Home   |   LCS Prints Store   |   About Me   |   FAQ   

Friday, January 29, 2010

Scene Storming: "Surface"

More practice for me. Thanks for your patience. I know the ending is contrived. I haven't learned how to do it better yet. With gratitude again to Darnell Arnoult at Dancing with the Gorilla who gets me going when I am good and stuck.

When she arrived at the supermarket, the parking lot surface shimmered with puddles rippling in the low areas left after the new tar job. “A quick trip for milk and I’m out of here,” she muttered, pulling her skirt down behind her as she slipped off the high seat. “God, I hate driving this thing.” Grabbing the handle, she tugged at the rusted door with two hands, swinging it closed with a clunk that left her arms vibrating. “Seven years ago I was only going to have to use the truck a year or two. Yea, right,” as she walked away from the fourteen-year-old pick-up toward the store.

She tried not to look at the Mercedes SUV’s, the BMW’s she passed, ignoring the shining black Lexus that inched out as the driver waited for her to walk behind him. “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter,” she chanted to herself as she walked through the revolving door. “It gets me where I want to go. That’s all I need, right? At least the grocery-store-side of the parking lot is paved again. If I had to walk through the mud one more time to buy a gallon of milk, I swear I’d shoot myself,” she thought, glancing to the other side of the lot, where a sign explained that a restaurant and designer shops were taking shape, amid a dusty construction zone.

Her high heels clacked as she walked the five miles to the refrigerated section at the far corner of the store, wondering for what seemed like the thousandth time why they couldn’t put a milk display up front. Checking the date on a plastic carton, she heaved it under her arm.

Inhaling, she acknowledged that it wasn’t the truck itself that was getting to her, or the parking lot. They were her scapegoats. After a day like today, something always needed to be. The truck didn’t bother her usually. With Darryl out of work for so long last year, and for six months the year before that, they were lucky to have any wheels at all.

Beat up as it was, the truck had, after all, been with them for the whole of their marriage. They bought it together, two weeks before the wedding, pooling together most of their cash and taking out their first loan so they could drive it on their honeymoon to a campsite up in the White Mountains. It had seen them safely through many an icy winter, plowing out their driveway as well as three of their neighbors’, and it never slowed down over any of the countless weekends they had driven down the rutted track to the cabin at the lake. It had even taken a fifteen-hundred-mile, mid-summer journey down to Florida non-stop without complaint. Smiling, she remembered last Fourth of July when after the fireworks, Darryl took a detour down a deserted fire road, just as he had when they were teenagers, into darkness that feathered soft and warm, and how his breath smelled of spearmint as he leaned in toward her.

But earlier today she had jammed the shift into first gear, and then stomped on the accelerator too hard while recalling the endless phone calls she’d been required to take at the office. The truck had squealed and jerked forward, then filed a protest by stalling mid-intersection, with a trail of honking commuters stacked up far behind her.

It wasn’t her fault that the XQ30 was recalled for safety reasons. But she was the Senior Customer Service Manager and her job description required that she allow people to vent at her as if she was the one who designed it. All day long she had listened as angry voices demanded to know how soon the two-inch part that would get their backhoes back in service could be shipped. And all day long she had replied: “I hear your frustration, sir. We will get it out to you as fast as possible. No sir, we don’t recommend you drive your vehicle until the part has been replaced. We have been informed that there have been incidents where the machine has failed to stop. Please accept our apologies.”

“And now this damn truck,” she had said between gritted teeth, as she sat in the intersection, turning the key and praying the engine would turn over. Coughing and choking, it did, spewing grey smoke in a haze behind her as she pulled in to purchase the milk.

Ten minutes later, in line at the automatic check-out she fidgeted with her keys behind the elderly woman who didn’t know how to use the scanner. Closing her eyes for a brief instant, she sighed, then stepped forward, demonstrating how to scan her courtesy card, and then the bar-code on her items; pointing to the correct button to push when the woman was ready to pay. Concentrating on the smile the woman offered her, she felt herself relax. “This is what I like to do. Help people. I’m good at it. It’s not the truck’s fault that people were over-the-top mad today. I would be too.” Checking herself out, she resolved to have more patience, to be kinder to the vehicle that in truth had been part of their family, a part of their lives, for so many years.

Pocketing her change that spit from the automatic dispenser, she heard snaps and static as a voice over the intercom called, “Will the owner of a green Ford pick up, license 573WIP please come to the customer service center?” Eyes wide, she looked up at the clerk bagging an order at the end of the next aisle,

“Did you hear the crash?” He asked her. “A backhoe outside just drove into some old pick-up truck.”

Thursday, January 28, 2010


A contra-dance of snowflakes—partnering, grabbing hands, shifting, circling, touching shoulders, stepping off—textured flecks merging to liquid on a heated windshield—droplets, tracking down, a step, a stop, Promenade left, Allemande right, pausing on a beat, flowing forward, bumping an obstacle, splitting apart, clear ants sashaying back to the nest, parallel sequences chasing themselves, down a speckled windshield.

Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On the Bright Side

Wow! I have been negligent in posting the Happy Award that Tamika gave me several days ago, into my sidebar and now I have been honored again by Tabitha at Through my Eyes. I'm reluctant to bore you though, so if you are interested, here is my "Ten things that make me happy" post. I’ll add to last week's list, this online world, where people are so kind and encouraging and helpful. I’m grateful to you all!

Gosh though, it’s funny to receive this award today. I am not supposed to look at what I write in my Morning Pages exercises, and for the most part, have not. But, today the following surfaced, as I wrote: “So often we spend life doing what we think we should do, and fail to realize that we’ve buried what we must do. Then for some reason, the status quo changes and the ‘must do’s’ revolt and shoulder aside the clutter. As a result, life opens up, grows bigger, like a multi-colored piñata stuffed with surprise gifts, instead of sheer white curtains wafting by an open window. Time becomes less about minutes to live through, and more about moments to discover.”

