Saturday, December 31, 2011

An Ode to Books By Mail

Well, maybe not an ode. I'm far too stressed to write poetry.

(From Feed Your Soul, the free art project )
We are moving in less than two weeks. Right next to my computer table we've already stacked 12 boxes of books. On top of one of those boxes is a heap of loose books. Somewhere on the other side of this wall of boxes, there is another bookshelf that is still nearly full. I keep hoping we've nearly found and corralled all the books, but a quick glance around the room tells me this is not so.

Right next to my keyboard there's a book. Another book, with a headband being used as a bookmark, is lying on the couch. There are, ahem, six books on the piano. Two of those books have escaped from the Goodwill box, one is the amazing library book I finished last night (see below), and three are books I just rescued from my daughter's shirt drawer. There's another book lying on the kitchen chair that is sitting in the middle of my family room for some reason. Oh! And I just noticed yet another book sitting on the floor next to me.

I'll stop now, not because I'm finished, but because I think I've made my point. When we move into our new house, we'll probably be bringing more than 15 boxes of books with us, and that's after a genuine attempt to weed out the ones we no longer want.

I love books! But I don't feel like we buy that many. (It makes you wonder where all these boxes of books came from, doesn't it?) We are big library fans at our house. I just resigned from the board of trustees for the tiny library near my home, and we also pay money to belong to a larger library a couple of towns over (the town we're moving to, coincidentally). But when we move, we'll be leaving behind our largest source of books:

Books By Mail

Books By Mail is a program here in Maine for residents who live in communities where there is no full-service library, and to people who are homebound for medical reasons. I'm not homebound for medical reasons, but that tiny library I mentioned? It's only open for about 8 hours a week, which blessedly does not qualify as a full service library. That opens a database of nearly every library in the state of Maine to our greedy eyes. If a book we want is in the database, all we have to do is click the "REQUEST" button and they mail it to our home in these cute brown canvas bags. We're moving 14 miles closer to civilization, which has its perks, but losing Books By Mail is a huge downside.

I imagine there are other programs like this throughout the country, but I've never lived in a rural area before, so I don't know. The library I used before we lived in Maine was a branch of a larger system, and the different branches traded books in a similar way. I had to go and pick the books up once they arrived though. Much more complicated.

When we're ready to return the books, my husband drops them off at the Maine State Library on his way to work, but we could mail them if we wanted. Right now our library basket is overflowing with canvas bags and books. Ever since we put our house on the market (nearly a year ago, now) we've been ordering books with reckless abandon. We had the closing ceremony on our account a couple of days ago. I told the kids it was the last day to order books, and that any books that weren't marked "In Transit" by January 6 would have to be cancelled.

Here, in all its random and breathtaking glory, is our final list of books from the Maine State Library Books By Mail program:

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson I finished this book last night, and I LOVED it! You should go out and get it right now! A quick side note: Do any of you other authors find that as soon as you write a story you read a book just like it but better?

Secondhand Charm by Julie Berry Great book! I read it a couple of years ago, and someone must have wanted to read it again. I would love to, but probably won't have time.

13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson I've finished this one, and it was OK. Not really my style, though

Indian Captive by J.B. Jemison
Three Against the Tide by D Anne Love

Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow by Nathan Brandsford My third grade daughter is reading this on the couch behind me even as we speak. A perfect example of the way a great blog can expand your reader base!

Goose Chase by Patrice Kindl This was so funny! I would have liked it even better if I wasn't sick to death of fairy tales turned into novels.

Call It Courage (Audio Book) by Armstrong Sperry
Uncommon Criminals by Ally Carter
The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson
Tyger, Tyger: A Goblin Wars Book by Kersten Hamilton
Ashfall by Mike Mullin

The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness This is the sequel to The Knife of Never Letting Go

Enchanted Glass by Diana Wynne Jones This is probably the next book I'll read on this list

Demonglass: A Hex Hall Novel by Rachel Hawkins I didn't enjoy the first Hex Hall book, but my daughter liked them enough to order this sequel

And we're still waiting on:

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodgkins 
Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George
Barbie in a Christmas Carol (movie) J
Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare
Barbie Princess Charm School J

No ode, but perhaps a haiku...:

Farewell, Books by Mail
We'll miss you every day--
Thanks for the good times.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Journaling Ideas for Mental Health

I do not keep a journal. I do not record the details of my life or of my emotional state with any regularity. I do not have a daily writing ritual or a treasured notebook in which everything is meticulously recorded.

