Sunday, September 30, 2012

What happens when a dream catches up with you

There he was: Avi, the one-named author of more than 70 books for children and young adults, whose massive output includes The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, one of the novels that inspired me to become a writer. He was standing right there, being friendly, normal, and impossibly human.

I, meanwhile, couldn't breathe.

And while I was busy not breathing -- instead reliving the many hours I spent with Charlotte Doyle wondering how I could make that same magic happen across sheets of paper -- the tent filled with other word nerds of all ages who had flocked to the National Book Festival that weekend to celebrate stories well told.

Ever the overemotional ninny, I watched child after child crowd the microphone, eager to ask Avi their burning questions: What inspires your characters? How do you do your research? How many drafts do you write? What's your favorite part of writing? Have you ever run into any legal problems?

Avi was splendid with them -- always interested, never condescending, and clear and direct with all his responses. He respected every child first as themselves, second as his readers, and third as his "potential competition" in another few years.

As Avi shared his wit and wisdom with the overflowing tent, I welled up for a different, more profound reason. "Oh my god," I realized. "I can do this. This is a thing. And it's my thing. I can write and tell stories and touch people and talk to them and encourage them to do the same. I want this to be my life. This should be my life."

The conviction behind the thought overwhelmed me. I wasn't considering my day job or personal development; I wasn't project-managing the situation. I was simply stating what I wanted more deeply than anything else in the world.

The epiphany scared me shitless.

Knowing your goal, finding your tribe, acknowledging that what you want most in the world is absolutely okay to pursue because if the idea of it thrills you, imagine what reality will deliver ... that combination of ideas and lightning bolts has to be the most exhilirating and terrifying thing I've ever experienced (especially in a tent).

I have marching orders insofar as I've been ordered to march. I don't know where or how yet, and frankly, am not even sure how to figure it out.

It strikes me that an appropriate first step would be to write something awesome that only I can write. An appropriate second step would be to get it published before I leave this mortal coil.

Beyond that, I think I will have to make it up as I go.

So what now? What do I do after crying at Avi? All I have is a vision of me standing in a tent on the National Mall someday, speaking with children about books, imagination, and the mattering of words.

But that might be enough. Because that's what happens when a dream catches up with you in Technicolor HD 3D Smell-o-vision. You jump between wild hope and abject terror. You try to discern which questions are worth answering first, later, or never. You fend off the pitchfork-wielding self-doubt just long enough to get the job done.

You believe it in your heart, and you keep knowing it.

Sounds good. Let's start there.

Prayer #226: Vision

I have planted this vision in your heart, and it is meant for you, and you alone.

You will rail against me in frustrated moments. You will shove me aside in short-sighted weakness. You will question your judgement, and my judgement, and everyone else's judgement, and wonder why you're sticking to a plan you can't see and don't understand.

Through all this I promise: the vision is yours, and yours alone.

Because when you succeed -- when all the gears click into place and unlatch the hidden chamber where I stacked your nascent abilities and you placed your wildest dreams for safekeeping  -- then you will thank me for revealing to you early on not your results, but your potential.


Thursday, September 20, 2012

An open letter to my graduate school professors

Dear Professors Turnbull, Walleye, Haruspex, Conflagrate, and other silly-named unknowns:

You don't all know me yet, but I'm Julia. Hi. I'll be in your Masters in Writing (Fiction) program for the next three years or so. Thank you, first off, for admitting me; you boosted my confidence, gave me hope, and took a large wad of cash from me within a matter of months. It was quite special.

I know you see a lot of students flow in and out of this part-time program as their schedules and daily lives permit, so I wanted to help you recognize me by offering these personal identifiers:

