FINDING YOUR JOYFUL SPOT: Thoughts on Parlor Pliés and Writing

My daughter, aged 17, is away at a ballet intensive for two weeks. I’m not hearing much from her except a few texts that says things like “I love it here!” and “I’m sore from all the dancing, but it’s really good!” and “The girls are nice and we are warming up to each other.” That’s all I need to hear.

Miss A has been a dancer all her life and she inspires me. And maybe because I am missing the sound of her dancing in her room (right above my little morning spot here in the living room), I decided to search “ballet” on my blog and turned up this nugget. It was just what I needed to read this morning as I jump (or perhaps dance) into a morning of writing.

Here it is… straight from the summer of 2015! Enjoy!

Right now my daughter, aged 10, is dancing around the living room to the rich music of Coppelia, a beautiful 19th century ballet. Using a dish towel as a prop, she’s flitting and twirling and swooping to the music in perfect motion. I would love to snap a photo, but she has asked me to remain in the kitchen (where I am cleaning up from supper) and I want to respect her privacy.  But, oh my, each time I peek in I am amazed. She is 100% into the moment – listening to the mood of the music and improvising as she goes.  And, wow, how her movements flow. The result is beautiful!

As a writer, I am taking note. This young budding artist is not letting the inner voices of self doubt and fear of criticism interfere one bit. Perhaps she hasn’t even recognized their pesky little voices yet.

I was never a dancer, but I have distant recollections of that beautiful innocent time when I just let my creativity flow both through writing and drawing without holding back. That phase ended for me in mid-elementary school when I suddenly became self conscious about my writing, especially at school. Thankfully, I continued to write stories and poems for my own pleasure.  Still, it took years for me to return to that safe place where I felt secure enough to really open up and let that creativity flow again.

To reach our full creative potentials, we must follow my sweet daughter’s example and reconnect with that creative sweet spot from our childhood when we felt free to create without inhibition. Will you join me this week in finding the joyful spot? Happy dancing, er writing, all!

FATHER’S DAY WISDOM: Reflections on Taking the LONG CUT in Writing and Life

Not only has my dad always been a loving, caring father (and more recently a wonderful champion of my writing endeavors), he’s also been a life long creator of wonderful phrases that make life a little bit funnier. Memorable dad phrases include “I’m going to get my hairs cut”, instead of haircut, “Don’t worry, Daddy-do-it”, and, my favorite, “Okay, kids, we’re taking the long cut”, the opposite of short cut, which translated means, “I took a wrong turn, so now we’re going to explore”. 

On road trips as a child (and we took many), I remember my mother would often sigh and roll her eyes (in a loving way) when Dad announced that we were taking yet another “long cut” because he was a real stickler for doing it himself (i.e. “Daddy-do-it”) and refused to stop and ask for directions, unless the long cut got really, really long, or if it became apparent that we were just going in circles and even then he might not ask for directions.

But though she might roll her eyes, I think secretly she, and certainly my sister and I, came to really love and appreciate Dad’s “long cuts”. After all, without them, we might never have discovered that little out of the way village with the wonderful bed and breakfast run by a little Scottish woman who took us under her wing the time we got lost, I mean “took the long, long cut” through some Scottish countryside. 

And without one of my dad’s “long cuts” we would never have had the amazing fascination of having a picnic in a field in Spain, next to a big, big rock, only to discover the skeleton of a cow on the far side of the rock!  (Actually, my dad discovered that and wouldn’t let us look, which I for a long time I resented, but which actually I now realize he was doing to save us from losing our appetites).

And without my dad’s “long cuts” we most likely would never have found the perfect lunch spot in a meadow overlooking the Chateau de Chantilly, or have sat on a lonesome bench on a twisty mountain road with a view like this!

Looking back on my childhood, some of my favorite memories are of discovering unexpected and wonderful spots while were were taking “the long cut” between destinations.  I see now that those “long cuts” instilled in me an important life principle, for they taught me, in a wonderfully meandering fashion, that life is richer when I’m not rushing from one pre-determined destination to the next.  In fact, in my opinion, the best part of living is being willing to take the long cut and enjoy the wonderful things you discover along the way.  Thank you, Dad, for instilling that in me!

Now for the writing tie-in:  Like many new writers,  when I first started out, I expected immediate results – i.e reaching my destination without any twists or turns. And I’m embarrassed to say that in those first couple of years, as I was exploring the craft, I submitted stories and poems to publishers far too prematurely.  Now, when I look back at my earliest pieces, I’m amazed at how stilted, clumsy and rough they are.  Indeed, it wasn’t until I slowed down and really started to savor the writing process through yearsof writing daily, reading, studying the craft, attending conferences, and participating in peer critique  (in other words, taking the writerly version of “the long cut”) that I began to develop into the writer I am today (who is still ever-working on improving and expanding her craft). 