I have nothing against journaling, except in the specific case of my own emotional health. We depressive types are often lovely people—really!—but many of us share a certain thought pattern: rumination. Because I am most likely to seek the company of pen and paper when I'm least suited to being with actual people, my attempts at journaling used to end up like this:
I'm the worst housekeeper ever. The kitchen's so gross it will take me an hour, and then I’ll be even more tired and I won’t get any writing done. What is the point? WHAT IS THE POINT? There is no point. It’s all utterly pointless. Do the dishes, then more dishes get dirty, then do more dishes, again and again forever as I hurtle towards a meaningless death. Everything sucks.
See what I mean? The journal is not a healthy outlet for rumination. Expressed mathematically:

But still... I need to write like I need food and air and very occasional interaction with human beings. So what's a writer to do? Here are my tips for avoiding the tornado:
Low-to-Zero Expectations:
If I buy a notebook, I do it with full acceptance of the following:
  • It may get used off and on for years or be filled in a month.
  • I’ll have at least two other notebooks in rotation at the same time because I write in whatever I have handy.
  • It will be an unsorted mish-mash of fiction, stream-of-consciousness drivel, grocery lists, and important dates and phone numbers. I will never remember to transfer those important dates to a calendar.
  • Eventually, I will let the kids doodle all over it at a restaurant.
  • At some point, I will spill water or coffee, rendering most of the pages unreadable.
  • 99.9% of any notebook is too boring to re-read.
Take out the trash
Sometimes I need a brain dump before I can settle in to my "real" writing. I set a time limit or a page limit, and I just let go. I don’t dwell on one idea or try to give myself a pep talk. I write about what I need to do, what I don't want to do, what I dreamed about, why I hate my novel, etc. I don't go too deep and I don't try to analyze. When I reach my limit, I stop and move on to the work of the day. The key difference between this and ruminating is that I don't see the negative stuff as anything but taking out the trash. That mindset is critical; you can't believe everything you write.

Wax Poetic

While simply writing down bad feelings isn't very helpful, transforming them into poetry can be. Include line breaks, choose each image and each word carefully, and you might find yourself more involved in crafting a poem than in whatever emotional crisis started your journey into free verse. There's a creative objectivity that goes along with art, and it often gives me the distance I need to get though a bad time.
Her worth was the dusty trail’s
She puts lotion in her hands,
always dry now,
and in the geometry of her skin
sees the cracked desert clay
no water for her thirst.

Get Kinky

There's freedom in writing stream-of-consciousness, letting yourself get as random and weird as your mind will allow without regard for logic or meaning. The following is utter nonsense, but writing it rescued me from a pint of Häagen-Dazs.
Diet Coke + Mentos = Awesome
Devil peals out of my car's subconscious keychain and I'm laughing out loud the nocturne, gentle and slow. Why is that cat clawing at nothing, air, a vacuum, a blue blinding hell-born light?  My mind is bottled up and fizzy and minty-fresh, vaguely European. I'm a Mentos, a science experiment, imploding in the sand. My toes call me and plead to feel the sun.

Try it, really. Your brain will thank you.

Moment by Moment

(Not my actual husband)
Feelings are like leeches—slimy and sticky at the same time. You can't pin them down, but the act of trying tends to make them hold on tighter. So don't write feelings. Write moments. Was there a penny on the floor? Heads or tails? Were you twirling a stolen hotel pen in your fingers? Was there sunlight or lamplight or the flickering of a fluorescent bulb? A moment during a conversation with my husband, between lines of dialogue:
I held the last glass from the dishwasher; it dripped water from its concave base onto my hand. John stood against the counter, slurping the last drops of Kellogg-sweetened milk from a blue ceramic bowl. His sandy hair stuck out in eighty different directions, and his left arm had a bright pink pattern of sleep creases. The children whispered about their cereal being poop, which meant they were eating poop and that made them poopyheads. I pretended I couldn’t hear them over Elmo’s World.