  • I will be the young-ish woman sitting as near to you as possible in the classroom without veering into Police "Don't Stand So Close to Me" territory. You may spot me leaning forward a lot, boring my eyes into your sweaty forehead and uncombed hair. This is not a come-on. This is me paying attention.
  • I will often be the first to raise my hand in response to your questions. Sometimes you won't even ask a question and I'll still raise my hand. I really like raising my hand. It makes me feel involved.
  • My gel pens are multi-colored. I don't doodle with them, but I do take rainbow-esque notes a) to maintain my own interest and b) to make myself feel more "creative." To that end, I might show up to class one day in Birkenstocks and a caftan.
  • I chose to enter this program because creativity frightens me. I'm terrified of unleashing the beast. So I'm devoting the little disposable income I do have to seek your counsel and discipline-instilling ways. Tell me I can do it. Tell me I must do it. Tell me to do it. Period. Especially when I'm too afraid to start.
  • If you get a writing submission in and it's kinda funny, it's probably me. An undergrad screenwriting professor once told me to sneak up on the big themes through humor (rather than through the underdeveloped, overwrought pomposity I was spewing at the time, though he was kind enough to not say that). When I allow myself to be funny, I relax; it seems to help the flow of things, and, as an added benefit, spares you another self-wallowing manuscript about deep thoughts.
  • I do improv. You might think this has no bearing on your class, but it does, because IMPROV AND WRITING ARE TURNING OUT TO BE EXACTLY THE SAME. Heightening. Consistent character choices. Strong initiations. Beats. Rise and fall. Points of view. It's all the same, except one puts me on the stage and one puts me on the page. Also, it means I will make random side comments in class that strike me as hilarious and everyone else as pathetic.
  • I've been waiting for this day since I was five years old. Not just the first day, but every day I get to sit in class and become what I've always wanted to be. Every journal, every blog post, every manuscript, every library visit, every night spent reading has led to this moment. I might wet my pants from the unceasing excitement. Just a warning.
  • I have a voice. Yes, everyone in the class does, I know. But mine is a little on the deeper side, not overly polished, and prone to loudness. I have found this voice carrying over to my writing too. My question to you is, am I using my voice the "right" way? Am I maximizing it? Can you tell it's me inside that story?
  • One day I will be published. Many of your students say it, but fewer achieve it. I will be one of the few. I'm just saying "one day" at the moment because it's open-ended and non-specific. It gives me plenty of time and room to fail miserably. You may no longer be in a classroom or even walking this earth when I finally deliver my firstborn writing creation, but I promise you, I will scream so loudly in exaltation you'll hear me wherever you are.
  • I have big hair. It's brown. Maintain a safe distance for your own protection.

Thank you in advance for nurturing my nascent ability, i.e. slogging through my pablum. I promise to make you proud -- or at least not make you cry.

Your in word nerdiness,


Prayer #225: Back to School

Write me in chalk. File me in a folder. Sit me on the Bunsen burner and turn the heat up high. The mind is a terrible thing to waste, but so is time. So help me learn all I can, as I can, for I can. Education is a right, yet still a gift; keep me mindful of its power.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Make me as magnanimous as the sea

To learn how to thrive in this manic world, look to the ocean.

The ocean is sensory abundance. It sucks in your feets with gloopy mud and pelts your eardrums with bird chatter. It crafts alien sandscapes, ridged underfoot, that mimic rocks, mountains, and lunar plains in temporary miniature. The tidal pools end up warmer than the air; the silverfish glisten like lost New Year's earrings in the shallow holding pens.

The ocean works in concert with the sky. Together they shovel air and cast reflections. They take turns indicating what the other might do. There'd be no horizon if they didn't get along.

The ocean doesn't apologize for its off days or excuse its angrier moments. It already knows it is fiercer, gentler, and braver than you can ever hope to be. Such awareness breeds power, to be used with discretion, and the ocean proceeds with caution.

The ocean carries primordial insight that ignores humanity's fussy mechanations and proceeds in time-tested, universe-proven, prediction-busting ways. We forecast the times of tides, yet we can't foretell what they will create or expose. To accept what emerges is the height of vulnerability.

The ocean is generous and expansive. It doesn't judge its guests, because if you've come that close, it must mean you can handle it. So handle it you will -- surprising everyone but the ocean.

Above all, the ocean nudges you to drop the pretense and relax against a force you know can hold you. And you're ok with that. Because once the wind and waves have stripped you bare, and the sand has sloughed off your crusty skin, only then do you breathe, as if for the first time.

Prayer #224: Shell Game

I found a blue jean shell on the shore, all denim swirls and azure strata. It winked wet in the sun, and I could tell it found comfort in the nearby crash of the waves. It was still near its home, near the once and future forces shaping it.

But when I took the blue jean shell back to my shelf, away from the water and driving wind, it blanched -- shocked, I think, to no longer hear the rhythmic pitches of the tides or gather salty droplets on its chipped edges.

The ocean, with its ubiquitous magnitude, achieved what my short-sighted, jealous adoration could not: It put its smallest tenant in the brightest light. It offered context, history, creation, destruction, a full era to create dazzling beauty. Whereas I attempted to freeze a moment, and in doing so, froze a life.

Lord, make me as magnanimous as the sea. Let me appreciate natural beauty as I find it, and never attempt to remove or change precisely what attracted me to its splendor in the first place.

But more than that, set my small mind adrift. And instead, cultivate a mindset that acknowledges a big picture I will never fully grasp, in a boundless world I will never fully see -- though, by God, I will try.