Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Deborah's EBooks at Your Public Library

If your public library subscribes to Overdrive, you can check out my ebooks. Here's the link to what's available, both traditionally published and through Book View Cafe. (Overdrive carries BVC's entire catalog.)

Perfectionism in Motherhood, Cooking, and Writing

"As a child, my family's menu consisted of two choices: take it or leave it." -- Buddy Hackett

Just about everyone who reads this smiles, but actually I think they should be screaming. Either/or choices and black-and-white thinking serve none of us well. Either you get an A+ or you are a total failure. Your book is either #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list and wins both the Nebula and Hugo Awards, or it is an abysmal flop. Your marriage is either the stunning example to all humankind or it's crap. Exaggerated like that, it's easy to see the ridiculousness of perfection-or-nothing. But how many times do we see ourselves and our lives through a perfection-tinted lens?

Years ago, when my children were small, I agonized over my many, many lapses in maternal perfection. At times, I was sure that a single moment of inattention or crabbiness had ruined my beautiful babies forever. A friend (who, interestingly enough, was childless herself) gave me a book in which I read that it isn't necessary to be a perfect mother, only a good-enough mother. Was I good enough? Even in my darkest moments, I knew that I was. For all the black marks, I could look at a thousand more times of games played, books read aloud, lullabies sung, trips to the zoo, mommy and me classes in everything from gymnastics to piano, walks along the beach... (And my daughters have grown up to be amazing, strong women, for which I take an eensy amount of credit, the rest being all their doing.)

I've also learned to relax about my cooking. I'm a good cook, although not given to following recipes too closely or attempting anything too fancy. My general approach is to grab a bunch of fresh produce, mostly from our garden, and not overcook it. But from time to time, the results might be edible but are unlikely to be requested again. Then there are the spectacular disasters. I am notorious for burning things in pots, which is what happens when plot ideas strike in the middle of preparing dinner. My best weapon against perfectionism here is a sense of humor. If I can laugh at the inedibility of an experiment (and follow it up with a 30-minute-or-less-from-pantry-staples dish) then it becomes a shared source of merriment. Silly, rather than tragic.

Why then is it so much harder to cut myself some slack when it comes to writing? In my saner moments, I know that no piece of prose is ever perfect. It works or doesn't work or sort-of works or works for some folks but not others. We say "perfect" when it carries us away so completely, we are oblivious to any flaws. But the flaws are there, and another reader (or viewer, or listener) might well find them looming large.

What would it take for me to say, "This is the best I can do right now"? To remember that, as Paul Valery wrote, "a poem is never finished, only abandoned."

Can I trust my creative instincts to know when to let a project rest and come back to it later, when to keep working away, or when to release it to the world, warts and all?

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Paris, Grief, and Healing

Lots of folks have posted on the recent terrorist attack in Paris. I don't have much to add, but I do feel moved to re-post some thoughts from years ago, about 9/11 and the anniversary of my mother's murder, also in September. A few of the references are dated, but the process of coming to terms with trauma remains valid for me.

What has changed for me this year is that I have begun to work for the abolition of the death penalty. Speaking only for myself, I see strong parallels between a murder victim family seeking this form of revenge and the vilification of the Muslim community concurrent with the invasion of Iraq. Of course, justice is desirable. Criminal acts call for appropriate consequences. I would never say that it’s okay for my mother’s killer to walk the streets or that those responsible for the 9/11 attacks should not be prosecuted according to law. Setting aside the politics of that invasion and the problems with the application of capital punishment, however, my concern is with whether retaliative actions help or hinder the recovery of the survivors.

My own experience is that revenge does not. I want to emphasize that I do not speak for anyone else. We all have different experiences. For me, focusing on wishing harm to the one who had harmed my mother might well have kept me locked — incarcerated — in a state of bitterness and hatred. While I was in no way to blame for what happened, I still bear the responsibility for what I do with it. It’s like the adult child of an alcoholic getting herself into therapy instead of whining helplessly, attributing all her problems to her upbringing.

