Thursday, December 04, 2008
It's because of Mary Higgins Clark. That's how her heroines are, and I've completely internalized that type of character.
Over the years, MHC has consistently written young women who are, for lack of a better word, "well-bred." Many of them come from some family money, or have some family "class" connections, which inherently set them a touch above the riffraff. She doesn't have to make a point of it, of course…her heroines' occupations speak for themselves. She's got several lawyers, reporters (both print and TV), she's got daughters of actors who are themselves creative people, etc. Even the heroines who are "only" wives and mothers are people who have had Ivy League type educations, come from the rich corridors of New England or New York, have family who are educated, or the like. If her heroines come up from poverty, they've made it their life's work to disavow any connection with their "white trash" backgrounds and rise above them—sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much, in that sometimes their drive becomes their fatal flaw. But in all cases, the women she writes about are intelligent, resourceful, tough, and mature beyond their years.
So, considering how often I've reread MHC books, it's not surprising at all that my heroines are as anachronistic as hers are. And MHC's are anachronistic, make no mistake about that. I like them that way, but I have to admit that not a few times, I've found myself reading a cultural reference one of her young heroines makes and thinking, "How many women her age would think that? How many women her age actually would even know what that meant?" She has her heroines knowing old show tunes—or old standards, be they musical, cinematic, or literary—with alarming regularity. She has them look at the world almost with the kind of lens one sees in "classic movies."
This can turn into a problem, unchecked. In one particular instance, it has. At one point or other, in most MHC books, her heroine (or sometimes a hero) will come out with the phrase, "Approbation from Sir Hubert is praise indeed." Usually this is used in a dry, almost sarcastic way, to indicate that the person they're actually referring to isn't easily pleased.
Now, I'm assuming that's Shakespeare. And I'm assuming that in the early books, since her heroines had your traditional high-class liberal arts education, even a young woman in her 20s could be argued to have decided to use that phrase as her own unique slang. But the problem ensued when MHC used it again...and again...and again. Now, it's almost embarrassing to encounter it in a book, since she's put those words into diverse characters' mouths for so long that it can no longer be attributed to true characterization as much as it's simply a pet phrase the author likes a lot. When something becomes that obvious...it's time to cut it.
That quibble aside, I recognize now that MHC's making her heroines the way she does is so comfortable to one who "speaks her language"—as I do!—that it would not be out of the realm of possibility for me to emulate that trait in my own work.
Which is, apparently, precisely what I've done.
As I said, I tend to like my characters that way. I like what might be called "throwback" characters—people who understand morality, manners, and some degree of refinement. I'd like to see more young women act in the way MHC heroines act and appreciate the old-fashioned cultural references they appreciate. So if one writes fiction to portray a world the way one would like to see it rather than the "real world" one actually wrestles with—then I'm golden. The only problem I have is walking that tightrope of trying to write people I can like versus people others will actually identify with. The two, I've found to my chagrin, are not often the same….
But at least knowing the root of this now makes much more sense. All I need to find now is a publisher who's always wanted a MHC clone and I'll be "in clover." (Yeah, I know, I can't stop myself.) If not...I have a dilemma. How to write characters who don't utterly dismay me—and yet with whom readers of any age can identify.
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
(Brings to mind, “Space: the final frontier,” doesn’t it?...)
When we last left our trepid (as opposed to intrepid, as I’ve never been accused of resembling a Dodge) author, she had lifted the lid on a Pandora’s Box of success as an inspirational writer: winning second place in a pretty major contest for a manuscript that was, basically, an experiment. That book ultimately went on to become my first published novel, the story of which could easily take up another three or four blog posts. But the impact of that sale, momentous as it was on the surface, worked some havoc into my previously well-ordered writing life and, I believe—unfortunately—took it off track.
Part of that derailment happened because, as I mentioned, I internalize other people’s expectations to an extraordinary degree for a person who’s normally the “devil’s advocate” in almost any situation. One of the great conflicts of my life, one I thought I was going to deal with in my first marriage, has been a longing to Just Belong Somewhere. To just Be One Of The Girls. I’ve never really been that. I’ve always been the one with the “unique insights” or the “other angle” or the “voice of reason” or even “conscience.” I tried to leave that brand of self behind and become the Perfect (Conventional) Christian Wife in that first marriage. It didn’t work…for many reasons, none the least of which was that the man I picked for a husband wasn’t, in the end, good husband material. But I so wanted to be a good little “Maxwell Housewife” (remember that commercial?) that I swallowed down a lot of who I really was, for a long time, in the desperate attempt to “fit in.” In the end, of course, none of it worked, because anytime we try to “be” something we’re not at the core, the core eventually pushes its way back up to the surface—at which point we have two choices, and only one leads to a mentally healthy existence. :-)
Unfortunately, some of us learn a good lesson in one aspect of our lives but then don’t carry that lesson through to the whole. And that’s what happened to me where my writing was concerned.
It’s hard to explain this without either writing thousands of words or sounding like some kind of wimp, but I’ll try.
Once upon a time, I was a happy secular romance writer. I believed I had found a place to fit in, a genre in which I was going to succeed, and a group of people who would cheer me on every step of the way. Then…things started to change. I began getting repeated rejections and hearing repeated critiques that hinted that maybe I actually didn’t write romance at all. Or at least not contemporary sweet romance…which made me feel a bit unsteady on my writing feet. After all, if what you’ve been telling yourself you do for years and years isn’t what you’re actually doing…is it the fault of your own perception, or is it bad advice? I honestly didn’t know. I was getting advice from people who “ought to know”—writers who wrote for lines I wanted to break into. I figured they were as good as anyone to give me a barometer of where I was going to fit in the genre…only they all said different things. Very different things.
When I read my Golden Heart book first chapter to my RWA group, three Silhouette Romance authors point-blank told me, “This is clearly your voice, and this is a Silhouette Romance.”
