The Sheer Terror of the Blank Page

Standard
ballpen blank desk journal

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Pexels.com

It’s been a long time since I started a new novel.

Well, maybe not as long as it seems. I had an aborted attempt around a year ago. But I’m really zeroing in on novel writing now, and I’m discovering something I probably knew, on some level, but didn’t really, y’know… KNOW. Namely, that when life with a two teens, a tween, and an eight-year-old just entering serious activities smacks into writing, everything suffers.

(But writing suffers more than the kids. I’ll never apologize for putting them first.)

2019 has been an intense year–much of it the best possible tension–a cavalcade of good things raining down on me! And I am so very grateful for it.

But nonetheless… intense.

I’ve always been a burn-the-candle-at-both-ends person, but lately I’m really feeling how little is left at either end. I’m dropping balls all over the place. I forgot a piano lesson, people. And a doctor’s appointment that I scheduled on a day off school to make my life less complicated.

I’ve been struggling to get momentum going on a new novel. I’ve been working on that this week, as best I can, and I’m coming to some new insights. I’ve known for a long time that for me, starting a major fiction project is like getting a huge machine in motion. It’s agony at the start, and as I slowly grind into action, the motion itself clarifies things, which clarify more things, and so on, until I’m writing as fast as I can and making notes to myself for things that will happen a dozen scenes down the line.

But first, I have to invest the time to get that motion going. And it is an intense effort that really does require big blocks of uninterrupted time.

2019 has been a year of interruptions. Some were cause for celebration, others for tearing my hair out. There was a period of 3 weeks this fall, for instance, when 2/3 of the weekdays I had one half or the other of my kids home, because the public & parochial schools don’t overlap their teacher PD days. Ever. It’s like the school systems put their heads together and went out of their way to make PD days consecutive rather than concurrent.

I have been philosophical. Well aware that I only have 3 1/2 years left with my oldest, I am trying to be present in the moments of my life.

But that means ignoring not just writing, but also the Mount Everest of laundry in need of folding. Yes, yes, the kids should do it themselves, but they only get half of it and they mismatch and do it wrong and it’s harder to fix it than to do it myself in the first place!

Ahem. Back to the point at hand…

There’s a conventional wisdom among writers that you have to get the story down, no matter how bad it is–you have to turn off the internal editor and allow yourself to write a crap first draft. I’ve never bought into that. Crap drafts are harder to fix than good ones.

Unless, of course, you have no draft at all because you can’t get the momentum going. And then yes, maybe it’s time to exile the internal editor and get the story on the page.

I also realized that what makes a first draft is so terrifying to me is that literally everything is up for grabs. The major backstory event that kick starts my protagonist’s journey could be caused by something she did, or by something another character did. There are positives and negatives to both ideas, and which one I choose impacts how her present story unfolds. What time of year did event A happen? Because I have to count X number of months/years forward from that in order to figure out when Event B in the present will take place. What, precisely, did Character C do to cause my protagonist’s problem? I need to know, because her story is all about fixing it.

And every time I set out to answer one question, I discover a dozen more that need answering in order to settle the one I thought I was working on.

So for right now, my job is to decide on anything–this little thing, that little thing. Create some little anchors. Because the more anchors I put down, the more solid the framework becomes. And the more solid the framework, the clearer the picture. And the clearer the picture, the more possible it becomes to write.

(Who said there’s no world building in contemporary fiction?)

Enough

Standard
Enough - resize

My word for 2019 is “enough”: I am enough, I am doing enough, I am good enough, this moment is enough.

It’s a combination of learning to recognize the goodness in saying “no” and of living in the moment, being present in my own life instead of always feeling dissatisfied.

I’m working on it.
But I don’t often feel it. Which is why I want to mark this moment. I just finished revising a particularly difficult and climactic scene for my novel. It’s a scene that marks the culmination of a particularly sensitive plotline. It was good before, but it was a leee-ttle bit melodramatic. And now, after today’s work… it’s really good.

When I finished, I said, “Now I’ve done enough today.” And I meant it.

Bigger Than Me

Standard

Sometimes, I just need to get away.

Leaves

No matter how much work is hanging over my head, I know I need to make the time to hike, or bike, or kayak—and always, to find a quiet, beautiful spot to sit and be still. It’s necessary for my mental health. Sometimes I get a twinge of guilt, thinking of those I love who also need this time but don’t get it. But I realize that depriving myself of it won’t help them. If I’m grounded, my head is clearer, my stress is lower, and I’m better able to ease the stress of others.

