My Cloak Of Invisibility

I’m at the final stage of editing my children’s novel. I should have been done long ago, but I’m a recovering perfectionist and I saw how rejection killed my spirit at a conference in New York City last January. I’m also a wife, a mom, a semi-regular columnist and a woman who’s trying to do way too much. Like many writers, I’ve come to realize that the long sought dream of shutting myself in an office to write doesn’t materialize as often as one might think. I hear there’s an invisibility cloak in the making, like the one from Harry Potter, and I’d like to order one.

In addition to writing my first novel, I’m trying to keep track of a dog, a rabbit, a houseful of painters working on three floors of our home, groceries, dry cleaning, music lessons for three kids, my own exercise and sleep, critique group meetings (missing those far too often), staying in touch with friends (and often doing a lousy job of it) and family (not successful there either, I’m afraid).

The worst part is, Halloween‘s approaching. I’ve been hiding costume catalogs from my kids because I just can’t take one more thing right now.

I’ve thought many times that I might have ADD. If I had the time, I’d get diagnosed.

Yesterday, I was so proud of myself for heading to a quiet office to edit for several hours. As I drove to this little beacon of solitude, I felt guilty leaving my husband and kids on a gorgeous Saturday. What a perfect day for the beach. Skipping a day of Indian Summer in Chicago is as wrong as ordering a pulled-pork sandwich on a cell-phone during a bar mitzvah.

What I’ve learned is that writing a novel you care about (is there any other type?) takes longer than you’ll ever imagine. You live and breathe your characters. You look at the world through their eyes. When you love your characters, you know never to force their words or actions, lest they appear on the page as anything less than authentic. As a reader, you want the author to stay out of the way so the characters and setting and plot and movement all work in tandem to transport you into another world.  The ironic challenge as a writer is to inhabit your work so completely that you actually make yourself completely invisible.

I’m riding the waves of this journey. The trough I’m in right now feels so deep and dark. The revision and editing process is “the best part” for some, but not for me. It’s hard. It’s cumbersome. It’s tedious.

It’s also necessary.

I’m declaring now to anyone reading this: the revisions will be complete by the end of this month and the manuscript will be in the hands (or on the screens) of multiple agents before Halloween. This might mean my kids’ will be mummies wrapped in toilet paper this year.

I hope someday they’ll forgive me.

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How Does A Book Get Published?

You know you’re in trouble when an article about a writer’s path to publication brings you to tears, especially when you’re on a United flight from Chicago to Boston, in the middle seat, and you don’t know the people flanking you.

You also come to realize, once again, that you are a writer.

I just finished Keith Gessen’s powerfully written piece on his friend Chad Harbach’s 10-year journey to bring a debut novel, THE ART OF FIELDING, into the world. Gessen’s article, How a Book Is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding  (Vanity Fair, October 2011), is outstanding. Some critics claim its focus is too narrow and only describes publishing from the viewpoint of the educated and privileged, but I feel privileged to read the inside scoop on this rapidly morphing industry.

Who needs to read the article? Let’s see:

Novel writers

Beginning writers

Anyone wondering how publishing works

Disillusioned writers who doubt they’ll ever be published

Anyone curious about eBooks and digital media

Someone considering a career as a literary agent or an editor

Why did I love it? Gessen details his friend’s path — beginning in Racine, Wisconsin, and rising to the top of the international publishing world – with such an honest and engaging voice that it felt like he’d written the piece specifically for (the anxious, unpublished, full-of-self-sabotage person that is) me.

Harbach worked on his novel for 10 years and received countless rejections. Many of his friends, including Gessen, thought he’d be better off moving on to another project. Time and countless distractions took him away from his novel, yet those very elements helped round out the final product.

It’s fascinating to read all the behind-the-scenes activity in the world of publishing, particularly the emails exchanged between Harbach and his soon-to-be agent, Chris Parris-Lamb just after the latter finished reading the first 250 pages of Harbach’s manuscript. I realized I’d been holding my breath while reading the agent’s emails. His enthusiasm for the project is what every debut novelist hopes for: an agent who unequivocally gets it, who promises to care for and protect your manuscript as if it’s his own, who feels honored to represent you.

I cut the emails out of the October 2011 issue of Vanity Fair and copied them here for you. The first was sent after the agent read the first 250 pages. The second was sent once he finished the book, the next day:

The emails I dream of receiving...

I’m not naïve; the chances of receiving emails like this from potential agents are slim to nil, but just reading the account of how a passionate writer kept going, kept the faith, and kept improving his manuscript until he felt it was right…well…that’s the stuff that keeps me going when it just feels too hard.

