The Write Kind of Life

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Writing is a solitary business.

Sure, lots of people do it. But when it’s time to put words to page, the writer is often isolated behind four walls.

We talk to ourselves. We get talked to by inspirational quotes we’ve framed, tacked, or taped all around the writing den, not to mention characters we’ve made up.

We stare into space. Drum fingers. Type. Delete. Backspace. Rewrite.

Minutes pass into hours. Hours produce hundreds of words, maybe thousands. Or not.

And we do this, enjoying or enduring it, day in and day out.

Alone.

Yet there are things that bind us. Little constants, partaken of or adhered to by writers, that act as invisible dots. From that keyboard clacking in the cubbyhole of an office, to the one tap-tap-tapping from the lounge chair on the beach.

A sip of something hot and steaming between paragraphs.

A nibble on sweet treats at the close of a scene.

A dip into the pages of someone else’s book while we break from writing our own.

Coffee. Chocolate. Chai.

#anwriting to #amreading.

Word counts. Daily goals. Settings. Arcs. Plot points. Characters. Dark moments. Platform.

These things take the solitary, isolated writer and give her a place among thousands of sisters and brothers who live the writer life.

The write kind of life. And we dare not trade it.

Your turn: What are your favorite things about the community you belong to in your line of work?

When the Odd Bird Flies

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Odd bird.

It’s an expression my family uses for something or someone who strikes us as unusual. The context can be positive, such as a quirky or endearing oddity; or it can be of the don’t-make-eye-contact variety.

A bird of the former type attends my daughter’s gymnastics school. She’s tall and pale, all angles and elbows. A haunting beauty if I ever saw one. Glance at her slumped shoulders and ducked head, and it’s obvious she doesn’t think so.

“I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Psalm 139:14

Each week I watch her practice, this swan in the making. I have never seen a cartwheel so awkward. When her legs are in the air, she pulls them in almost like a frog’s, as if she’s not quite sure how to manage their full length, and maybe doesn’t want to bring attention to how long they are. Her tumbles and rolls are just as unbalanced.

Despite her weaknesses, before every maneuver her eyes light with a fierce sort of determination, as if in her head she’s saying, “I know I’m not good at this, but I will be.”

And for just a moment, that few seconds before she has to run down the mat, or hop up on the beam, or climb the rope, she folds out of her ball of insecurity and self-consciousness. She squares her shoulders, clenches her fists, takes a deep, shaky breath, and that little beauty puts her all into it.

Her finish is clumsy. She looks down, probably not wanting to see the response to what she presumes is failure. Still she gets back in line and gives it another go. And each week she gets a little better.

Watching her moves me. I can’t help thinking that maybe when the Father watches many of us, including me, He sees what I see in her: fear of failure, fear of being seen failing, insecurity over what we must look like to others when we put ourselves out there and finish clumsy, doubt that we’ll ever succeed despite how much effort we put into it.

And yet we don’t give up, because something inside won’t let us. Maybe it’s the fire burning within that speaks to the purpose of our creation, or maybe our Creator Himself, who knows the plans He has for our lives and spurs us gently onward.

“He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6

Writing is hard. Parenting is hard. Marriage, friendship, art, work. Life.

Everything we endeavor to do well can be laden with periods of ungainly tumbles and uncoordinated leaps. We fall, trip, bruise–and look as odd as a six-legged horse in the process. But like the little gymnast, we shake it off and do it again.

Because birds don’t fly on the ground.

Odd birds are only odd for a time, enduring momentary setbacks and temporary failures as we flap about. One day we’ll take flight, soaring high to all that God has called us to for His glory alone.

Right now we’re just strengthening our wings.

Gone Fishing, Author Style

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This was originally posted on 11/09/2013. It’s that time of year again…

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As a child, I fished with my father. Dark, quiet nights, sometimes nothing but the calm sound of water lapping the bank, or the buzz of mosquitoes testing the perimeter of whatever insect repellent we wore. It’s been a long time since we’ve done that.

Lately, however, those memories are rushing back. Memories of fish too large for my lanky little arms, fighting against me, tugging so hard on the line I feared a time or two that I’d be pulled in instead of the fish being pulled out.

Memories of determination, refusing to give up; of reeling in those bullish fish.

The cause of these memories? National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and this commitment I’ve made to the program to have 50,000 words by the end of November; the side bet I’ve waged with myself to hit 80,000.

Striving to meet an ambitious daily word count–against all odds and come what may–is like fishing for words that are fighting to stay in the water.

Some days inspiration sleeps in. Creativity goes MIA. Skill leaves a “Be Back Later” sign on the door. And the words are left to swim amuck in an unsupervised pool of mockery and defiance; determined not to be hooked, refusing to be tamed.

