Friday, December 20, 2013

Happy Holidays


There are two kinds of people in the world: those who stay on top of things and those who get way behind. Yeah, I'm way behind on almost everything these days, especially this blog. Keeping up will be my number one resolution in 2014. Maybe my only resolution.

I wish you all the very best in the coming new year. Celebrate the waning days of 2013 with joy and as much laughter as you can muster. See you on the flip side.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

I Need to Keep Wanting

"When you are discontent, you always want more, more, more. Your desire can never be satisfied. But when you practice contentment, you can say to yourself, 'Oh yes - I already have everything that I really need.'" — Dalai Lama
There are two kinds of people in the world: the "I Wants" and the "I Haves". I often wish I could "want" less. Certainly, my wants have changed over the years. Many of the things I used to want (even many of the things I have) seem frivolous, even ridiculous to now.

Like some of the things we registered for when we got married. Would I still register for fine china and crystal if I were to get married today? I don't know. I do know that I don't worry about breaking my glasses from Ikea or my nearly unbreakable-and-cheap-to-replace-even-if-they-do-break Corelle dinner dishes. I don't think I sold any of my wedding gifts in our yard sales, but someday I probably will. I know my parents did when the divested themselves of decades of stuff and moved to Florida.

I have had many tragic cases of the "I-Wants" in my life: that expensive SLR camera I wanted (and never got) as a teen; that 1972 convertible VW bug that I regretted buying almost the minute I pulled it into the driveway; countless fashion faux pas too numerous and embarrassing to list here.

There is certainly a level of peace in giving up many of the greedy "I-Wants" of youth and young adulthood. Aging parents, stiff joints, and vulnerable babies help us trade in some of the tangible things we wanted for the intangible and infinitely more important "I-Wants" of health and happiness. You kind of know that you've grown up when most of your "I-Wants" are for the people you love rather than for yourself.

But is the Dalai Lama right? Do we already have everything that we really need?

I used to think so. I used to think that not wanting was the key to happiness, but I'm not so sure anymore. I still want. Some of my wants are selfish (like a new kitchen, for which I have even created an Dream-Kitchen Pinterest Board). Career success is a big want. And I have all kinds of wants for my kids. There are things I wish I could give them, sure, but more important than things, I wish I could give them peace of mind from some of the stresses in our lives that are not of their doing.

I guess I think that it's not such a bad thing to want. Wanting keeps us busy. Wanting keeps us trying. Wanting keeps us doing the things we have to do, even if we don't necessarily want to do them. But most important, wanting keeps us alive.

My parents are not that old (mid-seventies)—I hope they have many good years ahead of them. Since they left Michigan about eight years ago, I can't tell you how many times I've heard them say "We don't need anything. We don't want anything." Sounds good, right? Not so much.

Some health issues have begun robbing them of the ability to experience joy in life that they used to find in little and big things alike. To enjoy life, you have to want—you have to want to go places and do things and see people. I never in my life struggled to find a gift for my mother that I knew she would like (until recently). She loved presents, and it was a blast to give them to her. Now, she doesn't want anything. For holidays to be fun, you have to want to shop for gifts that your children or grandchildren will love and to love the gifts they have bought or made for you. I see the want slipping away from them and it scares me.

So, I'm going to keep wanting. I want to get healthier and skinnier, so I'm going to keep walking. I want to be more financially secure, so I'm going to keep working. And I want my parents to rediscover that life is worth wanting, so I'm going to be patient, and continue to love them and the life they have given me.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Joy of Blooming Late


Welcome today's guest writer (and fellow late bloomer), Janice Deal, author of the new collection of short stories The Decline of Pigeons, released today by Queen's Ferry Press.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who bloom early, and those who bloom late. 

Conventional wisdom has it that truly creative works come from the energy, the hope, and the exuberance of youth. But conventional wisdom is wrong.

Youth Is Served 

It's easy to find examples of people who flourished at a relatively young age. We need look no further than Picasso, whose best work came when he was young. Just 20 when he painted “Evocation: The Burial of Casagemas,” Picasso went on to create many of the greatest works of his career by the time he was 26. Consider also T.S. Eliot, who wrote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” when he was 23. John Lennon’s haunting “In My Life,” a paean to love and loss, was written at the ripe old age of 25.

