Happy First Day of School!

Today, thousands of bright-eyed kids had their first day of school.

In kindergarten they read a book and ate a snack. 
In high school the girls looked at each other's clothes while the guys wondered if the army requires a high school education.
In college professors read syllabuses and the freshmen took notes on everything and the seniors took no notes at all.

And because I'm now a bona fide adult I went to work, came home, made dinner, and cleaned. Then Curtis (he's very wonderful) and I discussed our 50 year plan (just kidding, who has that, more like we tried to figure out our life for the next three days). After all that, I sat on the couch and stared out at the rain and thought about going to bed—but I couldn't let myself go, because everyone else in the world started school today. That means summer is over, and when summer is over I start to write again.

Every writer worth their salt (or pepper or turmeric or some other semi-ambiguous seasoning) will tell you that to get better at writing, you have to write. Conversely, if you want your career as a writer to screech to a grinding halt, take a long weekend.

I, unfortunately, have a rather thick skull (depending on who you ask: enormously thick, embarrassingly thick, lamentably thick), and refuse to be told that as an adult I can't take a summer vacation.

So I haven't written much at all this summer, and you're experiencing a display of the utter entropy of my mastery of the craft (for example, what an overworked sentence. should have just said I got worse at words). I did other things, like travel and eat as much ice cream as I wanted and go to the beach with Curtis (he's very wonderful) and watch the world whiz by from the saddle of my cherry red bike and see friends and family and all the babies. It was a great summer.

And now I'm back to real life and it's raining outside (as if even the weather is telling me to get down to business), and I've a manuscript to edit.

But I guess I don't really mind. Because it's the first day of school and it's the first day back to writing, and when it all comes down to it

—though I love swimming and sunshine and sand and travel and sleeping and biking and walking and playing ball and wandering in search of any old adventure and freckles—

I love writing more.

 

On Rest and Responsibility

Yesterday, for the first time in a month, I sat down to write, because I break all my own rules in the summer. I stay up late on "school nights" (yes, work nights, but everyone needs idiosyncrasies of phraseology, don't they?), eat ALL THE ICE CREAM IN SIGHT ALL THE TIME, and sometimes don't write for weeks on end. Maybe it's the writing for work to pay the bills thing that makes it easier to slack off, or maybe it was finishing the first draft (rough as dried lava, I promise) of my second novel in the beginning of June and now I'm rebelling from organized craftsmanship.

Either way, you're fortunate that after I spent an hour re-writing the same four paragraphs yesterday, my computer crashed and I lost all four of those ill-fated paragraphs. They were going to be cynical, choppy, and pessimistic—three things I try to avoid.

Instead, these cheery ruminations . . .

I paid for my college. Phrased positively, I learned independence, money skillzzz, and how to work hard for what that matters to me. Described bluntly, sometimes I didn't buy shampoo for a few weeks at a time, a third of the clothes I wore I'd found on the ground, and I had to say no to doing things because I couldn't pay for them. It's a lifestyle of poignant pride.

When a study abroad trip with my favorite professor loomed on the summer horizon, I immediately wrote it off. It was expensive, the cost of a whole semester in seven weeks—and counting the money I'd lose out on earning, another third of a semester's bill. I chose to leave the glamorous international travel to those who had received large inheritances from distant relatives (this has never happened to me—if you have one of these relatives looking for someone to sponsor, please contact me).

Staunchly self-sacrifical and determined to squirrel away my hard-earned cash for a more responsible cause, I stubbornly ignored my professor's advertisements all semester. I was unswayable. Wouldn't dream of dreaming.

In the beginning of April one of my brothers attended class with me then took me out for coffee. We looked into the street. People hurried by (people only ever hurry in Chicago—nobody takes their time. waste of life, if you ask me.) as we sat peacefully, sipping lattes and munching on macarons that cost several bucks a piece (granted, they were delicious. worth four bucks, though? is any cookie, really?). Then my brother asked if I would go on the trip to England, and I gave my practiced answer. He wasn't impressed and told me I should go.

I talked to a few more people, threw caution (and thousands of dollars) to the wind, and signed up. The caveat: I would only go for three weeks out of the seven. I made the bargain with my penny-pinching, cents-scrounging, ripped-jeans, dirty-haired self. I could pay for three weeks, come back and earn money the rest of the summer, and end up not quite flat broke.

Landed in England. Spent the night in a hostel. Turned my dad's hair gray (sorry dad).

After a week of being in England with the group, I couldn't imagine leaving in 14 days. I wanted to stay for the rest of the summer—to eat bananas foster and eton mess most days, see places I'd only ever read of, rest from the past two years of constant work—and stay with the friends I'd made. But I didn't know if I should. It seemed like a good idea, but then so does pepperoni pizza at 11:50 p.m., and it rarely is. So I called my mom.

