It was the best April plan ever. I’d use the month before my husband’s surgery to whip up a little book. Keep myself sane, productive.
First, I’d pick out a pattern for my new book (Simplicity!). Next I’d go shopping for material–something chapter-bookish, maybe light blue gingham or a little sailboat print. Then I’d come home, pin the pattern to the fabric, cut them out, baste the big pieces together.
While wisteria bloomed, I’d stitch up the chapters. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Maybe eight. I’d sew on a row of pearly buttons to close those chapters fast. At the last minute, I’d decide to add a pocket with the scraps. Embroider the main character’s initials on it. That would tickle her.
But the plan unraveled before it hardly started. Today is the first of May and I’m frantically ripping seams. There is no April book. There is one revised-ten-times frayed Chapter One. And that’s it.
I know, I know. I was rushing. But I wanted a new book so bad. It was like ninth grade when I was dying for a Villager shirtwaist dress. I might as well have asked for a Dior ball gown. Then lo! our home ec sewing project was a Village-style shirtwaist dress! I picked out a tiny turquoise floral print I adored. In no time flat, I’d be sashaying down the halls of Woodson High in my new fitted-to-me dress, just like the cool rich girls.
A Dior ball gown could not have been more complicated. Invisible side-zipper, button-front placket, buttoned cuffs, Peter Pan collar, pintucks. Every day, I sewed feverishly on our class sewing machine. Every day, the vision of myself sashaying in turquoise grew dimmer, especially after I sewed the dress to the skirt I was wearing. I took the bungled mess home to my mother, who nursed it back to health, though it failed to thrive (my mother was an excellent seamstress, but not an exorcist).
Some of the girls’ finished dresses could not be distinguished from a real Villager, their pintucks were that straight, their zippers truly invisible. Mine wasn’t ready for the ragbag like my friend Sandy’s, but it radiated homemade. It didn’t really fit.
This book plan didn’t fit either. I can’t write a book in four weeks (though I used to, all the time). Especially since I had a meltdown every week, zigzag-stitching my terrible mood right over my hapless characters.
So I’ve gathered up the loose threads of that story and packed it in my bottom drawer with all the other half-finished projects. It’s May. I have the Iva sequel to revise. That will be like darning socks, lapwork I can do sitting in a comfortable chair with good light coming over my shoulder.
There’s a little iPad envy over here. All those smart-looking people with their paper-thin tablets, swooshing. Who wouldn’t want to swoosh and have magical things happen?
If I had an iPad, that one neat square-ish package would let me swoosh from e-mails to birdwatching apps to “Mad Men” to my grocery list to Anthropologie to Facebook to Etsy to my blog to an e-book . . . I could do this stuff on my phone, too, plus take cool pictures. (Don’t think I haven’t considered buying an iPhone just for the camera, Instagram and Hipstamatic.) I could do so many things. So so so so many things.
But not much work.
It’s the same with the Net on my clunky old desktop computer, really, only without the swooshing. I only mean to check my e-mail. Or Google a fact. Click, click, click. Fifty clicks later–book reviews, a meatloaf recipe, gorgeous turquoise shoes I couldn’t wear in a million years–I don’t know where I am or what I was looking for originally. I may have even blacked out.
Similar situation with the computer I only do my writing on. Type, type, type. That sentence looks good. No, wait. Fix the ending. No, move the back to the front. No, get rid of it. What about the paragraph above it? It’s looking a little puny.
Sit, sit, sit. At the end of the day I’ve advanced my book a whopping two sentences. My neck hurts. My butt died three hours ago. Some days the writing goes great–I barely notice the time flying by. But many days are like this one, tedious, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. I feel tethered to the keyboard. Switching to my laptop is no help. I’d still be prone to chopping and channeling.
My work asks me to write and write and write and if I sneak over to the Net to play a little, the work gets peeved. Something is wrong. Is it me? The work? The fact there’s no swooshing? An iPad is not the answer. If I got one, I’d be tethered to the iPad.
