loud; it jolts
jumbled and dangerous.
I stifle panic to help.

In the dawn,
A cheerful yelp.
It is loud; it pierces
frenetic and portentous.
I stifle panic to engage.

In the morn,
A vengeful yell.
It is loud; it seeks
maligned and lost.
I stifle panic to redirect.

As we warm,
A resentful resistance.
It is loud; it sprouts
truculent and bristly.
I stifle panic to push.

Come on.

As we leave,
A rueful screech.
We are loud; we fly
dynamic and unkempt.
I stifle panic to herd.

Come on, please.

As we arrive,
A mournful whine.
It is loud; it asks
uncertain and small.
I stifle panic to guide.

As we carry on,
A joyful cry.
It is loud; it leaps
wild and safe.
I relish smiles and luxuriate.

As we encounter,
A ferocious NO!
It is loud, it refuses
unfettered and rabid.
I stifle panic to offer.

As we collect,
A tired shout.
It is loud; it smears
certain and threatening.
I stifle exhaustion to resist.

As we circle,
A questioning cry.
It is loud; it rings
true and dangerous.
I stifle panic to answer.

As we meet,
A tired whimper.
It is denuded; it breathes
honest and sad.
I stifle nothing and give.

As we roam,
Angry shrieks.
They are loud; they battle
fierce and cruel.
I stifle panic and manage.

As we retreat,
Frustrated cries.
They are loud; they shrug
worn and empty
Among loud people cars businesses trucks people people people.
I stifle panic and do.

As we settle,
Many unmet needs SCREAM.
They are loud; they reach
jumbled frenetic maligned bristly dynamic uncertain wild rabid portentous dangerous sad fierce worn true.
I stifle panic and hold on.

As we ablute,
Nerves grate.
They are loud; they fray
raw and needy.
I stifle everything.

As we center,
Resistance eases.
They are softer.
They fade.
I release.

We all sleep.

Best money I’ve ever spent

1. Online coupon for Scrivener completely overhauls my novel editing process.
Cost: $32 (tax-deductible)
Benefit: New lease on creativity, productivity, and immortality. Joyful hours in which I imported 310 pages of fiction into hundreds of scenes and move them around the way I’ve wanted to since a brilliant friend recommended I buy a giant cork board to index card my scenes. Complete revolution to my writing and editing. Giddy eagerness to tackle an otherwise daunting project. Elated moments of productivity even in the wee hours when I’m usually at diminished capacity.
Thank you Literature and Latte for knowing what writers need and for coding it all into little computer goblins who move words around at my behest.

2. Local grocer has a bottle of organic lemonade on sale. I buy one, freeze into popsicles. My kids, who are used to homemade yogurt and orange juice pops go nuts, sit sweetly together in the shade and eat two popsicles each.
Cost: $0.16 per child (calculated just the juice by the ounce and figured freezer costs negligible since the freezer would be running, anyway.)
Benefit: 30 minutes in which I stripped and washed the car seat covers, vacuumed the car seats (ew), vacuumed the living room, and ripped four CDs.
Thank you Santa Cruz Organic for the $0.64/hour babysitting. I plan to recreate with our overburdened lemon tree and newly minted, knife-accomplished sous-chef six-year-old for improved cost effectiveness.

3. NPR interviews Daniel Pink, and a year later I finally remember to buy his book Drive at a local bookstore.
Cost: $8 something.
Benefit: Interesting research, good writing, and highly useful appendices get me on track for several professional goals.

Go buy his book. Read it. Work through the appendices. Change your work, your life, your family, your employees, your children, your world.

That’s money well spent.

Plug for new blog

In my massive 2012 self-rewrite, I have decided to split my creative tasks a bit. The big piece of my reorganization involves more fiction and academics. Less client work. Less social media. Less of the stuff I don’t need.

I’m also honoring my split personality by giving each of the voices in my head a blog. (I’ll begin with just voice-amplifying blogs, because some of the people in my head are just horrible and don’t deserve to have any more power than they already do. In fact, drowning them out with productive, creative, awesome work is a damned fine reason for another blog.)

Check out my other side, the logophile who rarely mentions children. (Except for the fact that they inform who I am and what I write, research, and read. You know: the little things.)

Find my professional, less frazzled writing persona over at ChristineHarkin.com. Lots of glitches still, including evidence of the egregious mistake of having register.com handle my domain. That mistake will soon be remedied (and if you’re curious about who should register your URL, check out this review at LifeHack, which I found after hating register.com. Lesson learned, again: do not search Google for tech stuff. Search Google for reviews of tech stuff and trust only established experts.)

Anyway. Follow and comment and join the Me who is creating a space for Me now that I know more about Them and how wonderful and self-eroding They can be if I don’t force my way into some personal headspace.