She listened to my desires, rationalizations, worries, and said,

Consummate responsibility deadens the soul—and having a dead soul is irresponsible.

That ended the discussion. I spent the rest of the summer in England and have never regretted it. I got the money somehow—it just ended up working out (thank you, kind parents, thank you, kind God). Today, I am me because of that trip. And the simple phrase from my mom became one of the guidelines for my life.

Often, I get caught up in responsibilities. Have to work. Have to clean the house. Have to cook so we don't DIE OF STARVATION OR SCURVY. Have to buy this present or go to that event or wash those clothes. I'm convinced the list actually never ends.

So how can my mom be right? How can it POSSIBLY bet better to occasionally shirk responsibilities just to do lazy things I love—really love—that feed the soul?

Because at the end of the day, what will I remember about my summer? Cleaning? Cooking? Washing another sinkful of dishes? Buying groceries? Folding laundry?

Nah. I'll remember the long bike rides in the hot sun—the lazy evenings at the beach with Curtis (he's very wonderful), two dozen barbecue wings, and IBC root beer—the spontaneous trips to faraway places to see people we love—the long walks in the evening sunlight that makes no enemies and keeps every promise—these are the moments of my summer that are different, that are free from responsibility and worry, and that keep my soul alive.

And you? What makes your soul thrive? And do you do it?

 
 The classic "Hey Dad, everything went fine till I got here" picture—Birmingham, England

The classic "Hey Dad, everything went fine till I got here" picture—Birmingham, England

 

It's Summer and I Can't Write

It's summer and nothing I write sounds good. Normally I wouldn't give up like this, but . . . Actually, I have no good excuse.

Instead, here are my three favorite things about summer (and if you pushed me, also life in general).

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I Officially Can't Hail Taxis

This week I went to the doctor on my first day of being sick.

Please understand: this is shocking. I usually refuse to visit the doctor until I've been hanging onto life by a thread for over a week. Curtis (he's very wonderful) tells me more than a dozen times I should go, and I come up with more than a dozen excuses. When I get discouraged beyond hopelessness, I cave, gather my wits and tissues, and go.

This time was different. A good friend who visited our tiny home last weekend was diagnosed with strep on Wednesday. I don't have time to be sick for more than a weekend, and strep can beat you into the ground for a lot longer than that. Ain't nobody got time for that. There's too much summer happening everywhere.

I knew I was getting sick the night before because THOUSANDS of tiny gnomes were marching across the back of my throat wearing hobnail boots (the real kind, you know, the ones with NAILS STICKING OUT OF THE SOLES). The next morning, each one of the the thousand gnomes had invited ten of their friends—so 11,000 gnomes, each with multiple nails in their boots, were wreaking havoc on my throat. You get the idea. So, I hauled myself to the doctor's office. 

I walked there because I'm too timid to hail a taxi.

Every movie ever features the classic 3-second taxi call. Not so in today's film, featuring sick Anneliese. After half a dozen attempts, I gave up and decided a mile and a half isn't really that far to walk. Basic conceptual problem highlighting my inability to stick something out? Maybe.

Got to the clinic and made friends with the nurse who took my vitals and also doesn't own a scale or know how much she weighs. The doctor came in eventually, did all the things doctors do, and eventually told me I didn't have strep. She gave me somewhere between 5 and 100 pieces of paper about the common cold, told me it was going to be painful for a couple of days, and sent me home.

I walked home too. Maybe if I'd been diagnosed with strep I would've taken a cab—but I couldn't justify spending the money now that I knew I really wasn't at death's door.

Anyways, for the past three days I've sat on the couch sneezing and honking and watching the world go by for three of the warmest, sunniest, cheeriest Chicago summer days this year. It felt hopeless. I missed watching Curtis (he's very wonderful) hit a home run at the softball game on Saturday. I missed meeting my brand new nephew (I'm assured he's very cute, but pictures just aren't the same). I missed going out for pizza with everyone, and sat at home blowing through boxes of tissues, reading Louis L'Amour, drawing, and watching a British cooking show (I quote Curtis: What is it with you only watching cooking shows?). The list of things I missed felt long, as did my face and soul on Saturday morning.

Then, somewhere on Saturday afternoon, I remembered that for weeks I've been complaining to myself because I want to finish the sequel to The Cup but I never have time. And God gave me three perfect days with nothing to do but finish it. And I got over moping because even though I couldn't swim in the lake and throw the softball and eat ice cream—I could stay home and write. Being sick is being sick, but now it feels more like a blessing.

