Saturday, January 26, 2013

What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up? Part 2

As we learned in Part 1 of this post was that I have always wanted to write, but not necessarily as a career - just as a way to communicate.  And communicate I do.  Even my closest friends may not be THIS interested in my trek.  But if for some reason Part 1 was not enough about this journey, I present to you, Part 2!

Flash forward to college, freshman year.  I used to torment my first semester writing professor with stories about my walk with God for every assignment.  She had been raised Christian and had turned atheist and obviously it was my purpose in life to sit in her class, writing stories that would remind her how much she was missing out on by walking away from God.  I meant well, but it was pretty misguided.  Somehow I twisted nearly every assignment to fit this mold and thinking back on it now, it’s a little embarrassing!  That aside, I loved her class because for the first time I learned how to do peer proofing - writing something then handing it to several other students to help me fix it, while I fixed theirs.  I didn’t realize at the time that it was the professor’s way of having to grade less papers herself, but I thoroughly enjoyed this process.  I still have some of those essays in a box in my shed.   

I got married and had children and all the while was involved in my church, teaching the youth group, instructing children, leading the college-aged class.  I wrote messages and Bible studies, silly songs and skits.  I even wrote a song for the praise team on a dare once.  The leader of a local ministry approached me about writing his ministry newsletters for him, but we moved away before that could materialize.  But I took his offer as a compliment, because it made me realize that knowing how to spell, compose sentences and edit well could be used as an offering to God and to organizations I wanted to help support.

A friend told me a story that happened to her one day when she came to pick up her children, whom I watched when my boys were little.  I toyed with it, trying to turn it into a short comedic submission to Reader’s Digest.  I was very proud of the completed story of the ugly shoes she just had to buy at a garage sale because they would go so very well with everything she owned, but it was not chosen for publication.  The pay would have been only $30, but I would have been so much prouder had they found it fit for their magazine.

I spent a lot of years homeschooling my boys, and as often as the opportunity presented itself to make a little money on the side, I would help college students proof-read and improve the papers they wrote.  It cracked me up to no end that graduate students in very good schools could not compose an interesting and informative page without my help.  Perhaps I failed to mention that I never finished my college degree?  But I knew more than enough to turn several basically illiterate and incompetent grad school students into thinkers and communicators (at least on paper, while I was in their employ). 

A few years later, I was mostly just being a wife and mom at home.  My favorite time of day was when I tucked my kids into bed.  We revisited many of my favorite childhood books, me reading aloud to the boys for hours every night.  I acted out all the voices in Winnie the Pooh and the Uncle Remus stories, perhaps enjoying storytime even more than my children did!  Occasionally a new series for kids got mixed into the perennial favorites those nights.  I was especially enjoying reading the Lemony Snicket books to my kids at bedtime, but not because there were exaggerated voices to perform.  These books were strange, dark, and unlike anything for children I’d ever read.  I found online a contest for kids to write their own Series of Unfortunate Events chapter.  I helped my boys each write a chapter to submit to the contest.  Actually, my boys consulted with me a bit and I wrote two chapters and submitted them in the boys’ names.  Neither placed, and I suspect my parental involvement was too obvious.  But I was pretty proud at how they turned out at the time.  For once I can look back at something I wrote BEFORE I decided what I wanted to be when I grew up and be justifiably proud.  I imitated the author’s distinctive writing style, employed identical devices, and used the same tone as the books.  Perhaps one day I’ll share them here, but not today. 

As my boys grew up, we read many of their contemporary series together, among them Harry Potter and the Twilight books.  In my home, reading had always been a big part of daily life, but in the general population, it seemed reading was cool again.  Like no other authors I could remember in my lifetime, JK Rowling and Stephenie Meyer were treated like rock stars.  They made fortunes, not only writing beloved books for young people, but also in selling the movie and merchandising rights.  Authors were no longer just recognizable names with faces no one knew.  By this point I was in my late 30s and was still teaching my children at home.  I had no career to speak of, but thought that writing for a living would be anything but boring.  Let’s be clear, though.  I wasn’t interested in the possible fame.  It was the creative outlet and the boundless success that was possible that drew me - plus the chance to earn a living from home.  I didn’t yearn for adoring fans - I just wanted someone to tell stories to who would be eager to hear them.  My children were teenagers now, capable of reading their own books at bedtime.  I needed to craft a new audience. 