It’s the shape of my day. I’m giving too much time to my work (yes!). I’ve let it off the leash and it’s running wild and dragging me behind it. My favorite writing instructor, Heather Sellers, says writers need structure to contain their work, a shape. Instead of stating, “Today I’ll write chapter three (or else),” say, “Today I’ll go over my notes for chapter three and write the first scene.” Put a square around the work, let it know it has a fence to deal with.
Last week, after one of those endless keyboard sessions, I dreamed of a clipboard with a box-like thing beneath to hold my work. Do they even make such a critter any more? Yes, they do. Staples had mine in blue and in purple. Also one in aluminum that would make me feel like the UPS man (not a bad thing). Another with a calculator on the clip, though I didn’t like the idea of staring at numbers.
Inside there’s room for my tablet, my journal, my pen. That’s it. I can pick up this square-ish clipboard and carry it everywhere, iPad-like. To the sofa. To my favorite diner. With my trusty clipboard I can write by hand! I’m less inclined to fix and fiddle and more encouraged to follow one slow deliberate sentence with another and see where things go.
Plus I don’t have my entire book with me. Not all those computer files to flick back and forth between. Not all my three-ring binders or research folders. Only what I need to do the writing within the square.
My blue clipboard writing-box never needs charging. Doesn’t need updating. If I drop it, it’s not the end of the world. Yeah, I love my homemade iPad. Even if it doesn’t swoosh.
Saturday turned out to be a gorgeous, very special day for Iva Honeysuckle’s launch book signing at bbgb bookstore in Richmond. (bbgb stands for “bring back good books”–Iva and I are doing the best we can!).
Iva, look at the balloons. The exact blue and green on the cover of your book!
Iva: Do you think the bookstore people will let me have that bunch? I’d like to fly over Richmond! Hey, what’s that other book doing in the window?
Inside we were met by Jenesse Evertson and Jill Stefanovich, who between them have more energy than the Old Dominion Power Company. I was immediately impressed by titles you don’t see in regular bookstores . . . and some I’d never seen. I set out the plate of preacher cookies Iva and I had made and soon the children came.
Iva: All of ’em my age!
I read not one, but two chapters from the book, and those kids were the best listeners. They asked excellent questions. We got into a discussion about what time period Iva’s story is. I told them that it’s modern-day, but I never mention cellphones or computers because I didn’t want to date my story. It wasn’t that Iva’s family didn’t have those things–they just aren’t mentioned. Iva’s into the old things her great-grandfather left behind, like the 1930s National Geographic magazines I showed the kids, and the tire pressure record book.
Iva: Yeah, old stuff is way more cool. What’s a cellphone, anyway?
Then our day got even better. As I was reading, two people slipped in the door and stood quietly against the wall. I glanced over and saw blogger extraordinaire and fellow children’s author Jama Rattigan and her husband Len! Jama and Len came all the way from Centreville (at least a two-hour drive!) to celebrate Iva’s launch.
We haven’t laid eyes on each other in person since 2009, when we both attended the Kidlitosphere Blog Conference.
Iva: Miss Jama brought Cornelius, the cutest little bear. I wanted to take him home for Sweetlips, but Cornelius has an important job and besides, he’s Miss Jama’s best friend.
Cornelius gave Iva a present–this red-trimmed bag filled with treats from Hawaii, where Jama is from. I have to say, Hawaii’s macadamia nuts have it all over Virginia peanuts!
We couldn’t have had a better launch signing–excited kids, a store full of books and booksellers who became instant friends, the surprise of old friends, preacher cookies–
Iva: And macadamia nuts, the perfect discoverer food! Can I have those balloons now?
Iva, settle down. I think you might be getting spoiled from all this attention. You may be going away sooner than you think.
Iva: Good! On my next adventure, I want to go to Hawaii and discover a volcano!
Tomorrow Iva greets her public at bbgb bookstore in Richmond, Virginia. bbgb stands for “bring back good books,” a motto we can all get behind!
Iva and I will be there Saturday, April 21, from 1:00 p.m to 3:00 p.m. at 3100 Kensington Avenue, near the Museum of Fine Arts. Oh, and there will be preacher cookies!
Iva: Be there or be square!
You never know what you’ll see in diners around here! The minute we entered Frost Diner in Culpeper and I saw these re-enactors, I asked them if I could take pictures even before I ordered.