Letting Go

When you're working on a story, sometimes it flows and sometimes it's really work. That's just the writing life. Don't let a journal become an obstacle. If it isn't working for you, put it away. Go make some memories. Let life happen, and if the best times never make an appearance in your stack of notebooks, that's okay. There's more to the writing life than writing.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Volcanoes and grasshoppers

 Tonight seems like it's going to be my week to plead brain-dead.  I got home from San Francisco at midnight last night, and then had to work all day.  So I've spent most of the evening trying to deal with the following:
-great! My two remaining indoor plants died.
-the roommate's kitten has scratched himself near raw from fleas (poor baby), so I had to go buy flea meds
-let's not talk about litter boxes
-more unpacking
-various roommate issues (see above about kitten, and also, who puts empty ice trays back in the freezer? I mean, the one time I want a soothing iced drink in December, and all that's in my freezer are four empty trays).

And thus, as I'm writing the first draft of this, it's almost 9pm and I haven't eaten yet.  Proper brain function appears far off, and anyway, Melanie got me a scary deadline for Christmas (see comments on this post).

The story right now is still in idea phase.  Thus attempts to write a description are formless and uninteresting, along the lines of "So there's  this group of people who live near the polar regions in an Ice Age, but see, long ago they made a deal with a demon who would protect them from winter in exchange for something and it all works until a few centuries later when a new demon comes in and tells them he can do better than their current god, but it all gets screwed up and the volcano loses all its heat and the society collapses."

Ah, horror. Such a cheery genre.

Ka pew! BOOM!

Anyway, in lieu of torturing you with further unclear details at this stage, I'll share one of my favorite story development methods. To my sorrow, I cannot recall the source of the strategy, except that someone on Hatrack told me about it.

Say you have a story problem you want to solve. You then make a list of ten possible solutions.  The idea is that most of the ten are clichéd, but once you get those out of the way, you start to get into unique and truly interesting ideas.  I generally don't reach ten before I get distracted by an interesting idea.  

As an example, Pill Hill Press has put out  a call for a Bugs anthology, and since I don't have any bugs stories ready to go, here's how my thought process might go:
1) Bugs eat you alive (snore)
2) Talking bugs (too Pixar)
3) Giant bugs attacking humans (too Starship Troopers/Aliens)
4) Bugs as nanobots (but nanobots are way overdone right now)
5) If all the bugs in the world disappeared (interesting on an ecological scale, but could come out too preachy)
6) What if bugs developed a god? (not as bad as some of the others, but I feel like someone has done bug/animal gods before. Possibly Terry Pratchett).
7) Something metaphorical with bugs, like the statement that God must love beetles, because there are more species of beetle than any other taxa on the planet (but I'm terrible at deep metaphors, and the quote is very well-known and possibly another cliché).
8) What's fascinating about bugs anyway? Colors, numbers (swarms of them), how hidden they are, how alien they look compared to any other life form on earth, some of the strange abilities they have (grasshoppers transform into locust stage… what if humans had that sort of transformation?)
9) It wouldn’t be like a personality change in humans, but an actual physical change caused by some sort of stimulus.  But what would the change be? For grasshoppers, it's changing from solitary behavior to a group form, swarming across the prairie and devouring all crops.
10) What if we, as humans, have been in locust form all along and we suddenly stopped? What would we become?

Okay! I didn't actually expect to get a story idea from writing this list on the fly (har) like that, but I'm actually kind of intrigued by the human form of the grasshopper/locust transformation.  But that's why I love that method.  As to where to take that idea.... well, maybe it's time for another list.

But not tonight.

(Read more about locusts here and here.  Though some refer to cicadas as locusts, when one speaks of historic plagues of locusts, they do mean grasshoppers. 
Fun fact: 'bug' is an actual scientific term, specific to the Hemiptera group of insects (known as "true bugs") (don't ask me what a false bug is).)

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Resolving the New Year

Merry After Christmas and a Happy Almost New Year! 

The days between Christmas and New Years are always a little odd for me.  The insanity leading up to Christmas is over, and the short burst of New Year’s cheer hasn’t yet arrived. Since I’m fortunate enough to stay home with the kids, the intervening days between the two holidays seem to sprawl into one another like a giant, comfortable yawn. There may be a little sale shopping, but it’s not really mandatory. The decorations don’t need to come down yet. I can spend quality time with the fam, or alternately ignore them and spend some quality time with a book or two. Not so much worry, not so much stress. I like these cocooning days and guard them jealously.

However, I know that there are people with far more gumption than I. And for them, these are the days they make their New Year’s Resolutions and check them twice, polish and plot and post their goals on their shiny new 2012 calendars.

