Attending my first in-person writing retreat after the pandemic was like a dream. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators had been forced to hold virtual events for the past two years. This year we were back. A few weeks ago, twenty-five writers, editors, and agents met in the San Jacinto Mountains face to face.
We slept in tiny cabins at Tahquitz Pines Conference Center in Idyllwild, California. Our meetings were held at a lodge nestled in the tall trees. The weather was perfect for hiking, 70s in the daytime, 50s at night. Meals were served in a cafeteria. Staying there evoked memories of childhood summer camp.
During four magical days, I fellowshipped with other writers. Real people like me who sit in front of a computer and type out stories. A few still wore masks, a lingering reminder of the past two years. At first, it felt awkward sitting and talking to people, but as days passed, it seemed like COVID never happened.
The days leading up to the retreat, I was terrified. I was bringing a brand-new story to my critique sessions, raw in its first draft. During Zoom critiques, I could turn off my camera if I didn’t want anyone to see my reactions. Now I sat at a round table under the gaze of six other writers and an editor. Nowhere to hide. Then I noticed everyone else seemed a little nervous, too. We were all eager to share our work yet afraid it was not enough.
Once we started, it grew easier. We became invested in each other’s characters. We celebrated beautiful imagery and clever dialogue. We discussed how the story could be improved.
Outside the four critique sessions, we had time to stretch our socialization legs. Some worked on revisions in the lodge. Others hiked the forest around us. A few rested in their cabins.
We ate together. We shared. We laughed.
We highlighted. We questioned. We encouraged.
And when our days were completed, I drove back down the mountain to my normal life. Not alone revising my story for the tenth time, but part of a supportive group that lifts me up above the silent negativity that slays books before they’re written.
When I was young, Halloween decorations came down November 1st, but Mom left up fall leaves and pumpkins. She added a cornucopia with gourds on the table. Before Santa Clauses set up their chairs in the local department stores, there was a holiday for sharing a feast with your extended family and being grateful for your many blessings.
This year, as soon as the tombstones, skeletons, and jack-o-lanterns were packed up, red and green lights appeared on the houses in my neighborhood. Did I miss something?
Now more than ever we need to be thankful. Over the past two Covid years, I have lost family and friends to the virus and other causes. Many of us have attended more funerals, some virtual, than we ever have in our lives.
A reason to be thankful. We are still here to gather with family and friends, eat turkey, watch football, and savor pumpkin pie with mounds of whipped crème.
We all have our own reasons to be thankful.
This is my first year as a full-time writer. Thanks to a generous retirement incentive from my school district, I was able to retire early in May. This is the first time in my life that I haven’t had to balance a paying job with my creative passion.
My youngest daughter had twins this year. I am so thankful to have time to spend with them. More time than I ever had when I was raising my own children, part of that time as a widow.
My husband and I have six children and nine grandchildren. We are both so thankful that none of our children lost their jobs during the pandemic shutdown. Our grandchildren are healthy.
When we quiet our hearts, we can find thankfulness. Being grateful gladdens our hearts and silences our complaints. Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas. I’ll have Christmas music blaring through the house after next Thursday. But before we rush out to buy those perfect gifts and unwrap the presents under the tree, shouldn’t we start first with grateful hearts?
“I’ll write that book someday,” she said after sharing her story with friends over coffee.
“You really should,” they agreed.
Years went by. Her work was busy. The kids had sports. The laundry basket was overflowing.
“You should write a book about that,” her husband said when she shared her story over a glass of wine.
“I know, but this week we’ve got to get ready for camping.” She started writing her checklist for their trip.
Years went by. The kids graduated from high school. She thought there would be more time to write. Her husband got sick, so she spent her days taking him back and forth to the doctor.
I’ll write that book someday, she thought. Maybe when I retire.
Years went by. Her husband got better. The kids had their own kids. Both she and her husband retired. She thought there would be more time to write but her kids needed someone to babysit the grandkids.
I’ll write that book someday, she thought. Now I have all the time in the world.
