A Leap of Faith

imagesCoco Chanel said, ” A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.” Well, I have a new ‘do, and, I’m about to take a leap of faith. I am leaving my teaching career to pursue  writing full time. I’m scared to death I’m doing something stupid, but it won’t be the first time. Life is all about figuring out who we are and what we are meant to do. I tell my students all the time to seize their opportunities and not be afraid, but it’s a whole other kind of scary when I am following that advice. With that said, I have noticed signs everywhere that God is telling me to take the plunge, but until now I’ve been too scared to trust Him and my own instinct that I’m doing the right thing. Writing is my calling.

The Gift of a Year of Writing:

Three years ago I left a teaching job I hated (this was one of the first signs) and couldn’t find another before the school year began. Each day that school year I rose early to see my husband off to work. After I worked out and showered, I “dressed for work.” I fixed my hair,  wore makeup, and put on nice clothes, then settled in to write for the rest of the morning and often late into the afternoon. Each day after no more words would come, I set my goals for the following day. Sometimes I planned to write particular scenes, sometimes I furthered my research and wrote only minimally, but I wrote and wrote and wrote. I finished the first draft of my novel that year. I was happy. I was content.

What I loved most was finding the zone, the place where my muse was in full control. Instead of sitting in my desk chair I was inhabiting 1869 Charleston with my characters. In fact, I became those characters. They lived through me. Haddon Hall is a figment of my imagination but is as real as the computer I type on. The buttermilk biscuits in the kitchen house drip with freshly churned butter, and the grits are creamier than any I can purchase here in Wisconsin. I was in another place, another time, transcribing events and emotions that already existed in another realm. Time passed more slowly there too. Often I discovered three hours had passed when I felt only a matter of minutes had slipped by. I miss that place and that occupation. I was not myself then. But I was more myself than at any other time I can remember.

Finding my way:

Earlier in the year  when I was struggling with this difficult decision, I turned to Facebook to ask my friends what they do for a living and what they like about their jobs. In a last ditch effort not to change, I think I was searching for alternatives to leaving. Many people offered me encouragement, prayers and guidance, but one response resonated with me. Tom Poland, a fellow UGA graduate and wonderful author, said, “As James Dickey, a tremendous writer, once told me, ‘Life is too short to give others your creative essence.'” That is what I do here at school each day. I spend my creative energy in giving to others, in teaching them how to read critically, how to write clearly and passionately, how to advocate for themselves and question accepted ways of thinking. It’s hard work, which leaves me mentally drained, but it’s rewarding work.

If I’m honest, I think I had made the decision to leave teaching before I ever arrived at my job here at SPASH. After I had a taste of what the writing life was like, I never wanted anything else. Writing fills me up like nothing else ever has. I will miss my students. I will miss seeing the light of understanding fill their eyes. I will miss their stories, their sense of humor, their candid criticism, their guarded eyes at the beginning of the year turn to warm acceptance of me at the end. I’ll miss their unbridled physicality, their blue hair and tattoos, their gender-bending costumes for dodgeball games, their crazy and all too suggestive dancing, their youth and exuberance. I’ll miss it all! But I won’t forget.

The Time Is Now:

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Writers never forget anything. Somewhere along the way, one girl’s smile, a boy’s clever joke, another’s moodiness, still another’s inquisitive nature will flesh out a character in one of my books. You see, writers don’t just live in the world; they see the world, in the words of Vladimir Nabokov, ” as the potentiality of fiction.” No experience ever goes to  waste.

I have not wasted my time teaching either. I don’t think I was ready years ago to become a writer. I hadn’t learned enough about myself or about the craft of writing to make the leap. In fact, I probably still haven’t, but I know there is no other way to learn the craft than by reading and writing a lot. Teaching doesn’t allow me enough of that. I’ve also learned far more about myself, about human nature, about creativity, about writing, and about driving snow-covered winter roads in Wisconsin than I ever thought possible.