When I subjected my romantic suspense to various reads and readers, I got even more confusing feedback. That book has been called everything from a straight romance to a mainstream inspirational romantic suspense to a mainstream novel to women’s fiction to a paranormal to…well, you get the idea.
One writer whose opinion I respect read some of my stuff and told me I ought to think about writing historicals, specifically Regencies, because I have just the hint of “wry” in my writing that would go well in that genre…and a style that tends to the more lyrical and would suit the tone of a historical novel much better than a contemporary.
And then out of nowhere, I came up with a chick-lit voice—with its accompanying comedic tone—that I found myself able to “drop into”—once again, for short periods of time. (Not sure if I could maintain it for a whole book, but then again….)
And then, of course, there was the inspy side to my writing. The spiritual side. The box into which I was getting shoved with ever more (gentle) force simply because I write “clean,” I write characters who go to church, and I had, in fact, published an inspy…and everyone knows that you shouldn’t try to sell too many radically different kinds of stories out of the gate, because if you do that, publishers won’t know what your audience is, or your “brand” is, and…
Along about this time, the romance genre took off in some completely off-the-charts directions, and I told myself, “Well, clearly, I can’t be a part of a genre that’s going to do what this is going to do. So that’s it for romance for me. I obviously don’t write romance. I need to find what I do write.”
Only then the question posed itself: how was I going to decide that?
Some people “can” only write one thing. Their voice is so clearly, so strongly one thing or the other, that you can’t imagine them anywhere else. But apparently I am not that writer; I’ve seen it for myself in the different kinds of writing I do for romantic suspense or “woo-woo” versus the sweet, funny, and innocent tone of my first book. But where was my strongest voice? Where was I most talented? And then, as a Catholic Christian, I started asking what I should commit to writing…and where my voice should be used, and how…
I’m sure you know what’s coming. The moment that “s” word entered into the mental negotiations, I effectively paralyzed myself. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing; I had an uneasy feeling about trying to reframe my form of expression and the stories I told, but I increasingly began to feel like that was my “duty” somehow. I increasingly have come, in the last couple of years, to tell myself I “need” to write “godly”…or there’s something off kilter in my Christian commitment. And I sure as heck didn’t want my writing to be a bad witness!
The problem was, and is, that I never came from the place where my writing was ever supposed to be a “witness” in the first place. Yes, I believe I do everything for the glory of God; but previously, I considered secular writing perfectly okay, in that I never glorified anything ungodly. I may have dealt with ghostly voices, or spirits, or otherworldly manifestations—but I never portrayed them as something a character based her faith life on. My writing may have had characters swear or use rough language—but those were situations in which most people I know would have used those words. I wrote what I knew, I didn’t write anything dirty, and I told a good story…and for years, that was enough.
But then…I started wondering. And I started “being convicted” on all kinds of things I’d been writing—not because they were necessarily “wrong,” but because they weren’t reflective of a “spiritual” person’s writing…or so I thought. My characters were ordinary people. But maybe they needed to be much more than that, if I were going to be “true” to my faith in my writing.
Over time, as a result of selling one inspirational novel and being surrounded by loving, talented Christian writers—coupled with going to work in a Catholic publishing house where our entire mission is “what the Church teaches and why”—I came to believe that there were simply story types, storylines, and storytelling styles that I would no longer be able to use if I were to be a consistent Christian witness.
With that, one brick went up in a creative wall.
Then, I vowed I’d never try to sell to Harlequin again, because they came out with an erotica line and I couldn’t “be a part” of a house that would do that.
And another brick went up.
Then, I realized that many of my previous fellow genre writers were writing, in a word, smut—and soon, I found myself having difficulty with more than merely not selling to Harlequin; I in effect couldn’t even participate in a genre that could tolerate that anymore.
And another brick went up.
Then, I thought…well, I’ve sold one inspy, so that means I may have a foot in the door of that market. But that then meant that I needed to make sure the spiritual content of my books was Christian, and made no bones about it. I needed to have characters who viewed the world through a Christian lens…all the time. I needed to show them praying, to have them refuse to believe any “spirit” that wasn’t “tested”…to have them going to church and that be integral to the plot of the book.
And another brick went up.
Then, I began to notice—and bemoan—the lack of contemporary Catholic fiction out there. I was a good Catholic, I was a good writer…that must mean that I was supposed to start focusing my fiction on Catholic themes. I was not an evangelical—so what was I doing watering down the Catholic identity of the books? No, I needed to put in more “Catholic references.” I needed to put together my stories in such a way that people had no doubt where my characters stood.
And another brick went up.
Then, I realized there were really no outlets for publishing Catholic contemporary fiction. So here I was, in a Catholic publishing house, the perfect person to bring fiction into this place…only that wasn’t in their plans, and won’t be for some time to come, if ever. So even if I wrote something good, solid, entertaining, and doctrinally steady—or if I knew someone who had, and desperately thought their book should be out there—my employer wasn’t going to be the place where I could even edit that kind of book, much less publish one of my own.
And another brick went up.
Then, I went to ACFW with the idea that I could reinvent myself.
That I could get an agent, or an editor, to “take me on” with something I already have, or something I could “make fit” if I needed to. And I proceeded to commit to doing so.
And then I woke up that Saturday, with that letter in my hand, and realized I had painted myself into the proverbial corner. Or bricked myself in, actually.
Now, you may wonder how a person can deliberately hem herself in this way. You may wonder how my writerly common sense didn’t take over and say, “Yanno, you’re not that kind of writer, so quit trying to force yourself to be one ‘brand’ or another.” I can tell you why, in a nutshell: the uncertainty of too many rejections and too many conflicting opinions on where my talents lay. I had all the good intentions in the world…to find a place to “fit in” once more.
Not to express myself or tell my stories. To tell stories these people would approve of, would buy, would publish. I felt no other choice available to me, as a Christian. I wouldn’t dare just write secular any more. I couldn’t. Not and be a witness…right?