Years went by. The grandkids went to school. Her husband passed away. Her eyes grew weak, and her hands hurt. It was hard to type on her laptop.
I will write this book, she thought. And even when it was hard to focus beyond her pain, she wrote and wrote and wrote.
Years went by. When she finally held the finished novel in her trembling hands, she couldn’t even read the words on the pages.
But she was full of joy because she finally wrote the book.
No one ever visited the old crone who lived deep in the heart of the forest. The miller’s wife said she was a witch. The blacksmith’s wife told everyone she was mad. The local priest insisted that she was a wise woman with knowledge about herbal remedies, nothing magical.
The crone’s name was Circe, meaning “little bird,” which is how she lived, hidden under the trees. Upon her arrival she had claimed a tiny stone cottage, built and abandoned by unknown persons long ago. She made it hers as she swept the hearth, tucked straw into holes around the window, and planted wildflowers around it.
Circe wore her waist-length black hair twisted and braided around her head like a crown. Even though she could feel the wrinkles on her face, her hair’s glossy raven color never faded. It was an unconscious magic that she couldn’t control. If she had chosen to practice her magic, she would be able to hold on to more of her youth. But she hid away from magic as well as people.
They both brought pain.
The crone knew how to take care of herself. Her skill with bow and snare provided her meat, along with vegetables she grew in her garden. In exchange for herbs, the blacksmith’s daughter, Anna, brought Circe whatever else she lacked. Her innocent smile and sparkling eyes reminded the crone of herself when she was very young.
Every day the crone strolled through her forest home. The dark green canopy allowed only speckles of sunlight to dot the carpet of brown leaves. The trees were close together, so she had to wind her way around them. The branches whispered greetings to her as she passed. With a hand on the rough, gnarled bark, she whispered her thanks that the forest provided murderers with peaceful exile.
Many years ago, she had lived in the nearby village, before any of its current residents had drawn their first breath. In those days, she was recklessly beautiful and gave herself freely to any young man she pleased. This did not make her popular with the women in the village.
Thomas, one of the village elders, pleaded with her that she should settle down and marry. Circe smiled at his grave face and agreed. It was time to start a family of her own. Mother gave her books and seedlings to nurture her magic. Warned her to only use it for good.
A raven’s cry brought Circe back to the present. That was good because she didn’t want to dwell on what happened next. The laughing young man she married became an angry jealous man who left marks on her. He told the men at the pub that he had married a witch, and the reason they had no babies was because his wife slept with demons. A ridiculous notion that may have been concocted to protect his tumorous pride.
One night her husband came home with murder in his eyes. As usual, she brought him his stew which he ate in front of the fire. He roared out insults and grabbed his walking stick. Before he could strike her, Circe quickly spoke words of power. Her husband cried out, fell to the ground, and turned into a rat. With a broom she swept him out of the cottage. Then she packed up a basket and left.
Circe wasn’t sure where to go. Her magic was tied to the land of her birth. She could not simply leave on a ship. If she traveled to the next village, someone would find her. She would be dragged back and hung on a tree. Although her husband had been an evil man, transforming him without his consent was against the covenant she and her mother signed. Why hadn’t she turned herself into a bird and flown away the first time he struck her? But what was done was done.
The forest called to her. She made it her home. For many long years, she lived as mundane, afraid to use her powers again.
When the crone arrived back at her cottage, Anna was waiting for her with red eyes. A wasting sickness had hit the village hard, and her older brother had been in bed for three weeks. Circe told her she could send some herbs, but she couldn’t go back to the village with her.
The disappointed young girl left with a full basket.
That night, the crone woke to the sound of her name. When she sat up in bed, her mother’s shade stood at the end of the bed with her arms crossed. Mother had passed over when Circe had first married and had never appeared to her before. Although she could see the kitchen table faintly through Mother’s body, she didn’t want to underestimate her power. Even though the shade didn’t speak, the crone shivered as Mother’s words flashed with anger in her mind. Then the shade disappeared, and she knew what she must do.
