Fifteen Chapters in Four Days
Saturday, May 9, 2009

Ever since the fire broke out I've been breaking rules, even laws, daily. Speeding, talking on the cell phone in the car, sneaking through the evacuation lines to grab something left at the house... I do like adventure, so I'm not surprised that it has been quite easy for me to be so unlawful...

I may have crossed the line while driving to LA at 80 miles an hour. Knowing this stretch of road often hosts lurking highway patrolmen I concocted my story, Chapter by chapter. I don't remember much of the drive; I was completely exhausted, but I do remember my story. It's likely I have my priorities completely mixed up. What do you think--how did the story end?

Hello Highway Patrolman, sir. Yes, I realize I was speeding. Yes, I'm wearing an eye patch. No, I don't want to show you my driver's license. Not yet. Can I tell you a story, please? It's one you don't want to miss. Dramatic, exciting, full of daring deeds and sad and sappy moments. I'll make it short.

Chapter One
It was Tuesday and a fire broke out above our house in Santa Barbara.

Chapter Two
The fire was getting too close. On Wednesday I tried to pack but cleaned instead. It was ridiculous-the fire wouldn't care if my counters were wiped down. I even lined up the bikes and trikes and scooters outside.

Chapter Three
I admired the smoke and the fire flare ups. They really were beautiful in an odd and ominous sort of way. I took pictures. The phone rang off the hook.

Chapter Four
I finally finished stuffing things into bags and we had snow peas and chicken for dinner. We took some to the neighbors across the street. They still have our pan.

Chapter Five
The sheriff knocked on our door and told us to leave.

Chapter Six
We evacuated. I left the mink coat.

Chapter Seven
We went to Carla's. She has a lovely house with lots of breakable things. We have a three year-old.

Chapter Eight
Mona brought us date bars and Francesca made us spaghetti. We watched the news. We didn't sleep.

Chapter Nine
We were gypsies. Schools closed. I took the kids to the library, to swim at a friend's and out for smoothies. The foothills erupted in flames. We breathed a lot of smoke. I pretended, on behalf of the kids, that life was normal. They didn't buy it. Not even the three year-old.

Chapter Ten
A large chunk of ash landed in my eye Thursday night. I spent the night at the ER. It was my birthday.

Chapter Eleven
My cell phone died.

Chapter Twelve
I got the eye patch-that was cool. Do you like it?

Chapter Thirteen
Still my birthday, a never-ending birthday. I snuck back into our neighborhood, into our house, and got Madeleine's Ferrari bag.

Chapter Fourteen
We packed the car and evacuated again. In fact, we are evacuating right now. You are part of my evacuating, sir. I am speeding down the highway. I haven't slept since Tuesday. My eye is a mess. I smell like smoke. I want to get to my parent's. It is still my birthday. My cell phone is lying here lifeless. I have been working on this story in my head, that is the truth, but this story is the truth, and that is the truth, sir.

Chapter Fifteen
So, what do you say, Mr. Highway Patrolman? You look like a brave sort of fellow. The kind of fellow who saved my neighborhood last night. The kind of man who stood on the San Roque bridge in front of a raging fire and aimed his fire hose and knocked those flames into a smoky watery puff.

Can I start the car and be on my way?

The Isle of Defeated Souls
Friday, April 17, 2009

I was sitting in a café recently with several women acquaintances, and one of them reported that she was embracing a new philosophy. That she was only interested in keeping those friends who fed her--who helped her to be creative, friends who nourish as opposed to friends who might at times, or maybe even all the time, make you bleed. I listened to her without responding. I was caught off guard; I'm not sure if my mouth dropped open or not...Am I one of those friends?

And then I read this same idea on a blog that I follow, placed nicely beside a black bullet point. The writer is a well-known publisher--someone that I respect and have learned from. He wrote, in so many words (I'm all for exaggeration), to ditch those folks in your life who aren't feeding your creative impulses. That they drain and zap your spirit and keep you from being prolific and productive.

I've lived forty some years now, and in many places from Italy to Colorado... Just like you, I've had the honor of meeting people who fascinate and inspire me, and others who are a bit horrifying, broken, depressed or even desperate. I have to admit, I've run from some of those desperate folk, and probably even talked behind their backs or stuck my tongue out at them when they weren't looking... I'm sorry for that.

