Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Doldrums

The Doldrums (the intertropical convergence zone) are a physical place, near the equator, where winds from north and south converge. The Doldrums encompass both violent thunderstorms and what Wikipedia calls "stagnant calms." The "calm" part of which I think of more as "lack of anything happening," instead of "peacefulness." And the violent thunderstorms are most often expressed as "Omigod what happened to summer????"

In any case, several people have mentioned symptoms of being in The Doldrums lately. Maybe it's the heat, which discourages purposeful activity but doesn't erase the guilt for "wasting" perfectly beautiful sunny days. Regardless, summer is slipping away (September is THURSDAY! Autumn is nearly HERE!) and that stirs up feelings of panic or wistfulness, depending.

Natural disasters like storms or earthquakes don't help. Neither do unsettling events, like the death of Jack Layton at a young 61. We, too, are mortal. And we, too, may leave this earth before we get to do everything we wanted. And there's that summer, GONE or nearly so.

I experienced my own Doldrms a bit early, a few weeks ago, and found a few things that helped me through them, which I offer here.

1. Declare. Do you wish for more summer? Then pick a date and let it be summer until then. Autumn doesn't officially start for another 3.5 weeks -- or go wild and let September be summer all month long. Or maybe you're gearing up for a new school year or other autumnal activities. Great! Start them early, if it's not already too late. Or commit to them for real. Let summer go and welcome fall. Whether you extend summer or let it go is your decision.

2. Dream. Now comes the fun part. What do you want this time to include? If you're having another month of summer, you might need to pick bite-sized versions of those things you meant to do but didn't. It's too late to plant and tend a vegetable garden -- but you can go to a Farmer's Market and take advantage of others' green thumbs. Maybe you won't go on that two-week kayak adventure, but you can still rent a kayak for a few hours. A bonus is that you might learn that two weeks in a kayak is perhaps more than you want to do.

If you're already welcoming fall, you can look a bit farther ahead. What particular activities do you want to try this season? Visit a corn maze. Bake a pumpkin pie from the meat of a real pumpkin. Host a Grey Cup party. Get involved in the provincial election campaign. Brainstorm and doodle and mind-map. You can pare them down later -- this is the time to have fun.

Speaking of Jack Layton, one person interviewed at his funeral said something extremely thought-provoking. She said that his death is causing her to re-evaluate her priorities. While he was alive and leading the NDP, she was content to let him be the one speaking up, to let him do the work. Now that he's gone, she thought, maybe it's time for her to get more directly involved.

If you have a month of summer before you, you may not have time to complete a big project that has meaning for you. In that case, piggyback on someone else's. I'm still a fan of the Communicatrix's 50-for-50 campaign that benefits WriteGirl, a nonprofit that gets girls writing. You could also join the bone marrow donor bank in your country (see the links at right) -- it's as easy as a cheek swab.

If you're jumpstarting fall, you can also donate, and then take on a larger project that speaks to you. Again, lots of people are already working hard and need a helping hand. Maybe you get involved with the Stephen Lewis Foundation's Grannies for Africa, your local HIV/AIDS/Hepatitis C support group, a homeless shelter, a food bank. Maybe you get a gaggle of friends and go to a fancy fund-raiser together. Part of your dream should let you look back at the end of November and say, "Yeah, I did this."

Which brings us to...

3. Do. Yeah, this is the "hard" part. Here's where I make the calendar, a physical paper calendar, my friend. In August, I committed to doing a few things every day and then checked them off when I was done. It was incredibly satisfying. Check! Check!!

Two key points. First, "a few things" means you have to whittle down the list of things you dreamed of. Pick and choose. For your month of summer, one "summer bite" thing a week may be all you can handle. For your fall, maybe you add only one larger commitment (join a book club) and one smaller, one-off event (going to a gala). Or a smaller one each month. Second, accountability-commitment-reward. Jerry Seinfeld's "don't break the chain" may work for you. You may have a finely honed sense of responsibility and don't need gold stars or red checkmarks or Xs. Good for you! (Who are you kidding--you know you want a sticker. Hie thee to a back-to-school sale.)

