The SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Conference: My Annual (Re)Treat

Back in 2013 or 2014, a writer friend suggested that I join SCBWI, the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators. I don’t remember exactly what went through my mind, but it probably went something like this: That sounds so established. That’s for real writers, and I’m not sure that I’m enough.

I’m so glad that my friend brought SCBWI to my attention (Thanks, Sue!) and that I joined. As it turns out, members are writers and illustrators on every point of the publishing spectrum, from those who’ve published dozens of books to those who are unpublished. There’s a place for every writer who is passionate about writing and illustrating (and reading) children’s books. And yes, if you write or illustrate, then you are real and you are enough.

One of the things that I most love about SCBWI are the conferences which are skillfully organized by teams of children’s writers and illustrators. I’ve been attending the annual Mid-Atlantic Conference since 2014. Each one has been a different experience, depending on where I am in my writing life, who’s on faculty, and whom I happen to meet. But I always walk away with new knowledge, connections, and inspiration. Always.

Am I sounding like an ad for SCBWI? Really, I don’t enjoy being a saleswoman. I find self-promotion hard. I give away too many copies of my book. And I’m that mom who avoids fundraisers. If I’m enthusiastic about something, it’s only because I believe in it. (Like, I will spread the word when my daughter is selling Girl Scout cookies. Want any come January?)

Conferences are a good fit for me, because I enjoy learning and connecting with people in person. And who doesn’t love inspiration? Besides, I savor the get-away from life and a hotel room all to myself.

When I attended my first Mid-Atlantic Conference in 2014, I was so excited that I could barely sleep the night before. And when day came, I felt that I had met My People. People who understood the deep desire to create books for kids, were working hard to make that happen, and were helping each other along the winding road.

When I attended my fifth Mid-Atlantic Conference a couple of weekends ago, I felt all the more that I was with my people. People who understood what it feels like to have work rejected by editors and agents. People who keep going despite (and maybe even partly because of) the rejections. People who still have the deep desire, who are still working hard, who are still helping each other.

Why, this conference has become so much like a second home that… the morning of the conference, I grabbed my tote bag, stepped out into the hallway, and realized that… I still had my slippers on! Okay, maybe that was just absentmindedness at work, but in any case, this conference has become a writing home-base. I did change out of my slippers, by the way.

Over the course of two days, I met new people and hugged old friends. I filled up my notebook with so many craft ideas and inspirational words from writers, illustrators, editors, and agents who gave speeches, sat on panels, and taught workshops. I will, as I have in the past, turn back the pages to those notes.

Pat Cummings leading her workshop, “The Plot Thins: Getting Brutal, Getting Published… How Harsh Self-Editing Can Turn Unsold Projects Into Marketable Stories”

The wise and wonderful Pat Cummings gave the keynote address and led a three-hour workshop. Her words, especially, have continued to resonate:

The bottom line is do it. If you love it, put it down on paper. You’re 90% there. Somebody else will love it, too.” – Pat Cummings

And…

If you won the lottery today, would you still be doing it?” – Pat Cummings

And…

How long are you going to be on the planet?” – Pat Cummings

This year’s conference felt extra special to me. Ever since, I’ve tried to put my finger on why. It was likely due to several factors including the very lovely faculty and my own comfort level. More than anything, though, I picked up on an particularly kind, gentle vibe. I wonder if others who attended felt it, too.

Given the divisive state of this country, I appreciated all the more the haven that this conference is. I took solace in connecting with others who believe in the power of books to build bridges between people. During a time when I’m grieving for our country (and our world), it was healing to be in the presence of a people who are trying to birth beautiful books for our greatest hope: children.

I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference. I hope to see some of you there next October!

Attendees browsing the faculty’s books

Until we meet again,

Amy

A Non-Bloggy Post

When I started this blog one-and-a-half years ago, I didn’t know what I’d write about or how often I’d post. I’ve taken things day by day, and as it’s turned out, I’ve posted once a month about something that has resonated with me that month (save for the planned interviews which have also resonated!). This has worked well for me.

Until now. As September has rolled along, I’ve wished that something would stand up and say, “Blog about ME!” But nothing has spoken. For sure, national news has been very loud and consuming, and I’ve had a hard time hearing much else. Maybe I haven’t been listening carefully enough, because I know there’s got to be inspiration, even there .

In general, though, I’ve not been without inspiration this month. I’ve had plenty for two writing projects (one historical fiction and the other narrative non-fiction) that I hope will ultimately add some positive energy to our world. I wish I could share more than that, but I can’t; that’s the way this business goes. If things pan out, I’ll be more than happy to blog about them down the road.

Maybe next month, blog worthy inspiration will strike. Or maybe, I’ll change my strategy and not wait for inspiration. Or yet again, maybe I’ll change what has become a once-a-month goal. I’ll be thinking on this.

In any case, I wanted to touch base before we turn the calendar to October. Wishing you a wonderful fall — filled with inspiration!

