Stepping into the forest of my mind

Stepping into the forest of my mind
Just as every journey begins with a first step, every story begins with the first word.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Painting Holiday Wishes with Words

Adventures in Writing
This is the 2014 edition. I haven't
started the 2015 edition.
Words, a writer’s paintbrush.  Storytelling, essay writing, and poetry carry music and rhythm in the words.  Writers paint images and whole worlds with words.  Writers fill the senses with vivid smells, sharp textures.  Writers create life through characterization. The characters are real, feel emotion, endure drama, and some may even survive the story.  A writer is an artist.  

Embodying that artistry can be stressful, especially during the holiday season.  With all the concerts and cookie bakes, the parties and gift-buying, sometimes writers need to place their creative talent with words on hold until after the rush.    

Or do they?

Holiday cards.  I don’t know about you, but I still send them out.  Not everyone I know is online.  At least some of my relatives aren’t.  Yet they all know I’m writing.  Because of this self-inflicted artistry I placed upon myself, I feel obligated to produce an entertaining Lees Through the Year 2015 letter to accompany an original photo card with pithy or poetic wishes on it.  Relatives and friends I haven’t seen in a while look forward to these letters and cards each year.  They tell me so.  They thank me profusely when I send them. 
Yet I fret over the letter, what to say, which events, which memories to include.  As a writer, I feel my talents judged by the receivers of these cards and letters, be they friends or relatives.  I don’t wish to sound boastful in the letters, simply entertaining.  I don’t want to bore; I want to infuse my words with laughter, with story.  The letter isn’t memoir it’s conversational, I remind myself.  No themes or pithy insight.  Yet I imagine the need to appear witty, to create memorable lines. 

I consider myself a writer even though I’ve sold only a handful of stories and essays.  The key word in that statement is sold.  I’ve written plenty for local free markets.  *Sigh*           

The holidays are a time to catch up with family and friends, tell stories, enjoy delicious homemade baked goods with tea, and linger over wine and cheese platters.  It’s a time to enjoy one another’s company.

            With all the list-making and gift-buying; the home decorating and meal planning; baking cookies and breads, pies and cakes, do you ever feel the added pressure of creativity with words at Christmastime?  Please let me know how you fit creativity into the holiday rush or if you worry about words because of your craft. 

Have a wonderful Christmas and holiday season! 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Framing the Memoir: How Does Motherhood Fit into the College Experience?
Fall frames the world in color.
A writer friend asked me if my memoir was about how motherhood influenced me as a college student or was it how college influenced me as a mother.  While I realize that this is just one aspect of the memoir, it is a good question for it helps to frame the memoir. 

I think the memoir is more about how motherhood influenced me as a college student.  Yet the reverse can also be true.

            Let’s take the first part of the equation.  How did motherhood influence me as a college student? 

            Parenthood is a lifetime career.  It’s not something we stop doing once the children become adults—even if we wanted to.  At the time I started college, I was the primary care-giver to children in grades 2nd through 8th.  It was my job to help these children become successful in their education and any life obstacles they might encounter.  This was no easy task with my oldest daughter having learning and social problems.  I needed to be there for them. 

I took the parenting job seriously, maybe even obsessively.  I wasn’t free to think only of my own trials in education.  I had to be home for them in the beginning.  This is what made attending college so difficult in the early years of my ten-year journey.  After devoting my life to my children, I needed to allow time for college work.      

            Yet motherhood affected my college journey in other ways, too.  Because I was older, because I was a mother, sometimes I saw the wants and needs of my fellow students at the community college.  I would ask their questions in math class, study with them, help them with their essays.  My husband said that I had gained more children going to college, and perhaps he was correct.  I didn’t mind.  These young students helped me with technical difficulties and math or science concepts I hadn’t experienced recently in the basic skills classes I needed to supposedly bring me up to college entry.  My children were too young; hadn’t had this upper level education. 
            And because I was a more mature student, running her own home and family, I brought a commitment to my college education that a few of the younger students may have lacked at the community college level.  My fellow students permitted me to be the group leader in projects.

            Now because I was a mother, I brought home my newfound knowledge to my children, not that they always appreciated it, of course.  I took the notion of parents being the first teachers of their children seriously—again obsessively.  It was my job to be sure the children could survive in today’s world.  I also wanted them to be properly prepared for college as I was not.  I demonstrated time and again what professors were looking for in essays, what was necessary to study to do well on a college exam. 

            Wow!  When I look back on all this I can see why my family is glad that I graduated.  Hopefully the children will see my mothering skills as a good thing in their lives.  Only time will tell.