And what are the most common New Year’s Resolutions?
In no particular order, the top ten are:

Eat healthier
Exercise more
Get Organized
Spend Less, Save More & Get Out of Debt
Learn Something New
Spend More Time with Family & Friends
Help Others
Manage Stress Better
Quit Smoking and/or Drinking
Fall in Love

Don’t those sound wonderful? A brand new you in twelve short months. As writers, of course, we’d add a slew of authorly goals in there, too.

Sadly, the empirical data is also in - by the end of January – yes, before Groundhog's Day - only a third of the people who made resolutions will still be sticking to them.  And unlike Phil Connors, with an eternity of do-overs, when next year rolls around, 80% of people will have fallen off the self-improvement wagon.

Most years I would be reclining in my easy chair shaking my head at all those poor folk trying to better themselves. Except that this year, I really want to be one of them. Several very personal things have brought forcefully to my attention that this is the only time we’ve been given. How will we use it?

So, in honor of me making a resolution to become a resolution junky, here are five things* that can greatly increase your chances of reaching your goals (and since this is the Prosers, let’s think of it in writerly terms):

  • Plan a series of specific smaller goals– this alone will raise your chances of success to 35%. How do you envision this working into writing goals? Daily word counts? Chapters or short stories finished per week? Submissions?
  • Reward Completion – take time to celebrate small and large milestones toward larger goals. What do you do when you have plotted that story, reached the inciting incident, or slogged through that rough patch of editing?
  • Visualize success – looking at the benefits of reaching a goal is more motivating than focusing on the consequences of failure. What will it feel like when you type ‘The End’? Or receive that acceptance letter? Or have millions of squeeing fans?
  • Keep a Journal – hmm. Do any of you do this? Do you write about how you feel about writing, or do you just write?
  • Tell Someone Close to You – having a support system is pretty integral for writers. I love having a group who understands this bizarre compulsion to create with words (thanks Prosers!). Do you think there’s a difference between online support and face to face support you’d get from family and friends?

Well, there you have it. Measurably bump up your success by using some pretty simple, positive techniques.
Let's check back February 2nd, shall we, and see how we're doing?

*Source:  this very inspiringly titled piece from the Guardian: New Year’s Resolutions Doomed to Failure, Say Psychologists

~ Susan

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The One that Started it All

This is my sister and me before she discovered reading
When I was a kid, I didn't like to read. It was hard. I was slow and stumbled a lot on words, even words I knew. I felt embarrassed to read aloud. To this day, I still feel a rush of adrenaline whenever I read in front of adults. I have no problem reading to kids.

In elementary school, I could probably count on my hand the number of books I read for fun. Reading just wasn't my thing.

Until David Eddings.

My older sister was the opposite of me. She loved to read. Once she got good at it, it was all she ever did. I lost my best playmate to reading. I used to hide her books under the bed, so she would play with me. Not that it ever worked.

One summer when I was somewhere between ten and twelve, I was bored, and my sister having read David Eddings' Belgariad Series, told me I should read it, that the story was so cool. But I hated reading, so I refused.

My sister, who was awesome beyond awesome (and still is) wanted to share that story with me so bad that she said she would read it to me. I agreed because despite her ditching me for books, I still idolized her and wanted to spend more time with her.

I have to say, I wasn't very excited, especially when she started reading that horrid prologue. (For those of you who don't understand all the prologue hate, go read the prologue of Pawn of Prophesy, and you will understand).

Every time she finished a chapter, she'd say, "Should I go on." And I'd say, "I don't know, how many pages?" And she'd lie to me saying it was just ten pages when it really was twenty, so I'd agree to one more chapter.

But my sister was a talented reader. She had a real dramatic flare and later took up acting in high school and college. She’d read faster at the exciting parts, and slower at the reflecting parts, had great comedic timing. We would both laugh and laugh at Silk’s witty one liners.

It didn't take long before the magic of David Eddings' story won me over. It was an amazing story. The classic farm boy turns hero, epic fantasy adventure that has been done so many times. There is a reason this trope works so well especially for younger readers, and in my opinion, no one did it better than Eddings.

After a while, I would beg her to read just one more chapter and then another and another, and she'd read until she was hoarse.

She read all five books of the Belgariad to me that summer. Books she had already read before. But it was a story that meant so much to her that she had to share it with me. And even though I was old enough to read the books myself, she read them to me because she knew I wouldn't read them on my own.

