Random Observations of a Writer On the Reality of Living Through the Coronavirus Shutdown

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It’s been a week since the kids came home from school for the foreseeable future, and today is day 2 of an official “stay at home order” where I live–though we can still go hiking (and we intend to continue doing so as long as we’re permitted, weather permitting—which it hasn’t done much of lately).

Bear Creek 5_opt

Mental health is my primary concern—both for me (anxiety came home to roost again in the past week) and for my kids. It’s spring break right now, but the first three days of our Coronavirus Break were school days and I doubt it’s a coincidence that the anxiety hit at the same time. I am staring down the barrel of at least a month of trying to educate my developmentally disabled daughter on my own—a child who needs adult help for a significant part of her school day. And in the midst of all this, I am drafting a new novel. I’d *like* to be writing music, too, but I haven’t figured that one out yet.

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I thought I’d use my blog to share a few things about this historic (blech, spare me from ever experiencing history again!) time, as they strike me. So here are some thoughts, in no particular order:

1. I’m struggling to keep coronavirus from entering the book I’m drafting. The characters keep wanting to touch each other—touch elbows, give hugs, you know, normal human contact things. And every time they do I feel like I’m committing a sin.

2. Also, I just wrote the line, “December passed into January; school restarted, and with it the normal routine…” Which opened up a big, queasy pit in my gut, because it reminded me how NOT normal the routine is now. The best times of my life right now are the ones when I forget this is all happening. But when it comes back to mind, it’s almost worse than never having forgotten at all.

3. Everyone says STAY AT HOME, and those who are shouting loudest never acknowledge that such admonitions don’t leave room for the “get outside, the park trails are open even if the playgrounds are not” (in many places, at least). So when I back my van out at 4:00 on a Tuesday afternoon to take the kids to the Bear Creek Trail for a walk around the wetlands to hear the peep frogs and throw rocks in the creek, my scrupulous self cringes.

4. Facebook is a welcome venue for ordinary human interactions—except no one is talking about anything except shutdowns and the virus. That’s not a criticism; it’s what’s on our minds. But it does mean if you need a break for human interaction, you likely aren’t going to get what you went looking for. The place you go for relief becomes a further source of anxiety. It’s a conundrum.

5. I resisted the idea of structure, because a) the earlier the kids get up, the more hours of the day I have to figure out how to keep them from killing each other, and b) structure is only structure if you follow it, and when the weather is crap 90% of the time, you have to throw the structure out and go outside whenever the weather decides to let you go outside.

6. I intended to spend the next weeks rehabbing my back yard: tearing up weed patches and sowing grass seed. But now it’s the only outdoor space my kids have for most of the time. I’m trying to find a solution, but I’m afraid there isn’t one. I may have to accept that the best laid plans for reclaiming the lawn from the weeds are just toast.

7. One good thing, I’m almost embarrassed to admit. I’ve said for years that things like toilet training are less about kids’ readiness than about “when the parents are ready to put in the effort.” I’m kind of an artsy, spacey person who remembers her own habits of cleanliness but have not necessarily been great about policing those of my kids. Thanks to coronavirus, our kids are currently learning all the habits of handwashing that I never remembered to enforce before. Surely this will be good in the long run.

8. On the other hand, the reason I’m so great at policing is because I feel constantly dirty these days. Constantly creepy-crawly, afraid to touch anything. For now, it’s not a bad paranoia to have, but the trouble is that such paranoias don’t follow logic. Once this is all over, I foresee a really big mental/emotional struggle to reclaim my independence from anxiety. Imagine how bad this time must be for people who *actually* struggle with OCD.

Enough for today.

The Sheer Terror of the Blank Page

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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

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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.

Cover Reveal and Award Nomination!

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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!

 

The State of an Author-Composer’s World

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Do you ever have that feeling that there’s just too much going on? No, of course not, she says (wink-wink). This summer hit me like a Mack truck, and the grace in it was that I was so focused on two weeks in July–my week at NPM in Cincinnati and our trip to Colorado last week–that I didn’t have any time to spend calculating how much other work was getting shoved off to the side. If I had really processed how much there was, the stress level would have skyrocketed.

As I was taking these pictures I was feeling bad for the poor mama moose, who was having to raise her babies with 50 people taking pictures…but now I think I sort of missed the part where she was living in ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, with no responsibilities except existing. There’s some beauty in that.

