School Dayz Monday, Jul 21 2014 

school

My nth class reunion was held over the weekend. I am a proud graduate of du Pont Manual high school, class of A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far Away from you, most likely.

The day started with lunch with my best high school chums, then on to the school for a tour. Ten or so of us showed up for the self-guided walkabout through the hallowed halls. The gothic building had been hit by lightning and repair work was going on, the front lawn littered with bits of broken spire.

For about the last ten years, I periodically have dreams that I’ve gone back to high school. Not that I’m back IN high school, but that there’s some kind of special alumni program where we come back and go to classes for a week or something. Invariably in these dreams, I am late to school or I end up in a math class where I either haven’t done the homework or am simply lost in the equations. So it was really strange to literally be back in the building wandering around. A very strange flavor of deja vu. Lots of little cosmetic things have changed but it’s still the same place.

Driving to the reunion dinner that evening, I was struck by how much this school affected my life. Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking but maybe not.

I went to the same school for kindergarten through eighth grade. With a few exceptions, I spent nine years with pretty much the same group of kids. By the time I hit eighth grade, I wanted OUT. Because I never quite fit in there. I was too bookish, too awkward, too whatever. If this was a nature program, the lions had found the weakest zebra in the herd and had gone in for the kill. Fifth and sixth grade involved a lot of what would likely be called bullying today – lots of stupid name calling and mean girl playground shenanigans. The ridiculous thing was, I was actually all set to go to the same school as most of those girls: an all-girls Catholic school. So that what….I could continue being an outsider? Until my mom said, “What do you think about Manual?” The school had been getting a lot of press lately and had been awarded National School of Excellence, which was kind of a big deal.

I went with my parents on a tour of the school. It’s a sprawling gothic building downtown, far from my suburban bubble. Walking up the sidewalk to the massive place, I was in awe and maybe a little scared. This was back when magnet schools were first becoming popular and this one had five: visual arts, communications, math/science/technology, performing arts, and one called high school university, which is kind of a catch-all for kids like me who didn’t fit into the other magnets. As we toured the visual arts wing, we saw a student with a bright orange snood on. My dad asked me if I, too, was going to wear pantyhose on my head if I became a student here. (He was kidding. He wouldn’t have minded if I’d literally worn pantyhose in my hair though.) After that, I was in. I wanted it. Kids apply to get into Manual, unlike other public schools. I was really lucky to get in, considering I was pretty average in terms of grades and stuff.

What followed was one of the most profound experiences in my life. Yes, of course high school is always a time of profound change, development, growth, but I still feel luck to have ended up in a place where I finally felt at home. I had friends for the first time ever. I did well in school and that was okay, nobody teased me for being brainy. In fact, I wasn’t really brainy enough at Manual. (To give you an idea, I went to school with a Teen Jeopardy! champ, twelve national merit scholarship recipients, and we had six valedictorians.) I fit in because we all fit in there. I found my tribe.

Last Saturday night, I saw people I haven’t seen in years but it wasn’t awkward or strange. It was delighting to see my peers, hear their stories, see their grown-up faces. And I felt lucky, blessed, and happy. I don’t want to go back to being sixteen, but I love that I was happy when I was.

Improv and writing Thursday, Jul 17 2014 

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About three years ago, I felt the need to do something with performance. I minored in theater in college – my biggest role was the Old Sheep in Charlotte’s Web, rocking a cane and some granny glasses with a baggy fleece jammies-suit. This was before I had the twins, but I didn’t want to do a play because it would take too much time. I’m ok at singing but I didn’t feel like that was the avenue I wanted to go. I started peforming in Louisville’s Moth story slams and that was fun, for sure. I decided to get into improv.

For those of you who don’t know, “improv” (short for improvisational theater) is the performance of unscripted scenes based on suggestions from the audience. I googled “Louisville improv” and came up with a couple of hits. After an email to the coordinators of one group, I started practicing with them the winter of 2011.