The Glory of the Late Bloomer 

But for every John Lennon, there is an Alice Munro, publishing her first book at 37. And then there is Alfred Hitchcock, who directed classics “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window,” “To Catch a Thief,” “The Trouble with Harry,” “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” and “Psycho" between his 54th and 61st birthdays, as Malcolm Gladwell references in his 2008 New Yorker piece, "Late Bloomers.” Gladwell believes that youth doesn’t corner the market on incandescent work. He notes: “Some poets do their best work at the beginning of their careers. Others do their best work decades later. Forty-two per cent of [Robert] Frost’s anthologized poems were written after the age of fifty. For [William Carlos] Williams, it’s forty-four per cent. For [Wallace] Stevens, it’s forty-nine per cent.”

My Story

As a late bloomer myself, I appreciate and celebrate those artists who found their voices years after they hit drinking age. I am “young” in many ways: God help me, but my favorite store is Hot Topic, where my 11-year-old daughter and I buy the T-shirts (Walking Dead, Doctor Who) that make up the balance of our wardrobes. But according to the calendar, I’m getting long in the tooth: born the day Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech, I’m looking 50 straight in the eye.

I do things…late. I married years after many of my college friends had already tied the knot; my husband David and I had our beloved daughter Marion well into our 30s; I went back to graduate school and pursued a degree in library science after years as an editor. And I didn’t start writing until I was in my 30s. In fact, I dropped out of a creative writing class in college (taught by a gifted poet and instructor), because I didn’t feel as though I had anything to say. It wasn’t until I took a continuing education class, as a lark, out of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, that something clicked for me: I had something to say. I was 30 years old. And then it took me almost two decades to define exactly what that was.

 

My instructor at Northwestern, Fred Shafer*, saw something in my work and invited me to join a writing workshop he held out of his home. And then I started writing in earnest: eking out stories after work, on weekends, at night. Stories started getting published; I won a grant; we had a child, and David and I decided we’d love it if I could stay home, and write, and hang out with our kid. More stories were written, and I kept sending them out. My pace is glacial: one story got 33 rejections before The Sun picked it up (thank you, Sy Safransky). But slowly, stubbornly, I started building up a backlog of short stories that worked together. The stories carried a common theme, loss; something we all experience if we live long enough.

Living and Losing

But why could Lennon write about loss when he was still in his mid-20s? It could be argued that he’d had a hard life, that he was an old soul. Lennon’s backstory hints that both those suppositions are likely true. But complementing them are theories such as the one posited by University of Chicago economist David Galenson, who believes early-blooming artists like Lennon are “conceptual” in nature: that is, they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they just do it.

Galenson, discussed in Gladwell's article, contrasts conceptual artists with what he calls experimental artists, who “build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods.” Lennon could write about loss when he was 25, but it seems I had to do some living before I could.

As I turn 50, I have faced some challenges—job loss, illness, death—that I couldn’t conceive of decades earlier. Loss can inform people, season them, and make them tough and compassionate. And it can lead to art: I was learning about the craft of writing even as I learned about life. As Gladwell notes, “Experimental artists build their skills gradually over the course of their careers, improving their work slowly over long periods . . . Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith.”

Who Is in Your Corner?

If you are a late bloomer, you need someone in your corner. As Gladwell says, “If you are the type of creative mind that starts without a plan, and has to experiment and learn by doing, you need someone to see you through the long and difficult time it takes for your art to reach its true level.” In my case, I had a gifted teacher, Fred Shafer, who encouraged me and helped me grow in my writing. I had friends, fellow writers, who were learning and growing along with me, and who encouraged me. And I had a life partner, my husband David, who believed in my writing—believed in me—even though it took me years to get more than a handful of stories published in literary journals.

I’m just shy of my 50th birthday and Queen’s Ferry Press is publishing my first collection of stories, The Decline of Pigeons, under the thoughtful guidance of publisher and editor Erin McKnight. Some artists are born mature: precocious “old souls” who possess insights and create beautiful, meaningful work at a young age. I admire that, but my path has been different. For me, for my writing, there has been no substitute for experimentation, and living.


What is your path?

(*ed. note: Fred Shafer will be teaching for four weeks at Off Campus Writing Workshop in Winnetka, Thursday mornings beginning September 12, 2013. Nonmembers welcome.)

Janice Deal is the author of The Decline of Pigeons, a short story collection to be released by Queen’s Ferry Press, July 16, 2013, and a finalist in the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Six of the nine stories, which detail the sometimes bitter, sometimes transcendent ways that people cope with the inevitability of loss, have appeared in literary magazines including The Sun, CutBank, the Ontario Review, The Carolina Quarterly, StoryQuarterly and New Letters. She is currently working on a novel, and is the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Artists Fellowship Award for prose. Janice lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, where she watches zombie movies with her husband and daughter.