Perhaps this sounds naive and trite, but as I wrote it I was thinking of the job I had up until last year--how I methodically plodded through my days, scheduled and routine, marching through life but missing it, stuck between a good pay-check and what I thought was a too-hard place. Then a shovel arrived, disguised as a pink slip, and I’ve emerged, digging myself out as if after a fierce snowstorm, brushing off my sleeves, unwinding the cotton strips that entombed my mummified spirit.

There are anxious moments each day to be sure. But here’s the thing. Every morning (once I get over the fact that it is still dark out), I rise engaged and motivated, with things on the agenda to look forward to. That drag-myself-out-of-bed-moaning, “Ugh, I have to go to that place again” feeling no longer descends. The room may be black but the gloom has dissipated, slipping like the cold through the leaks in our aging windows. Anxiety and fear still surface, but they are rocks that I kick as I walk along the road, flat stones I throw side-armed as I skip them into a calm teal sea.

I'm knocking on wood as I write this and searching for my rabbit's foot. I'll cross myself a few times just to make sure. After tossing some spilled salt over my shoulder though--I'll say this: Yup, I'm pretty sure this is what happy feels like.

The Happy 101 awards simply reflect it.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Feast or Famine, Of Course

I’m going to keep this short today. I am two classes behind on my on-line writing course, and have a brochure to write for a non-profit, with my fingers crossed that another job will be coming along soon. Sorry to say that The Artist’s Way has been relegated to the bottom of the pile which, kick myself, is NOT where it is supposed to be.

So instead of a Middle Passages post, I’d like to ask you to click over to, and read the last few posts at Where Sky Meets Ground, by Jon Paul, a writer, and a helicopter pilot currently based in Baghdad. Jon Paul wrote a hysterical account of a fictional job interview about a helicopter pilot trying to get a position as a writer (read both posts). Those of you who know my past will understand why the topic resonated with me, but it was his writing that kept me laughing.

Without further ado, I give you Jon Paul, at: Where Sky Meets Ground.


Monday, January 25, 2010

A Hunger for Words

“The quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight. The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.” Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way.

Saturday my husband, daughter and I drove to Rhode Island on a preliminary college reconnaissance mission. After strolling through curving asphalt paths past the red-brick buildings at University #2, we took a detour through Providence, up through Federal Hill to a specialty Italian Food Emporium that I visited seven years ago, but have not been to since.

We had no plan to purchase, only to wander around the large central glass case where soft lights shined on home-made Italian delicacies, layered lasagnas, breaded eggplants, stuffed green artichokes, bracciole and hard sticks of imported pepperoni. My mouth salivated at the bins of briny olives, wedges of salty Parmigiano Reggiano, meaty slabs of prosciutto, expensive green olive oils, and balsamic vinegars that pour like syrup. We inhaled the scent of garlic and stared at the side wall-freezers stacked with frozen flavored raviolis—butternut squash, lobster, mushroom and cheese.

Around us, clerks spoke in Italian accented English, and in the corners, white haired men sat at marble tables, black button-up shirts opened at the neck as they sipped red wine and a yellow drink I took for Limoncello. Any temptation we had to open our wallet faded at the line of customers stacked two deep in front of a smiling cashier. We left, after savoring the complimentary pizzelle slathered with Nutella a cheerful clerk offered us, wishing for five more circuits through the store, a bottomless purse, and a walk-in freezer back home in which to store the delicacies. Can you believe that we only went to look?

Of course I longed to buy things at the store in Providence, but rationalized not doing so by labeling it a big-picture visit. We would have relished the Nicoise olives I wanted to buy, the quarter pound of textured cheese I imagined ordering, the anticipation of dinner as we plunged lobster ravioli into boiling salted water—we would have savored it all—but then—it would have been gone—a short term extravagance, swallowed and then forgotten.

Instead I left empty-handed but dreaming about the store offerings, which I subsequently cataloged to use at my own discretion. Now that the images and smells from Saturday reside in my memory, I can pull them out when I want to serve them in a story, as an appetizer or a dinner, arranged on a bright blue terracotta platter beside a stem of plump red grapes and a sweating bottle of chilled white wine. I can slice hard sausage and place it in layers on a decorative plate along with ripe tomatoes and dripping mozzarella, dribbling the whole thing with aged balsamic. I can serve steaming artichoke hearts and lemon aioli beside plump stuffed mushrooms, using an ornate silver spoon—or slather garlic infused white bean puree onto toasted ciabatta bread, sprinkling the tops with chopped green parsley.

I can eat until my stomach protests, or graze, an olive here, a sliver of cheese there, a dip of bread into a simmering pink vodka sauce. The feast can arrive at midnight, or three in the morning or for breakfast, and I can offer it to friends or eat it all by myself, licking my fingers one by one when finished. In brief, I can dish up whatever I want, when I want, with whom I want, and however I choose to design the layout of the luxurious repast, well, it all came to me for free.

And, if that’s not enough, Saturday I uncovered a bonus. If someday, all this imagining gets to me, the store sells selective items via mail order.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

With Words Like These...

Who needs pictures?

I write because some day, I want to be a person who creates snippets like these, from The Whole World Over by Julia Glass:
“He was trained, she’d always thought, to use silence the way the Old Masters used white. The surface of a pearl, the shaft of light from a window, the glint on a chalice or a dagger.”
Or these, about a woman who’s had a brain injury, from the same novel:

“Riding on the train, she’d notice how highway signs were precisely the same green and white as those woven plastic lawn chairs (was that on purpose?), how she felt like a drop of water sliding fast through a long glass tube, how railroad ties were no longer made of dark motley wood but plain old concrete. But perhaps she had known and felt all these things before. At such times, she saw her brain as one of those pocket puzzles composed of numbered square tiles in a grid; the tiles had merely been mixed up like crazy, and now her work was to move them side to side, up and down, till she got them back in order.”

These two paragraphs stopped me dead. How did she come up with those images?