10 Things I Know

Just in case anything ever happens to me, here are the 10 best things I know. Because my vast knowledge might actually help someone else some day.

[Hush your mouth. I didn’t say multiple someones. I said someone. And this is the Interwebs, so as long as I’ve helped on person navigate the grammatical errors of pop songs, my life has meaning.]

[And seriously, why are you rolling your eyes, messing with someone who is writing her most powerful thoughts for you a) free to you for your unfettered use and b) after expressing that she might eventually be the victim of an errant construction-vehicle concrete-flinging accident? Dang, reader, you’re cold. I spend a lot of time by backhoes these days. You never know, you know?]

10. When a toddler won’t nap, tickle them. Makes you smile, gets them tired. Especially when you want to wring their grouchy little necks.

9. The zoo comprises the animals, but the animals constitute the zoo. (I love grammar pneumonics. My other fave is “I lie to recline after I lay the grape on the table.”

8. If you count on a child going to sleep, they will not. If you don’t particularly care, they might. Either way, don’t make any plans around a child’s sleep. Do not plan to drink after they drift off. Drink. Before. Bath.

7. There is no plural for moose, platypus, or mongoose. Do not let me catch you trying mooses, platypuses, or mongooses. (Just typing those made me die a little inside.) Don’t try meese, platypi, or mongeese. (That was a bit more fun and still sould-deadening.) There are no plurals for these mammals. (Availability of a plural does not define mammalhood. Breathing air, being warm blooded, and making milk for babies are the only requirements. Grammar has no place in science. Please try to keep up with the basic genre of my rants. The science rants are less funny.)
Don’t bother looking up that triumvirate of singular nouns, either. I’m right. Most existing references are wrong and your willingness to trust a blog on ten important items means you probably use an online dictionary [shudder] which is why I’m desperately trying to assist you now, before you genuinely need help and turn to one of those dreadful online schlock-fests.
Moose and platypus and mongoose are solitary animals and the only reason you might need the plural can be remedied thusly:
“Dear sir, Please send me a platypus. While you’re at it, please send another.”*

6. There are too many people in the world. If you feel like holing up some afternoon and hiding from the rest of civilization, feel no guilt. It’s not introversion. It’s a courteous use of space. If you feel like hiding with a book and hot cocoa, you are officially saving the world.

5. Measure the oil before you measure the honey or syrup or molasses. I don’t care for your excuses. Do it.

4. Before you have a child, please, for the love of all that’s holy and good, decide whether you like showers or sleep better. You have to. Because once a week, when you have time for just one of those, you must not waste any time deciding.

3. Where you would use “he,” use “who.” Where you use “him,” use “whom.” Please. Please.

2. Grow and make your own food whenever you can. You’ll feel good about yourself and you’ll be prepared for the zombie apocalypse. Two birds, one stone, yo.

1. The dorkier you feel about doing something, the better it is for you. Like karaoke. And bowler hats. And sleeping in the shower.

*This line blatantly stolen from an outrageously bright individual I know who has no blog and has no attorney and who probably stole it from someone else anyway and therefore I win at the Internet. I didn’t say I made this stuff up. I said I know it. It’s true. Check the post title.

Enough

I started running again a couple of weeks ago. I let go of the Shoulds and the Rules I’d constructed around my life and let myself have 20 minutes, three nights a week. Because I need exercise to feel good and I have been denying myself that because there are other, more important things to do. Because I need oxygen to feel good, but I have denied myself that, too, because there are other, more important things to do. I know I need to follow the rhythms of my body, after a day of following the rhythms (often conflicting) of two little people, to feel good, but I don’t let myself because there are things—an endless list of things—to do. I was being self destructive and eating to relax because I can eat while I do at least half of the other things I need to do.

Need. To do.

So I started running. And the first night I went, I relaxed and let go and tried to feel the night and the lights and the air and the PAIN of running after almost a year wash over me. My body has not been my own since I grew Peanut six years ago. And I took one step in getting it back.

At the midpoint of my teeny tiny run I saw a woman laughing near the window of her living room, the walls of which were decorated with exotic percussion instruments. She had her arms over her head, and she was dancing and playing some bell/drum thing. [Let’s pretend I was going so fast I couldn’t quite place the instrument; more likely I was trying to be in the moment and not stare at the neighbors.] And I thought, “That’s what I want in my life.” She looked happy. And comfortable in her body. And she was having fun with music in her home in a cozy neighborhood that I’ve loved for years.

As I ran by she saw me. And stared. Really saw me and stopped to think about it. It was probably only four seconds, but in my head it was forty. And she was thinking, according to my self-doubting Critic brain, “What is that woman doing? Is she really out running and ruining your knees on asphalt, alone, when there is life to be lived? Wow. I can’t imagine.” In my brain she is much more gentle with me than I am, because she probably should have thought “pathetic,” “delusional,” and “clearly unbalanced.”