Photo credits: Moon Flower by AshleyRandallDances via a Creative Commons License

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Let Your Colors Burst

Baby, you're a firework
Come on, let your colors burst — Firework, by Katy Perry


There are two kinds of people in the world: those who love fireworks and those who have fizzled. I'm not a huge fan of the Fourth of July since my parents moved to Florida. It seems like we're always scrambling for something fun to do and never quite getting it together. My youngest boys are now in the high school marching band, which makes our local parade a lot more fun than it used to be, but that's damning with faint praise. I do love the fireworks, though, which our town does well, right over the lake, just a five minute walk from my house.

When I was a kid, we went to see fireworks every year in Michigan, battling the mosquitoes and walking what seemed like long distances for short shows, but I still loved it, and I thought the rest of my family did, too. Turns out not so much as far as my dad is concerned, who has long since turned to watching the pale imitation of televised fireworks from Washington, DC.

It's so not the same.

Beautiful, etherial, loud, and gaudy, fireworks can only truly be enjoyed live and in person. They are not better on a giant scoreboard or in slow-motion instant replay. You cannot capture their essence on film or digital images, in still or moving pictures.

I love the thrill of the booms and bangs as the sound ricochets off the buildings and rumbles up through the ground straight into my heart. I love the glittering lights and jeweled colors, the smell of the gun powder, and the spidery smoke entrails left behind. I love the collective oohs and aahs of the crowd. While others are ignited by the grand finale, that explosive bouquet at the end, I prefer the individual blooms earlier in the show, so I can pay complete attention to every detail, comparing one to the next.

And that is the best part about fireworks. It is one of the few remaining activities in life that requires you to be absolutely in the moment…because if you're not, you'll miss it. You have to be right there, right then to see and hear and smell and feel the brief burst of joy that only a firework can offer.

Our life is full of missed moments when we're too busy to pay attention. The long Fourth of July weekend is over, but I'm grateful that the pyrotechnics of the holiday once again have reminded me to enjoy our short summer before it flames out, too.

Hope you had a great Fourth. Did you celebrate with fireworks?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Many Ways of Going Forward

There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still. — Franklin D. Roosevelt
Bet you can guess the theme of this post—there are two kinds of people in the world: those who move forward, and those stand still.

A few years ago, I realized that to avoid being left in the dust of the horserace that is writing, I had better start moving forward. It was a good call. In the five years since I started writing this blog, here are just of few of the changes that have taken place:

  • Amazon has taken over the world (at least the retail world, and certainly the book-selling world).
  • Borders shut its doors.
  • Self-publishing has gone from "vanity publishing" to a method embraced by even heavy-hitting authors.
  • E-publishing has grown exponentially, with one in four Americans now owning a tablet, and one in five owning a dedicated e-reader.
  • Americans live online—at least 244.1 million (or 76.5%) of us do.
  • Blogging has changed from online personal diaries to big business, with even the largest, most respected media outlets and companies boasting at least one, often many blogs. "Blogger" now really just means "writer".
  • Social networking has co-opted both networking and socializing.
  • We've gone app-crazy—in December 2008, there were about 10K iPhone apps; by January 2013, there were more than 775,000, and that doesn't even count all the other apps for all the other platforms now available. 

You get my point. I was right (I love being right) about how quickly the world of writing was changing—and continues to change. Then why are so many writers still stuck with the myopic vision of publication that reigned for all those decades before the Internet took hold?

I talk to a lot of writers and I honestly believe the number one reason is fear. Fear of change. Fear of technology. But mostly fear that their long-held dream won't come true. You know the dream: being a best-selling, critically acclaimed author published by a big-name house, toasted by the glittering literati, celebrated on national talk shows, and holding court over admiring fans at champagne-laced readings all over the world.

OK, that dream won't come true—at least not for most writers. But it never did come true for most writers. Here's the good news: in the new world order of publishing, there are so many more dreams that are possible for so many more writers. If you are an excellent writer willing to work hard, you can become a published author. You can write online for your business. You can blog about your travels or your hobby or your passion. You can write a book and people will be able to read it in a real live paper version or on their favorite readers.

But you can't do it standing still. And you shouldn't do it unless you have a plan and get to know what's going on out there in the publishing world.