Ah, yes, there is nothing like good writing—Julia Glass, winner of a National Book Award for Fiction and, fellowship recipient from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Hmmm, a goal to aim for—writing like Julia Glass—nothing wrong with lofty aspirations, I suppose. It makes sense right now though, to start a bit closer to the ground beginning with the following shameless plug.

Thanks to Simon, over at Constant Revision who mentioned it on his blog, I’ve entered a contest called “Why I Write” at The Editor Unleashed. My entry was culled from a Middle Passages post I wrote this autumn called "Scotch Anyone?" If you’d like to read it (and popular ranking plays a part, so you’ll be my best friend if you do), click on the "Scotch Anyone" link.

The contest is open until the end of the month if you want to enter; the top 50 will go on for further judging.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Old Enemies

An assignment in The Artist’s Way, requires that we record a real life “horror story” that resulted in “damage to our creative self-worth.” Per the author, “It is necessary to acknowledge creative injuries and grieve them.” For the most part, I think she anticipates that enemies are others--outside parties who question the artist’s skills. In my case, the enemy resided within. I can’t change the past, but I can recognize it, mourn it, and crumple it up in the fireplace before touching it with a match. Join me if you like, in front of the crackling flames.

At the end of my freshman year of college, I jumped off the “undecided” fence I was straddling and dipped myself into black ink by declaring myself a Journalism Major. The school hosted a small department--two cranky full-time professors who may or may not have once been journalists, one part-time teacher who also ran the sports section of the local newspaper. He was the one I liked the most.

Toward the end of sophomore year, our “final exam” in Cranky Professor #2’s class involved conducting a bona fide interview with a public official. I was shy, shy, shy, and back then; it took little for what confidence I had to trickle out of me like water from a low-flow sprinkler. Too scared to knock on the door of some stranger, I constructed my own little press conference by convincing a friend in class that we could interview the Chief of Police together.

She knew better, I’m thinking, but agreed. Off we went, making sure to write and ask our own questions, take our own notes, and author our own feature articles. Our collaboration, if you call it that, occurred because we sat in the same place at the same time. Since writing was always the easy part; my article flowed from me. The story contained a stellar hook; I remember it went something like: “As a boy, Joe Smith always wanted to be a policeman. Now he’s proud to be chief.” I passed in my completed assignment feeling pretty darn tickled with myself.

The day he returned our graded articles, the teacher walked around handing them out one by one. As he approached my desk, I gasped at the red “F” at the top of my paper--staring in disbelief at his comment: “Miss M--- says this is her story!!” I looked in shock at my friend and she waved her paper marked C+. Of course I should have waited until after class, but instead raised my hand and asked why he failed me. He offered a condescending comment her paper getting in first, and rather than bawling in class, I stomped out.

It was clear, whether it was his plan or not, the professor had called my bluff. I was a chicken, and chickens don’t make it in the rough and challenging field of investigative journalism. It galled however, the way he arbitrarily assigned the failing grade to me. Not that I was wishing it on my friend; I wasn’t. But she never claimed it was “her” story; he never asked. The F landed with me simply because hers landed closer to the top of his pile.

In looking back I thank God, that I, and not the friend I had coerced, was the one that got the F. Back then though, the unequal punishment chewed at me. Deep down I knew I had dug my own hole; I had to build a ladder and climb out. The next day I marched up the steps to the professor’s office in my wooden clogs. During that meeting, in which he informed me that my paper would have been graded an A, I was successful making my point about the unequal treatment in his grading. He granted me a second chance to complete the assignment.

Leaving his office, I walked the three miles to town and interviewed the Postmaster, returned to my room, pounded out an article on my manual typewriter and marched it back to the professor’s office. I remember the hook to that story too: “Some people dislike their jobs, but the Postmaster of Winooski never feels out of sorts.” Grade on that one: A-

Sadly though, after I proved myself, I caved. Rather than admitting I could, indeed, conduct interviews with strangers, and write a damn good story to boot, I rationalized all over the place about how unjust the punishment had been. I wasn’t going to put up with it, no sir. Within the week, I confided my woes to the head of the English Department and switched majors. Two years later I graduated with no clue as to what to do.

The irony to this story of which I am not proud, is that seven years after that life-altering class, I fell into a career in an HR Recruitment role in which I spent anywhere from 50% to 90% of the time interviewing strangers. Unfortunately, the position did not require me to write.

Should have, would have, and could have… nothing now but phrases to warm my hands by. If I had toughed it out all those years ago though, I might have learned to do both.

Did you have enemies to your creative self-worth? How did you banish them?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Light in the Darkness

The lovely Tamika over at the Write Worship gave me the Happy 101 Award at the end of last week—her timing could not have been better.

As a result of the advice from a retail tech squad pup with the best of intentions but a shortness of insight, we’ve experienced a catastrophic meltdown of our laptop. The sad thing is that this techno savant probably could have erased the worm that threatened our computer in five minutes, but altruistic in nature, he wanted to save us mere mortals $200. Rather than taking the computer in, he handed us just enough information to ensure that we’d strip the computer of its brain, leaving ourselves with a shell of hard plastic and no clue how to re-boot. Poor senseless genius, he obviously doesn’t understand that, if you are not him, it takes a PhD in physics, another in molecular biology, and a minor in computer science to get these things up and running again.

Add to my gripes above, a torturous, unsuccessful and unresolved search through every cupboard, drawer, box and file in the house trying to find our network password, and it will give you a gist of the mood around here. The password, I fear, has evaporated, poof, just like all the data on the laptop--we now own an HP Pavilion on which you can play Minesweeper, Solitaire and Mahjong Titans, and tha-tha-tha-that’s all folks!

In this grumpy state, imagine how good it felt to fire up our five-year-old desktop to find that I am a recipient of Tamika’s award. I need to focus on good things right now and if one of them can’t be the tech guy showing up at our doorway, this instant, I’ll go for the list required by Happy Award winners:

Ten things that make me happy. Are you ready?

1. The six colorful origami stars, scattered at my cubby by my daughter.

2. My husband, honestly, the nicest man around.

3. The ocean. You see it in so many of my pictures. There’s something organic about this passion for the water, it lives in me. There is never a time when I first see the sea that I don’t take a deep breath, smile and sigh.

