Approaching the lockdown anniversary

March 3, 2020 was a big day for the van clan. Youngest got his braces off, and he celebrated with a bag of microwave popcorn. Plans were in the works for an epic Blue and Gold dinner to commemorate his Webelo Den earning their Arrow of Light awards, and he looked forward to his first year of Boy Scout camp. (Hubs and I were excited to spend that week celebrating our 20th anniversary.) Oldest had earned Life Scout and was elected to serve as Troop Guide, which meant he would help navigate the new class of scouts. He planned to finish his last remaining Eagle required merit badges during summer camp and had begun to toss around ideas for his Eagle project. That night, his artwork was featured in the annual district art show and had been nominated for one of the top pieces. Winners would be honored in a special ceremony. He smiled with pride as he showed us his artwork, a smile I haven’t seen much of in the past 12 months. We’d finally agreed to get him a cell phone, so he would have a way to check in with us during his class trip to Washington DC. We joked about whether or not his chorus teacher would let them sing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody at the eighth grade chorus concert.

Oldest smiles in front of his winning art piece

You know where this is going. None of that happened. The Blue and Gold dinner – canceled. Washington DC trip – canceled. Eighth grade chorus concert and graduation – canceled. Summer camp – canceled. Anniversary trip – canceled. His artwork was chosen as one of the top pieces, but instead of a reception, we received a letter in the mail. Oldest had already coined a phrase to reflect his newfound apathy: I don’t care. And why should he care? Everything he’d looked forward to was taken away. He slogged through the remaining Eagle merit badges after hours and hours of nagging, and says he has no plans to complete his project. He started freshman year in his pajamas behind a computer screen, where he now spends most of his day.

This past year, there have been a mountain of disappointments and a river of tears (mostly mine). Sorry for the clichés, but this year has sapped a large chunk of my creativity energy. Sure, we’ve been blessed – friends and family have fallen ill, but no one we know has died. (That doesn’t stop me from worrying 24/7.) My husband and I still have our jobs, although I have never felt more stressed. Enrollment declined significantly, budgets were slashed, and the constant back and forth of working from home and going into the office has been an ongoing challenge. Working parents, and working moms especially, have faced nearly impossible tasks this past year. My kids have been learning from home since mid-March, and we are all burnt out, we are all desperate for a return to normalcy. Whatever that even means anymore.

When I think about the events from last March, it is hard to imagine I would be sitting here a year later, still wondering when I would be able to hang out with my friends in a coffee shop, watch my kid sing on stage, celebrate work birthdays in person, see students walk across the quad. Hug my parents without worrying about making them sick. Instead of doing those things, I’m planning for our one year work-from-home-iversary. Trying to keep my teenager from sinking. Pushing forward day after day toward an uncertain future.

It’s exhausting. And I’m tired.

I thought about ending my blog post there, but I can’t. Because, to paraphrase President Snow, the only thing stronger than fear is hope. The past 12 months have been full of fear, disappointment, heartache. I want more than anything for the next 12 months to be full of hope, resiliency, love. We can’t change the world. We can’t singlehandedly fight illness, alleviate depression, create peace. But we can change ourselves. For me, that meant a recommitment to the things I love: reading (something I had trouble doing in the early months of the pandemic), making time to write, practicing yoga daily, dancing. Checking in with friends and family. It hasn’t been easy. Most mornings I argue with myself about getting out of bed and getting on the mat. It’s so much easier to cry, complain, doom-scroll – but all those things leave me empty. It occurred to me a while back, as I sat staring at the blinking cursor of an empty word document, that when we lost everything to lockdown, we lost our joy, we lost our sense of purpose, we lost our muse. Our wells were quickly tapped dry and there was nothing to fill them up. I kept reaching into mine and coming up empty, and based on the high number of social media posts referring to the “pandemic wall” I know I wasn’t alone.

So what do we do? My advice? Start small. Look for joy in unexpected places and hold onto it. Like I tell my boys with some regularity, lower your expectations. Celebrate tiny victories. Make space for grief, but don’t let it swallow you. Remind yourself what it means to be human. I get the feeling we’ll be spending the next several days looking backward, at how this year has changed us. And it has. But we should also look forward. What will you do when the world reopens? What will you never take for granted again? Who will you hold tighter than ever before?

Stay well, my friends. ❤

Behind the scenes of my second verse novel

Book journeys are all unique. From plot bunny to manuscript, from query letter to author copies – every book has its own story. So what’s the story behind Listen Up, my verse novel newly released from West 44 Books?

In early 2018, while I anxiously awaited the launch of my debut novel, Second in Command, my editor called for the next round of pitches. A pitch is one sentence that describes the general plot of a book, but in this case, she was looking for a query and first 500 words. Fiction queries, letters of about 250 words designed to give an agent and editor an idea of the who, what, when, where, why of your book, are typically written when a book is complete. Writers often complain about them, but I’m actually one of those weird types who enjoy writing query letters. Maybe it’s all those writing conference sessions, or the satisfaction of being able to sum up the major players and conflict of a book in 250 words or less. Maybe it’s because I once got to hang out and pick the brain of literary agent and query guru Janet Reid, better known as the Query Shark, and she gave my query her stamp of approval. (It may have helped that my friend Dee introduced Janet to sponge candy the day we met.)

