Where am I now?

I was recently asked to write an update for Penn Writer, a publication of the Pennwriters organization, about the impact its writing contest had on my writing life. It was excellent opportunity to reflect. So here it is:

The 2017 Pennwriters Novel Beginnings Contest came at a critical time for me. I was feeling down about the business and about my role in it. I had just parted ways with my agent of four years in search of pressure-free time to regroup and figure out whether I even had a future as an author. I entered the contest because I wanted validation. So, I was thrilled when No Stranger Here won first place and A Dead Man’s Eyes won second place.

My agent had submitted both those novels to publishers. The general response was that they enjoyed my writing, but that the novels weren’t quite commercial enough for the current mystery/thriller market. I had previously accepted that verdict, but those wins inspired me to dig deeper into genres as they are defined by publishers.  I succeeded in finding published novels like mine, ranging from mid-list to best sellers, and I contacted some of their authors. I learned their works were not initially promoted by agents as mysteries, but as women’s fiction or as southern fiction. Book sellers generally market them as both.

That revelation revived me, but I wasn’t ready to submit those novels again just yet. I had revised them so many times in attempts to appease major publishing houses that I felt the need for some distance. Instead, I started a new novel with a better feel for the expectations of mystery/thriller market. My progress has been slowed by a teaching gig at a local university and by the usual challenges of raising four kids, but I am now 20,000 words from the finish. I am confident that this new novel is more “commercial” than my previous works, but I don’t feel that I sacrificed the strength of the character arc to get there. It feels balanced. I feel better about my previously completed novels as well. I have even submitted No Stranger Here and A Dead Man’s Eyes to a few small publishers, though they remain in limbo.

Along with insight and confidence, I gained a whole new group of writer-friends thanks to the Pennwriters contest. With the contest wins came free registration to the 2018 conference and half-price registration to the 2019 conference. I met dozens of wonderful people last year with whom I remain in contact. I look forward to seeing them again in May and meeting many more. I also came away from the conference with some valuable advice and information. Someday, I hope to return to the conference with a published novel in my hands and advice of my own to give. So thank you, Pennwriters.

For more information about Pennwriters or to join, click here.

Distance and the evolution of friendships

I remember a conversation with a friend a few years back, when we still lived in Cincinnati. I mentioned a woman I had been close with for many years. First, I described her as one of my closest friends, a friend for nearly two decades. Then I corrected myself. We’re not so close anymore, I said.

Not since I moved.

My friend’s reaction: So when you move, they’re not your close friends anymore?
For a moment, I was taken aback. My husband and I were planning to relocate in the near future and I certainly didn’t want this woman to feel like I would place any less value on our friendship simply because of a geographical change.

Not at all.

But these changes in intensity have not been my choice.

They were, simply, an inevitable effect of moving.

It is a lesson I have learned over the past 19 years as we have dragged our belongings back and forth across the country from New York to Arizona to Cincinnati to the hills of Northern Pennsylvania, where we live now. Each time we moved, I felt that huge void, that loss of the immediate physical presence of my good friends, the people I could count on when I was bummed out, excited or just plain bored.
And each time, I vowed to maintain that intensity from afar with phone calls, emails, text messages and occasional visits.

I succeeded at first, especially when we all had young children and craved that adult conversation. There is nothing like a good phone call with an old friend when you are cooing with a baby who cannot converse in return.

But then something happened.

Our babies got older and we were stuck in the house less often. They became little people, engaging us in fascinating conversations about bugs and dinosaurs and Swiper the fox. The older ones became teenagers, applying to colleges and taking dates to the prom. Suddenly, I noticed my old friends and I had less and less to say. Uncomfortable pauses became more frequent. The time between calls grew. The calls were shorter and the texts less detailed.

The kids were one factor.

The other was simple logistics.

In my previous communities, I was just one among of a network of friends. When I left, I damaged those networks – some more than others – but, for the most part, the networks remained intact. I left my friends in the hands of other friends, in familiar surroundings with communities that were familiar to them, open and welcoming. Though I know they missed me, the gaps I left were quickly repaired.

I had left them with everything, but me.

But when I settled in my new communities, I was on my own. I had to cultivate new friendships from scratch, learn my surroundings, learn the cultural temperament of the areas and gain acceptance, in some sense, in the communities. I had to build a network from scratch or find a place in a new one.

It was difficult and it was, at times, lonely.

In the beginning it was easy to tap into those old friendships.

Too easy, especially with social networking apps, like Facebook.

But it wasn’t easy for my old friends and it wasn’t healthy for me. Maintaining intense friendships from afar requires a great deal of energy and a denial of that which is physically present. If I focused all of my efforts on the old friendships, I left little for the people who were new in my life.

I had to reduce my dependence, especially since they had done that long before.

That does not mean that I love the old friend we discussed any less. I would still do anything for her, fly out there to be with her in a crisis, call her with news of any major event in my life. She still means the world to me and our years of “best” friendship can never be undone.

It means simply that we no longer share the details of our everyday lives, what I like to call the minor big things. I don’t call her when all the kids are sick and I need to vent. I don’t call her when my kids reach particular milestones in their lives, when I’m thinking about whether to cover my emerging gray, when I am annoyed about a certain situation in my life.