4. Chocolate bread pudding, apple pie, making bread, spaghetti sauce simmering on the stove, blueberry crisp--a marinated steak, grilled medium rare, accompanied by oven-roasted potatoes and a glass of red wine on a Saturday night--fish baked to melt-in-your-mouth flakiness in foil packets, so as to not stink up the kitchen. Oh and lately, when the pizza crust I’m trying to perfect relaxes enough to stretch across the entire pan. It would be way too easy and cheating if I made an entry for every food that makes me happy, so this whole thing counts as one, even though it’s technically about nine. Food? It’s all happy.

5. Middle Passages and my followers.

6. Waking up on a weekend morning with nothing on the schedule.

7. Sipping fresh ground coffee, light and sweet, while sitting at the counter, paging through the newspaper early on a Saturday in the winter, or up at the bistro table at the back patio overlooking the rock garden in the summer.

8. Reading a book in front of the blazing fire toasting my slipper-shod feet, on the day listed in #6 above

9. My daughter’s smile when I agree to her request for a cup of coffee from a downtown café after picking her up from school (for her it’s only a sometimes thing--I started at age sixteen after all), and our subsequent drive to the beach where we watch the water, comment on the invariable dog-walkers and catch up on the day while slurping the hot brew.

10. White snow drops, blooming in the garden in early March, the first sign of life emerging from our dormant earth.

And, ta-da, an extra:

11. Knowing that for a mere $100 more than the amount it would have taken to eliminate our computer virus, a tech guy will arrive, sometime between 12:00 and 4:00 on Friday, to repair our laptop.

Now, I’m supposed to give this prize away to a bunch of blogs, but I’m only going to give it to one person--Glen at Differences with the Same Likeness. Glen is a loyal follower of Middle Passages. When I check my comments every day, he’s one of the first there and his remarks are upbeat, positive, and make me happy. So who better is there on which to bestow this award? He says he’s not a writer, but boy, he can come up with some dead-on descriptions. Yea Glen. Thank you for reading and commenting--and thank you again Tamika, for wonderful timing, and an award that improved my mood one hundredfold.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Friday's Gift

Since the pocket digital broke, there have been too many times that I’ve been caught without a camera; Friday it happened again. Traveling over the causeway at high tide, we drove through chunks of blue ice, stacked on top of each other, rising and sinking like deep breaths at the edges of the crumbling road. For what seemed like the millionth time lately, I said, “Oh, I wish I had the camera.”

After dropping off my daughter’s friend and returning home, I puttered, then challenged myself to take an “Artist’s Date” (as recommended by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way--I’ll write more about this later.) Grabbing our Nikon, I climbed into the Jeep and drove back.

When I arrived, the tide was lower, the picture less inspiring, until I remembered how different things look now from the image on the Middle Passages masthead above, which I took at the same location this summer. You may recall I have an ideal in my mind’s eye about this place. The photo you see every time you read Middle Passages is the closest I’ve come to what lives in my imagination.

Friday however, was about discovering more subtle beauty--yellow salt marsh hay slumping under a burden of snow, ducks swimming up against clear ice and turning away, an elderly woman, who walked up to me and then with me, until she could point out the Great Blue heron feeding in the marsh. And my cove, minus the rowboat, quiet and sleeping. A car in the distance harrumphed as the driver changed gears, slow water shivered as it flowed under the street, shifting ice squealed--all sounds traveling on thin air, arriving muffled and subdued--hints of life residing under chilled surfaces, deep down beneath the January cold.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Things We Are Supposed to See

I may have mentioned that I am ophthalmologically challenged. Nah, it’s not a word, but I was going for something more original than “blind as a bat.” The only place I step without my glasses is from the bed to the shower in the morning, and as soon as I’ve toweled off, those babies are on my face to stay. I was a dedicated contact lens girl for about thirty years, until middle-aged eyes decided to dry up and reject those cellophane wrappers. So it appears I am four-eyes for life, since I’ve checked out laser surgery and as it stands today, it’s not an option for me.

Why does of this matter to you? Because yesterday—at the recommendation of Paula, (please check out her blog and beautiful paintings) I started The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, billed as a course in “discovering and recovering your creative self” —getting as far as the “Basic Tools” chapter—which explains the course requirement for “Morning Pages.”

I’m sure so many of you know all about this, but I ask your indulgence, because it’s new for me. Basically, Julia says that first thing in the morning, every morning, throughout the life of the course but hopefully for longer, you need to write three pages, long-hand, stream of consciousness, on anything that comes to mind, “a brain drain” Julie calls it, “the primary tool of creative recovery.” I interpret Morning Pages as a way to clear the, um, clutter, out of your brain to leave it clean and fresh and receptive to creativity.

“Oh right,” I thought, upon reading about them yesterday. “Like I’m going to fit that in. Hmmm. Does she mean as soon as I get up? No way. Well, maybe I could do it after school drop-off, before I sit down to the computer. Still though, it seems rather—demanding don’t you think? Every day? First thing? That’s going to mean getting up earlier. Seriously—every day? Oh well, maybe I’ll buy a notebook over the weekend and give it a try— I suppose that can’t hurt, too much, right?” And so it went.

Until, this morning, when I received the gift of an extra sleep-in, because my daughter has no school. After my husband kissed me goodbye, I rolled over, and glancing at my bedside table, caught sight (albeit, a blurry one) of a blue toile cloth-bound journal, a gift to me, which has perched untouched, around which we’ve dusted, since August. “Hmmm” again. “Morning pages? Nice book. It’s kind of small, might be cheating. Could always write more then three pages to even it out. Maybe, just for this morning I'll see how it feels—”

So, with no glasses, in the gray, predawn light, with my eyes about two inches from the book, I began to write—letting it all out, not caring about punctuation or spelling, still in bed, leaning on my elbow, my hand cramping, but scribbling anyway.