God doesn’t always give us what we want. But He always gives us what’s best for us.

Maybe I Deleted 1,500 Words

My mom always used to tell me to write about what I know. Then, when anything happened to me (slam my finger in a door, get in a fight with someone, experience the hurt of a loved one), she would tell me to write about it. It's a logical sequence, because even though experiencing something doesn't necessarily make you an expert, it makes you closer than the guy who lives in a tree and sleeps all day (yes, you guessed it, I'm talking about sloths. I know more about life than a sloth does. Move me to the head of the class).

So . . .

Today, I got home from work and ate an entire (snack-sized) bag of Snyders honey mustard onion pretzel pieces (they're delicious, 10 out of 10 would recommend) while I looked out the window at the dog park next door (don't worry, mom, I think I also ate a real balanced dinner at some point in the evening).

Then I fought a lengthy internal war. It was over whether or not I would go outside and enjoy the peerless, blinding late afternoon that today decided to be.

Duty and drive won out over pleasure, so I eventually coerced myself onto the couch (I know, sitting on a comfortable couch sounds like torture, right?) and opened the word document that I've been slaving away over since November 28, 2016. I know the date because I started book two the day before the sprinkler in our house exploded and ruined just about everything in the living room.

I don't really know what makes someone a fast writer—I intentionally don't look it up because it's probably much faster than me (talking writer, not typer). Then I'd have to dig through the freezer and pull out the freezer burned triple chocolate moose tracks and eat the whole thing as I cried my career into the empty carton and the sticky spoon (I'm fairly competitive. Apparently I always have to win. I just don't see it in myself though) (you're like . . . is she serious?) (I think only with people who can handle it. I wouldn't want to crush someone's hopes and dreams by beating them. PLUS I usually lose 95 percent of the games I play, so God is constantly teaching me humility).

Anyways.

If I pay attention to what I'm doing and don't get distracted watching the shadow of the sunset across the skyline, I can write about 1,000 words in 45 minutes. Today was a pretty distracted-y type of day, so two hours later when my laptop started to get very hot on the bottom and the fan turned on, I'd written about 1,500 words.

After looking up a recipe for macarons for research purposes (yes, really, as a matter of fact), I clicked back to my word document and realized I should save the work I'd done so far. I tilted the computer forward slightly, clicked command + s, and watched in tentative nervousness as that little colorful spinny doodad came up and started doing its thing. I waited patiently, thanks to being married to patient Curtis (he's very wonderful). Eventually I could move the mouse again.

But I couldn't type. So I kept waiting. Maybe pressed a key? Mostly just moved the mouse around and tried to figure out what the theologically correct thing was to pray in the moment (mostly, I said, Please, Lord, don't let it crash. And if it does, let it auto recover). After a few more minutes, everything froze completely. I stared at it for a while, and nothing happened. I stared at it a while longer. Still nothing happened. So, briskly and without hesitation I held down the power button and restarted my computer.

Then I went into the kitchen to make some dinner because if I'm going to be miserable, I may as well be well-fed. I had zucchini and corn and pasta and salmon

(which reminds me of the time I thought a cucumber was a zucchini. Fried it up with salt and pepper. 10 out of 10 DO NOT RECOMMEND. Not a food waster—for sure threw that away).

Came back to my computer, which had restarted. Keyed in the password. The Safari window reopened with the right windows. Momentary high hopes. The word window was not open. Tentative hopes? Opened the book file, which you'll remember I tried to save right as the crash began. It opened. Word count was 8,000 less than it had been moments before. Wide-eyed disbelief, terror, and woe. Word count bounced back up to just about 1,500 words short of where I had been. Relief? Sorta? Lost two hours of work, 1,500 words, and at least one jenga block in the set that comprises my wobbly sanity (writers, yo. wacky group, them).

You know that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you watch two people you love start to fight? Or when you see the bus coming and you know you're too far away and you're going to miss it? When you break something expensive and you have to confess? It's like disappointment + dread + sorrow?

I know that feeling too.

That's also how it feels when you delete 1,500 words that you just spent hours weaving and crafting. If I'm being honest they WERE PROBABLY THE BEST 1,500 WORDS I'VE EVER WRITTEN IN MY SHORT CAREER. And now they're gone forever (memorial service Sat. @ 10 a.m., see you there. BYOTissues).

However, the lucky thing is, they took way less time to butcher together the second time. So that's good. And, since I felt it and wrote about it, you don't have to feel it yourself (although I think almost everyone probably does at some point in life).

Always save your work.

Are You Wasting?

The catalyst of writer's block isn't always just not knowing what to write. It can be a few things, depending on the day.

