Jan 31, 2012

What kind of sandwich?

It seemed like an innocent question.

I'd been working on two short stories for contest submissions.  The first story was close to 7,000 words long, packed with details, and I'd been working on it for weeks.  The second story I constructed out of leftover research.  The first story was elegant.  The second story was Frankenstein's monster.

What do I mean by leftover research?  Simple. These were the characters I started to write about in the first story, but I rejected them. Their personalities didn't work.  Their setting didn't fit the story I wanted to tell.  The time frame didn't mesh with the plot.  But then it came time to write the shorter story and they were all I had.  So tap-tap-tap, they got a story.

When I read it aloud, it wasn't quite as bad as I thought it was.  My faithful readers laughed with me, not at me.  They helped me find the good.  I scribbled all over the pages and saw just how to improve.  I was about to get back to work, when one of them asked, "What kind of sandwich?"


"The sandwich.  In that setting, what are they eating?"

I thought I'd finish my revisions that night, but that question stopped me.

My reader brushed it off.  "It's not important.  I was just wondering."

But it was important---because I didn't know. Usually, even if I don't include details in the story, I know them.  Ask me what my characters are doing or saying when they're not on the page and I know.  Ask me what fiber their clothes are made from and I know.  Ask me if they wear perfume or like garlic or prefer yams to sweet potatoes---and I know!  But this sandwich?  It really threw me off.

That sandwich became the key for revising the entire story, because it pointed me toward sensory details.  Not only did I lack the ability to taste this world, but I also wasn't smelling or hearing or touching the world either.  Everything I saw looked like it came from an old photograph.  It wasn't real.

I researched different things then:  lunch menus and flowering trees and boots and hats.  What would my main character read, if she read at all?  How would she spend the bulk of her days?  What made her different than everyone else in that same setting?

By the time I was done, I had a new story with real characters.  Their voices linger with me still, whispering new possibilities for future adventures.  For now, however, I'm content.

Oh---and the sandwich?  It was boiled egg.  And she carried it in a shiny metal pail. And the lilacs bloomed in that space just beyond the barn.  She wasn't paying attention to the fragrance though because she had her eye on two young men---the ones who seemed a little too well-dressed and a little too interested in her father's ranch.  Now mind you, none of those details made it into the story. They aren't even details from my main character's point of view.  But they cracked that narrative wide open.

Next time you're stuck, you might try asking yourself:  "What kind of sandwich?"

Jan 18, 2012

Good Things: The Above and Beyond Award

Many, many thanks to the crew over at Beyond The Margins for presenting me with their Above and Beyond Award.

I was talking to my daughter last night, discussing all the things in our lives we cannot control.  We usually think of this in terms of tragedy: personal disasters, disease, sudden deaths that leave us without words.

In the face of bad things, there is no better response than embracing life with joy and passion.  Why be so obsessed with living if we curl up in a ball and refuse to live?

So we accept the things over which we have no control, do our best to make good choices among the choices we do have, and continue to project good into the world.  It's all we can do.  It's enough.

I reminded her too that there are so many good things over which we have no control.

I used this award as an example.

Never in a million years could I set a goal to receive this kind of acknowledgement.  I can't even fathom it.  A group of amazing writers from the Boston area, writers with publishing credits and awards, writers who gathered together around Grub Street---they're going to get together and decide to give me an award?  What's the likelihood of that?

J.C. Rosen wrote this amazing response and members of my online communities overwhelmed me with congratulations. On top of that? The other nominees embraced me in a way that scares me just a little, because I'm pretty sure I'm not worthy to be among them, not to mention selected.

And yet this happened and I am that kind of thankful that makes me cry.

So yes, sometimes the bad things in life are out of our control, but sometimes the good things are too.  In the best-case scenarios, we go about our days projecting the best of ourselves into the world and we become the out-of-control good in another person's life.  I can't imagine anything better than that.

Jan 17, 2012

Day Trip: Idaho City

George Grimes discovered gold in the Boise Basin in 1862.  In 1863-64, Idaho City was the most-populated city in the Pacific Northwest.  At current prices, almost a billion dollars worth of gold came out of the basin.  Today Idaho City is on The National Register of Historic Places and contains more than 22 intact historic buildings.