Engrossed and focused, I poured out words until I had occasion to look up--

and scream “Oh sh_t!” at huge black shape standing in front of the picture window of our first floor bedroom, no more than twelve feet from me. “What the heck is that?” I panted, while scrabbling at my bureau for my glasses, all the while trying to untangle myself from the sheets so I could run. Really, it could have been a man, it could have been a bear, I just couldn’t tell.

Sorry for the interruption Julia, I know we are probably not supposed to stop, but once the glasses were on, I saw two deer, lifting and placing thin legs through the backyard path beside the window; and as if she knew I could see her now, one turned her head and stared at me, soft eyed and still, drinking me in, a five second gaze that said, “Good Morning Liza. This is what you were meant to see.” And then, turning away, the two does stepped up the hill, followed by their hiccupping trail, folding themselves through the tight-leafed rhododendrons lining our yard. I watched one small tail flipping as they disappeared.

The Artists Way is a twelve week course. My two week borrow from the library won’t cut it. Hello Amazon? I need to buy a book.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Digging, um, Deep?

In a moment of week-day weakness, I allowed my daughter to watch a “for fee” On Demand movie yesterday afternoon. OK. I admit I watched too (and I can only justify this by telling you that it was after writing a blog post and serving lunches at the Senior Center and attending a two hour meeting focused on generating more business for LCS Writes, and sitting in the car for a half-an-hour behind a raised drawbridge, then grocery shopping--though none of this mitigates my guilt at watching a movie at 4:15 in the afternoon--so do me a favor, don’t tell).

Anyhoo, the movie, Fame, is a slick, surface redo of the 1980's hit about four students who attend the School for Performing Arts in NYC, that I fell in love with in a wooden floored movie theatre on Martha’s Vineyard the summer after graduating from college. And thank you, we don’t have to discuss the fact that when my daughter realized that its been 30 years since I first saw the movie, she had to push her eyeballs back into her sockets with her thumbs after exclaiming, “Wow.”

We have the original movie on DVD, and since sitting through the watered down version yesterday, I've contemplated using my "Magic Mom" powers (picture Super Woman with middle-age-spread here) to make it required viewing over the weekend. That said, while the new film left me with a wrinkled brow as I tried to understand any of the four main characters’ motivations, one story line, however poorly executed, resonated. It happens, as it were, to focus on a piece of gristle-filled meat that I have been attempting to chew and swallow for some time now.

In the remake, a teen character is beseeched by his drama professor to dig into his troubled emotions. The boy presumably lives a challenging life and is coping with the loss of his little sister to a gangland bullet. The teacher tells him that until he can tap into his feelings, he will fail as an actor. After repetitive browbeating over the course of his high school career, the young man speaks of the loss of the little girl, but when prodded to talk about the emotions he experienced as a result of his sister’s death, he stomps out of class.

This scene reminded me of a post I read last Saturday on WM Freelance Connection called Writers to Watch, Norman Prady. The interviewer quotes the author’s directive that writers must “stand naked on the street corner” in their writing and asks him to elaborate. Prady says:
“I think there are two kinds of writers: flies and frogs. Flies walk on the surface of the pond, barely getting their feet wet, never immersing themselves into the work they're doing - or think they're doing. Frogs first sit on the shore and observe the pond, then dive in, swim about, probe the entire area, and are then able to write with meaning, with understanding, with conviction...Frogs are honest. Flies are not."

Both the fictional drama teacher and the real life author touch a core truth. In order to be successful, an artist of any sort must confront his or her emotions so as to create from the soul while sinking into the water surrounding the piece he or she is trying to craft.

My guess is that almost everyone lives in front of emotional doors that they’ve sealed with Super Glue. How does a writer open the gate without drowning in the resulting flood? I, for one, struggle with that challenge. The key to the door is tucked into my blue-jeans pocket, and while I may have pulled it out and turned it over in my palm a few times, it feels safer to slide it back in. To be a writer, a real writer, a good writer, I have to fit that key into the lock, yet how do I convince myself to turn it?

The same way the remake of Fame is a fly above the lake, so far, my own writing buzzes on the surface. It’s time to challenge myself to hold my nose, fill my lungs with air, and to jump to the bottom of the pond. Truthfully though, it feels like I need to take some life saving lessons first.

How about you? What did you do in order to open your door?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Timing is Everything

Don't you just love syncronicity?

Those of you who read yesterday's post know that I'm struggling with the "planning" part of my professional life. My issue relates to writing (and, truth be known, carrying out) a business plan, but in my post, I queried you novel writers about the kind of outlining you use when you write your books. This morning, when this article appeared in my inbox, I laughed out loud. So as I get ready for my appointment later, I'll leave you with: How to Make Your Novel a Page Turner, by Elizabeth Sims, that appears in Writer'sDigest.com today.

Here's a little snippet to wet your whistle:

"You’ve got a good idea for a story, you’ve got a few characters in your head, you’ve got some stuff that happens.

Now what?

At this point many people just start writing, hoping their book will take shape as they go.

The streets of New York are littered with queries from such authors.

To lift your work from the gum wads and pigeon merde, you need a coherent plot.

Now, you can get pretty complex with plotting. You can try to follow this or that guru’s rules, you can try to emulate this or that bestselling author. But if you do, you’ll likely find that the whole thing gets horribly complicated way too soon.

The following method for forging a compelling plot is as good as any, and simpler than all of them."

Read this. It's a great article filled with good advice...maybe not for business plans, but you know how I feel about those, so who knows where I'll go next.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Making a Plan, Stan

It is an indicator as to how much I enjoy Middle Passages that it sucks me in each morning, to the detriment of a clean floor, folded laundry and other more compelling projects. After a point though, in order to be successful at the, ah, business at hand (read this as a "more compelling project"), it becomes necessary to discipline myself. To that end, this morning I refused to give in to the temptress that is Middle Passages, so as to complete a task over which I’ve been procrastinating for at least a month.

