Thursday, November 26, 2015

Memories and Melancholy

Thanksgiving, 2010 with my cousin's family in NH

Five years ago, we went up to my cousin's family's house for Thanksgiving. It was 2010. My father was in his first years on dialysis. My mother's dementia became more and more evident. I had started that year with three main goals: to move my parents from their isolated home in a golf community my parents could no longer participate in to an apartment where they would have support, convince my father that my mother needed supervision when he was in dialysis, and to connect him to a caregiver support group.

I felt like a superhero: I accomplished all three at the start of that year.

In the fall of 2010, my older son was a senior in High School. My younger son, a freshman. For the first time in a long time, the two of them had become friends. I had just entered my second year of writing full time after leaving my physical therapy practice and finding a literary agent to represent me.

I felt settled into a new phase of my life, seeing the time where my children would be leaving the nest and my husband and I would have the chance to renew our focus on our primary relationship as a couple.

A few days after Thanksgiving, on December 1, 2010, the screaming of smoke detectors shattered my complacency. It was a cold winter's morning and my husband - used to carrying a pager for decades and with lightning fast reflexes - realized our house was on fire and roused all of us. We fled our burning home at 5:30 am, barefoot and in our pajamas.

A year of displacement followed where we were displaced, not only in where we lived, but in the rhythms of that life. While we joked about finding easier ways to remodel, wondered if our dog had been smoking in the basement again, and genuinely rejoiced at  our good fortune to be alive and unharmed, there was a deep sadness and unease that permeated the entirety of 2011.

The following Thanksgiving, we were back in our rebuilt home. Our older son came home from college, and we thought we had resumed the course of our lives.

But there is no going backwards, only forging a new normal. In the four years since the fire, our extended family has dealt with significant losses: Illness. Deaths. Suicide attempts. The words don't seem so overwhelming, but the reality they represent was.

This past year, the new normal for me has been a lot about surrendering control. Not of my own actions and choices, but of my ability to carry burdens for others. It has been a difficult lesson. Far easier to watch your life burn in a house fire than to truly realize that you cannot ease another's pain.

It has been six months since my father died. Since I helped him make his choice to stop dialysis and enter hospice care. He was 92 and had no regrets or unfinished business. He faced the end of his long and rich life with a dignity and grace I can only hope to emulate. I miss him terribly. While it had been many, many years since I had had Thanksgiving with my parents and extended family, I have a lifetime of memories from my growing up where my father was the king of that holiday. He did the lion's share of Thanksgiving cooking and I used to wake up to the smell of roast turkey basting in a mix of white wine, citrus, and apples.

It's hard for me to think of Thanksgiving without also thinking of him. How capable and loving he was. How gentle and how wise a father. How much the person I am today is because of him.

The writer in me looks at this all and sees the cliches. If I were grading this essay, I'd circle that last bit in red and ask for specifics. But I don't want to share them today. I want to hoard the memories - small and large - that make up who he was and what he meant to me.

As I write this, the rest of my family - my husband and grown sons - are waking up. And I realize the boys have their own sets of Thanksgiving memories, forged over the years they have seen their parents cook a feast together in the small kitchen that none-the-less holds food and love in a tight relationship.

And I understand that my father is here, with me. My mother, as well. What we love is never lost. Like the laws of conservation of energy, it is only transmuted into something else.

Tonight, I will raise a glass to all of it. The losses. The pain. The laughter. The joy. And be thankful. Always thankful.


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Saturday, November 21, 2015

Retreat to Advance, Redux

Photo by Therese Walsh, a bit of silliness outside of the House of the Seven Gables

I just returned home from a week-long writing retreat with a group of writers I first 'met' online on the Writer Unboxed blog. I had the opportunity to meet many of the individuals who ran and participated in the blog last year at the first WU 'Uncon' that took place in Salem, MA.

This smaller gathering consisted of a subset of the folks from the blog and the event who shared an old, rambling, Hogwarts-esque house in Salem for a week of writing, laughter, music, and conversation.

Getting to the 3rd floor 'garret' was interesting. 1 of 2 twisty staircases to navigate.

Many odd doors and closets to nowhere

This door led from the attic down three stories - a straight drop. Good thing it had the bar.

There were about 12 of us who stayed at the strange house, and another handful of folks who stayed at local hotels or B&B's or were local enough to stop by for a write in and hang out time. Despite the quirks of the house - which included the deathtrap stairs, a shower that was out of commission (leaving 2 showers for a dozen folks), barely enough common room for any 6 of us to congregate at any time (as long as we didn't mind being cozy), and entire floors where you had to duck, even if you were of average height - it was a sacred space.

Those of us who live and play inside our own minds have a strong need for solitude, but we also have a strong need for tribe. It can be almost impossible to explain to non-writers how a character is being slippery, or a word isn't working, that creating is both incredibly hard work and play, or how an empty page can terrify. And no one understands the demons of doubt and despair like fellow travelers.

And, while creating is individual work, being able to do so in the company of other creators is supportive, inspiring, and motivating.

Having the week away, where we were all caring for one another and ourselves as well as nurturing the spirit of our mutual creativity was, as they say in the TV ads, priceless. Priceless, too, were the bonds of friendship reforged, the laughter, shared meals, wine, whiskey, music, and bedtime stories.

Most of the merry band at a local restaurant
There was even arts & crafts time and a singalong

There were breakthroughs, epiphanies, and triumphs. I was able to add over 12,000 words to my SF novel in progress and powered through the 'muddle of the middle' and well into the place where three major plot threads converge. The end is in sight.

I'm not sure I would have gotten to this point - certainly not in a week of writing - without the support of the retreat and my fellow writers.