The team I play with is called Project Improv and it’s been around for about ten years, the cast rotating in and out as people join and leave. We do what’s called long form improv, which is different from the short form games you might have seen on TV shows like Who’s Line is it Anyway? I won’t get into the technicalities of long form, but if you feel like learning more, you can always ask the oracle at Google or the YouTubes.

It may seem that there are no rules in improv, when actually there are several rules. You just…say whatever, right? Well, sort of. Successful scenes happen when you follow the rules. The cardinal rule of improv is “Yes, and…” Sounds easy, right? It boils down to: when another player states a fact, you go with it. “Writing Spider, your blue hair looks so nice!” If I say, “I don’t have blue hair…” the scene dies and I’ve killed the energy. If I say, “Yes, and it goes with my orange dress that I’m wearing to an alien tea party!” a whole world of possibilities opens for the players and the scene. Now, you don’t literally say, “yes, and…” every time but it helps if you are a beginner to practice it this way.

I don’t remember when I started to see connections between improv and writing, but it might’ve started with friend and For Real Published Author Patrick Wensink. Pat taught a class on this subject, in fact, which I did not attend but I’m sure was amazing and brilliant because it’s really true. Improv can be used by writers and improv absolutely makes me a better writer.

When you start looking at scenes, at your life, at your world with a “Yes, and…” perspective, you let in energy. You open to possibilties. Say yes and you’ll figure it out after, according to Tina Fey. Jump and the net will appear. Leap and learn to fly on the way.

Improv has made me a better storyteller and more confident in lots of storytelling aspects – creating characters, building tension and conflict, and just playing around without boundaries.

You must be careful, though. Don’t try to “yes, and” people who won’t get it. A guy in Project Improv told me once that he had to be careful about “yes, and-ing” on dates because sometimes it doesn’t go very well. I can understand that. Luckily for me, Mr. Writing Spider is FABULOUS at the Yes, And and we have had each other in stitches at times because we are free to say (and sometimes sing) all kinds of hilarious things. But it has to be used sparingly in Real Life because some folks just can’t take a joke.

What does the fox say? Friday, Jun 27 2014 

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I’ve read a few articles lately about foxes and hedgehogs. The fox knows many things, they say, and the hedgehog knows one big thing. You can read an excerpt from the original fox and hedgehog essay here. It’s being applied to business in most of the occasions I’ve seen it, but it’s gotten me thinking about whether I am a fox or a hedgehog.

I’ve decided I’m a fox. I’m decent at many things: writing, dancing, telling stories, cooking and baking, etc. But I’m not PHENOMENAL at one thing. The problem is, I’m not sure I like that but I also don’t want to feel limited.

Keep reading if you want to come along with me as I think this through.

I know people who are great hedgehogs. They’re really focused on that one thing they are passionate about. It’s what they DO. Free time is spent being a hedgehog. Maybe their day jobs are related to their hedgehogginess. They forgo things like exercise, social events, housework…all for the focus of passion.

I think about writing a lot, but I think about a lot of things, too. Food and when I’m going to do the laundry and the size of my bottom and how exercise would reduce that bottom so I should do some instead of writing.

On one hand, I want to be a writing hedgehog. G, I know you’re reading this, and you are a model writing hedgehog. G worked really hard at writing – she does all the Stuff like going to conferences and getting up at 5 a.m. to write. And it paid off because G is published (and awesome and you should read her books or purchase them for someone who might).

On the other hand, LOOK SHINY THINGS THAT ARE NOT WRITING. Like exercise or housework or a nap or the twins or Husband.

A friend once said that she wished her parents had pushed her more in tennis. She’s a good tennis player but she’s an English professor at a university and perhaps she could’ve been her generation’s Serena Williams or Steffi Graff (or whoever, I’m not a sports person). My dad, maybe six months before he died last year, said, as we passed a high school tennis court, “I should’ve stayed with tennis. I was a damn good player. But I played football, just like .”  Both of these conversations were tinged with a unique flavor of regret. I don’t want that for myself, or my kids.

