Saturday, December 31, 2005

Donuts, Country Dancing, and Life

I had wonderful donuts this week at the Lone Star bakery in Round Rock, just north of Austin. Some say these are the best donuts in Austin! I don’t indulge in this kind of thing often, but my daughter was here and it was one more thing for us to discover—along with the wonderful people who run the bakery.

Yesterday we went to Natural Bridge Caverns and then San Antonio. I’d been to the Alamo and Riverwalk before but my daughter and her friend had not. We ate at a wonderful cafĂ© and then they went off to see the Alamo while I walked around, reliving the emotions I’d felt my first time through when I was on my cross country odyssey, looking for where I wanted to live. We had planned to go on to Bandera, a cowboy town, but it would have been too far so we headed back to Austin and a place my daughter found listed in the guidebook.

The Broken Spoke, in South Austin, is famous for good food and country dancing. It was a family kind of place and one of the things that struck me was how happy everyone was. I’ve never seen so many men who like to dance and who are really good at it! I also loved seeing so many older couples (as well as young couples) dancing, the affection between them still strong and unmistakable. I loved that sons danced with mothers and grandmothers and daughters danced with fathers and grandfathers. It was a place filled with laughter and joy and music that was impossible to resist. It was midnight before we made it home because none of us wanted to leave.

I’m not sure what made me smile most—the music with sometimes outrageous lyrics or the unmistakable atmosphere of love in that place. How often do we see such visible affection between couples who have clearly been together a long time? How often do we see a roomful of people all laughing and having fun, kids and young adults, adults and older people all together? It was reassuring to know these things are still possible.

Today in downtown Austin is First Night—a family oriented New Year’s Eve celebration with everything from drumming at midnight to fireworks to a parade, artwork, music, even a Segway ballet!

One again, I find myself profoundly grateful to be here in Austin.


Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Cowboys, Flat Tires, and Murder for Fun

First the flat tire. I was coming off the freeway and heard something, then felt the effects of a tire suddenly losing air. Fortunately, I WAS coming off the freeway and managed to pull into a gas station. Unfortunately, the gas station did not sell tires. The nearest place that did sell tires was a few more miles down the road daughter assured me she knew how to change a tire. But a really nice guy stopped and did much of the work. Then, someone else offered to help, too. (Have I mentioned before how NICE people in Austin are?) The tire had a large puncture hole and clearly was not going to be fixable. My daughter finished up the getting the mini tire on, removed the jack and we were off to find a place that sold tires. We did. They were quick and it cost only $28 dollars. Again, I was struck by how nice everyone was.

The cowboys? Well, we’ll be going to Bandero, a cowboy town, in a couple of days. My daughter suggested it so we’ll take a day trip before she leaves to go back north. I’m sure I’ll be posting about that afterwards!

Finally murder for fun. My daughter and I are having lots of fun brainstorming a possible mystery plot for a party. I did this when she was growing up—created a couple of murder mysteries for her birthday parties. This is the same idea but more people and more complicated plot. We’ve got clues and motives and methods and characters and scenarios and we’re having a great time thinking up fiendish things to do to people.

Like any mother and daughter, we have had our moments of discord over the years. Now we’re able to be friends and I’m really enjoying that. I love discovering Austin with her. Every day she’s here is an adventure and a chance to discover each other as people as well as mother and daughter.

Wishing all of you some wonderful adventures with people in your life you love—though without, I hope, the flat tires!


Friday, December 23, 2005

Small Miracle

I was at the post office and on the way to the grocery store (I thought!) when I decided to check what the local Goodwill had for sale. I still need end tables and a coffee table after all. Well, I didn’t find those but I did find a chair. I found a green plush swivel rocker in surprisingly good shape and only $27. So, naturally, it came home with me—to heck with the grocery store!

A nice employee put the chair in the trunk for me and tied the trunk so it wouldn’t fly open since obviously the lid couldn’t close. It goes perfectly in my living room—just in time for my daughter’s visit with friends. After they are gone and/or when I get new, nicer furniture for my living room, then this chair can go in the sitting area of my master bedroom.

It was a lucky find--a small miracle, you might say. So was the discovery that my property taxes would be less than I expected this year. I’m really pleased about that, as you can imagine!

One reason I share all of this—aside from the fact that many of you have read my earlier posts about decorating woes—is that I’d been feeling a bit frazzled over a number of things. It would have been easy to slip into the mentality that things always go wrong. Instead, I find myself celebrating what can go right. Finding the chair and the good news about my property taxes makes that so much easier.

This is, as I have said before, a season that many groups associate with miracles. But miracles aren’t limited to the past. We can have wonderful surprises that are, in a sense, mini-miracles in our own lives. So...what I wish for all of you is that this is a season of miracles—big or small—in YOUR lives.


Monday, December 19, 2005

Writing--Scenes, Characters, and Revisions

Writing, at least the initial stages, is fun. We create characters we adore and have them do things that delight us. If we love research, we write scenes that show off what we’ve learned.