Until we meet again,

Amy

All of Those Hats!

From Caps For Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina

When I was child, I assumed that I’d have life all figured out by now. I’d be set and coast into retirement. Life would be simple at this point, because I’d no longer be searching and striving. I’d have my family and home and career. The End.

Not!

Well, in some ways, life is simpler than it was at earlier stages. But in other ways, it’s more complicated.

First, I now know that each of those “things” – family, home, career — requires a great deal of time and energy to maintain and grow. Yep, they don’t just happen on their own.

Second, each calls for a different hat. A different set of skills and responsibilities.

Third, those hats change in shape as needs and demands change.

I can’t think of a month in my life when I’ve felt more acutely the wearing – and juggling — of multiple hats. And by “hat,” I don’t mean going through the motions. Quite the opposite, I mean investing my heart.

In May, I’ve been:

  • a student of writing.
Soaking up the expertise of Editor Alyson Heller at the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Picture Book Retreat.
  • a writer.
Writing at home — oh Howie, of all places to rest your sweet head.
  • a presenter.
Giving an inservice based on my book at my awesome local public library.
  • a student of education.
Updating my teaching certification; studying in my car while my daughter is doing volunteer work.
  • a mom.
Listening to my daughter’s voice recital, 1 of 5 musical performances my daughters took part in this month.

I’ve worn additional hats, but I’ll stop there.

Each hat has sub-hats. OK, I’m taking this metaphor way too far, but you know what I mean, right? Being a parent isn’t just about watching your kids’ performances. Being a writer isn’t just about sitting at a computer.

On the one hand, all of these hats are wonderful. Each is a teacher — no matter the role, I consider myself a student, still learning. Every day. It’s a privilege, really.

On the other hand, managing all of these hats can be overwhelming, so I’ve gone back repeatedly to these three mantras:

1)  I can’t do it all (at least not all at once). I have to let some stuff go. Hence, this symbolizes what my house looks like. Inside and out.

And this is what dinner sometimes looks like. More and more.

2) I can’t do it alone. When I went on the writer’s retreat, my husband was occupied a good part of the time with graduation weekend at UVA where he teaches. So two friends graciously helped by transporting our girls to places.

3) I’m doing the best that I can. And that’s good enough.

I see it on social media… and I hear it from friends and family in real time… and I just feel it in our country: we are all so busy.

You may wear more or less hats; you may have more or less support. Whatever your case:

Now, I’m off to take a walk in my neighborhood. I hope you’ll take a breather, too!

Until we meet again,

Amy

Rejections: A Reason to Keep Going

Photo via visualhunt.com

A few years ago, when my younger daughter was nine years old, we were chatting about my writing and publishing goals. She said matter-of-factly:

Just remember, Mom, you have a very rocky road ahead of you. It took Kate DiCamillo 473 tries before she got BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE published.”

Oh, how funny to hear that from a kid!

But yeah. A very sobering fact. Kate DiCamillo had shared this whopping number at the Virginia Festival of the Book the previous year at a presentation to local students.

If it had taken the inimitable Kate DiCamillo 473 tries, oh my oh my, how many would it take me?

******

I started sending out manuscripts to agents and editors almost one year ago. For the previous few years, I’d been building my writing life to get to the point of submitting. Hitting “Send” was another leap, and the ultimate one.

I can now say, “Fourteen rejections down.” Hopefully, not 459 to go.

But who knows? Maybe less. Maybe more. Only time will tell.

The following quote, attributed to Katherine Paterson, sums up the writing life:

To write, your heart has to be absolutely tender, and you have to have the skin of a rhinoceros.”

I have the tender heart. I’m growing a thicker skin.

The first few rejections were a tough reality to face. Since then, each rejection has been disappointing, no doubt. But I’m at a point where I see rejection as par for the course. I try my best with each submission and then send it off, hoping for an acceptance but knowing that a rejection will most likely appear in my inbox. It’s a fine line to walk.

Some rejections have come in the form of silence. The reality is that agents and editors are overloaded with queries and other responsibilities, and they simply can’t respond to every query. I do understand.

Some rejections have come in the form of a standard email. I’ve appreciated this sense of closure. Here are a few lines from some of those:

  • “It’s not quite right for my list.”
  • “I don’t think this one is quite right for me right now.”
  • “I don’t think I’m the right agent for this particular project.”

Some rejections have come in the form of a more personalized email. These are the ones that have encouraged me to press on. Here are a few lines from some of those:

  • “You are a wonderful writer with a delightful sense of humor.”
  • “It’s beautiful and bold.”
  • “I REALLY enjoyed your manuscript.”

Not all rejections are equal. There are many factors that need to be in place for an editor to acquire a manuscript or an agent to represent a writer. It’s kind of magical when it happens.