Lately I’ve been reading so many writing blogs and a consistent tenor reigns in many of the posts. Along with individual creativity and imagination and talent, order seeps through and I note how many writers approach their work as a business, planning their drafts, outlining, revising and realizing per-day writing goals. And while I am in love with the writing and am seriously cool on revising, there’s one thing I have to admit: I hate, no, make that, HATE outlining. In school, I abhorred the requirement to complete a plan for a teacher’s approval before beginning a paper, struggling to complete the task, because folks, I just wanted to write, to skip the hard work and get to the fun. Sometimes in secret I did just that--wrote first and backed into my outline based on what I had already written.

And, since now I'm a tad more grown up, and recognize the need while lacking the will, I’m impressed with those who take the time to put form and guide posts in, before writing. I offer kudos, all the while wondering how you do it. How do you know what your characters are going to do? Do you sketch out entire stories in your minds before sitting in front of the computer? Are your outlines vague suggestions, or actual maps of the tale you intend to write? I am aware there are free spirited writers who don’t outline at all, but still, I have to think that they have some idea of what’s to happen in their books.

So there it is out for all to see--my bad habit of letting things grow organically, both in my garden and in my life--and the problem is that the chore I have been delaying on, similar to writing a novel, requires bricks and mortar, shovels, hoes and chisels to give some shape to its guiding walls. No, I'm not writing a book, but given this propensity for letting things um, evolve; you can imagine how easy it’s been for me to write a business plan for LCS Writes. As in--not. At all.

I’ve been dragging my feet since December, having positioned myself at the computer several times--intent on forcing the issue, only to drift away on a Middle Passages post instead. Writing this blog is so much more, well, unplanned. Sometimes I have a topic, sometimes I don’t. Even when I have a general gist, in the end, I simply capture what ever comes out, edit the you-know-what out of it, publish it, go back in to identify my obligatory typo, edit the thing again, and hit publish one more time. Bam! Mission accomplished.

Turning off the computer at the end of the day, I rationalize that I have completed work that counts, and while I’m convinced the blog does count in some yet-to-be-discovered way, it’s not doing much toward generating business for LCS Writes. In order to achieve success in that particular undertaking, I need to make a plan. A business plan. Dare I say it? An outline. Set goals. Determine strategies. Estimate costs. Chart out a marketing course.

Yet, in the same way writing an outline flummoxes me, this business plan confounds me too. How do I know how much business I’ll develop? How can I plan, when my fledging writing firm has minimal history? Similar to my awe with regard to writers who outline a book’s future, conjuring up action from the black hole that drifts at the edge of imagination, so too, I respect people who can forecast a new business venture.

The only good thing here, is that I know myself well enough to understand that my Middle Passages delay tactics will only last until my bottom wedges up against a wall, which is where I found myself this morning. In case you needed to know, the wall is an outside one--and it feels pretty cold. Tomorrow I’m meeting with a mentor to discuss my business plan and there’s not much to gain there if I arrive unprepared. So this morning, I ignored Middle Passages while bootlegging a business plan off the Internet and editing it for my own purposes. It’s a draft, incomplete and in need of expert revision, but it’s been typed, emailed ahead, and will begin to provide some parameters under which I too, will build a story.

Big exhale here. This Middle Passages post is my reward.

How do you plan your writing?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Christmas in January

Yesterday, I stepped up the creaking stairs inside one of the white-steepled churches facing our town common to a balcony overlooking a congregation formed in 1821. Below me, church members waved and nodded to each other, as I suppose they have since women’s skirts swept the floor and men appeared in weskits--doffing their bowler hats. In the years between then and now, the cadences of life have changed, but the powerful rhythms that swell in response to good music never will.

It’s not my church, although on occasion I’ve had reason to visit, to reflect on the history contained in spare white walls embellished with the clean lines of colonial wainscoting, to gaze in envy at the fenced choir loft climbing up behind the minister’s pulpit.

I haven’t used my own voice in a serious capacity since I was in high school, but to my daughter’s horror, that doesn’t restrain me from letting the vocal chords fly at odd moments. In that regard, back in November, a member of this congregation caught me bellowing a tune while washing dishes at my volunteer gig. Looking for additional singers, he issued an invitation to attend rehearsals and join their choir at their annual Christmas concert. Oh, how the thought of standing with a group in front of a crowd once again, of paging through sheet music while breathing deep, exhaling and striving for the precise bell-tone appealed. It’s been so long.

After thirty seconds of consideration though, I realized that the date of the concert conflicted with a family Christmas celebration out of town, so I declined. I was unaware until last week, that the snow storm that pummeled us on December 20th, causing our teeth-clenching ride down the highway from parts west, had resulted in a postponement of this performance closer to home.

Yesterday was the make-up day, and if you ever have a chance to attend a holiday concert in the middle of January, I recommend it. Rather than posing with half an ear tuned to the music while categorizing the tail-end of a December to-do list, I simply sat while a stunning blend of acoustics--violins, a cello, two trumpets and a gifted choir, merged through Handel, Bach and fresh renditions of traditional carols that flowed like a river through me. For that’s what music does, it surges into your fingertips, to your elbows, through your eyes and mouth; it travels in your veins until it lifts you, on a cloud of sensation that’s spiritual regardless of your religious leanings, that bubbles up in spite of your beliefs.

If you don’t sing, or play an instrument, it may be news to you that music is feeling. Think of the times that you tap your fingers to the car radio, when you break into a dance while listening to your I-pod, or when the song on the elevator as you rode to the top floor repeats itself in your brain. Consider the melody that conjures up a memory, bringing tears to your eyes or causing you to grin and walk faster.

Good music, by the purity of it, wings with emotion that lifts and hangs on the air like clean sheets suspended in the wind. It stretches soft fingers and touches, physically, the same way love and hurt, grief and happiness do, reaching the core of you where it blossoms with a nourishing passion.

When the voices were silent, I wiped my eyes and blew my nose, recognizing that the postponement of the concert was one of the best presents I received this holiday season. True, I didn’t use my own voice yesterday, but inside I'm still singing.

