That which we learn

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I’m in the second week of a writing class, and I am reminded of two things:

-Wow, this is fun!

and

-Wow, this is a lot of work!

Many of my writing workshops are big online MUCs, with a few hundred students. The format works; I glean a lot of tips and it’s reassuring to see that so many other people need to learn the same info. I’m not alone in my information inadequacy or in the slow, steady building of my skill.

This course is small; more expensive than a lot of the webinars I attend, and less targeted. It’s a general writing course, open to people who write all kinds of work: poetry, essay, creative nonfiction, novel, kidlit, memoir.

It’s an online course, which is the only feasible way to work it into my life, and I wonder how it would be different if I had the chance to take it in person. The class is small, four students and an instructor, but writing being writing, I learn intimate things about the other students so quickly.

I know that part of the appeal is that the other students are semi-anonymous. I know them by name and I know a fair bit about them as I read their work and study their posting habits, but I don’t know them. More importantly, they don’t know me. I can write real, because I don’t have anything to hide. They can build an image of me as raw and weird as my writing is. This course is the perfect intermediate step between not putting down those things and showing them to people who know me. I’m getting to good, new stuff, new places I want to be but have been afraid to try. It’s good for me.

I’m writing more and writing different, being challenged in new ways. Even if I’m not producing brilliant prose with each exercise, it’s a relief to know I’m not stagnating, and that I am capable of writing outside my usual zone of familiarity.

It’s a relief to concentrate on writing this much. My brain has been bored lately, and the extra stress from these new deadlines, the modules and workshops and clicks and loads, the exercises and notebooks and transcribing, has done some good for it.

This is the honeymoon phase; week two of eight. We’ll see how my brain feels on about week seven!

On work and tasks

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There’s work, and then there are tasks.

Work is the hard job of producing of new material for the world to read.

Tasks are all the other things that I spend my time doing that (I argue) support that work.

Producing a new draft is work.

Keeping up a Twitter feed is a task.

Revising a draft is work.

Hunting for agents to query is a task.

Writing blog posts… is more task than work. It’s writing and revising (er, lightly revising), but this material doesn’t build literature. It supports my work, it’s a great outlet for the things that wouldn’t otherwise have a home, but had I no blog—I could still work.

I have to keep a careful eye on the ratio time I spend on tasks to work. It’s easy to squander my entire writing time on tasks. They aren’t un-necessary. I need a community of like-minded writers, for example, and that needs to be cultivated. Keeping up with a community is a task. Yet spending time on a forum is much more fun than grinding out an obstinate passage or striking through five paragraphs of words that just don’t work.

Tasks can be hard and irritating, like keeping a spreadsheet of all the places I’ve pitched, queried, or submitted. Tasks can be necessary, like writing query letters. But they still aren’t work. A query letter isn’t a new picture book.

The worst is when tasks are fun, like reading or setting up my workspace or making a just-so cup of tea. Those things may be necessary to being good at this work (or, in the case of a precise 4-minute steep, less necessary), but they aren’t work. No drafts have ever been revised while I was opening the curtains to let in the right amount of light.

I almost always write under pressure. The children must be up and off to school. My day job awaits. Soccer games must be attended. If I ever want to produce anything, I have to use my writing time to do work, not tasks.

I once worked with a surgeon who, when he caught himself complaining, even lightly, about his job, would mutter, “Well, it beats breaking bricks.” Even the work of writing, the get-the-words-down, fix-the-words parts, the I’m-not-very-good-at-this I’ll-never-make-it parts, they beat breaking bricks.

And now I put down my sledgehammer and pick up my pen. No more tasks, now. Back to work.

Spring cleaning

My contribution to 50 Precious Words. The challenge is self-explanatory, and I got away with only 48.

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“Don’t track dirt in the house,” Mom said.

“Don’t get the floor wet.

Clean up. Shoes off.

Sweep. Mop. Vacuum. Dust.

I know it’s spring and you haven’t been outside in four long months.

But keep it tidy, kid.”

Poor Mom forgets the squish-skwelsh-squwick of brand new mud.

SCBWI New York 2018

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I had so many questions before my first SCBWI New York meeting: what to wear, what to bring, what kind of persona to adopt for the weekend. This was on top of the fundamental writerly insecurity that I packed in an extra roller bag: I’m not established enough, my work is derivative and dull, no one will ever want it. It’s weird that once I packed it in there I opened that bag again. Shoulda left it zipped.

I read a lot but was WAY too intimidated to, you know, ask someone who had actually been there. Those people are real writers. I’m a cross between a hack and a pretender.

This is the same reason that I’d shied away from local SCBWI meetings. In metro Chicago, where I live, there are at least 3 active chapters whose events I’m welcome at. But again… those are the real writers. They might see me for the joke writer I am. And I don’t mean writer of jokes. I mean who does she think she is LOL? writer.

So, finding the concept of several hundred writers less intimate and intimidating than a dozen writers, I made my way to Manhattan. Now that it is over I’m writing up what I wanted to read before I went.

In no way should you substitute this with actually going to the meeting! The meeting was amazing and fun and educational. I haven’t had the chance to go to a local SCBWI meeting in the 2 days since I’ve been home, the ice has been broken, and I’ll make my way to one soon.

The 2018 SCBWI New York meeting was set up differently than past years, so some of my questions were everyone’s questions.