******

Maybe some of the agents and editors I’ve queried don’t think I have what it takes as a writer. I really don’t know. Whatever the case, I’m not taking rejection as a statement about me as a writer. I’m taking it as a statement about that particular manuscript: that it wasn’t the best fit for them for some reason(s).

I’ve come to see my role as one of matchmaker: given the information I have about an agent’s or editor’s preferences, do I have a manuscript on my laptop that might resonate with her? Even if a manuscript does end up resonating, there may be reasons that she chooses not to or can’t acquire/represent it.

The more I send out there, as thoughtfully as I can, the better my chances of making a match. At the time of this post, I have six manuscripts out on submission. Another one is going out on Monday. I have a manuscript that I’m revising. And many more that I’m planning to revise. (Don’t even get me started on new stories that I want to write!)

I don’t exactly feel like throwing a party when I receive a rejection (okay, maybe a little pity party). But to me, a rejection means that I’ve tried hard. And I feel good about that part. So, what do I do? I take a long look at the manuscript, revise as needed, and send it back out.

I may need to try many, Many, MANY more times. In fact, I know I will. Rejection is a fact of life for a writer, even those who have multiple books published.

Waiting is another fact of life. Submission guidelines have stated anywhere between four weeks to six months for a response or an assumption of rejection. What do I do in the meantime? Write. Revise. Repeat.

So, Kate DiCamillo’s 473 tries. That’s a very rocky road, for sure. But it’s also an incredible story about hard work, persistence, and patience. And hope. I, for one, am very glad that she kept going.

Thanks for hopping onto my road for a bit. And if you’re following your dream (whatever it may be), I wish you the very best of luck! I’ll see you along the way.

Until we meet again,

Amy

Two Different (But Connected) Worlds: Writing One Book and Building a Writing Career

During the 2013-2014 school year, I started to dip my toes back into the children’s book world.

I had published one book in 2006. So, I had gone through the process of researching, writing, revising, promoting, and sharing a book. I had learned an awful lot and, to this day, I draw from that amazing experience.

But I’d been out of the kidlit world for several years. Plus, picture books and the industry, not to mention the online world, had changed a great deal during the intervening years.

I felt that I was starting all over again.

Or really, just starting.

In 2006, I didn’t see myself as part of the kidlit world. I’m not sure I even knew there was a kidlit world!

For me, it was all about that one project, a beloved family project: writing a story to the best of my ability and working with my publisher to put out the best book we could. It was still a substantial undertaking, but for me, it was a self-contained world.

I was completely oblivious to writing organizations, critique groups, online presence, networking, agents… even books lists and awards. All of these were the furthest things from my mind. And for my purposes back then, that worked just fine.

It was a blissful existence.

******

Fast-forward to the 2013-2014 school year. My kids were growing up. They were pretty much done with picture books, but I wasn’t. I kept borrowing them from the library; I kept reading them in bookstores.

Duh! I wanted to write more books. In fact, I had already started writing one the previous year.

I joined SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), an international organization. I joined WriterHouse, a local organization. These were big steps — to identify myself as a writer, even though I didn’t completely believe it.

I subscribed to writing blogs, bought craft books, borrowed stacks of picture books. And I devoured them.

That March, I attended the VA Festival of the Book, right here in Charlottesville, as I had before. But that year I went with the lens of a writer.

That May, I took a workshop at WriterHouse with author Kathy Erskine – my first ever creative writing workshop.

Still, I hadn’t really committed to doing this. Writing. Trying to publish more books. And building a writing career.

******

Then that July, I attended a local SCBWI gathering led by author Anne Marie Pace. At one point, she asked attendees to share their goals. My goals had crystalized sometime between Kathy’s workshop and Anne Marie’s gathering. These goals had been hanging out in my head, gathering courage.

When it was my turn, I said, “Join or start a critique group, build a website, and then query agents.”

There! I said it. To the whole group. I was now officially accountable, at least to myself.

And guess what? I’ve been doing it…

I started that critique group the next month. And I’ve been writing regularly ever since.

I built that website. Or rather my awesome designer Ashley Parkin built it with input from me.

I started to query agents and editors last April. (More on this in a future post.)

I’ve attended writing gatherings, workshops, classes, and conferences.

I even joined social media and started blogging. Who, ME?

Each of these steps over the past few years has made me stretch in new directions. Some of that stretching has been exhilarating. And some of it has been painful. All of it has taken some combination of courage, patience, and commitment (and chocolate).

All of it has made me grow.

I still have only one book, but I’m a different writer now. And I’ll continue to grow. The growth is never-ending which, in my book, is a pretty cool thing.

******

So, writing one book, and building a writing career – these processes have been connected, of course. And they’ve both been incredible. But they’ve been different.

Perhaps the biggest difference, other than the obvious ones of scope and intention, has been the level of initiative and independence required of me.

While working on A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, I had the guidance of my wonderful editor, Dana Goldberg (and the support of the team at Children’s Book Press, now an imprint of Lee & Low). We had a plan and, together, we tackled it.

