Friday, December 30, 2016

End of Year Writing Report

This has been a momentous year in my writing life, all of it fueled by plenty of coffee and quiet and supervised by these two. That's Cricket up on top and Tina down below, hanging out in the cat tree that sits next to the window near my editing chair. My computer is a few steps away, so the cats have taken up residence in this small part of the house, in order to keep an eye on me while I write. It's their job, you see. It's what cats do.

They've done a pretty good job keeping me on task. Our biggest accomplishment this year was completion of my MA in Writing degree from Johns Hopkins University. I've been working on this for almost exactly three years now, taking classes in fiction, poetry and "reading like a writer," which is quite different from reading for pleasure.

As part of the requirements for the degree, I wrote a thesis, which is a collection of pieces that I produced during the program--three short stories, an excerpt from a novel and several poems.The degree will technically be awarded in May, 2017, but I've finished all the requirements and happily participated in a festive celebration with other graduates where we read short selections from our work.

Here I am reading an excerpt from my science fiction novel-in-progress, "The Kiss Catastrophe." Hopefully you will be hearing more about that in the coming months, since I hope to complete it in 2017. I participated in NaNoWriMo last month and used that project to write a draft of the second half of the book. It's a mess at the moment, but there's a story in there somewhere! Lots of editing to do on this.

The other major thing I did this year was make a concerted effort to finish some short stories and start sending them out. I had a number of stories at various stages of completion when the year started and managed to bring 11 of them to a stage where I felt they were ready to send out. I submitted these 11 a total of 52 times in 2016, which was my goal at the beginning of the year--to submit once per week. I also created a packet of three poems (from my thesis) and wrote one book review, both of which I submitted a few times.

As a result of all this submission activity, 4 of my stories were accepted for publication. 3 have already appeared (here, here and here) and 1 is in press, due to appear in Gargoyle in 2017. My little flash fiction piece (a 101-word short story) was listed as a Featured Story in July, 2016, which pleased me, since this was a piece I started almost ten years ago.

I felt like I was sending out a lot of pieces this year, and I was, but this is apparently what's necessary to get things published these days. My acceptance rate was 7.3%, so not as low as it felt like when the rejections started rolling in. And there were a lot of those--35 pieces have been rejected so far, and I withdrew 2, but 14 are still pending, so who knows what the final statistics will show. My goal is to double my submission rate next year: 100 submissions in 2017! A friend of mine thinks of this process as "collecting rejection letters," so maybe that's the right attitude to take.

It's easy to get discouraged by what feels like failure, and there's a lot of it in this business. It seems to me that the secret to not letting the whole process get you down is to send your work right back out as soon as it's returned to you with a note along the lines of, "this isn't right for us, etc." Never let it sit on your desk when it can sit on someone else's desk!

I'll wait until next year (which is two days away) to write a more complete post with my writing goals for 2017. I've been thinking about it a lot, and I have a lot of plans--so stay tuned. And happy new year!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

NaNo Success!

I made a big push the last few days to finish my 50,000 word novel installment and am proud to say I made it over the finish line last night! You can see from the following plot how I had a few slow spots this month--the one right after the election is probably self-explanatory since I, like many people, was in shock and non-verbal for a few days. Writing has been a great healing aid during this period, though, and I highly recommend it for getting centered on one's own life again. Give it a try!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

How to Move From Fear to Action

I woke up this morning and for a few blessed moments, almost an entire minute, did not remember how the world had changed. It was nice today--the sun was up, it looked to be a beautiful day, crisp and fresh--and as I looked out our second-story window and caught a glimpse of the Washington Monument a couple miles away...reality came rushing back.

I marvel at how different things feel today. Yesterday, Wednesday morning, I woke up after getting to bed at midnight, still not knowing how the election had turned out, but fearing the worst. It took no more than two minutes to switch on the television and find out that, indeed, Trump had won, but by then I was consumed by fear.

The fear held, for awhile. I couldn't imagine going outside into the streets of my town, Arlington, Virginia. I envisioned armed men (those visions were always of men, angry white men, actually) roaming the streets, emboldened by the success of their candidate, waving guns and feeling justified in carrying out any number of the threats they and their candidate have heaped upon us in the past two years. I was truly afraid, and could feel the physical symptoms of it in my body. It felt like the natural outcome of the unable-to-breath sense of anxiety I'd had for weeks.