Key point two-point-five. I also think "every day" was helpful -- as in 15 minutes of writing (new writing, not revising or editing or otherwise dinking around) every day instead of 2 hours a week, because I can find 15 minutes where I can talk myself out of 2 hours. (Plus 15 minutes was usually longer, but when it wasn't, that was OK too.) But your mileage may vary.

Lots of people have lots of advice about the "do" part. Here's the deal: you are competent in other areas of your life. You know how to do that stuff stuff. You can do this writing stuff, too. Don't make it harder than it has to be.

And that's it. I'm just home from a brief time away (aka vacation), and once I'm done happy dancing (I LOVE it here), I'm getting out my calendar and gearing up for September and beyond. I can look back at an August that included lots of productive writing, lots of being outside, and regular work. I didn't conquer The Doldrums, exactly; I just evened out the mood swings a little and kept on, and I have the checkmarks to prove it. And if I can -- well, you can, too.
Sunday, August 21, 2011

Giving: Risks and Rewards

I love it when people do nice things. It's inspiring in ways they may not even have considered. Here are two examples.

Last year, a poet friend and her sister collaborated with one of their friends who makes books. "Makes" as in hand-makes, stitches, selects paper, does the fancy folds -- really makes them, hands-on. This bookmaking friend had been part of a course in which participants discussed that question that plagues all artists: now that I've made it, what do I do with it?

Obviously, many artists want to sell things. But let's face it, not everything artists produce is something others want to own, much less pay for. Then what? Writers fill up filing cabinets (now virtual), but when you're a potter or a painter or book-maker, what do you do? How many storage units can an artist afford?

This book-maker decided she would use her skills to give to others. She came up with a theme: seasons. She recruited co-conspirators. The painting sister painted seasonal scenes, the poet wrote season-related poems, and the book-maker produced limited-edition books with this content. All of them got to practice their art. And then they held an event at a local coffee place, sold the books, and gave the proceeds to a local nonprofit organization.

And yes, it was a risk. What if she couldn't get friends to produce content? What if the content turned out to be not so great? What if nobody bought the books? What if no one showed up -- or even cared?

What I love about this example of giving, besides having a lovely book on my shelf and making it possible for my own sister to have one on hers, is that it was a risk, and it created such a win-win-win situation. Everybody did want to do it. There was a celebration, and the experience rippled out to give positive results to people who weren't even there.

[ETA this link to a review of the book, with more specifics. Well done, poet Marianne Jones, artist Karen Reinikka, and magicians at BookWrights Bindery!]

Here's the second example. Colleen Wainwright, AKA The Communicatrix, is turning 50 soon. To celebrate, she's created for herself the "50 for 50" challenge, during which she has taken on the goal of raising $50,000 for WriteGirl, an LA-based nonprofit that encourages girls to write.

As artists know, art gives you the confidence of your voice, tells you that you and your experiences matter, helps you take yourself more seriously (in the best way), encourages you to participate actively in your world -- in short, art creates spinoff benefits that can have a powerful positive influence on all of us. Giving confidence to girls who otherwise don't have much of anything -- well, that's a gift indeed. And selfishly, I want to live in a world where girls know the power of their voice: what's that worth to me? To you?

Make no mistake, the Communicatrix has a capital-F Following. If everyone who learned something from one of her posts about art, acting, or writing gave $1, she would have many times her $50,000 goal. This project is ambitious: along with raising the money, Colleen is interviewing 50 people she knows about how they became writers, the influence of their teachers, and their favorite things to read.

In other words, this project also benefits lots of people; it's also a win-win-win. However, this project is still a risk. It's ambitious. And that's what makes it extra-cool, extra-inspiring. It's what makes it a gift.

So much of creative writing (for me) is about somehow dealing with internal stuff: blocks, demons, things I absolutely cannot write about that of course end up being what I need to write about, remembering that it's the piece that gets rejected not me, blah blah the usual internal stuff.