Now, I’m the captain of my own team-of-one. As it should be, it’s on me to build this career.

Thankfully, I can call on support from various sources: my critique group, individuals in the kidlit world, my family, my friends. The fabulous folks at Lee & Low continue to help promote my book. I value all of this greatly, and I couldn’t do it alone.

But, of course, I hope to work with an editor again one day (and dare I say, an agent). There’s nothing like two (or more) people working together closely to bring a book into the world.

So, I’m digging deep and doing what I need to do. It’s a different kind of proud than holding a published book, but I’m proud nonetheless.

Because I’m sending my heart out there into slush piles. And because I’m trying.

If you’re also following a dream, keep at it! I’ll be right there with you.

Until we meet again,

Amy

Interview with Author Marc Boston

Marc Boston on Skyline Drive near his home in Charlottesville

When I registered for a writing workshop with Kathy Erskine in May 2014, I knew I was in for a wonderful writing experience. I had also been hoping to find other children’s writers who might want to form a critique group. Lucky for me, Marc Boston was also in the workshop!

At one point, Kathy asked for volunteers to read aloud manuscripts. Marc volunteered. Based on the smiles and laughter in the room, I think it’s safe to say that everyone was delighted by his rhyming picture book manuscript.

Well, Marc and I formed that critique group (along with other writers). He’s been cranking out the manuscripts and has been a great support to me on my own writing journey.

And that picture book manuscript? Marc ended up self-publishing it as The Girl Who Carried Too Much Stuff in October 2015.

With Marc at his book launch for The Girl Who Carried Too Much Stuff in Charlottesville

In June 2017 Marc self-published his second delightful picture book, What About Me?. Like his first book, this one is charmingly illustrated by Annie Wilkinson.

Marc with family and friends at his book launch for What About Me? in Kansas City

Amy: Hey, Marc! Congratulations on the publication of What About Me? Tell us a bit about it.

Marc: Hey there, Amy! Thank you, and thanks for inviting me to stop by to have this conversation with you. In the story, the nameless main character is vying for the attention of her two older sisters, who seem oblivious to her appeal for recognition. They aren’t being mean; they are just in their own little worlds. 

As the story progresses, our lead character must come to understand that with a little creativity and imagination, she can learn to be her own best friend. She learns that she doesn’t need to seek validation outside of herself, and that it is ultimately up to her to make herself happy. This story is an attempt to explore the theme of self-empowerment, which is truly a universal theme that folks of all ages can embrace.

Amy: Will you share your inspiration for your books?

Marc: Many of the stories I’ve written are based on the interactions, antics, and shenanigans I witness my three elementary age daughters engaging in during their everyday lives. I notice their interesting or quirky behaviors such as my middle daughter Delaney’s old habit of needing to carry many of her possessions around the house and whenever we’d leave. This particularly priceless practice of hers sparked the idea for my first book, The Girl Who Carried Too Much Stuff. 

I also enjoy listening to the funny things that they say, and I attempt to use that as writing material. I love to remain aware of what they are doing around me because I feel that there are so many treasures that can be mined from their unaffected, authentic way of being. I casually and surreptitiously observe all of this and spin those situations into fun tales. I’m basically a fly on the wall reporting on their day-to-day lives without their permission…hopefully they don’t sue me one day. 🙂

What About Me? is based on my youngest daughter, Journey, and her perceived interactions with her two older sisters. Perceived in that even though the stories are based on them, the stories are told through the lens of my perspective. All three of my girls get along splendidly, however there are those occasions when I notice that the older two are off engaging in some little household adventure, while Journey is off somewhere doing something solo. 

Most of the time Journey seems content, but there are those times when I feel like she’s been purposely left behind because she’s just not old enough yet to keep up. After witnessing several of these instances, I began to wonder how she might feel about being treated like a third wheel. Maybe she doesn’t mind it at all, but I thought that this episode in their lives would make a great story. So I sat down and wrote What About Me?

Marc with his daughters at Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg, VA

Amy: How was the experience publishing your second picture book?

Marc: I am excited to have recently published my second book. I experienced a much easier time around publishing the new book than my first book, The Girl Who Carried Too Much Stuff. The first book was almost four years in the making. I wrote the story but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it, because I didn’t know much about the publishing world in general. 

Once I performed a bit of research, I decided that I wished to self-publish the book as opposed to seeking traditional publishing. I set out down the road to self-publish, but I had almost no idea what I was doing at first. I learned through trial and error with the help of some very supportive artists and professionals. This time around I didn’t feel like a rookie; I didn’t have to wonder about whether to self-publish as I had my personal publishing apparatus in place already, so to speak. So this time it felt like a rather painless process. 

Amy: Why did you decide to self-publish your first book?

Marc: Probably because I’m a little crazy. 🙂 Mostly it’s because I’m a bit of a rebel. I’ve never fit completely in with many social standards. For example, I was one of the first stay-at-home dads that I’d ever known 11 years ago, and now we are more common place. 