Having moved around, I've learned that the biggest mistake I can make when entering a new community is to not be involved. Sitting on the fringes of a community, whether it's a neighborhood, or the office environment, or the church I attend offers safety from some types of hurts, but it's also a lonely place. Many writers are introverts, and I'm no exception. Closeting myself in a small room, with an open view to a budding tree, a warm cup of tea in my hand--that is a natural place for me (sounds a lot like my office, actually!), a place that I long for and need. But it's also a selfish place if I stay there too long, so I take a deep breath, and leave that room grudgingly, and force myself into environments that are less friendly to my personality, but full of unexpected rewards.

In any community, if you stay long enough, you find people of all stripes. Happy/sad, spicy/sweet, needy/giving. Just like in the writing life, folks have seasons of taking in and giving out. Right now, Rhonda has cancer and needs a large network of folks to help her through. She's weepy, and angry, and it's even difficult to be around her at times. I feel zapped when I leave. But last year, she was the one decorating the church on every feast day, scraping the candle wax from the wood floors when nobody was looking, hanging out with the homeless at coffee hour, sending me funny little emails that made my day.

Of course I want to hang out with Jenny, who inspires me to be creative, with Seraphima, who is an exuberance of prayerful energy, with Cheryl who makes me laugh. They give to me... and hopefully I give something in return, but all relationships don't work that way. And after reflecting, I don't agree at all with this philosophy of gutting your contact list deliberately. Let's see:

  • Colleen is always negative. Can't remember the last time she asked me a question about MY life. I've known her since kindergarten, but maybe it's time for this friendship to end. Colleen.
  • Donny actually growled at me last time we talked politics. He's always looking for some sort of argument. I want peace... I neeeeeed peace. Donny.
  • Ah, Rita. Won't even go there... Rita!

Anne Lamott says in her book on writing, Bird by Bird, \"Almost all my close friends are walking personality disorders...\" In her quirky, unique way she understands how much more real our writing can be when we are living amidst real people. I don't want to spend all my days with perfectly groomed and mannered folk--people who would do anything not to offend or insult me. What kind of story-making friends are those? In order to make beautiful, poignant stories, we need experiences and ideas coming at us from all sides, the good, the bad and the icky. Needy desperate people make really good bad guys.

I'm all for searching out good and healthy friendships. Give and take, isn't that what makes a friendship after all? Yet, what would this world be like if everyone suddenly started shunning the needy people who surround us, the people who spread their hurts and leave us gasping and sore? Would we begin separating not according to economic have's but according to emotional health? Would we then walk around, so proud of our tribe, proud to be one of those who feeds and is fed--plump in good people, creativity pouring out of our hearts and hands?

And for those who don't inspire us. Do we ship them off to the Isle of Defeated Souls? And is that where my friends should ship me when I'm having an off day--or an off year? We're all bound to be off at some point, aren't we?

Who are the Computer Saints, Anyway?
Thursday, March 26, 2009

I had some Pandora music running in the background, I was downloading photos for my son's final art project, and revising an editorial due in a couple of days. I had my inbox at the ready as I switched back and forth between emails and an online work website. Facebook was live under there somewhere. My computer was hot.

All of a sudden my machine started running slowly, next, the programs wouldn't respond and I quickly tried shutting down extraneous windows. In a few minute's time the screen was black and the machine was unresponsive.

A classic crash...

Somehow my son and I managed to print out his photos on the printer, without the use of the computer and turn his final in the next day... That was mercy.

The next day, I plugged in my external hard drive, hopeful, knowing it backed everything up except email. I needed to finish that editorial and get it uploaded and moved to the copyeditor. Yay, it would be my savior! Nothing. The hard drive had crashed, too, and there was not one recoverable document. I never did see that editorial again. I had to write a new one. Oh, the loss of some of those beautiful words! But there were bigger things lost—some things I haven't even yet faced.

Next step, to the computer dude down the street.

$175 later.


So, when did I come to trust my machine so implicitly that I stopped printing out paper copies or making CD backups regularly? It was so fast, so easy to use... I could move documents from here to eternity in no time. When did I consider all the work I did on that machine so completely retrievable?

For three months, as my computer has traveled first class on shiny fed ex jets between repair centers—as it has received a new hard drive and a new mother board--I've been working on a borrowed Mac ibook, no mouse, no keyboard, a screen the size of a trade paperback. I continually have had to scroll up and down, minimize and cut and paste by using the wrong buttons then finding the right ones... I'm too old for this. I have come to hate computers and put off work all day, until deadlines pile so high I can only scream my way through. I find going to the beach and looking in the tide pools and talking to the seagulls much more preferable.