My sister and David Eddings gave me an amazing gift that summer. They showed me how books could tell richer stories than movies and TV. Because I wasn't so focused on the words, I could picture the story in my head and see the images and use my imagination.

After that summer, I started reading. I read the Belgariad on my own, then the Mallorean, and later moved on to Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan and kept going.

My mom, who also loves reading, did read to me a lot as a child, but sometimes it takes the right story at the right time to inspire that love, and that story for me was the Belgariad series. I'm so thankful that my sister shared that story with me that one summer.

Thank you, Michelle.

And rest in peace, David Eddings. You wrote one amazing series with characters that to this day I remember vividly and will always love. I wish I had the chance to thank you in person.


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas Proser's Everywhere!

 Yes, I'm a day early.

One of my favorite family Christmas traditions is  writing our yearly Christmas story. For fun, I thought I'd share it with you all, and then go back to the candy in my stocking, and hopefully putting a puzzle together with my mom.

I hope all of your holiday's are fabulous!

The Naughty Elf
by Ian and Mom and Clara
Once upon a Santa’s workshop, there was an elf named Aria, who made the dolls.
 As she used her paintbrush to paint on the lips, she thought, This is the most beautiful doll I’ve ever made. In fact, this is the most beautiful doll I’ve ever seen. And as she braided the doll’s yarn hair an aching need hit her in the stomach. This doll… this doll should be hers.
She looked around. Certainly no one would miss just one little perfect doll.
Maybe… Maybe she should hide it.
Just as she thought this naughty thought, the final bell rang, and Aria looked up. The puff at the peak of her hat bonked her right on the nose. It was almost time to load Santa’s sleigh.
When she looked down, she was shocked to discover the beautiful doll was gone. Where was her doll? A cart of dolls WITH HER DOLL ON TOP hit the doors on its way out of the doll room.
Oh no!
Aria hopped down from her bench and ran after the cart. The bells on her slippers jingled as she ran. She followed the cart into the wrapping room, and then followed the wrapped doll into the loading room. She even followed that wrapped doll down the loading chute and into Santa’s Sack.
          There were wrapped presents everywhere, but which one was her doll?  She opened one present, but it wasn’t her doll, it was a video game.
Oh Gingerbreadman! That wasn’t her doll. She opened another. And another. And another. Before she knew it, she had unwrapped all of the presents for every girl and boy in the whole world, but she still hadn’t found her doll. Aria was so sad, she sat down on somebody’s board game and she cried and she cried.
At last, she spotted a present hidden behind a pile of books.
Her doll! She unwrapped it and giggled as she kissed the freckles she had painted on its cheeks, and touched the lace on the dress she had sewn.
When she looked around and saw all the unwrapped presents, she felt bad about what she had done.
She left her doll on the pile of books and quick as an elf, she wrapped up all of those presents, and put the nametags on in… almost the right order.
Then she hid with the doll behind the stack of books, and because she was so tired from wrapping every present for every child in the entire world, she lay down with her fingers around her doll. She put her thumb in her mouth and fell asleep.
While she slept, Santa was working hard delivering toys. When he got to the very last house on his list, Santa reached into the bag. There was a very good girl who lived in this small house. A sweet girl named Clara who was asleep in her bed dreaming of a new doll.
Santa reached into his sack and put his fingers around the doll. Aria woke up and clung to the doll’s hand, and out she came too. Aria pulled the doll from Santa’s fingers and tried to hide the doll behind her back. But Aria was just too small. Santa saw it.
Santa told her about Clara, how she was a good girl who was learning to get dressed at night, who gave her baby brother hugs and diapers, and sang along to the radio in the car.
“But Santa,” Aria whispered, “She has so many dolls. Does she really need this one too?”
Santa hugged her, and said it was up to her to decide, and then hopped down the chimney and ate a few cookies.
Aria pouted. She looked at her doll and pouted again. But then, she thought about how Clara would feel if she woke up without any presents.
Aria sighed, and then she wrapped one more present and marched all the way across the roof, and down the chimney, and to the well-dressed tree. She put the present under the tree, and stood there for a long time, her fingers resting on the red foil paper. Finally, she swallowed, wiped the tears on her cheek, and hopped onto Santa’s shoulders.
She fell asleep on the way home.
When she woke up, all she could see was red.  A noise like the ripping of paper cleared her vision, and there in front of her face was Clara, the little girl who would get her doll. Clara smiled and picked up Aria and danced around her front room. “I love it! I love it,” Clara shouted. “It’s the most beautiful doll in the whole world.”
Aria couldn’t move. She wasn’t an elf anymore, she was a doll.
She looked at the lace on Clara’s pajamas, and the freckles on her nose. That Christmas day, Clara and Aria had tea parties, and played dress up. Clara brushed Aria’s yarn hair, and sang as they danced around her room.
That night, as Clara hugged Aria as she slept, Aria smiled her doll smile.
Everything was just right.
Well, for Aria anyway. Across town that morning, a boy named Zack opened his present expecting to see the football he had asked for, but instead he held ballet slippers.
But that’s another story.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Nanowrimo and Christmas

