There are so many things happening around me right now that are out of my control that it feels impossible to sit still and encapsulate how I feel about that fact. Twitter and Facebook have been abuzz with #yesallwomen and I want to weigh in but I'm not sure how to summarize all of my feelings so I basically just read the hashtags all week. Because yes, I think, all women, but I also think, all people. We all have a fundamental stake in being good people. To others and to ourselves. Every day, we should be the kind of person we would want our kids to be proud of, be the kind of person we want them to be. And if you don't have kids, then be the kind of person you'd want to be friends with. The kind of person that you would count on. One of my favourite quotes (ever) is "The only person you should try to be better than is the person you were yesterday." We get a blank slate every day to right wrongs, make better choices, be better people. Women and men. Kids and Adults. All of us.
Something else weighing heavy in my mind is the politics surrounding teaching right now. It's horrible. It's horrible to watch and horrible to be part of. When you become a teacher, you want to work with kids. You want to make someone's life, day, next ten minutes just a little better. You want to see them succeed, get over the hurdles, and achieve their potential. There are a lot of deterrents in that path. There are crowded classrooms, higher needs, budget cuts, and mountains of curriculum. That's not what bugs me though. And no, it's not the wage either. What bothers me is the overall shift I'm seeing that makes me think that people are devaluing teachers. Not all, maybe not even most, but some. Margaret Mead says “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." I love this quote and find it quite true. The flip side of it though is that a small group of people committed to making you see the negative can actually create change too. When I was growing up, I loved a lot of my teachers. There is an undeniable bond, for most people, between themselves and a least one teacher in their memory. While we were on strike today, we talked about who that one teacher for us was. For some it was their home economics teacher. Others, it was their Language Arts teacher. For me, it was my high school drama teacher. Whoever it was, it is very likely that you had a teacher touch your life in a positive way. Teachers shape us, spend time with us, watch us grow, notice when we surpass our own expectations, applaud us, push us back up when we fall. When I was little, we studied community helpers: police officers, firemen, doctors, and teachers. They were people you could trust. People that wanted to impact someone else's life in a positive way. We still matter because your kids will always matter. They are the next generation that will make choices based on the core values that we instill in them, together.
The last thing that is on my mind is the Book Expo of America. I'm an odd person in that I am intensely jealous of all the wonderful people that I "know" who are there now, walking the aisles with Rainbow Rowell, Neil Patrick Harris, Jeff Kinney, and so many more. I wish I were there. But then I think, what would I do if I were there? Most likely, I would freak a little at the thought of talking to these people. I'd be ultra nervous and quite certain that every wrong word ever invented would come out of my mouth at exactly the wrong time. I would laugh too loud and babble incessantly. Someone who was brave enough to say that yes, they were actually with me, would smile politely and yank on my sweater sleeve, trying to save the poor person I'm talking to. This is why my interaction is better online. The delete button doesn't work in real life. Which brings us full circle-- #yesallwomen, #yesallpeople because the delete button is not an option and we don't know what word or gesture, attitude or comment will impact the person around us, or how. We all matter. It's important that we not only remember that, but teach it to the next generation-- to your children, your friend's child. Manners still matter, thoughtfulness isn't out of date, thinking before you speak never goes out of style. And you really don't understand someone until you've walked in their shoes. So instead, walk beside them, without judgement, and just do your best to keep moving forward.
Sorry if this was just straight up rambling, but I did warn you in the title that it was #allthethings
Writing has always been something that has come easily to me. I whip off genuine, personalized report cards in a day. I can write a blog post in under ten minutes. I wrote my first novel (without edits) in four weeks. When the story is there for me, it's not difficult to get it down on paper. That's not bragging-- it's just the way I've always written. Having said that, in the past, my writing has always been for me so it hasn't mattered that there were glitches in the plot or character inconsistencies. Now that I'm actively trying to make my stories stand out above others, to make my writing catch the eye of an agent, what was once good has to be spectacular. Good is not good enough and speed doesn't count for anything.
It's difficult to separate yourself from your writing long enough to see the faults and weaknesses. I'm okay with having them and I'm okay with fixing them but the thing that is hard for me is narrowing in on where they are. This is why it's so important to utilize the feedback that anyone, particularly anyone in the writing/publishing/editing/agenting industry, has to offer. The people that I have "met" in the last year through social media and because of putting myself out there as a writer, have been incredibly supportive and kind and positive. I feel as close to some of them as I do to some of the friends that live down the road from me. I believe you can establish strong bonds and friendships via social media and email. It's new age pen pals. The difference, however, is the personal element is removed so they can, perhaps, offer that extra bit of hard criticism you need. Why? Because even though they like all your statuses on Facebook and retweet your tweets, even though you chat more frequently with them than others who live a few minutes away, they haven't seen you cry when you get a rejection letter or laugh like an idiot when you get amazing feedback. They know you but they don't KNOW you. This can be a very good thing for a writer as it allows them to be a stronger critic. There's an element of detachment that comes with online friendship that can only be changed by actually physically meeting. And I hope that one day I get to meet some of the amazing people that have befriended me. In fact, I already have met some of them and it's a pretty awesome feeling when they're just as cool as you thought they'd be. However, until I meet the others, I can let that buffer level of detachment work in my favor. They can be just a little harsher than my best friend who has to put up with me being moody when she tells me what I know is the truth. If they don't want to deal with my irritation over pointing out something that needs fixing, they can move away from the computer. Trust me, my best friend can't. I will show up at her house cause I'm fifty shades of needy and clingy like that.
