P.S. New Year’s Goals (2018)

Happy New Year! New year, new goals. As a writer, reading is a key part of the profession and for years, I have set reading goals. The number of books I will read in the coming year. Goodreads.com has definitely enhanced this experience, giving me a place to keep track of this goal, review what I’ve read, and plan my next reading endeavor. And if you are an avid reader too, I highly suggest this site (by the way, that was not a paid plug…I love that website and use it freely and willingly. However, if they wanted to pay me to endorse it, I would gladly accept!) In 2017, my final tally came in at 59 books (with a couple more not quite finished, to be completed in the new year).

For 2018 though, aside from a number (I will start at 45 and see how my pace is going as the year progresses), I have set myself two rather lofty, specific reading goals. The first one is my coming rather late to the modern literary party in that I have decided to read all seven books of Harry Potter for the first time. Prior to this past month, I had never read any of Rowling’s works (aside from her speech “Very Good Lives” which she delivered at Harvard in 2008 and which was then published as a short book. A fantastic read!), but knew her to be a great author. When Harry Potter first came out, I was in sixth grade, a schooling level that still required book reports. And, since pretty much everyone was reporting on Harry Potter, and I was the child not wanting to do what everyone was doing, I refused to read Harry Potter (“I’m not really into fantasy stories,” I said for years). At the end of this past year, however, I read Rowling’s first adult book, The Casual Vacancy, and absolutely loved it. It is desperately, painfully, beautifully written. So, spurred by this new-found appreciation for her writing, I have now decided that in 2018, I will read her masterpiece series in its entirety.

The second, slightly more daunting collection that I have set for myself this year are the novels of Mr. James Joyce. I will read Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Finnegans Wake, and the forever argued, either loved or hated, Ulysses. This is a big task and one that I am excited and also anxious to begin. Somehow, I managed to earn two degrees in English without ever experiencing a full work of Joyce. And I know his texts to be dense (particularly Ulysses) and not easy reads. But, from the excerpts of his I have read in the past, I am sure that I will enjoy this formidable task. And I know I won’t mind spending all my reading time on the Emerald Isle.

As I said, reading is a vital part of writing and both these reading goals will contribute strongly to my writing goals for 2018. Not only will I be immersing myself in the works of two of the great writers in the modern western canon, but the content of their writing will provide great example for my own projects that I plan to work on this year, as one of my planned pieces for takes place in a school (albeit not one of magic, but still relatable to Rowling’s work), and both planned pieces take place in Ireland (a place I love and am eager to continue my education in how others, particularly natives, write about…enter Joyce). I look forward to this challenge, both the reading and writing, and know I will be in great hands with these two magnificent writers as my guides.

I look forward to 2018 for many reasons. I look forward to the books I plan to read and those I will come across in the coming months. I look forward to meeting new characters in my own writing and watching their worlds come alive. I am ready and I am excited. May 2018 be a great year for us all. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some reading to do…

TYBC

P.S. Christmas is for writers

Welcome to December! The end of another year. A time for festivity and, for many, a time to assess the goals they set at the start and where they are with them now. If, like me, you are a writer, it is quite possible that you (or an editor/agent/publisher) set a very big end-of-year deadline that you are scrambling to meet. And, for those of you who are in this boat along with me, I wish you the best of luck (and good coffee for those long nights ahead). At the same time, I encourage all writers out there to allow themselves a bit of celebration in amongst the scramble. Because Christmas is a holiday for writers. And I don’t mean because there are excessive amounts of socially approved drinking, although this may help with some end of year inspiration. Christmas is a holiday for writers because it is a holiday completely devoted to storytelling.

