Becoming Fierce Blog Tour

The Becoming Fierce: Teen Stories IRL blog tour has started! From September 9 until September 23 you’ll be able to check out early reviews of our creative non-fiction anthology, plus Q&As with the authors and guest posts.

Sept 9 — Nayu’s Reading Corner (review)
Sept 10 — Feisty Little Women (review)
Sept 11 — Words Like Silver (Q&A)
Sept 12 — Teen Librarian (Review)
Sept 15 — The Diary of a Bookworm (Review)
Sept 16 — Canlit for Little Canadians (Review)
Sept 17 — Canlit for Little Canadians (Q&A)
Sept 18 — Kat Ross Books (Guest Post)
Sept 23 — Glamorous Book Lounge (Q&A)

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Becoming Fierce: Teen Stories IRL

This honest and moving anthology of YA writers comes out September 23 2014.

I have a story in here about my best friend, our turbulent youth, and the bad choices we made out of love, desperation, and a hunger for experience.

The thing about these writings is that they are heartfelt and brutally honest. As a young reader, it was invaluable to me to know that I could turn to books for comfort and knowledge and help, and know that no matter what, I was not alone in my emotions.

That’s the kind of book Becoming Fierce is.

Becoming Fierce Teen: Stories IRL

You can check it out on Goodreads over here: Becoming Fierce Teen: Stories IRL

I believe there’s a chance to win a copy!

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The Punk Rock

My kids don’t understand the punk rock.
They ask me, “why’d you dress like that?” “why was your hair that ugly color?” They say “that style made you look like a skunk” or “a homeless person.” Or they scream, “turn that music down”.
There is no appreciation for the genius of Jawbreaker in this household.
I try to explain.
Yes, we were cynical about the government and authority figures. Some of us were nihilists. Some of us were poets. Some of us were vandals and thieves but we were fighting the robber barons, don’t you see?
A lot of us were damn nice people, thoughtful and caring, concerned about animals and other people.
We yelled “Smash the state”, we yelled “Flex your head”, we screamed “No Future!” We wouldn’t have shouted so loud if we hadn’t wanted things to change. For the better.
And even though we wore black and broke things on occasion and threw ourselves into thrashing pits of human fists and desperation, I look back on it, at my great age, and I think, how much we loved life and embraced it and raged at it, and fought injustice, and how much we loved each other, desperately.
Life was something you grabbed by the neck and you didn’t let go no matter how much it hurt.
We felt every little thing.
Visceral, right? Like a punch in the guts.
Everything was raw and piercing and beautiful. So very beautiful in its ugliness and despair, the dichotomies all around us, staggering, impossible to ignore– but this we said was life, this was living. Living so hard you could taste it in the back of your throat and sometimes you had to hawk it out again.
I think about the things we did, the risks we took- hopping trains, jumping off buildings,doing too many drugs, drinking till we puked, ending fights, taking on the cops, standing up to the skinheads. We just embraced it all, we took it inside, and we etched it into our skin, our muscles and veins, our scalps. The filthy sidewalks, the crappy squats, the boredom, the squalor because these were our raw materials. From this we could make something better as long as we stayed open to everything.
Exhausting, frankly.
“We were a tribe,” I tell my children. Even if we knew each other only as Rat or Boots or Question Mark, we knew each other. We had the same scars. “You could go anywhere in the country, maybe even the world” I told them, “and you could meet someone who knew someone who knew someone you knew. And that person would give you a place to stay, a meal, a beer.”
I am amazed that most of us are still here. Those who aren’t are missed every day because we lived through it all together. You don’t get to share something like that with many people in your life. And if you didn’t experience it then you can’t really understand.
“But what was it all about, Mom?”

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The Delight in the Words

So, I’m reading The Abominables by Eva Ibbotson ( the last book she wrote before she died) to my kids. My youngest is old enough now to appreciate the same book as my oldest which makes things even more cuddly and cozy in the big bed every night. So at the moment it’s the end of Roald Dahl’s The Witches and the beginning of Ibbotson’s.

Ibbotson is the writer who made me cry buckets with her account of the death of a boy’s pet worm. I cried almost as much as I did when Patrick Ness did that unspeakable thing to the dog in the first Chaos Walking book. (Oh, Manchee!) The thing I will never forgive him for although I will continue to read each and every one of his books.