I was impressed by the young girl. You don’t find many girls doing this. Re-enacting is time-consuming and expensive (to get the authentic look). She was not wearing a hoop-skirt, which was correct. Girls did not wear them until they were a certain age. I was also impressed by how most of the men had cultivated a genuine look. The man in the kepi cap and goatee could have stepped from an daguerrotype.
Every December, the Battle of Fredericksburg is re-enacted. Years ago, I came upon “Lee,” “Jackson,” “Longstreet,” and “Stuart,” on their horses, re-creating the famous ride through the bombed streets of Fredericksburg after the battle. “Stuart” gallantly doffed his plumed hat to chat with me. I was thrilled.
These living history actors spend long days in the heat (their uniforms are wool), talking and demonstrating, reminding us that the war may have been orchestrated by famous generals, but it was fought and endured by ordinary people.
The last two weeks have been terrible. Breakdowns in grocery stores. Crying at 6:30 in the morning. Overeating. Not walking. Not exercising. Whining, weeping, wailing, and much gnashing of teeth. And why?
Because my novel is being rejected. Yes, even after over 100 books published, I still get rejections. My agent would tell me somebody has passed on a project and normally I’d go, Well, okay, and move on.
But not this novel.
Not the book I worked on for a year. Not the book that challenged me every day, every step of the way. Not the book that changed my life and there is no going back, not ever. How could they pass on this book? Pass! Like, turning down a piece of fruitcake? No, thanks. I’ll pass.
Not this book.
And so for two weeks I let these rejections take the real me hostage. Meals were marked with slammed pans and cabinets. The bed wasn’t made until ten or eleven or even noon. I stopped sleeping. My heartburn came back. My husband got tired of seeing my dreary face first thing in the morning and last thing at night.
Worse, I didn’t write. And that is the real source of the Spring of My Discontent. I don’t like being in the my-book-is-being-shopped-around place. I want to be in the Storyplace, where I can lose myself in my work and not worry about the rest of the world.
This weekend, while I was slamming and banging around, I heard “Boondocks” on the radio. It’s an older song by Little Big Town and I’d heard it before. (It could be my anthem). Near the end of the song the tempo picks up and the singers take different parts. On the video, everybody burns the house down. Nobody is mewling or cringing over rejected novels.
[I can’t embed the video, for some reason, mainly I don’t know how, but here’s the link.]
Suddenly I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I want to work like I’m burning the house down. Not care about rejections or what other people think. Work each day like it’s my last.
Burn the house down.
Apparently I’m only allowed to pitch one hissy fit a week. I’d already used up my meltdown allotment by Monday.
So yesterday I went on a lilac mission. We can’t get a lilac bush to grow in what General Braddock (French and Indian War, not Civil) called “Virginia jack clay.” But there’s an empty house down the road with the biggest lilac bush in the back yard just sitting there.
I packed my clippers and a plastic bag and brought home an armful of lilacs. My husband said I’m not only trespassing but stealing. I told him the lilac bush is neglected and needed pruning. The bush felt much better after I gave it a little trim.
It’s hard to stay in a rotten mood when you have lilacs in the kitchen. You walk by and the scent just reaches out and taps you on the shoulder. I want to wear lilac cologne every day. It just might improve my disposition.
Hey, everybody! It’s time for…
Iva’s big day! Today is the official launch date for Iva Honeysuckle Discovers the World (Disney Hyperion, April 2012).
Iva! Get on in here! Everybody wants to meet you.
Iva: Coming! The elastic busted on my discovery shorts. I stapled ’em shut.
Heaven: How’re you supposed to go to the bathroom?
Iva: I was hoping your invitation got lost in the mail.
Girls, you’re double-first cousins and best friends, sort of. No bathroom talk and no sniping. Iva, look, Connie Van Hoven sent you a congratulations present.
Iva: It’s a miniature gardenia bush. That’s so cool!
Heaven: You’ll have it killed in a week.
Iva: I will not–!
Iva, somebody wants their book signed.
Iva: My public awaits me. What a funny-looking kid.
Heaven: Does this party have a theme? All successful parties have a theme.
What do the decorations make you think of?