It's so refreshing -- and inspiring, and instructive -- to see how art and writing can also be about the world "out there." What a great payoff for taking a risk: making the world better, one book and one girl at a time.
Monday, August 15, 2011

Looked at "no" from both sides, now

Sorry for the earworm, and if you're too young to have it appear naturally, here. You're welcome. This is the version (pared down: Joni Mitchell + guitar) that plays in my head. (Though, okay, I first heard Judy Collins do it; I'm American.) And this version (Measha Brueggergosman + lots of production) is also beautiful. It's obviously an enduring song.

In any case, my point: I've had the chance to "say" no recently, and being on that side of the rejection was a different kind of difficult.

A group I'm in has a great program starting (again) this fall, and we put out an RFP that elicited dozens of applications. I wasn't involved in the entire vetting process, but I joined toward the end, and since I was the one with a little time, I was responsible for bearing the news.

First I notified applicants that selection was taking longer than we anticipated. About ten days later, after much discussion and back-and-forth and research, I had to notify applicants that we had selected someone (else).

And in between, I wondered how an editorial team at a literary journal can stand it. Because guess what? Being part of the process of saying "yes" to one, and "no" to dozens of others, was difficult.

Obviously, we had criteria--as lit journals do. We used them to weed out the candidates who were slightly off-target. Even so, the list of qualified, viable candidates was long for us, as I imagine it is for a journal.

From there, we went back time and again to the audience: in our case, the people who would be participating in the program. Which candidate could offer them a good experience? What did we even mean by "good experience"? Lots of the candidates would be able to take the program in interesting directions with their expertise. Which direction was the best match for our membership at this time?

And yes, we also considered the membership we don't have, the audience we haven't quite attracted. How would candidates help us win participation from those folks?

Ultimately, we made a decision. The candidates who weren't selected were gracious; many wished us success, which we appreciate. Writers are good people.

Saying "no" isn't an entirely new experience for me. I've been on hiring committees before. But this experience was particularly illuminating. For the past several years, I've been mostly on the receiving end of rejections. Through necessity, I've developed a much more sanguine response to "no" than I once had. But I didn't really have a sense of just how difficult the decisions were from the other end.

Now, I will dig a little deeper to be even more sure my piece is a good match for a journal. I will set a piece aside for one more revision instead of sending it out because I can't quite get it right and I'm tired of looking at it on my (virtual) desk.

And I will continue to send the "thank you" notes. When you've spent an hour sending rejections, getting an email with a "thank you for your time" makes one feel a little less like an ogre.

But mostly (to get back to the song), I'm getting beyond an illusion. (Again. I knew this but I didn't KNOW-it-know-it, I just "yeah yeah I know"-knew it.) Hearing a "no" about a piece of work isn't a rejection of me, my writing ability, the ultimate viability of this piece, or anything else. It just means "not now, not for us." Really!
Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Set. Sprung.

So. Still living in the country. Still fighting to enforce a line between indoors and outdoors. New opponent, though: this time, it's a rodent.

Last week, a mouse made its way into my office. I am not a fan of rodents, so my inner alarm system shrieked to alert the household to the presence of the intruder. Just trying to keep everyone else safe. That's me.

After a quick trip to the little store for peanut butter, my husband set four traps. Meanwhile, I donned my "wellies" (wellington boots, similar to these, except mine have glitter flower stickers on them) and stood by, trying to keep my alarm system from tripping again.

Soon thereafter, the intruder reappeared but eventually made his way up the vacuum hose to heaven, where s/he frolicks with friends and enjoys the absence of shrieks.

It's been several days, now, and I have heard nothing in the way of further mouse activity. (Sadly, I am familiar with its scritchings and tappings.) However, the set traps remain. I have wondered whether it's time to spring them and put them away. But that's as far as it's gone so far: wondering.

Last December, I first heard from my brother that his cancer was unaffected by chemotherapy and his future would include more aggressive treatments and a stem cell transplant. Since then, I have been set, much like those traps, waiting to spring into action, waiting for the next news, waiting to learn how I can be of service. Just plain waiting. Sometimes on edge, sometimes tired, always preoccupied. When would there be something I could do? When would my presence be necessary?