I love reading to my kids, especially books I did not write. My tongue doesn’t trip on words wondering if I should have used something different right there, my mind ceases to self-edit. I can just revel in them. It’s as much a joy for me as it is for the kids. I even do voices sometimes, although the Grand High Witch with her rolled r’s and her wanton v’s (vanton) and her screams of Inkland, shredded my throat something awful.

What I do notice when I read a very well-written book, is the flow of the story, the cadence of sentence, the sheer delight in the words. I think that when a writer is in love with what they are writing, it shines through. And it all seems so effortless though I know how much work goes into it.

Heavy handedness, word slogging, info dumps–those are easy to master. It’s when to pull back, and do more with less that the magic really happens. And yes, an editor helps, but not even the most optimistic editor is going to dig through a mountain of sludge looking for that nugget.

Paring, polishing, refining…these are all words that make me think of knives and hard, rasping things that smooth away the rough edges, and cut away the tough outer leaves to reveal the tender green heart of the story.
That secret delight in what we are making…isn’t that what it’s all about? Delighting ourselves first? Crafting something that wholly and independently exists where nothing existed before, and then reading it aloud and (hopefully) delighting others?

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Graceful Warriors

IMG_0612My friend Deb was the best flea-marketer ever. She could ferret out vintage like nobody’s business. My 1960’s raybans, my Coach purse, my beautiful Mexican wall hanging, were all gifts from her.

When she found a lump in her breast, she didn’t do anything about it. She was scared. She hoped it would go away and she didn’t tell anyone not even her husband.
By the time she did tell someone, it was too late. The cancer had spread. She died less than two years after she found the lump.

She was a lovely, giving, caring person and I miss her.

I have two other friends who developed breast cancer. One very young, the other a grandmother. Both survived. One with the help of traditional means, the other with the additional help of alternative therapies.

Breast cancer is something that touches everyone.

It seems to me though that often the focus is wholly on the survivors. I mean the women who go through chemo and keep their breasts. You can look at them and be unaware that they have survived a terrifying illness and a grueling recovery. This is not a criticism- these women should be celebrated and honored.
But what about the women who lose a breast or both? Who don’t fit the picture we have of feminine beauty anymore?
Are they marginalized? Ostracized? Pushed to the side because they make the rest of the survivors ‘look bad’? What about the women who lose the fight? Are they lesser? Did they not fight as hard? Did they give up? Did some part of them not want to live as much?

And why is a woman who has won the battle less beautiful if she emerges wounded, scarred, not physically whole?

My cousin, Fine Art Photographer, Charise Isis has always celebrated the feminine in women of all ages, shapes and sizes. She is amazingly skilled at revealing the inner beauty of a woman through her art. When she began The Grace Project, she saw these women as warriors rather than only survivors. Of all the women who suffer and survive breast cancer, the women who’ve had mastectomies are often the ones who hide themselves away or are hidden away, because of societal perceptions, because of shame, because of a loss of identity.

The images she captures are strong, beautiful, powerful, inspiring, upsetting, emotional, devastating, unforgettable and heartbreaking. Which is what art should always be. She gives these women a voice, she demands that they be heard and seen, she lets them reclaim their strength and beauty. (I love that she uses Goddesses and classical Art as her provenance).

Recently The Huffington Post, Bust Magazine, and The Daily Mail ran articles on her and The Grace Project.

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Fairy Rings and other things


When my son was young we spent a lot of time in the woods looking for things. Sometimes it was heffalumps. Sometimes it was rings of amanita muscaria- the classic white spotted red toadstool- on the dewy lawn indicating that fairies had danced there. Sometimes it was a warp in the weave of time, a doorway into another world. Oftentimes it was a hunt for the Groke.

Now he is not so little and about to turn 12, he is all about Wimpy Kid and Minecraft. And at this very moment, Rose from Doctor Who, his first official crush.

Those are wonderful things but they are not magical things. They are completely the product of someone else’s mad mind. Not his. Sure Tove Janssen created the Groke (and Snuffkin and Little My and Moomin) but she left some things to the imagination. And my son adopted them and adapted them and made them his own.

And I loved going on these adventures with him because he believed completely. He was scared and exhilarated because he thought we might well find a heffalump in our woods. And once you have found a heffalump, what the heck do you do with it??? And the Groke? Some have called it the manifestation of Norse depression. Who on earth would want to track that down and invite it to tea?
My son and I.