We took advantage of mild winter weather to enjoy the sites during the off-season, but we'll need to go back in the summer when the cemetery road isn't a sheet of ice.

Day Trip: Celebration Park

This archeological park is one of my favorite nearby locations.  Over 17,000 years ago, Lake Bonneville flooded, leaving massive boulders throughout this Snake River canyon. Around 10,000 years ago, petroglyphs were pounded into those rocks. I like to go there, find a big warm rock, and soak up the atmosphere. On one side are deeply-chiseled cliffs and on the other the beautiful Snake River. The park is home to Guffey Bridge, an 1897 railroad crossing constructed to reach the rich silver mines in the Owyhee Mountains. After being abandoned in 1947, it survived a rocky path to preservation. Today there is a walking path across the river and we always take time to enjoy the view. As if that's not enough, Celebration Park lies on the western edge of The Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, so birdwatching on the drive out and back is always great.

Jan 3, 2012

Pay Attention

I like that phrase: pay attention. It acknowledges that attention costs us something. In order to pay attention to one thing, other things must be shut down, closed out, put away. In order to pay attention, we have to pull over, stop our routine, and focus.

I admit that I want to experience much more than I have the time or energy to experience.
  • I want to read every great new book when it comes out.

  • I want to write reviews.

  • I want a radio show.

  • I want to travel more.

  • I want to do every science experiment in this new book, whether my kids will keep doing them with me or not.

  • I want to invent stuff.

  • I want to tell stories about inventing stuff.

  • I want to tell stories about the stuff I didn't invent but claim I did.

  • I want to create worlds.

  • I want to read poetry to my children every night.

  • I want to be smarter and wittier and I want to take more and better pictures.

  • I want to spin. For no reason. Just because I'm happy.

  • I want to write a sonnet and not just free verse.

  • I want to write a villanelle because. . . well, who wouldn't? Villanelles are cool.

  • I want to chew nine packs of gum in one day because I'm an adult and these are the kid things I promised myself I'd love about being an adult.

  • I want to climb trees and sit on my roof---and leave my fear of heights inside under the desk.

  • I want to sit behind the wheel in a parking lot and pretend I'm driving and make loud beeping and crashing noises.

  • And sometime I should crawl out of a car window again---because I got in trouble the one time I did that when I was ten.

  • I want to stand in the middle of a cheering crowd and close my eyes and pretend they're cheering for me.

I don't always do such a great job of focusing.

I do actually spend a lot of time spinning from one marvelous thing to another.

I even sometimes complain about this in adult language that makes me appear more responsible. (I have to get this book done for my agent and shuttle the kids to book club and work on their curriculum for the next few months. Look at me. Grrr. I'm responsible.)

But the truth is I'm really soaring through worlds of my imagination, rushing to a place full of stories and intelligent, amazing people, thrilling to the sounds of my kids singing and laughing and story-telling. I'm sitting on the floor with goo and glue and even glitter and wondering at the stars and this amazing new album and maybe quantum physics. This is such an amazing life I lead.

And at the end of the day, that small voice wants to assess. What did I produce? How many pages? How long did it take me?

I hear myself saying, "Pay attention, Johanna." I hear an owl hooting in the predawn morning and I close my eyes and still myself and I listen. And that keeping-track voice cuts into that time and says, "You just lost half an hour. Pay attention to what you're doing."

And then the next day I write an owl into a scene.

I stop everything to talk to my kid about potential energy and kinetic energy and we make bows and arrows out of bamboo skewers and rubber bands and play doh. And I have this internal voice that tells me I should plan things more efficiently so I won't spend so much time digging through recycling for building supplies.

And then the next day I write a rocket ship that looks suspiciously like empty toilet paper rolls with marshmallows smucked to the side (smucked there with spit because I could not find the glue).

And I'm starting to think that I really should pay attention to that voice a little more. I should stop everything, pull over, and really focus on that voice. And maybe if I do that, I'll see. I'll see that it's a pestering, horrible voice that takes the delight out of everything. It puts hurry-up ahead of slow-down; it puts eat-this over taste-this; it puts read-this over savor-this.

It's not so much that paying attention is a bad thing, mind you. It's just that we have to be mindful of what we're giving our attention. That voice? It's going in the recycle bin. Maybe we'll put it in the rocket and send it to the moon. But first I'm going to sprinkle it with glitter.