Branches

one year later

I found this poem I wrote when I was in junior high and it is as relevant today as it was when I wrote it nearly thirty years ago. What I didn’t know then, is that many of the storms were my own creation to protect myself from other events that were out of my control. Lesson learned. Eventually.

This Tree & I

Amid the forest and the crowd
There stands a tree alone and proud
It is unique, truly an individual
Sometimes weak
Sometimes invincible
It learns to bend so the burdens don’t break it
And to hold steadfast when stormy times try to shake it
It takes what life has to give, through the changing seasons
And gives much more in return for whatever reason
We have a lot in common, this tree and I
We struggle each day and somehow get by
Perhaps it’s the will to keep on trying
To fight the elements
Not give up and begin dying
We put down roots and begin to grow
Occasionally we hurt
Sometimes the scars even show
We protect ourselves with an outer shield
Keeping us safe till our wounds are healed
Our spirit may falter but it will not die
We have a lot in common
This tree and I

The Refinery

The Refinery

It stands on the edge of the 405. A steel eyesore. Smokestacks aimed at the sky spilling clouds of pollutants into the atmosphere for the benefit of millions of fuel-fed machines. A mess of metal platforms and stairways and cages and fences with a giant American flag slapped on the front, facing the freeway for the viewing pleasure of thousands of daily commuters. Environmental activists and public health groups frown at it in disgust, protesting the impact on the air and the well being of the community. And every time it comes into view, it comforts me.

The orange lights flicker against the night sky much like the flames that sometimes hiss from the towers, winking at me – reminding me I don’t have far to go.

When I was a little girl in the backseat, I pressed my head against the cool glass, searching the darkness for falling stars. When the lights came into view, I was captivated. I kept it in my sight until the road turned.

Even now, as we approach the eyesore I let my kids know home isn’t much farther. No matter the distance we’ve traveled, we can breathe easy now. We’re in the home stretch. And I watch in my rear view mirror as the refinery fades into the distance.

It calls to me. Every time. Hundreds of trips along the 405 and it pulls me in. I can’t stop staring.

I used to think it was just a landmark. But the overwhelming calm that comes over me in the presence of the metal behemoth has me thinking maybe there’s something more hidden inside the tangled steel tubes that I’m meant to see.

It’s strange being drawn to something that’s considered so unsightly. To be calmed by and oddly pulled to this massive metal and concrete structure in a way that is difficult to describe.

What is it about that refinery? Inside, crude oil is pumped through pipes, processed  through distillation, vacuum, and Fluid Catalytic Cracking units – blended and treated and refined into a perfect formula that is the life force of fuel-powered machines that are the means of survival for millions of people. It takes in the raw, the unusable, the crude, the unfit, and it transforms it into life-giving liquid-gold. Sure, there’s a lot of disgusting things in there – and it puts a lot of disgusting things out into the world. But with a lot of work and a little refinement, it creates something better.

Maybe that’s the parallel. Maybe it’s a visual reminder that no matter what kind of toxic load I’m given, I can process it and create something of value. Something usable. And it is a process. Sometimes I have to spew shit into the atmosphere. Sometimes I have to dig through the sludge. Sometimes my flames burn hot and my pollution pisses off my community. But it’s necessary to create something better, something life-sustaining.

I’m not perfect. Nothing ever is. But I’m going through the process and I’m in the home stretch. And that’s pretty comforting.

Rough Drafts: On Life and Writing

Rough DraftsSome people write more during times of turmoil. This past year has been one of the most challenging in my life, but I pushed my personal writing to the bottom of my list of priorities. I made a few attempts, but every time I sat down to pour out my thoughts I vomited words onto blank pages. I spat out incoherent sentences, incomplete thoughts, and lacked any ability to maintain organization and focus. And it disgusted me. How dare I write when all that comes out is complete shit. But isn’t that the beauty of writing? That’s why we call them rough drafts. You put it all out there, and later you come back and edit, delete, tighten, and organize. Life isn’t that way. You can’t go back to the manuscript of your life and rewrite entire chapters. You can’t take out the mistakes and make it pretty. You can’t move around paragraphs to make it flow. You can’t change your characters or their circumstances or their choices.

I began writing at a young age. I wrote letters to friends and boys. I poured everything onto the pages of journals. I scribbled poetry on the corners of class worksheets and filled spiral bound notebooks with sadness and heartache that only a teenage girl could understand. Sometimes there were stories of love and happiness and glimmers of hope. But mostly it was dark. And I’m OK with that, because writing gave me a way to productively express what I was feeling. Writing was the only place I expressed myself well. It was the only positive expression of myself, even when it expressed sadness and pain. Even today, as a grown-ass woman, I speak much more eloquently on the page. The words that come out of my mouth are often awkward ramblings and you just can’t edit that.