I kept running, but seeing how this woman spent her 20 minutes this evening had me thinking about how my rejection of my rules, of my shoulds, needed to go even further. I needed to be drumming and dancing and singing. I needed to be happy. I needed to reorganize my priorities and balance my life and don only what’s most important…well, it simply wasn’t enough to work all day, without a break, then run and then write or edit and then clean and then prepare and then start all over again. It was just not enough. I am not Enough. And she’s the one who told me that with her look.

[jump forward one week]

Today after school Peanut and Butter and I went to a playground with two other families. We liked each other, we wanted to see if our kids could be friends, and we wanted some adult company while our kids burned through their after-school energy. So we talked as I chased Butterbean through a creek and across rocks and up hills and after dogs. And when I mentioned where we lived, one of the other moms told me where she lived. I told her that her house was on my new running route.

She looked at me and said, “I knew that was you I saw running. I was in my living room acting like an idiot and I recognized you.”

And there it was. She stared because she knew me. And from that recognition I read judgement and pity and superiority. I told her I thought she was looking because I was pathetic. And now that she knew I had seen her, she quickly tried to couch her reckless abandon as silliness and lunacy when all I had seen was joy and humanity.

The rules and the shoulds and the inferiority and the judgement are there, waiting to sabotage. Waiting to say it’s not enough, whatever it is.

Maybe, every once in a while, we can remember whose rules they are. Because if we’re not Enough we can change, and when we are Enough, we need to see it.

Maybe we could see into our own living spaces with the eyes of a gentle, tired, flawed human and see who we really are.

I’m pretty sure it’s Enough.

***

(This post is being simulcast over at Dump Your Frump, where they believe whatever you do is more than enough.)

‘Twas the Night Before Kindergarten

‘Twas the night before kindergarten
and all through the place
not a creature was stirring
except the frenetic author of this space.

The children were tucked haphazardly in bed
because they fight going to sleep
like most resist the undead.

Preparations were made and concoctions couldn’t lag
sweet potato waffles for breakfast
and tortellini for your lunch bag.
When in the kitchen there arose such a clatter
Spouse ran to the room to see what was the matter.
Homemade honey ice cream was whirring around
and the tea kettle was making a delightful whistley sound.

For what to my addled brain did become clear
was that the family needed enough chamomile
to tranquilize a deer.
So I brewed and I chilled and I diluted in safe steel
that magical herb that would make us all feel
that your first day of school would be more than okay
though nothing in your young life had ever gone quite that way.

You’re wonderful, clever, funny, and dear
and you’re stubborn, persistent, intense, and I fear
that one or the other of these will transpire:
you’ll fall apart in this new school
or make me seem quite a liar.
For I have foretold how you’d be slow to warm and shy
but just to prove me wrong I bet you’ll be the school’s
sunniest guy.

I love you too much and I hope it’s all fine
because if kindergarten’s hard for you
we can’t afford enough wine.

But of course once you warm, about you they’ll rave
because what you deserve most is to skate through unscathed.

[I love love love you little boy. Good luck. I hope against hope school’s everything that makes you love learning forever.]

I think therefore I blog?

Hey. This is curious: here’s a list of nine interesting blogs plus mine.

Thanks, Naomi and She Knows for naming us one of the Top Ten Blogs that Make You Think.

That’s awfully nice of you. To put that kind of pressure on me to be thought-provoking. When I’m feeling uninspired, beaten down, and uninteresting. But if you say so, I’ll do it. Buck up and find something compelling to say… starting on the next post.

Take this job and shove it

This morning, as Peanut screamed an ranted that on movie day we *do not* have breakfast before movies and we might as well put him in an orphanage if we were going to be so cruel as to make and eat french toast on a holiday morning of family togetherness because ksdfjberijdfvbkja!! (I didn’t understand the last part, either) I told Spouse that *none* of my previous bosses acted this way. The guy I thought misunderstood my role in the company? Never screamed and danced the jig of impotent anger. And he gives a lot to charity. The corporate drones who stacked atop each other to Fortune 100 cloud-top perches never raged in my face while I tried to pee. The woman who ran a great company and gave me more respect, autonomy, and credit than I deserved never tried to bite me while repeatedly shrieking my name. And the other bosses, at companies large and small, generally had flaws that were within the bounds of propriety, reason, and social acceptance. Even if I didn’t appreciate it at the time.

I think it might be time for a job outside the home. The things I do best—writing, editing, and researching—are ideally done, for me, independently from home. But my home ain’t what it used to be and there’s no way to expect that I can gather together my shredded dignity, sanity, and intelligence to freelance while this monster and his soon-to-be-omnipresent sibling live here.