On the last days of class this year with my seniors, I asked them to channel their inner kindergartner and make a words of wisdom bulletin board for me. Their words were intended for the sophomores, but I was surprised by how much they spoke directly to me. They wrote, “Don’t forget to take risks; Take every opportunity. You never know what could happen; If you don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it; Make sure you don’t have any regrets.

Remember those signs I was talking about? I can read them now and plan to follow them. I find myself now sitting in my classroom on the last day of finals typing this up. I have only one day left as a teacher, but I don’t feel a sense of loss. I feel complete, as though one part of my life has ended well and another exciting opportunity is about to begin. I’m giddy with anticipation over what the next chapter of my life will bring. In the past I’ve had moments when I felt things “in my bones” so to speak.  I feel in my bones that leaving teaching to become a writer is the right thing to do at the right time in my life.

 

 

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Butt in Chair Equals Early Death?

This past school year I gained 12 pounds. Yes, you read that correctly. Ordinarily during the school year I gain anywhere from 5-8 pounds, but this past year set an all-time record for me. I was horrified and still am because 8 of those twelve are still hanging on. School starts in only three weeks. I wouldn’t be concerned about gaining the extra weight if I felt good, but I felt like crap at the end of the year. Not only was I busting out of my jeans, but I also was tired all the time, and my lower back and neck hurt ALL the time. I knew I had to employ drastic measures to get back into shape.  For me this means walking and running usually, and dreaded body weight exercises. My vanity made me want to lose the weight I had gained, but a little voice inside me whispered that for the first time my health was at risk.

During last school year I became really sick, bronchitis in the fall and then pneumonia in the spring. That had not happened in about four years. Was that only a coincidence of working really hard last year? Maybe, but I had also fallen into the routine of doing my job over every other aspect of my life, including spending time at home with my husband and taking walks with Stella, my Lab. I was overwhelmed, over-stressed, and sedentary, a potentially lethal combination. Does that sound familiar to any of you?

Last year author Tom Rath, author of such books as Strengths Finder 2.0, How Full is Your Bucket, Strengths Based Leadership, and now Eat Sleep Move, said that “sitting is the most underrated health threat of modern times.” How does that square with the “butt in chair” mentality of writers? And teachers? And secretaries? Or anyone who spends much of his or her time plopped in a chair either by choice or necessity? Read this article in Forbes Magazine for more information about his research. I guarantee you’ll think twice about how you work.

Having a health crisis last year made me sit  stand up and think about my future (or lack thereof) if I continued my work only sedentary lifestyle. If I were going to be happy, healthy, and successful person, I had to take care of myself first. To that end I decided I had to do something to shock myself into changing. I have always been inspired by pictures people take of themselves when they were really overweight and then the after ones of them in bikinis or swimsuits with ripped abs. I think that is the appeal of The Biggest Loser. We get to see how people transform their lives each week, their successes and failures. When they first weigh in in public and expose their fat in front of people, I cringe for them because I know how embarrassed I would feel. Heck I can barely wear a swimsuit in public and not because I’m fat but because I’m modest. I think Victorian Era swimsuits look pretty good! Weighing themselves in public like that I think is designed to make them accountable and give them nowhere they can hide the fact of their weight from anyone, especially themselves. They can no longer deny how much they weigh or o how big they really are.

I decided that I couldn’t be quite so public with myself–aren’t you relieved?–but I did take a picture of my stomach. I will never show it to anyone, but I do look at it when I want a cookie  or don’t want to take a walk because I’m too tired. I also want a record of how far I’ve come and what I don’t want to look and feel like again when I must choose between my health or my job this school year. No job should consume so much of my life that I don’t have time to fill the well of creativity that keeps me happy. That only fills when I have time to spend with important people in my life and my writing.

I have dedicated myself to my writing and my health this summer. I haven’t lost the weight that I want to lose yet, but I’ve already changed my life by exercising nearly every day and working either on this blog or on my books. Though progress in my writing is much harder to quantify, I’ve made progress in both areas. I now walk 4.5-6 miles most days. I also do Spartacus workouts twice a week with some modifications for my weak upper body, and Popsugar is my “go to” site for fun workouts that are doable and short. I’ve built muscle and no longer have pain in my lower back or neck as often. I’m not where I need to be yet, but I’m getting there. I’m also using my Pinterest profile to keep track of  workouts I like. Checkl out my Pinterest Health and Fitness board. The inspiration for the sculpted belly I want is the cover picture on this board.