Early the next morning, she tugged on her boots and fastened her cloak. She loaded up her basket and left the cottage before she could change her mind. Mother was always right, even when she was dead. Even though the crone was ancient in years, her steps were quick. She reached the middle of the village square by twilight.
Anna was hauling water from the well, and almost dropped her bucket when she saw the crone. The girl led her to her family’s house behind the blacksmith shop. It was a fine house, two floors high and made of wood. She pushed open the heavy door and they walked in.
Anna’s brother, Gregory, was upstairs in the first bedroom. His sweat-drenched face was covered in red dots, and his arms, once strong enough to pound iron, were only skin and bones. Circe asked the girl to bring her a pot of hot water and some clean cloths. What could she do for this young man? Her magic had lain dormant for over two hundred years. Would it listen to her now?
When the water arrived, Circe mixed in some herbs, chanting under her breath. Anna watched her with great interest, for there were no longer any magic users left in their land. With the arrival of the priests, witches and wizards were driven away, to be replaced with prayer and medicine. But the village priest and the doctor from the neighboring village could do nothing to stop the terrible sickness.
Remembering what Mother had taught her, Circe used the cloth to cleanse Gregory’s face. As she wiped over the weeping sores, she spoke powerful words of healing and life. The sores disappeared, replaced by healthy skin. Anna ran out to find her mother in the market.
Gregory opened his eyes and frowned to see a strange old woman bathing him. Circe told him she was a witch and to lay still while she finished healing him. And yes, she’d seen a man’s nakedness before. She needed to cover all the sores with the healing water no matter where they were on his body.
When the blacksmith’s wife, who asked her quickly to call her Kathy, saw her oldest son sitting up in bed and taking some soup, she almost crushed Circe with a hug. The blacksmith had died some years ago, and Gregory had taken well to smithing. His work supported their whole family. And of course, he was a good lad, with his good years ahead of him.
The crone ended up staying for the night. The next day, word spread through the village, and she was busy going house to house healing those she could. Anna stayed at her side, her eager assistant. Circe ended up staying for two weeks until there was no more sickness in the village. Even the priest came by to thank her for her service.
Finally, it was time to go home. Anna had proved to be a diligent student and made Circe promise to make her an apprentice in the magical arts when she was old enough. The crone’s magical knowledge would not be lost at the end of her time.
The sunset glowed behind the forest as Anna approached. Her arms and legs ached from doing more magic in recent weeks than she’d done her whole life. The branches rustled with approval and rabbits stood peering with curiosity to see a powerful witch. Her stone cottage with bright red and yellow flowers looked finer than any palace to her. She started a fire, put on a kettle, and shook some of her herbs into her mug. When the water boiled, she reached out to take it from its hook above the fire.
Suddenly, she felt eyes watching her. She almost dropped the kettle when she turned around to find Mother’s shade standing there, glowing in the firelight. This time Mother’s face was smiling and covered with tears. She gave her daughter a curtsey worthy of a queen. Then she pulled something out of a small pouch at her waist. Mother placed it in Circe’s hand. A real, solid object. Her breath caught as she realized what it was.
A large black pearl broach. Mother’s favorite. It had been buried with her. With trembling fingers, she fastened it to the neckline of her dress.
The wind kicked up outside and blew her door open. Without trumpet or tambourine, the forest celebrated her victory over fear. Then she poured the steaming water into her mug. She sat down in front of the fire, the mug warming her hands.
Pumpkin spice lattes are back. Halloween decorations dominate the craft stores. And in Southern California, it’s extended summer. Especially for teachers like me who jumped ship at the end of last school year. This is the first year I didn’t spend days setting up my classroom, organizing classroom supplies, and suffering through hours of staff meetings.
Next week, instead of sweating through triple-digit days sequestered inside with kids, my husband and I will be camping at the beach. We’ll walk our dogs, grill steaks, and watch the sunsets. I’m going to work on my latest book project until I run out of power on my laptop.