That’s how it came to be that, wanting so badly to “fit in” somewhere, I sold myself out.
When I found a welcome among Christian fiction writers, I decided I just needed to learn how to work with the inputs restricting me on one side (“Be careful! “shucks” is a euphemism for worse things! And that goes for “drat,” “darn,” “golly,” “gee whiz,” and what kind of Christian are you if your characters even think those words????”) and demanding more of me on the other (“CBA fiction is not Catholic fiction, and you’re gonna have a hard time selling Catholic characters to it, so tone down the Catholic content”).
The problem was…in my heart, I didn’t want to—and in fact, couldn’t—“write to a market” that restrictively. I simply wanted to write plain, old-fashioned, horking good stories…in my own style, with my own voice, my own word usages and my own worldview.
With the Guideposts submission, I thought I had a niche I could fill and be happy with. But point of fact is, I was trying to play fast and loose, even with that. I was taking something that I figured I “could work with” to use as a way to break into what I saw as a heck of a good market; only I knew, in my heart of hearts, that the thought of trying to write those books the way I was proposing them made something in me sink, made something in my stomach knot, and made me worry about whether I’d have it in me to fulfill a contract if I did get one.
But I so wanted to belong, I was willing to try. And that’s what it was about, once again…just as it had been in my first marriage.
I so wanted to find a way to be “let in” to the place where the “big kids” were playing. I wanted to find a place where I could “land,” with my own particular style, my own holiness, my own quirks and crazinesses, and have them be at least tolerated well enough that I could once again have a book cover with my name on it. That was the bottom line. To try anything once, just to see what worked…and then find a way to work with it.
But for me, real, edge-of-the-seat, fire-in-the-belly creativity isn’t about finding a way to work with a piece of fiction. It’s not about finding something serviceable to sell. It’s not about putting together a story that glorifies some publisher’s vision of God…or preaches Jesus in a particular way…or reveals some deep truth I need to learn and want to share with the world. My fiction can do all those things. But starting out to do that from the get-go? That, I can’t do. I thought I could. I was wrong.
For me, it has to be about nothing but story. And story is what I’ve completely lost in all that feedback, all that selling and editing and reworking and experimenting and retelling and revising. Because of all the things I have available that I could work on to sell to the Christian market, the bitter truth is, I don’t care enough about any of them to finish them now...I might never care enough to finish them…and I have no other ideas that are “suitable” or “godly” enough to get past the gatekeepers in that market.
In other words, boys and girls…I’ve hit the breaking point. Thank God.
Even though it was painful to hit it.
Even though I loved meeting the Guideposts editor.
Even though I would still love to sell them, or another Christian publisher—or even a Catholic fiction publisher—something, someday.
That someday just isn’t going to be soon…because I’m quitting.
That was what I resolved at the sink that Saturday afternoon—that it’s time I stopped doing this to myself. Stopped trying to write what everyone tells me I’m talented at, and go back to writing what I dang well feel like. Stopped worrying about whether my writing is “suitable” and just make it great. Stopped doing what I think I ought to do, or should do, or have a duty to do, and go back to doing what I love to do.
In short, I quit being a Catholic Christian writer.
I’m going back to just being a writer who is a Catholic Christian.
A writer who can tell a horking good story, one that’ll make the hair on your neck stand on end, make you sob at the page or make you laugh yourself out of your chair…but only if it’s already worked that magic on me.
So I’m done.
Done with doing anything but what will make me shiver, or jump out of my seat pacing with the emotional turmoil I’m putting myself through, or cut so close to the bone that I cry when I read what I write, even as I’m writing it. Because anything else, boys and girls…is no longer worth doing at all.
Anything less, I have to stop doing.
Hopefully, the big kids will still let me play.
But even if they don’t, I can’t make myself over into someone they’ll allow in.
Thursday, November 06, 2008
First of all, though, let me say a couple of things about the word “quit.”
Very few four-letter words inspire the same knee-jerk reaction from writers as that one does. I mean that literally. You can hang around writers who’ll cheerfully pollute their (and my) airspace and ears with cusswords of all variety—colorful, even scatological—over the slightest thing…with a smile.
But you mention the word quit, and their blood runs cold.
Or they look real, real nervous.
Or they get defensive, maybe even condescending.
Or they pretend they didn’t hear it.
Or…they laugh. Sometimes derisively, sometimes…not so much so.
Because quitting writing is something real writers never do. At least not real writers who also eventually expect to get published in some recognizable form in the English- (or any other language-) speaking world. This is a given.
This is also a fact. If you quit, those words will not only never get on your computer screen…they’ll never get to a reader. Any reader.
Ergo, since no one has yet mastered the technique of sending brilliant prose via brainwaves to an editor whose brainwaves will pick it up without typos...the act of quitting, stoppage—even taking a break, for heaven’s sake—means you’re one day (or a lot of days) farther away from gaining space on the page, the bookshelf, and the marketplace.
So of course, if one wants to have one’s name on a book cover, the first advice one has to remember to follow is Finish the Dang Book. Which means Not Quitting.
Fast-rewind to our previous installment of this chat, however, and you will see that this particular writer has an impressive track record of perseverance.
I mean, for heaven’s sake, I joined RWA in 1988 for the express purpose of entering the Golden Heart competition—because I wanted to win that thing so badly I was willing to part with hard-earned dollars to actually join an organization.
Those of you who know me know what a step that was. In high school, I was a great “joiner.” I was in lots and lots of extracurricular activities—but that’s the clue. They were activities. I did them with people who were already my friends. So for me, at the age of 36, to jump into a professional writers’ organization in which I knew not a soul...well, let’s say it was an act of what felt like colossal chutzpah at the time, not to mention almost dizzying optimism.
Lots of water has gone under that particular bridge in the ensuing years, but one thing that remains out of all of it is that I’m not usually One Who Quits easily.