I return to the world tired, but energized, fed in a deep way that had little to do with the communal meals (though they were wonderful!) and everything to do with spending a week away from the concerns of the everyday while being nurtured in creativity.

As a dear friend reminds me often, you have to water the roots if you want to harvest the tree.

I suspect my soul had been thirsty for some time. This week I was well and truly watered.


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Friday, November 13, 2015

Surfing the waves of change

It's a dog. On a surfboard. That's pretty epic.
photo by Mike Baird, used under cc license w/attribution

I've been at this writing thing for 11 years now. The publishing thing for about half that time. And what I've learned in these years is that flexibility is the key to survival. If you live by the shore, you know that waves are going to come and keep coming. It doesn't matter what you do, the tide will roll in and roll out.

When I created my imprint Interrobang Books and took my first tentative steps into the world as an author-publisher, it was a matter of philosophy and my strong belief that I would make my work available on all platforms so that readers anywhere could have access to it. And that meant keeping out of any exclusive relationship with Amazon.

I believe monopolies are dangerous. They become mechanism of control. In nature, monoculture destroys diversity and negatively impacts long term survival. So, too, in our created structures.

And here I am, contemplating a huge shift to how I make my creative work available and agonizing over it.

From a purely business decision, keeping my books available for sale on markets other than Amazon (BN, Kobo, Google Play, smashwords, etc) makes it harder for me to survive as a writer. And as Amazon has instituted changes in its infrastructure to offer reading subscriptions, for example, the business choice become more and more obvious.

If the other platforms did any of the kind of work that Amazon does to get work in the hands of readers, I would not even be considering this shift. But more than 90% of my writing income comes via Amazon. Furthermore, by not enrolling in their exclusive plan (KDP Select), I am locked out of participating in their subscription program which pays authors when readers read their work.

In order for me to continue to create work, I need to be able to make that work financially viable, and without Amazon, that doesn't happen.

So, after a tremendous amount of thought and discussion with fellow writers and my readers, I have chosen to opt in to KDP select for a 90 day timeframe, beginning on December 1. That will give me enough time to pull the work from the other venues so that I will remain in compliance with Amazon's rules.

However, I will continue to launch new work on wide distribution, keeping it non-exclusive for the first 6 months. And I will assess the outcome before deciding to continue or opt out at the 90 day mark. Furthermore, since I do NOT employ DRM (digital rights management) in my books, users will always be free to convert it to whatever format they require. And if they are not comfortable doing so, can contact me directly for the appropriate file.

Operationally, that means that for the next few months, all my books except the newest will only be available as an eBook on Amazon. Only ITHAKA RISING and the anthology I co-edited (PEN-ULTIMATE) will be available across all platforms and sales venues. You will always be able to find a listing of all my work in print on my website:

I do understand that not everyone is a fan of Amazon's universe. This is not a decision I have come to lightly. If (and perhaps when) other retailers step up and offer writers the same kind of access to audience that Amazon has, then I will reassess. In the meanwhile, I hope to continue to connect with my readers across social media and through my newsletter (both because I love to connect and because it's the only way to build a self-sustaining audience independent of any one retailer). One thing will never change, no matter how the weather and the surf conditions do: I am committed to writing and releasing the books readers have come to enjoy and share.

I welcome your comments and thoughts.



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Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Seeing the Flaws

Work from April 2013

When you've been practicing something for some time, there's a good chance you're going to get better at it. Which is totally a good thing.

I've been working with clay - handbuilding and throwing on the wheel - for 8 years at this point and I'm finally in a place where I feel I have basic mastery of form and process. I can sit down and create an intentional shape, a planned set of items, even execute a project I'd only imagined and have it work.

My skills have definitely improved significantly from where I was even a year ago. Also a good thing.

What becomes difficult, is that my critical eye gets better even faster than my hands.

I met a friend for lunch at her house last week (:waves to Bliss:) and realized she had one of the mugs pictured above. I cringed. Looking at it, I realize there's more wrong with it than right. I could make a list of the flaws in the work, from centering to shape and proportion, to finishing, to glaze application. What I am making now is far, far better than these.

Yet my friend loves her mug. It's even one of her favorites.

I think she would be mad if I gave in to my impulse to smash it and bring her a new one!

It's a good thing the mug is at her house and not mine. If it were here, I would smash it. Not from anger or frustration, but from a position of not getting overly attached to a thing, and realizing that each item of ware I create teaches me something. Once I've learned the lesson, I no longer have to keep the product. It's the process that's most valuable.

'starry night' mugs, 2015

But another lesson here is in learning to let things go.

We are all works in progress and not finished products.

This is also true of my writing.

I finished ITHAKA RISING in 2014 and after the usual process - revisions, readers, revisions redux, editor, production - it was published earlier in 2015.  Today I finished reviewing the audio book files for the story. All 15+ hours of them.

And I have to admit, there were places where I cringed in the listening. I heard all the awkward word choices, the places where character wobbled, pacing issues, inconsistencies in descriptions. It was like looking at a bowl I'd thrown a year ago and only seeing where it wasn't centered.

But, here's the thing: perfect doesn't exist. Not in handmade pottery. Not in paintings. Not in music. And not in writing stories. The craftsman is probably always going to be hardest on the finished work. What I came to realize, after having to listen to several sections over again, was that the story didn't deserve to be 'smashed'. It was . . . it *is* a good story. I can distance myself from it, just a bit, to see it through a reader's eye and see where it has a strong shape. Where it is pleasing. Where it entertains and moves. That it works.

I can see both the flaws and the strengths and be satisfied, yet still be determined to hone my craft.

Because that is what artists do. Between now and next year, I will throw hundreds of cylinders on the wheel. I will lay down tens of thousands of words on the page. If I am true to the process, what I produce then will be better than what I can produce now.

And that, too, is a good thing. 


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