Whatever the reason, I wrote a query, sent it to Dee, who helped me clean it up, and wrote my 500 words. Hit submit.

Wait, back up. Where did the idea come from? you ask. My intent at the time was to do a modern retelling of Pump up the Volume, an awesome 90’s movie staring my teen heartthrob, Christian Slater. If you’ve never seen the film, you should watch it because, well, because Christian Slater. With no shirt on. Also it’s a pretty good movie. It’s about a super-shy kid who moves to a new town and uses the radio his parents got him, intended to keep in touch with his old friends, to start an underground radio station. He starts out using it to push boundaries but ends up tackling serious issues and uncovering a plot to remove “bad” students from the school. I knew I couldn’t take on something so huge in 10k words (and wanted my book to be inspired by, not a copy of the movie), so I kept the key elements: shy character, wants to speak out but struggles in real life so finds a way to do it anonymously. In the movie, it’s radio. In my book, he starts a video channel.

So I pitched the book idea in January 2018. Pitched another idea shortly after, about two friends who try to solve the mystery of a missing girl in their neighborhood. Neither were approved. But they weren’t outright rejected either. I started working on the second idea, wrote a few poems, read them to some of my writer friends, who promptly told me they were terrible. Which they were. So I worked on other projects. I wrote several short stories for another imprint, blogged a bit, and changed tenses and major plot lines in my YA historical fiction novel after an unsuccessful round of queries. Forgot all about Listen Up.

Then in October of 2019 my editor wrote to ask if I’d like to write the book. That she’d been thinking about it since I sent the pitch in nearly two years earlier. Oh, and could I write it in a month?

Queue excitement, followed swiftly by panic. Sure! I could write a book in a month. People do that all the time during NaNoWriMo. I made myself a schedule and spent nearly every soccer practice camped out with my laptop. Thankfully, the characters were very cooperative, telling me who they were and what they wanted. The plot was a bit more elusive, and as I approached the end, I realized there was a major hole that needed to be fixed. With a deadline fast approaching, I locked myself in my writing room one weekend and brainstormed until I figured out how to untwist the mess I had made and give the book a proper ending.

Wanna know a secret? That is not easy when your book consists of nothing but poetry. You have to figure out a way to move or rewrite in chunks while keeping the story flowing and the poems intact. When I finished the first draft, I brought it to my husband and asked him to, “Please tell me if this sucks.” He’s a no BS kinda guy, so I knew he’d be honest. And he was. He told me it didn’t suck and helped me fix the parts that were confusing or unclear. I’m deeply thankful for his insight and for my other three beta readers: Adrienne, Alexis, and Carla, who were able to quickly give me notes before I turned it into my editor. And for the random student I met during an instant admit session who answered my questions about Autobody classes. I think his name was Joe. Thank you.

I’m also deeply indebted to my editor, Caitie. Her notes are always kind and helpful, and my favorite part of the process was when I turned in my first draft and she called me a “writing superhero”. Her faith in me has been a huge confidence boost.

Sadly, the journey from acceptance to release day hasn’t been sunshine and rainbows. The pandemic caused a lot of problems in the publishing industry, especially in educational publishing. I originally wrote and planned to publish this post on October 1, but on that day there were no books available to order. I haven’t gotten my author copies yet, and the library rejected the request to carry it because their supplier didn’t have any copies. But my friends, family, and coworkers have been encouraging – sending me texts, pre-ordering the book, letting me read some of the poems at our weekly meeting. And my mom called to say her friends were all excited to get their copies. I’m thankful for all of that, truly.

There is so much I love about writing – I love creating characters and stories, of letting my mind wander into all the what-if’s. I love the way it feels like therapy sometimes, like it’s this free, easy way to work through the garbage in my head. But I mostly love when someone reads something I’ve written and tells me how it made them feel. When a student admits my book is the first he’s ever finished and another sends me the poem she felt inspired to write.

I went into a few classrooms to talk about Second in Command, and I am hopeful that I’ll be able to do that again someday. In the meantime, if I can get my procrastinator’s butt into gear, I’ll put together some video clips of me reading the book and would love to find ways to interact virtually with my readers. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here are the links to order a copy if you’re so inclined:
West44 Books
Amazon

And if you read the book, please leave a review. Thank you all, for the support. ❤

The importance of real pants

Social media memories are a blessing and a curse. I love looking back on times when my boys were cute and cuddly and my face had fewer wrinkles. But during a pandemic, it is heart wrenching to wake up, click memories, and be instantly reminded that we can’t do those things right now.