So, you may ask, why quit now?
When I have one published book that slipped neatly under my belt, and now has slipped just as neatly out of that belt and is back in my hands to sell…someday…again?
When I’ve won a major writing contest, even if it was years ago?
When I’m probably just that one more submission away?
Putting aside the ack-ack response to that last sentence :-), let me elucidate.
I am quitting being the writer I am now.
I am quitting that so I can go back to being the writer I used to be.
Okay, now you’re scratching your heads, but at least you’re not tearing any more hair out. I hope.
So what do I mean by the above?
Rewind again…to 1998, when I was a Golden girl. If you woke me from a sound sleep at that point in time and asked me my goal, I would have said, “A three-book contract with Silhouette Romance.”
I knew where I was headed, and I had no doubt I would get there.
But then some things started to happen.
It takes some of us a long time to internalize others’ expectations, but it takes me almost no time at all. Some of them, of course, I can resist. But others...find their way in.
Because I wrote clean books, with no sex on the page, I was starting to notice the winds of change toward fewer and fewer of those kinds of books...and more of the steam I had no intention of writing.
It was about that time that someone suggested for the first time that I write inspirationals—because they were “clean.” This notion, I pooh-poohed out of the gate...for a number of very good reasons, most of which had to do with my Catholic roots, and some of which had to do with the truly hinky lack of quality I was seeing in so-called inspirational romances at that time.
To be blunt, early on, those books weren’t very good. I didn’t like them, I didn’t know anyone who did, and so I’d be darned if I’d sell to one of those markets—even if I could break in somehow, which I doubted. Since my characters liked to dance, go to movies, play cards, drink wine, and were even known once in a while to say a “darn,” a “gosh,” or a “shucks”....well, there wasn’t a chance in Hades I was going to get one of my little books accepted by a standard inspy house any time that I could see, not without gutting most of what my characters were otherwise free to do in the real world. :-)
But the suggestion stayed with me.
Through more and more rejections of my sweet, traditional romances...
Through rejections of my dark, murky romantic suspenses...
All the way up to the day when I thought, “Oh, okay. What the heck. Let me see if I can try one of those things.” But I wasn’t going to start from scratch; I felt I had a much better shot if I took one of my already squeaky-clean books and...gave it an extra dimension.
I did it as a lark. Honest.
And then, liking the first three chapters of what I’d done, I thought, “What the heck,” and entered the Faith, Hope, and Love RWA Chapter’s inspy contest with it.
And it won second place.
To which—had I been prone to say such things then—I would’ve said, “Woot!”
This was something that thrilled me to the skies. Heck, getting good scores on a contest always does that for me—but to get good scores in a contest with your first try at one of those weird little “religious” books that you swore up and down you couldn’t write?
That made me start thinking...
What if I, in my heart of hearts, was actually an inspirational romance writer?
Little did I know that I was opening a Pandora’s box by even asking that question. By even thinking myself into that framework...exploring it...and wondering if that would be, indeed, where I was going to “make it.”
In retrospect, I have come to realize that that question led me down a desperately wrong path. Maybe not a wrong path for anyone else...but a wrong one for me.
Why and how it did so, I’ll talk about in my next post.
More to come,
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
A running joke on the Law and Order program says, “The DA’s office can indict a ham sandwich if they feel like it.”
We in America, however, have just gone even farther.
We’ve elected one President.
God help us all.
Tuesday, November 04, 2008
Now, for those of you who don’t know the drill, that encouragement is good news…but only to a point. It could have been worse—the letter could have closed with one of those say-no-evil sorts of endings that neither encourages you to submit anything else nor enjoins you never to darken the door again, just wishes you “luck” in your writing career (which most authors, being naturally paranoid, will look at and wail, “She hates it! She hates me!”).
Or, it could have been much blunter and conveyed the editor’s dislike for something particular about your work or your style—thereby effectively shutting the door on you for any further conversations. (And yes, I have gotten letters like that!) So in that context, being told to feel free to consider them again for other work is encouragement of its own sort.
It also must be said, in fairness to the editor in question, that she did not send a form letter. Far from it. This was two to three paragraphs in which she told me, quite specifically, what she liked and didn’t like about the premise and the story. So in that sense, it’s kind of like that MasterCard commercial: there are some things money can’t buy. In that context, there are authors out there who would kill for that much detail in a note from an editor, and the sage multi-pubs among us would be nodding their heads in agreement: Yes, this is very good. Personalized, detailed, it means you’re very close.
Trouble is, I was getting letters like this back in 1988. And sage multi-pubs were nodding their heads meaningfully then.
Twenty years ago.
So I think it’s only fair to wonder, at a point like this, just how long one can be in very close land before one has to face the possibility that one really hasn’t gotten any better in twenty years…or that one really is only kidding oneself.
That’s not a question you want to be mulling on a Saturday afternoon.
The added complication in this mix, of course, is that this work in question wasn't exactly "recent" work. What I did was take a pretty darn good book (Golden Heart good, in fact), tweak it, polish it up a bit, and send it along. I've toyed with completely rewriting this book several times; every time I do, however, I get into it and start thinking that if it was good enough to win a national award ten years ago, doesn't that mean it's good enough to sell...to the right place...today?
Apparently not. Because in the subsequent time I’ve been submitting it to various places, it’s gotten reactions ranging from polite indifference to a return with grammar markups on it (!) to—probably the most interesting one—a multi-page “rant” from a publisher who all but advised burning the thing and starting over.
What it hasn’t gotten is a read sympathetic enough to merit the letter that says, “…should you elect to make this change, and this one, and this one, we’re inclined to go to contract.”
It’s bad enough when one’s ten-year-old work is treated this way, but when work that’s more recent than that—or work that is revised and redone, based on the much-improved talent one has now—also gets a similar reception...
Well, it's not like I've never "quit" before.
Many authors do. Or want to.