At about that same time, I started watching an intriguing new tv show called Lost.  From the first episode I was drawn in and an active participant in the weekly online discussions of, “What did YOU see?”  As the years passed during Lost’s broadcast, I found many amateur and freelance writers who spent their spare time online hashing out the mysteries and the meaning of it all.  As we parsed every minute detail together, I got an education in literary terms that I hadn’t even gone looking for.  A new appreciation grew in me for the expert storytelling that had so many viewers enthralled.  Lost was the perfect laboratory to teach me many of the things I would need to know to tell stories of my own: characterization, symbolism, foreshadowing, pacing, and the like.  I saw many of the online recappers begin to get ‘real’ writing jobs because of the way they faithfully blogged about each week’s episode and built their own followings.  In effect, being an avid fan of Lost was like taking an intensive course in writing, and writing about writing, then marketing one’s writing. 

One day at my local library I saw a flyer for a writer’s group.  With no idea what to expect, I put the date on my calendar and went.  Here I found them - people like me.  People who were interested in telling the best stories they could.  Fellow writers who didn’t think I was crazy when my imaginary friends told me things about themselves.  I also rediscovered my old friend, peer editing.  We collaborated with each other, consulted when one of us was stuck in a project, compared notes on our favorite books, tv shows and movies.  I spent a few years deciding what kinds of stories I’d enjoy creating, then opening my writer’s ears and eyes to the world around me.  What did I want to write?  What audience did I want to appeal to?  What were those people most interested in?  

As ongoing exercises, I assigned myself various tasks to improve facets of my writing, like brevity or humor in a short facebook status.  I enjoyed writing letters to the editors of metropolitan newspapers and international magazines, some of which did get published.  The key was not just in having something interesting and relevant to say - how could I set my letter apart from others?  I studied what did get published and polished my own submissions, short paragraphs, attempting to appeal to the readers and the editors alike.  I practiced writing movie and book reviews online, each time I finished one, which was pretty much daily.  I read books on writing techniques, watched video seminars, attended conferences, and soaked it all up.  

While this story stops just short of actually becoming an author, it is a pretty complete story of my journey as a storyteller and writer.  I believe it answers the questions most often asked of successful authors:
When did you realize you wanted to become a writer?
What have you done to improve your skills?
What books and movies have most influenced your progression as a writer?
Where did you learn to write?

If you have more questions, feel free to ask them!  Trust me, I know this is a very long diatribe all about me, me, me but the point was to show how it took half a lifetime to get to where I am today, which is basically nowhere yet.  With any luck, future writers will learn to spot the signs that maybe writing is indeed what they want to spend their lives doing, before their lives are half gone!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Said the Doctor, Show Me Those Guns

This is not primarily a political blog.  I do my political venting elsewhere.  What I try to do here is offer insight to the kinds of stories I write, and create content that will please my readers.  When you have read my books, you will be able to deduce where I stand on values and principles, but not because my characters are overly interested in politics.  I strive to make people think, thrill to make them feel, invite them to converse with me even if we don't agree, but that latter one I've always done elsewhere.

I take this brief jaunt into the political spectrum here today only to toss out some thoughts and see how you feel about them.  The subject here may make you cringe, but hopefully some of it will make you laugh.  I cannot say that I am clever or quick enough to have crafted these quotes all myself, but I wanted to share them because you may need them, or something like them, in the near future.

Recently President Barack Obama, whom I disagree with on most everything, but whom I pray for often, decided to sign into law a policy requiring your family doctor to inquire and make note of your gun ownership, and report back to the government about it.  Presumably he meant well, in that if more doctors were discussing guns with their mentally unstable patients, there would be less suicides and homicidal massacres.  Probably not every gun owner is responsible enough to keep guns where children cannot access them and the ammunition stored elsewhere, so yes, there may be valid reasons why a doctor might legitimately pry here.  But what it really means is, if you lie to your doctor about this, you will be committing a crime, even if there's no mental illness in your family, nor dangerous tendencies.  Whether this lie could be construed as a punishable false statement under the law, now that your doctor is an employee of the government, is a good question we should ask ourselves before answering his questions.