The dilemma for me maybe hinges on what the kids are calling FOMO. Here’s a funny video about it. Like, maybe I really am super good at baking and if I just stuck with it a little longer I’d be the Best Baker in All the Land. Or maybe I’m two workouts away from my goal weight. I know the FOMO people. They’re never just at home. Their calendars are booked months in advance. They are always DOING something. Foxes, I would say.

I think I might be a hedgehog who’s too scared to be a hedgehog and is, instead, a mediocre fox. I shall endeavor to work on my inner hedgehog.

Yesterday, on NPR, they had a woman talking about jargon of her job. She’s a captain of a whale watching boat. Her jargon was “flying pickle.” Listen to the piece here (it’s only like 3 minutes long). Something she said caught my mind. Baby humpback whales (referred to here as ‘pickles’) have to practice breaching. They will fling themselves out of the water 20 or 30 times in one practice session. And I thought, that’s because they’re not born just knowing. They have to practice. The pickle practices then becomes a hedgehog that’s really good at breaching.

Are you a fox or a hedgehog?

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Centre Dear We Offer Thee Naked Bums and Nudity Tuesday, Jun 24 2014 

Perhaps you read this article about strange college traditions. That’s my alma mater coming in at number five. Centre College in Danville. You might’ve heard of Centre from one of the past vice-presidential debates. Or perhaps a story from a higher-education publication about how much money alums give every year.

There’s no denying the top-notch education Centre offers. But the catalog failed to mention all the campus traditions that involve degrees of nudity.

The tradition mentioned in the article above concerns this sculpture. flame

This is The Flame. It sits in front of the library on campus. The tradition is, you drop your clothes on the college seal, which is embedded in the sidewalk across the street in front of the administration building, then run around the Flame, preferably before campus security can catch you. (The article says three times but I don’t think we ever did that three times part…maybe the new generations of Colonels have been upping the ante?)

Why? It’s a bonding activity. It’s exhilarating. It’s a little naughty but it’s harmless.

Typically, people ran the Flame in celebration. Finals are finished! Or you came off three hours of strike and two hours of cast party after a Drama Centre show. Or it’s Tuesday. I saw a guy ride the Flame – he circled three times on a bicycle. In the rain.

I’ll address the elephant in the blog now. Yes. The sculpture DOES look like down-swimming reproductive proteins.

Oh, wait…

The answer is yes, I ran the Flame. More than once. More than once AND sober. Once I ran it in the middle of February with four inches of snow on the ground.

Another quirky tradition at Centre is serenading the president. The senior women stand on the president’s lawn in their bath towels and sing the alma mater (what’s underneath the towel is up to the singer).

My senior year, my work study job was in the president’s office. I mostly did calligraphy for him. I addressed all the Christmas cards, invitations to special lunches, and so forth. I also did filing and some phone calls, etc.

We had an interim president that year, who was also a professor.

The night of the planned serenade, we senior ladies gathered – how many? Less than 200 but more than 50. Campus security actually stopped traffic for us to cross the street to the presidential residence and we belted out “Centre Dear.”

Centre dear we offer thee love profound and praises free

After an amused round of applause from Acting President and Wife, we went back to campus where we kind of went bananas.  First we ran the Flame THEN went frolicking in the fountain in front of the arts complex. Thank goodness we had bath towels! Amirite?

The next day at work, the president stopped by my desk. In his trademark gravelly voice he said, “Writing Spider, where did you ladies go after you left my house last night?”

Our intern, a Centre grad herself, happened to be walking by at the moment and without breaking stride said, “They jumped in the fountain and ran around naked on campus all night.”

I shrugged and grinned sheepishly.

He just said, “Ah. All right.” Then proceeded into his office and that was that.

Good times, my friends. Good times.

 

Summer of Snail Mail Update Monday, Jun 16 2014 

The second letter has been mailed. I can only assume it has been recieved, though I have not heard for certain.