We get to some point or other in this endless cycle of euphoria and despair/disgust where we don’t want to do this to ourselves anymore. We don’t want to keep hoping. We don’t want to keep pursuing a dream that seems “stalled out” at a point two decades old.
So we quit.
And that is what I’m going to do.
I decided that Saturday afternoon at the kitchen sink.
Again, maybe not an optimum situation in which to make an important decision about one’s writing. But I’ve spent a generous amount of time thinking stories through, mulling over plot problems, and dreaming of success at the kitchen sink—so when I come to an important crossroads, thinking about it with my hands in water is not necessarily a bad way to go.
But before you howl too loud...
Hold tight and I’ll explain what “the Q word” is going to look like in my life.
In the next post.
Thursday, October 30, 2008
That’s how it came to pass that, until I went to New York over one college spring break, I’d never been farther away from Chicago than a few inches over the Wisconsin and/or Indiana state lines. People who had summer cottages three, four, or ten hours away? Alien life forms, for sure. Families who thought in terms of “where are we going this year?” Speaking a foreign language.
So I’ve grown up figuratively Down on the Farm and couldn’t wait to escape—which explains why I’m one of those people who, if she is at an airport, a train station, or the like for whatever reason, longs to simply walk up to the counter and buy a ticket out of town. Wouldn’t even much matter where.
But the flip side of that wanderlust is a paradoxical mirror-image sentiment: the obsession to find “the best place” to live, put down roots, and stay there…perhaps even at the exclusion of trips to see the Rest of the World.
From time to time, you’ll hear it said that if you truly found the right place to live, you would be “on vacation” every day, in a sense, and thus have no real desire to spend any time anywhere else. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Life as a permanent vacation?
Getting to that ideal place, however, can be trickier than it sounds.
Back in the Chicago area, to live in a place I would have considered “ideal,” I would have had to have the income of a brain surgeon, (the late) Johnny Cochrane, or a drug dealer (or maybe all three). Even if one did manage to score the coup of getting the income in place, finding a great house in a great location, and protecting one’s environment so that some bright-eyed developer wouldn’t end up putting a strip mall behind one’s back yard…the hidden cost of a “perfect” place in an area like this is the lack of time to actually enjoy it. Many suburbs in the Chicago area are practically legendary as vast stretches of breathtaking neighborhoods that, during weekday daylight hours, are ghost towns. The irony of the fact that, during the week, the “help” spent more time in these gorgeous homes than their owners did was inescapable…and illuminating. Seeing such a thing, a normal person starts to think, “What’s wrong with this picture?”
I used to say I liked to be close to the city for the sake of “culture,” “concerts and plays,” and the like—until I asked myself how often we actually did those things. The fireworks downtown, maybe twice or three times; we went to one opera, no plays, no concerts. It was embarrassing to realize that this great “cultural” life I claimed was so important to be a part of, I wasn’t even using…but it was freeing as well. If you don’t “have to” be tied to a city for any particular reason, you can live anywhere, including a place where it doesn’t take you 25 minutes to drive three and a half miles.
Inertia is a tough thing, however—as is a job for the primary breadwinner located smack-dab in the city center. It’s a rotten tradeoff: you go to where you can breathe the air, see the stars, and afford a decent house…but you pay for it by commuting 4 hours a day to that job.
Until you lose that job…and suddenly, everything changes.
Long story short, we had a job in Chicago vaporize, one in Indiana appear, and so—swallowing my inborn revulsion to embrace all things Hoosier—I signed on the dotted line. (Although I will admit, I passed up this job listing at least once because I didn’t want to move to “godforsaken, where in the h*** is Huntington, Indiana?”) I got here on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, in the black of early-winter evening, was esconced in the Parish Center of a local church, was pointed in the general direction of the new office, fed dinner, and bidden goodnight…and I was on my way.
Fast forward to now, and an odd thing is occurring. I’m beginning to see that one has to be careful what one wishes for—because one might get it, in the most unlikely place one could imagine.
For the first several months I was here, when I was trekking back and forth between the still-unsold house in Illinois and the various apartment places I landed in as temporary housing in Huntington, I wondered approximately once a week what kind of insanity had prompted me to do this. I would get home from Illinois and just sob for a couple of hours. No doubt part of the emotional turmoil was missing the family, the cats, or just the fact that our ties were rapidly being cut with a church we’d been in for 17 years and an environment that was at least familiar…but interwoven in that conflict were a whole bunch of generous “pluses.”
I lived in a place where I commuted 5 minutes to work.
I lived in a place where I could walk to church, to the library, and to a grocery store…among other places.
I lived in a place where, bare minutes out of town, I had not one but two major reservoir/lake picnic and camping areas—including one with a swimming beach—reachable by country roads lined by woods.
I lived in a place where I was close enough to Fort Wayne to get a “mall fix” but far enough away that when I’m not in the mood for a mall—which is often!—I don’t have to contend with the incessant traffic of those who love them.
I lived in a place where most people in the local shops didn’t let you get away without a conversation.
I lived in a place where, for the last year of my son’s baseball career at Michigan, I was a full hour and a half closer to him than I was in Illinois.
And best of all, I lived in a place—eventually—that is as physically close to my “dream house” as I’ve ever been…a house I couldn’t even dream about paying for in Chicago.
When the rest of the family got here, and we began the real adjustment process—otherwise known as “no, we’re not living in Chicago anymore”—of course, things were a bit rocky once again. And more than once, after having visited some neat place in Illinois for some fun reason, I’ve wished that I could just transplant what I have here…back there.
But I knew I’d turned a corner of sorts when I drove to Illinois one Sunday to sing at a special anniversary Mass—requested by my former pastor—and realized, once I got to the church, that I was really glad I would “get to go back home to Indiana” that night.
Back home to Indiana. Four words that I never thought in a million years would be reassuring to me. Four words that I never, ever imagined would come out of my mouth. Four words that I still can’t believe I say.