After 17 years of teaching (which in teacher years is 170), I’m writing a new chapter in my life. In my first years at college, I poured all my energy into being a visual artist. Then at graduation I was cast adrift in a world where creatives had few ways of earning a living. I went to work in retail buying, using my creativity to select season colors and magazine layouts.
After 9/11, I lost my job and became a substitute teacher. Then my husband died, and suddenly I was a single parent of three school age children. That led me back to college where I earned my teaching credential.
Writing children’s books was my new creative outlet. Seven years later, I found a husband that nourished my dreams. I joined writing groups and took classes. My obsession grew until I was up every morning at 5:00 am to squeeze in a few hours of writing before the day began.
Many years passed. My kids grew up and set out on their own journeys. Teaching kids taught me a lot. About hope for the future, and a passion for doing what you love. I gathered characters and stories like shells on a beach. Saving them for when I had time to write.
So here I am in my first year of retirement. Living life as a full time creative, writing instead of making art. My life is no longer fractured with conflicting responsibilities. I still get up early. Ideas flow in the quiet time before the day opens its eyes.
As I fall into more summer, more summer flows into me.
If you’re a writer and having a hard time focusing on your story, it’s not surprising. As hard as I try to impose order on my daily life, personal plot twists keep popping up to thwart my efforts. But don’t worry—this is not one of those “doom and gloom” posts that no one wants to read. Instead, this is about how stories emerge despite the chaos around us.
Stories want to live, too. Even if our minds are swirling like hurricanes (hopefully not as we’re boarding up our windows), we can’t help creating a narrative. As we go about our normal lives, which now includes teaching to a screen several hours a day, a story begins impose itself over our concerns. A character emerges, braver than us, who faces our same problems but in space. Or in a world of magic. Or sometime long ago before Google Meets.
Soon other characters rise up to aid our main character’s quest to save their world and right its wrongs. Quirky friends that illuminate the main character’s strengths and weaknesses. Maybe even a potential romance, although our hero really doesn’t have time for that right now.
Just like us in the real world, our main character, who now calls herself Raylene, tries lots of different strategies to solve her problems, only to be stopped at every turn. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to deal with lagging internet connections. It’s the antagonist who has shown up, just to make things more difficult. The villain is product of our nightmares, armed with complete knowledge of her fears. We’re not sure how to help our hero because her paralyzing fears belong to us.
We could remain stuck like that forever, but Raylene has her own Samwise Gamgee, reminding her of who she is and why she is risking everything. They go on together, and suddenly a thought pops up that we should call that friend we haven’t hung out with for months because of the pandemic.
When our hero and her sidekick fail, unforeseen help comes their way, and suddenly the battle is back on. At the same time, we, the writers, are in the middle of our own battles, standing in line at the medical center, waiting to get your temperature taken, or grabbing the last bottle of Lysol off the shelf at the grocery store before an old lady with a cane beats you to it.
Finally, the fighting ends, the day settles into night and your mind calms. Raylene limps back down her mountain with her hair all askew and rejoins her friends. We reach the end of our day and realize that despite overwhelming odds, we made some progress. When we lay down on our pillows, we hope the melatonin we took will really help us sleep. Because we need our rest before the battles tomorrow.
It’s done. I wrote 50,000 words for #NaNoWriMo2019. Funny thing though. I still want to get up at 5:00 a.m. and write. Instead of creating a new book, I’m working on the HOG newsletter and typing this blog. After that, I need to work on revising my other book. At various points during November, I thought I’d run out of words, but my fears were unfounded. Of course, I need to begin revisions on the rough draft I wrote during NaNoWriMo, but that book needs to ferment for at least a month.
Rain beats on my roof, wearing away the rough edges of this difficult year. Too many funerals, not enough weddings. Negativity and violence every time I pick up my phone. Christmas is knocking at my door, and I long to feel its glow.
In an hour, I’ll bundle up, grab my umbrella, and go out into the world. Two and half more weeks of school before vacation. In the midst of the holiday rush, I smile.