Friday, January 8, 2010

When all Seems Lost

When I’m really stuck for an idea, as I have been so often lately, I turn to Darnell Arnoult and her Thursday scene storming list. I don’t follow her directions, which I believe are to pull one word from the list, write about it for a set period of time and then move on to the next word, writing about that for the same period of time, and so on. I just pick one of her words and go for it. Today’s word was “logs.” Some day, I suppose, I’ll learn how to take these things somewhere.

The cabin seemed brighter than she remembered, but the last time was during a rainy summer and all season long everything had seemed dark. Today though, the shaved logs on the outside walls glowed orange in the late afternoon light. The new cement block steps leading up to the porch were cool under her bare feet, but the screen door squealed as it always had. Out of habit, she grabbed it with her fingers to make sure it wouldn’t slam.

The porch looked the same; a musty wood-framed couch with worn navy cushions rested against the dark paneled wall; the flat topped wooden chest, containing rainy day games, doubled as a coffee table in front. Two white ladder-back rockers with woven wicker seats faced the couch at the edge of the sisal rug that centered the furniture arrangement. Wind chimes she made from bamboo rods when she was ten clinked conversationally in the late day breeze.

Tiptoeing across the porch, she entered the kitchen, where a rectangle of sun glared from the window onto the pine drop-leaf table placed in the middle of the room. Today’s Portland Press Herald lay open in front of one chair; beside it sat a green ceramic mug. From the distance, the mug looked empty, although she knew that it once held tea, seeped with water that had boiled for at least five minutes; even now the thought of that endless whistle made her twitch. If there had been steam coming out of that cup, she thought, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to withstand the urge to run back out the door.

But the cup was cold. She fingered it to make sure, then slipped behind the table to gaze out the picture window that overlooked the incline leading to the lake. The docks were in, lifting and settling, the tin motor boat bobbed at its mooring in the chop of the afternoon wind. She could see Mikey out there—he’d grown, but she knew it was him—wrestling on the dock with another boy she didn’t recognize. Grappling with each other, they leaned and pushed, trying to force the other in.

The late sun sparkled on the water, making it difficult to see. Shielding her eyes with her hand, she gazed over to the open door of the shed. There was no sign of Anita, but that wasn’t a surprise. She often left Mikey at the lake house when she had to work in the afternoon. Andie sighed. Anita, sitting on the dock, toasting her legs in the lowering sun would have made this easier somehow. Anita could always find the right words to diffuse any situation, whereas, Andie's talent seemed to be, mainly, in making things worse.

Jiggling a set of keys in her pocket, she took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and stepped out the back door, heading down toward the open shed. Peering in, she could see his curved shoulders in the ubiquitous red-plaid work shirt as he bent his head toward the piece of wood he was in the process of confining within the jaws of a clamp. Thankful she didn’t have to compete with the whine of an electric saw; she pushed the door open further, knowing it would squeak.

Turning, he caught sight of Andie, and stood up, staring at her. Holding up her palms, she said: “Before you say anything, I’ve come in peace. Anita told me about the cabin and I want you to know that it’s been taken care of. The back payments have been made. In fact all the payments have been made. You own the cabin free and clear.”

“You mean you own the cabin free and clear!” he barked at her.

“No Dad, it’s yours. The deed is in your name. It’s called a gift, and for once, why don’t you just take it. In case you don’t believe me, here’s my extra set of keys” she answered, throwing them toward him.

Without thinking, he reached up his hand and caught them, wishing this one time he could find the words, that somehow he could make himself say the things that would make this all end. Now though, it was impossible to speak around the lump in his throat, which he tried in vain to clear while watching through blurred eyes as his youngest daughter stormed up the hill toward her shiny, silver sports car.

What happens next, anyone?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Writer's, er, ah, What?

Here’s a theory. There’s no such thing as writer’s block. There may be, however, a temporary inability to write anything worth reading. So, I sit here at a maple-topped table in the town library, twisting as the sun from the palladium window beside me casts a glare, patting my fingers on the keyboard while shifting, then crossing my legs in my seat.

I’ve responded to email, checked Middle Passages, commented on comments, read the blogs I follow, and investigated an on-line writing class--on on-line writing--that I plan to sign up for this afternoon. Perhaps then, I’ll make some sense of Twitter. Oh, and I’ve watched a sleek, silver and purple train slide by the snow piles, swing sets and castles adorning the ice covered playground, down the hill outside. Yes, I could go home and do some laundry. But Thursday is my mandatory, “Get out of the house day.” So, though the ice has inhibited my walking routine, I went to the bank and the grocery store, and, credit, where credit is due--wrote in my notebook for an hour in the French Café—which precipitated writer’s cramp, but the resulting content isn’t Middle Passages material.

The thing of it is, even when I’m struggling, I love this library. It used to do business as a school. From the outside it still looks like one--a red brick rectangular affair, with an arched center door; it muscles broad shoulders--creating deep shadows on the traffic that rounds a busy corner. The inside though, opens its arms and squeezes you with a hug of light and warmth, pulling you into one vast and welcoming room. Olive painted pillars support walls trimmed with stained, cove molding; floor-to-ceiling cherry book-stacks line one side. Waist-high shelves filled with mysteries run up the middle and rows of rectangular tables cover the Oriental carpet beside them. Underneath six massive windows, geometric upholstered chairs with matching plump ottomans beckon, and I think that maybe, it will be OK to sit there, in that one over there. Do you see it--the one where the sun is etching reproductions of the five-over-five window panes?

Perhaps I can give myself permission to curl up right there, to open a book and learn from someone else’s words, since today I’m having such a struggle coming up with my own.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Gearing up?

I’m beginning to anniversary myself. Those who have been reading Middle Passages since the start, might remember this post I wrote last March, Getting Back in Gear, in which I almost killed our car engine in my quest not to miss a networking meeting.