But four words that are starting to really feel comfortable. Strange, yet comfortable.
Don’t get me wrong. You can take the girl out of Chicago, but you don’t take the Chicago out of the girl that easily. Any glance at the links here will tell you that. :-)
But, living as I am a “red” girl finally in a largely “red” state…has produced an ease of spirit I can’t say I’d readily want to give up. And I know this because, at one point in here, a job possibility actually opened up for my DH to go back with his previous employer on a contract basis…for scandalous money, in terms of what we really could use here. And it was tempting to jump at it.
Until we realized that would mean we’d have to live a commuter marriage again—because we couldn’t give up my job here and still make ends meet, even on what the potential contract job would give him. We had no reassurances that the contract job would last any particular length of time; it was a “permanent” position…but so was the one he was laid off from after 21 years. And knowing that we’d go from everyone living together to, once again, one of us having to set up new housekeeping somewhere else…with all that that entailed…
…we couldn’t do it. PM stepped back from it, making the decision to stay here and commit himself to his new career rather than trying to “play both sides of the fence”…and we are now rooted to our spot, for better or worse, for the duration.
I still don’t consider this necessarily the ultimate “perfect” place to live, not by any stretch of the imagination. I’d love to be on water. I’d love to be in the Snow Belt.
I’d love to be further north, with more pine in the woods than oak. And as far as “embracing all things Hoosier” goes…that ain’t gonna happen any time soon. In fact, I’ve taken to referring to this place as “the far east side of Chicago.” It makes things a lot easier to take. :-)
But when I drive down Route 24 to go sing at the beautiful new performance hall at IPFW…
…or I go swimming in the reservoir…
…or I take a jaunt uptown to look in the shop windows…
…or I walk to my church and, once again, am convinced it’s the most beautiful church I’ve ever seen…
…I do feel “at home in Indiana.”
And…in Chicago…not so much anymore.
Scary? Yes. I don’t know if I’m ready to consider the possibility of never being back in Illinois again…or living the rest of my life here, as opposed to any other “near perfect” place.
But for now, one day at a time, it’s not all that bad.
For right now, it’s home.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Catholics, it seems to many people, are not “on fire” for anything; Catholics, it seems to many people out there, are kind of glum, cynical, lazy, dull, depressing, sad…
Yeah. Kinda like our friend here.
But what Archbishop Noll said so long ago is true. It has always been true, and it will always be true. The Catholic religion—faithfully followed—is a religion of joy. So if you’re encountering joyless Catholics, it ain’t because they’re “too Catholic” or “too constrained by rules and regulations,” or such. If anything, it’s because they’re holding themselves back from the real joy that comes from total surrender, from embracing Christ in His Church, and from being embraced in turn by the world’s biggest family, with God as its Head.
You see, the best kept secret in the world is that being Catholic is really easy. It’s easily the simplest way to be a Christian. The most supported. The most rewarded, and rewarding, and grace-filled. But that secret is so murked up nowadays with people who make false claims about Catholicism, or who muddy it up with their own agendas, that “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” can, at times, sound like a bad joke to the people in the pews.
But it doesn’t have to be thus. At its heart, it isn’t. At its heart, Catholicism is simple, one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. And the more one learns about this Church, the more one comes to love her, and her Spouse, more deeply.
“Getting” that might just make even Eeyore smile.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Just listened to a CD last night called something like “how a Protestant minister became a Catholic,” featuring Dr. Scott Hahn, former Presbyterian/evangelical pastor and teacher who is now one of the most on-fire Catholics you could ever want around you. I tell you, this guy’s infectious—but even better than that, he knows what he’s talking about, because he’s a gentleman and a scholar…to the point that I’d actually seriously consider studying Biblical theology under this guy. I’m not kidding. He’s that good, that engaging, and that enthusiastic.
The “brief commercial” has to do with where you can pick up a copy of this kind of thing: Lighthouse Catholic Media. Yeah, it’s not OSV…but then again, we don’t do CDs. We have, of course, done a few of Dr. Hahn’s books, and I have had the pleasure of hearing him in person at our humble abode as well. But I cannot recommend his CDs highly enough.
If you’re a cradle Catholic who feels uncomfortable about your perceived “lack” of Bible knowledge…
If you’re a former Catholic who is feeling the “tug” back to Mother Church but worry about whether you’re going to be led astray from the “real Gospel”…
If you’re a curious Prod who wonders how and why so many of us are so gosh-darned happy to be here…
Listen to Scott Hahn. You’ll get it.
Okay, commercial over. But go to the site.
Go there now. Get a few of his CDs.
I’ll be here when you come back!
More in a bit,
Thursday, October 09, 2008
The next project to pitch is Voice of Innocence, which I’ll be putting together a proposal on and pitching to an agent electronically. This doesn’t stop the pitching for that piece, but it may end up being the last stop it needs to make…until it sells. Let’s hope so.
OTOH, I’m having nagging doubts about this piece, I will admit—if for no other reason than it’s met with such resounding indifference in the agent marketplace. Yet when I entered it in a contest where booksellers judged, they gave it overall high ratings, including one perfect score. One particularly poignant comment came off those contest sheets, from the bookseller who said, “I want to meet this author, and I want to read this book.” To which I murmured, “From your mouth to God’s ears, honey.” All comments were anonymous by nature, but I wished I knew who and where this bookseller was…I would have e-mailed her, or maybe even gotten on the phone, and asked her if she knew any literary agents with taste like hers!
So it’s a mixed bag this morning, but the good news is I’m bringing myself one step closer, on at least one front. Now, does anyone know Guideposts’ response times????
Staying the course (as best she can),
Monday, October 06, 2008
Friday, October 03, 2008
I’m not kidding. I have a bracelet on that says, “Cubs...Believe.” I think I got it in either 2001 or 2003, saw it in my jewelry drawer this morning and said, “That’s it.” I put it on when I was getting dressed for work, and it will stay on for the duration. Shoulda thought to put it on sooner, I think.