Something weird came up while writing this SSM letter. I got completely and totally self-conscious. Here’s a stream-of-conscience list of things that went through my head before, during, and after writing said letter:

I haven’t written to XYZ in a long time. Maybe ever…

XYZ knows a lot about me from Facebook, so I can’t put THAT stuff in here.

I’ll just talk about what I’m thinking.

What if this isn’t cool enough for XYZ? Because XYZ is pretty cool…

Did I just write that?

That was lame. Follow up with something less lame.

Should I even finish this?

I should start over.

I should not mail this.

I will wait until I have something better to say and a better way to say it.

Dammit. I wish I had a backspace delete on these notecards.

I’ve run out of room and I’ve said nothing good. This was supposed to be a good, cherishable, keepable, awesome letter.

 

In the end, it was stamped and mailed.

Isn’t that weird? I’m *mumble mumble* years old (more than 16, fewer than 40) and I’m getting nervous and self-doubty writing a letter to a friend. A friend! There’s nothing on the line – XYZ isn’t going to give me a job or a book deal or send me money if my letter is a certain caliber of awesome or degree of worthy or whatever.

I don’t think I’ll ever outgrow my self-consciousness.

 

 

Writers Writin and Critters Crittin Tuesday, Jun 10 2014 

My dad had a bunch of MAD magazines from the 60′s. Sometimes I would dig them out and look at them. I liked Spy vs. Spy a lot. One of them had a cartoon in it about pitchers and poachers. I wish I could find it because it cracked me up. (This is the baseball type of pitcher, not a water pitcher.) So the first line was a picture of PITCHERS and POACHERS. The next line was PITCHERS PITCHIN’. Guys on a mound pitching baseballs. And POACHERS POACHIN’. Guys in hunting gear. It devolves into such hilarity as PITCHERS PITCHIN’ POACHERS where the baseball guys are winding up and throwing the hunter-poaching guys. I keep wanting to draw my own version with writers and something else.

Anyway.

I’ve lost all my new crit partners except one. I wrote a blog about this a couple weeks ago, after posting myself on a “How about we CP?” blog. I hadn’t heard from anybody in a while, and considering my jumbled life, I thought I had dropped the ball. So I emailed them and said, “Hey, I sort of fell off the planet for a little bit, and I can’t remember where we are – do I owe you stuff? Do you owe me stuff? Did we break up? : ) ”  And the one wrote back and said she’s busy until July so can I hold off. Yes, I can, no problem. But the others…they didn’t write back and unfollowed me on Twitter.

This is all to say, I think I see how my CP experiment is going to go. It’s not going. That’s fine. I’m considering one of the major online crit groups, like Critters or something. But I don’t think I’ll accept any more CPs from that site, no matter how enthusiastic they are.

In other news, I started a new book. It’s about a witch who was put in jail for killing an entire coven of her own family. She’s released to help the FBI’s Supernormal Investigations Unit solve crimes involving black magic in Earth. The setting is Earth, but after the Rift, which is when the veil between our world and the spirit world dropped and stuff is coming in and out from Otherwhere.  

I also started writing in this. It was a gift a couple of years ago when I asked people to give me a copy of their favorite books. I am enjoying it immensely even though I have only written in there maybe five times. I was sick with a deathcold last week so I missed a couple days.

That’s the news from my place.