I’d really rather not fight with the slippery suckers. Especially when the house is asleep, coffee’s lukewarm, and I’m getting a series of teasing tugs on my line with no bites.

Searching, straining, desperate for words, it gets tempting to just cut the line. Reel it in empty. Fish again another day. Maybe.

But to do that–to give up–is to get pulled in.

When I fished with my father I never got pulled in.

Strained a few muscles. Got mud on my knees. Suffered scrapes.

On the flip side my muscles grew stronger, my stance firm.

I didn’t quit then. I won’t quit now. One day, one word, one catch at a time.

Going fishing. Be back soon. <3

And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. ~ Galatians 6:9 NKJV

What We All Need and Almost Never Get

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For many of us it seems the more rest we need, the less we get. Between taking care of my family, actively seeking the Lord, and trying to launch a writing career, (plus all my other projects and obligations) getting sufficient rest can be as far-fetched as finding out that book I’ve never pitched has been miraculously contracted for a movie deal. (Who says you can’t dream wide awake?)

But I know I need to rest well if I’m to accomplish my goals and take care of my responsibilities with excellence. Resting well is not just sleeping, but a series of decisions that affect sleep and the quality of our days while we’re awake. Fortunately, the word for what we all need and almost never get, serves as an acronym for how to get it:

Resist the urge to take on more than you can accomplish. I’ve been known to say yes to things I didn’t have the time, the resources–and sometimes the desire–to do. Even when I did say no, my hesitation would be pounced upon and a yes wrestled out of me. I’ve learned (and am still learning) to be firm in declining requests that I just don’t have the capacity to meet. It frees me to focus on the more important tasks, and saves me the embarrassment of having my husband follow right behind me to scratch my name off a volunteer list I just signed. (That has happened.)

Expect setbacks. Ever heard of a backup plan, plan B, or the alternate route? Those phrases exist because plans–no matter how meticulous we are in making them–get interrupted. When I went to the ACFW conference last month I had hoped to return home with a couple of proposal requests to work on. Instead I came home with a request for a proposal and a request for a full manuscript. Great deviation from the plan, right? Amazing. Only I came home to a son with pneumonia. I couldn’t take care of him the way I needed to without setting some healthy expectations for how soon I could submit my materials. It’s tempting to forego rest when there’s a hitch in the agenda. And if it’s for a night or two, I don’t think there’s any harm in that. But when we find ourselves getting just three to four hours of sleep on average, it’s time to make some schedule changes. Exhaustion breeds sloppiness. Consistent exhaustion is a health hazard.

Set aside quiet time. Again, rest is not all about sleep. It’s also about peace of mind and a restoring of the soul. For me this means prayer, or just stealing away to the place where I pray most often. I know when I go there, I’ll get some uninterrupted time to myself (except for the time when my youngest came in, misread my humble posture and hopped on my back with the command to “Giddyup!”)

Trust in the Lord. God doesn’t call us to sleep our days away, but He does call us to rest in Him, and to leave room for Him to show up in our endeavors. When we cram our days with activity, obligation, and busyness–and never give our bodies and minds the time to recoup energy spent, or our spirits the means to refuel in God’s presence or through His word–we are in a sense putting trust in our own efforts.

And God, who alone never sleeps, commands us to take time to be still.

Your turn: How do you manage getting the rest you need in the midst of all your obligations?

 

A Writer’s Labyrinth

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Not too long ago my father-in-law presented me with a challenge. I placed all of my fingers together at the tips except the middle fingers, which touched at the knuckles:IMG_8516.JPG

Easy enough, right? Then I had to tap each pair of fingers together on command, all without moving the middle fingers. First the pinkies, then thumbs, next the pointer fingers.

Child’s play…until he called out the ring fingers.

I couldn’t move them. At all. I strained just about every muscle in my body. Nothing.

I resorted to glaring at my fingers in an attempt at telepathy. Nada.

No matter how hard I tried, they wouldn’t budge, though I always seemed to be just on the edge of success.

Worse, long after figuring out that those fingers were staying put, I spent a lot more time and energy trying to prove otherwise. I earned for my efforts a stabbing three-day headache. It reinforced the idea that if you think too long or hard on something, the effects can be crippling.

Likewise, in writing–or any worthy goal–it’s easy to overthink a project or try to force an ill-placed scene.

One can puzzle for months how to approach a story, but at some point the words to that story must be introduced to their pages. Some scenes or characters need cutting, others filling out.

Thoughts must become decisions that turn into action.

Otherwise, precious time gets lost in the Labyrinth of Perpetual Thought and Distraction, where corridors are lined with finger statues, and progress hides behind a foggy horizon always just out of reach.