Ideas are part of my writer's block today. When a writer doesn't write recreationally (novel concept, but sadly common *pun intended), their brain is like a water balloon that someone left on a dripping faucet. The balloon gets bigger and bigger, and droops low in the sink. Eventually it explodes (not literally, of course), or even if you take it off the tap it's bloated, clumsy, and unmanageable.

Thinking time is also contributing to today's writer's block. Between work and trips and church, I've spent less time doing what introverted writers like doing best: staring at the wall (trying not to drool, of course) and contemplating the meaning of life (loving God, loving others, writing about it, duh).

Drama and uncertainty also contribute a nice flavor to the cocktail of writer's block. If you normally use all ten fingers to type, and six of them are in big bandages, typing is harder. Half my mind is occupied with thoughts about our future (mostly when we're going to get a puppy . . .) and people I love who are sad. It's hard to focus on one thing when you're really thinking about a dozen things.

This next part does relate, I promise.

I work with a lady who's a veteran storyteller. Over the years she's written more than 500 feature stories (which is a lot, since she's not very old). She has a special knack for pulling a theme out of an interview, and weaving it into an article so seamlessly that the reader barely even notices. Then at the end you're scratching your head wondering how you got from A to Z because you didn't notice the journey. Every theme points to God's sovereign intervention, in an honoring way. Basically, if I can write stories like she can write them when I'm her age, I'll be ecstatic.

Today she was talking about how God doesn't waste anything. Even when we feel like something is wasted (i.e., time spent sick, injured, maybe even just job-searching or researching or waiting for something to change), it's not a waste for Him. His economy uses our trials, struggles, joy, waiting, all of it, for good.

It struck a chord with me, because I hate wasting time.

If someone is doing something that I think I could do faster, my soul chafes violently. I'm not patient in any sense of the term, and waiting or slowing down often feels like a punishment. Curtis (he's very wonderful) has had to teach me how to be patient (or at least feign patience) over the past few years—usually leading by example.

Often, moving slower feels like a waste of time. And rest feels like a waste of time. Sometimes thinking feels like a waste of time. And writer's block ALWAYS feels like a waste of time, energy, and articulation. But God doesn't waste anything, not even writer's block (or waiting, or being sick, or ___________).

So for once, instead of writing an angsty post about how I detest writer's block, today I'm thankful for it. Because God's not wasting it.

 

*** You'll be happy to know that for the past week, I've been speaking to strangers every time I'm in the elevator. So far, I've averted any catastrophic social situation—but stay tuned, it'll come.

Beet Red in the Elevator

I constantly say things in the elevator that label me as consistently incapable of social interaction.

One time I told a gentleman and a lady that their shirts matched. They both muttered and avoided eye contact. I tried to help the situation by talking about the weather. It didn't work. Another time, I told a stranger I'd seen him arrive in the parking lot earlier that day, and noticed he was from Colorado. I thought I was trying to be friendly. He looked at me like I'd asked for his wallet.

Another time, I had a Wall Street Journal under my arm when I saw my boss's boss's boss. He made a comment about how I was smart to read it, and I said, "Oh, I just pretend." He answered, "It's okay, if there's any good month to invest it's this month."

And I had nothing to say.

So, I got off the elevator and did that thing where you just kinda say words and hope they make sense. "Oh yeah, that's what they're saying." I don't know who's saying it though, because I don't really know anything about investing.

Another time, after a particularly busy week, I got on the elevator and said to the gentleman I stepped on with, "We made it to Friday—with some dignity, some poise, and a whole lot of desperation." I said it as soon as the doors closed, and he was silent ALL THE WAY UP TO MY FLOOR at which point he responded with that noise people make when they're agreeing, and he said, "You said it absolutely right."

My insecurity had a heyday.

Other things I've said about elevators (I'm quoting myself in messages I sent to a friend):

"i had to wait for the elevator for like 8 minutes and when it finally came it was full of people. My worst nightmare."

"The elevator stopped on every floor. I could have walked faster."

"But I have to wait for those people to get on the elevator before I go out there I so don't have to ride with them. I just heard it beep. Any moment now." (I have apparently said this multiple times)

"This is about as awkward as a full elevator."

"I’ll come down on the next elevator. Two people are coming down on this one and leaving with them would mean social interaction."

You get the picture. It's not that I don't like people—I love people. I just can't function in elevators. My parents always tried to teach me to think before I speak. It worked so well that I often can't think of things to say in normal situations because I'm thinking so hard.

But when I get in the elevator all constraints fall aside and I'm just muttering and beet red.