Dear Sir or Madam: Snail Mail Project Tuesday, Jun 3 2014 

letters

Until I got out of college I wrote letters LIKE A BOSS. At one point in grade school I had something like five pen pals: Alabama, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, England, and Ireland. More pen pals in high school, then my friends when we went to college. Friends in other states and some overseas studying abroad. Pause for history: Kids, I was born before the interwebs were alive and before everybody did emails and googles. Back in my day, you had to write mail WITH YOUR HAND. Or a typewriter, which I did on occasion. There were things called ‘envelopes’ and ‘stamps’ involved. Go on and google it, I’ll wait. How awesome was it when you got something in the mail when you were a kid? It was pretty awesome for me. Especially awesome when I got letters from my UK pen friends in those flimsy air mail envelopes with PAR AVION stamped on them. How worldly! How exotic! My British friend Vicky (OF COURSE her name was Vicky) talked about school and summer hols and took classes like “Maths” and “French.” I desperately wanted to take French in grade school so I was terribly envious. Flash forward to now. The only fun mail I ever get any more is the occasional party invitation for a shower or wedding, holiday cards, birthday cards, and magazines I subscribe to. Husband’s aunt sends us a note after they’ve visited from out of state, always to say “so glad to see you” and usually with some photos she took while here. This is all to say, I am writing snail mail letters this summer. I asked my friends to volunteer to get a letter from me and I got a list of twenty. I numbered them and got a random calendar date-picker to choose twenty random dates to write, which I added to my calendar. Then I got a random number generator to spit out what order to write them in. First letter went out today.

In My Tribe Tuesday, Apr 22 2014 

inmytribe

This is what I was thinking about on the way to work this morning.

I have a high tolerance for what some call the “woo woo.” I may not necessarily believe in reincarnation or psychics, but I don’t dismiss the concepts out of hand. Sometimes I just don’t know or haven’t made up my mind. But when I heard about the idea of a soul tribe it resonated with me.

It’s become vague in my memory now, but it goes something like this: before your soul was born into your life on earth, it was out there in the cosmos hanging out with a bunch of other souls – your soul tribe. Then you were all flung down into mortal lives, scattered around the world and through time. And now when you meet people who were part of your soul tribe, you feel an instant connection. This isn’t romantic, like what you might call a soul mate. It’s different from that.

I’m not entirely sure I believe that is exactly what happens but I like the story. I like the explantion for why we might click with certain people.

There have been times I’ve felt I’ve found my people. My tribe, as it were. Until high school, I was pretty sure I was clearly from another planet because I couldn’t find my people anywhere.

In college, I spent a few summers as a counselor at a camp for academically gifted kids. Talk about finding your people! So many of those kids spent their whole year away from camp counting the days until they could get back with their friends at camp again. And the first year I was a counselor, the counseling group was amazing. I had never bonded that quickly with that many people at once.

It’s harder as an adult to find your tribe, I think. People are wrapped up in their own stuff and don’t feel like they need to make friends the way they did in school. And it’s weird to make new friends as an adult. The best we seem to do is friend each other on Facebook.

One Writer in Search of A CP (Or, How I Stopped Minding and Learned to say Fark It) Monday, Apr 14 2014 

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My crit group dissolved a couple years ago. It happens. It’s happened before, it’ll happen again. But you need to have readers if you wants ta be a writer. I have a good friend who is agented and getting her stuff published and she’s read both WIPs, and she’s absolutely worth her weight in hardback books. I feel it’s important, however, to have several critique partners and beta readers if you are serious about a) finding an agent and b) getting published via said agent.

So recently I posted on a Tumblr site that offers writers a chance to find critique partners for works in progress (WIP). Within about a week, I had three emails. I sent two myself – one got NO response (RUDE) and the other got a very nice and polite decline because s/he felt s/he had enough CPs in his/her life. Fair enough. We wished each other luck and went on our ways. 

I’m not far in and this is already a learning experience. First of all, I wish I had gone back and re-read my own post carefully. I have two WIPs and I mentioned something along the lines of, “I think a British CP would be great” since one of the books is an alternate history that deals with English history and the other is partially set in England. People thought I meant that I ONLY wanted British CPs. What I really meant was, I’m open to whomever, but someone familiar with English history and literature would be great but it’s not a deal breaker if you’re not. And the emails I got ALL said something along the lines of, “I’m not English but…” And that’s 100% fine. My bad for not being clear.