Being set in the winter months (for those of us in the northern hemisphere), the Christmas season, in times past (before the distractions of TV and social media), was a time to stay warm inside, cozy up next to a fire, and tell stories. Familial story-telling still continues to this day with tales from a wise old grandpa or crazy drunk uncle rounding out many a successful Christmas dinner. And this holiday, and the storytelling that goes with it, has inspired many classic works of literature. Dicken’s A Christmas Carol and Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe stand out as greats that center on this holiday, while other novels (Little Women, to name one of my favorites) have memorable Christmas scenes at their core. And the list of short stories and poems that tell tales of Christmas would fill plenty of stockings.

And then we come to Christmas carols; one of the greatest examples of the oral storytelling tradition. Most established Christmas songs tell stories. They have plots, drama, romance, and even a little humor. Some even speak of storytelling, with “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” lyricizing “There’ll be scary ghost stories/And tales of the glories/ of Christmases long, long ago”. Although I’ve always considered this a reference to Dickens, there may have been a time when the ghost story telling was part of the annual Christmas get together.

And, while Christmas has inspired some of the great works of literature of our time, the holiday itself is completely devoted to the greatest work of literature in the western cannon. Now, whether you believe the story to be true or not, the Bible is the foundation of this wonderful holiday. And the story it tells about the birth of a child is the reason most celebrate this time of year (pagan traditions and Coca-Cola commercialization aside). So yes, stories. It’s the reason we celebrate and how we celebrate. And for those of us who spend the rest of our year writing stories, this is our time. So, whether you celebrate Christmas or not, writers, celebrate yourself and the magnificent time of year that revolves around your passion. Finish up those final edits and raise a glass of nog, for this is our holiday. Cheers my fellow writers! This one is for you.

TYBC

P.S. Rejection

It’s a reality of working in a creative field. When there is no rubric to determine good or bad, no boxes to check for pass or fail, acceptance is completely subjective and therefore rejection can be, and often is, frequent. The fact that all the greats were rejected numerous times before finding their acclaim provides moderate solace. And so, when I first began submitting writing to different competitions, publications, and agents, so began the letters of rejection. “Thank you very much for your submission, however…” In the vein of Stephen King (and several other authors, I have come to find), I began to place each of these letters on a hook next to my desk, the growing pile always encouraging me to keep going (stemming back to my lifelong desire to do things that people told me I couldn’t). And, although a second hook with acceptance letters now has a few pieces of paper hanging from it, I continue to work towards the day when that pile is thicker than the first. But, as any book, blog, or article on writing will tell you, rejection is part of the profession. And I’ve started to get used to it, each one feeling less and less like a personal injury. I get the letter, read the letter, take a moment to allow whatever feelings it causes wash over me, and then hang it up and move on. I would continue to write to push through and challenge the rejection. But I could always continue to write.

Recently, however, I faced a new type of “rejection” that stopped me in my tracks and halted my pen. And it wasn’t even a rejection of my writing. This rejection was different from all those in the past as I was the one doing the rejecting. Or, more specifically, my body was the one doing the rejecting. My husband and I had been trying for nearly a year when our “project” took hold. The second, blurry line on the plastic fortune-teller told us we had been “accepted”. Just to be sure, we checked again. No pink lines or blue crosses to be deciphered. This one stated it in bold printed letters. Pregnant. We jumped excitedly and whole-heartedly into our newly appointed roles of soon-to-be parents, deciding who to tell and when, planning how we would rearrange our home, and basking in the glow of our success. But, before it could come to fruition, our little project was rejected.

For a long time after this, I found myself stuck. Blown down by a rejection that I didn’t know how to handle. I couldn’t just keep going as I had done in the past. I felt lost and empty. Literally empty. And no matter how much support I had from those around me (my husband, who was equally hurt and saddened by this rejection while also trying to comfort me and rebuff my self-blame, and even those who had been through this and knew my pain), I truly felt alone. I couldn’t find the words to express this loneliness and so the page stayed blank. I felt useless getting nothing done but didn’t want to leave my safe space of home either. Any journey outside was similar to walking through a bookstore after getting a rejection from an agent or publisher. You failed at this, but look at all these people who succeeded. I couldn’t seem to see anything but people pushing strollers or sporting bulging bumps; continual reminders that everyone around me had gotten that much desired “acceptance”. Slowly but surely, as before, each of these sightings seemed to cause less personal injury and I could begin to move on.