My poor kids have two weeks of summer break left and it’s the first real unstructured time we have. We needed one day for recovering from twelve hours on the road–day 1 we saw moose at Sprague Lake, I battled Nicholas and Michael on the aerial course, we had lunch and souvenir shopping, and THEN drove 6 hours in 7 hours. Day 2 we got up, ate breakfast, and drove 6 hours in 7 hours. And then did eight loads of laundry and went to a birthday party for the baby of a choir member. So yeah, we needed Sunday to recover. And Monday.

By Tuesday, they were “all war zone, all the time.”

And me, in the meantime?

I knocked out my first two deadlines on Monday and Tuesday–the shortest two. Some of the other tasks on my to-do list are gargantuan. It’s easy to say, “Query Trust Falls.” What that line item doesn’t tell you is I have to write a synopsis. And take the list of upwards of a hundred agents I’ve been collecting for the last two years and organize it and figure out which ones are the best match. Then agonize over the query letter and make sure it’s as compelling as it can possibly be, with the right balance of, well, everything. And only then comes the querying itself.

It’s also easy to write on that list, “Trio.” But writing a piece of music is not a short process. I will likely spend three or four months working on that.

So I view the upcoming school year with a mixture of emotions. On the one hand, all the kids will be in school all day for the first time. (Hurrah! Uninterrupted days to work!) On the other, homework season is starting. The reading assessments that ended 3rd grade underscored to us that we’ve really underserved Miss Julianna, and we can’t do it anymore. We’ve GOT to figure out where to scrape together 15-20 minutes a day for reading comprehension, and when the speech therapist sends home that 12-page packet that says “do this list of words 3x a day for a week, then do this list 3x a day for a week…”…well, we really need to do it.

Such things make me feel like whimpering. It makes me miss this even more:

I could totally stand to spend every day climbing enormous piles of boulders at the Alluvial Fan and cuddle up by a fire in the evening to write. Wait. If I write, that presupposes all the deadlines and the other stuff…roses and thorns.

When this round of deadlines clears out I have to take a clear-eyed stock of what I commit to and be more realistic.

That’s the state of my world right now, and I know no one’s all that interested, but I debated not blogging at all today because I just remembered (I’ve been working on agent lists this morning!), and I have a flute duet rehearsal any minute, so I decided it was the type of day that calls for a stream-of-consciousness post that only takes 12 minutes to write.

The Couple That Plays Together…

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proofingI’ve heard people say that wallpapering is a test of a marriage. I think they should try critiquing each other’s creative work.

Christian has always been my earliest set of eyes on a piece of music, and unlike most people, he’s never felt inhibited about telling me exactly what’s wrong with it. In the early years of our marriage, I didn’t handle this well. For those who have never had a creative work critiqued, imagine setting your child out on a pedestal for people to say, “He’s got decent teeth, but the fact that he chews with his mouth open is clearly a reflection on your parenting skills.”

In some ways having a book or a song critiqued is even worse, because a child at least is an independent human being, responsible for his or her own choices. Any flaws in a creative baby are no one’s fault but yours.

It took me several years to learn to accept his feedback with enough emotional distance to be capable of objective receptivity. It also took Christian that long to learn to identify the actual element in a measure or melody or text that doesn’t work. For one thing, he’s taught me not to get all airy-fairy-flowery about religious concepts, but to stay grounded in reality.

But his biggest help to me is with piano parts. I’m an ear-and-chords player (a bad one), so although I can write an interesting enough piano part, I can’t play it, so I never know if what I hear in my head actually works in reality. I tend to assume that if my husband can’t sight-read it, it’s too hard. He has no patience with this particular assumption. “Just give me a minute to play it through first, will you?” he’ll say. “I’ve never seen this before!”

But the photo at the top of today’s post shows a very different sort of shared musical moment. For the past two and a half years, I’ve been going through draft after draft after editorial revision of a collection of Easter hymns arranged for flute and piano, a complement to my Christmas collection, “Come To The Manger.” Some of them wrote themselves; others, well, let’s just say I never knew I could suffer so much angst over a song I’ve been singing since I was old enough to carry a tune.

So it was very satisfying to spend an hour last weekend playing through 25 pages stamped with these words:

easter-proof

Proofs, for those who aren’t deep in the publishing world, are “this is what the inside of the finished product will actually look like,” and as an author you have to go through and make sure there aren’t any mistakes.

This Joyful Eastertide will be available sometime this spring, and I’m quite proud of how it came out. I’m grateful to my editor, Keith Kalemba, for pushing me to dig deeper and not go with the obvious. And I’m grateful to my husband for the countless evenings we put the kids to bed and wanted nothing more than to sit down and veg in front of the TV, and yet instead we went down to the piano to play through yet another attempt at VREUCHTEN or O FILII ET FILIAE.

I guess the couple that plays together, stays together.