I do laugh about it now--some. Except, when, as a result of that day, even though there is a fair amount of snow and ice around, I do everything I can to avoid putting our 1996 Jeep Cherokee Sport (um, yea, still my method of transportation) into four-wheel-drive. Memories of how close I came to burning out the engine or maybe stripping the gears are too strong--although, come to think of it, success in either regard would be one way to force the issue, related to new wheels, that we’ve so successfully avoided for the last three years.

Just so you know though, this is not the forum in which I intend to discuss the groaning noise the car made for a brief period as we were traveling in four-wheel-drive through the snow this weekend—Mr. Middle Passages at the wheel, thank you very much. And, in case you are wondering, nor will there be dialogue pertaining to the yellow parking light cover that came loose though still attached by a wire, flapping all the way down the highway the same afternoon. Who knew that at sixty-miles-per-hour, a small plastic rectangle could emit a sound like a helicopter taking off? Oh, right. We're aren't going to talk about that, nope, we aren't. Today's topic is simply the use or non-use of the gear box.

Right. So--as a result of the aforementioned snow over the weekend, the slight incline in our driveway has frozen and thawed and become slick enough that after I stopped at the mailbox at the bottom of the driveway on my way in today, I couldn’t get enough traction to drive up our little hill. The right answer was four-wheel-drive. The wrong answer was spinning the wheels, then backing up and gunning it, spinning the wheels again, backing up and gunning it, spinning one more time, backing up and forgetting to look through my rear window.

It’s OK.

I missed the car driving up the street behind me--by mere inches, yes. But you know what they say. An inch is as good as a mile.

Now that I've calmed myself, it’s time to go back out and pick up my daughter. Good thing the garage is stocked with barrels of sand.

What kind of trouble have you discovered, when you've been afraid to do the right thing?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Balancing Act

Back in the day, if you will, even if that means only a year ago, reaching January was like walking to the edge of the Grand Canyon. At night. With no flashlight.

Although the month represents new beginnings, to me it signified a crash to the depths—a plunge from the highs of Christmas vacation as a kid—the plummet off the edge of “time-with-my-family” as an adult. As a working mom, January was a sinkhole I stepped into with an anvil tied to my foot. Unexpected school cancellations due to inclement weather were regular occurrences, on top of which, it was the month our daughter seemed to get sick most often. For years, this combination provoked panicked “Oh gosh, I need be home with my girl, but I was just off from work, what do I do?” mutterings. There are four letter words that best describe the anxiety stirred up by these situations. I knew in my heart that the right thing to do, the one I wanted to do, was to care for my child. But, even though I worked for an “understanding” employer, there was no kidding myself. Somehow the work still had to get done. Deadlines didn’t change. Meetings weren’t cancelled.

So, most years, January delivered a wallop of guilt, not to mention an occasional sore finger caused by dialing around trying to find coverage for my girl, when all the while I’d rather be the one “covering.” It was like balancing on a razor thin ridge, knowing that to fall on one side, toward work, meant I was a lousy mother, if I leaned toward caring for my child, I wasn’t a responsible employee—a tug-of-war, of course, that was not singular to me.

However, as with so many things in this eleven-month “journey of self-discovery," (and tell me, does the trip end when I’ve reach a year?) January 2010 dawned differently. I spent this past Sunday without the churning pit in my stomach that used to arrive around noon on the day before I was scheduled to go back to work. My shoulders are a thousand times lighter now that my daughter can ask: “I need to stay late at school today. Can you pick me up?” responding “Yes,” with out fretting how she’ll get home with no late bus. When she asks, “Mom, I need to get a new agenda book, can we go to Staples?” I no longer sigh because I know that, due to my work schedule, there will be no agenda book until Saturday. I'm not cramming errands into the weekend, or, squeezing them in after work, only to fly home and realize that I forgot to thaw something for dinner. Our girl is sixteen now and able to care for herself. But still, if she gets sick, I’ll whip out the thermometer and put her back to bed. Life is much more manageable now.

And yet, yesterday, I sat down at the computer as I do at 7:30 every morning, feeling odd, incomplete, and worth, well, less somehow, because there’s no paying work on the horizon. Oh yes, I have Middle Passages and I’m trying to write each day in addition to that. In a perfect world, (meaning, no college tuition looming in 2011) this would be enough. Yet, for so long, I have contributed to the family financially and there’s a mental struggle when I’m not. Writing professionally, at home, is an almost perfect balance--working at what I love, while being home with whom I love—so, naturally folks, I want more of it.

This January, there is no looming chasm, just a thoughtful puddle really. One I step into gladly, though it would help if I had some boots. The first writing job I completed this fall occurred because an experienced writer referred me when she was so busy she had to decline the request. Statistics say it can take three years to get a small business up and running. Here’s to January 2011, or 2012, or 2013. Cross your fingers that by then I’ll be the one giving the jobs away.

When that happens, I’ll know I’ll be standing on firm ground.

Monday, January 4, 2010

First Snow, 2010

The New Year swept in on a carpet of white, erasing the sharp lines, the boulders and ditches, all the jagged edges of 2009; for this moment, it hangs in front of us, washed and bleached, an empty palette containing the smallest of brush strokes. It’s impossible to keep the snow clean, though I always wish we could. Occasionally though, a storm hits just right, occurring on a weekend, at the end of a vacation so the town delays the clean up. Then you wake up to an immaculate world, trees slumping their shoulders with the weight of wet snow, an indentation in front of the house where the driveway is supposed to be, a divot for the unplowed street. Out back the ledge becomes a hill of cloth, dimpled only by the snow that has shaken itself off of swaying pines.

It’s rare to capture a moment like this, and you have to get up early. Too soon a convoy of plows rumbles and lurches down the street, steel blades sparking as they hit the frozen pavement. They spin salt-treated sand in their wake and the melting begins. Too soon, we notice the refrigerator is empty of milk and groceries; and the snow in the driveway needs to go too. Footprints walk a path behind the house.

For a time though, the world, like this New Year, is clean and covered. Sound is muted, softened like ears stuffed with cotton and life feels that way too, blanketed, muffled, holding its breath, wrapped in wool and rubbing cold toes together, warming up--while waiting to gear up--underneath.