It’s been some time, but I still don’t think I’ve truly recovered from this rejection. And, honestly, don’t know if I ever fully will. This isn’t something I can just rewrite and resubmit. It is a loss unlike anything I have experienced before. But the pain continues to, gradually, abate. Never reaching zero, but, hopefully getting near enough. Day by day, I find myself thinking a little bit less about that rejection. And soon, I hope I can hang it on its own hook. Never to be forgotten but allowing me to work towards a future success.

“It is my belief that the true artist is not one who suffers for his art, or for his audience, but rather, has suffered a great trauma in life, and is on a quest to heal.” – Paul Madonna, Close Enough for the Angels

TYBC

P.S. It’s all your fault, Dad

Today marks one year since my father passed away. In a way, it feels like it’s been much longer, like a lifetime has passed since I last saw him. Yet I still have moments when I forget that he’s gone. Those moments when I call my parents’ house and wonder which one of them will pick up. Those moments when I want to ask him something and remind myself to bring it up next time I see him before remembering the truth. The moments when I eat something amazing at a restaurant and want to challenge him to make it, but better. But yes, it’s been a year. And in this year, I’ve had several occasions when I realize I have a lot to blame my father for. And so, I wanted to take a moment on this day to let him know: This is all your fault!

Dear Dad,

Over the years, I have written you many letters. Whether we were living in the same house or countries apart, when I had things that really needed to be said, I wrote you a letter. I wrote you a few just after you passed, too. I know you got them and I’m sure you’re waiting for me somewhere with your response. You’ll pour us each a glass of wine, ask me if I have been to the region in Australia where it’s from, tell me to have a seat, and then start in on a monologue that you have prepared, notes to yourself scratched out on your yellow, lined legal pad. But, as it’s been a year, I thought I’d write another letter to let you know how things are going, how I’m doing. And how it is really all your fault (mostly).

As you know, I got married. Luckily, you were still alive when this happened. But just a couple months later, you were gone and you haven’t been around to see how it’s turning out. Well, you should know… it’s going great. I married an amazing man who treats me wonderfully. And really, a big part of this is your fault. See, growing up, I had you for an example as to what a husband should be. I saw the way you treated Mum. I watched you be a devoted husband and regard her as your equal. I saw you work hard to give her a good life. I came to believe that that is what I should expect in a marriage. And, although I tripped and stumbled a few times through the dating world, I always had your example as a shining beacon, leading the way, telling me to never settle. And now I have an incredible marriage. And in a big way, I blame you for that.

You also knew that I was planning on quitting my job as a teacher to pursue writing. You had always been supportive of my passions and encouraged me to follow them. And, while I know you were a bit nervous about this career move for me, not sure how I would provide for myself without a full-time job, you never doubted me or my ability to make it work. Growing up, I saw the risks you took in your job. I saw you chasing after dreams and making sacrifices to achieve them. You were passionate about your work and I knew, having seen this, that I would never be happy if I didn’t find the career that I was passionate about as well. You also showed me that it’s hard work, that it won’t always be gumdrops and roses when you set out to do what makes you happy, but also that it’s worth it. And you know what, I now love what I do. No, I’m not wildly successful (yet!) but there is lots of promise and possibility and I am happy doing what I love. And yes, it’s hard work and I am often plagued with doubt and frustrations. But I know it’s the path I’m supposed to be on. I blame you for this.

Also, I am surrounded by absolutely wonderful friends whom I consider family. Again, I have followed your example here. You always showed me that, often, family had nothing to do with blood. You chose wonderful people to surround yourself (and us) with. You showed me that, although you knew many, many people, it was quality, not quantity, that counted most when choosing those that you kept the closest. And you also showed me that, when you found those friends, they were forever family, regardless of distance or time apart. I consider myself blessed to continue to carry on many of the friendships that you established and to have a very strong, amazing group of my own. Again, I blame you for this.