I. Hate. Waiting.

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Cover artI had this blinding revelation a couple of days ago: I loathe waiting. Waiting in lines, waiting in doctors’ offices, waiting for people who are habitually late, waiting for a check, waiting for my star to ignite.

I keep paper and a pen in my coat pocket so if I get stuck in line at Aldi, I can brainstorm songs or problem solve plot and character motivation. (Although it mostly just lives there, because lately I’m doing all my grocery shopping with a preschooler, and when a preschooler is crawling under the cart and running up and down the aisles pretending to be Superman, you just can’t retreat into your head. Recently I went to a consignment store and tried on some clothes, and the clerk asked me if I wanted the big room so I could bring Michael in with me, or if I wanted him to wait outside. She thought he might run off if he stayed outside. I said, “I’m more worried about your store.” But I digress.) I take my computer almost everywhere, because I live in dread of having to wait fifteen minutes with nothing at all to do. Because, you know, no smart phone. Besides, writing is a much better use of time.

But this year in particular, waiting is really sticking in my craw. Which is ironic, given that I wrote a whole book about how great an experience the waiting associated with Advent can be. And also ironic, given that I consider self-discipline and delayed self-gratification some of my strongest personality traits.

I don’t like feeling helpless. I don’t like wondering why, when I work so hard, certain goals seem so very elusive. I don’t like frustration—and there is a lot of frustration in waiting. Especially open-ended waiting. The kind experienced by writers in the querying process, for instance. And oh, the second-guessing. The reading into the silence. The internal conflict when your friends’ numbers come up and they get called out of this purgatory, and you’re still stuck here.

I try to pray my way through it, to see it as an answer to a different prayer—“Lord, help me to be humble.” Because waiting definitely humbles a soul. It’s a reminder that an awful lot of things are completely outside my control. That truism about “work as if it all depends on you, but pray as if it all depends on God” got its popularity fair and square.

I try to be philosophical, in other words—but sometimes it’s so hard. I keep thinking, as hard as I work, certain things should have happened by now—unless I’m doing something wrong. And then I wrap myself in knots, trying to figure out what that “something” is.

There is no solution to this conundrum. Sometimes you really have no choice but to wait…and wait…and wait. Sometimes I am able to be reasonably peaceful about it. More often, my brain clings fast to the frustration and gnaws on it in the background of everything I’m doing. But I can at least appreciate, if not always find comfort, in seeing the spiritual connection between my ordinary life and the spiritual season I’m walking through, as we embark upon this second week of Advent.

When you are completely blank…

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leaves…you lead with a big congratulations to the Cubs and their devoted fans!

It’s been harder and harder to come up with blog posts lately, because I’m trying to figure out what I have to say that people actually want to hear. It’s become such a block for me that last Thursday, I forgot about blogging altogether until 4:30 in the afternoon, at which point I just had to wince and say I’ve missed my first deadline…ever.

It’s not that I’m not writing–I’m about to finish a first draft of a brand new novel, one that got written in about 5 weeks, as a matter of fact. (It’ll be two or three more major revisions before it’s ready, but getting the skeleton is always the most stressful part for me, and this one actually has some meat on it already, which is a pretty amazing feeling.) I have a magazine article I’m working on, and a column deadline tomorrow, and I wrote the start of three new songs earlier this week.

I’ve been writing a lot, in other words–but all my energy has gone to those, and I’m finding there’s little in real life worth talking about. No, that’s not true. There’s just not very much in real life that anyone will be interested in reading. (A few weeks ago I got to talk to some women in my parish about writing and the creative process. It was such a high: to talk writing to people who actually WANT TO HEAR ABOUT IT? Even my husband’s eyes glaze over instantly.)

I am frequently too jazzed up to sleep after choir practice; last night was notable only because it was really hot in the house–78 degrees felt comfortable in shorts and a tank top during the day as long as I didn’t process the fact that it was NOVEMBER THE SECOND, but it was too warm for sleeping, even with the help of a melatonin tablet. And then there were the texts from family members watching the crazy game, and then the storm came up and I had to give my place in the bed to Miss Julianna. The couch was not friendly to me last night. And when I did finally sleep, I was awakened by the sound of the kids’ toilet running and running and running…so I had to get up and fix that. And then I laid awake for what I feared was turning into the rest of the night, trying to figure out what to blog about this morning.

You can see how well that turned out. Ahem.

