Saturday, May 30, 2015

How Writing Has Positively Influenced My Life

I am participating in the Writing Contest: How Writing Has Positively Influenced My Life. Hosted by Positive Writer. When I got notice of this contest in my inbox, it made me think back to how this all started.

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A few years ago, I mentioned off-hand to a student of mine who was a highly skilled writer (she still is, though I can’t seem to convince her of that) that I had started a novel several times but had never quite finished it. And by not quite, I mean I wrote the first fifty pages or so over and over again. Not the same first fifty pages, but the same general story about a private detective name Harry Shalan and his brilliant, beautiful wife Deanna. This young lady, seemingly more convinced of my abilities than of hers, hounded me for the rest of the school year until I agreed to finish that darn book. And I did. I enjoyed it so much, I almost immediately started on the second of what I intend to be a long-running series. And the rest is history, as they say. All of my books have spent several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and have received rave reviews from every single critic on the entire planet.

Yeah, that last part was a bald-faced lie. I have sold some books, but not enough to say I’m a professional novelist. Somewhere in the hundreds for two books. Not enough to say at this point that I’m participating in more than a relatively expensive hobby. And yet, I would not go back and change my mind about finishing that first book. Writing has had an amazingly positive effect on me. More than one, actually.

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Finishing that first book gave me such a sense of accomplishment. It made me feel like I could do a lot of things I had not thought possible before, the main one being to be an actual professional writer. When I was young, there were three things I really wanted to be: a first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds, an author, or a teacher. Well, if you ever saw me try to hit a curveball, you’d know that dream was of the pipe variety. Writing seemed a little more doable, but the job market for writers is awfully iffy. It was even more so back then when the only way to get published was through the giant crapshoot that is querying your work to agents and publishers. So a teacher it was. And I’m genuinely happy with the choice. I love my kids.

I settled for watching baseball and playing slow pitch softball. I’m still not really very good, but they don’t pay me, so it’s okay. And I thought I might finish a book someday, though I wasn’t sure I really could. I’d written some halfway decent short stories, but a novel is just so many words. And, hopefully, not the same eight or ten words over and over again. Lots of different words. But I was an English major and they prefer you to know several words, so there was still that tiny glimmer of hope that someday…

Photo By Hide ObaraAnd the someday came. I still wanted to be a “traditional” author, so I spent almost two years getting rejection notices weekly. The old cliché of using them to paper my bedroom walls didn’t really work, since they were nearly all automatically generated emails. But it didn’t matter. I wrote a book. I thought it was a pretty cool thing and my friends agreed. And ever since I took the plunge and self-published, even strangers have said so. A woman in Chicago (I live in West Virginia) tweeted me to say she’d won my first book in a contest, loved it, and was buying the second the day it came out. Chicago. Chicago, Illinois. A metropolis with more people in it than my whole state. I smiled for days that someone in a big city almost 500 miles away liked my books enough to take the time to tell me.

book, pages, readingSadly, she hasn’t gotten hundreds of her friends to buy their own copies, but that’s okay too. I hope I can get to a point where writing will be something I can do for a living, but I love my day job, at which, for the bonus, I’ve gotten a lot better since I started writing regularly, by the way. I read all the time about how reading makes you a better writer, but I’ve found the reverse to be true as well. I’m a much more effective reader now that I write. The tools I use to create character, plot, and theme are much more evident in the works I read now. So even if I never sold another copy, I will have benefitted greatly from writing.

There have been other positive effects, like all the nice people I’ve met and the new places I’ve been, but those stories can wait for another day. I could go on forever, but nobody wants that. Too many words. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Time to Say Goodbye

This blog's primary intent is to write about the author half of my life, but the reality is that it's impossible to completely compartmentalize myself. Sometimes I'm mostly a writer and sometimes I'm mostly a teacher and each thing contributes to being better at the other. This week, I can't imagine writing about anything other than being a teacher. Next week I'll be back to being mostly a writer for the summer.

Yesterday I said goodbye to another crop of seniors. As I knew in August when I met them, they broke my heart. They didn't do it on purpose and I'm not complaining because I signed on knowing I'd be devastated and besides, it's worth it.