I chose to go into self-publishing because first of all, I didn’t want to wait to be picked. I chose to pick myself! I feel like I have something to say through the stories I tell, and I didn’t want to have to wait to tell them. When I was ready to follow my goal of becoming a children’s book writer, I knew it; and I didn’t want to wait any longer. I was ready to just go for it with a sort of against-all-odds attitude. 

I worked through my initial fear and attempted to just focus on putting out my best work, allowing the chips to fall where they may. Today’s publishing world is so different than in the past that it afforded me the opportunity to do this. Not to mention, my first book was like my baby and I didn’t want to give her away to the traditional publishing world to raise. That’s the stay-at-home dad coming out in me.

…my first book was like my baby and I didn’t want to give her away to the traditional publishing world to raise. That’s the stay-at-home dad coming out in me.” — Marc Boston

Amy: Do you see yourself continuing to self-publish or do you see pursuing traditional publishing at some point?

Marc: This is a question I’ve wrestled with from the very beginning, before I made the informed decision to self-publish. Which way should I go? I certainly have nothing against pursuing traditional publishing. There is something to be said about having a team of professionals to help a relative newcomer like me with the process. Being new to the game, it would be nice to have an agent or publisher hold my hand as I continue to develop and grow in this industry. And I’m certain that the education I would receive from such a partnership would be invaluable. One of the biggest issues I’ve had with self-publishing has been the marketing, promotion, and distribution. So yes, I am truly open to the idea of receiving some assistance to further the career I’m working to firmly establish.

Amy: There are so many writers looking to publish picture books. What do you feel sets your writing apart?

Marc: There are so many reading choices out there, so what would make someone want to choose one of my stories to read? When a writer is striving to be heard, it’s easy to feel lost in the shuffle. During these times I try to remember that I have something to contribute as well. With my writing, I attempt to entertain, educate, and inspire. These attributes are common in all of my stories. Part of what I hope makes my writing entertaining is my rhyme style. It is definitely what gives my work its flavor. I also don’t shy away from using words that may be above a certain reader’s grade level, and after reading my stories I want you to feel something. I try to write thought-provoking pieces.

Amy: What threads all of your stories together?

Marc: The need to write stories that contain universal themes that all people can relate to. No matter how old or young you happen to be. And the strong desire to present people of color as the lead characters in my books.

Marc with family and friends on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville

Amy: Why is it important to you to send main characters of color out into the world?

Marc: Because there is a whole segment of people out there who feel left out, forgotten, invisible. Diverse books help to remind the world there is more than one story to be told, more than one perspective, more than one culture. And, diversity is normal! You don’t only see one race or one gender when we leave our homes. There are many different types of people, with various positions and points of view. Diversity is a beautiful thing; it should be embraced, and reflected in the books we read. 

Diversity is a beautiful thing; it should be embraced, and reflected in the books we read.” — Marc Boston

Amy: What has surprised you about the writer’s life?

Marc: (1) How much better I feel when I’m writing. If I don’t write I don’t feel right. (2) How many other people wish to also write books and articles. I can’t tell you how many people have solicited advice about how to write and how to publish, and have asked if I would critique their work since they found out that I published a couple of books. And I’m thrilled to be of service in that way.

If I don’t write, I don’t feel right.” – Marc Boston

Amy: What has been the most rewarding part about the writer’s life?

Marc: One of the most rewarding things about the writer’s life is being able to write. To start with a blank page and have a story come together the way you wish is great. To publish a book and have it accepted to the VA Festival of the Book is an amazing feeling. To have an article published in a magazine is very rewarding. To have someone actually ask your advice about writing, because they believe that you may be an authority on the subject, is fantastic. For someone to say that they really love your work is worth all the effort.  

Amy: What has been the most challenging part about the writer’s life?

Marc: Writing can be a lonely pursuit. Often I wonder if anyone cares about the work I put out. The vulnerable feeling of putting yourself out there to potentially be judged by others can be nerve-racking. Am I good enough to even call myself a writer? Sometimes it’s really hard to produce something you feel is worthy enough to present to the world, and after you do, the insecure feelings over the quality of your work are always there.

Some writers wish to be JK Rawlings or John Grisham or Walter Mosley, and if you aren’t that it feels as if you have to fight off the stigma of this being “just” a hobby. There are certain expectations you put on yourself as a writer and the perceived expectations of others that seem to be ever-present. The only thing I can do about that is to put out the best content I can, and let the work speak for itself. Because it isn’t about me, it’s about the work. 

Amy: What other stories are you working on these days?

Marc: The beauty of being in a wonderful writing critique group like ImagineInk is that we usually submit new material to one another for review every three weeks. Without my writing crew, I probably wouldn’t write as much as I do. You all have been holding me accountable for the past three years. So I’m always working on something new. I have a picture book story I’m working on now that touches on childhood poverty, and I just wrapped up an article I wrote for a local magazine that explains how my daughters often provide fodder for my stories.