Heaven: Poor people. Don’t you have a digital camera? Everybody has one.
The theme is about discovering and exploring. I think it’s time for refreshments.
Iva: Oh boy! My favorite food in all the world, preacher cookies and cherry Kool-Aid.
Heaven: Gackkkkk! The Kool-Aid doesn’t have any sugar!
Iva: It’s an acquired taste. More for me.
Iva, do you know how preacher cookies got their name?
Iva: Yeah, Miz Compton, she’s the one who makes the cookies, she says–
Heaven: Don’t tell it! Make people buy the book if they want to find out.
Bye! Take a treat on your way out.
Iva: There’s that funny-looking kid again. Hey you, don’t peek at the ending. Did he pay for that book?
That went pretty well, considering those two will never get along. If you want to whip up a batch of Miz Compton’s Preacher Cookies, here’s the recipe:
1/2 cup butter or margarine…4 tbs. unsweetened cocoa powder…2 cups sugar…1/8 tsp. salt…3 cups quick cooking oats…1/2 cup peanut butter…1 tsp. vanilla extract. Mix butter, cocoa, sugar, milk, and salt in a saucepan. Boil for one minute. Stir in oatmeal, peanut butter, and vanilla. Drop by tablespoonfuls on waxed paper. Cool.
Iva: And here’s my special Kool-Aid recipe. Mix one package of unsweetened cherry Kool-Aid with water. Do NOT add sugar! Pour over ice cubes. Do NOT make a face! Guaranteed to put hair on your chest.
Well, there she is. If you’re brave enough, get a copy of Iva Honeysuckle Discovers the World. Guaranteed to put hair on your chest.
We’d only met once, at my house for lunch. Before that we’d only “talked” by e-mail. I first read about Donna in our local paper, a story on her family’s restaurant in Colonial Beach. The article used her photographs. From there I found Donna’s gorgeous blog and wrote to her. As it turns out, we live only a few miles from each other!
Over lunch we found so many shared connections (reading, junkin’), we wondered how we hadn’t bumped into each other in the last 15 years. Donna Hopkins, clearly my long-lost younger sister, suggested a girl’s day out. Donna is a professional photographer and she offered to give me pointers. I leaped at the opportunity.
It was windy but sunny-bright that day. Because we have the same priorities, we first went to a new-to-me Goodwill where Donna bought a dress she could have worn to a U.S.O. canteen and I nabbed a 1930s Universal sewing machine. By then we were feeling peckish so we had lunch at Goolrick’s, fountain cherry Cokes and chicken salad on toast.
We chose Chatham Manor for our photography session. Overlooking the Rappahannock River, Chatham commands Stafford Heights. Robert E. Lee proposed to his wife in the gardens. Years later, in 1862, he stood on the opposite shore as Burnside, who took the mansion as Union headquarters, shelled Fredericksburg.
I’ve always loved Chatham for its air of melancholy, sad statuary in slightly bedraggled gardens. Spring softens the edges of Chatham’s brutal history with wisps of wisteria and bouquets of forget-me-nots. We took pictures of cherry blossoms and bleeding heart and grape hyacinths poking through dead oak leaves. Thanks to Donna, the statue photo above and the bleeding heart shot below are straight out of my camera!
But as much as I love taking flower pictures, I felt that restless tug toward the unexpected. Something not so polished and pretty. We found it–a storage shed. Nothing like a bunch of rusted tools and oddments to get us excited. We weren’t exactly trespassing, an employee let us stay (after we’d barged in). Donna and I snapped away, giddy over measuring spoons leaning against patina-painted beadboard . . .
. . . a tangle of mousetraps . . .
. . . a family of rakes . . .
It was one of the best days ever! We decided to write about that day on our blogs. Here is Donna’s perspective. I’ve always been grateful to the blogosphere for a chance to keep a sketchbook of my life, to connect with like-minded people, and to find new friends, some literally just down the road.
Amazed we hit it off so quickly, Donna and I are still a little solicitous of each other (“What do you want to do?” “No, what do you want to do?”) There are heaps of places to go, things to do, pictures to take, cherry Cokes to sip. We have loads of time to settle into our new roles as almost-sisters.