Monday, April 24, 2017

You're Never Fully Dressed without a Smile?

Throughout the semester, I create a huge number of PowerPoint slides. Sometimes, they're basic, sometimes they're fun and sometimes, they have more information on them than they should.

At the top of the deck for each class is what I call the "orientation slide," which tells my students what we're covering that day (a sometimes overly optimistic list), what they should be reading and what's coming up. I've gotten into the habit of adding a visual component to this slide in the form of a meme or photo in the upper left hand corner (much as I do here), both to balance out the text and to lighten the to-do list burden a bit.

Because I teach child and adolescent development, the visual is often a cute kid photo, but sometimes, especially toward the end of the semester, I aim for encouragement and inspiration. Toward that end, I posted the graphic above from the Live Happy website on last week's slides. Later today, I'll be on the hunt for something for tomorrow's slides.

Those of you who know me in real life know that I'm usually a pretty positive person -- someone who can find a reason to smile in most circumstances. Lately, though, that's been a challenge. I still have all of the usual things to be grateful for, but in the midst of them, my mom is sick and the realities of her illness have come crashing down around me. Despite my firm belief in the value of optimism, my smiles took a hiatus last week, and I had to borrow a few from those who were willing to share.

We all go through those periods -- those times when it seems as though even pasting on a fake smile is too much work. If we're lucky, we have people around us who understand -- people who share their smiles, hugs and patience with us when we feel as though we're out of all three. Ironically, that, more than anything, should provide us with a reason to smile.

But sometimes, we have to take matters into our own hands.

So, if your Monday is gray and rainy -- literally, figuratively or both -- try to find your smile. If you can't manage to dig one up, get out there and borrow one, whether it's from the person who holds the door for you at the grocery store, the barista who makes your coffee or the dumb joke you hear on the radio. If your smile remains elusive -- and some days it will -- and all you can manage is soaking in someone else's grin, go ahead. Borrow freely and often. Just remember that someday, it will be your turn to return the favor.

But take your time. Smiles are always in season. And wherever you go, you're likely to find someone who needs one.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Friday Feature: Working Longer & Loving It

Five years ago, I took an early retirement.

It didn't stick.

The first year looked a lot like retirement, with a few community ed classes (as an instructor) and some writing thrown in. But before the academic year ended, I got another teaching offer, one that turned into a second career.

I don't really mind. In fact, I'm thrilled. I never expected to be retired in the traditional sense at 51, and finding a second career I loved as much as the one I'd left was a wonderful surprise.

Whether for financial reasons, or just to keep things interesting, many of us work in retirement, sometimes even establishing a second career.

Wondering if it's time for a change? In her article "How to Keep Working into Your Sixties and Beyond," Kerry Hannon shares 5 rules to keep working and to switch careers.

Because sometimes, change is good.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Fundamental Things Apply

Photo: SCY via Pixabay
Last Friday, I featured an article that focused on five benefits of reading fiction. Although those of us who love to read don't need to be convinced, we can always use a juicy rationalization, especially when it's well-written.

In addition to being a fun read, the article got me thinking. As a writer, do I feel as though writing fiction provides any of those same benefits?

Enhanced reasoning skills? Check! Having to figure out how to get my characters into -- and out of -- a variety of situations definitely requires reasoning skills. Then, once I've done this, I need to decide whether or not my readers will find all of this believable, which requires me to reason from the other side of the equation.

Understanding of complex problems? Creating complications is one of the most fun parts of writing fiction, and this is the part where my characters tend to chime in. Determining the answer to the question, "what if this happened?" is a key element in the construction of plot, and is usually guaranteed to make things more complex.

Empathy? Last week, I wrote about how writers need to be able to imagine and defend people who are different from them, which is an important part of empathy. Doing this for characters we love is easy; doing it for characters with few redeeming qualities is definitely a stretch -- one that can move us from sympathy to empathy.

Stress relief? Only when I'm finished! Actually, when writing is going well (usually when I'm writing dialogue), it's a great, stress-free feeling. Overcoming the obstacles between me and the keyboard, or between me and the characters, or between me and the blank page is definitely more stress-inducing than stress-relieving.

Photo: Dariusz Sankowski via Pixabay
Strong role models? Sometimes. Some characters make good role models, while others are more like cautionary tales. But even antagonists have to rise to the occasion sometimes, proving that most of us have the capacity to be role models when we choose to be.

Clearly, the fundamental things apply, whether reading a book or writing one.

Read it again, Sam.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Surprises, Songs and Separations

Photo: Alexa's Photos via Pixabay
My daughter paid us a surprise visit last weekend. For the past month, she's been telling us she'd be spending Easter in Boston with two of her roommates, but last Friday night, my husband and I walked into a restaurant with our friends -- our daughter's accomplices, as it turned out -- and there our girls sat, waiting.

The weekend was relaxing, and unremarkable in terms of activity. Dinner with friends. A trip to Target to replenish our cupboards with foods she likes. Easter dinner.

But she was home. We fell once again, all too easily, into our rhythm as a family of three, only to reach Monday morning.

Time to take her back.

In my head, Pink keeps singing "Please Don't Leave Me," and I wish she'd stop because she's not making this any easier. And it's raining and I really should get gas before we leave, but there's no time.

Never enough time.

The melodramatic thing to say would be that this never gets any easier, but that's not quite true, We've adjusted to her life as a young adult, and are immeasurably proud of all that she's doing, and, most of the time, we're all just fine.