Amy: What other interests do you have besides writing? What else fills your days?

Marc: When I’m not writing, I’m usually reading. I’m an avid reader who loves the Easy Rawlins mysteries by Walter Mosley. I’m very much into spiritual books like those from Marianne Williamson and also Eckhart Tolle. I try to stay fit by running a mile a day, and I have a daily meditation practice. I also enjoy watching old movies, listening to classic hip-hop, taking walks, cooking, and spending time with my family traveling or just being silly with them around the house. 

Marc with his daughters at Sesquicentennial Park in Columbia, SC

Amy: Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?

Marc: I just want to thank you, Amy, for giving me this opportunity to chat with you. I’d also like to encourage everyone to continue to support diverse books, and to always strive to live as fearlessly and authentically as possible. Peace & Blessings.

Amy: Thanks so much for stopping by, Marc. It’s been fun to learn more about what makes you tick. I look forward to your next writing group submission. See you soon!

And thank YOU for stopping by. Marc’s books are available at http://www.marcboston.com/. 

If you’re local, Marc and I will both be at the Charlottesville Book Fair on Saturday, November 18 from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. at CitySpace on the Downtown Mall. Please come say hey to over 40 local authors!

Until we meet again,

Amy

A Little Birdie Told Me: On Writing, Parenting, and Living

via http://www.quotesvalley.com

Until this year, my favorite writing place was my 20-year-old sofa, tucked away in my bedroom. It’s comfy and embracing, as if cheering, “You’ve been here before. Many times. You can do this writing thing!”

But it became impractical to keep my piles of books and other writing materials on the bedroom floor. So this past winter, I ventured out to the dining room, a sunny room with an empty tabletop. And a big window that allows me to look out onto grass and trees and sky. It has turned out to be the perfect spot, offering lovely surprises and unexpected lessons along the way.

One blue-sky morning in late March, I was sitting at the table when I heard a gentle rattling at the front door. I looked up to see my cats, Wall-E and Howie, already sitting in the foyer and staring at the backside of the door. I glanced out the window and saw nothing unusual. I resumed work until the rattling and my cats returned.

This cycle continued a few times until I noticed a small brown bird, carrying a leafy twig in its mouth, zip past the window toward the front door. It was the closest thing to a peace dove that I’d probably ever see, and the fleeting sight was magical.

Artwork by Robert H Tai

OH! Could the bird be building a nest on the wreath? I hurried out the back door to take a look. When I was about 15 feet from the front door, the bird startled and flew away to the nearest tree, an oak tree in front of the dining room.

The next time I heard the rattling, I peeked out the window. Yay! A nest in the making! This city girl posted the breaking news on Facebook: Momma bird was building a nest! To lay eggs in! And there would be teeny tiny birdies!

3/28/17: the beginnings of a nest at the top of the wreath

I was in awe of momma bird’s brilliant idea to build a nest on a wreath (camouflaged!) under the porch roof (protected!); her expert skills in crafting such a beautiful and sturdy nest; her intense focus and abiding devotion. I was in awe of the miracle of life, with its newness and hope, unfolding at my front door.

How did I live on 2 acres of land for 15 years and reach age 50 without witnessing this? And yet, how lucky I felt to still have so much of life to see.

I went out of town to NYC for a writing conference. When I returned, I found five eggs! Perfect eggs. Gorgeous eggs. My husband Rob and I did research and determined that these were House Finches.

4/11/17: five babies-to-be

Well, that was it for the front door. No more using it for the whole family. No more visitors at the front door. I posted this sign:

I asked visitors in advance to come to the back door. Whenever an unexpected visitor came to the front door, poor momma bird fled to the oak tree. No doubt she was worried about her eggs, but what else could she do? She had to take care of herself, too. And take good care she did — of herself and her eggs. Before long… Happy Birthday!

4/28/17: newborns

The babies thrived. I could tell from all of the poop! It was not a pleasant sight, but poop was part of the package (and seemed to act as an adhesive between the nest and the door). Be forewarned: as the birds grew, so did their poop!

By early May, I noticed that momma bird had a companion in the oak tree. He was brown with red markings; poppa bird, I assumed! They chirped and flitted about in the branches, moving between the tree and the nest where they fussed over their babies.

5/7/17: almost ready to take flight

One morning momma and poppa birds were particularly chirpy and active. I heard what I thought was a mixture of excitement and nervousness. Could this be the day for their babies to take flight? It was — for one!

5/8/17: and then there were four

During the next two days, whenever I heard a flurry of activity, I checked the nest.

In the end, what remained was an empty nest and a whole lot of poop. And quiet. Momma and poppa birds had moved out of the oak tree.

In the days following their departure, I missed the cheerful sounds and the sight of the sweet family. I was surprised by how much joy the entire process had brought to me. And equally surprised by how wistful I felt after the birds had left. But then, when something brings you joy, isn’t it natural to feel its absence?