Hillary Clinton finally gave her concession speech at almost noon and when she teared up, apologizing to the women, like me, who had supported her, saying she was sorry she could not be our champion, I finally cried. It was over, and I was really disappointed, but the fear started to loosen its hold.

So, there was sadness, and it came soon after the fear had started to lift. It didn't take long, though, for sadness to give way to anger. I saw reports that Clinton had actually won the popular vote. I was outraged, although not surprised. Then, I saw reports that more than 50% of white women had voted for Trump. More anger, but not surprised--I have known too many women who really don't want to see a strong woman in power. I'm not sure why they feel this way, but I have no patience for women who think you have to "like" someone to support them and their work.

I listened, with increasing disgust, to pundit after pundit saying they just didn't see this coming, that all the polls were wrong, and how did this happen anyway? They just weren't listening to the right people, it seemed to me. Anger turned to resolve, and this was hours before thousands of young people poured into the streets around the country to protest. They're young and have not lived through as many setbacks as I have. This may be the first time they've believed in something and had it taken away by the system--but it's not the first time for me. And I know we can overcome this. We've overcome worse.

A lot of what I was writing in my head about this has already been said. Read Michael Moore's "Morning After To-Do List," in which he calls for taking over the Democratic Party and "returning it to the people," abolishing the electoral college (long overdue, in my this article about the roots of the electoral college in slavery), but mostly calling for people to stop saying they're "stunned" or "shocked," when what they really mean is they weren't paying attention or listening to the right voices.

Take some time to grieve or be stunned, if that's what you need, but there's work to be done. Let's move beyond the understandable fear of the unknown, and beyond the sadness at having our dreams dashed, and get busy. This is still a democracy, not a dictatorship, and we must be vigilant for any signs that we are moving in that direction. Keep speaking up and speaking out. I've got your back.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

NaNoWriMo 2016 is nearly here

This year's National Novel Writing Month starts in (yikes!) two days. Are you ready? Sign up here.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Nearly Wordless Wednesday

Today, I am re-posting an image from 2009, in honor of my friend, Melanie Otto, a talented photographer and writer, who is currently in the ICU, fighting for her life. The photo above is an example of Melanie's beautiful photography, more of which can be found here on her website. We love you, Melanie! Our prayers are with you and your family.

Workshop your Book group (Melanie is at far left)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

About that video....

I've been writing this post in my head for several days, never quite getting to the point where I could put actual words on paper or into my computer, stopping myself from speaking out by rationalizing: "What could I possibly say that hasn't already been said about this issue?" And: "No one really wants to hear what I have to say."

Well. That last one brought me up short when I found myself writing it in my journal this morning. That, in a nutshell, is the story of my life. No one wanted to hear what I had to say when I spoke out about being sexually assaulted. That has been the story of too many women's lives, to be honest, and what I want to say now is this: it's not going to be that way anymore, because many of us have found a way to speak out that works.

It's amazing to watch so many women telling their stories and BEING HEARD FINALLY. Sorry for the all-caps, and yes I know it's like shouting online, but that's what has happened. Read the New York Times article linked to above: 27 million women spoke out about the sexual assaults they endured and the world finally heard them. Before that, a young woman in California wrote an open letter to the man who raped her and Vice President Biden wrote back. When he said, "I believe you. It is not your fault," he was speaking to one young woman in particular, but millions of us read in his letter the words we've been waiting a lifetime to hear.

To me, that's amazing, since this is not the way it happened for me, as a girl of 14 who came forward to report a sexual assault. I've written about that before (here) and I am so glad to see what is happening now. Perhaps this is the silver lining in this whole sorry episode: that Donald Trump has actually brought about a change for the good, despite himself, merely by acting as a trigger that set off a powder keg he didn't know he was sitting on.

And, yes, I know I titled this post "About that video..." but I'm not going to talk further about Trump and what he and that slimy guy Billy Bush said to each other eleven years ago. Everyone knows that part and the fallout, political and otherwise, that came out of it. A lot of people also know the outpouring of objections that showed up on Twitter and Facebook last Friday night to the use by media organizations of adjectives like "lewd" and "vulgar" to describe a tape in which a man admitted that he sexually assaulted women.

As if the use of nasty language is the crime here. As if we need to protect people so they won't hear curse words, by bleeping them out, but can turn a blind eye to the fact that this man said he'd assaulted women - because, when you're a star, you can get away with it.