Then comes the hard part—editing. An important question to ask, as we go through the revision process, is: What purpose does this character and/or scene serve? How does it advance the emotional arc of the story and/or how does it advance the plot? Ideally it does both.

If you don’t have an answer—give the scene or character a purpose for being there. There is almost always a way to do so. If you can’t, then take it out, but only as a last resort and do NOT throw it away! Keep a file—hardcopy or on your computer—of scenes or characters you remove. It’s possible that you will realize, as you go on, that the scene or character was important after all.

Note: I strongly believe that the ideal strategy for revising a story or novel is to do a quick read through NOT making changes but rather making notes about changes you THINK you will need to make! When you get to the end, look at your list. Which is the most important change? Concentrate on that change—NO MATTER WHERE IN THE STORY IT OCCURS! Every change you make will have a ripple effect on the story. If you make the most important (global) changes first, you will end up doing a lot less work and some of the smaller issues may disappear once the global change is made.

So remember, every character, every scene must serve a purpose both in the emotional arc of the story or the external plot or both.

Happy writing!


Friday, December 16, 2005

Rediscovering Self

I used to love to cook. I used to love to create my own recipes. Somewhere along the way, I lost that. Somewhere along the way I got so tired of being criticized for what I made or making it and not getting anyone to come to eat until it got cold that I stopped cooking. I definitely stopped creating new dishes. And I thought maybe I just didn’t like to cook or wasn’t very good at it.

As those of you who used to get my trip reports know, the past couple of years have been years of discovery for me. Well, it’s still happening. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve discovered that I love making home made chicken soup. I adapted a recipe for shortbread cookies that came out really well. I made home made shepherd’s pie—from scratch and without any recipe to tell me what to put in or how long to cook it or at what temperature. I made Finnish coffee bread again—from a recipe I’ve had for years.

I’m rediscovering that I not only like to cook but that I do know instinctively what will work when I create things from scratch without a recipe or adapt a recipe to something I will like better.

All of which may seem unimportant except...except that it is part of rediscovering who I am and what I can do. As I made the Finnish coffee bread to take to a writers group Christmas party, part of me was still afraid it wasn’t going to be good enough. It still came as a surprise when people raved about how good it was. I was just as surprised when someone commented at the cookie exchange at how good my Finnish shortbread cookies were. And I realized I couldn’t remember when someone last said that to me about anything I made.

I love cooking. I love creating my own recipes—like the shepherd’s pie and the chicken soup. This is who I really am. And as I look around my lovely open kitchen and the new set of knives on the counter and the new casserole dishes and cooking pans in the cupboards, I smile. I’m going to enjoy using all of them. I’m going to enjoy discovering new foods to make, new foods to share with the new friends in my life.

I wish for all of you that you are discovering or rediscovering things you love to do. I wish for all of you that if you have stopped doing things you once loved—especially if it was because those around you didn’t value what you did—that you take a chance and try again whatever it was you gave up. I wish for you that part of the magic of this season and of the coming year will be that you, too, rediscover those things that once mattered to you and could matter again.


Friday, December 09, 2005

Writing What Matters to You

I did title this blog Writing and Life so...time to talk about writing.

I’ve noticed is that most of us who are writers write. We don’t worry too much about why we choose certain themes or characters and sometimes it’s because that’s what our contract says. And it usually works fine—until we get into an argument with an editor over changes or make changes we’re asked to make and realize we aren’t happy about it.

One of the things I stress in my writing workshops now, because I’ve learned it the hard way, is that it is useful to know why we are writing a particular story. And to write the answer down. If we get discouraged with what we are writing (and every writer does at times), we can look at that answer and it can help us keep going—IF the story matters enough to us. It can also help if we are trying to make plot choices or discuss possible changes with an editor or agent. If we have a clear vision of what we are trying to say, we are more likely to be able to find a solution that satisfies everyone—including us.

You may not know when you start to write why a particular story is important to you or what you most want to say or what idea you most want to explore. And that’s okay. What I am saying is that it is useful to ask the question because then you are more likely to get an answer and your story is more likely to be powerful in the way that you want it to be.

I am NOT suggesting polemics! I am not suggesting heavy handed theme loaded works! If we write fiction, our first job is to entertain. And paradoxically, if we entertain well enough, our ideas are more likely to find fertile ground. If our characters are real to our readers, if our readers can empathize with and understand why our characters feel and do as they do, then our readers are more likely to be sympathetic to whatever it is we are writing about.

So entertain. Keep that foremost in your mind if you write fiction. And also ask yourself what is important to YOU about the story you are writing. I have never regretted writing some of the things I never sold because I was writing what I loved. I have published works where I made changes I didn’t want to make and I was glad to have the sale. But the books I love the most, the ones I smile when I look at the covers, these are the books where I knew what I was writing about and why it was important to me. These are also the books that readers write to me most often about and which seem to touch the most hearts.

