Monthly Archives: June 2011

Dancing Before the Void

Imagine stepping out onto the stage for a big audition. The lights are blinding; the audience, if there is one out there, is silent. You are prepared, you’ve worked your ass off to bring the best possible performance, but you don’t know what the casting director is looking for. All you know is that they love actors and the craft and that they are interested in seeing something dramatic, maybe multi-cultural, with some humor and relevant topical edge. And they want to know if you are already famous because that’s a definite plus. So there you are on the stage, singing, dancing, emoting with as much energy and charm as you can muster in front of a void. When you are done you exit the stage in silence and note a poster by the door thanking you for your audition and informing you that you will be notified in four weeks to six months if they are interested. If you don’t hear from them you have to understand a lot of people audition and it is impractical to get back to everyone. Every day you wait, checking the email and the voicemail. You vacillate between star-eyed optimism and despair. You imagine your audition being discussed in meetings, but some days you imagine people saying, “Hey, this one might be the one,” and other days you imagine them bent double, snorting coffee out of their noses. Derisively.

So, that’s pretty much what it is like to send a manuscript out to agents and publishers. I don’t send it until it’s done and as good as I know how to get it. I’ve had people read it and advise me. I prepped and mailed it, following specific and sometimes confusing directions that are different for every agent/publisher and then I wait. I don’t know if anyone gets past the first page, or even the title page, or even the cover letter. If I do hear back I get a form letter in a self-addressed stamped envelope that I myself included in the packet. It says they don’t think they are the right representation for the project but they wish me well. Then I send it out again. My current practice is to have three in process at all times, so every rejection generates another query. It isn’t fun, but it is the deal and unless you are famous, everyone goes through it. As my dad would have said, “It’s good for you! It builds character!” Whatever. Anyway, the silence is killing me, so I am putting the first thousand words or so of my current manuscript onto a new page on this site, entitled Hollywood University (look up at the top of the page next to “Home” and “About.”) It isn’t the novel I referenced in an earlier post or fiction like Sarah’s Journal, it’s a memoir of a friend of mine from Rwanda that we’ve been working on for four years. Please read it. Let me know if you like it, or better yet, tell your friends to check it out. If you really like it, subscribe to this blog and you will be notified when I post again. If I get enough response, I’ll put another section on. It is a great story, and though I still hope one day to sell it, right now sharing it with you makes me very happy.

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Cyclists: Smug but Balanced

I have been a cycling enthusiast for over ten years now, though I’ll admit I have been more enthusiastic some years than others. I have done the century rides (100 miles, yes, in a single day) and the multi-day rides, the triathlons and team triathlons, the fundraisers, the group rides and the solo rides. I love the bicycle and the road and the hills. Not so much the wind or the “rumble bumps” engraved into the shoulders of the pavement, but what can you do? Another cyclist friend of mine has a friend and a neighbor who despises cyclists on principle: we don’t belong on his roads. There is a statute in Minnesota <169.222> that says we actually do, but as far as he and his like-minded buddies are concerned, that is beside the point. I kind of get it. It can be nerve-racking sharing a lane with someone who has nothing but two narrow spinning wheels, a helmet and some Lycra between him/her and the road. Keeping an eye on the distance between the cyclist and yourself as well as the oncoming traffic also can be a little stressful as I know from my own experience, especially when some bikers (like some motorists) can be a little unpredictable. But I don’t think these valid concerns totally explain the hate.

Having hung out with and observed cyclists individually and in groups for years I say this with conviction: we can be a smug, self-righteous bunch. We are in love with our bikes, our gear, our numbers of miles, our average speed and our highest speed. We love our tight molded calves and our endorphin rushes. We even love the “ring tattoo” of black grease many of us wear on our right legs after a few stops and starts. We love drafting off each other, our front tires inches from the back wheel of the cyclist ahead of us giving us free speed until our turn at the front, and when we get fancy and whip out the rotating paceline, where two tightly packed lines of cyclists synchronize movements in an aerodynamic road ballet, well then, we are downright infatuated with ourselves. Because it is cool. And it’s challenging to work up the skills and the miles and the confidence to do it all. We like that we power our own rides. We like the sounds, sights and smells of the outdoors (most of the time.) We like how the stress of the office, the relationships, the future all falls away as we press forward—building speed on the flats, heaving up the hills, shooting down the other side and doing it again as we push our hearts, lungs and muscles to go farther, or faster or just to go. You have to have balance to stay upright on two wheels, but spending time on a bicycle brings balance to life. Life just looks different from a bicycle saddle.