Some Cubs bloggers and forum posters believe the sunny clime of southern California will do these guys a world of good. I can’t help but agree, if for no other reason than that the atmosphere at Wrigley over these past couple of days was weird, not Wrigley-like at all. Blame it on the playoffs and the hierarchy of “VIPs” who take over ballparks at times like this…people who wouldn’t normally bother to go to a baseball game if it were the only entertainment in town. But, hey, it’s a prestige ticket, it’s an opportunity for face time on national TV—and that’s how you end up with a blasé crowd that not only forgot how to cheer “Fu-ko-do-me” at the right times, but didn’t even bother to chant “Let’s Go Cubbies” except at a few scattered moments. Even then, it was a pale shadow of the normal chant we’re used to in Wrigleyville. By rights, that place should have been rocking—literally—every single inning. Yeah, you cheered for Soriano’s base hit…but then where did you go?
Infielders bobble the ball? That’s the time they need support, folks, not silence. Think that rewards bad play? Think again. No one in the ballpark felt worse about those flubs than Derosa, Lee, et al. What do they need to hear at that point, do you suppose? Catcalls from the stands?
That’s not how Cub fans operate. Which means that the majority of people at these games must either not have been Cub fans…or must have been struck with a severe bunting-triggered amnesia.
All I know is, had I been at either or both of those games, I would have no voice today. If any of you do, shame on you. You need to act like you actually care about the playoffs. That comes out as cheering on every pitch a patient Cub batter takes. That comes out as cheering, loud and long, on every out that’s made by a Cub fielder. If you need a refresher on how to cheer at a ball game, remember the last series we played at Miller Park. Those people were pumped…as you in the stands should have been. It would have made all the difference. But it didn’t…for reasons only you ticket holders who sat on your hands and talked on your cell phones—or whatever you occupied your time with instead of cheering—know.
As I said, shame on you. In a weird, sick way, you got the kind of play out of that team you deserved. You couldn’t tell they were pushing too hard? You couldn’t tell how much it mattered? You couldn’t tell they needed to be reminded that this thing is supposed to be fun?
Real Cub fans would remind them of that. Next time, leave the tickets to games like this for real Cub fans who get it.
We’ll probably get more noise out of West Coast Cub fans than we got out of Chicago’s own, and that might be cause for a far worse worry than the Cubs going “flat” from nothing more than trying too hard. But if it propels us to win three straight, I ain’t gonna complain.
I’m just gonna wish you weird “corporate” types would get over yourselves, and realize that legitimate baseball fans deserve to be in a baseball park for an experience like this. You, apparently, don’t.
Friday, September 26, 2008
A kind of a turbulent while, as a matter of fact. (!)
First of all, I need to thank all of you who read this blog (all three of you, and you know who you are :-)) with a fair amount of regularity. It’s a lead-pipe cinch you’re probably trying to read more than I’ve been writing here lately. For that I apologize.
Second, I need to reprioritize, something I’ve known for some time…because for the first time in my life, I have found myself increasingly, completely, and utterly miserable.
(Are those enough adverbs, do you think?)
Now, those of you who know me also know that I’ve been in a major writing funk. As in, I ain’t been able to do none. Not hardly. That’s surely a cause for misery in itself.
And yes, I know that’s terrible grammar, but that’s not been the part that’s hung me up. Some of us are born to simply create…to run throughout the land sprinkling our own particular fairy dust, blithe spirits that we are, letting the stories fall where they may.
I am apparently not one of those people.
I, apparently, was at least partially born to edit.
Which means that my day gig is one of those jobs that comes along once in a lifetime, one that’s perfectly suited to me, one I will be just about guaranteed to enjoy…if I let myself. I mean, I’m a good little Catholic girl working in one of the biggest Catholic publishing houses in the nation. Editing Catholic books. I get paid to read PW. I get paid to spend time perusing Publishers Lunch. I even can get paid time to go to a writer’s conference. How much better can it get, right?
But there are a couple of side effects to this job that complicate things a bit.
The first of these is, of course, that spending eight hours a day editing other people’s work takes a tremendous amount of energy, on many levels. Focused concentration is only half of it. In many other publishing houses, what I do is split into two or three different people’s (or departments’) jobs. Working with such a variety of detail and on such a variety of publications is what makes the job fun—but it’s also given me times when I’ve been so exhausted that I had trouble seeing my way through the parking lot…literally. So much for white-collar jobs not “taking much out of you.” :-)
This kind of exhaustion is deadly when you’re trying to build a writing career outside of the ADJ…hence my stallouts at frequent intervals. The cure? Obviously, to be freed of the day job. Only difficulty there, of course, is the minor matter of groceries, insurance, and other trivialities that we as human beings have come to realize are important.
…which, in its own way, brings me to the second side effect, one that not only contributes to abovementioned exhaustion but to previously mentioned misery as well.
You see, one of the drawbacks of my job is that my editorial cube is located in what basically is a newsroom. The newspaper people are all at one end, and the periodical/book editorial people at the other. But our end is the end with the TV constantly turned to CNN (blessedly, on mute); our end is also the home of one particular editor who was a hair shy of majoring in political science in college…
I’m sure you see what’s coming.
In addition to the obvious ramifications of having a TV that can be turned up at any moment to subject us to CNN’s usual cynical, slanted opinion-masquerading-as-news, we’ve also all been given assignments to help out the newspaper by perusing various online news sources and snagging stories for them to investigate further. The newspaper staff is small—think “shoestring”—and so, realistically, they can’t be everywhere finding out everything. Ergo, the rest of us are asked to feed them anything we find interesting. This isn’t a bad thing, on one hand, in that it “keeps you informed.”