So, here is my bit of writerly wisdom for the day:  Writing is not a race to get published. It’s a beautiful “long cut” journey to be savored and enjoyed. So, take heart and be patient. Join a critique group. Attend a conference. Sign up for a writing class. Read a book about writing.  Spend time at the library reading all the picture books you can get your hands on. And, through it all, keep writing, writing, writing! The results may not fit your pre-conceived conceived timeline, but if you keep at it, I think you will find that the “long cut” journey – though not short, to be sure, – is rewarding.

(Note: This post first appeared in Fall 2019, but I’m feeling sentimental and, hey, it’s almost Father’s Day – a perfect reason to celebrate my dad.)

PICKING RASPBERRIES: Thoughts on Writing and Living

It’s almost raspberry picking time again and that has gotten me thinking about, of all things, life and how we choose to live it. Almost 10 summer ago, when this blog was still brand new, I posted a writing analogy about raspberries. In that post I described how my children and I were enjoying picking raspberries up the street in a wild raspberry patch we had discovered.  I observed that even in this culture where “more” is perceived as “better”, my kids understood that part of what made the berries in this patch special was their scarcity. Each day we ate only a few and we savored each one.

Summertime writing, I observed, was a lot like raspberry picking because, with my kids home from school, time to write would be at a premium. Each day, like raspberries, I would pick a few precious moments to write. These times, I explained, would be short, but intense, and I vowed to savor each and every one.

After that post went live, my mother, who many of you will recall was in the midst if fighting a valiant battle with ALS, sent me this email which I saved and now treasure.  She wrote:

Reading your latest blog, it struck me that what you say about savoring wild raspberries is a lot like living with ALS– I try to enjoy, get the most out of, each little thing that happens — our telephone calls, John’s sweet smile (that’s my dad), a cardinal flying by, sitting at Sunnyside…..It is having appreciation for small things that makes for a happy life.

Her wise words have stuck with me, for in the big picture, we are all like my mother. No, we don’t all have ALS, but we all live in an imperfect world where bad things happen. Our hearts get wrenched. We go through difficult times. We struggle. But, if in the midst of all that, we can find something good in each day, even if it’s just a little thing or a small moment, then like my mother, I think we too, will find the secret to a happy life.

What small moments will come your way today?  Take time today to recognize them and to give thanks.  Blessings, all!

Inspired by WONDER WOMAN: FOUR Tips to Activate your PICTURE BOOK Writing Super Powers

My husband gave me a card with Wonder Woman on the front and that’s all it took to remind me of this favorite post from 2017 which offers super hero wisdom for picture book writers. Enjoy!

A few years ago I was asked in an interview if, even as a child, I always wanted to be a children’s author.  And after a bit of thought, I answered no. When I was a child what I really wanted to be was Wonder Woman! I had her twirl perfected and everything. Activating her super powers, I would spend hours with friends, or sometimes alone, creating fantastic make-believe scenarios. These were the plot lines that brought wonderful play worlds to life.

As picture book writers we, too, have super powers we can activate to create engaging stories. So now, in celebration of my first career dream as a super hero, here are FOUR SUPER POWERS we can all use to bring our picture book manuscripts to life:

The POWER of the KID-FRIENDLY PROBLEM:  Losing a favorite toy, wanting a cookie, being afraid of a storm, not wanting to take a bath. These are just a few examples of kid-friendly problems in the books we read.  A kid-friendly problems connects the reader to your story.

The POWER of PICTURES that ADD: The hallmark of picture books, of course, is that they are illustrated. But there’s more. Good picture book writers let the pictures tell part of the story. Sometimes the pictures even include important details that are not in the text. See Mo Willem’s KNUFFLEBUNNY for a great example of this, or GOODNIGHT, ARK or LOVE IS KIND (or any of my books.) As you write and revise your stories, put stars next to parts of the story that could be told (or enhanced) by the illustrations. Then consider omitting the words from the text, instead substituting a simple illustration note, but only if absolutely necessary.

The POWER of the PAGE TURN: With only a few sentences per spread, picture books include almost constant page turns. These built-in pauses provide authors a great opportunity to build suspense. Consider pausing at an exciting moment mid-sentence as you write.  What happens next?  To find out kids will have to TURN THE PAGE! (Note: creating a book dummy during revisions is a great way to figure out how you can take advantage of page turns.)