A long time ago, my mentor, a man named Dan Daniel, and I discussed the fact that the way we relate to our kids made it a foregone conclusion that the last day of school would, barring some personal disaster, be the saddest day on the calendar. That's because we both have made the conscious choice to let our kids in. There are teachers who choose, consciously or not, to keep the relationship purely professional. They are the vendor and the students are the clients. There is an element of this for me, but I am simply not wired to leave it at that. I adopt my kids. They are my students and I do everything I can to teach them what they need to succeed in college, but they are also my children. They can come to me and talk about their life choices. They can eat lunch in my room and chat. They can cry on my shoulder when their loved ones are sick or even dying or when their girlfriend or boyfriend turns out to be a jerk. And because I allow myself to become a part of their personal lives, they automatically become part of mine. When you eat lunch with somebody almost every day for ten months, you become family.

But the time we have together is, by definition, finite. It has an expiration date. While the relationship between a parent and a child changes when the kid goes off to college, they still remain parent and child. When my kids leave, I am their "old English teacher." And in many ways that's sad. But it's also okay. For that short period of time, our relationship becomes quite intense and several kids, especially girls for some reason, grow to see me as a father figure. The times over the last couple of weeks I cried the hardest were when I got letters from students who talked of not having a real, reliable father in their lives and of how grateful they were to have, if only for this short time, a stable surrogate who was there for them literally every day. That's humbling. To know that I had the opportunity to show those kids that there are men who will love them unconditionally and won't take advantage of them is such a blessing and such a responsibility--a responsibility I don't take for granted or take lightly.

And yes, from time to time, a kid sticks beyond the terminus. I have lifelong friends who were once students. Their relationship morphed from teacher/student into friends and, in some cases, I have remained that father figure. That is one of the greatest joys in my life. Recently, I was visited by a former student who is now a doctor in Hershey, PA. She is, in every way that matters, a daughter in my heart and mind. She graduated almost fifteen years ago. Another young lady who lives in New Orleans who graduated even longer ago than that, is a real, significant part of my life. I visit her and she visits me. I got to see her graduate from law school and even officiated her wedding. Both of these people are my family as sure as my parents and siblings are. And there are others who, to some degree or another, remain close. This year, I can sense that there are a handful of kids who are going to hang around. How long is up to them. I would be happy if that were for a lifetime, but I'll settle for as long as they need me.

But mostly, that's just not true. A former student posted a picture today on her Facebook page of the last day of her senior year six years ago. I was first struck by how different the room looked, but then I was hit with the fact that, of the dozen or so faces I could see, there were maybe three or four I could actually name. Does that mean I didn't love those kids? No. Does it mean I wasn't important in their lives for that period of time? I would hope not. But my place in their lives was designed to be intense and short. Then, if we did it right, they would leave with warm memories of their wacky senior English teacher but also with some life lessons that would help guide them through college and life beyond. Lessons about love of literature, of course, but even more important were the lessons I tried to teach them about loving your fellow humans and about finding God and about living life with joy and passion and about doing the right thing even when it's difficult--or especially when it's difficult.

As I read back over this, I fear it makes me sound like some sort of saint, but the opposite is true. As I fought through my tears yesterday at the end of each class period, one thing I told each group was, that no matter what they think, I am the one who benefits most from this relationship. I get to have kids to love and hug and support for ten months and then I send them off to college with not a single bill to pay. But even more than that, they bring me joy and enthusiasm and zest for life. I often get mistaken for being younger than my 51 years, and that's all because of them. Teaching will either make you old fast or, if you're in it for the right reasons, it will keep you young forever.

So here's to never getting old.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Four Ways to Maintain Balance In Life

Life is kind of crazy right now. I have senior projects to grade, portfolio entries to read and approve, an end-of-the-year presentation to make, I need to get someone to speak at awards night--and that's just my school life. In my writing life, I have a book launch party this afternoon (hope you can come--4pm at Emmanuel Baptist Church) and I also am helping with an activity with my Sunday School class today. I woke up this morning wondering if I was going to get everything done. And on top of all that, I have been feeling a growing sense of dissatisfaction over the fact that I just don't have time to write like I want to. My latest work in progress hasn't been touched in weeks.