And I no longer get upset when she fails to share those things with me.

I did not lose friends. The nature of my friendships simply changed and I welcomed new people into my life, like her, the woman I was chatting with. And thank goodness I did. It has been seven years since we last saw each other in person. In that time, she also moved, leaving old friends behind. She gets me and I get her.

We don’t speak on the phone often, but we make sure we do if it’s been too long. We both understand the struggles of being the new person in the place that is old to others. That shared experience adds a new and unique dynamic to our friendship. Hers is a new kind of long-distance friendship for me. She didn’t leave a void in my life when we parted ways. She fills one I didn’t know I had.

 

Coming soon! Raising Identical Twins: The Unique Challenges and Joys of the Early Years

I remember that moment.
It was ten years ago and I was in a hospital bed recovering, just hours after giving birth to twins via a double-whammy (a vaginal birth and a c-section).
The pediatrician had arrived to do a quick examination of both boys. He sat on the edge of my bed, reached into the crib they shared and tickled their toes.
“Congratulations on your identical boys,” he said. “They are perfect.”
Identical?
That was a word I was unprepared for.
When we learned I was carrying twins five months into my pregnancy, my doctor assured us they were fraternal. The placentas had implanted on polar opposite sides of the uterus. Identical twins who have their own placentas implant close together, he said. They couldn’t possibly be identical.
I was relieved.
Imagine all the ways parents could screw up identical twins!
Then along comes this hospital pediatrician, telling me our look-alike babies are identical. (Okay, so maybe we had our suspicions after we held them that first time.) Six weeks later, DNA tests proved him right.
That’s alright, I thought.
I’ll just Google some information on raising identical twins or buy a book.
But I found nothing anywhere.
Absolutely nothing.
So at my husband’s urging, I started a blog. I recorded the development of our twins from birth through their sixth birthday, supplementing the posts with research, fun facts and advice from my own experiences and the trials and errors of others.
I felt a bit like a journalist again. It was fun and it was, according to the comments and emails I received, appreciated. I ended the blog on their sixth birthday, figuring they had reached an age where they deserved a new level of privacy.
But the emails didn’t stop.
Several readers suggested I create a book, something they could give to relatives or to other new and expecting parents of identical twins. I toyed with the idea while working on my fiction. Finally, I put the fiction aside for a bit and dove in.
Raising Identical Twins: The Unique Challenges and Joys of the Early Years will be released in just a few weeks.
I hope you enjoy it!

  

When two worlds collide: motherhood and writing

I told a fellow writer recently I would not be attending two appealing conferences this spring and summer because of conflicts with my children’s lives. One falls on the weekend of my son’s first-ever prom and the other clashes with summer camp drop-off.
She commended me on my “sacrifices,” but suggested I reconsider.
I need to put my writing first, she said.
I need to ensure that I am taken seriously if I want to succeed.
I was taken aback.
I just don’t see it that way.
I chose my career, but I also chose to have children.
I believe in balance, but when I am forced to tip those scales, they will always tip in favor of my four kids. My husband is no different in his approach to his career, though it’s less obvious because he doesn’t have as much flexibility.
Motherhood has made me a better writer, so if it slows me down a little, that’s okay.
My perspective is unpopular, at least that’s what I gather from forums, blogs and books on the subject. We female writers are supposed to protect our writing identities at all costs and forgive ourselves the selfishness required by our career choices.
Don’t get me wrong.
I am selfish sometimes.
Um, plenty of times.
Just this morning, I encouraged my sick ten-year-old son to watch YouTube videos so I could write in peace. The house could be a lot cleaner. I could put better meals on the table. I could be doing art and science projects with my kids during school breaks and on the weekends to keep them off their iPods and computers.
I could also take a regularly paying job and earn money for after-school activities, upcoming college costs and educational summer outings. I have sometimes worked part-time when our finances required it. Most recently, I was a taxonomy specialist for a media company.
But as soon as our finances allowed, I quit.
Why?
Because I’m selfish.
I want to write even if I can’t guarantee that my writing will sell.
But I have my limits.
No conference is worth missing my son’s first prom.
I want to see the flush in his face when I tell him how handsome he looks in a tuxedo. I want to see him give his date her corsage and wave as the two of them head off for a night of dinner and dancing with friends. I want to hear all about it when he gets back.
No networking opportunity is worth missing camp send-off.
I want to hug my twins before they disappear into their cabins for their first full week of overnight camp and squeeze my daughter before we let her go for two weeks, longer than we have ever been without her.
And no novel of mine is going to suffer because I didn’t go to that one workshop.
Look at all the real-life experience I am getting through my kids.
You can’t buy that.
We women have good reason to be protective and defensive when it comes to our identities as writers. Despite all the strides we have made as a gender, society as a whole still tends to see male writers as professionals and women as hobbyists.
But we don’t have to deny one identity in order to reinforce the other.
I completed four novels while my children were in the most physically, emotionally and intellectually demanding stages of their lives. They still need me now, but their needs have changed. These days, the conflicts with my writing are more about the schedule.
Achieving a balance is easier and it will only get better.
If I get published now, my youngest kids are old enough to understand that I will have to travel for signings, to teach workshops or to participate in conferences. They are old enough to be excited for me, to be proud of me and maybe even to sometimes travel with me.
And it goes both ways.
I am secure enough in my identity as a mother to do all that without guilt, to enjoy success as a writer.
I have not sacrificed.
I have compromised to get what I want, an entirely different concept.
We are not going to change society’s view of female writers by mimicking the success of stereotypical male writers. Why would we want to do that? We need to show the world something different. We need to show society that parenthood (fatherhood included) is a valuable asset for writers, not a complication or a burden.
I will go to a conference this year, but I won’t miss a child’s birthday, a school event, or a milestone to do it. Childhood lasts for only so long, but I intend to write forever.
Where’s the sacrifice in that?
(Margaret Atwood, you are my idol!)