So, why bother you with all this dredge? Why haunt you with this sad, sorry tale of woe? What can you learn from my foibles?

If you need some mental and spiritual challenges in your life then I suggest you work to help your computer fizzle.

Here's why I'm writing to you, my beloved fellow lover of words... I had four forms of back up, and have still lost an immense amount of information (including a big chunk of my beloved Ted Shred. Many tears...). Please check your back up systems regularly.

Here are some ways to back up your writing...

  • 1. Paper. Print out your work and store it in binders. I used to do this religiously, but at some point started to generate stuff too fast and didn't like using all that paper.

  • 2. gmail/yahoo/whatever. Have another email account and simply email yourself important documents. I don't do this, but know many who do...

  • 3. Have an external hard drive. One that works and won't crash when your computer does. I hate mine and have already stepped all over it and have put it into the trash bin.

  • 4. Use a memory stick and wear it around your neck, but don't jump into the pool or play fetch with your dog with it... Some of my writer friends swear by these, but I know just how likely it'd be that the baby would throw it over the fence into the next door neighbor's pool. He's a thrower.

  • 5. CD's. Just remember to actually use them. My last back up on CD's was nine months before the crash. Thank goodness for those CD's, though.

  • 6. Mozy. I am so thankful for Mozy! After the Tea Fire here in Santa Barbara I wondered what would happen if my house burned, and my computer, and my binders, and my CD's and my external hard drive—if they all burned? Everything would be lost. So many years of writing, and hoping. So I looked into some sort of online storage system and found I know Mac has some sort of system as well for you Apple folk. Anyway, I was trying out the system when my computer crashed and had uploaded as a trial 2gb of stuff. 2gb of storage is not much for a writer using Outlook, so only some of my material was saved, but it's awesome. I now pay $50 a year for unlimited storage and this will be my saving grace if my machine bugs out on me again, which I'm counting on daily, because I will never, ever trust a computer again in my life... Not ever. They're just machines, you know. They really are. They're heartless. And I found out that there aren't even any computer saints you can pray to when your machine is unresponsive, and sitting there, just black and unbothered by all your tears.
Making my own Good News
Monday, February 9, 2009

The fountain is gurgling in the background--the sun is setting out the window--my husband is inside making a savory-smelling pan of lasagna. So many blessings are swirling around me!

And with all these blessings coming to my aid, boosting my mood, I've decided to keep fighting until I sell these children's books that are sitting idle on my computer. I'm going to fiddle, and finagle, and find a way to get these manuscripts into the right people's hands. I'm not going to listen to the economists and buckle to the news that all is dismal, that we need 800 billion dollars added to our wallets to be happy again. I'm going to be a new voice, and work to turn my luck around right now.

Okay, just had to give myself that little pep talk. My computer crashed last week and I lost a tremendous amount of my writing, but a few projects are still viable, and available, and being floated around by my agent. When I was shedding a few tears about losing parts of my beloved Ted Shred, I felt for the first time that maybe becoming a writer was just too silly of an idea. Have you ever felt that way? Like you've been sent down a path, but that the way you're heading is much too weird? Not at all what you imagined?

Being on both sides of the book fence, that of the writer and that of the acquiring editor is a bit bizarre. I'm trying to sell my own books in one market and signing contracts for other's books in a not-too-distant market. Sometimes even in the same market… So, I'm wondering, if you're sending books to me, how do you feel? Are you geared up to keep sending out stories despite the rejections? What are your impressions of this odd time in publishing, when big houses are folding and failing all around us?

I'm personally thankful that I have a job, and that today I got to spend some time editing one upcoming children's book (Ravens of Farne), that I was fortunate to work on marketing another (Pictures of God), and that I got to jot some ideas to an illustrator of yet another picture book (Lucia, Saint of Light). I'm juggling a fair amount of projects and I LOVE it! Call me strange, but I love it as much as I love working on my own stuff.

So that brings me back to my poor lonely manuscripts that need homes. If you know of any thriving publishers who are looking for books from redheaded, ex-gymnast authors whose husbands cook really good lasagna and who keep on fighting despite the bleak, bad news, please point them this way.