Poetry was my first love. I wrote constantly. Most of my poems started with a sentence that I’d write in the margins of my notebook while I was supposed to be taking notes about algebra or the renaissance. I hated the renaissance. And algebra. I loved history, but studying the renaissance was one of the most boring classroom experiences of my life. Today I find it really quite fascinating, but my educators did that period of time no justice. Anyway, that sentence would morph into something more, and I’d spend my nights at my desk in my room building on these sentences. I’d read dictionaries and thesauruses to help me add new thoughts and turn average words into better, more descriptive terms. I moved sentences around, added new words, built better rhymes. Sometimes I erased everything and started over again. I ripped up entire pages and burned them over the candles that lined my desk. I polished every phrase and poured my heart into getting just the right flow. I took those rough drafts and turned them into perfect poetry. Those poems were the only things I had any real control over. Everything else was a mess. So those words – they had to be perfection. And that’s the beauty of writing, isn’t it? It’s not finished until you say so. It’s never really set in stone because you can go back and change it. You can erase your mistakes or take out those awkward sentences and make it better.

But life…life isn’t that way. They say your life is a book, but it’s not really, because you can’t make those crucial edits. You can’t throw out entire chapters that sucked and start fresh. The manuscript of life is permanent. It’s one giant rough draft full of incoherent sentences and glaring mistakes with some really genius shit thrown in from time to time. The best you can do is learn from the mistakes you made in previous chapters and hope like hell that the next chapter is better. That you don’t slip back into old habits or get lazy or miss out on an opportunity to add some sparkle. Sometimes we wish we could go back and delete the scenes that make us cringe, make our characters stronger, hold on instead of letting go, or let go instead of holding on. But our rough draft is the foundation of our being that helps us improve and grow. I know what changes I would make to my rough draft, but I can’t change it, so I’m doing my best to learn from it. Hopefully that will be reflected in both my life and my writing. I won’t burn this rough draft. Rough drafts are worth keeping, because even if you never have the chance to edit the beginning, you can make the ending profoundly better.

 

Get to Know Your Characters

charactersI wrote a middle grade chapter book last year, Zac Newton Investigates: Extraordinary Electricity. It was my first chapter book – I usually write nonfiction so I was venturing into new territory with this one, but I was excited about the challenge. One of the best things I learned during the writing process for Zac was how to develop characters.

Extraordinary Electricity is one of six books from a series about scientific concepts. Zac and his friends are able to time-travel and they get to observe and meet people from the past who made great contributions to science. In Extraordinary Electricity, they watch Ben Franklin discover electricity the night he flies his kite in a storm, observe Nikola Tesla as he brings light to the World’s Fair, and and talk to Luigi Galvani while he discovers animal electricity.

Before the assignment came to me, the characters were already mostly developed, but there was room to help them grow. And seeing the process that was used to develop this group of characters helped shed light on the steps I needed to take in future character development. I enjoyed working with characters so much, that when I completed Zac, I began working on another middle-grade chapter book almost immediately. I decided to create a character interview for all the characters in my book. Here are the questions that I include in all of my “interviews.” Keep in mind that I write books with kids as the main characters so my interviews include a lot of content that applies to the lives of kids and teenagers. I adjust my interviews for the adult characters.

  • Name
  • Age and Grade Level
  • City, State, Country they live in (also include if they were born there or moved from somewhere else)
  • Ethnicity
  • Religious Background
  • Hair Color & Style
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Style of Clothing
  • Any quirky character traits or unique characteristics?
  • Extracurricular Activities
  • Hobbies
  • Favorite Color
  • Favorite Food
  • Family Life
  • Brothers and Sisters
  • What are their parents like?
  • Pets
  • Favorite Subject in School
  • What do they do with friends?
  • What kind of home do they live in?
  • What languages do they speak?
  • What places have they traveled to?
  • Any important family history worth including?

Remember that each piece of the character you develop helps add depth and detail to the overall story line. For example, one of my characters is an experienced Boy Scout – his fire and shelter building knowledge from Scouts helps the group in my story while they are out on their adventure. Another character’s interest in plants and animals helps them identify edible plants. While I’m working on a book for young readers, really building your character and filling out as many details as you can about them will help you create a more well-rounded story no matter what genre your writing falls in.

Proofreading Tips

ProofreadingProofreading is one of the most important steps in your writing process. Everything needs proofreading: novels, infographics, images with quotes, blog posts, and general website content – all of it should be proofread. More visible mistakes equal less credibility. You want to show readers you are thorough and effective, but frequent misspellings and improper use of grammar and punctuation can be seen as a sign of carelessness and inexperience. Even the best writers and editors miss mistakes now and then, and oftentimes, spellcheck and auto-correct features make us look worse instead of better, but you can take steps to minimize those mistakes and put your best work in front of your readers. Here are a few tips:

1. Print out your work. When you review your work on the computer you’re more likely to skim, focusing less on each word. When you print out the document, the text looks different and your eyes focus on individual words rather than groups of words or complete sentences.

2. Mark it up. Take that hard copy you just printed and use a pen or pencil to follow each word and mark the mistakes and other areas that need to be addressed.

3. Change the font. If you wrote the document in Times New Roman, change it to something different like Calibri or Comic Sans. The new font forces your eyes to view the words differently.

4. Give it time. Turn off the computer and come back to your document in a week or two. I know you want to get that project finished ASAP, but taking a break and going back to review it later gives your eyes and brain time to refocus. For shorter writing projects like blog posts or magazine articles, two or three days off before proofreading should be fine, but take a longer time away for bigger projects.

5. Get a second party to proofread your document. When you read your own work, you know what you want to say, or meant to say, so even if the words are scrambled or misspelled, your brain may read it the way you intended. Someone with no previous knowledge of the content will be more effective at finding mistakes.