How about sharing the other fruits of my labor: the fall portraits? They were all on Facebook already, but I haven’t posted them here. Maybe by Monday I’ll have something interesting to say again…

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Rest and InSpiration

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michael-lashesI came downstairs after my shower yesterday—midmorning, post-workout—to find Michael lying on the couch, half-covered up by a throw and staring out at nothing. I had intended to take him to the basement and let him play with the multitude of toys there while I worked at the piano on edits for the last piece for my Easter collection for flute & piano. But it’s been a rough transition for him, going from morning preschool and afternoon nap to afternoon preschool and no nap at all. So instead, I laid down on the couch beside him and wrapped him up in my arms. “You tired, sweetie?”

“Yeah,” he said in his “forlorn” voice.

“You want to take a nap?”

An extended nod, there against my chest. Then an extended shake of the head. I laughed, and so did he.

I knew I should just cover him up with the throw, kiss his cheek, and go do my work. An unplanned nap? In the morning? This is a gift from God, wrapped in pretty paper and tied with a bow.

But I was sleepy, too, and he felt so good in my arms. And maybe, after all, the gift was a different one: the gift of stillness, one I could embrace—literally—or toss away in favor of an extra half hour of work time.

I closed my eyes, and we snuggled down in the quiet house. My brain treated me to a tour of all the things I could and should be doing, but I pretended it wasn’t talking, and the shrieking faded to a dull roar.

I love being snuggled up with a child in the moment when they go to sleep. The breathing changes. The body relaxes. I couldn’t sleep myself, but I laid there with his head on my arm, eyes closed, opening them every so often to look at those impossibly long lashes, then closing them again to rest in stillness.

And then, after a handful of minutes, inSpiration trickled through the synapses and sang me the solution to my editing quandary. Regretfully, I maneuvered his head off my arm and onto the couch pillow and went downstairs, knowing I’d probably solved the problem more quickly by NOT doing than I would have if I’d gone straight to the basement as planned.

And filled my heart in the process.

Of Mammograms and a Rising Star

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I am trying to figure out how to open this post with something snappy that will make everyone click through, and I’m coming up blank. There are weeks when all you can do is put your head down and charge through. But I realize it’s pretty whiny to call what I experienced the past seven days “intense.” After all, the tests came back negative, and my book won a contest!

But still.

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I knew last week was going to be bad going in. And by “bad,” I don’t mean “I hate my life,” I mean, “My life is so crammed with richness this week, I don’t have time to work, exercise, do dishes, or sleep.” Of course, it didn’t help that I started the week with the last two weeks’ worth of laundry to fold, plus a child home sick, and already four days behind from a trip to southern Illinois.

k-presentation_optI launched into Tuesday still playing catchup, and tacked on eight more PT sessions for Julianna to the list of Places To Go And Things To Do in the coming weeks. But the day went as smoothly as it possibly could have, and that night I got to talk about writing for forty-five minutes to people who actually wanted to hear about it! (Gasp!)

I also begged for clemency from the teachers at school for one of the Thursday events, so by Wednesday at 1:30 p.m., when I was at last sitting at the kitchen counter in an empty house working on my new novel, I thought I was all done with “My Life is Madness” and had reached smoother waters.

And then the phone rang. It was the hospital. I thought, Huh. This must be about Julianna’s PT.

Until the friendly lady on the other line mentioned the cancer center. And I thought, Oh, right, I had a mammogram last week.

And then she said, “Do you have a minute to talk?”

And I thought,

Oh, crap.

Because we all know good news involves a breezy twelve-second script and a hasty hangup. Never, ever, ever “a minute to talk.”

As we discussed 3D mammography and ultrasounds and what to do with my preschooler while I had the followup screening the next morning (doctors in a hurry: also a scary sign), I shoved a rogue hairband around the floor with my toe and tried to emotionally dissociate. I carefully reminded myself of the controversy about whether it’s really even useful for women my age to have the test, because the false positive rate is so high. Keep it together, I told myself.

“Do you have any questions?” she said at length.

“Many,” I answered, “but I’m pretty sure you’re not the one I need to ask them of.”

I was pretty emotional for a while. I resisted the urge to go public, knowing it was likely nothing and would trade a few hours’ worth of lonely terror for a whole lot of messy, public cleanup on the back side if everything turned out fine.

Which it did, by the way. Turn out fine, I mean.

But as you might imagine, by the time Friday night rolled around, and I knew the announcement of the Rising Star winners was imminent, I was emotionally exhausted. And then, just when I thought it was too late at night to hope for good news, the Facebook messages started pouring in from my friends gathered in Albuquerque, and the contest coordinator called.

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How does one react to such an honor? Amazed, honored, overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and support of my online community of writers…and a little too stunned by everything else to properly process it. (I still am.)

And how does one decompress after such a week?

Like this.

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