Plus, in the silence—away from the dings and red “new” notifications on email—I can get a better perspective on situations that seem frightening or overwhelming. I can see myself more objectively—better recognize my faults, not just in the abstract, but in the specific situations I could or should have handled better.

Yesterday I sat beside the Missouri River at flood stage. It’s been flooded most of 2019, and the already-steep slope of the riverbank has been carved into a sheer drop. Shrubs whose branches used to bob under and resurface in the shallows have washed away. The river is running fast these days, a wide, noisy, roiling, swirling thing. Sometimes a whirlpool rushes by, sucking at something invisible, until suddenly a whole tree, stripped bare, surfaces for one gasp before submerging again.

River

A towboat pushing three big grain barges was roaring its way upriver when I first arrived. It was struggling make any headway—it took nearly forty minutes for the barges to pass by and disappear around the bend in the river, leaving silence. Meanwhile, a two-foot piece of driftwood shot past the other direction, headed for the Gulf of Mexico. I thought: even great big powerful things, things that make lots of noise and leave a wake that takes twenty minutes to settle, are small compared to the earth they inhabit.

It reminded me of Danny Glover, in the movie Grand Canyon, saying, “When you sit on the edge of that thing, you just realize what a joke we people are. What big heads we got thinking that what we do is gonna matter all that much. Thinking our time here means diddly to those rocks. It’s a split second we been here, the whole lot of us. And one of us? That’s a piece of time too small to give a name… Yeah, those rocks are laughing at me, I could tell. Me and my worries, it’s real humorous to that Grand Canyon.”

Poignant words. I’ve been wrestling anxiety again lately. I’m watching myself carefully, giving it a few days to see if some distance from the trigger will sort things out. (I think it will. It seems to be so far.) But if not, to be ready to reach out for help.

Sitting beside the river puts everything into perspective. There’s so much to be thankful for out there: the beauty of the light dappling the leaves; the clarity of the blue sky; the silence and solitude; the sparkles out on the water; the pattern of light and dark on the leaves; the 5-mile bike ride required to reach this spot I love; the gnarled beauty of the vines hanging into the water; the way the light plays with shadow and color on the leaves (are you sensing a pattern?).

Leaves sparkles

Being out here gives me that sense of distance, of perspective, of the relative importance of these things that so preoccupy my thoughts. It allows me to relax a bit, to remember, in the deepest part of my soul, that whatever comes next, everything will, in fact, be all right.

Bizarre Dreams

Standard
woman underwater wearing black one piece swimsuit
Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

I had a bizarre series of dreams last night:

1: I couldn’t get apps to close on a smart device. (Anyone who knows me knows this is particularly bizarre because I don’t use a smart phone.)

2: I couldn’t find the right pair of contacts.

3: We drove up Scotts Bluff (one of the settings in my road trip novel), but the drive was so steep, I was certain we were actually inverted and I a) couldn’t believe we weren’t falling off and b) couldn’t understand how my risk-averse husband was so blase about it.

But the last dream was about a magical realm set in the world of one of my previous novels. When I woke up, I thought, “That would make a great back story for a new novel.” And I couldn’t get back to sleep for excitement thinking through the possibilities.

Since finishing my big novel revision and sending out a bunch more queries last week, I’ve been feeling a big void in desire and interest in novel writing. Partly because I’m still waiting for those great outdoor days off I promised myself. (Kayaking. Today. Even if it’s only in the 50s. Because hey. It’s not raining, and there are only a couple weeks of school left!)

But I haven’t been freaking out about my lack of desire. I figured it’d come in its good time. And now I believe it has. Because now I have two novels to develop and choose between…plus the one I tried to write last winter that I still think is a good concept, but needs more development.

Which makes this week a win, I think.

IEP Day

Standard

IEP

This is what #IEP prep looks like: notes from parent advocate, part A and B. The first draft of the IEP, from which the comments came, split in two: the half we got through last week, and the part we have to do today—the goals, i.e the basic shape of her middle school experience. Finally, draft 2, which we will finish marking up today.