Last night, I realized that for the first time in about nine months, I'm almost completely relaxed again. Bit by bit, starting in late April, I've forced myself to let go of the alarm. I've taken a brief vacation, allowed myself to schedule events throughout the summer, and hosted my sister for a longer vacation. I have a work plan for August and am scheduling September projects. Best of all, I can think deeply about creative projects -- I again have the mental space to carry them around with me.

It helps that my brother has responded well to his latest chemotherapy. His donor is ready. A fall transplant looks probable, and his wife has a more-freeing work assignment than she anticipated. All this reassuring news helps me relax.

But really, the process started because I decided it could. And my creative spirit, which has been waiting patiently, is happy to have some room to play again.

Yet the experience of being wound up, of waiting, has of course changed me. Internally, I'm no longer at Security Level Red or DefCon 4 or whatever military metaphor you want to use. I'm relaxed -- but I'm no longer innocent of my brother's needs. He's on a difficult journey. I may have the opportunity to be of direct use to them this fall, and I'm still ready to do that. But I recognize that I don't have to be wound so tightly to be ready.

So, back to the mundane world. Maybe it's time to spring the mousetraps, wipe off the unsampled peanut butter, and put the traps away.

Maybe.

But just as I know my brother's cancer is not (yet?) cured, I know that I live in the country. I am not innocent of the vagueness between indoors and outdoors. So for now, I'm still wearing my wellies in my office.
Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Life as an Antagonist

I haven't had the joy of parenting a teenager, so I have little direct experience as an antagonist in someone else's drama. At least, not that I'm aware of. Except for...never mind.

However, I live in the country (stay with me), where the line between "indoors" and "outdoors" is porous. Periodically, critters get confused.

At the moment, we're dealing with some flies. Big, slow-moving flies. And I am their antagonist -- even their nemesis. Today, I have armed myself with a vacuum cleaner. I have conducted several sorties against them and emerged victorious in battle, though I have not yet (and may never) win the war.

Because I have seen enough advertisements in my life, and I have watched enough episodes of CSI: Wherever in my life, I know what the presence of flies indicates. (Where you see X vermin, 10X actually exist. Flies are a reliable indicator of the time of death of something, which means...never mind that, either.) Yuck.

To distract myself from those trains of thought, I have been imagining myself as a character in their epic struggle for survival. And that means I have to accept that I'm their antagonist. In their version of this story, I am Sauron, intentionally destroying "their way of life."

It's kind of fun, not that I enjoy the wanton destruction of life. I do, however, enjoy having a problem that's relatively easy to take care of, even if it means the vacuum hose has to lie around on the floor all day, since the flies persist with valiant tenacity in spite of my obvious superior vacuum ability. Periodically they regroup in clusters on the windows and sliding glass doors, and I have another go at them. But as problems go, mine beats African famine and the idiocy of American politics.

It's also a good reminder to me. I tend to fall in love with my characters and wish that no harm befall them. Since I have the power to make sure their lives consist of sitting around tables drinking coffee and chatting, they tend to do that a lot. However, for the characters to grow as actual human beings (and BE IN AN INTERESTING STORY for crying out loud), they need to overcome adversity, and I do want that for them as well.

Basically, they need antagonists with whom to struggle. Also known as conflict, which I also hate to inflict on people, even when I have made up those people.

So, as I point the end of the hose toward the metal tray at the bottom of the sliders and hear the satisfying *thwunk thwunk* of dime-sized bodies being sucked toward Oblivion, I think, "What I really need is to fall in love with someone who wants the opposite of my protagonist, and that will improve the believability of my antagonist."

Aha! That's how to fix this stupid novel. I mean, this novel I adore that doesn't frustrate me at all. Not to mention a few other short stories that as yet, uh, haven't found their final focus.

Meanwhile, take that, flies! I know that in the Cosmic Story I'm Goliath, and you Davids eventually will have the last laugh (or snack, not to be gruesome about it), so I will not crow too loudly about my victory. But today, victory I shall have! *Thwunk.*