So we can be a little obnoxious, drinking post-ride beers in our sweaty Lycra with our grease tattooed calves, laughing uproariously at endorphin-fueled stories of the guy who got off the route and had to be chased down and returned. Maybe the conversation turns to bike trips in Napa Valley, or Europe or to the newest, best bike tech with the absurd price tags. We might groan about our aching whatevers, but we feel good. That can be hard to be around, but don’t hate us because we are celebrating our good fortune to be cyclists. Come join us instead.

Coming soon: an excerpt from Hollywood University. We are looking for representation, so if you like it and know someone in the publishing world, let me know!

A Word on Unmentionables

Today is laundry day in the wordtabulous household. I scored $19.25 that I found in pockets which is absurdly cheering. I know it isn’t new money that fell from the sky just for me, but it still feels like a gift. Kind of like how weekends still give me a thrill even though they mean three more people around to challenge my already strained domestic skills. I decided to squeeze a kettlebell workout into my morning, and did a light-speed rotation of the laundry before I zipped out the door. When I returned the loads were done and I delved into the washer to move the wet stuff into the dryer, to find that I had thrown my two nicest Victoria’s Secret bras into the wash without their little mesh bags to contain them.  As I struggled to free the other garments that were being strangled in the wound-up straps I almost felt like I needed to apologize to the bras for their ordeal. And then I thought, I hate these things. They are the most expensive ‘foundation garments’ I own and when I wear them it feels like they are biting me–and not in a naughty fun way, either. They look fabulous, but I sigh with resignation when I put one on and sigh with relief when it comes off. I am rather breast sensitive these days, and frankly I don’t think I need to deal with this anymore.  Now instead of wanting to apologize I kind of felt like they deserved it. Take that, you rib-chomping, misogynistic, demon-inspired brassieres! Hah!

But, now what? There are all kinds of undergarments out there promising the perfect fit and ultimate comfort. I own some of them. They’re okay. They are certainly more comfortable, if less…substantial. There are even those that claim “one size fits all,” which is ludicrous.  I once bought a bra that creaked when I moved, like a squeaky floorboard. I have a strapless that does some very unusual things to my figure after awhile without frequent intervention. I have two on which the cleavage sides of the cups curl out just enough to make ridges visible through my clothes. I guess they want attention. I have one that slips sideways just a hair, leaving a gap on the one side and a pillowy bulge on the other. Sigh. I suppose there is an outside possibility the grapple in the washer made my VS bras more comfortable instead of less. I wonder if an apology might help?

Re-Assembly Required

My sister, Kerin, and I were talking about the practice of writing when upset. Kerin blogged on the Caring Bridge website last year while she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, and she told me that when she was angry or freaked out, writing on the blog helped her sort out her thinking and calmed her down. While I have also found that writing helps me find clarity, I have never once been happy that I’ve sent out something I’ve written when upset. Never. I rant like a crazy person when I’m angry and when I’m scared I’m a self-pitying mouse. Emotional strain is helpful to feed and inform my public writing, but when the heat of the moment is driving, I’d better be working in my diary. Journaling is like spewing out the bad stuff: depression, anger, and fear. Post-purge is where I can assemble the framework of the facts, the impressions and the appropriate level of emotional temperature. I just run blazing hot or icy cold initially and I have to let the tap run awhile before I have something I can work with.