No one wants to visit the doctor, but can you imagine the next time you have an unfortunate rash or swollen tonsils, your family physician has to cover a requisite checklist with you concerning how many guns you own, what type, and where you keep them?  Are they loaded?  Exactly what measures have you taken to keep them out of the hands of your children, and how consistent are you with this?  What is the combination to your gun safe (all right, that one might not be required by law)?  All you want in that visit are some topical cream or antibiotics but you are shoved, unprepared, into a conversation that neither you nor your doctor really want to have.  Do you realize that what you say in that moment, when your guard may be down because you or your child don't feel well, could affect the rest of your life?

It has been supposed that once gun owners have been identified, and now that health insurance is the government's business, and since accidental death in the home is a leading cause of the loss of children's lives, that you will be charged higher rates on your healthcare premiums.  Perhaps your name will go onto a list of homes to be listened in on, or of families whose social media or private e-mails or texts now exhibit just cause to be monitored into perpetuity.

I don't have legal advice for you.  I don't know what kind of relationship you have with your doctor.  Many of the following ideas of how to answer these newly required questions without lying could be just as dangerous as lying, or even as telling the truth.  But here, submitted for your enjoyment, are a few of my friends' suggestions how to answer your doctor's question about guns in the home:

Do rocket launchers count?

We have several to spare - what do you need?

Yes we do, but I'm not sure how many.  My 8 year old cleaned them all last week, though, so maybe you should ask him.

Are you talking about the registered ones, or the unregistered?

Other than the loaded one I have with me?

That's for me to know, and for some sorry-assed, misguided home invader to find out.

Let me ask the voices in my head how they want me to answer.

Say "no", stare off into space for a few moments, head off-kilter, then laugh softly and menacingly.

If I told you, I'd have to shoot you.

Nunya.  You want me to spell that for you?

My gun is not at home right now, if you know what I mean.

You'll have to excuse me.  My hearing seems to come and go these days.  Could you repeat the question?  (repeat this answer until your doctor sees the light)

Actually, a better way to handle this, whether you have guns or not, is to ask the doctor directly, "What does that have to do with my visit here today?"  It's not a yes.  It's not a no.  It's not an invitation for your doctor to schedule you for a psychiatric evaluation.  Best of all, it's answering the government's question with another question, which your doctor may be able to chuckle over, but will hopefully make the government bureaucrats' heads explode.  Lying should not be an option, regardless of your faith or creed or lack thereof.  There are many scenarios in which a lie on a form such as this could be used against you in court in the future, regardless what it's about.  And to say, "None of your business" will be treated as defiance when the doctor has to report back to the government, because it will imply that there is indeed business to be known.  I think what I will say, politely, is, "It is none of your business what I do or do not own, but I can assure you that any firearms in my home would be securely stored."  Say it a few times right now, word for word.  Remember it.

Truth is, this'll probably be handled by the nurse who charts your blood pressure and temperature before you even see the doctor.  Most health care professionals probably don't even know yet that they've been legally deputized to become governmental snitches - possibly unwilling cogs in a machine they may or may not approve of.  Medicine is now a branch of the government, like it or not.  Dr. Big Brother is about to become far too interested in things you consider private, so get ready.

As for the doctor insisting that your child (or even teenager) speak to them privately about this matter, I would strongly urge you to prepare for that eventuality.  First, go into the exam room with your minor child every time, if at all possible.  This is beneficial for myriad reasons.  Second, research your Reverse Miranda rights online.  So far as I know, we still possess the right to deny governmental officials entrance into our homes without a warrant.  We are still allowed to remain silent when we fear what we say may be used against us, whether a government official (with or without a medical degree) has read us our rights.  Our best option may be to answer the firearms-in-the-home question, "No comment."  Children need to know that they cannot be forced to answer the government's questions, and in fact should not be put into positions where they could be.  Have this talk with them before the next check-up!

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the months to come.  Will the form that reminds health professionals to ask us all these questions feature a simple yes or no checkbox?  Will it be repeated annually or on every visit?  Who gathers this information from doctors, and how often, and what action is taken based on it?  The thing is, we may all now be required by law to answer questions we don't want to answer, and I for one, want to be prepared with the effective equivalent of, "These are not the droids you're looking for".