The list could go on for a while. Along with these all these things, you left me with many more that I carry with me. Things that, throughout my day, will pop up and show me you’re still there. My life is really fantastic. I blame you for this and thank you with every ounce of the person I am. I miss you. I love you. Cheers!

TYBC

P.S. The Chief of My Tribe

Writing is a very solitary activity. You sit, stand, or pace on your own with nothing but your thoughts and a blank page/screen in front of you, taunting you. The only things there to talk to are your characters and sometimes they refuse to talk back (the bastards). Solitary. But, to be a writer, you cannot be completely on your own. You must have your “tribe”. A support group. And I don’t mean the “hi, my name is Megan and I’m a book-shopaholic” type of support group (Besides, I tried it once…didn’t do anything for me). What I mean are the people you surround yourself with who are there to aid and encourage you through your writing journey. Often these people go unnoticed throughout the process. They often get pushed aside due to the focus on your work and on the rare occasions you come up for air, you forget to dole out the thank yous for all that they do. Once you reach that pinnacle of book publication, some of them may make it onto that acknowledgement page where you briefly thank them for all their support along the way, but you often can’t or don’t name everyone and for those you do, the sentence or two they get are nowhere near enough to make up for all that they have done for you or your writing journey. I am still on the first part of this journey and so, as of yet, do not have that page or two to thank those who have been there for me. And while I do have many people who have helped me along the way, there is one person, on this particular day and this particular moment of coming up for air, that I wanted to shine some light on.

Today, my husband and I celebrate our first wedding anniversary. Every day I am grateful that our paths crossed and that we are getting to live this life together, but, when it comes to my writing, I am particularly appreciative of his presence in my life. When we were newly engaged, I approached him and told him that I wanted to follow my dream of becoming a writer. I was terribly unhappy as a teacher and knew writing was my true calling. I asked him what he thought about this. I knew it was a lot to ask. When he got down on his knee and asked me to marry him, he thought he was entering into a future with a gainfully employed, self-sufficient woman. I would still work part-time, I told him, but I really wanted to focus on this project that would see no returns in the near future. I was asking him to take on a very large burden, all so that I could pursue a dream that I had no way of knowing if it would be successful in the long run or not. He, being the wonderful person he is, looked me in the eye and said “this is something you need to do and I completely support you.” And that is what he has done ever since. He has celebrated with me on in my small successes and comforted me during those moments of rejection. He understands the value of one’s search for happiness, value, and purpose and goes out of his way to help me ensure mine. He is my favorite cheer leader, honest reader, and editor.

I have a pretty great tribe full of amazing writers, friends, and family. My husband is the chief of my tribe. Happy anniversary my dear. I am so blessed to be able to travel along this path with you by my side.

TYBC

P.S. Deeper into writing: Understanding characters wants and needs

I recently wrote about gaining perspective, understanding the thoughts and feelings of other people, and how this can positively affect one’s writing. There is something else that goes into this as well and that is understanding the wants and needs of other people, and, to extend that into the world of writing, really coming to understand the wants and needs of our characters. To further this, we also must look at how different characters in our stories may not understand the wants and needs of another character and how or why this may create conflict.

While traveling recently with my husband, we boarded the plane eagerly hoping to get one of the rare exit row seats. Both he and I are tall and therefore crave the extra leg room. Sadly, we were soon to find out that a certain airline has now squeezed in two rows of seats into the exit row area. My husband sat in one row and then the other, trying to determine which had more leg room. “It’s not that big of a deal,” the flight attendant said. “It’s only a 56-minute flight.” The flight attendant was in the row next to us. Standing. His head not even hitting the low-hanging underside of the overhead baggage container. He clearly did not understand the plight of tall people while traveling. It was a little thing to him. A much bigger deal for us. This guy had never traveled anywhere with his knees lodged firmly into the unpadded backing of the seat in front of him. He’s never hit his head on the multiple doorways worldwide that were clearly not designed for anyone of significant stature. It’s a short people’s world, folks!