When we write what we care about, readers seem to instinctively know and gravitate to those stories. It is possible to do it entirely by instinct and heaven knows I have my share of those books. It was, however, more fun when I knew why I was writing a particular story--and you know how much I believe in having fun in whatever we choose to do!

So if you write, whenever you write, ask yourself: Why does this matter to me? And once you know, find a way to stay true to that answer.


Sunday, December 04, 2005


Did I get your attention? Good because what I love about this season is that we’re encouraged to think about joy and happiness as well as love and peace. I believe, to the bottom of my heart, that every change we want to make is more likely to occur if we find some way to bring joy into the process.

Which reminds me, some of you have privately expressed concern about my last couple of posts and I wanted to comment on that. Something in my own life that was very important to me recently got worked out and in part because I did speak up to someone. Fear and conflict are also things that come up, over and over, when I coach people about life so decided to post about it here. My apologies if I worried anyone!

It is, of course, easier to speak of things that can be difficult when we have looked at and put to rest our own fears and when we start from a base of knowing that we can create joy in our lives. So...

Back to joy. When I look at my Christmas tree, I smile because it reminds me of the magic I could feel as a child when anything seemed possible at this time of year. When I see a Menorah, I am reminded that miracles are possible. When I hear children sing about peace on earth, I am reminded that if we all held this in our hearts all year round, there wouldn’t be any wars.

It’s easy to get caught up in the “shoulds” of the season. We should have perfect family gatherings. We should find perfect presents for everyone on our list. We should bake innumerable cookies for school and neighborhood and church events. We should send out Christmas cards ON TIME. We should...

What if we step back and focus on the joy and the love and the possibilities instead? What if we focus on the best of what every religion has taught—that we are all connected and that within us is a spark of the divine? What if we focus on the message that we can create miracles if we trust in that divine spark and look to ourselves to help to change the world, moment by moment, in our own lives by living the love and joy and peace we sing about at this time of year?

If we are focused on that, odds are we will find just the right token to show those we care about that they are important to us. We will send out cards because we feel secure in who we are and want to reach out and connect with people in our lives. We will be able to let this season be whatever it turns out to be and not worry if it isn’t perfect. In other words, we can truly enjoy it again.

Wishing all of you joy and peace and love now and throughout the year ahead.


Saturday, December 03, 2005

Trouble, Part 2

So many of us, if we are worried about the feelings of others, tend not to say what’s on our minds, sometimes. We think we are being kind. The problem is that if we do not say what troubles us, odds are we will never resolve it and the result can be relationships that fall apart because we are trying to be kind.

Note: I am NOT advocating endless venting. I am not advocating clinging to hurt feelings and telling the world all about it. What I am talking about is the kind of telling where we say what we feel looking for a solution and we listen, really listen to the response.

Sometimes there are no solutions. Fears are colliding and/or the issues cannot be resolved. If we have talked about it with the person, at least we will be clear what the situation is and we need not have regrets or second guess ourselves if we walk away.

Very rarely do our words come as a surprise to the other person—that’s the most important thing to realize if we think we are being kind by staying silent. The other person has almost always sensed that there was some kind of problem. In the end, if we do get up the courage to raise the issue, often the other person feels a sense of relief to finally have it out in the open.

Again, I am not talking about endlessly obsessing. I am not talking about trying to get the other person to admit they have done wrong. I am talking about clarifying situations and setting boundaries and sorting out perceptions of what has happened and how the individuals involved really feel. It is important then to listen as well as to speak!

All of us see life through the filters of our past experience. No matter how hard we try to be objective, we cannot help having some distortion. Sometimes that distortion protects us and lets us move forward when if we truly saw things clearly we could not! Other times, though, those filters get in the way, preventing us from having the relationships we want to have or do the things we want to do.

It takes courage to let go of our favorite filters. It takes courage and the willingness to listen to others to rewrite our perception of the world. When we do so, we often lose what has felt like our protection for so long and yet, if we do find that courage, often we can rebuild our lives and our relationships on a stronger basis than before.

I have said before that it is the assumptions we never think to question that trip us up. Not listening, not speaking, these can reinforce those assumptions. When we do speak and we do listen, we may find those assumptions being pulled to the forefront and we have the chance to ask ourselves if they are really true and whether or not they are continuing to serve us well. We may hear things we don’t want to hear and yet that may be the only way we can grow and move forward.

Trouble occurs when fears collide and fears can often keep us silent. How much better to find the courage to speak in spite of our fears and discover, perhaps, that many of our fears have been groundless? Even if they are not, at least we will know and once we know we can move from being trapped within our fears to taking action to dealing with whatever the reality may be.

Speak always with kindness, but speak. And then listen. When we run from our fears, they gain power over us. When we face our fears, we gain power over them. Here’s wishing you the courage and wisdom to find ways to face your fears and to build even stronger relationships with the people you care about.