The POWER of HUMOR:  Kids love to laugh, or at least chuckle, and so do parents. So anytime you can infuse humor into your story, via text or illustration, go for it!

What SUPER POWER would you add? Let us fellow writers know in the comments. And if wanted to be a super hero when you were little, let us know that too! Happy Writing, all!

MEASURE BY MEASURE:  Thoughts on Singing and Writing

When I was in high school, I performed in my school’s concert choir. Not coming from a particularly musical family, it was my first entrée into the world of vocal music and choral music. I loved it. I sang second soprano and even took voice lessons. I never had a solo, but I learned a lot, not only about reading music, but about bringing it to emotional life with our voices. I partially credit my sense of versification, especially meter, to those years in Mr. Peterson’s choir room.

I also learned something else during those choir years that has had a positive, lasting impact on my writing. This is it: In preparing a piece for performance, you don’t have to learn it in order.  Rather, as I recall, each piece was taught and practiced according to Mr. Peterson’s skilled and strategic plan. Often this meant we started by tackling a particularly difficult passage or a repeated chorus. Every day, bit by bit, we’d explore the piece, but only towards the end would he have us put it all together in sequential order. And to this musical newbie, hearing all those measures learned out of order finally come together was an exciting moment and a signal that we were almost ready to perform. 

Writing a story can be a lot like preparing a choral piece. For both, it’s good to have an overall strategy or storyline in mind, but neither needs to be developed in strict sequence from beginning to end. Rather, just as Mr. Peterson did, it’s okay for writers to jump ahead to the end or the middle or to whatever part of the story your muse is ready to tackle. Indeed, this strategy makes good writerly sense because some parts of the story will require more wrestling with than others, and the progress you make in working through each section or “measure” will invariably help shape the other parts of your story until they all fit together with perfect crescendo and decrescendo like a high school choral piece being sublimely performed.

Looking back over my years as a writer, I can’t imagine creating a piece without applying what I learned in concert choir. Thank you, Mr. Peterson! Maybe his approach will inspire you, as well, in your creative endeavors this week. Happy writing! 

Watch “Christmas in the NICU (and PICU too)” with GOODNIGHT MANGER

Have you been through dark seasons in your life? Perhaps a season of illness or joblessness. Perhaps a season of infertility or loneliness or grief in the death of a loved one. I’ve been through several, but something stands out with each. Looking back, I can see how God has used each one for good – in that each has provided a connection point to come alongside others as they go through similar situations.

And I am so grateful and in awe, really, at how this Christmas season, God took the dark season of our time the NICU with our son and turned it into a special connection point so that He could bless others and reveal His presence through a book drive organized by Praying through Ministries in which copies of GOODNIGHT MANGER were delivered to NICU and PICU families across the nation, including 15 at the very NICU my son was in 21 years ago. My role as author and former NICU mama was to hand write a note of encouragement to accompany each book (and if you’ve read my other posts about this, you know I had helpers because that’s a lot of notes!). And indeed, each book, arrived at its destination with a note.

Wanting to reach even more families with a message of God’s love and hope in the midst of the difficult, Praying through Ministries founder Jessika Sanders hosted a special culminating Facebook Live event that took place on Little Christmas Eve (December 23rd) and included words of encouragement from both of us along with a reading of GOODNIGHT, MANGER.

The intended audience is NICU and PICU families past and present, but the message really applies to anyone who is in the midst of or who has ever been through a dark season. I hope you will find a cozy spot and watch it. Here it is: https://www.facebook.com/prayingthroughministries/videos/1507014823012154

Blessings to you this holiday season.

HAPPY NEW (WRITING) YEAR: Setting the Gears in Motion for 2022

In addition to the little toy train (circa 1906) that was my grandfather’s and the glass box that contains a chunk of the old-fashioned soap I helped make at the local 1740s living history museum where I volunteer, one of my favorite possessions above my fireplace is the pre-civil war mantel clock that I acquired from a dear family friend 20 or so years ago.  

Pre-electric, the clock needs to be “set in motion” each week by a steady winding of the gears using a lovely antique key, followed by a a gentle sideways nudge to the pendulum.  It’s a joy and a responsibility to do this each week, for my deliberate efforts set in motion not only a delightfully soothing tick-tock as the pendulum swings and the hands on the clock move forward second by second, but also a deeply resonant hourly chime,  set in motion by means of a coiled wire that releases a hammer that strikes the chime. 