As I lay in bed contemplating that as I waited for the coffee pot to finish brewing, I was reminded of something I said to a former student who was feeling overwhelmed by school work and was expressing frustration that she was neglecting another aspect of her life. I decided I should consider taking my own advice. So when I am feeling overwhelmed by some particular aspect of my life and I feel like things are out of balance, I try to keep the following things in mind:

  •  Have a plan. Today is going to be packed full, but I know I'll get everything done because I have it all scheduled out. I know what I'll be doing and where I'll be every minute of the day. And I have a long-term plan too. I know that this crazy busy time will end next Tuesday at the end of Color Day, and on Wednesday, I have a marathon writing session planned. Simply looking at my calendar and putting down appointments eases my anxiety because I feel like I have a handle on the insanity. 
  • Neglect stuff. This sounds like a lousy piece of advice, I know, but it may be the key. It's the point I was making to my student. Sometimes you just have to be okay with not spending time with your friends or going to an activity that you really feel like you should because you have a certain number of hours in your day and you literally can't be in two places at one time. So explain it to your friends and make an appointment for a time when you know you won't be so busy (see previous bullet) and do what you need to do. Maybe another way to think of it is to prioritize. Sometimes you need to say no to things because they not so much important but urgent. But sometimes the urgent stuff really does need taken care of. 
  • Make sure it all balances out in the end. Think of the important areas of your life not as ends of a scale but as accounts that have to be balanced monthly. As long as each account receives attention relatively regularly, your life is in balance. You can't do everything you want and need to do every day, but you probably can every month. No time to write today? That's okay because I plan to catch up next week. So look at your life in terms of the next month rather than the next 24 to 48 hours. Do you have time set aside for all the important tasks and people in your life sometime over the next month? Then you're okay.
  • Finally, remember that some things aren't negotiable. Time for sufficient sleep, good nutrition, a spiritual life, and some exercise shouldn't be considered negotiable. If you have to cut back on sleep time regularly because you're just too busy, then it's time to decide that something needs to go. If you don't have time to sleep, then how will you get everything done when you're sick in bed because you let yourself get exhausted? So say no. Get help. Delegate. Decide some things just don't need done at all, at least by you.  
Before I end, let me say one more time that today is the book launch party for my latest book, Kisses and Lies! I hope you can make it out to say hello and maybe have a cookie and a lovely beverage. I'll be visiting, doing a reading, answering questions, and the time will end with a signing, so if you already have a copy, bring it. If not, that's okay--I have some for sale. It's at 4pm at Emmanuel Baptist Church, which is on the corner of 23rd and Liberty Streets in Parkersburg, just up the hill from City Park. 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

A New Old View

rural, road, pavement, trees, forest, woods, nature

I'm not home. But I kind of am. My parents, sister, and I hit the road last night after I got off from school and drove to my brother's house in Virginia. I'm not sitting in the living room with a steaming cup of coffee writing this. But I am sitting on the bench of a dining table at which I've shared many a meal with loved ones. And I have a steaming cup of coffee.

My view is not my usual, but it's a familiar one that I have grown to love. Out the windows behind me, I can see deep woods. If I were to open the door, I know I would hear the rush of a river down the hill. To the left, I look out over a fenced pasture. Though I don't see them, I'm confident a few horses will wander by soon. Lying on the floor nearby is Mister, a dog my niece found in a dumpster. Almost certainly having somehow outlived his usefulness as a training dog for dog fighters, he had been left to die. As a result of his rescue, he may be the most affectionate dog in the history of ever. On the other side of the room sleeps my brother. The house is so full of guests that he's sleeping in a recliner in the living room. Though at the moment my coffee cup is empty, my contentment cup is full.

I may be an oddball when it comes to travel. As I've gotten older, I've become slightly more reticent to leave on trips. They just seem like too much work, too much disruption of my routine. But once I get myself to go, I'm glad I did. This time away from home will charge my batteries and get my creativity flowing. I'll inevitably have some event or scene that will end up in a story or a book sometime. And even if that doesn't turn out to be true, I'll go home with brighter soul.