This week things played out differently. It was a stressful week in general, which tends to lower my threshold for an emotional spike. Then my mom called with the news that she was just diagnosed with breast cancer, an invasive type that looks like the one my sister spent a year battling with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. We hope that Mom’s hasn’t spread as far as Kerin’s had but until her surgery, we don’t know. She’s 700 miles away. For three days I couldn’t write anything. I think I was so overwhelmed with helplessness and fear that I couldn’t work up a single thought even to scribble privately. As I am moving through the steps toward accepting all this I am feeling calmer. I am trying to temper the apprehension with hope and faith. I am seeking practical applications for my nervous energy. I am taking naps and trying to restrain myself from self-medicating with alcohol and carbs. The workouts continue. Significantly, I am ready to start putting words down on paper again. Because after the ground crumbles underfoot, it is time to climb out and start reassembling.

In the meantime, prayers for Mom’s full return to health are appreciated.

A Life in Revision

I have written a couple of novels. Both are 50,000+ words thanks to the rules of National Novel Writing Month and both are unpublished. One is horrible and will never see the light of day; the other one I like to think of as promising. In writing both of them I found that I came to a point where I had no idea what was happening. I had created the whole scenario and knew how I wanted it to end, but to get from “here” to “there” required something more: some  fancy literary footwork, or acrobatic maneuvering. There has to be tension in reading or it isn’t worth it, but writing? The tension can be a killer. I got through it both times, just more convincingly in the second novel.

I am now back to my “promising” novel and find that revision has the same issue as the initial writing. This first draft has a beginning, middle and an end, some pretty good characters, an intriguing premise, and several action scenes that make it a story I would hate to see just end up in a box but I am at that knot in the string that has to be dealt with to get from promising to good. I am at the hammer and tongs phase where it’s time to revise the draft into a real manuscript, a story worth reading. I have to pare away the stuff that sort of spilled out with everything else, but doesn’t really add to the story. I have to check my timelines; can my heroine really do all that in a day? and why doesn’t she do anything the next day? I need to flesh out other characters or remove them all together. And the big question: who dies in the end? I can still see it going a couple of different ways.

It is time to move from the role of anxious protective writer to patient thoughtful editor. I need to distance myself a titch from what I have already done and look at it with some objectivity. When I am at risk of slipping into self-loathing over the parts that aren’t ready for primetime, I have to pull it back and congratulate myself on the good stuff and keep building on that. Writing a novel can be a little like living a life. It gets messy. Sometimes it flows and other times you have to “put your back into it,” as Dad used to say when he could see the job required more effort than what we kids were applying. Sometimes in life you pick up stuff and it turns out to be not helpful, like an activity that was entertaining or instructive in the process but doesn’t really add to the quality of life and can now be left behind. Sometimes you have to hang onto stuff and make it work even if it is unwieldy and frustrating, because it is worth it. Sometimes it’s tough to tell the difference, but the older I get and the less anxious and protective I am the clearer that seems.

I have less say about how my life develops than I do about the direction my novel takes; life has a lot of extenuating circumstances. I can edit where I am at, though. Less puzzles and TV, more reading and conversation; less worry and more giggles—that sort of thing. The rest has to be left to faith and I can work on that bit, too.

Tour de Cure: The Finish Line

The first forty miles were pure fun, and that was a relief, because I had done a pitiful amount of training on my bicycle. The day of the American Diabetes Association Tour de Cure (bicycling fundraiser) was inarguably the finest weather day thus far in 2011. I had raised over $500 (thank you family and friends!) and committed myself to the 62 mile route (a metric century—100km.) The route was beautiful, the volunteers were supportive and the paths were not too crowded to keep a happy pace. I was riding alone in the midst of 1500 other riders, but I’m not shy so I struck up conversations here and there. Over those first forty miles I had several enjoyable encounters on some of the most beautiful trails I’ve ever ridden, through communities including St. Paul, St. Louis Park, and Minneapolis.

It was around mile number forty-two when I suddenly realized that what I was doing felt more like work than fun. The terrain hadn’t really changed—it was mostly flat with occasional hills into and out of river valleys. I was just getting fatigued. By mile forty-three my neck decided it was tired of holding up my head and started complaining. Loudly. Shortly after that I met Colleen, a woman not very much older than I am, who was wearing the distinctive red jersey that signified she was a diabetic. She had the slim strong build that many avid cyclists have and told me that her diabetes was diagnosed forty years ago. Forty years of finger pricks for blood tests and insulin injections. She had obviously taken good care of herself. The next rest stop on the ride, I eschewed the bananas and granola bars for a chance to lay down on the grass and stretch.