“Think it through too long, and it may stay a thought forever.”

Your Turn: What are your biggest obstacles to progress? Try the exercise (though don’t spend too much time on it). Were you able to tap the ring fingers together?

Race for the Chicago Hot Dog…A Food Tour Tragedy

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On my way to the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) conference in St. Louis, I made a two-day pit stop in Chicago to visit a dear friend who’d just moved from my town to that town. My sister, who lives in Boston, jumped at the chance to join us, and we spent days before our little gathering emailing back and forth about how we’d spend our time.

Oddly enough, the conversation turned to hot dogs, and went something like this:

Sis: Carissa do you know a good hot dog place?

Me: Hot dogs?!? I call foul. FOUL I say!

Sis: Hey, Tanara, it’s not all about you, lol. I heard Chicago style dogs are good!!!

Carissa: True, true! I asked Chris & he said Chicago hot dogs are famous & good! We will have a hot dog stop!

Sis: Thank you so much. You don’t have to try one, Tanara!

Me: Hot dogs. We talkin’ bout hot dogs (in my Allen Iverson “talkin’ about practice” voice). Fine, being the good follower that I am ;-), if everyone else is having hot dogs I’ll have one too. Hot dogs. smh.

And so the race for the famous Chicago hot dog began. I arrived in Chicago before my sister Makena.

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Being hungry, and not wanting to eat her precious hot dog without her, I lunched with Carissa at Mezcalina. I ate the pollo almendrado (chicken in almond mole) and we shared two guacamoles (traditional and del dia).

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We’re beating hot dogs by a mile straight out the gate.

My sis arrived at dinner time. We met her at an Orange Line exit, then hoofed it the rest of the way to Roka Akor Chicago, where we had dinner reservations with Carissa and her husband Chris. We ate Omakase style, which allows the chef to pick your food for you.

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The experience was Ah-mazing. I’ll admit, though, not being a lover of food that hasn’t gone through a trial by fire of sorts (ahem…cooking), I struggled through the raw fish course. Hot dogs sounded pretty good in that moment. Then the next course came…what’s a hot dog?

Dessert made me want to run a good two miles, circle back to the restaurant and have another…to myself. It was that good. No, really, it was THAT good.

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Next day we hopped on city bikes and cruised the streets like we owned them. Carissa in the lead, dinging her bell at every poor soul unfortunate enough to share the trail. Makena brought up the rear, her legs working overtime to compensate for her too-short bike. Between her and Carissa we had our own theme song going. It went something like, “Ding, ding! Wait for me, guys!”

We spotted a couple of hot dog stands along the way. They looked a little shady, so on we went…

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For lunch, Makena had a place on her list considered a must dine.

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The Purple Pig, voted one of the ten best new restaurants of 2010, had some of the best calamari I’ve ever tasted, served cold like a salad. That I enjoyed it says a lot, because the only cold food I’m really fond of comes out of the freezer and is eaten by spoon.

Next we ate at this little joint:

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The Billy Goat Tavern happened to be featured in a book I read recently, Katherine Reay’s Dear Mr. Knightley (great book), so I saved my appetite for one of their cheezborgers (that’s how they spell it, don’t ask me why). I know what you’re thinking: I complained about hot dogs and scarfed down a cheezborger.

Yes. I did.

Mr. Goat’s was a homey place, the walls plastered with pictures of famous people who’d dined there over the years. Munching on my borger, I leaned over the table and fixed my attention on the Jeopardy episode playing behind the bar. I celebrated every question I answered correctly. Nobody minded. It’s that kind of establishment.

Next was Eataly. An Italian market/restaurant/gelato/winery/coffee, etc., etc., place.

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Since “life is too short not to drink well,” I ordered an expensive espresso. It was so strong I forget which exotic country produced it.

Evening arrived and still no hot dogs. Surely the Navy Pier would have a stand we could patronize. We set off on foot. The shadows of dusk gave way to an over-dark nightfall, and we soon questioned the wisdom of our choice. We passed under a bridge and up a flight of concrete stairs, heads turning to and fro in search of rats and ruffians. Made it to the pier just in time to watch them locking up.

Legs tired, bellies grumbling, we piled into a cab. It took us to Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder. This place was also featured in Dear Mr. Knightley (seriously, great book). We split a Mediterranean bread. Then the pizza pot pie and oven grinders arrived.

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The sight of that huge sandwich shut me down. I took a couple bites of delicious sausage blanketed with melted cheese and killer sauce, then raised the white flag.

One look at my girls and I knew my flag had company. Two days of walking, biking, eating, and exploring caught up with us. We boxed up the food, cabbed it back to Carissa’s place and stuffed our boxes in the fridge, pleased to know Chris would enjoy the fruits of our surrender.