            What do you think?  Did I answer my friend’s question completely?  Do you have any questions for me about my journey as a mother of five attending college?         

Friday, October 9, 2015

Memoirs: More Than Just What Happened

Memoirs require depth and not merely what transpired during the slice of life being recounted through story.  The writer needs to look up from her reminiscing, and explain the wider experience and the meaning of it to the reader.

College wasn’t for me or my siblings.  We were not encouraged to attend college right out of high school.  There was no money for higher education in my house growing up.  We four children were told we had our education, and it was time to enter the workforce.  My siblings and I accepted it; we had no other choice.  Most of the children in my neighborhood did the same thing in the late 1970’s, especially the females.  My family didn’t know about community college, never went looking for it.  

Through light backstory, intermixed with feelings on this, I could expound upon what it felt like to be left by the roadside on the journey to a formal degree.  I always wondered what it would have been like to live on campus and study.  Of course at that time, I had no idea how extensive a college education was, how expensive.  It looked exciting to me because it was just outside my grasp.  College was for the wealthy, my family had always said. 

On a personal level, I looked for education wherever I could find it, wherever I could afford it.  The law office where I worked talked about sending one of the secretaries to paralegal training offered locally.  I jumped at the chance and told the office manager I would do it.  But then the lawyers decided against it.

To add depth to my memoir about going to college with five children in tow, I could research the history of my local community college or perhaps the birthing of community colleges in general; the two year colleges that possibly helped make higher education more affordable for the masses, and then add snippets of information--not in a solid block, but rather throughout my experiences.  In a later section of the book, I could compare the idea of local community colleges to the 300 plus year history of the University of Pennsylvania, an international university, an Ivy League, part of the ivory tower in education that I thought I could never reach.      

Let's take a look at a few of the memoirs I’ve been reading and see how well-known writers interpret their stories.  I find the writers connecting beyond their own experiences in order to make sense of the larger themes of belonging, of learning from those who struggled before them.

In Beth Kephart’s Still Love in Strange Places, Kephart describes the very land where her husband grew up and connects the volatility of the land to the political tensions of El Salvador.  The turmoil of the country mirrors Kephart’s trial to understand her husband’s culture, to feel a part of her husband’s culture.
In Colleen Carroll Campbell’s memoir My Sisters the Saints, Carroll Campbell connects her experiences grappling with her Catholic faith in the context of personal difficulty and tragedy with various saints down through the centuries, demonstrating that Carroll Campbell is not alone in her struggles.   

These thoughts dance across my dreams as I continue to read memoir and hammer away at my revisions.  Your thoughts are always welcome and greatly appreciated.    

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Beginnings: As in Where to Begin My Memoir

On a journey to a better
beginning for the memoir
Beginnings are the most important part of books, I feel, be it memoir or fiction.  Writers lose sleep over this. 

*Yawn*  [Excuse me.]

Writers need to pull readers into their stories.  Up till now, I’ve been starting my memoir with the decision to begin college.  With what my life was like before I started college. 

            I understand the in medias res concept, opening the story in the middle of the action.  I open chapter one of my memoir with a crucial scene from a YA short story I had published in Cricket Magazine, but I intersperse it with motherly duties to show my conflicting time:  writer/mother.  Then I [seem to] dump the reader into the reality of picking up the children from two different schools on a rainy day.  I allow the reader to interpret the children’s personalities through dialogue and interaction or offering one line quips that speak volumes about them.  Still, I can’t help but think this is a clumsy way to introduce my children to the reader.

            While I ask what I feel are probing questions about myself in an attempt to convince myself to sign up for courses at the local community college, I wonder if maybe my present first chapter should be a prologue instead, minus the opening writing scene, of course.  What have you found the purpose of prologues to be in books?  Reading memoir, my experience has shown that some memoirs have them and others don’t, and that these prologues tell of the essence of the book.    

            Chapter two starts with my toting the children along with me as I sign up for courses at the community college.  Perhaps I could show the children’s personalities there in that scene.  Maybe this is a better way to show in medias res, the actual beginning of my college journey.  Jump right into the journey instead of thinking about it.  Instead of showing what my life was like before I started college.

            Do you feel there is a need to show the pastoral setting of my life before the decision to attend college?  I do offer glimpses of my life with the family throughout the college journey as it affects my journey.  Thanks for any advice you may offer.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Voice in Memoir
Be true to your voice in memoir
Restructuring the memoir is fine.  Works in progress go through many revisions.  The first draft is usually…ahem…vomit, anyway.  Okay, at least mine are.  And I need to remember not to compare my “drafts” with the finished, edited work of other writers. 