All this winding, ticking, swinging and chiming is also a weekly reminder to me that “setting the gears in motion” is an important part in the life of a writer.  Nothing happens, writing-wise or clock-wise, if gears aren’t set in motion. In fact, with an antique clock, neglecting to set the gears in motion each week, if prolonged can freeze up the mechanics, thus destroying the lovely old-fashioned tick and gong that I so enjoy. 

Neglecting to set my writerly gears in motion on a weekly, or even daily basis, can have a similar effect. Not that my writing mechanics are destroyed, but I definitely start to feel rusty, and if I don’t do at least something to keep those gears in motion on a regular basis, it takes much longer to get back into a nice writing groove, or productive “tick-tock”, as I like to think of it. 

With that in mind, and inspired by my antique mantel clock, here are FIVE ways, we can keep our writing gears in motion, even when life gets busy, and especially as we start the new year. 

1. If writing daily in the new year is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might simply mean getting up 30 minutes earlier to do just that.

2. If trying a new genre or genres in 2022 is the goal, “setting the gears in motion”  could mean something as simple as going to the library and checking out several books in that genre and using them as mentor texts so that in 2022, you will be ready to write that first draft. 

3. If getting a manuscript ready for publication is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might mean taking thirty minutes every few days to revise again… and again… and again.

4. If publication us the goal, “setting the gears in motion” can be something as preliminary and vital as researching possible publishers or agents who might be good fits for your work… and then (when ready) sending that your best pieces off!

5. If  promoting an upcoming release is the goal, “setting the gears in motion” might mean taking daily small, but proactive, steps to set up a blog tour, arrange for book store visits, reach out to your publicist to see what they are doing etc.  

“Setting the gears in motion” doesn’t have to be big and splashy. It just needs to be intentional and weekly, or even better, daily. Take it from my clock – regular devotion to the craft we love best, pays off!  

Keep ticking and I wish you all a wonderful start to the new year!

Guest Post: DANCING IS MY VOICE by Miss A

In the extra special category, today I am delighted to feature my daughter, Miss A, who wrote this lovely piece “just for fun” and asked if I would share on my blog. Of course, I said yes! Not only is it a beautiful expression of the hardworking, creative daughter I know and love, it’s also a powerful way to look at life through the lens of voice. And I think you will agree that it applies to writers as well. Take it away, Miss A!

Dancing is my Voice

By Miss A

    Your voice. Your voice is the sound that comes out of your mouth. Is that really what a voice is? The way I see it, a voice is much more than just an expression or attitude. It’s something that’s our own, something we don’t share with others. We own it. We own our voices. We own our choices. We own our passions and we own our hearts. 

Our passions are what makes us heard and I know for a fact that dancing is mine. Dancing is my passion. Dancing is my voice. How could dancing be used as a voice? Well, when we talk to someone, the first thing we say is “hi”right? As a dancer with 14 years of experience, everytime I look at my pointe or ballet shoes, they’re saying “hi”. I mean they’re covered in sweat, blood and tears, how could you not say hi back? Looking at those shoes reminds me how much I love dancing and that I have to finish what I started. Likewise, our voices are what keeps the conversation going. We can’t just stop talking in the middle of a sentence and walk away. We finish the conversation and say “see you later”. I don’t ever plan on walking away from dance. I will continue the conversation, however, not with a person. Specifically, with my dance journey. 

There’s this gravitational pull towards my pointe shoes that makes me, and probably every other dancer, tell ourselves that this is who we are. This is what we want to do and this is our voice. Often, so many feel that we can’t speak up for ourselves, but with dancing that isn’t true. When we’re onstage, we’re speaking, not physically, but mentally and from our hearts and bodies. 

Growing up, I was shy and hid behind my parents every time I was introduced to new people, so can you imagine what it was like for a young girl trying to figure out how to become a ballerina. To be a ballerina you have to be your own person. You have to have this perfect poise, skill and grace. You have to be independent, but most importantly you have to break out of the shell that you’ve known for so long. 

Breaking out of the shell is like trying to get out of bed on a school morning. It’s a process. Wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, pack your bag, go to school for 6 hours, repeat. Now change that to a dancer’s perspective: stretch, rehearse, tape feet, rehearse, grab a quick bite to eat, go back to rehearsal, go home and tend to the blisters and swollen feet, shower, go to bed, repeat.

We wouldn’t be able to do any of that without our inner voice. Every ballet dancer out there is able to do what they want because of that voice. So now you know. You know that every and anytime you see a dancer perform on a stage, you know that there is a voice inside of them. As a dancer, I, too, carry that voice with me. It’s strong. It’s who I am today. My voice is louder than ever when I dance and it’s why every time my pointe shoes say, “hi”, I answer by putting them on and dancing to my heart’s content.