I know all this to be true before I leave, yet I try to talk myself out of going anyway. Why is that? I never used to be this way. I loved going new places and experiencing new things. But as I've aged, I've begun to see the work more than the fun. And that's a shame. One bonus to taking up this writing career is that I've had no choice but to travel from time to time. I have events in at least four different places over the summer and fall, places I probably wouldn't have ended up going on my own. And I think that traveling is like developing any other skill--the more I practice, the better at it I get.
From a Recent Family Trip 

So what is it that you used to love that's lost its joy because you see the work instead of the fun? Maybe you should revisit it. See it with new eyes. You may find that it's even better than you remember.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Five Ways to Get Back to Writing

I keep a board on Pinterest with ideas for how I'll arrange my writing nook if ever I actually get one. Right now I live with my parents, and I may be here for the foreseeable future, so a dedicated writing space may be several years down the road. But I can dream. When I lived on my own, I had a room that, when I went in there, it was time to write. That's what happened in there. In the current situation, there is no such place. Every room in the house is dedicated to something else and, since I am guest in their home (I honestly don't think they see it that way, but it's true nonetheless), I can't just say that the spare room is now my writer's lair. As a result, I found myself not dedicating the time to writing that I once did. I needed to find a solution to that problem, especially if I want to meet my long-term goal of publishing three books a year. So I came up with a plan. It has five parts. Maybe you're in a similar situation and need some ideas on how to get back to being productive. Here they are, in no particular order:
    Photo By petradr
    Photo By Alex Jones
  • Find a designated writing place outside the house. For me, that's Panera Bread. I go there nearly every Saturday and write and/or edit. I put in my headphones, drink more coffee than is probably healthy, and write for hours. I can actually feel myself going into writer mode when I enter the door. Maybe a crowded restaurant won't work for you. Do you have a library nearby? Or maybe even a park? You can probably find a spot more easily than you think once you start looking. 
  • Dedicate a specific time every day to writing. I am a morning person, but I generally putter the first hour or two away doing email and other social media things, much of which is directly connected to writing in that it's about promoting my books, but it's para-writing, not writing itself, which has to take a front seat. So I've set a goal of at least a half-hour of writing every morning regardless of when else I can work it in. Maybe for you, morning isn't the time. But I bet you can find one. 
  • Re-define what you consider "enough time to write." Much like I am with reading, I prefer to have a good solid block of time to write. At least a half an hour, more if possible. But life is almost always about what you can do and not about what you prefer. So commit to using those snippets of time that you usually use scrolling through Twitter or Facebook to either reading or writing. Take 10 minutes a half-dozen times in a day and you have an hour of writing in. 
  • Be a little more selfish. Before I started writing seriously, I pretty much lived for my students. I made myself their designated fan. I went to every game, every performance, every competition. I felt guilty if I missed something. But I've decided that I can support my students without being at every single event. In some ways, being there for a game or two rather than every single one makes it more special to them anyway. So I still go to my kids' activities, but I learn to be okay with it being one or two per season. Is there an area in which you can find a little more balance? Not necessarily give something up but maybe just cut back your commitment to a more reasonable level and use that time to get another chapter written each week. 
  • Turn off the idiot box. I grew up in a family of TV watchers. Read my books and you'll find the characters' names are mostly tributes to the shows I grew up watching. But the TV is the major time suck in my life. And it often happens without my even noticing it. I turn on the TV in my room while I'm changing out of my work clothes and it stays on until bedtime. Another evening that could've been productive poured down the black hole that is almost all of television. All it takes is simple step--I don't turn it on unless I have a specific show I want to watch. Maybe for you, it's not the TV. Maybe it's the Internet. There's a fix for that too, especially if you type on a laptop. Turn off the wi-fi. Put your phone on airplane mode. There was a time when we weren't accessible 24/7 and the sun came up every morning.  
I hope you find those helpful, whether you're looking for time to write or do something else you just can't seem to find the time for. Do you have any other tricks you use to keep yourself productive? If so, feel free to share.