But as I redraft and restructure my memoir, I keep coming back to the same sticking point.  Every time I grab a new blank document and try to open the memoir pithily, enticingly, I lose my voice.  My memoir is not a philosophical tome.  It’s meant to offer advice and humor to parents contemplating lengthy endeavors, taking time away from the family.  How a parent can cope with this.  How they can succeed.  It’s meant to inspire and show others how to take courage and attempt something they may feel inadequate to accomplish.  And, of course, it is meant to entertain.

Humor helped me get through ten years of attending college part time while raising a family.  It simply has to be part of my memoir.

The thing about my writing style is my voice.  Whether I’m giving presentations or writing memoir, it’s the same.  It’s me.  If you’ve read any of my camping adventures on Camping with Kids you get the idea.  A few critique partners, professors, and writing facilitators noted that they enjoy my dry wit. 

In my memoir, I have the voice of innocence and the voice of understanding or experience.  Memoir needs these two voices.  The narrator must discover something from her journey through memory and share that information with the reader.  I must take the reader into the scenes of my struggles as a parent in college.  I can’t seem to move forward in my memoir any other way.  I can’t babble on in thought.  I’ve condensed scenes dramatically and left others bleeding on the floor and added much, in the first two chapters, by way of insight.  Perhaps this pass through revision will leave me feeling better prepared for beta readers. 

Oh, by the way, my short stories don’t share this humorous voice.  Not everyone, characters or people, can be me.  And this is probably a good thing.  Just ask my family.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

The Need for Universal Questions or Themes in Memoir
Darlings everywhere!  Where's the meat?
The necessity to attend college brings to mind the universal questions through which to filter my story.  To build suspense, I need to show the search for the answers to these questions through my writing, my internal dialogue, in order to offer the reader insight into any journey he or she may be planning. 

Possible Themes
Making the right decision.  The idea of seemingly selfish ambitions of a mother at odds with the demands of motherhood. 
Taking the risk.  The tension between being a responsible wife and mother to 5 children and a college student. 
A sense of belonging.  Feelings of being an outsider at college.  It's not just the younger students who suffer from this.  Older students can feel they are starting behind the traditional college students because of a lack of college preparation. 

As my darlings lay, kicking and screaming on the library floor, I contemplate these questions and possibly redrafting my entire memoir.  No one ever said writing was easy.  And if they did, throw them on the floor with my kicking darlings.

Any insight you can offer, please do.  Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Searching For That Need to Attend College
Kelly Writers House, my favorite place to be
on the University of Pennsylvania's campus
Why did I attend college at the time in my memoir life?  A time when my twins, the youngest, started second grade.  A time when my learning disabled, oldest child needed me more than ever at the dawn of her high school years.  A time when all five of my young children needed me to be the calm, supportive mother they had always known.      

            This reason to go to college should be a necessity and not simply a desire one of my writing friends said.  And I believe she’s right.  But what can that necessity be?

            At the time I was considering college in my memoir, I was knee deep in motherhood.  But I also wanted to publish short stories in children’s magazines.  I wanted to establish a writing career. 

            [I know…who didn’t.]

            This was before social media and blogs.  Before the internet craze.  For me, it was before writers’ groups and organized courses outside the home.  My husband was sole provider of seven and travelled occasionally for business. 

I felt as if I were trapped in that home, sometimes, shackled to motherhood and unable to better myself through formal education.  I adored my children.  Still do.  They are, after all, my life.  My happiness.  I wouldn’t change a thing.  Really!

But after redoing the twins’ baby room with rejection notices—the paper kind, remember those?—I decided that education was key to publication.  At least I felt it would equal the playing field between me and published writers, established writers, the writers I was reading who talked of their college experience in articles they wrote in the baby’s and lady’s magazines I read.  I didn’t have this experience.  College was not an option when I graduated from high school in my blue collar neighborhood.  Only a select few went off to college.  I knew nothing about junior college or college loans.    

It took me seven years to get the courage to enroll in a community college, in classes that met regularly—outside of the home.  I had taken correspondence courses, again before the internet craze, in children’s literature.  These only whet my appetite for that renaissance understanding of the world.

            Little did I know how ill-prepared I was for college.  But that’s what the memoir is about.  My quest for knowledge and how I grappled with feelings of insecurity, feelings of selfishness leaving my family behind to become a college student and gain knowledge.  About finally becoming published.  About someone wanting to read my words.  About someone learning from my words.    

            You beautiful readers have been very kind to me, leaving notes on my blog.  Please offer any opinions as to whether you feel this may be that need to attend college I’m looking for or offer your precious guidance, so necessary to my writing life.  Thank you.   