I have to ask myself, What do I need? What do I want? One of my inspirations was a woman of astonishing kindness and grace, whose daughter and son-in-law were murdered and whose bodies she discovered. She told me that she faced a choice of whether or not to let herself be driven crazy by what she experienced. I think we all have that choice — to succumb to the darkness of our anguish and righteous fury, or to walk through it, to move beyond it.

I remember the scene in The Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya finally tracks down Count Rugen, who begs for his life and offers anything. Inigo says, “I want my father back!” (and then kills him). I want my mother back, too. All those who lost loved ones and colleagues want them back. We know that’s impossible, but what is possible is to get our own lives back. Our own selves. Our best selves.

My experience of healing is that I get myself back when I focus on re-engaging with life, on fully experiencing my feelings, on understanding what I have lost and what can never be replaced, but what can be restored. The more I stop looking to an external event (the execution of the murderer) to somehow make me feel better or “achieve closure,” and instead focus on taking care of my insides — my heart, my spirit, my body — the better I fare.

So I’ve been talking about my own healing process and what I’ve learned. I’ve been meeting with other family members and with people who’ve been sentenced to death and then exonerated. I’ve been looking for ways to build bridges, to nourish tolerance and reconciliation, to create understanding. I make an ongoing conscious decision to not harbor hatred in my heart, but to fill it instead with what I want in my life.

Love. Compassion. Gratitude. Joy. Wonder. Peace.

I can think of no more fitting memorial for my mother . . . or for those who died on 9/11.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Writerly Support Goes Both Ways

Some years ago, I struck up a conversation with a young writer at a convention. (I love getting to know other writers, so this is not unusual for me.) One thing led to another, led to lunch, led to getting together on a regular basis, led to frequently chatting online. I cheered her on as she had her first professional sale, and then another, and then a cover story on a prestigious magazine. One of the gifts of such a relationship is not the support I receive from it, but the honor and joy of watching someone else come into her own as an artist, to celebrate her achievements. It's the opposite of Schaudenfreude -- it's taking immense pleasure and pride in the success of someone you have come to care about.

I've written about these lunches here: The Lady (Actual and Honorary) Writers' Lunch

I find such friendships invaluable, and even more so when they shift from "pro/newbie" to one of true peers. Although we may not be in the same place in terms of professional publication, we each bring a wealth of life experiences to the conversation. Often, critical skills develop faster than writing craft, so even a novice writer can provide invaluable feedback.Trust arises from recognition of each other's strengths.

This happened recently, when I was wrestling with the opening of a new novel. I typed "Chapter 1" and then stared at the blank screen. Everything I could come up with for a beginning sentence was -- to put it mildly, just awful. I wouldn't want to read a book that began that way. But because my friend and I were IMing and she often shares thoughts about her creative process and struggles with various aspects of storytelling in a very different style than mine, I felt safe with her. She agreed that my idea wasn't very entrancing (she was very nice about it, for she understands that beginnings are vulnerable times and that this is indeed a process, not the final copy on the editor's desk). Her support lightened the burden of "I'm totally useless and now everyone is going to find out; I'll never write another decent sentence in my life and I have no idea how to begin a novel!" which we both knew to be not true, but the sort of self-doubt that regularly assails writers of all skill levels.

Eventually I calmed down enough to remember one of my tried and true techniques for coming up with titles. I write down every one I can think of, quite quickly so that I get through all the really stupid ones first. I give myself permission to be ridiculous -- and silly -- and quirky -- and by this time, I am usually generating stuff that has some potential. I did the same thing with opening lines, and before long I realized I'd become ensnared by one of my perennial challenges: wrong point of entry. By backing up (in this case) or leaping forward, I can find the place that clicks. 

I went to bed, having written a page or so, and woke up with: "Yes, and this other thing happens and then she gets thrown into jail (on page 2 or 3) and by the time she gets bailed out, her father has been brainwashed..." Okay, this has possibilities!

Thanks, dear friend, for cheering me on through the discouraging part!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Today's Work

I just typed:


Chapter 1

Now comes the hard part! Or the fun part, as I like to think of it!