This is our 10th IEP meeting. Our first happened in preparation for her entry into ECSE (Early Childhood Special Ed) shortly before she turned 3. This is the first time we’ve hired a parent advocate, having realized over the past year that we have, in fact, been delusional the past 9 year in thinking we had a good enough handle on the process that we could do it on our own. And I have to say, I’m so much more relaxed this time than I have been in the past because there is an expert in the room who’s there just for us.

Even so, this is inherently a stressful process. What you can’t see from the picture is that each of those drafts is 20+ pages long. It’s a mind-boggling amount of information, written in lingo like this:

“Julianna will use clear speech (over-articulation) strategies at the sentence-level in 80% of opportunities. Baseline: 60% in structured speech activities at the word-level, with visual cue only (e.g., written minimal pairs).”

Did you all follow that?

My guess is that most people who have never been through an IEP were like me, completely unaware of the complexity of the process. Even now, I can sense eye rolls. Why the lingo? Why does it have to be so complicated?

Well, to effectively administer something like special ed, you have to have specific, measurable targets. And as targets zero in, you end up with specific language to make clear the distinctions. Ergo, lingo. Let’s face it. Who but a speech therapist would ever think of the fact that you can struggle to say “f” and “v” in three different places in a word–beginning, middle, end? Until it happens to you or your kid. (Oh, but that’s a different goal. I spared you that one!)

The process is what it has to be–but it is hard for parents. Hard to keep it all straight. Hard to understand. Hard to gauge the right level for pushing the envelope yet not overreaching.

What the IEP process doesn’t do, we realized, is create the specific shape of her days. Last spring, we spent 3 hours in an IEP meeting creating what we felt was a good plan, with 61% of her time spent in reg-ed. But in the fall, we found out those reg-ed minutes were so splintered, they were all but irrelevant. We had to have another hour and a half meeting to rearrange the schedule so that she could actually spend meaningful blocks of time with her peers.

It worked. She now has a group of typically-developing girls that she pals around with during the day. But the IEP didn’t guarantee that.

As always, posts like these run the risk of making special needs look like all stress and drudgery–and scaring off parents confronted with a diagnosis. But I really want the general population to get an idea of what supports are needed, because disability is kind off the radar for the vast majority of people, and even for those who do have it on their radar, it’s easy to underestimate the experience and think, “Why are you people making such a big deal of these public policy questions?”

We’re making a big deal of it because from inside the situation, the stakes are so high.

Cover Reveal and Award Nomination!

Standard

It’s been a crazy few months for me, both in real life and in my writing life. I’ve been working on a major revision of my newest novel in response to agent feedback. This is the first time I’ve tried to do such a thing on a tight turnaround and now I understand the stress in other women’s voices when they have talked about that process! But I finished yesterday (more or less; waiting on a bit of feedback from an expert on one particular issue) and now I have time to share a couple pieces of news I haven’t had time to put out there!

Show us Your Face - cover smallFirst, my song, “Show Us Your Face,” published by WLP, is a finalist in the Association of Catholic Publishers’ “Excellence in Publishing” awards for 2019! This was the piece I brought to the Liturgical Composers Forum for review the first year I attended. You can hear an excerpt on the “listen” tab here.

Second, I have a book coming out with Our Sunday Visitor in July 2019. Aaaaand….cover reveal!

Cover Art T2348[2]

This is part of OSV’s “Companion in Faith” series. Here’s OSV’s back cover blurb:

Blessed are they …

The Beatitudes are the words of Christ that cut to the very core of the Christian life. But have they become so familiar that we breeze past them, without taking them to heart? The Beatitudes can — and will — transform our lives in a powerful way, if we take the time to connect with them in our daily lives.

In The Beatitudes, you will find guided meditations based on the Beatitudes found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. For each Beatitude you will:

  • Focus inward: What is Christ saying to you?
  • Focus outward: What is Christ saying about the world?
  • Pray, reflect, and act: What is God asking you to do?

The reflections in The Beatitudes are useful for examining your daily life, preparing for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and deepening your prayer life.

Stay tuned! I’ll share more as we get closer to launch date!

 

A New Project!

Standard

Intentional Catholic circleThis Lent, I began a new project called Intentional Catholic, a website devoted to the living the faith at the messy intersection of faith and the real world. I’m exploring the writings of the Church that touch on a lot of these topics, and sharing quotes from them as well as some of my own reflections. So from here on out, I will no longer be sharing those kinds of posts here. If you’re interested, hop on over to Intentional Catholic and follow!