No more. Thank God for social media, which has helped ordinary people to shine a light on the abuses of power that have plagued our world for the entire history of humanity. So many folks denigrate the use of Twitter and Facebook and the other social media platforms as "not real life" and "avoiding real relationships," but I can tell you that I felt supported by many, many people through these media this weekend in ways that I've never felt in "real life."

Social media brings people with common concerns together and empowers them, as a group, in ways that could not be easily accomplished before we had these communication tools. Today we are celebrating the International Day of the Girl, an event led 100% by youth to shed a light on the right of every girl for education, a safe living environment and freedom from abuse. When I sat down to write this post and saw that today was the day that had been designated to speak out for girls all around the world, it encouraged me to add my own voice to the chorus. In 2016, I can finally say that I do not feel alone in this fight any longer. So, thank you to all the young women who told their stories this weekend: you showed by your example what it means to have courage to speak the truth.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Nearly Wordless Wednesday

Home Sweet Home

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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Writing Report

Books about Writing by Writers
It's been more than a little while since I wrote a writing report and I actually have a number of things to say - so here goes!

First, and very much at the forefront of my thoughts, is the Story A Day May challenge that I just completed. I started the month with big plans to write a story every day, but by May 3rd, I'd already missed a day and by the first week I'd missed three days and so on and so on. I've tried this challenge before and never made it past the first week, but this year I decided I would accept a result that was less than perfect - so I wrote stories when I could, and am happy to say that I ended with 11 "stories" on my list for the  month.

These 11 are not all full stories - in fact, only two of them are, and both of those are stories I had started before. But I finished BOTH and have actually submitted both already. And one of them just got accepted - today! This is obviously very encouraging, so I have a plan to extend the success of this Story A Day experiment: Story A Week Summer!

A few years ago when I first heard about the Story A Day challenge, I tried it, gave up, but started my own version, which was a challenge to myself to finish a story every week that summer. I reported on that here and found it to be enormously successful - and powerful. By the end of the process of focusing on a story a week I knew I wanted to write full time, so applied and was accepted to the MA in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University.

That was the summer of 2013 and I look back, amazed that three years have gone by. I've just completed my coursework for the MA program and hope to finish my thesis by the end of the year. More importantly, I've completed the novel I was working on and started a second one. Things are going along really well and I trust that will continue - as long as I keep writing.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

New Story!

Hey all - just wanted to let you know that my latest story, "Master Gardener," has just been published by the fabulous online literary journal, "Mulberry Fork Review." Check it out here!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Nearly Wordless Wednesday - Garden Update

Despite the snow this past Saturday, my garden has sprouted!

 Some close-ups:
baby bok choi


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For more of my photos, see Flickr.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Garden Is In

 It's still March (for a few more hours!) but I've already got the garden started, a few rows of it, at least. This is (by far!) the earliest I've ever planted. I may regret it, but I'm optimistic that spring is really here.

It started last weekend with roto-tilling. Here's my husband, using his handy-dandy roto-tiller on my garden plot. SO much easier than digging up all that hard soil by hand.
 It took him all morning to do it, but the result was great--soft, fluffy soil, almost ready to receive seeds.
 I leveled the dirt with the back of a rake, but it looked pretty sad--not enough organic matter. So, off to the garden shop I went.
 I got several bags of compost and manure (yes, manure--it smells like what you think, but plants love it!) and distributed them evenly around the plot.
 Rain is expected late tonight, so what better time to plant. I chose a few packets of seeds--just the early-spring varieties, plants that don't mind a little frost, like peas, green onions, spinach, swiss chard and bok choi. Here they go into the dirt.
 And, voila! A garden, or part of one, anyhow. I watered the seeds in (even though it's supposed to rain, you just never know...) and stood back to admire the result. Seedlings should appear in a week to ten days, so I'll post a picture if and when that really happens.
Oh -- and lest you think it really isn't spring, take a look at this dogwood tree! I'm not the only one who thinks spring is here.

Happy gardening!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

An Irish Blessing for You!

May you have warm words on a cold evening,
A full moon on a dark night,
And the road downhill all the way to your door.

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Nearly Wordless Wednesday

Cherry blossoms are already out...spring is early!

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For more of my photos, see Flickr.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Nearly Wordless Wednesday

Signs of Spring... 