So the point is, I'm going to spend some time really letting the feedback wash over me, knowing that these people who are offering me pointers and suggestions, for some reason, want me to succeed. I've said it before but it bears repeating: writers are the most supportive, encouraging group of competitors you could align yourself with. I guess it's because there can never be too many books. Or maybe it's because the same story can be told a million different and compelling ways. Whatever the reason, the writer's I've met want every bit as badly as I do to succeed. But they fall over themselves with praise, feedback, encouragement, and their valuable time to make sure I'm right there with them.
For the next little bit, I will be drawing on them to help me make my work the strongest it can be. I will also be checking out as many articles, blogs, posts,and websites as I can. Here's what I'm starting with this week:
Any good sites you'd recommend for character development or building conflict? Share.
Last year, when I attended the Surrey International Writer's Conference, I was completely oblivious to etiquette, dos and don'ts, and who many of the agents, editors, and authors were. This year, I had a much wider awareness of all of those things and yet, I still feel like I was ill prepared to pitch. Regardless of how much you believe in your writing and your story, it is really hard to sum it up in a couple of lines in front of someone that you've admired from afar and think would be a great fit for your work. So even though I have far more knowledge this year and feel a lot stronger as a writer, I ended up looking like this in front of Carolyn Forde.
She had to prompt me to tell her what my story was about and I actually said (out loud), "I don't know what to say to you." Nice use of my ten minutes, I know. Nearing the 8 minute mark, she mentioned that I'd told her nothing about myself. I managed to tell her, without suddenly shouting it like an idiot, that I was going to be published in a Christmas anthology next month through Foreward Literary. She kindly mentioned that sharing your publishing credits is kind of important.
And let's not forget that I had the wonderful opportunity of having lunch with the lovely Michelle Johnson of Inklings Literary. She has a full of my work so I can tell you it took some effort not to shameless beg her, but instead, just enjoy her humor and company.
This doesn't include my wide-eyed wonder (ok, staring) at being in close proximity to Michael Slade, whose stories, voice and laugh I could listen to endlessly. He just seems like the kind of person you WANT to be friends with. Not me of course, because that would involve carrying on a normal conversation with him that didn't start and end with me telling him, "You're Michael Slade." Cause I'm cool like that.
In the end, I did okay. I don't think I embarassed myself too much or scared anyone off. It was nice to meet some of the people I've been chatting with via social media. It was awesome to listen to writers speak and just be in the same room with them. I had an excellent lunch and if nothing else, made a new friend. And I got a request for a full of my manuscript. I may not have been any smoother at pitching or socializing this year, but I appreciate the opportunities that arose much more than last year because I actually recognize them as that.
I, like most adults, spend a lot of time telling the children in my life (my own and my students) to 'Be themselves'. We stress the importance of this in every day life. The choices you make need to be your own and trying to be someone else will never lead you where you want to go. I wonder, however, if this is entirely true. Yes, you need to be yourself, love yourself, respect yourself, and accept yourself. We aren't self-contained little worlds, though, so it stands to reason that the people around us influence us and make us want to emulate them. Big sisters, little sisters, friends, moms, dads, activists: we have reason to want to be like some of the people that inspire us. So yes, we want to be ourselves, but we also need to decide who influences the selves we shape.
The other aspect of the 'Be yourself' philosphy that can get a bit confusing is that you are an ever changing thing. We are influenced, molded, and changed by the experiences we have and the people we let in to our lives. As a writer, I think the influence of others is vitally important. I cannot be the self I was at 20, nor would you want me to be. Who I am is, undoubtably, a part of the experiences and people in my life that have shaped me. This comes across in my writing. I want to be Robert Munsch, Mem Fox, Margie Palatini, and Kevin Henkes; but I'm not. I am charmed and influenced by them, but I am also charmed and influenced by Nora Roberts, James Patterson, and J.K. Rowling. The same 'me' that loves romantic suspense novels can't stand a sad ending or the unknown. So, how do you (I) reconcile all of this into the writer I want to be? I hope you weren't looking for an answer because the truth is, I don't have one.
It's the question that haunts me constantly when I try to think of how I want to establish myself as an author. Actually, if I'm being completely honest, it's the question that haunts me as a person. As my children get older, I think more and more about who I am, who I want to be, who I want them to be, and what matters to me. I haven't narrowed all of this down yet, but I do know that I want authenticity. To me, that means feeling good about what I write, what I say, and what I do. I don't always feel that way and when something I've said, written, or done sits wrong with me, I am open enough to accept that, to self-reflect, and to re-evaluate. I suppose that's all we can do as authors, parents, and people. So maybe, being 'yourself' is being true to what feels right and good to who you are at any given moment in time.