Yes, I was experiencing empty nest syndrome.

As the babies departed, I sent the photos to Rob. In response to one photo, he emailed back:

“Wow! But they’ll never call and never write. Sigh.”

I think this was his way of saying that he’d miss them, too. I shared his email with our 11-year-old daughter Miya who commented, “But they can Tweet.”

Ah, I can always count on these two for a little levity!

Still, why was I so moved by the birds? Other than allowing me to witness their amazing process, the birds also spoke to me as a writer and as a mom.

Building a writing career – building each story – is a process. And raising a child is a process. In the end, after doing the best we can, we send each manuscript and each child out into the world. We hope the world will be kind to them; we hope they’ll have good luck. And this is the case for whatever we invest our hearts into and then have the courage to let go of.

I’m a writer who has just started the process of querying literary agents and sending them manuscripts. It’s exciting, and it’s hard. Realistically, I’ll receive many rejections, and they’ll sting. But as they roll in, I’ll continue to nurture my manuscripts before sending them out again… and again… and again. And, hopefully, one day an agent will think that one of them is ready.

I’m a mom who has two kids wrapping up another school year: 9th grade and 5th grade. Part of me wishes I could keep them in those sweet elementary school years forever. But even if I could I wouldn’t, because moving on means that they’re privileged with life and growth. They’re still in my nest, but the reality is that they’re already leaving it on a daily basis, growing more independent; and one day they’ll leave for good when they’re ready.

Momma and poppa birds had but one month, filled with quick and numerous transitions, to spend with their babies. Their abbreviated cycle of life seems to make each moment that much more important and their process that much more obvious. Here’s what the birds shared with me:

  • Pick a good spot.
  • Build a strong foundation.
  • Focus and work hard.
  • Take care of others (and yourself).
  • Embrace the joyful moments and the process.
  • Celebrate!
  • Let go.

Maybe the babies were afraid to fly, or maybe not. Maybe their parents were afraid to see them fly, or maybe not. Maybe the babies and their parents miss each other, or maybe not. Whatever the case, they all did what they needed to do. And that to me is beautiful: that they did what they needed to do.

My family and I are back to using the front door. I’ve cleaned up the poop. But I’ll keep the wreath and nest up in case another momma bird (maybe even the same one or one of her grown babies) finds it and makes it home. It would be my privilege.

My move from the old sofa to the dining room was practical. But it’s turned out to be instructive and inspiring, too. I’m glad that I’ve been able to look out the window to see new sights. In a way, the window has also served as a mirror, reflecting back those new sights into deeper insights. Some days I may still choose to sit on my comfy old sofa and write. But for the most part, I think I’ll stay put at the dining room table.

Until we meet again,

Amy

Remembering The Very Beginning

Where to begin a blog?

As I was putting together my website, I thought long and hard about this question.

I floundered.

Me floundering in my yard

I was no Maria.

Maria twirling on a mountain top

It’s not that I didn’t have ideas. Rather, I was experiencing an avalanche of them. (I’m not sure what’s up with the mountain theme. Maybe because I live near the Blue Ridge Mountains?)

As is often the case when I’m stuck, words managed to get me un-stuck. You guessed it — Maria from the Sound of Music (my all-time favorite musical film) set me straight.

Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.

Photo via Visual Hunt

I’m a writer, so when did I first start writing? I mean: outside of school assignments, on my own, without being told to. Just because.

That sounds like an easy one to answer, right? For some writers, definitely. But not for me.

I wasn’t a kid who grew up writing many stories or poems. Not like my 9th grader who knew as a 3rd grader that she wanted to become an author and hasn’t stopped writing.

So once again, I thought. And I came up empty-handed. My once sharp memory had grown fuzzier with motherhood and age, but really? There had to be a beginning whether it was in childhood or adolescence or in college or…

That question continued to follow me around: When did I first start writing?

It felt deep-rooted — this need, this desire to put words down on paper. Where did this come from? Why did this feel natural? Why did this feel GOOD?

Then I remembered. The answer shone past the cobwebs in my mind. And the answer was both unexpected (because it was not creative in nature) and obvious (because it was an integral part of my life). It was like “Huh?” and “Duh…” and “Aha!” all at once.

One day when I was nine years old, I (alone) accompanied my mom to our local Waldbaum’s on Staten Island. Being one of four kids — the fifth hadn’t come along yet — this supermarket time was nothing short of a treat.

At one point, I visited my favorite aisle. Not the one with all the candy or ice cream. Rather, the one with all the cool stationary and pens — so neatly packaged, so full of possibility…

Then I spotted it just to my left on the bottom row: a little red diary. Gasp.

Yes, it was there in that aisle of Waldbaum’s, of all places, that I first remember feeling moved to write. It was as if I developed tunnel vision, and all sound disappeared. It was just the diary and me. Meant to be.