Three years ago today, the weather was beautiful, and we had a packed Saturday. I hung out with my family at our town’s annual Oktoberfest, where the boys participated (and ROCKED) a keg rolling contest, and then headed to our local library to celebrate the launch of my friend’s latest middle grade novel. We ate snacks from a communal table, sat next to each other, and hugged.

Hugged.

Now, I’m not much of a hugger to begin with, but I miss that human connection. I miss Wednesday night writing sessions at Wegmans and Friday afternoon gab sessions at Spot. I miss launch parties. My book releases next week, and I don’t have anything planned to help launch it into the world. Many of my writer friends continue to self-quarantine, and the thought of doing something virtual does not exactly thrill me. While I appreciate their ability to connect us safely, I am pretty burnt out on web-based social gatherings.

Our local writing group held its first meeting of the season (virtually of course) earlier this week. It was a craft session, which is always fun, 80’s themed – double bonus points, but I just couldn’t get into it. I missed the collective energy normally felt in a room full of writers. I stared at the blank page as it mocked me.

I had to finish a project in March/April due to a deadline, but since then? I’ve written once. And only because one of my Pennwriters friends organized a virtual write-in, and I felt like I had to write something in order to not be a complete fraud. I pulled out an old project, added about a page and a half, and that was it. The sum total of my writing output for the past six months.

There are projects. There are ideas. There is also a very tired mama who doesn’t wear real pants anymore. Who thinks, do my stories even matter? With so much hate and hurt in the world, what could I possibly add to the narrative? I keep waiting for the proverbial lightbulb to go off in my head. For the magical idea that will send my fingers tap-tapping again. Do you know how many blog posts I’ve drafted in my head these past several months? The sleepless nights I spent thinking, “This is what I have to say,” then instead of getting out of bed and writing it down, allowed my nay-saying brain to dismiss it all?

(A LOT.)

The world needs stories, especially now. Cheerful ones, sad ones, true ones, and fictional ones. We need to step away from social media, from the negative energy of everyone spewing their anger and ideals and also from the memories of all the things we can’t enjoy right now. I’m confident those days will return – the days of launch parties and writing/gab sessions. In the meantime, we need to keep doing the best we can, no matter how low the bar. This morning I put on real pants. They are uncomfortable. But I needed to send a message to my brain that this is serious. Life must move forward. Fingers must hit keys in order for words to get onto the page. They don’t do anyone any good swimming around in my brain like lost tourists.

So here we are. Doing that thing where the journey starts with a single step. Mask up and join me.

Time won’t give me time*

With all this extra time I should be writing more, right? I should be reading more, binging more shows, baking, organizing my house, learning a new skill. I’m not. I don’t know where the time goes, really. In the beginning it was spent watching daily news briefings, mindlessly scrolling through social media, and feeling hopeless. Recently? Who knows.

I’ve become an expert at wasting time.

Does that count as a new skill?

I’ve started a blog post in my head more times than I’d like to admit, but nothing ever gets to the page, and I wonder if perhaps it is because my brain can’t seem to handle more than bite-sized information lately. I no longer plan meals for the week, no longer coordinate who needs to be where/when, no longer need to hold a hundred things in my head because those hundred things have all been canceled.

Last night my critique group met for the second time during the pandemic. I’m embarrassed that I have had nothing to share, nothing to show for my three months with hours of empty afternoons to write. Part of the issue is that the space where I normally write became my home office, and as much as I love my day job, its accessories and post-it notes are not inspiring. The other part? I’ve been tired, and sad, and listless.

But I want to write.

I need to write.

My novel waits, eager for the next scene. It has become impatient.

Today, I set out to write something, anything. I wrote a journal entry that turned into a poem, and while somewhat gloomy, helped shake off some of the cobwebs and remind me of the healing power of words. I’d love to hear what you think, and to hear about all the things you haven’t been doing with all your extra time.

BRUISED

Sometimes,
the weight of everything
crushes me.

Husband asks what’s wrong
and I try to explain –
but the words all sound
trivial.

Each tiny problem
seemingly insignificant
until you pile them
all together
and begin to
suffocate.

He wants to compartmentalize –
take each one and solve it,
or if we can’t solve it,
push it aside like the basket
of bread at dinner.

He tells me to
control what I can control.

Therein lies the quandary.

There is so little
I can truly control.
So little predictability,
routine,
normalcy.

The only thing left are my reactions,
which – if I’m being honest –
are out of my control
most days.

For some,
these tiny,
insignificant things are
much larger,
much heavier.

Loss of work,
Illness, death,
Fear that pulls like a riptide.

I have suffered only one of these.

I am lucky.

But, whenever I stop
to think about that luck,
the weight of other people’s suffering
sits on my chest and refuses to budge.

We will crawl out
from under this.

We must.

With scars and bruises that may
never truly heal.

 

*the title of this blog post comes from my favorite Culture Club song, Time (Clock of the Heart)