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For more of my photos, see Flickr.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Book Review: The Intelligent Body

Book Review, “Intelligence in the Flesh,” by Guy Claxton (2015, Yale University Press)

What does it mean to be smart? Is it the ability to reason logically, to perform complex mathematical feats or recall obscure bits of information? Or is it skillful functioning in a world where things are constantly changing and demanding our attention? Claxton argues that in real life, we must use not only our brain but our arms and legs and everything else to figure out what to do next, and that this is the true meaning of intelligence. Being smart, according to this author, really has little to do with the ability to reason well.

A passage from a page near the end of this book captures the author’s main point:

“I think it is time to reclaim the concept of intelligence from the abstract world of disembodied symbols and propositions, logical arguments and rigorous deductions, and proclaim its wider relevance to the challenges and complexities of everyday life. To deal well with life’s demands requires a full body – not just for getting around and implementing actions, but because a well-integrated, well-tuned, highly resonant body is itself the organ of intelligence. The brain plays an important part in that integration, allowing loops of information from the skin and the spleen, the hands and the heart, the gut and the gullet to be brought together in fruitful discourse. But without all those loops carrying fast-changing information about what is possible and what is desirable, and without the constant conversation between all the far-flung outposts of the body, the brain would not be intelligent at all. It is only as good as the intelligence it receives. The condition of my body, and my awareness of its humming, shimmering activity, constantly modulates my ability to be smart.”

A recurring motif in this book is that we do not have bodies—we are bodies. The author argues that the brain is not so much the “executive in charge” of our bodies, but, rather, the organ that responds to multiple streams of intelligence and information coming into it from all corners of the body. It isn’t so much that we “think” with our gut as that we “know” in our gut.

A number of fascinating experiments are reviewed and described in this easy-to-read book, including a number of interesting studies involving measurements of electrical conductance in the skin. One particularly fascinating experiment showed that people who were presented with stacks of cards to choose from “figured out” the pattern in those stacks first in their bodies, and only later in their minds. Measurements of skin conductivity showed unmistakable “blips” of activity when their hand hovered over the correct stack before they were able to explain why they were choosing that particular card. Only later, if ever, were they able to articulate the way they’d solved the puzzle.

In another experiment, children were shown photos of kids, some from their own kindergarten class, and even when they claimed to not recognize the kids in the photos, their skin conductance showed a noticeable jump upward when they gazed at pictures of children they had gone to school with. So, their bodies “knew” their former classmates, even if they had no mental recall of that.

I have known for a long time that my body “knows” things before my mind does, so it’s exciting to find that this truth has now been confirmed with controlled scientific studies. Other studies are summarized that show that merely changing the body’s posture can effect a change in mood or emotion, another truth that many of us have already figured out on our own. These and other fascinating experiments are summarized and described in easy-to-understand language and it's a fascinating glimpse into a body of literature that many people will never have the chance to read. In the realm of “science books for the public,” this one is one of the best I’ve read recently.

There’s a lot of review in this book for those of us already familiar with the workings of the human body, with theories of complex adaptive systems (which the body is) and with ways to increase awareness of one’s own body through techniques such as yoga and tai chi, but I think this is fine since it means the main ideas will be accessible to all readers. There’s a complete set of notes and references and a very well-done index, too, all of which make the book even more useful than most.

It’s been a long time since I read a nonfiction book on this sort of topic and, I have to admit, I found it a little dry, despite the fact that the author makes a good attempt to keep the tone light and to inject humor when explaining complex ideas. Again, this could be because much of the book (at least the first half and portions of the second) were review for me, so I wasn’t learning much. This really isn’t the fault of the book, though—it just shows that I may not be the intended audience.

If you’re curious about how your body makes you smart, and want to learn how to improve your body’s learning abilities, take a look at this book and try some of the techniques he suggests. Yoga. Tai chi. Biofeedback. All of these (and other body-awareness methods) will open your mind to all sorts of new possibilities. I would add to that list Feldenkrais,which is a body-awareness method that has opened up all sorts of new realms of understanding for me. It’s fun and you’ll learn a lot, I promise. And, as the author shows, it’s when we’re learning that we feel most alive, and this learning happens all over our body—not just in our brain.  

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Snowzilla 2016

I took this shot yesterday, at the height of the 2016 blizzard, from my upstairs window. Snow swirled and the wind howled and you really couldn't see a thing. Our power was on, though, so all was good.

This morning after the storm had passed and the sun had come out, I was able to venture out. This is what that street actually looked like:
And, yes, those white lumps are cars. When I tried to walk closer to get a better shot, the snow came to my thighs, so I gave up on that attempt and turned to look the other way, down the street. Not much better.