LITTLE TOY CARS: Thoughts on Playing and Writing

I’ve been spending hours in my basement lately re-organizing and on one of the shelves I re-discovered this box of little toy cars. With that in mind, I couldn’t resist re-posting this car-themed post from 2017. Enjoy!

I was organizing boxes in my basement this weekend and rediscovered this – it’s a box full of my childhood Matchbox cars co-mingled with my husband’s –  with some more recent additions from when my kids were little.  The youngest cars in the collection are about fifteen years old – the oldest – almost fifty!  What amazes me most about this collection is the wildly contrasting condition of the cars.

I mean, if you look at them carefully, they are all comprised of the same basic elements – wheels, chassis, colorful paint job.  And, yes, of course, all have doors, hoods, and trunks (some that open which were my favorites as a kid). Yeah, yeah, some are trucks instead of cars, but basically they all fit into the same overarching miniature toy car category.

And yet, through the seemingly innocent act of playing with them… look how distinctive they’ve become! My husband’s cars are all battered up. He even had to repaint his little toy ambulance, a very necessary vehicle for his play world. That’s because for him, a perfect day of play involved car races and crashes and battles over rough terrain.

By contrast, my perfect day of automobile play involved creating a village in the fragrant bed of pine needles that covered the craggy old roots that abutted my grandparents’ driveway. I would spend hours creating roads and story lines to go with each car as they navigated my imaginary village world, stopping for tea at imaginary tea houses and picnics along imaginary vistas. Very different from my husband’s play.

But that’s where the originality and creativity emerges, isn’t it?

Writing stories is a lot like playing with toy cars.  We all begin with the same basic car parts – the words – and all our stories fit into a relatively small range of car models, i.e. story structures, plot lines and universal themes.

But does that mean that originality is impossible?  Not at all.  Like children playing with toy cars, that’s where the creativity begins!  So get out those stories-in-progress this week, or grab a new little car – and then PLAY! I wonder what new play worlds will emerge this week. Happy Monday all!

REMEMBERING 9/11: Twenty Years Later

REMEMBERING 9/11. It’s hard to believe it’s been twenty years. I remember it as if it were yesterday. 

My mom was visiting from Colorado that week. In fact, just the Saturday before she had kindly offered to care for our sweet baby for the evening so my husband and I could attend a work party at a colleague’s apartment in Brooklyn. 

At one point during the party, the hostess invited us all up to the roof for a breathtaking view of the lower part of Manhattan. However, to get up there you had to climb a ladder and I don’t like heights and was a little nervous. My husband, though, insisted. It’s beautiful, he said. You’ll regret it if you miss it. 

So taking a deep breath, I climbed that ladder and the view was indeed breathtaking. Just across the river, practically within touching distance, or so at least it felt, stood the two mighty towers of the World Trade Center. It was a clear night with stars and a patchwork pattern of windows lit up the two great towers. I guessed that maybe the cleaning service was cleaning the floors. I remember holding my husband’s hand and feeling a sense of peace and gladness in that moment. 

Three mornings later, my mom and I were upstairs in the bedroom with the baby when the phone rang. It was my husband calling from the library. It was a little bit after nine. He said he was coming home right away but that I should turn on the TV because two planes had flown into the World Trade Center. Our nation was under attack! 

For the rest of that morning with a feeling of dread in our bellies, all three of us ( plus baby) watched the terrible events of the day unfold including the collapsing of the two towers. 

We were in shock. Across the street lived a couple. The husband worked at the World Trade Center. Was he okay, we wondered?

That afternoon, needing a break from the television, we took the baby for a walk. Other neighbors were out and we were all checking in on each other to see if our loved ones were safe and accounted for. 

They were, but no one knew about the situation with my neighbor across the street. We all started praying and hoping. 

The one moment of pure joy that day was seeing him return home, all covered in soot, as I recall, with his wife beside him. She worked further uptown and had run down to find him. And that’s how they found each other, both running from opposite directions. 

Not everyone in our town came home that night though. Six families lives were forever changed. I remember holding my son and crying. I remember praying for peace. I remember praying that they would find survivors. 

My mother was so shaken that she decided rather than fly home to Colorado she would take the train. And that’s what she did. It took more than 24 hours to get home.

Our world was changed forever that day. My thoughts and prayers go out today to all who lost family members and friends that day.  I pray also for peace and unity for our nation and the world.