But this got me thinking, how often do I explore these kinds of little misunderstandings in my writing? Not often. I realized that rarely do I search out these little details in character and relationship building within my stories. How much better could it make my writing? A lot, probably. By including these real-life interactions, we create a more developed character, a more relatable character, a richer world for our readers to explore. And, I noticed that I wasn’t even really thinking about these small things when approaching my stories. These little wants and needs of particular characters lead to massive background stories that can be explored. And, whether or not I actually write them, those experiences occurred to those characters in their fictional world and would therefore affect the way they interact with others in the portion of their story that I am writing. We, as writers, must take that into account.

So, next time you’re trying to write conflict into a scene, ask yourself, what is something Character A might not understand about Character B? How might this escalate or irritate a situation? How might this change a relationship or a story? It’s the little things that we, as a writer, must know about our characters and should use to fully explore the world we are creating.

And, in the real world, let’s try to keep this in mind too. Others have different wants and needs than you. So before saying “it’s not that big of a deal” try to imagine that it might just be for them. There are people in this world dealing with much more than insufficient leg room.

TYBC

P.S. A Little Perspective

Earlier this week, I signed a piece of paper that had no effect on my life whatsoever. Yet, in doing so, I was truly affected. You see, signing that piece of paper had a massive effect on multiple lives. Particularly the life of the man that I, along with my fellow jurors, was sending to jail for the rest of his life. I have spent the past six weeks serving jury duty in a trial where two men were convicted of murder. A cold-blooded killing. And, while I learned a great deal more than I ever thought I could about gang culture, murder, cell phone data, and legal procedure, it was through the last few days of this service that I gained a very valuable lesson on perspective.

I’ve had many experiences in life where my eyes have been opened to the perspectives of others. Living in other countries and exposing one’s self to other cultures is key in understanding the thoughts and feelings of others. I have done a lot of this. And, as has been stated by many great people, there is no better way to gain empathy for others than by reading. See, through books, you are able to explore the world through more perspectives than with any other method. I definitely agree. And, in looking through my vast collection of books, one could assume that I have been exposed to a large amount of perspective. However, I would argue that another great way to gain understanding of another person’s thoughts, the way they see the world, is to be locked in a jury deliberation room with them to decide the fate of another human being.

When we entered deliberation, I truly believed that it was going to be a very quick process. I knew exactly what I believe the verdict should be, and thought it would be the same for everyone else. I soon realized this was not the case. It quickly became quite apparent that a single word in a legal declaration could mean such varying things to different people. Now, I have always been known to be quite strong-willed and opinionated (I would also argue that both nature and nurture fostered these qualities within me). But, it is amazing what can happen to the definitiveness of one’s feelings when a man’s life is literally on the line. Through the thoughts and understandings of my fellow jurors, my perspective shifted (At the same time, my frustration with the law increased, but that’s another story).

Each person comes into the deliberation room (or any life situation for that matter) with a different outlook on the world. They come with their own weights and burdens, each traveling to this particular point on separate paths. They come having noticed different things along the way and being affected by individual events in the proceedings. Each of us unloaded everything we had into that room and, together, we tried to put together the pieces to come up with a decision. It was, by far, the most stressful few days of my life. I didn’t sleep much and the lingering cold that came from this stress still remains. But I know, from it, I am a better person and a better writer. The trial itself opened my mind to the reasons people do what they do. The deliberation helped me better understand why people think what they think and feel what they feel. Being exposed to such different perspectives in such a high-stakes situation has helped me better understand the characters I am writing now and any that I will write in the future. And with that, I enter my next project with new perspective.

TYBC