Thursday, May 5, 2016

Dogs, cars, and a really good decision I made while applying mascara one day.

A chase dog getting ready to write the next book
I made a story for you.
A dog sits comfortably in a fenced yard where not much goes on, but little goes wrong. From where he sits, he has a decent view of what the other dogs in the neighborhood are doing.  
Occasionally, a car passes by and the yard dog watches as a neighbor dog rips and races after it, barking to wake the Gods, until the car is out of sight. 
The dog in the yard shakes his head, goes over to the fence and says to the chase dog who is on his way home, "Come here a minute." 
The chase dog approaches. 
"Tell me something," says the yard dog. "Why do you frustrate yourself, chasing something you can't catch?" 
The chase dog says, "Haven't caught. I don't know that I can't." 
The yard dog says, "You have a record of complete failure." 
The chase dog  trots across the street and says over his shoulder, "So do you." 
The yard dog shakes his head and goes back to his spot, where not much goes wrong.
The end.

Some of you know I've been working on, and submitting my novel for several hundred years.
I started it in 2008 and began submitting the first version of it in 2010. Then I went back to work full-time and left it on the desk next to the cat. Three years later, I came back to writing full-time but now my novel and I had grown apart.
My writer-cat Percy had died. My crazy, funny, muse of a brother had died. The last two of our children were leaving home at once. And now, my book didn't even look familiar to me. It just seemed as heavy as a memory, and not one of the good ones.   
But I'd come this far. 
So I put it on a diet and it lost three characters. Then I gave it a better central conflict. Then I decided one of the characters was particularly likable and gave him more presence. Then, because you never paint just one room in the house, I gave the other characters more presence. 
Which only made it gain the weight back.
I tried to change it's personality, but there were holes that I couldn't see and the charm leaked out. So, I listened to music that reminded me of when my book and I first met. I tried to remember the feelings I first had for it. We went to counseling and got advice, and I rewrote it. But then, it just looked like one of those strange looking homes that were probably nice before someone put on too many additions.
And then. 
One day, about two weeks ago, while I was putting on mascara, I started to see a story. I saw the characters, what they looked like, and the way they looked in a conversation. I saw them develop and the way their pasts moved them around each other like game pieces on a board. 
Writer-kitten Gus
"Holy crap," I said to my new writer-cat, Gus. 
I knew my characters would meet each other, and I began to see how they would react. I watched them talk to one another. And after a while, I sensed a problem brewing in their universe.
I began to feel for them, and I couldn't imagine how it would work out.
And then. 
I could. 
Don't be sad, but book 3 and I have decided to separate.  Some people I know would look at my submission stats and say it's too early to give up. Some would say, "I see where you're going with this." 
But I'm not quitting.
I'm not giving up.
I'm not sad.
And, I didn't fail. 
That part of my training is simply over. 
A picture of practice
And, there is opportunity cost. I won't catch book 4 without a chase, and I can't chase book 4 if I'm still begging book 3 to tell me what it needs from me. And I may not even chase book 4 at all if book 3 makes me too frustrated and discouraged to leave the yard. 
And so, that's it. I've stopped chasing book 3, and book 4 and I are in a relationship. 
I made this story in case you need to remember that failure, turned another way, can be seen as practice for success. 
Whether we're putting books we've known since they were wee little pages in the drawer, or ending a relationship, or leaving a job, or moving to a new state, the act of cutting our losses and leaving who we were is universally wrenching. 
Until it isn't.
My advice: free yourself of the old, free yourself for the new, let the writing begin, and tell your next story, because it's waiting.




Sunday, April 10, 2016

Yet

---Mark Twain 
Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
---Mark Twain

There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist except an old optimist
---Mark Twain

So, which is it?
---Susan Bonifant

Nobody likes a Pollyanna. But that "optimism" adage is a little too much like saying if you're happy you must be kind of dumb.  Plenty of young people use their cynicism to avoid disappointment.  Plenty of older people expand themselves because they're optimistic.

I am thinking about age because next month, like last May, I will again, turn older than 50. I'm neutral on this, I was more upset at 49 about being almost 50. I know now how stupid that was, but I know now how stupid it is to dread any age. It insults all those other years that served you well, whether you looked forward to them or not.

Still, you can't help but take stock, consider your opportunity costs  and compare what you're doing to what you are not, and most important, why you are not.

My personal thing now is to say yes to things that aren't always comfy, but are sure to enrich my life more than they will inconvenience me. I've started to travel more, I've started yoga and I'm trading diet soda for club soda with a splash of cranberry. Next, I'm going to start producing more fiction, even if it's hard and complicated, and even if life hasn't answered all of the questions I have for it, yet.

Yet.

Yet is a very powerful word.

Yet means a lot to a good friend of mine who is over fifty and has recruited friends to form a competitive ski team. They are coaches mostly, experts all, and thankfully at least one is both a patrol and a physician. They are all about the same age, but it is the appetite for play that they have in common. They call themselves "The Idiots," and wear shirts that feature intentionally misspelled words.

That's funny. That's even optmistic.