Only problem with that is…I don’t do well as an “informed” person. I read/listen to/see too much news and I get scared. I get cynical. I get angry. Because our news media have a hidden double-edged sword: they’ll tell you what’s wrong, who (they think) is to “blame” for what’s wrong, and how terrible this particular wrong will make everything if it’s allowed to continue—but they then don’t tell you a thing you can do about it. On the contrary, they almost seem to relish implying “And there’s nothing you can do to make this better!”
That, my dears, is a miserable mindset to be in.
Which is why, for most of my life, I have deliberately chosen not to be “informed.”
My philosophy (until recently) has always been, “When and if I need to know something, I’ll know it. And until I can act on it, until I can affect it, it’s useless to me to know it and worry about it.” So, to this day, I don’t read newspapers. I don’t read news magazines. I don’t watch news broadcasts. This philosophy has horrified my in-laws—but, then, much of what I’ve done in my life has horrified my in-laws, so that in and of itself wouldn’t have ever made me change a thing. :-) Frankly, I found that even with my “ignorance” of conventional ways of “being informed,” I picked up enough news by osmosis over radio and online sources so that, nine times out of ten, I could pass the “Wait, Wait—Don’t Tell Me!” news quiz on NPR.
Not a bad achievement for someone who pays no attention. :-)
Seems I got “informed” despite myself—with the added benefit that I could keep that news stuff in a compartment of my life where it belonged, and not let it dominate my emotional climate. I wasn’t deeply involved in the news and all the “issues” enough to get worried, scared, angry, or depressed. In short…I was able to find balance.
That balance, however, got tipped when I went to work here. I started listening to more talk radio. To hear more about things I “needed” to be concerned about. To hear warnings of the “need for action.” And to learn all the stuff that most of the “media” won’t tell you. The upside is, I’m more “intelligent” than most people are on issues and religious matters and politics. The downside, however, is what that “intelligence” has cost me. (See previous complete, utter misery reference.)
So it’s time to pull the plug.
For me at least, it’s time go back to being “fat and happy” again—or risk forever losing any shred of creativity. Because between honest fatigue from doing my job and the rattling fatigue of feeling like one is constantly on the “front lines” and has to have a weapon at the fore at all times…I’m emotionally bankrupt, I’m drained of hope, I’m bereft of optimism, and I’m creatively stalled. I cannot help but think that’s hardly the way God intends any of us to live our lives—especially not those of us to whom He’s given the ability to create, to pursue art, music, drama, or words with a special grace and fire that, in partnership with Him, can “make something out of nothing.”
News sources frequently make something out of nothing, too…the difference being, their fabrications don’t enrich us, encourage us, or make us more human. Only our faith, our arts, and our culture do that. So those of us in said areas would do well to guard our gifts with our lives—because those gifts are all that makes life truly worth living.
If the price of that is “ignorance” on some issue…well, maybe that issue is someone else’s job to solve. The hardest lesson I’ve ever had to keep learning is that I can’t do everything, nor is it my responsibility to do everything. I keep trying…because some little demon in me keeps nagging at me that I’ve “never done enough.” But every time I try to do more than what God has put in me as “enough”…disaster follows. Probably were I a bit younger, this disaster would not have lasted as long, nor been as, well, disastrous as it’s proven to be to my emotional health of late. One of the unfortunate consequences of aging is that one doesn’t recover as fast…from anything.
Even, or maybe especially, one’s own foibles.
But recover I will. It’ll take some “weaning” to do it. It’ll take putting in the minimal amount of time on what they want me to “peruse” on this job, and then stopping at that. Not reading endless blogs on “issues,” endless disruptive or arrogant or ignorant opinions from people who have nothing better to do with their time than post on news sites (!)…and above all, not spending time rattled about stuff I cannot control when what I’ve been given to do—tell stories and help other people tell them!—suffers as a result.
There’s true ignorance…and then there’s balance. I need to choose balance. I need to be the one enriching, the one encouraging, and the one creating. And so from now on, I will do my best to remember what I was put here to do—and what I wasn’t.
And if I start to get tempted to go the other way…
If I start to feel like I’m not “doing my duty” by stuffing my head full of what other people deem to be important…
Someone knock me aside the head, gently, and remind me of where my talent lies, and the place where this blog’s focus needs to stay.
So, welcome back…to the Catholic Writer Chick’s place. Let’s talk about lots of wonderful, uplifting, life-enhancing stuff…but mostly, let’s just protect the work.
It’s what we’ve been given to do, and it’s worth doing.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Monday, August 18, 2008
Friday, August 15, 2008
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Thursday, July 31, 2008
Monday, July 21, 2008
- Chuck Wagon Chow...if you don't know what this is, I'll post the recipe. :-)
- What my dad used to call "Concoction" and what I call "College Student Spaghetti": the most unbelievably simple recipe on God's green earth. It's 1 medium onion, chopped and sauteed in butter until transparent; one 6-oz. can of tomato paste; and cooked, drained spaghetti. Combine, salt to taste, and watch it disappear! Perfect for Fridays in Lent. :-)
- Pork steak simmered with garlic, chopped onion, fresh sage, and frozen french cut green beans. In the last three minutes, add 1 package of Oriental flavor Ramen noodles--break up the noodles, add a bit of water, and sprinkle the seasoning from the packet overall. Works with chicken just as well!
- And, of course, the usual grilled delights: yesterday we had thin, lean beef steak, cheddar dogs, and turkey burgers with all the trimmings, plus potatoes, garlic, and broccoli roasted in foil on the coals. Can it get any better than that?
As for the rest of the weekend, it was spent the way weekends should be spent: mostly, working in the yard, interspersed with sessions of watching baseball in lovely air conditioning. This was, of course, after we puttered on Saturday chasing dust bunnies...
Hey, it's not a frantic life, but it's mine. :-)
Tonight? We putter in office, probably chasing some more dust; we work on writing tasks; and we watch THE CLOSER.
And then it'll be Tuesday!