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Revision: A Fact of Life—for Writers

Adventures in Writing
Sometimes I feel like I'm always at my computer.
Hook the reader in the beginning of a story or novel.  Yes, even in memoir.  It’s too easy to just close a book and move on if the story’s not interesting.  But to keep the reader hooked throughout the duration of the book, now that’s the difficult part.

            As I pick my way through yet another revision of my manuscript, I’m attempting to see how I can ratchet up the adventure:  the decisions, the obstacles, the fear of attending college as a non-traditional student, a student with five children, a student with a special needs daughter, a student who has a home to maintain and a family to keep in check as her children grow and face their own educational and life obstacles. 

You see, I had completed a revision of the memoir.  And I still laughed in all the same places.  The flow is there; scene into scene, chapter into the next chapter.  There is a timeline showing primarily my maturation as a college student as well as that of my children growing up.   I’m a scene painter, as I’ve said before.  Perhaps I missed my calling and should be a screenwriter or a playwright.     

However, the more I try to consider my college journey, the more my mind is divided with substituting for the media center specialist for the rest of the school year at the high school, the more the family and all their issues cloud my mind.  I think I need to wait for summer vacation and then hide in the library to seriously consider revising the tension in my memoir about attending college with five children in tow.  I think there may be bloodshed among my darlings in this memoir.   

Thanks for any tips you may offer as to how you handle keeping the reader’s interest in your story, be it memoir or fiction. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

A Life in Reflection: Memoir and Revision

            Hello, HarperCollins?  Are you there?  …I guess not.
Reflection in Memoir is crucial.

            Time to rise from my knees, add reflection to my life, and revise.  It’s so easy to type, isn’t it?  So much harder to do.

            Writing is a career.  I need to remember this.  And like other careers, some tasks can be more difficult.  Revision.  More often than not, I understand narrative arc, characterization, and sense of place.  I know not to bog down my prose with too much detail.  [I try, I really try…]

            I know to hook the reader at the beginning of the story.  In medias res?  At least for my short stories, I do.  Build tension?  Definitely.  A ticking clock—whether age-related, as in my memoir about attending college with five children in tow, or literal—helps.  Each scene counts.  Everything used in story must be integral to the plot.  Always.

            It shouldn’t be “I, I, I”—even in memoir.  But how to break that cycle?  I’m a scene painter, but need to decide if each one is the right color for the memoir. 

I try to create flowing prose with varied sentence structure.  …Sometimes…I think.  Then again, I’m still in the market for a good critique partner.

            Knowing the rules of writing is one thing.  Doing all of them is another.  One at a time, comb the manuscript for potential errors.  Otherwise you’ll remain on your knees and fail to return to the computer.  No one said writing was easy.

            Do you have some revision tips to share?  Please leave a comment.  It is always greatly appreciated.  Happy Spring!  

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Need for a Book Synopsis to Clear the Brain

Journaling about Spring
Did you ever get to the point that you’ve been looking at the same material over and over and perhaps it was time to step back and analyze it?

            I’ve gotten to that point, and I think that a book synopsis is just the thing to clear my brain to see the manuscript as a whole, to see the turning points and character growth.  To see what I have learned attending college for ten of my children’s growing up years. 

            There’s so much information online about synopses.  I started with a post by Laurel Cohn which gave me general guidelines to set up a book synopsis, like keeping the word count under 500.  But what to include…

            I stared at my 14 chapters until my eyeballs fell out.  I knew I still needed to divide some of the latter chapters.  Finally, I decided to describe a few turning points in the synopsis and assure the publishers that I did complete my bachelor’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania.  Then I asked my good friend Jennifer M. Eaton to look at it.  As an experienced Y.A. novel writer, she knows about synopses. 

She asked me one important question.  “Where’s the humorous voice?” 

Leave it to the experienced writer to see through my thin veil of knowledge.

Simple solution:  Describe the college journey through my humorous voice in the synopsis.  Sounds easy.  It’s not. 

Luckily I had made topic sheets for each chapter so I knew at a glance where I had covered what in my memoir.  I found the anecdote about driving the children to the dentist for checkups and trying to tell them about the psychology I was learning.  This helped me study.  However, Pavlov’s dogs were easier to train.  The children kept pushing each other in the van and interrupting me.