My daughter is young (7). The age he was when he dreamed the most while wide awake. She believes in fairies but she also knows about French kissing and bikini babes (????) and all sorts of other things I’d rather she didn’t. It’s because of having older brothers, and it’s because girls just seem to know these things young. She’s on the cusp of figuring it all out and I am struggling to keep the magic going for at least a few more years.

My kids go to the local Waldorf school. This is not going to turn into a Waldorf manifesto. Or praise for private schooling. I am still all torn up about taking my kids out of the public school system. Believe me it was not undertaken lightly.
One thing that Waldorf does well though, is it lets kids be kids. For as long as possible. I might roll
my eyes at the tree prayers and the giant puppets….NO, you know what? I don’t roll my eyes because how can I when I’m watching these things in a roomful of kindergartners who are squealing with delight? Who are sure that this is the day they find an elf under a mushroom or a family of sprites in the rotten log. Who love going to school as my kids do because their lessons tap into what is in them already. A fierce curiosity, a delight in nature, and the world they see around them, an encouragement to ask questions no matter what. And trees to climb and stilts to master and hills to careen down and dirt and leaves.
They come home tired and muddy, with twigs caught in their hair, so knee-grimed with soil that my washing machine can’t get the clothes clean.
During the winter they sled down a hill of ice that ends at a massive boulder. It’s as if someone placed the rock there so they’d have something to aim for. No one ever yells at them to ‘come down from that tree’, or ‘don’t stand up and swing’, or ‘bring a teacher with you into the woods’.
At May Fest, they sell waffles on these sharp pointy sticks. And no one ever tells those three year olds that they might poke an eye out or accidentally remove their own tonsils. Kids believe they are indestructible. I know they’re not but I look the other way and I trust in their bendiness. It’s a trade-off: a childhood roughly and gloriously lived vs. the possibility of a broken bone. A childhood believing in all possibilities.

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Tending the Garden

This morning I looked at my backyard–naked again now that the blanket of snow has melted, and oh so terribly forlorn– and I saw nothing but piles of dog poo.
I couldn’t call to mind the summer garden that I had tended so carefully. The roses spilling rambunctiously over the fence, the passion flower with its obscene eyelash-fringed, sea anemone-mimicking, saucer-sized blossoms, the apple and pear and cherry in full frothy bloom. My chocolate cosmos and lemon geraniums and wild ginger. The scents! The colors! The hummmingbirds!

But I noticed nothing other than the dull brown of it. Dead grass, dead shrubs, twigs, and leaves blackened by frost. And poo.

Sometimes I look at my work and I see nothing but a big pile of odoriferous manure. And some dead sentences that really need to be pruned, and a few bushy bits that need to be dug out, thrown on the bonfire and burned. Sometimes there is so much that is without life and extraneous that I can’t even see the strong trunk, the good branches that form the work. The solid bones that everything else hangs on.

It’s sunny and warm. Tomorrow it will rain torrentially, I am told. So I make myself go out to the garden. I have tried to avoid it by taking the dogs on two massive hikes along the trails, but my view from the kitchen window while I wash dishes has been ruined by the state of it, so I go out.

I spend an hour or two shoveling shit. Wishing I had a nearby river I could just divert to do the job, though then it would all wash down hill and submerge the nice folk of the Presbyterian church below me.

Things still look terrible. I arm myself with a rake, secateurs, twine. I tie up my clematis and honeysuckle, the trumpet vine and whatever the heck that trailing thing over there is. I remember it has green blossoms like giant pillowy lips tinged with purple. I call it Mick Jagger.
I cut back the lilacs and hydrangeas I swear I cut back in October. (Like starfish they grow their limbs back when no one is looking. And sometimes they migrate from one end of the garden to the other).

I rake piles of Idon’tknowwhat into one big pile. And I straighten the fences. Because without good fences all hell can break loose. And as I look closer, I see things I hadn’t noticed at first. Now that the undergrowth and brush have been cleared away, and the strong frameworks are revealed, I see buds in the Ys of the branches and poking their green hopefulness into the sky. I see new leaves and bulbs popping out from under all the rotting stuff. And I realize that rotting stuff was keeping it all alive through the brutal winter.
spring garden 1

spring garden 2

spring garden 3

I give myself permission to write the rotting stuff. The material that keeps it all moving along. That perhaps serves no purpose other than to get me through the dour winter to the optimistic spring. Because I know that I can clean it all up eventually. I can bag it and put it out the curb and it will vanish as if it never was.

And whatever good stuff is underneath it, will benefit from all that composting.