# What to wear: anything, seriously, anything that a normal adult human wears out of the house. I didn’t see  much yogawear, but styles ranged from business to business casual to casual, with a heavy trend to casual. Jeans, sweaters, scarves, jackets. The reality is that people will only notice what you are wearing if it’s spectacular. If spectacular is your style, go for it. Otherwise, just be comfortable.

# Business cards: Yes, people do trade cards, so bring them. Some people have restrained professional cards, others a little more whimsical. Remember the name card passages of Little Town on the Prairie? I do, verbatim, and that’s what picking out my writing business cards felt like. Have fun with this. The illustrators have awesome cards, enjoy them.

# The days and nights: I found Saturday and Sunday completely packed full, from breakfast through after dinner (Saturday) or lunch (Sunday). Bring water and a light snack, if you don’t like being hungry or thirsty. Also bring a cardigan or a fleece; the rooms were chilly this year.

# Workshops: in 2018 the workshops were expanded from what they had been to two and a half hours long. This is a really long time. Some presenters worked in bathroom breaks, others put in stretch breaks, and some just went straight through. If you have back, hip, knee or other problems that make it difficult to sit that long, come early and pick your seat so you can move around easily. The workshops were airplane-seating crowded and it was very difficult to get out if you were in a middle seat.

#Will I be awkwardly alone the whole time?: I occasionally need to use “networking skills” in my day job, so I have a modest amount of experience introducing myself to strangers. I am not good at it and don’t enjoy it. But at SCBWI, everyone has the natural icebreaker of “where are you from?” and “do you write or illustrate or do both?”Sitting down in the keynote room next to a stranger and saying “HimynameisKate*smile*” is worth the tiny moment of weirdness. The atmosphere is relaxed and open, and so are the people. If you are really, really worried or bad at this– practice ahead of time, because meeting writers from everywhere is part of the fun!

#Follow up/life planning: Meet your heroes and moderate your expectations. Authors and illustrators are awesome and human; editors don’t love everything; agents won’t love your work more because you showed up to a conference. The focus of the two days is honing our skills and meeting interesting peers rather than finding career success.

Also, door prizes!

Healthy snack

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John’s arms dangled over the edge of the shopping cart. He dropped the box in.

“What are you doing?” John’s father loomed.

“Looking for oranges.” John waved a plastic bag. Well, he had been looking for oranges when the chocolate covered strawberries called to him. It was the kind of treat his parents never let him get, even though it was basically a healthy snack. They would just say “No, John” and “Put it back, John.”

He felt sneaky, and a little naughty. He hoped wouldn’t be in too much trouble when they found out. Mostly, though, he hoped for a chocolate covered strawberry.

They unloaded the cart at the checkout, and John started to sweat. His dad lifted the chilled plastic box onto the belt. His mom put it in a canvas bag to take home. How could they not notice? John thought. At home, John put away the bananas and kiwifruit, dreaming of chocolately berries.

Suddenly his dad swooped towards his mom and gave her a kiss.

“The strawberries are a nice surprise! Thank you!”

His mom’s eyes opened wide.

“Oh, I thought you… you’re welcome…”

John’s dad handed John a plate with a luscious strawberry, and John dug in with a grin. It was cool and juicy and very, very sweet.

What I don’t see

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Gordon Lightfoot– and a later cover by Harry Belafonte and Sarah McLachan– sang the evocative Song for a Winter’s Night:

The lamp is burning low

Upon my tabletop

The snow is softly falling

I read again between the lines

Upon each page

The words of love you sent me

Here, in my house, I have the Song for a Winter’s Morning:

The sky is gray 

And the snow is growing deep

But we are fed and cozy

The bread is rising and the 

Soup is simmering

And the three are playing

quietly

For this moment I don’t see the odd new gouge in the table and I don’t see the precariously overladen heap of recycling and I don’t even hear the ominous thump-thump-whump of the washing machine (it does NOT usually make that noise).

I am happy just to be here. Inside, warm, with this moment. With what I have.

In an hour or two we leap and parry again. Tomorrow is back-to-school: backpacks and schoolbooks must be rustled up repacked. Back to work: lunch bags and laptops located and work email reluctantly checked.

This is my Winter Morning.

These are the hands I love.

Ambiance

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I get restless with holiday decorating. I think twice about getting started, even– literally crawling up the ladder, flashlight in my teeth, figuring out which set of old liquor store boxes labelled “Xmas decs” might contain actual Xmas decs, then wrestling the boxes back down the ladder without breaking anything.

Then there’s the hanging and the draping and the stretching-to-the-plugs. I want the kind of physics the Grinch encounters while stealing Christmas– just shoop the boxes down the ladder and have them pile neatly into stacks. Tug the lights and they magically uncoil, springing back to just the right length. Pull one end of the pine garland and the other end snaps along smoothly.

Instead I curse and mutter and prick my arms with pine boughs. I hunt for last year’s perfect mantle decorations and vow to ACTUALLY LABEL BOXES this year. I test old lights and decide half a working string is good enough. I celebrate and condemn Command hooks in a single breath. I stand on furniture, a lot of furniture. I realize I should launder the curtains more. I find dead bugs.

And eventually I get the house looking, well, cozy and welcoming. The living room is somehow warmer. The pine and cedar commute throughout the house and take the edge off the hard days of winter. The many little lights help with the short daylight. I could nest here for a long, long time, holiday or not.

The reward of the transformation is worth the hassles: the pricks, the ladder, the real-world physics.

The world I create is very much I world I enjoy being in.