I have another over-fifty friend who recently received her certification to teach yoga. She looks like she did when I met her twenty years ago, but that wasn't her aim. She knows that age brings hardships, but that time brings healing, which brings gifts of peace for the soul. To accept the former, my friend teaches people to use their bodies to embrace the latter, and most of us can do it without falling over now. 

For everybody who doesn't reach a certain age and settle in to kill time, there is a place they have not yet gone. 

Yet.

People who aren't healthy about aging, well, we see them all the time. It's older men who can't tell the difference between the interest and sympathy of a young woman they've hit on. It's women who grow depressed and desperate with every new line that doesn't disappear with a good sleep. 

Viewing ourselves like we come with expiration dates is bad enough. But I think it's worse that if only spared the ageist-culture hand mirror, many of us would not believe we have a shelf life at all.

A person can hurt their own feelings believing that culture knows more about their fate than they do.

Or one can follow the example of two people I know who have shaped their opinions of self around two things: what they do to remain vital, and knowing how to stay in their place which is wherever they wish to be.    

One is a relative who was raised in Europe where, she says, the elderly are not merely tolerated but revered. She has described family members who, in their nineties remain vital and  engaged and ultimately, are cared for by other family members who honor their wisdom and experience. Past seventy, she has an energy level thirty-year-olds would envy and she will likely remain an active tennis player well into her eighties.

Another one is my own mother, who, at nearly eighty, reads two books or more a week, follows a clutch of morning news experts, and of late, has become  outspoken on the political goings on.  We're more than twenty years apart but there is no opinion of hers, concerning anything I'm going through, that I don't value for its roots in simpler, more sensible times.

As I think about being over fifty again, I know that healthy people update. They know when it's time to exit or at least pull over and look at the map again. They don't quit, but recalculate. They change their minds, they honor new or abandoned passions and redirect their energies, because they are optimistic.

Mark Twain was brilliant, of course. He is my choice when people ask those questions ten minutes before a dinner party ends: "Who would you eat dinner with if you could pick anyone, dead or alive?"

Because, that optimism crack aside, Mark and I would probably agree on the subject of beholding one's own beauty and place in life, and just who is in charge of that boat that brings one there.


Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Not yet

Hi readers,

Remember when I said I'd post shorter pieces more frequently? So do I, but then March happened and I had to unpack that pledge.

Don't worry. It wasn't bad, everyone's fine, but it was too busy to keep my promise.

Thank you for continuing to check in, I'll be here on Sunday, for realsies, maybe sooner. 

No. Not sooner. 

Sunday. Not before Sunday. (See how this happens?)

In the meantime, here's a picture of Gus, who is more popular than I am, at play in his fort.



Sunday, March 6, 2016

Sunday's Worth Mentioning: Clock Thoughts



Remember when I said it might be nicer for us if I post shorter things about whimsical things? You don't? I said it two weeks ago. Go down there and look. 
Here is a fun thing for you to try if you are reaching your personal "fill line" as I call it, and wish to dabble in superstitious, quirky behavior that will make your kids wonder if you're eccentric already.
For reasons not worth mentioning, February was a trying month for me and come to think of it, most people I know except for my mother. (My mother's biggest complaint last month was the sound of Ted Cruz's voice. And appearance. And philosophy. And everything else. Off television, however, things were good for her). Gus also did well in February.
"I always do well."
---Gus Bonifant, writer cat
But for the rest of us, there were unhappy surprises, there was not enough good news, and because I care about my loved ones, ups and downs in their lives inevitably became my own. 
February started off as a three hour tour, and, well, you know that rest of that story. 
But it's March now, it's off to a good start, and we appear to be off the island.  
I'd like to thank my clock.
I practice a superstitious behavior which is this: when the hours and minutes of the time match, I wish a thing for someone who's having trouble, courage, strength, patience, a sense of humor, like that.  I don't plan it of course, or watch the clock because that would be odd.

I haven't studied my results, but in my wishful opinion, if someone seems at risk, and  I wish them a good thing, and things get better, or don't get worse, I credit my clock thought.

It also keeps my mind off my own personal fill line, to think about someone else's. 

Some days when I'm paying more attention than others, I catch it frequently:  1:11, 2:22, etc. Everyone gets a good, healing thought from me and I feel like Spirit Santa
At lunch with my son recently, I held out my phone when the numbers matched and said, like a pre-eccentric person, "Quick, make a wish!"
  
He looked at me.

"No," he said. "That doesn't work."

Says you, I thought.

"It only works when it's 11:11," he said. 

If you are a loved one, or even a liked one, or, okay, if you're just a nice person I read about in the paper today, and the weather's started getting rough, and your tiny ship was tossed, you'll be on my list for clock thoughts.




Sunday, February 21, 2016

Sunday's Worth Mentioning: Short Stuff


Sunday Gus
Every Sunday before the sun comes up, I listen to playlists with names like "Dissolving Clouds," drink coffee and watch Gus sleep while I think about stuff. 

I think through the past week's unresolved questions or problems, people I love who are enduring a rough ordeal, others who may just be coming out of one. 


I think about the twenty-something man who took a very elderly woman to see Maggie Smith's movie last night, and the guy I saw later on in a restaurant who all but stood on his head to cheer his sulky girlfriend.  