No doubt that, in a tough economy, many firms are clamoring to hire women who are 7 months pregnant. Right?

My first and last poem

And then your lids flutter
and sighs betray you.
Cells decompress and
the world levitates off my sternum
where it resides every moment that you’re awake.
No more fire-cured creations will shatter;
no shrieks at passersby,
friends,
pigeons.
No more protecting society from all you would unleash
nor you from all its ills.
As long as those lids press and
breath comes softly
I am at peace.
I should kiss your brow
but I stick out my tongue and
scowl at you.
I’ve stifled it all day
and now is the time to
catch up.

Bullet points

All I can manage today is a list.
Agents responding to the most recent round of submission: three
Days since most recent round: one
Agents requesting a full: one
Agents requesting a partial: two
Agents saying “no thanks” last month: ten
This month: none

Average number of times PER DAY I’ve lost the contents of my stomach, last week: six
This week: three
Yay! Improvement! At this rate, I will actually process recently overwhelming and nauseating news and maybe think good thoughts by about Halloween…maybe.

And on that note:
Hours needed to finish rewrite and actually polish this book: 20+
Hours I can offer each day: 0.0000000002
Eleven orders of magnitude between what I need and what I have. Maybe this, too, will be done by Halloween. Just hope nobody requests a full…Oh crap. They just did.

It takes 100 auditions…

In my theater and film days, we talked about how you need 100 auditions to get one job. And the role isn’t the point: auditions are your chance to act and you should get joy from those opportunities because heaven knows that the right place right time thing isn’t in your control. The audition is the gift and getting a job is just a bonus.

So now I’m supposed to remember that writing is my job and that the chance to listen to the voices in my head is a gift. That I don’t write just to get published, and that I have to keep working while the Universe takes care of the right place right time stuff. I may sell novel number two before anyone wants the one I’m sending around right now.

Got five more rejections this week, which means I’m at 15. A mere drop in the Universal bucket, as folder-teeming-full-of-rejections measures go. Just 85 more before someone picks up the book, right? I appreciate the “no”s that come with notes, and the handwritten notes that say “I just have too much work right now but just keep trying because this will find a home.” I don’t appreciate the form letters as much, but I understand and don’t hold grudges. Spouse is enraged by the few who return my own letter with just a handwritten sentence on it, but I appreciate the paper savings. Yet I have to say, I really resent the one flyer I got, with my name penned onto a line that might as well have been designated “poor sucker”, that extolled the virtues of paying $700 for a conference so I could have an audition with all the agents getting paid to listen to me.

That’s why I wrote a killer query, agent people. Take me on or don’t, but don’t send me a flyer asking me to pay money for your time.

Makes me appreciate the two agents who are willingly reading my first 50 pages. Really appreciate them. Because they’re doing their job. May they find the right books for them, whether or not it’s mine. They deserve the best because they’re giving their best.

Me, too.

Good god people, are you trying to kill me?

Today alone:

Former client ran into me on the playground of all  places and asked me to do some copywriting. ASAP. Because clients often run ideas by you  several months before they need them.

Agent emailed and said that he wants to see more of my novel but already sees the same major issue that other readers have pointed out. Must reorganize whole book and get it to him by, say, tomorrow.

Peanut does not like the olallieberry crisp we made before lunch and has requested a cookie baking session after nap. I’m not entirely opposed to his demands. But how can I blog the already baked recipe if it’s loathed by 50% of the family who have thus far tasted it? 75%, really, if you consider the cats who won’t touch it. To be fair, they thought it was blackbery crisp. Also, did you notice the two other projects that seem a bit more pressing than cookies, given the ready availability of decent cookies in every case of every local bakery in this country? Hell, FatApples is two blocks away. Run over to the bakery, little boy, and bring back two cookies. Mommy has a book to submit.

Someone with no authority whatsoever has said my novel will be a huge success as a book and also as a major motion picture, floor wax, and cheese spread. I hope it’s non-aerosol. And that she gets some authority over something soon so I can start pushing for an action figure.

Chillin’

No quote of the day today. I’m way behinnd in my reading, and I got to coo at new neices and play with family and friends today. So I am not up for assignments and expectations and such. I’ve been a bit too self driven all my life and I’m not in the mood today.

Got some solid feedback from an agent late last night, and I’m trying to decide what parts of it I’ll incorporate. I know I’m not fond of the “no thank you” part, but much of the rest was thoughtful.

So I cuddled babies and saw people I love and sucked on a big bag of sour grapes for a while. And I’ll tell you: having three small people smile at me today was worth not typing up a quote for you, the few readers who seem to be online this week. Where did everybody go?