It’s also reassuring to hear what industry insiders say about the changing face of publishing. Yes, eBooks are thriving, but as Amazon’s VP of Kindle content told Gessen, “The only necessary parts of the business are authors and readers.  Everybody else has to figure out how to be useful and relevant in connecting those two groups.”

I’d highly recommend the article to anyone who’s in – or looking to enter – the worlds of writing or publishing. It may not make you cry, but it’s guaranteed to demonstrate how a writer’s dreams can really come true.

Real Men Wear Eye Masks

My husband and I don’t see eye-to-eye on our bedtime routine. He’s a light sleeper, early to bed and up at the crack of dawn, while I’m a night-owl who journeys through magazines, web pages and episodes of Keeping Up With The Kardashians every night in bed.

After twenty years of marriage and conditions like these, you’d think we’d have a Lucy-and-Ricky sleeping arrangement, yet somehow, he puts up with my nightly meanderings and I…well, I sleep so soundly that I don’t even hear him move around in the morning.

Still, he’s gotten the short end of the stick. He’s tolerated my bedside light left on all night, the click-click-click of my keyboard, and the brain-jarring volume of late-night commercials for acne products. How does he cope?

He turns on his side and puts a pillow over his face.

Between the two of us, I’m the one who deserves the smothering, but somehow, he understands my basic needs: a shared bed, a scan of my latest books and gossip rags, a nightly glimpse into Hollywood’s latest train-wreck-to-be and no judging.

He’s a good man, and I try to remind him of this (when I’m not complaining or bitching or stomping) but he knows I’m a good woman, too.  After all, he sails.

He sails a lot.

When we first met in college, I thought his little “obsession” with sailing was as adorable as the Laser II sailboat he so desperately wanted. When he acquired one after graduation, we sailed together every weekend in northwest Illinois on a lake where his paternal grandparents’ had retired.

They’d welcome us every weekend, always asking about our shiny new jobs and our dreams for the future. Then, they’d shoo us out for a day of dinghy races, followed by cocktails at 5 and dinner at 6.

An oil painting hung in their living room. I never paid much attention to it, since I was more interested in his grandfather’s extra-short finger (was it an accident in high school wood shop or a World War II wound he’d never tell us about?) and the hallway rug (which actually hung on the wood paneled wall) depicting a scene of wild horses. I loved my boyfriend’s grandparents, but they just didn’t strike me as horse people.

Many years later, after we’d married, had children and sold the Laser II, the oil painting made its way to our own house. My husband’s grandparents, now my children’s great-grandparents, passed away within three days of one another. My husband asked for only two things from his grandparents’ estate: the oil painting and his grandmother’s old typewriter.

For the first time, I really looked at the painting, which shows two sailboats rafted together in a harbor. Neither boat looks fancy. It’s obvious they’ve endured scuffs and scratches. Yet they fit together. Their colors, though muted, seem to complement one another beautifully.

We hung the painting in the front hallway of our house, an older, dusty Victorian rowhouse near Lake Michigan. The painting was the first real piece of “art” we’d ever owned. The typewriter is on the upstairs hallway table. Everyone who passes it feels a need to touch its keys, which I love.

My husband and I watched in amazement as our schedules grew increasingly crowded with activities like soccer games, school picnics and parent-teacher conferences. Finding the time to sail under these conditions (not even factoring in weather and moods) proved challenging. My husband realized that the only way to address his sailing addiction and keep our marriage intact was to find a boat large enough to allow our family of five to sail together. He found a used Beneteau and researched harbors on the lakefront. Her name was Allegro, which means moderately fast in Italian — perfect for the nervous wife who was skeptical about taking little children on a bigger boat.

We’d drop her into the chilly Calumet River waters in late May, sailing her north to Monroe Harbor where she’d be moored for the season; five months later, from the darkened waves in late October, we’d haul her out for another Windy City winter.

Each and every year, the sailing days between Allegro’s drop-in and haulout warmed my husband’s heart like nothing else on earth. I was stunned to learn I had to compete with a fiberglass hull for his attention, but as most sailing widows know, we simply cannot judge.

My husband once said, and I’ll never forget this, “I’d take horrible weather on a sailboat over a gorgeous day on land any time.” I looked at him like he was crazy, but he couldn’t have been more serious. At that moment, I came to understand and appreciate his needs. He is a sailor.