Why I march

While most of you slept, my daughter and I boarded a bus for Washington, DC.
We are joining hundreds of thousands of women for the Women’s March on Washington, a massive show of solidarity among all marginalized groups and those who support them.
This is not a popular move in our area.
We live in a land of Trump supporters — good, honest people who want change and who feel Donald Trump is the catalyst we need.
Most do not understand my motivation, especially for bringing our 15-year-old daughter to such an event. They think we are protesting Trump and his election to the presidency, and they don’t see the point.
We are not protesting Trump.
This is not a protest.
This is a rally, intentionally planned for the day after the inauguration to help make the message clear. It is intended to raise awareness and show our strength. It is designed to help people bond and to empower them, so that days, months, years after the march, they can draw on this strength and these bonds to create change.
Donald Trump is our president.
The people chose him by the means provided by our Constitution.
This, I accept.
This is democracy.
What I don’t accept are the attitudes expressed during his campaign toward women, immigrants, disabled people, Muslims, the LGBT community and people of color. What I fear is that these attitudes will work their way into our system of justice, both civil and criminal. What I want is progress, not regression.
I want to protect our daughter and our three boys, who share our values.
I want them to grow up in a world of tolerance and diversity.
I want to be an example for them.
I want them to see that I am willing to march for what I believe it, that I am not afraid to express myself publicly even when I am surrounded by people who disagree with me. I want them to see that I am trying.
I want our daughter to feel empowered, too.
Like any event of this sort, the Women’s March on Washington will draw people with their own agendas. Those who fear what we embrace will narrow in on such individuals and hold them up as examples of why this march is so wrong.
Please don’t do that.
Please know that most of us are marching for the country we love, the country you love.
Please remember that this is me, your neighbor and friend, that I love and respect you regardless of your politics. Please try to keep an open mind and I promise I will, too.
Something is wrong in America, and the majority of Americans believe Donald Trump has the skills and the leadership ability to fix it.
I hope he does.
I hope that his attitudes toward women, people of color, immigrants, Muslims, disabled people, the LGBT community and other marginalized groups were lies, that he threw them out there to pull in votes from certain vulgar segments of the population, people who believe the Constitution applies only to those who are like them.
I hope that he will take us forward not backward.
I hope that he will listen, not ridicule, when we march, and I hope that you will do the same.
Let us be heard.
Let us roar over the voices of hate and intolerance.
Let us march.

  

Rest in peace, Keegan

A friend posted on my Facebook news feed yesterday that addiction is a choice, unlike other diseases.
I fought hard to control my anger.
She couldn’t have known that just an hour earlier, my brother had called to say his son had died — his sweet, intelligent, good-hearted son.
Keegan did not choose addiction anymore so than others choose heart disease, or diabetes, or epilepsy or other diseases or conditions. He was born with it. It runs in the family. It is, truly, honestly, sadly, a disease.
Nor did he choose to die at the age of 30.
Why would he?
He had everything to live for and he wanted, so badly, to live.
He tried.
Hard.
He sought treatment beginning at age 15 when he showed his parents the whiskey bottle he’d been drinking from daily. He asked for help and they gave it to him time and time again, with no regard ever for the financial and psychological cost to the rest of the family.
They were there through every Code Blue (and there were many) in the emergency room, through every rehab stint, through every halfway house stay. They stayed even when the therapist said it was best to give up on him and forget he existed.
They loved him.
Over the years, alcohol, opioids, gambling, all kinds of addictions fought for control over him because that’s the way addiction behaves. It isn’t particular and it is incredibly selfish. It wants everything from its victims.
It is cruel.
We like to portray addicts as losers. It’s safer that way, to draw a line between us and them, to believe that it can’t happen to us because we are way too smart for that. We like to believe it is a choice and that we and the people we love won’t become addicts because we’re not stupid enough to make that choice.
Keegan was not stupid.
He was highly intelligent. He did well in high school and in college. He held patents from a major food company at a young age. He earned a master’s degree between stints in some of the most highly rated rehab facilities in the country.
I’m sorry, but you are not safe.
Your children are not safe.
No one is safe.
No one will be safe until we remove the shame, the stigma from addiction.
So think before you post.
Think before you degrade and judge.
Just think.
Rest in peace, Keegan.