Not until Makena and I boarded separate planes the next day did we realize her tragedy. We’d raced through the city of Chicago in search of a great hot dog, and ducked off the trail before crossing the finish line.

It’s a problem in need of remedy.

Your turn: If you live in Chicago, or have been to Chicago, do you know a hot dog spot worth recommending? Or better yet, one worth an extra trip? I might be inclined to say, “We talkin’ bout hot dogs.” But then again, it’s not about me :-).

When Mom’s Away…

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As I gear up to head to the American Christian Fiction Writers (ACFW) conference in St. Louis, I’m tempted to fret over how my family can possibly manage without me. My husband is off work and my father-in-law will be flying in to keep him company, still I’m skeptical of two men being able to manage every group of the food pyramid (we won’t even discuss cooking it), school uniforms, practice schedules, games, homework, chores, gardening, an all day four-year-old, and countless other things. Not to mention what my two daughters’ very long, exceedingly curly, extremely thick hair is going to look like by the time I return from five days absence.

This short, fifteen-second commercial helped me to put the brakes on all that worrying. When I’m gone, things won’t be done my way. And that’s just fine. While I might find a few things to cringe about if I could watch the goings-on of my household from my cell phone (is there an app for that?), I’d also find my kids safe, prayed over, fed–with something, and happy.

I’m blessed to have a husband who supports my dream. And I’m grateful for a place to go where I can connect with other writers, grow in my craft, worship the Lord, and pursue the next step.

So St. Louis here I come! May the Lord bless, keep and protect my family, and every other family His writers are leaving behind. And for the moms en route with me, here’s to having things dad’s way for a time :-).

Falling Off the Writing Wagon

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“Find a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” ~ Confucious

Quite an inspiring declaration. Too bad “inspiring” is not synonymous with “truth.”

I love to write. The process of weeding out an idea, then turning that idea into hundreds of pages, is beyond rewarding.

But make no mistake about it. It’s work. And writing is never harder than when there’s a break in the process.

Circumstances in the past couple of weeks have pulled me away from a consistent writing schedule. And while much of it was beyond my control, I still fretted daily in the back of my mind: “You need to write. You need to write.”

Now that I’m free to get back to my current work in progress, the chasm between what needs to be done and what I think I can do seems to have widened a mile per day spent not writing. I agonize over closing the gap.

Getting back into a rhythm will be a grueling process; a mental strain akin to standing up, dusting off, and limping to catch a wagon that I fell from, before it picks up speed and barrels down the trail without me. The prospect of giving up becomes as tempting as a cold drink in a dry desert.

All the more reason to push through.

Writing is a part of me. I do it because I love it, but it’ll always be work. Whoever coined the phrase “labor of love,” knew what they were talking about.

Now I’ve got a wagon to catch.

Your turn: Do you love what you do? Has it ever been hard for you, despite how much you enjoy it?

Deleted Scenes

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200401076-001Ever watch the deleted scenes of a movie? Better yet, ever watch the deleted scenes of an animated movie? If you’d asked me that question ten years and three kids ago, my response might’ve been an incredulous, “What on earth for?”

Nowadays, however, it’s an all-wise sounding, “But of course.”

In the world of writing (an ever incredible, tortuous, rewarding, baffling, coffee-chugging existence) deleted scenes are a constant.

Watching them in movie form provides a much needed perspective change.

While standard movies are typically cut because of length issues, animators delete for reasons we writers can easily relate to:

  1. The plot has taken a different direction and the scene doesn’t fit.
  2. The character behaves in that particular scene contrary to the character as represented throughout the film.
  3. The scene is just…garbage.

But the creators of the script didn’t let a weird spot halt their progress. They pushed ahead, scene by scene, drawing by drawing, until the work was completed.

Then they cut out the bad, cheesy, gag-me portions, leaving excellence worthy of a blockbuster.

That’s a lesson all writers can use.

Every story hits a rough spot. A dreaded “this sucks” epiphany. And it’s there we’re tempted to sulk away from the laptop and drown our sorrows in fresh-baked cookies over a Netflix marathon.

But we need to press on.

Even if our imagination is so strapped that the best we can manage in the heat of a lover’s quarrel mid-chapter is, “Please! I beg of you! Oh, please don’t leave me!” Sow that cornfield, sister! Lay out that cheese, brother! (As I’m doing this very moment.)

It’s all fixable, if we’ll lay out the broken pieces.

Let those awkward scenes serve their purpose in getting us to The End.

Then let’s keep a few tucked away. Not to remind us of our shortcomings, but our ability to overcome.

Your turn: What’s your favorite animated movie, and have you watched the deleted scenes?

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