I was not a child who asked for much, so my mom added it to the week’s groceries. (I learned a few years ago that my mom had kept a childhood diary during and after her Japanese American internment years. No wonder she understood that wish to put down words in a sacred place.)

Every time I sat down to write in my diary, I experienced that Waldbaum’s Effect: no sights or sounds beyond my diary, pen, and voice in my head. Living in a big, hectic household with four brothers, this was my quiet, peaceful place.

It was a place I kept wanting to revisit. A memory box for my day’s activities. A safe space to express my feelings and thoughts. A means to connect with myself and to make meaning out of life.

Each day meant a blank, brand new page. And a new beginning.

Neither my mom nor I knew, back in Waldbaum’s, that my little red diary would become the first of ten consecutive diaries. Yes, I wrote nearly every day for ten years: 3,650 entries. Yowza!

Down the road, maybe I’ll take a long retreat and read those old diaries. Part of me would like to leave the past in the past. After all, what teenage angst might I find scrawled across those pages? Would I like the person I find?

Burn them? Shred them? Over the years, these thoughts have crossed my mind, but the writer in me is now glad that I didn’t. Talk about getting into the head of a child and teenager.

Though I didn’t know it back then, those diary entries gave me daily practice in telling stories and writing from the heart. They got me writing.

And that was a very good place to start.

On that note… So Long, Farewell.

Until we meet again,

Amy

P.S. What prompted you to first start writing? I’d love to hear your story! Let me know in a comment below.

Taking Risks in Writing and in Life

 

welcomegarden
Photo via visualhunt.com

Welcome to my first blog post! How exciting for me! But also…

…kind of nerve-racking. You see, I lead a pretty quiet life. And I don’t tend to seek the spotlight. Frankly, there’s a lot about being online that runs counter to my nature and upbringing.

So. Why. Blog?

Believe me, I asked myself that question repeatedly as my designer and I worked on my site. What, am I crazy? Putting myself out there? For anyone to see? The thought was/is enough to make me want to cuddle up with my cat and ditch the whole plan.

Just Wall-E and Me

I just joined Facebook last spring, my first step into the social media world. There were lots of reasons why I’d avoided it: time, privacy, trolls. In the end, even though it is a mixed bag, I’m glad to be there. Still, I pause nearly every time before I push the “Post” button.

That’s one side of the coin.

The other side is that I LOVE connecting with people. I live to find common ground. And I’ll talk to just about anyone. Ask my kids who are forced to stand there as I chat with people — familiar and new — at their schools, in stores, at the library, on the street.

I also live to write. I’ve been a diary/journal writer since I was a kid. A blog is, after all, a web log, isn’t it?

One of my childhood diaries

What’s the big deal, then? That brings me back to the other side of the coin.

The thing is I have to be real. That’s also part of my deal. By blogging in an open and honest way, I’m allowing myself to be vulnerable which in a face-to-face, back-and-forth conversation feels just fine. More than just fine! I thrive on that type of conversation where each person learns about the other and we share some good laughs.

But being online giving a monologue to who-knows-whom? Well, that just makes me feel naked. (No worries, G rated blog here.)

The nature of writing is solitary (too much so sometimes), but the business is public. Positive connection — bring it on! Constructive criticism — I’m good with that. But trolls — who needs that? Life is hard enough.

But life is also too short. So I’ve decided to implement the principle of non-attachment. You know, hit the “Publish” button and then…

I’ve got stuff to say and share that I think will resonate with some readers. And those are, after all, the readers I’m trying to reach.

If you end up being one of them, I’ll think of it this way: it’s just you and me having a nice little chat at school or in a store or at the library or on the street. Oh heck, while I’m at it, why not on a beach or a mountaintop? I envision tea or coffee. A steaming hot mug of French Roast for me. What do you prefer?

two-cups-of-espressoviavisuahunt
Photo via visualhunt.com

Yeah, I like that. Phew! Now I feel a lot better.

I’d feel even better if I could tell you exactly what the focus of my blog will be. But back to openness and honesty… I don’t know. The best I can offer is that my posts will be connected under the umbrella of things that I love: kids and kids’ books, reading and writing, inclusiveness in stories and in life.

Art by Robert Tai

Over time, I may find a more defined focus, a focus that grows organically and finds me. But it will take just that: time. Blogging over time.

If you’re good with this general map and open to seeing what happens, I’d love your company and conversation along the way! I’ll be spending more time writing manuscripts than blog posts, but you can expect to hear from me about once a month (i.e. I won’t be clogging up your inbox).

How do I know that I really want to blog and write and publish more books? Because despite internal and external obstacles, I’m going for it! As the late Randy Pausch said, “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”

brickwall

Thanks for listening as I take this additional step into the online world. Many years ago, my high school English teacher, Ms. Stewart, told me, “Take more risks.” Yeah, I think Ms. Stewart would be happy about this one. In any case, I know I am!

Until we meet again,

Amy