Later in the ride I met Amy, whose cousin Kristi died in her mid-thirties from diabetes. Amy told me that in her adolescence Kristi had made some rebellious choices about how to take care of herself, believing she wasn’t likely to survive past her twenties. Other stories I had heard about young people dying from diabetes illustrated that even when they made the best decisions they could, the insidious disorder could still steal a life away.

Miles forty-seven to fifty-seven were okay. I had a thrill zipping down Kellogg through green lights at thirty miles per hour, but otherwise I was just looking forward to the finish line. At the finish line there would be free chair massages, food, music and possibly some familiar faces. A party to celebrate the distance traveled and the accomplished goal of raising awareness and money for the cause. In the meantime, miles fifty-seven plus were starting to be a painful grind. My experience is that once you’ve been in the saddle long enough, the seat pain sort of numbs back to discomfort, which only surges back to pain if you take a break and then get back on (did someone sharpen my saddle?) or have something really unnecessary happen, like your foot slipping off the pedal after a stop and your whole weight crushing one place or another. I find that the neck thing doesn’t numb back. It’s cumulative. Additionally, in endurance rides, you can try to stay hydrated and take in enough calories but it’s tricky even if you don’t have diabetes to keep things level, and when things get out of whack you can start to feel sick. Finally, there’s a mental obstacle, in that the last couple of miles have that nightmarish stretching out quality that makes them seem so much longer. One could get crabby. But the blessed finish line appeared and the music played and the food was good and the massage was better. Mission accomplished, I was tired but back to feeling great. I could pack up my bike and go.

But those Red Riders? They are still on their journey. Day after day they must continue to grind through test strips and insulin injections and carefully consider their diet, exercise, stress levels, and hormone changes because that is life or death to them. In other words, they never get off their bikes. Diabetes is a horrible condition that affects about one in twelve people in the United States, but there is promising research happening. Be part of the cure: raise money, donate, or volunteer at a fundraising event. You know someone affected by this disorder; you can help them close in on diabetes’ finish line.

Bloom Where You Are Planted

I took a morning stroll around my house this morning to check out the plant life. Sprawling climbing rose that needs pruning, check. Raspberry canes, pint-sized due to some sadistic trimming last fall, check. Strawberry leaves and blossoms carpeting the raised beds, check. Day lilies threatening the struggling columbine in the newest flower bed (can’t we all get along?) check.

A few years ago, in the fall, I had to uproot a bunch of iris bulbs I had planted around a tree in my front yard. They were impractical for mowing. I replanted a bunch in a shade garden behind my house, unsure if they would make it without sun, but hopeful. I had a bunch left over and I was tired. It seemed wrong to throw them into the garbage and I didn’t have a compost system set up (still don’t-still thinking about it) so I threw them onto a dirt patch where even the weeds weren’t very enthusiastic, up against the house.  No planting, no top side up, just heaved  like yard clippings into the corner. Look what they did:

When I was a kid, somebody in my house, my mother or my big sister, had a poster or framed picture of a flower and the words, “Bloom Where You Are Planted.”  Whoever wrote that must have been thinking irises. These  plants don’t let anything bad in–no weeds, no garbage blowing around the yard, no harsh opinions about whether they are valuable enough to be planted properly. Can you just decide to be an iris? I’ve known people who are and who aren’t. Some wilt, wanting what they haven’t got, others say, Hey, this could work! Actually, that isn’t true; the non-irises I am thinking of go on just as strong as they would if they were planted where they wanted to be, but they do it in a noxious funk. The irises in my yard aren’t aromatic, but they make the world prettier, they nourish bees and butterflies, they grow and reproduce. You feel better being around them. There are worse ways to handle a world that is sometimes inhospitable. Today, I will be an iris.