But the goodbyes? Those begin as a heartache the night before she leaves and morph, after she's gone, into an emptiness much bigger than the space she actually takes up when she's here. The emptiness gradually subsides as we readjust, so that each adjustment period is just a little shorter than the one that came before.

In a few weeks, we'll be on the other side of that adjustment, making space at home for all of the trappings of freshman year, settling into a summer unlike any before. Her first month at home is largely booked, a harbinger of the comings and goings destined to punctuate the summer. Work and play, trips and group chats, family time and quiet time.

The ingredients of summer. I can hardly wait.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Friday Feature: Why Read Fiction?

One thing I always wish I had more time for is reading. I read a lot for my job, but it's mostly textbooks and student work. In my leisure time, what there is of it, I tend to read non-fiction relevant to the classes I teach, along with articles and blogs that keep me in touch with what's going on in the world.

But in the summer, I make it a point to read novels. As a writer who's picky about the way words play out on a page, I discard quite a few books before I find "the one" that pulls me in and dares me to stop reading.

And, oh, how wonderful that is.

I know I'm not alone. Still, it's always nice to find support for this pursuit, especially in unexpected places, like Fast Company's article, "Five Ways Reading Fiction Makes You Better at Your Job."

Far less didactic than it sounds, the article briefly touches on how things like reasoning ability and empathy are strengthened by the simple process of reading a book. Kind of like having your cake and eating it too.

Definitely not a bad way to spend a weekend.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Five Things Every Writer Needs

Goumbik via Pixabay
Being a writer is a wonderful way to spend a life. But, like every other job, it has its challenges, and there are those who are better suited to the writing life than others. Being a writer requires...

Perseverance. Writing is part relay race, part marathon. Most writers have day jobs and/or families, and don't get to write in day-long sessions that resemble "real" jobs, so we write in bits and pieces here and there. Those relay race bits and pieces get cobbled together into blog posts and articles and stories and novels and works of non-fiction, all of which require a certain amount of finesse and editing to morph from files on the the computer to something we'd actually let someone else read. Together, all of those relay races become the marathon that is a writing career -- a marathon that requires sustained energy and concentration, even if most of it takes place sitting down.

A thick skin. Every writer experiences rejection. Sometimes it's well-intentioned and even growth-inducing; other times, it's mean-spirited, even devastating. Over time, we develop the necessary mechanisms for coping with the sting of rejection, throwing ourselves back into the projects we love, hoping someday, someone else will love them, too. The sooner we learn to accept the growth- inducing parts and deflect the mean-spirited stuff, the better able we become to channel all of it into our work, adding depth and richness to the voice we put on the page.

The ability to imagine and defend people who are different. Most writers of fiction put at least a little of themselves into the characters they put on the page. The real challenge lies in writing the characters who aren't like us -- those who are hard where we are soft, or vice versa, those who approach where we'd retreat. Antagonists and protagonists alike need to resound with readers, which means we need to be able to defend our characters' actions, even when we disagree with them.
The capacity to be a self-starter. As a writer, I am my own boss. No one is going to come to my house (or my satellite office at Starbucks) and make me put my butt in the chair and pound out 100 or 1000 or 10,000 words. If I can't get past my own fears and procrastination and make myself write, no one is going to do it for me. If I'm too tired or too distracted or not in the mood, I need to rest or get away from distractions or get in the mood, or otherwise make a plan to get my work done. No plan, no book. It's that simple.

A community of writers. No one understands the writing life like other writers. Parents and spouses and children try. They commiserate, they support, they advise. But no one really gets it like those who are pushing past their own procrastination and fear to run that relay race/marathon alongside us. They know what it feels like when people we've developed out of thin air won't shut up or, conversely, freeze us out and leave us staring at a blank screen. They give us feedback that is growth-inducing (and, if they don't, they don't last long in the community) and trust us with the ephemeral bliss of just-right words on the page. They celebrate with us when we get the words right, and lift us up when we think we can't pour ourselves onto the page anymore.

The writing life is a pretty good life, and the traits it requires can all be cultivated. Fortunately, writers get a lifetime to do just that.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Porch Writing

Photo: Society of St. Vincent de Paul
We spent last weekend at the beach. This time last Friday, I had visions of sitting out on a screened-in porch (my favorite place in the world to write) and writing a post that began with, "I'm writing this post from a screened-in porch at the beach."

But it was too cold. 

I tried. Really I did. Out on the porch with my blanket wrapped around me. On more than one occasion.

Too cold. And too noisy.

We were at a different condo this time, and although it was lovely and the porch furniture was perfect, the HVAC unit was on the porch, too. Every time the heat kicked on, the compressor did, too, spoiling the ambience. 

So I worked inside. 

You didn't really think this was going to end with no writing, did you?

Well, if you did, you'd be right, in part. We had a wonderful weekend. I had a delicious crab sauté at a restaurant we'd never tried before. Breakfast out on Sunday. Grotto pizza, of course. We went to Palm Sunday Mass and I walked in the sand, which was silky and cool in some places and crunchy and warm in others. I even graded some papers and worked on a writing project that wasn't my novel because, if you time it right, work at the beach doesn't really feel like work

Photo: PurpleKatie via Pixabay
But no porch writing. Not this time.

While we were in town, we made reservations for a week in June at our usual place. We'll be in a different condo this time, too, but in the community where we usually stay. I'm looking forward (already) to all the things that made this beach trip wonderful -- the food, the ambience, the relaxed mood.

And there will be porch writing. 

Even if I still need my blanket.