The large lump of snow to the left was created by a truck with a plow on its front that got stuck in the road last night. I guess they abandoned their attempt to clear the parking lot next door after they got the truck dug out, but now our street is blocked by the remains of their attempt. It'll probably be there until Tuesday when the temperature is supposed to get to 45 F. We'll see.

The good news is we have a nice clear driveway, as can be seen here (yes, that's my car, still half-buried), thanks to this guy, my dear hubby and proud owner of a working snowblower!

Until the thaw....that's it from Complexity Simplified.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Happy 207th, Edgar!

On this date in 1809 a boy named Edgar Poe was born in Boston, the second child of a couple of touring actors. His father disappeared soon after he was born and his mother died a short time later, leaving him an orphan. John Allan of Richmond, Virginia, took Edgar in as a foster son and we now know that boy by his full name: Edgar Allan Poe.

I was a huge Poe fan at the age of ten or so and read as many of his gothic horror tales as I could get my little hands on. This man knew how to tell a gripping story, one that caught and held a reader's attention, and his work certainly held my attention. I loved his poetry, as well, but it's only in recent years that I've learned another impressive fact about this important writer: Edgar Allan Poe invented the detective story.

Yes, before Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie introduced us to Poirot and Miss Marple, Poe wrote about C. August Dupin, an expert in "ratiocination," as it was known then. The word "detective" did not exist at the time Poe was writing, but the ability to reason things out with a nearly-supernatural ability (ratiocination) was of great interest to readers in those days.

Arthur Conan Doyle gives Poe credit for inventing this genre: "Each [of Poe's detective stories] is a root from which a whole literature has developed...Where was the detective story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?" 

Indeed, the formula used by Conan Doyle so brilliantly can be seen in its entirety in Poe's three detective stories -- "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (published 1841), "The Mystery of Marie Roget" (1842) and "The Purloined Letter" (1844). We have the brilliant detective, Dupin, his companion -- a "normal" fellow who is Poe himself and serves as the narrator of the story about Dupin's amazing crime-solving abilities -- and a police chief, Prefect G-, a fellow who tries hard, but needs Dupin's skills to solve tough crimes.

Poe explained his intent in writing these detective tales and a fourth story, "The Gold Bug," (which is similar and involves a code-breaking protagonist), as an attempt to arouse intellectual excitement in his readers by involving them in solving puzzles. He contrasted this with his intent in writing the Gothic horror stories I so loved as a child (such as "The Fall of the House of Usher.") These were meant to arouse emotional excitement in readers, and they certainly succeed in doing that.

His poetry, though, had a different intent altogether. To Poe, poetry was only meant to express beauty. And while his poems are, in fact, beautiful and metrical and basically like music, he never strays far from his focus on the dark and mysterious side of life.

Poe's own life ended in a mystery. He was found injured one evening on a roadside, beaten and delirious, and died in the hospital soon thereafter. It is now thought that he was involved in some sort of ballot-box-stuffing scheme and got caught and beaten for it, but the full truth remains shrouded in the past. Edgar Allan Poe died on Oct. 7, 1849, at only 40 years of age, after a brief, brilliant career as a writer who changed the course of literature forever.

I'll end with a quote from his most famous poem, "The Raven." Published in 1845, this poem is the piece that made Poe a household name. Many children (including yours truly) memorized this first stanza and can still, decades later, recite it from memory:

 Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore--
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
"'Tis some visitor," I muttered, "tapping at my chamber door--
only this and nothing more."

Saturday, January 9, 2016

FREE Download!

My short story, "The Omega Upgrade," is available as a FREE Kindle download this weekend! Click here to claim your copy. Note that you don't need a Kindle to read this...a free app for your phone, tablet or computer can be downloaded at the same link.

Here's what this story is about: "Elaine's son Peter has been after her to upgrade her connection to the web, but she wants nothing to do with the new-fangled device, an implant that will allow her access to the mindweb--whatever that is--using something called an Omega Upgrade. A chance encounter at a fruit stand with a purple-haired girl gives Elaine a scary glimpse of this new technology. What happens later, when Peter arrives for dinner, causes Elaine to make an uncharacteristic decision when she realizes that the Omega Upgrade will provide something she never imagined could be possible. This short story of approximately 6000 words gives an entertaining, somewhat scary, but very intriguing, glimpse of our possible future as more and more of us connect through the web and social media."