The redeeming part of the story is other people. They are gracious and kind even when they don't know the turmoil in my introverted soul (or maybe it's because they know it). Another redemption is the people I tell the stories to afterward, who listen and laugh and reassure me that my social career is not quite ending yet.

And the best redemption is that it gives me something to write about—which is great for me, and a bummer for everyone else in my life who will probably end up in a story someday.

Writing is Like Running

I write and edit all day most days. Still, trying to write my own thing after almost a month of keyboard silence is like trying to learn to write for fun all over again. I'm gritting my teeth and frowning at my screen, trying to intimidate it into yielding high-caliber work. So far, all my laptop has done is stare back at me with a bored, mildly amused expression. Occasionally it yawns and asks if I'm done yet. I can take a hint. Maybe (not).

Self-admitted, I'm not a poet—I respect the art, but it's never been my choice of medium. Well, not for a long time. When I first learned that poems didn't really have to rhyme or have any structure, I went poem-crazy. Filled up a notebook at least, with fine work. It was really quality stuff, like:

The sky is blue today
I see the blue sky and the green grass
and I hope to get a letter
from grandma in the mail.

That phase passed, though (to everyone's relief). Now I realize that poetry is in a class alone, especially for communicating emotion and ideas simultaneously. But sometimes it's also in a class of complete nonsense, which nobody admits because It's so deep and beautiful that it thwarts my comprehension. Or, as us common folk would say, I don't get it. In an effort not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, I read poetry when I come across it and try very hard to decipher it. I have probably a 60 percent success rate. It's tricky for a total literalist like me, who reads:

I spilled the milk
all over the floor

And thinks, What a bummer. Did you clean it up or did you call the dog in? A skilled poetry-interpreter reads the SAME THING and is on the verge of tears because they see the author grieving over an immeasurable loss that will have more than one implication on his future.

And I'm over here thinking, Never mind, I give up. I'll just try to color inside the lines with my crayons. Let me know when recess starts.

But enough is enough. I wasted a lot of your time with nonsense about poetry (which I really do think is great), because I'm secretly hoping maybe you won't actually get to my poem because YES, writers are occasionally nervous about people reading their stuff.

In the rhythm of life
writing is like running.

Do it all the time
and you'll breeze past obstacles
with long, steady sentences
and barely break a sweat.

Start when you're out of shape
and it's agony
as you try to say something
but can't because
you just
can't
catch
your
idea.

Reading good writing,
like watching people run,
is motivating
because
Maybe someday I could be that good
but only if you work very, very hard
and I promise it won't always be fun.

And if there's a point
if it's to win a race
or deliver a message
or beat a personal record
then there is delight in the accomplishment.

But if it's obligation
or duty
then word after word feels like
misery and never-ending drudgery.

Start now
practice always
and focus on Someone that matters.

That's the best way to do it
in running too
but especially
in writing.

Your Certain Future

 

It's interesting how you feel strongly about different things at different points of life. When I was a kid, it was all about fairness with my brothers and sisters. In high school I felt strongly about my independence and how I was right about everything. In college I realized that I didn't know anything in high school. I also felt strongly about wanting friends, relationships, a certain future.

When I graduated, I felt accomplished, and at the same time worthless as I interviewed for multiple jobs and didn't get any of them. When I started my first full-time job, I felt 1 percent secure and 99 percent panicked, afraid of failure and ridicule.

It's easy to forget feeling strongly for those things, because I'm not in any of those stages right now.

I look around and see people who I love and care about in all different stages—waiting for a job, waiting to work their passion, waiting for children, waiting for love, waiting for reconciliation—and I'm reminded that every stage of life has strong feelings. Many of them are marked by waiting for an uncertain future, and many of them are extremely painful.

Part of mourning with those who mourn (and wait, and hope) is understanding that I can't say anything to fix your current situation. I don't know your future.

But God does. And He is good.

Writers: Giving Words Purpose

Letters and words alone have no significance—it's when someone strings them together that they take on meaning. Chip Kidd, in his introduction to Just My Type, says,

"Let's consider the English alphabet: twenty-six purely abstract symbols that in and of themselves mean absolutely nothing, but when put together in the right combinations can introduce into the heads of readers an infinite variety of sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, places, people, characters, situations, feelings, ideas."

Without a purpose, words become meaningless. With a purpose, Chip adds,

Entire universes are born out of just a few sentences, and can be just as quickly destroyed.

Writing well is creating a world that your reader can enter without trying, and communicating an idea so clearly a child could explain it from your description. To give words successful purpose, a writer must know a) what they want to say and b) how to say it.

The purpose without the talent is inarticulate passion.

The talent without the purpose is empty vocabulary.