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A Life in Art

Sometimes I wish I had more talent in drawing or sculpting or even in knitting. I am terrible at following patterns and even after many attempts, I am hopeless at socks. Turning heels? I just don’t get it. And worse than that I am reluctant to take the time to either figure it out or have someone more knowledgeable explain it to me. I dig in my heels.

But writing writing writing all the time…

The act of writing already takes a scary amount of focus. I don’t know about you but I become a little obsessive. All I think about is the book I am working on. And for the most part it is a lovely feeling. Like being naked and fully submerged in warm waters, cradled by the movement of the waves. You don’t even realize you haven’t taken a breath for hours, until someone (usually it’s one of my children or someone at the door or on the phone) pulls you up by your hair. I love living in my books.

But I do think it might be a good idea to do something else as well. Something creative. Find another outlet for when writing is not going well, or feeling a little stale. A way to recharge, look at things in a different creative way, project outward rather than inward.
We certainly need distractions in our lives. It can’t all be mental. If there was no actual life being lived (from the mediocre to the sublime) we’d have nothing to write about. And if we didn’t interact with normal everyday people we’d run out of characters. I only have so many facets of my own personality to draw on.;)

I used to paint. I was never very good but I had ideas. Now I would take it up again but I feel as if I’ve used up all my ideas in my books.

I knit. But there’s a limit to how many mittens, hats, baby clothes, smallish sweaters, and scarves I want to make. Plus I can only knit in the winter (and although it is hanging on like a very scared cat), winter is almost done for the year.

I take photos. And it’s something I enjoy a lot. I’m an observer by nature in any case. I like to look and notice and admire and marvel. I trip over my feet, my nose skyward or grazing the ground. There are striped caterpillars on the trail right now, making their ponderous way along the leftover ice and in imminent danger of being stepped on. I pick each up and move it to someplace safe. Surely another sign of spring?

There is something that feels like cheating with digital cameras though. I am certainly capable of taking a bad picture (many bad pictures) but I can just delete it on the spot. I can focus in a heartbeat. I can enhance and brighten and sharpen and frame it in the blink of an eye and I can toss the ones that cannot be saved with effects into my virtual trashcan. It’s so easy. Not like writing at all. Or using an old Nikon and inhaling toxic fumes in the darkroom.
Or working with oil paints.(I used to suck on the end of my brush which no doubt caused all kinds of interesting changes in my brain).

There is no danger or risk in it. It feels almost temporary. Check out Instagram. There are a lot of people taking some damn good photographs. When you’re inundated with so much that is above average good, it starts to blend together. It loses the punch. You think, well MyopicOwl sure knows her way around the camera, but does it make you want to keep looking or do you think, “well I’m done now” and file the information away with all the other information we collect during the day.

Or maybe I am only capable of taking perfectly good, average photos, that move with the herd but don’t poke their heads up often.

I want to do something that matters as much to me as writing does. That I will work hard at. That will fill my life with something meaningful when I need some breathing space.
But maybe writing fills all but a tiny space, and maybe I need that space, merely to slow down and breathe. And flood my eyes and senses with everything else that is in the world. Perhaps that is living artfully and it is enough.

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When it goes so right…

Currently I am revising a manuscript for the fourth time. I mean, fourth as in major revisions. I’m not counting all the other revisions I do in the course of hammering out a story.
But this time each revision has been a massive overhaul. A rethinking of the plot, structure, voice, motivations, EVERYTHING. The only things that haven’t changed are the main characters and their names. And that’s not to say they won’t.
And this is revision between me and the book and me and my agent. This is revision just to get it to the point where an editor will read it.
Thus have things changed since I started writing full-time as a profession. And let me tell you, I don’t know if my first books would have been published today because it is tough out there.
And I have to ask myself if I am equal to the demands. And if I can be courageous.

I just watched the documentary movie “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”. I love sushi but Jiro would scoff at me because I am a vegetarian and I don’t eat fish. I do eat avocado rolls but I turn my nose up at any roll with cream cheese and whatever the heck pizza sushi is, but still–no fish with my rice.
However if I was ever lucky enough to eat at his restaurant in Tokyo I would eat everything he put before me, except for the octopus because I am convinced of their high intelligence, and perhaps the eel because I’ve had eel and I don’t like it. But the rest of the food he serves looks like sheer perfection and an experience worth giving up on 38 years of vegetarianism for.
The other reason I would eat anything (well almost anything) Jiro served me is the man himself.
He was asked what he think elevates him above other chefs. And he said passion, commitment, hard work, impatience. And he said he NEVER complains about his job.