Yesterday, I was stomping through the store, searching for something--anything--that would bring a sparkle of delight to my youngest son's eyes on Christmas morning. Everything I'd already bought seemed awful, everyone was going to hate it all, and I just knew I was going to forget how I wanted my novel to end before I got a chance to finish it. I wanted to go home and knock the stupid Christmas tree on the floor.
Christmas can be stressful, but add in packing for a move to a new city and a Nanowrimo novel that just won't end, and you can imagine my stress level. Even without the move though, Nanowrimo and Christmas butt up against each other in stressful ways every year. I would never give up either one, but I know I should do some things differently. Perhaps it's an odd thing to post about on Christmas Eve, but while it's fresh in my mind, here's a letter for me to open again in 10 months.

I hope you find something useful in it, even if you aren't a Nanowrimo fan. Merry Christmas!

December 24, 2011
Dear Melanie, 

When you open this, it will be October 31, 2012. Halloween. A little early to be thinking about Christmas, I suppose, but if I know you, and I know I do, you're starting to think about it--maybe even to dread it a little. You know what's coming--the exhaustion, the aches and pains, even the's all part of the Nanowrimo/Christmas deluxe package, right? 

I don't think so. This year can be different. You can give yourself something special for Christmas this year, but you need to start TODAY. Are you with me? Here's the plan. 

October 31, 2012: This is the make it or break it day, right here. Somehow you always manage to push it out of your mind, but you have a serious sugar addiction, and if you aren't tough today, you'll spend the rest of the year with your blood sugar soaring like a kite. So, as a gift to yourself for Christmas this year, make Halloween a sugar free day. DO NOT buy candy until moments before the Trick or Treaters arrive, and let someone else pass it out. Or give out pencils. 

November 1, 2012: Nanowrimo, Day 1!!!! I smile just to think about it. You've been training for this for months, and I know you've got a lot to say. Give yourself an early Christmas present: DO NOT buy candy when it's marked down 75% and tell yourself you'll save it for Christmas. You won't. Besides, if you're not in the store, you'll have more time to write.  

Throughout the month of November: 
Exercise. I'm serious. I know what you've got to give up in order to find time to write a novel in November. Trust me. I've been there, done that. But exercise. In the morning. It doesn't have to be a ton. In fact, I'd say that 10 minutes 6 days a week ought to cover it. 3 days of strength training, 3 days of running a mile or doing Zumba or jumping rope. Just break a sweat. You try for any more than this, and you'll probably decide to skip it altogether. 

When you're in a writer's haze, you won't even notice whether it's carrots you're chomping on or Laffy Taffy. For some reason you never remember this until the last week of November. Instead of stocking up on bargain priced candy, stock up on healthy foods. Whatever's easy to grab--that's what you'll eat. 

And a month of eating green salad with chicken and walnuts for lunch never hurt anyone. If you get sick of it, Italian Peasant Stew is always a pleasant alternative, though I recommend leaving out the Italian Peasants. They are awfully expensive this time of year, and you'll hardly miss them. 

Moderation has never been your strong suit. It may look like one candy bar to you, but it's really two months of swirling in a vortex of bad health choices until you are spit out onto the rocky shores of exhaustion. You're not a spring chicken anymore, you know, and those days of trekking back where you belong are getting tougher. 

November 26, 2012: Cyber Monday. No matter how far behind on your novel you think you are, stop what you're doing and order Christmas presents. You'll be glad you did. Remember how long the World Soccer Shop and Deseret Book take to fill your orders? 