I tell my girls that when they are in a social situation at school that if they don't agree with the choices others are making, they will feel it. We call it instinct and I think it's present from very early on. Being yourself involves trusting that instinct, even when it's hard to face what it's telling you. For this week's quote of the week, in my classroom, I chose Winston Churchill's words: Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. It takes courage not only to be yourself, but to be willing to take the journey to find out who that self really is. At the moment, I'm pretty sure that journey is endless.
I stopped watching American Idol because I grew tired of it and fell in love with The Voice. While I watched, however, I always wondered about the contestants that gave new meaning to the phrase 'tone deaf'. I'm sure some of it was staged but some of those people that absolutely should not have been trying out, really thought they might get through. Every time one of those contestants tried out, I wondered the same thing: "Doesn't anyone love them? Respect them? Don't they have one, just one, person in their lives that will tell them the truth?" The truth, for them, being that they can't sing; at all. Sure, it made for good T.V. but those people stood for hours in line ups, hopefully waiting for their chance to share their 'gift'. Even though it would not be easy to tell your friend, your co-worker, or family member that they should never sing, certaintly not on live television, it would help them more in the long run.
As the person who can't sing (this may turn out to be metaphorical), it's hard to hear the truth. I'm actually not sure if it's harder to hear it from the people that love or care for you or from complete strangers. Logically, you know that the ones who care for you have your best interests at heart. These are the same people that, if you can sing, will support and applaud you; the same people that will pick you up when you fall. If you can trust those people to help you up when you're down, then it's important to trust them when they're telling you what you don't want to hear.
Easier said than done, I know. How do I know? Because I'm lucky enough to have people in my life that would stop me from singing on live television. Or, in my case, people that will say that my writing needs work, could be stronger, or is missing something crucial. As artists, and I use this word to encompass whatever your craft may be, it's hard to hear that something we feel we've put our heart into is not received with adoration. However, we are attached to what we've produced in a way that others aren't and that is, ultimately, to our great benefit. Again, if you trust a small group of people to be there during the good times, you need to trust them during the hard times or 'in progress' times. These are the people that want you to go in front of the live audience and succeed. Sometimes, to do that, you have step back and strongly consider what they're trying to tell you.
This is how I approach my writing (and rewriting), even though it's difficult to know it's not coming out perfectly the first time. I want to be good at what I do and it's hard, for kids and adults alike, to realize that even when you are good at something, it takes a lot of effort to be more than good; to be great. Since I've started spending large chunks of my time writing, I have been reading about writing, editing, blogging, and publishing. It is amazing to me that I can have a degree in English, have been teaching for ten years, spend my days helping kids write, and have been writing personally for years, but still have so much to learn. This is why, I listen to those that know better or who aren't as close to the piece of writing as I am.
I feel profoundly grateful to have the people in my life that push me to be better. If you listen with an open mind, the words you hear will make you stronger, and in turn, make your work stronger. When I was having my first child, my mom told me to pick one person that I trust, really trust, and take their advice. She told me I'd be getting lots of advice from 'experts' and that can be very overwhelming. It was good advice, because whether someone had a child or not, they had ideas on what made for good parenting.
Choosing to do this for my writing was a good move as well.I can't listen to every good or bad piece of feedback I get because I think I'd get lost within it. So I chose people that I trust: my agent, my best friend, and a close work friend to really be honest with me. I trust them to ask me the hard questions, make me rethink my own thoughts, and push my writing to a new level. I take their suggestions to heart in hopes that it will make me a better writer because I know that's what they want for me. It's not always easy to hear that they don't love a certain twist that I thought was going to capture attention or that maybe they don't connect with the character the way I do, but by trusting them, I can re-evaluate and, in most cases, see their point of view. So far, trusting in them has made me much prouder are more certain of my final products.
Part of this willingness to accept feedback and critiques might stem from being a teacher. As a teacher, I constantly ask myself, what can I do better, how can I connect more, how can I make it more meaningful? These are the same questions I should be asking myself as a writer. Just like with parenting advice and my writing, I have a select group of colleagues that I trust to tell me 'hey, that's a really good idea' and know they mean it. If I trust them enough for that, however, I feel like I owe it to myself to trust them enough when they say, 'hey, if you try 'this', it might work out better'.
Truth and trust are important words. As a teacher, I want parents to trust that I have their child's best interest at heart. As a mom, I want my kids to trust that maybe, just maybe, I could be right about something. As a friend, I want my other friends to trust that I wouldn't say something looked great on them if it didn't and watch them buy it while biting my tongue. We have to learn to trust the people that we surround ourselves with and accept that sometimes they might have to give us some hard truths. In the end, these truths can make us stronger, better, and sometimes, even braver. If we know that they will tell us both the good and the bad, then we can rest easy, knowing they wouldn't let us sing on national television, unless we were really, really good and ready.