What Do I Want To Be When I Grow Up? Part 1

The more I look into how various famous authors interact with the media, the more examples I find of their answers to the questions they are frequently asked, which invariably involve:
How did you become a writer?
When did you know you wanted to write?
Who are your biggest influences / What do you like to read / What did you read when you were a child?

So I began thinking about how these questions pertain to me.  No, if you don't know me personally, you have never heard of me yet.  You've never read anything I've written, short of my goofy facebook statuses.  Someday I'll finish some of these book projects I've been working on for years and hopefully be published.  At that point, my writing time will be spent primarily on actual books, not reminiscing about How Did I Get Here?  It occurred to me that maybe right now is the time to examine the path I've been on and get it all organized on paper.  Turns out I've been on this road a lot longer than I thought I had!  Isn't it funny when things start to get clear?  The following is part one (of two) of my road to realizing I was meant to write, and how I came to that conclusion.

When I was small I remember playing on the floor with little toy animals and making up stories for hours.  There was no home video back then, but my Grandparents used a tape recorder to capture some of my stories. 
What is a writer?  Someone who writes.  What did I want to be when I was small and full of stories but unable to download them onto paper?  Someone who writes.  

My mom helped me write a book when I was in elementary school.  I told her the story, she wrote it down, fixing it as she went.  I drew the pictures, then she and my dad sealed the completed pages in contac paper and bound the book with cardboard covers and psychedelic wallpaper to cover it.  It was about a camping trip our family took and some semi-fictionalized things that happened on it.

On our family’s frequent road trips I’d watch interesting things passing me by, outside the car windows, and write stories about them as my parents drove.  Somehow writing in the car didn’t make me motion sick while reading in the car sometimes did.  Stories were about maps to buried treasure, aliens and witches, children and animals.

In 5th grade some of us were chosen to go to a conference for young writers in the state capital.  Up to this point I thought authors were very old people or long-dead people.  I imagined Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume to be like Betty Crocker, not real people who were still alive in the same world I was in.  I figured their books had been around forever, never suspecting they’d been written in my own lifetime or for the generation just before mine.  I didn’t know there were more books being written every day.  I was surprised to find out otherwise.  One of my favorite authors at that time, alive and well and actually not that old, was there signing books.  I waited in line and handed him my autograph book, too much in awe to say anything.  He opened my book and got as far as having written his first initial before he looked up at me and said, “What is this?  This isn’t one of my books.”  He handed the autograph book back to me, dismissively, and signed the next person’s book.  What I was too shy to tell him was that I wasn’t too cheap to buy his books there at the book fair like the other kids had, to have him sign.  I actually owned his whole series and they were at home.  But he just thought I was some kid who wanted his signature but wasn’t going to buy his books.  Now that I’m an adult I look back on how crushed I was that day and think that guy was quite the selfish twit to treat a little 10 year old fan that way.  If I ever treat my readers that way, somebody please slap me.

Around that same time I started something that I’ve done almost every day since - kept a diary.  In the same book that I almost got that author’s autograph, I began by writing down the rides we rode at Disneyland on the day I turned 10 years old.  My diary has since evolved into a digital pastime and has grown into a dream journal, a recollection of sweet and funny things my sons and now grandson have done, and all my emotional highs and lows for more than three decades.  It has been my most faithfully kept writing habit through the years and I’ll continue to keep it, probably for the rest of my life.

In 7th grade I was chosen for the brand new gifted student program at my middle school.  I wrote two books of short stories and drew the pictures myself.  My mom bound them and covered them in contac paper.  The school library catalogued them and put them on the shelves.  I’d completely forgotten about their existence until recently, when the school was ridding its shelves of out of date materials, they contacted my mom to see if she wanted them back.  I read through them now and cringe, wondering how a kid who wrote like that ended up in a gifted program in the first place.  Was there no one to help me fix my stories?  Correct my cheesy sitcom endings?  Develop some interesting ideas into anything someone would want to read?  I’m glad to have these books back in my hands because God forbid anyone else should stumble onto them and make them public after I’m published.  I’d die of embarrassment!  

In the mid-80s, one of my high school classes attended Missouri Writes.  Something I’d written had been chosen for their annual publication.  Twenty high schools from across the state sent one teacher and roughly half dozen students and we all had what we submitted bound into a compilation, which we each received a copy of.  As ever, they spelled my  (maiden) name wrong in the table of contents (apparently our spelling of Engelhardt isn't the most common).  Reading my essay, I’m impressed with how far my skills had come in the six years since my last conference.  But by what I know today, it’s still incredibly cringe-worthy, if heartfelt.

