Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Colluding with my Characters

Unsplash via Pixabay
When it comes to writing, I'm a pantser (as in "flying by the seat of my pants"), making things up as I go along. I've tried to write from a synopsis because it seemed like the responsible, professional thing to do, but I always end up frustrated. My characters are far too opinionated to amble with me down a predetermined path and so we end up at a fork in the road. One way leads to the ending I've planned out, while the other leads to adventure and collusion with my characters.

Clearly, I have a preference.

It's this collusion with my characters that takes the place of a synopsis for me. I'm terrible at planning the plot of a story, but I'm methodical about creating my characters. Before I write a word, I know exactly who will be populating my story, and a great deal about what they will and won't do. I used to flatter myself, believing that I knew everything about them before I started, but, over time, I've discovered that they're as dynamic as real people. If I don't allow them to grow and change, my story goes nowhere.

Sometimes, it seems as though my best ideas come from out of nowhere. One night last week, for example, a scene presented itself as I was trying to fall asleep. It was nothing I'd ever considered, yet it was exactly where I needed to go.

This was no accident, and it wasn't as "out of nowhere" as it seemed. Over the last several months, I've been conscientiously honing my writing habit, working to create a schedule that, although less than ideal, gives me regular access to the characters I've created. The scene that presented itself was a result of regular collusion with my characters, through dialogue, description and the details of their lives.

Into every writer's life, at least a little structure must fall. For me, a little structure is indeed best. because it leaves room for my characters to grow.

So, ask me anything about one of my characters. If I don't know the answer, I know enough to collude with them to find it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Is Everybody Happy?
Are you happy?

In the first year seminar I teach, we spend a lot of time talking about happiness. We read Gretchen Rubin's book, The Happiness Project, analyzing the strategies she employs to inject a bit more happiness into what she readily admits at the outset is a pretty happy life. 

Rubin has done her homework and, as a result, her strategies are wrapped in a research-based package. Using Rubin's book as a jumping off point, we investigate happiness from a social science perspective, looking at happiness through the lens of positive psychology. As we discuss the author's month-by-month goals, we develop our own, and the students conclude the unit--and the semester-- with happiness projects of their own. 

These are, as you can imagine, a joy to read. They arrive in PowerPoints and Prezis, posters and scrapbooks. Last semester, I even got a jar filled with daily observations. 

From The How of Happiness
by Sonja Lyubomirsky
Happiness is a funny thing. Very much within our control, it nevertheless eludes many of us. Some folks are mired in circumstances that seem to push happiness out of reach. Others consider such pursuits frivolous. And, in many cases, as we bend our heads and put our noses to the grindstone, we fail to see the happiness that would encompass us if we'd only lift our heads. 

Despite the fact that happiness has health and longevity benefits, many are afraid to pursue it, believing, perhaps, that it's a childish thing that belongs back in the recess yard with jump ropes, swing sets and tetherball poles.

And that, to me, is sad.

A wonderful thing happens when my students and I dissect happiness. We--all of us, including the instructor--find myriad things to be happy about. Admittedly, these are young people, not many years removed from that recess yard, but they, too are mired. They have jobs and loans and full course loads, some of which require them to put in longer hours than they ever will once they're gainfully employed at just one job. They work, they worry, they study, they stress. 

Finding happiness in the midst of this can be challenging, but discovering what makes them happy as individuals, whether it's gratitudes or platitudes or figuring out how to balance their crazy schedules-- becomes a tool that counterbalances the worry and the stress. More important, it becomes a life lesson. Happiness matters, and taking charge of their own happiness is just as important as managing time and money and creating a balance between work and play. And when all of these things are wrapped up together and tied with a bow, some might call that success.

Are you happy? And, if you aren't, what would change that?

Friday, March 17, 2017

Friday Feature: Climate Change and Health

When I think of climate change, I think of dramatic weather events. Really hot summers and really cold winters. Snow storms in March that follow weeks of spring-like weather.

I never really stopped to consider the impact of all of this on health.

Not surprisingly, doctors have. A group of doctors has come together, in fact, to form a consortium that helps educate people about the potential effects of climate change on health -- physical and mental, immediate and long term, local and global.

As with anything else, some populations are more at-risk than others. The young. The old. The vulnerable.

In general, I'm a good news kind of person. I much prefer the happy stuff to the scary stuff, but, when it comes to risk, I want to know what the factors are, because that's the best way to avoid them and stay healthy.

I can't change climate change by myself, but I can stay informed. And, as a parent and educator, not to mention a citizen, I think it's my job to do just that.

And I'm really glad there are medical professionals out there who care enough to make it easier for me to do my job.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

On Jersey Girls, Writers and Social Media

As a writer, I spend a lot of time cultivating a professional online presence. This blog, which doubles as my website. Facebook. Twitter. Pinterest. LinkedIn. In general, I try to follow the standard rule of thumb: don't put anything on your page you'd be embarrassed for your grandmother to see.

As I'm old enough to be a grandmother myself, that's not usually too difficult. I have no desire to post things that are vulgar or graphic, and I try not to post things that I suspect will hurt other people's feelings. 

Lately, though, I've been feeling passionate about a lot that's going on in the world. Perhaps it's the stage of life I'm in. As the parent of a young adult, I look at a lot of things through the lens of how it will affect her and her future. As an instructor at a college, I urge my students to view things through this lens as well. And I feel the need to speak out about things that bother me, whether it's to spread the word, express an opinion or spark conversation and inspire critical thinking.

Toward that end, I keep separate personal and professional Facebook pages and I try to keep politics off my professional page. But Facebook is something of an open book, making it easy to be found, and there is tremendous crossover between my friends (real world and Facebook) and my readers.