True, Chicago’s sailing season is as short and intense, but it’s the seven months out of the water that really test my nerve.  The winterized boat’s equipment makes its way into the house — things like sails, cushions, mildewy pillows, pots and pans, first aid equipment and electronics I hadn’t known we owned. My husband makes trips to the boatyard to fix, repair, measure, tinker and refine. He returns somehow restored after every journey to visit her. I’m told by the boatyard owner he refers to me as The Admiral, especially when it comes to his inevitable purchases for his lady. It’s a nod of respect I believe I’ve earned as a sailor’s wife.

When my husband found himself with the chance of a lifetime to buy a younger, faster model — a Beneteau 10R — he found it hard to resist, particularly when the former owner declared his willingness to show my husband how to race to Mackinac Island. Never in my life have I seen such a complicated plan come together in such short order (such is the way of the obsessed). In a matter of months, our boat was sold and the new boat was acquired and outfitted for the race. Crew was secured and trained, provisions were loaded, and the boys (including our teenage son) set sail on a 333 mile voyage to the other side of Lake Michigan. I knew their trip would be memorable, and I was decidedly envious. I drove a chase car with our two younger children to meet the boat at the finish line and kept my fingers crossed.

Their journey was life changing, to say the least. A squall claimed the lives of two sailors during the race. I will never know the fear and worry my husband carried in his heart that night, but when I greeted the sailors as they stepped off the boat, I’ve never seen more tears, relief and humility as I did that day. Every crew member, including my son, has told me how brave my husband was, how safe he made them feel, and what a tremendous sailor he is.

Upon our return home, we unpacked the bags and talked about the race. As a race participant, sponsors provided an array of promotional items like keychains, deodorant…and sleeping masks for crew to use during the 3-day race. We joked that a mask might help him get through my late night channel surfing, then went back to unpacking.

I recently moved the oil painting to a spot above our bed. I thought it fitting, as our schedules and our circadian rhythms often leave us feeling like the proverbial ships passing in the night. I also love the gentle reminder of the grandparents every time I look at it. I think of our carefree days on a crystal lake, getting to know one another before we even knew ourselves.

And now, that eye mask finds its way over my husband’s tired eyes every night. I never requested he wear it, and he makes no bones about doing so. The eye mask, like the race, has been life-changing. He now sleeps soundly through the glow of my laptop and the flicker of the Kardashians’ endless 15 minutes and the bedside light left on all night. No judging. The eye mask is physical proof of his tolerance for my nocturnal energy, not to mention a silky reminder of his first Race to Mackinac.

For Kids (And Adults) Who Love To Write

Thank goodness you’re here, because I know you’ll understand what I’m about to say.

I’ve wanted to write since I was little. I know you have, too.

If I ever see a scrap of paper, I get excited. You know the feeling.

A blank Word document on a monitor feels like a gift.

My hands usually to catch up with all the thoughts in my head. I love the feel of a keyboard under my fingertips or a pen in my hand.

I used to be a kid who loved to write. I’m 43 years old now, and I officially began my “writing career” when I was 40. I still have so much catching up to do, but one of the things I promised myself is to share whatever I learn, especially to kids who were just like me.

So, here’s an open letter to any kids (or the adults they’ve become) who love to write and who want to do it as much as possible:

Dear Writer Friend,

You realize how good we’ve got it, right? Our love of writing opens worlds beyond description, and not just on the page. Writing things down is just part of the wonderful world we’re part of. Talking about writing, sharing our writing, and reading others’ work adds so many layers to our own writing satisfaction.

There are lots of people who write, but true writers share a language of understanding with one another that is like no other.

Those of us who love to write are so fortunate. Ask anyone who loves to write and they’ll tell you it’s just something deep inside that needs expressing, and the options available to express that need are limitless. Journals, essays, poems, novels, blogs, short stories and letters are only a few of our choices.

True writers cross-train when they’re “stuck”. A novelist can take a break from her conflicted characters and write a magazine article for other writers about conflicted characters. A magazine writer can stretch her writing skills by outlining a picture book. A picture book author can sign up for a conference on eBook writing to learn how to share her work with more readers. The options keep going.

The writing community is like a family. We’ve got the crazy uncles we’re a little embarrassed by, the gentle, grandmotherly types who remind us we’re the very best in the whole wide world, the bossy sisters who try to outdo us, the cousins we see only once a year and wish it could be more often. We’ve got younger siblings who look up to us, and older, wiser siblings who take risks and show us the way. The family of writers is full of opportunities to learn from others and, most importantly, about our own talents and interests.

Keep writing, even when you’re tired. Keep writing, even when you wouldn’t share your work with your worst enemy. Keep writing until you feel written out…then write some more. As a writer, the best part of you is your deepest, most honest core. That’s where your voice is. That’s where your strength is found. That’s the place you’ll want to write from. You won’t always reach it, but it’ll never, ever go away.