I should mention, this feels a lot like online dating. I wanted to get to know the person emailing me before I just jumped into bed with them…er, I mean….sent them my work. Two of the responders did include lots of useful information – why they’d emailed me, what they think they bring to the table as far as critiquing my work especially, stuff like that. Those two and I went back and forth a couple of times then I sent them both the first 30 pages of both WIPs.

I had reservations about the third CP volunteer. I was never clear about why s/he was interested in either of my manuscripts. S/he also wasn’t interested in swapping manuscripts, just wanted a go at mine. So I don’t know exactly what s/he writes. Or reads. S/he gave me exactly one book read recently, which doesn’t give me a sense of what s/he normally reads and therefore knows the conventions of. Despite my reservations, I ended up sending 30 pages of both WIPs and it was about a day before I got a response.

I was pretty specific that I don’t want harsh criticism, yet the first sentence of the response was basically, “I know you don’t want harsh criticism, but <insert harsh criticism here.>” S/he tore up the first book and didn’t want to read more, and liked the second enough to read the rest.

I’m no stranger to criticism of my work. Especially that first book, which I liken to anchovies: not everybody likes anchovies. It’s not like potato chips. LOTS of people like potato chips. That is not a potato chip book. I’m fine with that. But I do like to understand where the criticism is coming from. So in my reply, I said, “Thanks for the prompt reply. I’m not surprised at your response to Book A. I will say that I really like this book. I’m curious, do you read or write in [the genres I read and write] becasue I didn’t get the sense that you did. Are these really genres you’re interested in working with?” Because if this person is a big fan of, say, military science fiction, or middle grade contemporary, s/he is not the audience for my books. S/he had been pretty vague on preferences so I wanted a clearer picture of the critiquer. I thought it was a fair question, but I haven’t heard a peep back.

I doth offend.

And because I am me, there’s some part of me that is all indignant. Like, just say, “Sorry, this isn’t going to be a good fit. Good luck!” But then, I wasn’t feeling great about the potential partnership anyway so really, I don’t mind. It’s not that I don’t care, I just don’t mind.

You need a dragon hide to be a writer, to be sure, but you should also not be a dick.

I’ll keep you posted on my CP search.

B*$@! stole my story (not really) Friday, Mar 28 2014 

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I was driving home from work yesterday and for the first time in a couple of weeks, I didn’t have any podcasts to listen to. So I flipped on NPR and was happy to catch the book review…until I heard the book review. “Russell begins with this Philip K. Dickian premise and enthusiastically runs with it. What if sleep were a commodity? And what if we could barter with it? Slumber Corps has found a band-aid for the crisis in “sleep donations,” where sound sleep is extracted from a willing donor, and then transfused into an insomniac. Just like giving blood, it’s done out of a van.”

I almost ran off the road.

THAT’S MY STORY!!!!

No, I’m not accusing Karen Russell of plagiarism. Unless she, like…plagiarized my brain… The thing is, for YEARS I’ve been thinking about writing a story that is eerily, scarily, creepily similar to this. I just never got off my tail and wrote the darn thing. And now she has and she’s getting reviewed on NPR and I’m not and waah wahh.

I’ll likely read this book to see how she’s done our idea. But the moral of the story is, kids, story ideas are a dime a dozen and it doesn’t mean anything until you DO something with that idea.

I’ve heard well-known authors talk about being approached by “fans” who say things like, “I’ll sell you my idea for a great book. It’ll make you a million bucks but I just don’t have the time.” Surprisingly, none of them seems to want to take anyone up on this arrangement. Once, Mur Lafferty on her blog for I Should Be Writing posted story ideas for a month or something. Her point was that ideas don’t mean squat when it comes to stories. It’s the finished book that means something. 

Writers are hilariously paranoid about people stealing their ideas. I participate in pitch contests on Twitter where you tweet your book pitch and agents can request materials. I’ve seen several tweets along the lines of, “Post my story here so someone can steal it? Uh, no thanks.”

Maybe I should write my own version of the sleep story, THEN read Russell’s book and compare. Hmm…

I know I’m not the only writer this has happened to.  

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