I made study tapes for courses to listen to at the children’s swim meets, but then my ear jack disengaged and everyone heard about the horror of Holocaust during the dive competition.  My husband told me I wasn’t allowed to bring the study tapes to the kids’ events when he was present.  I combed the topic sheets for other gems to relate what I hoped was my humorous voice in the memoir.  
Why all this angst about writing a book synopsis at this time?  HarperCollins is seeking submissions and no agent is required.  They want adult fiction, romance, young adult fiction, memoir, illustrated non-fiction and more.  You can find details here 

A bit more tweaking of the memoir and I’ll be searching for some beta readers.  Would anyone like to read a portion of my memoir or the whole thing?  No rush…unless HarperCollins comes to call.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Finding the Unique Voice for Your Memoir: Are you a Hemingway or a Fitzgerald?

Hemingway says: to write
"All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."
I’ve been thinking about voice for my memoir about attending college while raising five young children.  A few years ago, I went to a workshop on memoir at a Peter Murphy Writing Seminar.  At the conference I learned to find my unique voice. 

Writers were supposed to come to the workshop with a memoir essay for critique that first morning.  My essay spoke of taking my children with me to sign up for college.  Five cranky children and one woman who didn’t know what she was doing, standing in a line for what seemed like ages…well, you get the scenario. 

If you’ve read any of my camping adventures with the family on my Camping with Kids blog, you’ll see my writing style.  What I didn’t understand, though, was how closely related my writing style was to my voice.  I write conversationally, concretely, and I find the humor in anything.  To me it’s the only way to survive life—especially when attending college as a mother of five.  The critique group was very encouraging of my fledgling memoir voice.

Then we all disappeared to write more on our memoir subject and returned after lunch.

For the second essay, I decided to obtain feedback about a classroom scenario—no children.  Should be the same voice, right?  

It was unanimous. 

“This is not the same Victoria Marie we enjoyed this morning.” 

Silly me.  I thought it was.

The critique group informed me that this second essay was too academic sounding, too many similes, too much comparison, too much description.  They enjoyed the lively scenes and interactions with my family, most especially my children.

Oh yes, my children certainly are characters.  But so am I in this memoir.  I am both the narrator and the main character; a shy [yes, really!] unsure mother who decides to better herself and thereby her children by attending college.  I am not the same woman at the beginning of the memoir that I am at the end.  And therein lays the growth in character, the narrative arc of the memoir. 

As for voice, (or is it style?) it appears that I am more the Ernest Hemingway-type of writer than an F. Scott Fitzgerald-type of writer.  The critique group enjoyed my active scenes and verb choices, short crisp descriptions, and concreteness.  Flowery Fitzgerald (my term) is more the complex sentence (and words!) and cerebral thoughts kind of writer with lots of poetry and comparison.

I was reminded, when researching this blog post, that these two masters of the writing canon were contemporaries and had the same editor.  So what kind of writer are you, a Hemingway or a Fitzgerald?  Do you feel that voice and style are synonymous?  

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Importance of Silence

I like to lose myself in the beauty of nature when I can.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the importance of silence in life.  True, it’s probably because I don’t have any in my life.  But it appears to me that many people, especially young people, seem afraid to embrace solitude, to do nothing and just listen to their thoughts for a while.  I still substitute teach, and I find a lot of high school students listening to ear buds, music spilling out of both buds and students.

            Silence allows the mind to roam through memories, think about family and friends, consider knowledge accumulated, nature around us, or maybe even the world.  I understand the need to interact with others.  Humans are a social animal, after all.  Social media allows for a further group of contemporaries, but sometimes, I think there is a need to be by yourself and just listen to what’s going on in your head and perhaps your heart. 

            Ancient Greek philosophers and British Romantic Poets, to name but a few, were lucky enough to find the silence in life and expound upon it.  True.  They were mostly male, their careers consisted of sitting and thinking, and daily needs were met by servants.  Still contemporary writers should try and find some alone time to think.

            Here’s a challenge for you, and believe me it is a challenge.  Find an hour of quiet and immerse yourself in it.  It doesn’t need to be daily, although that would be wonderful.  Two or three times a week will do.  Turn off the television or radio.  Hide in the closet if you need to.  I do.  I choose the utility closet.  I don’t have to worry about anyone looking for the vacuum.  No one vacuums unless I beg. 

Occasionally I’m discovered, before my hour is up, when a child dumps over a dead houseplant and needs the dust pan and broom.  I know; I should be happy about that.  But she snitches before picking up the dust pan every time. 

“I found her!”
            This is why I’ve taken to hiding in the local library when I can.  Except it’s not as quiet as it used to be.  Now libraries seem to be gathering places and tutoring centers. 
            I think a little silence in life might be the easiest way to hear your life story, understand your thoughts, possibly even discover something new about yourself and thus help someone else through your writings. 

I hope your 2015 is starting off just right and that you can find a little silence in your life to enjoy.