I think about what I'll make for dinner, and if I can maybe put the top down on the car if I also turn the heat up, and why Donald Trump can't do something about the white space his tanning goggles leave around his tiny eyes.


Stuff like that.


More than anything, I think about our kids and what I'm going to write about in the coming week. Today, I decided that I miss posting, but enjoy posting shortstuff and think that's what you'd rather read anyway. Right? I thought so.


Today, since I have both raising children and writing in common with some, but have either of the two in common with many, I thought I would offer you a chicken or beef post of things worth mentioning in either category. 
Raising children
My four different people.
Raising four children who are as similar to each other as trees and fish and motorcycles and books, has taught me that I am better at foreign languages than I thought.
Every once in a while, I lapse into the wrong one when I'm communicating with them, and I get the same look you'd give someone who tried to tell you a joke or give you advice using words you've never heard before. 
I realize, this work in progress - to learn the unique language that came with each of them - joyously, has no end.
It is the easiest and the hardest thing I know about being a parent:  to explore the depth of our ability to know and love another person, whether or not they are like us, one fathom at a time. 
Writing 
Maybe I would focus
better if I moved the cat.
It takes me about twenty minutes to come around to what kind of writing I'll do for the day. And yet, if I interrupt that process to open a work in progress, I'll fall in until dinner time. If I could just learn that for keeps, I could spend that twenty minutes each day planning a dinner to reward my efforts. 

Ever since I read the Anne Lamott quote below, I am more mindful of what I want to accomplish in my writing life, and aware of when - and why - I'm avoiding the work of it. You just have to walk so far into that forest of thought and imagination. But I've also realized that the things I do while I'm putting it off, are things I'm bringing back to the page. So only some of the time does writing take place on the actual page, babies. When you don't want to be a writer, but need to be, that's what you do. All the time. 
Strange how mindful living works, but it does. 






Sunday, February 14, 2016

Living life for realsies


I am a recovering perfectionist. It's okay, don't worry. 

Are you worried? 

I'm sorry. I didn't mean to worry you.

I feel terrible.

I'm sorry.

Are you one of those? Do you know one of those?  

A while back, when I was a wee perfectionist, I saw a therapist to figure out why every day seemed "just out," as they say in tennis.

We only had a few sessions before he compared my way of living to the way rodents behave on a wheel. "The perfectionism thing has to go," he said.

He gave me a wrist clicker and told me to use it when I had that "perfectionist thing." He explained that seeing the number drop would be reinforcing and suggested I prepare a reward for myself. I said, "How about not having to see someone about my perfectionist thing anymore?"

We worked on it, things got better, we said goodbye and I walked to my car with his parting words in my head:

"You'll have this again. Remember, when you do, that perfectionism is about the way you make life look, not the way life really is."

In a conversation recently with someone who would also like to become a recovering perfectionist, I was reminded of another important thing I've learned since driving away from that parking lot years ago and it is this:

The more you do, when less is required, the less you're living for realsies.
The less you do, when less is required, the more you're living for realsies.

Godspeed, recovering perfectionists, and everyone else. 
Life is good, when it's realsie.





  




Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The biggest fan

Just look at the face on that adorable book.
Once, I went to Boston, an hour away, to attend a writer's conference. For the first time, I would meet an agent, and pitch a novel. 
I was nervous.  
I accessorized this future memory with the most luxurious detail available. I booked a limo and a room at the Boston Harbor Hotel, which is a place one doesn't visit, but experiences, between the Molton Brown skincare products and view of the harbor alone. 
I ordered lobster and stared at the water. In twenty-four hours, I thought, I would be mulling over new information about my career, because back then, I didn't know I already had that information.  
I carried a book by Elizabeth Berg, an uber-relatable writer who seemed a little like me, but who actually seems a lot like everyone. I wondered if people would ever think that about my writing.
I brought a collection of Enrico Morricone songs played by YoYo Ma. This, I planned, would be the soundtrack for my experience if down the road, I forgot the way this felt, to chase a dream that probably wouldn't come true, but, oh my God, might. 

And there we sat, me and next-me, eating lobster and looking at the harbor. Not the me helping kids into college, or encouraging a husband through a rough patch in his business, or running a household, or being a good sister or friend or daughter or community volunteer. 

The afternoon darkened over the water and I began to think about giving up. Next-me would be too hard. But how hard? I was afraid. But I was euphoric. I was going to lose something in the morning. But I was going to gain something in the morning, too. The something was hope.

Today, I'm a few years and two books and many articles away from that weekend at the Boston Harbor when I was introduced to the two people who encouraged me to stay in the game: the agent who requested a full manuscript, and next-me, my often fickle, but honest and lifelong fan who has been at my side every day of my writing career, saying if you quit, you won't know how it turned out.   
In May, I am planning to go back to that conference with another book to pitch. I'll meet an agent who might request a full manuscript. I'll send it and maybe I won't get a response. Maybe I will. I don't know. What matters is that I will not be figuring it out, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst, on my own. 
I'll be in the company of my biggest fan.  We're looking forward to it. 
Be that. Be your own fan. Be next-you. 
Never give up.