You can also find my board for my novel on my Pinterest page too, but I’ll be posting about that soon.

Any job that requires that we put our job responsibilities above our health and time with important people and activities in our lives is asking too much of us. In those cases the time we invest to accomplish work tasks is not worth the money we make because once we don’t have our health, we can’t be successful at anything. We can’t even enjoy our lives. I truly believe “sitting is the new smoking” because last school year I lived the kind of life that endangered my health.  I allowed my job to take precedence over everything else including my husband, my family, my friends, my art, and my spiritual life. I won’t live that way ever again. I am making a pledge to myself to move more, write more, love more, live more, and work less. I will care for myself first so that I have the energy and health to take care of everything else.

Southern Roots and Northern Blossoms

Hello to my readers and to any new followers I’ve gained recently! Thank you for reading my words. I started this blog two years ago, and I am so glad I did. When I started writing two years ago, I just wanted a place to record my thoughts and practice the habit of writing. Over time, however, I found my voice, and my writing has evolved. Now I mostly write about my journey as a writer, but I also write about my life here in Wisconsin and my memories about the South and sometimes about what is happening in the world that evokes a response from me. I hope you’ll find my posts meaningful and my words at times funny, poignant, interesting, provocative, and encouraging. Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ll follow my journey!

When I moved to the Midwest some 20 years ago, I had no idea what my life would hold. The title of my blog, Southern Roots and Northern Blossoms, came from something my mother’s friend, Shirley Friedman, said to me after I expressed my concerns to her about moving away from all that was familiar and comfortable. I was concerned I wouldn’t be successful away from the South, the only home I had ever known. She said, “Now, sugar, you have southern roots but you’ll have northern blossoms.” She was right. I’ve found success here in all the ways that truly matter, with my friends, my family, my career(s), and my dreams, and I want to share my insights and observations with you, my readers.

Since I moved here, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover both my profession, teaching, and my calling, writing. Though I was always interested in writing–I was an English major after all–I had no idea how to go about writing stories or novels. Then I took a class with Richard Behm at UW-Stevens Point called Teaching Creative Writing, a part of renewing my teacher certification. I discovered my love of creating a story, of bringing into the world something completely original which had never been before. Shortly after taking that class, I proposed, wrote curriculum for, and began teaching a creative writing class to high school students. What I didn’t expect was that I would find my passion for writing in that class. Before that I was a dabbler, a wannabe writer. During and after teaching that class, I took my writing seriously and have now completed my first novel and am working on my second while I revise my first.

If you’re an aspiring author, I hope you’ll find in me a kindred spirit who shares your love of words, images, and stories. I’ll share with you what I’ve learned and also what I’m reading, especially passages that sing. If you’re from the South, I hope you’ll find my memories resonate with you and remind you of aspects of the South that you love. If you’re from the Midwest, I hope you’ll see this region with the same wonder and affection I do, except for winter. I’m not sure I’ll ever appreciate winter.  Expect some sarcasm and occasional whining in that season. 🙂 Wherever you’re from I hope you’ll follow my blog and share your thoughts with me. I’d love to hear from you!

An Ugly four Letter Word: “Busy”

 

Lately I’ve been trying to squeeze social media time in between all the other things that press me throughout the day. Connecting in the early morning before work keeps my screen time to a minimum as long as I don’t get lost somewhere reading articles on Twitter or down the rabbit hole of Pinterest.

I’m always delighted to see when someone pins something I found yummy or helpful or asks to be my friend on Facebook or finds me on Twitter, so this morning I was thrilled to find I had several new Twitter followers. One of them was Bryan Hutchinson, the founder of the blog Positive Writer. Tons of writerly advice from the trenches here!