December 1, 2012: Time for another early Christmas present. Finish that book. Even if the last half of the book is encapsulated in two pages, get to the words "The End" and leave it alone. You've got the rest of the winter to edit and tinker and add to your book. That's why you write a novel in November in the first place. But December is for family, and trying to add novel writing into the mix is a well-known recipe for transforming yourself into Scrooge! Everybody needs an occasional vacation from writing, and December is yours. Let the guilt go.  

Merry Christmas, my future self! If all went the way it was supposed to, your back didn't go out on you the day before Thanksgiving, your Christmas preparations didn't exhaust  you, you didn't gain lots of weight between Halloween and now, and you spent more time enjoying the things that really matter.  

January 1, 2013: Go on, open up that novel and start editing. You know you want to. 

With love,  


Friday, December 23, 2011

A Chant Sublime

Half my living room is consumed by a grand piano, which my parents bought when I was 13. The house is too small for this behemoth instrument and I know I should sell it, but I can’t bring myself to. I hardly ever play, but every year, on December 1st, I pull out a book of carols.

Every song is special for its own reasons. I remember my first book of carols, with water-color illustrations on each facing page. "Good King Wenceslas" was the easiest to sight-read, and so I played it over and over. To this day I have no idea what that song is about.

I remember playing through "Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming" and falling in love with the simple melody. My father came into the room, singing the bass line of the four-part harmony.

My sister and I used to sit at the piano and sing "Angels we Have Heard on High" over and over and over again, trying to harmonize, trying to make our Glo-o-o-o-o-o-rias operatic. She has a voice that can be shared in public and I don’t, but I like to think that together we were lovely.

I remember Christmas Eve, joining my father in a living room lit only by the multi-colored lights on the tree, listening to The Messiah.

I remember singing "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" as we marched down the stairs—in ascending order of age—on Christmas morning. Our family was kooky, but a sweet kind of kooky. (After years teasing me mercilessly about this tradition, my husband was the one to start singing at the top of the stairs  the first time we spent Christmas morning in our own house.)

I remember opening presents and listening to the Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast from King’s College in England. "Once in Royal David’s City" always begins with a boy’s solo.  My father told me that the boys never knew which one would sing until the last second; that way the chosen singer wouldn’t crumple from nerves.

I remember when my children were babies, and I realized how many Christmas carols are just lullabies in disguise. I remember the first Christmas that I was the grown-up in my own darkened living room, lit with a rainbow of lights from my own tree, and how I sat holding a tow-headed infant and nursed and rocked and sang carol after carol.

Last year my younger one demanded "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" every night at bedtime. I thought it would stop after the holiday, but we’re going on 380-ish days and counting.

I play through all these songs and more on my living-room-sized piano. I flip through and focus on the easy ones, since I'm out of practice. I don’t usually play a second verse, except for one song that I have to play five times through. I can’t help it. I can’t stop at one verse. This song has to be sung to the end, even if the singing is in my head because my voice doesn't have much range.

On Christmas Day in 1864, in the midst of a brutal war, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was not feeling the holiday spirit. He’d lost his wife in a fire three years earlier, in which he was also badly burned. Then the Civil War broke out. His son joined the Union against his wishes. At the end of November, 1864, Charles Longfellow was severely wounded at the Battle of Mine Run in Virginia.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Hearing the bells on December 25, certain his son was going to die*, Longfellow did what any writer would do: He channeled his despair into a poem, titled "Christmas Bells." The poem is longer and much more specific to the Civil War than what we sing today. Here is a link to the text.

I like knowing this history, knowing that Longfellow found hope in the face of overwhelming grief. That's part of the gift of writing. Often I find that something good starts to emerge as I get all the bad stuff down on paper; a poem taking shape can transform sadness into beauty almost on its own. 

The holidays are supposed to be joyful, but they also bring depression for a lot of people. My holiday blues usually take the form of wishing I could hold a baby in my arms again, or missing the magic of childhood and feeling overwhelmed with grown-up things to do. Longfellow’s words comfort me every year, reminding me that there is always hope to be found in your own heart, no matter how deeply buried it may seem.

Here's a link to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing my favorite carol. The opening melody is by John Baptiste Calkin. That's the one I play, and it's the one I love best:

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men."

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."

Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Have a wonderful holiday!


*Charles Longfellow did recover from his injuries and went on to travel the world.