I wrote a book in November. Rain can’t wash that away.
I had been doing so well. Cranking out 1,500 words a day for #NaNoWriMo2019 like I knew what I was doing, when suddenly I ran out of story.
Just like a car, a writer can run out of fuel, in this case words. At the beginning of November, I’d started with an outline and 17,000 words for a new project. No problem. The outline ran out after the second week. A slight problem. I started talking up new scenes for the book at dinner and writing them in the morning. Worked great right up to the last two days.
My book was finished, and I still had 2,400 words to go. Now I had to take back out my amended outline and find places to fit more scenes. A big problem if you have a deadline. But I sit at my computer and type, dragging my dead brain up the mountain, wishing I had a Samwise.
But it’s too late to turn back now. I’m already walking on the burnt ground of Mordor. If you’re with me, if your word count hasn’t turned to balloons and confetti yet, don’t despair.
Only five more days remain for #NaNoWriMo2019. Not exactly sure where November went but I know a good chunk of it was spent writing. Up at 5 a.m., sitting at my computer with a big cup of coffee. My dogs hanging on me, begging for attention while I squeeze in an hour’s writing before work. Writing even when I’m not sure where the story will go. Of course, I’ll end up with a messy rough draft needing years of revision, but at least I have something to start with.
Like many of my writer friends, I have stories in my head that never see a page. Life is full of necessities and emergencies that get in the way. Don’t get me wrong. All these interruptions are important. But there comes a time when we need to sit down at our computers and type. When we do this, magical things happen. Ideas become words. Words become stories. Even if the book never gets published, now it has a title, chapters, and a life of its own. It can’t get untold.
NaNoWriMo won’t mean a completed project for all who began, but documents were saved and notebooks were filled. Magic happened because we sat down and wrote.
On the fifteenth of November, I had 25,000 words. Half way through the month, halfway to my NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000. Yeah! (small victory dance)
How do I feel? Exhausted. At the beginning of November, I reread a favorite book, The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. In the book, he argues that the minute we commit to a major creative project, Resistance rises up to oppose us.
This week, I faced Resistance in the form of work, illness, and mental exhaustion. For years, I’ve done a decent job balancing my teaching job and my home life. However, this November’s been the toughest one I’ve ever faced. Too much to do with impossible deadlines, resulting in additional hours at work that could have been given to my writing. All I want to do when I drag myself home is collapse in a chair and read my Kindle.
Besides work, my husband’s chronic illness, suddenly after ten years, flares up. Should we change his treatment? What if he has to give up Harley riding, one of the loves of his life? What if I need to take over some of his responsibilities at home? Am I being selfish by writing at my computer when I could be spending time encouraging him? Most of these nights I don’t remember if I fall asleep before hitting the pillow.
This is war, so I’ve fought back by turning off my alarm at 5:15 a.m. and getting up to write before work. Sometimes it’s been hard to type, let alone come up with words. Maybe you think I’m crazy to get up that early, but it has its advantages. Writing still partially in a dream state generates fresh ideas unencumbered by critical thought. Before I start piling up the day’s baggage in my brain, I can find room for my story.
I’ll admit—it’s challenging to write 1700 words a day. My husband helps a lot. We talk about my character’s adventures over a glass of wine, and run through scenarios of what might happen next. (I did start with an outline for this book, but it soon grew too big to fit into it.) Another benefit of committing to NaNoWriMo is that you live in your story every day. Usually it takes me at least a year to complete the rough draft of a novel. Under a 30-day deadline, I get to know my characters well.
How am I doing? It’s not over yet. Every day is another chance to give up. Or to meet Resistance’s challenge. All I can say is that this morning I got up and wrote.
Are you a #NaNoWriMo2019 crazy person? Keep writing. It’s a war out there. Resistance wants to prevent the next best-selling novel from being written. Even if you don’t make your 50,000 word count, there’s got to be a story in it. Soldier on.