Many of you may already know Bryan, but if you don’t, you should.When I clicked on his blog yesterday, the post I landed on was written by a guest blogger named Claire De Boer. She writes at The Gift of Writing, but her post at Positive Writer resonated with me, especially at this time of year. School ends in one month, and I have a satchel full of papers that I must finish correcting, but I was so struck by her words and my situation that I had to write. Right then in the midst of my “busyness.”

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write while I teach high school English full-time. One of my colleagues, Jill Sisson Quinn, also a writer, doesn’t think it’s possible to do both. Perhaps she’s right, but I remain ever an optimist even while the fatigue and misanthropy I feel at this time of year threatens to overwhelm me. Often at the end of the day, there is not a glass of wine big enough or a bed cozy enough to accommodate me in the throes of the end of the year rush. Therefore, I often don’t “feel”  like writing.

Often I have small chunks of time to write, but I don’t take the time. Then I justify procrastination because I won’t have time to really dive into my book or concentrate on a blog post or  finish what I start, so what’s the use? I’ve been beating myself up about it lately, too. That’s why what I read today struck me as it did.

I finally think I know why I can’t “just write.” As Claire De Boer puts it, I am disconnected from the source. She says, “When we are overly busy we run on autopilot, not fully present in our emotions or in the moment. And in that lack of presence it becomes almost impossible for our creative side to be seen or heard. As writers busyness is stifling to our craft. It disconnects us from the source of our words – that well deep inside of us that feeds our conscious minds with words.” Well, that makes perfect sense!

Two opposing forces control my life: teaching and writing. Teaching because I chose it as my profession and writing because it fills my well and connects me to my creativity. Lately the well has been empty, and once empty it is hard to find the source for refilling the well.  To be a good teacher, I have to find the time to fill the well. For me, that is writing. To paraphrase Claire’s words, unless my busy life is filled with my passions and space for my creativity and emotions to breathe, I am not serving myself or anybody else in a positive way. Her post helped me see beyond busy and connect my passion with my profession. I won’t be a good teacher if I’m devoid of the passion for language and the written word that drew me to teaching in the first place. That , after all, is what I’m trying to instill in students.

The truth is I have allowed one aspect of my life to completely control the other. I have allowed “busy” to take over my life, and, as a result, I lacked any motivation to write, even when I had a few spare moments. I still have a satchel of papers to correct. More will come in tomorrow. Am I stressed about getting everything finished in time? You bet. Am I glad I took the time to compose this post and share this insight with you? Absolutely! Will I take the time later tomorrow to work on my novel and on my new writing project? Yes. Even in snippets of time and not big stretches.

My well is full. At least, it is filling again. Maybe we all need to be reminded that writing is important, especially when we are “busy.” Writing or practicing any other art form can be a lonely and often solitary pursuit. Sharing insight like Claire did or sharing struggles the way I have done here brings us together as a community. That’s what I love about writers. Sometimes we need to share each other’s words just to know we aren’t alone, to fill the well. The more we spill, the more words will fill the void. Thanks, Claire and Bryan.

Remembering 9/11

  

           On a beautiful September morning I went to school to teach my high school students. During second hour our principal’s voice came over the intercom and directed us to turn on the TVs in our classrooms. Something was happening, but no one knew what. My class full of eleventh graders met in a computer lab, and we all watched in horror as the world Trade Center burned. We knew that people were inside the building, and as we listened to the reporters speculate on what had happened and discuss whether the plane that had hit the tower was a private plane or a jet, the second airliner hit the South Tower. I gasped and so did many other students in the room. Our mouths fell open. For a moment all was silent, and then everyone started talking at once. As we watched, the cameras panned to the first tower which showed people jumping out the windows.

My students became visibly upset, and one of them, Elysia, ran from the room. I went after her and hugged her and tried to comfort her the best I could, but I was filled with anger and also fear and sadness. I felt an enormous responsibility to care for my students and also an overwhelming desire to be home with my husband and my own children hugging them tight. I felt anger at whoever had done this and fear that our country would soon go to war. I knew, as did my students, something was terribly wrong.