Sincerely,

Your Fellow Writer

P.S. If you’re a kid who can’t wait to be published, look into places like these to practice your skills.  Most of all, have FUN, and check out these great websites for inspiration:

Amazing Kids Magazine:  Here are the submissions guidelines

Click here for Websites for Young Writers.

Resources on Kids Learn To Blog

Genna’s World, endorsed by the Newberry Award Committee.

KidPub: Books and stories by kids, for kids.

Aaron Shepard’s Young Authors page.

The Young Voices Foundation, mentoring young writers.

The Betty Award writing contest.

Poetry and Essay contests: Creative Communication

Creative Kids magazine (and writers’ guidelines)

Launch Pad magazine

Stone Soup

Magic Dragons

Motivating Other Kids To Blog

Where else can kids hone their writing skills?

Keeping Watch

As your mother, I watch you watch the world.

I want you to see all the good and exciting things you long for every day.  I want to push your spyglass away from any darkness, sadness, or pain.

Your curious nature, however, will always conquer my cautious one.  You will peek when I am unaware, catching sight of things that may confuse and sometimes frighten you.

It’s not that I want you to see the world as easy and perfect.  I remind you of that every day when I correct your behavior, take away one of your privileges or, especially, demonstrate my own faults.

As the youngest sibling, you often look up to so many others without the benefit of being looked up to yourself.  You, like so many younger siblings, will wonder why your mother never made time to put together a baby book.  You might question why others are more important, but they are no more important than you.

I am watching you, and I am proud of what I see.

You’re gentle and empathetic.

You’re sensitive and caring.

You get frustrated when I do not hear you, and you make sure your perspective is known.

You are strong, and I look up to you.

As a baby, you were so tiny and fragile…so ill…so often. You have grown into a boy who is unafraid to do most things.

You are an incredible dancer.

You’re often the first to clear your plate and to say thank you.

You take my hand when you sense I need a human touch.

I look up to you.

You endure two older siblings who rarely show mercy, though they love you through and through.

You always fall asleep within the first three breaths after closing your eyes.

While your small body is still with slumber, I will also rest my own. Yet even in my sleep, I promise to keep watching over you.

What I Say When I’m Asleep

What my daughter sees when I'm asleep.

One of the benefits of having an eleven-year-old daughter with a sense of humor is that she writes down what I say while I’m sleeping.  Here are her notes from last night.  And yes, it’s become sport (for her and the rest of my family) to track and discuss my nocturnal ramblings:

Daughter: Mommy, where’s the bandaids?

Me: Hmmm.  In my purse in my wallet which is in my red and white sailor dress.

Daughter: (Looks for dress, then realizes Mom is “crazy talking” again.)  Mom, you’re crazy talking.

Me: NOO!

Daughter: Mom, yes.  Now where are the bandaids?

Me:  Blue Harbor Monte Carlo.

Daughter: Okay, but where are they?

Me: BLUE HARBOR MONTE CARLO GOMEZ!

Daughter: What?!

Me: That’s where I got them.  Blue Harbor.

Daughter: No, but where do I find one? I need one.

Me: (Sing-song-y tone) Some are in the bushes.  Some are in the trees.

Daughter: Good night, Mom.

Me: Feed the bunny, honey.

Daughter: Mom, you’re scaring me.

Me:  Nightie night.

Trying Not To Cry

I’m sitting in a hotel from a gilded era, The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan, awaiting my husband and son as they sail the 333 mile Race to Mackinac.  The boys and six other men left two days ago, and I’ve just learned that two members of another boat died in a violent storm last night. I do not believe anyone’s ever died in the Mac before this.  I’m in a state of suspended disbelief.

My husband and I are scheduled to sail to a nearby island for our 20th wedding anniversary, which is in two days from now.  I cannot even let myself think about that journey.  I am entirely focused on my boys’ safe return.  My other two kids are running around the hotel…which is as Grand as promised, and I am fighting tears.  The flag at the top of the hotel has been lowered to half staff.

I am trying my best not to cry, but I am failing.

I received a voicemail from my husband this morning, very brief, letting me know that they dropped their sails in anticipation of the storm and that they’re all fine.  The call was quick and to the point, but it said exactly what we needed to hear.

“Hey, uh, it’s us. I know you called a couple of times, uh, but we were, uh, preoccupied with, uh, incoming storms.  I just wanted to let you know that, uh, it hit, uh, but we got the sails down and we’re fine…but anyway, it’s uh late, um, I’m sure we’ll get a chance to talk at some point tomorrow.  Love you and we’ll talk to you soon. Bye.”