I wrote a poem in high school that my mom always thought was incredible (hint - most peoples’ moms think this way about the things their children create).  What I didn’t have the heart to tell her for many years is it wasn’t my original idea.  The assignment, if I recall properly, had been to take an existing poem and rewrite it completely - to tell the same story but differently.  I took one Shel Silverstein had written about unicorns turning into narwhals after Noah’s flood and turned it into one I wrote about unicorns turning into narwhals after Noah’s flood.  The concept was good, it just wasn’t mine.  I hadn’t set out to mislead her - I guess I just forgot to tell her what brought it into existence - homework, not a brilliant, original idea.

High school graduation was approaching quickly and for some reason, I wanted to try out to be one of the commencement speakers.  This is highly uncharacteristic for me.  I remember the Senior Superlatives assembly that year, in which people were given awards: best smile, most likely to succeed, most shy.  I was petrified I’d been voted the most shy, and would have to walk the stage in front of the other students (thankfully that honor went to someone else probably equally mortified to myself).  So why, within the same year I wanted to write a speech and speak in front of all of them AND their parents and friends, I’m not sure.  I prayed about it and when it came down to the day before we had to submit our potential ideas, I still knew I wanted to say something, I just didn’t know what.  I stayed up all night that night, trying to put something interesting together.  Truth be told, I’d never been to a high school or college graduation ceremony at this point in my life.  I had no idea what kinds of things people said in their speeches.  I struggled and scribbled, then scratched it all out and gave up - but not before staying up so late, and getting so upset, that I was too sick to go to school the next day when submissions were due.  I include this, because it was something I wanted to write but wasn’t able.  I didn’t have something to say yet.  I just wanted to have something to say and to know how to say it impressively.  I was too young and didn’t know enough, but that wouldn’t be the case forever.

...stay tuned for the next exhaustive diatribe on me, me, me 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

I Believe...

There are a great many things I care deeply about.  To some it is offensive to be outspoken about politics, morality, spirituality...  To me it is offensive to know how important something is for people to know and not say it, loud and clear, without fear or shame.  

I think thoughts that are too complex to condense down into a tweet.  I give my facebook friends whiplash, posting about this thing over here and then immediately after, that thing over there at the other end of the spectrum.  Perhaps here I can spend a bit more time sorting out my thoughts into one subject or another, one at a time, probably not one right after the other.

I believe that while there may be many ways to be right on some issues, some things are always wrong, no matter what.  

I believe that when people are given better information they will frequently make better decisions in their lives.  For me not to share that better information when I have it, is denying others the chance to choose more wisely.  Shame on me if I know the truth and withhold it from you!

I believe in always being kind, even if that kindness means speaking the truth that people may not want to hear or act on, but that which will change their lives forever for the good if they hear it and accept it.

I believe political correctness is an ugly practice that is designed to shut down free speech by shaming the intelligent into not saying what needs to be said.

I believe America is the greatest country on earth and though it is flawed and off track at present moment, it can be turned around and returned to greatness.

I believe there is only one way to spend eternity in heaven with God, and that is by receiving the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made for us when he died on the cross and rose again.  I believe that what leads men to this relationship is not a fear of hell, but a deep need to know that life really matters.  All roads do not lead to God.  All religions do not reflect the same truth.  Believing a thing with all of one's heart does not make it so.

I believe this country's founding fathers had the right idea and that every step we take away from their vision, put forth in the Constitution and their early writings, is a step toward this country's decline and eventual destruction.

I believe in free speech, even when I disagree with what you are saying.

On a totally unrelated note, I believe that high heels are retarded and painful (not that I'll judge YOU if you wear them), and that coffee smells horrible.  I believe dogs are superior pets to cats.  I believe real books beat digital editions every time.  I believe lots of things that I can never say because it will make people I care about feel bad, feel judged, or think I'm just off my rocker.

Welcome to the new home of all my off the wall comments, all the things that total up to make me who I am.  Trust me, there's no one else out there like me, but then again, that's ok because there's no one else out there like you either.  Where our similarities overlap, we can happily agree and where they don't we can choose to disagree.

Wanna be friends?!