That beautiful September morning was twelve years ago today. I am teaching for the second time in my career at the school where I taught the day we were attacked. Since that day is etched in my memory, I couldn’t allow the day to pass without some comment and discussion with my students. When we started talking about the events of 9/11, however, I realized they have no memory of the events of that day. They were only three years old. For them September 11, 2001, is history. For many of us it lives on. That struck me, and I truly didn’t know what to think. I was saddened they were not affected by the memories of that time as I was, but also gladdened by their lack of memory. I never wanted to see the look of heartbreak and fear I saw in Elysia’s eyes in the eyes of another child again. Terrorism for my students today is just a fact of their lives, an inconvenience, something discussed on the news. But for me 9/11 was the event that changed my world and not something I’ll ever regard as “normal.”

As I have grown older, I have learned how precious and fleeting our years here on earth are and I appreciate my time with my friends and family. I wanted to tell my students not to take for granted their family and friends and to live each day as though it were their last because it might be. I wanted to impart what little wisdom I have acquired over the years, to tell them that they should truly live each day and never allow anyone to take away their freedom, but I kept my own counsel. I wondered if perhaps their lack of memory of 9/11 protected them somehow, preserved their innocence and peace, the way children are supposed to live their lives. Perhaps.

I’m not suggesting we should ever forget that beautiful, terrible September day. We shouldn’t. It would dishonor the memory of those we lost in that great tragedy. Those of us old enough to remember never will forget. That day is seared into the memory of all who witnessed it. We can never go back to the way America was before 9/11, but perhaps in the eyes of our nation’s children we can glimpse a piece of that lost innocence and peace and remember when.

Is This Writer’s Block?

I’ve Hit the Wall

I’ve hit a wall with my writing. Somehow I feel empty, as though the creative well has run dry. Maybe it’s because I’ve finally finished my novel and am in the revision stage—the hardest stage for me I’ve discovered. Maybe it’s because we went on a wonderful vacation to Norway which I’ve been uninspired to write about, or because I brought home a horrible cold which turned into bronchitis and am still recovering. Maybe it’s because I will be teaching again in the fall and my mind has already turned to what I will have to teach rather than turning inward to my creative inner world. Whatever the reason, I feel lost, like a part of my soul is missing.

After the past year of being unemployed I had the utter luxury of spending every day for as long as I needed or wanted to work on my manuscript. I know others write in the wee hours after their families are in bed. Still others write early in the morning before their families get up, but I have had the complete fantasy writing gig of getting my husband off to work, walking the dog or running, then coming home to spend all afternoon writing. At times I’m embarrassed I only finished a novel, but I know how lucky I’ve been.

Help!

I’m writing this post for help! What words of wisdom do my fellow writers have for me concerning revision? What can I do to prime the pump and feel the richness of my imagination flowing forth again? How can I set up a new routine in the midst of working a demanding teaching job; where can I carve out those moments I need to survive?

With only a month left before I go back to the classroom, I want to accomplish as much as possible. I’ve decided to come up with a pretty regimented schedule which will include free writing and also beginning a new project. Revision is rewarding. I can finally see the whole picture and understand what must be changed and moved and tweaked and refined, but spilling a first draft onto the page is different. I miss being wrapped and rapt in the creative vision.

The Plan

Here’s the plan I’ve set forth for now to overcome my creative paralysis. If you have suggestions, please tell me. If you have words of wisdom, please let me know.

  1. Begin the writing day with free writing exercise or prompt for 10-20 minutes a day. I have to do something to prime the pump!
  2. Revise my novel for at least one hour/day, more if the work is going well, which I hope will be most days.
  3. Work on queries and synopsis for one hour per day.
  4. Work on social media for one hour per day to promote my author platform.
  5. Work on my blog one hour /day.

I need to crush this wall before it crushes me, so I’m putting this plan into action for now.  I’ll adjust if the writing or revising is going poorly or well, but I do want to accomplish my goals for this year. What routines have you come up with that help nurture your writing in the midst of chaos, a job, or the demands of life?