Five years ago, I started this blog with nary a clue as to what I was doing. Then I jumped into Facebook. And Twitter. And Pinterest. And WordPress—first .com and then .org. I learned some code. I learned what worked and what didn't. I started giving classes on social networking. Last fall, I conducted a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the production and printing of my first picture book, the Animal Store Alphabet Book. I started with a great idea, a fabulous illustrator, and a 21-page business plan. Hard-cover copies of that book came to life on January 1 of this year and today children and bookstores and libraries have copies of it.

Now I'm excited to be teaming up with the dynamic April Eberhardt, a self-described "literary agent for change". We're pooling our collective knowledge and experience, coupling it with our enthusiasm for the ever-exciting, ever-changing world of publishing, and bundling it together into a workshop that we call Pathways to Publication: Choosing the Best Way to Reach Your Readers.

If you want to take a step forward, I hope you'll consider joining us on June 7 in Chicago (the day before Printers Row Lit Fest). Click here for more information and to register. Special thanks to Karen Gray-Keeler and Where Are We Going for supporting this project.

As excited as I am about all these possibilities, and before I started any of this, I learned how to write…because no matter which path you choose, it's the writing that counts.

Have you taken a step off the dime? How are you moving forward?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Them's Fightin' Words

There are two kinds of people in the world: risk takers and scaredy cats. I've been thinking a lot about taking more risks as a writer. I think it's key, at least for me, to be braver, less coy, unafraid to come out from behind my protective armor. It's time for me to stop caring so much about what people will think of me because they might not like something I write. That being said, let's start again.

There are two kinds of people in the world: balls-out risk takers and chicken shits.

There. Do you hate me yet? The funny thing is that I swear like a sailor in real life, but somehow it seems…rude…in print. Using profanity in my writing, however, is not what I'm talking about when I say I need to take risks.

So, in an effort to be less chickenshitty, I'm opening the doors and windows of my comfortable writing home and stepping out into the big bad writing world. I'm joining new groups and exposing myself to new experiences. Like Write Club.

Here's what their website says about Write Club:

WRITE CLUB is bare knuckled lit.
WRITE CLUB is literature as blood sport.
WRITE CLUB does good without being annoying about it.
WRITE CLUB eats trouble and shits money.
WRITE CLUB is coming to your town.

2 opposing writers.
2 opposing ideas.
7 minutes apiece.
Audience picks a winner.
Writers compete for cash going to a charity of their choosing.

Here's what I say about Write Club:

It's kind of like debate team meets poetry slam—part preparation, part performance. And it's risky. The writers/performers take a risk. They put themselves and their writing out there for the world—or at least the audience—to cheer … or not. There is a winner and a loser.

In case you haven't figured it out by now, Write Club is a take off on the movie Fight Club. Now, I've never seen Fight Club, but even I know the first rule:



Write Club has rules, too, and the first rule is that everyone who attends must tell five to seven people about Write Club.

Here are the other rules.

Consider yourself told.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, no, I have not (yet) stepped into the Write Club ring. But I'm working my way up to it, since it seems that it might be the ultimate expression of Two Kinds of People.

Write Club got its start here in Chicago, and now has chapters in Evanston, Atlanta, Athens (GA), San Francisco, and Toronto. The next bout in Evanston is this Monday, May 6, 7:00 p.m. at Space. In Chicago, the next bout is at The Hideout, Tuesday, May 21, 7:00 p.m. Other cities, check your local listings.

Writers, what brave steps have you or are you taking in your writing? Other folks, are you taking any bold risks in your life these days?

P.S. And just because I'm this much of a word nerd, I looked up the origin of them's "fightin' words." Looks like the phrase was first used by Ring Lardner (a fellow Michigander) in Gullible's Travels c. 1917.


Monday, March 25, 2013

George Saunders, Stephen Toblowsky and Me

There are two kinds of people in the world, and I have been all of them. Infantile and wise. Majestic and wretched. Crestfallen and elated. Gracious and a horse’s ass. I have been these people and many, many more.

As a writer, this duplicity or plurality of being is important on many levels. Obviously, it's the name of my blog—Two Kinds of People (or 2KoP). I find that it’s a perfect vantage point from which to explore a whole variety of subjects in my writing—a sort of literary springboard.

I’m a self-admitted public radio (NPR) junkie, and two recent interviews have generated some writerly “ah-ha” moments that have made me understand that my interest in “Two Kinds of People” has something to offer all writers … read more on Write It Sideways.

[This post was originally published on Write It Sideways on March 25, 2013.]