I complain plenty. But usually just to other writers or my family. I don’t complain to my agent (if I can help it) or in public too much. But even so, I wonder if the work can hear me, and I wonder if I’ve hurt its feelings. And I am sorry because even on those days when nothing goes down on the page but words that don’t fit together well, it’s not the work’s fault. It’s my fault. It’s not even my fault. It’s just one of the days. And if I keep at it, slowly I find the right words again, and so it unfolds.
Jiro (in the movie) is 85 years old and has been making sushi since he was 9 or something. And he loves his work.
I love my work too. I just need to remind myself of it sometimes. But not today, because today the words came and they were the right ones.

And that transforms everything.

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Writing with children

I think these are true memories. But after all I am a writer, and I tend to embellish or rewrite. (Always revisioning!)

However, it is such a strong recollection, visual and visceral, that I am sure it is real. I can see myself at the computer, looking out onto our 3 acres of wood. It was early on in our inhabitation of upstate New York, because I still laughed to myself whenever I thought about ‘owning land’. Anyway, the trees I owned were all white pines, a hundred feet tall, and when the wind blew they fluttered their branches like ballet dancers being swans. And when the wind blew hard, they toppled over, being very shallow-rooted.
And I remember holding my sleeping son on my shoulder with one hand and typing feverishly with the other hand. It was 2003. I was writing my first book.
Or rather I was writing the first book I would ever finish.

Now the following is an embellishment:
I wrote that book with my infant son splayed on my lap or perched on my shoulder the entire time. Mostly with just the five fingers on my right hand- actually four because I don’t use my pinkie at all.

Such is the romance of the past. Four fingers, 95 thousand words and a peaceful baby who slept all the time.

I wrote another book(my second published) when my daughter was wee but she was no Buddha baby. She was born at 60mph and she continues to live at that speed. I learned to write in 5 minute bursts, like a sprinter. I learned to immerse and surface in a split second. I learned to switch my vocabulary from somewhat intellectual to baby talk on a dime. At the end of the day my brain hurt like a strained muscle but it was a good kind of pain.
I could control her somewhat by shutting her in the bedroom with me while I typed into a laptop balanced on my knees but that all ended when she learned how to open doors. Frequently I’d come up for air- having completely lost myself in my story- and discover that she had vanished. It was a very small rented house. Two bedrooms and a bathroom off a large living area but still she was able to disappear. Once I followed a trail of brown footprints on the carpet, only to discover that she had removed her diaper and painted all the walls like a junior Marquis de Sade.

On that day I found out that it is possible to laugh and cry in equal measure at the same time. Also, that when something like that happens, there was no one in the world who loved me enough to come and help me clean it up. Except, perhaps for my sister who sadly lived an ocean away.

My kids are pretty good at amusing themselves these days. But today is the first day of Spring Break and they have fallen out of the habit because their teachers spoil them with attention. I am working in the sitting room because it has a pellet stove and an electric fireplace, and the rest of the house is bloody freezing. My daughter, now almost 7, flops on the couch next to me, sighing gustily and periodically announcing that she is “so bored”. Normally I just say something annoyingly mom-like: “it’s good to be bored”, “I like being bored” or “you’re not really bored, you know”. This hardly helps matters. So mostly I try and ignore her.
So my question is. How do I write with boredom manifesting itself beside me, embodied by a girl who conveys everything she is feeling?

I find myself struggling to think of words. Everyday, useful words that connect other words. Not even the fancy ones that demand some mental exertion. I am finding it hard to move my characters from one place to the next.

I know I used to know how to do this. I used to be able to ignore everything around me, to the degree that babies were misplaced and found later in the dog bed, rooms were plastered in poo, dinner came and went, appointments forgotten, duties neglected. I lived so much in my head that when I had to speak out loud, it was difficult. And the real world? It seemed less real than the one I was writing about.

I want to get back to that place and I fear I have become soft in these days when school gives me a certain amount of free time.

My greatest fear used to be that when I had time to write I wouldn’t push as hard. That if I was ever so lucky as to go on a writer’s retreat, I would spend all my time walking in the woods, staring out the window, or talking on the phone to my children.

She has gone outside to dig in the half-frozen flower beds. The dogs have gone with her.

Instead of working on the book, I wrote this blog.
Writing is writing is writing, I suppose.

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