The other day, as I scrolled through my personal page to find a post I'd put up more than a month ago, I got to take in the big picture. As I moved past posts about education, equality and health care intermingled with silly Facebook quizzes, family stuff and humorous videos, it hit me.

This page is me. It clearly represents what matters to me in terms of people and issues and life. As such, it accomplishes exactly what the Dag Hammarskjold quote above describes.

Which is what I aspire to.

Toward that end, I'll continue to keep separate personal and professional Facebook pages, with my writer page being an island of books, writing and things relevant to those two topics. My Twitter feed is a mix of the personal and the professional, with what I hope is an undercurrent of respect. Pinterest is just for fun -- all pictures, no politics -- and LinkedIn is purely professional. Somehow, I seem to have achieved a social media presence akin to a conservative financial portfolio -- one where I don't shy away from risks, but rather, make sure my risky investments are counterbalanced by safe ones.

I hope you'll join me online in whatever location interests you most. More important, I hope you know that I appreciate everyone who takes the time to read my work, and that I will do my best to make sure maintain a tone of respect wherever you may find me, regardless of any difference of opinion or point of view.

But, as a 50-something Jersey girl, I just can't stay silent.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Snow Day Preparation

WGAL News 8 Storm Team via Facebook
The winter storm forecast being shouted from the rooftops in my area has left me with an eerie sense of calm. If the forecasts are right, the snow should start in plenty of time to make class cancellations a no-brainer, leaving me with the magic of a snow day.

Having spent most of my life in public education, I truly appreciate that magic. No alarm clocks. No lesson plans. A day to be spent in whatever pursuits appeal to me, guilt-free. (Clearly, I'm not the snow removal expert at my house).

These days, snow days are even better. Since my career in public education has been replaced by a teaching job at a private college, I'm no longer at the mercy of a school board schedule that makes me trade in my Easter vacation for my safety. If my classes are canceled tomorrow, I need to ramp up my teaching, but no one takes away those two prized days in April I've been looking forward to since President's Day.

But I digress...sort of.

Even before I was a semi-retired empty nester, a snow day was a writing day. I vividly remember sitting in my office, finishing edits for Diverse Divorce while my husband (the outdoor parent, in my sister's parlance) entertained my daughter. Those snow days (yes, plural) were perfectly timed, allowing me to meet a writing deadline while still working full time.
Diane's Little Free Library via Facebook

These days, snow days are one of the times that I know I made the right choice. Retiring was one of the most difficult decisions I ever made, one that came with financial, social and emotional ramifications that continue to resonate. Despite all of that, I love where I ended up, and snow days remind me of that.

So tomorrow, I plan to live the dream. My husband and I plan to follow the recommendation to stay home (although I can't speak for my daughter, currently spending spring break in Washington DC). We'll work from home, at our own pace, enjoying what all reports seem to agree will be a marshmallow world.

As long as the electricity stays on.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Friday Feature: Temple Grandin

One of the advantages of living near a college is that you have access to interesting speakers.

One of the advantages of working at a college is that you sometimes get invited to small group sessions with those speakers.

Today, I got to do both.

Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, who is perhaps as famous for her outspokenness about her autism as her business and teaching, spoke at York College tonight. This afternoon, I got to participate in a Q & A.

Pretty cool.

If you haven't heard of Dr. Grandin, check out
this piece in The New Yorker about not just Dr. Grandin, but about autism itself.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Happy International Women's Day!
Today is International Women's Day. According to my Amazon Echo Dot, which gives me a fun fact every morning, today is "a day to celebrate the amazing achievements of women around the world."

Kind of impressive.

"Alexa," my Echo Dot software, had a follow-up this morning, too, prompting me to ask, "Alexa, who inspires you?" The answers ranged from women I'd heard of (Sally Ride, Simone Biles, Melinda Gates) to others I had to look up (Jane McGonigal, Grace Brewster Murray Hopper).

Today (which is not the first International Women's Day, by the way), women around the world are marking the day by rallying or striking. Limiting purchases to small, women-owned businesses to make their economic impact clear. Wearing red.

Today is not a scheduled work day for me, so I didn't have to make the decision to work or not to work. I forgot to wear red, and at my local Starbucks (not a small, woman-owned business, I'm sorry to say) all of the baristas (today) are female.

Today is a scheduled writing day for me, and I am digging in with abandon. While I admire the women who are rallying and raising their voices for women everywhere, I prefer to raise my voice, so to speak, here. All of those women Alexa told me about today became women we recognize and admire because they pursued their passions. They worked hard at the things that mattered to them and, as a result, their impact was felt in a big way.

I don't expect that I'll ever make the impact on writing that Simone Biles has made on gymnastics, and I'm okay with that. And honestly, if today was a teaching day for me, I would have gone to work. To me, educating all those young women (and men) in my classes and empowering them to go out and change the world, even if only in a small way, is exactly how I want to spend my day.

International Women's Day, in my mind, ought to be about the freedom to spend the day and celebrate it in the way that feels right to each person. If you want to rally and raise your voice, you should. As for me, I'm spending my day writing with a (female) friend because celebrating that part of me is what feels right. I will call my mother and my daughter and reach out to my sister and other female friends because it's not just the Sally Rides and the Jane McGonigals of at the world who empower others and make the world a better place.

So today, however you do it, celebrate the women you know. Let them know that they matter. Tip your baristas and servers and put away your cell phone when you're ordering. Thank your mother, celebrate your daughters and sisters.

Tell the women you know why they make the world a better place. And thank them for it.