For my young friend who was berated by her peers

A friend’s sixth-grade daughter posted on Facebook yesterday that other girls had made fun of her Halloween costume. Her words were heavy with devastation. This was clearly not the first time she’d been made to feel inferior by her peers.
I didn’t respond because I knew a back-patting sentence or two wouldn’t be enough.
What I wanted to do was hold up a mirror. Let her see how gorgeous she is inside and out without a social filter. And then I wanted to take her up into the sky. I wanted to draw a circle around our little area from above and show her how insignificant we are when compared to the rest of the world.
How insignificant these people are who think they have a right to define her.
I wanted to show her that elsewhere, that deep, red hair of hers is highly valued as something people can’t buy in a bottle or create in a salon. I wanted her to see how infectious her smile can be, how many people will find joy in it when she exposes herself to the rest of the world.
I wanted her to understand that small towns can be safe, comfortable, wonderful places to grow up, but that they can also be deceiving. They can make people feel as if they are trapped within identities, identities that are not of their choosing, identities created by the insecurities of others who have claimed high places in tiny castles, building walls around themselves to keep threats like her out.
In small towns, there is nowhere else to seek confirmation that different is good.
The pool of potential friends is finite.
People are often stuck within regional influences and made to believe those influences are universal, that these identities are inescapable. They are led to believe that they created those identities because they are flawed as people.
Those who never leave might never learn the truth.
Those who leave and come back are often shocked by their own complacency.
I know because I experienced that shock and I want her to do the same.
I grew up in Saranac Lake, NY, a beautiful community in the Adirondacks, a place I love to this day. My class was larger than this girl’s with about 130 students and I was fortunate in that even the most popular girls were relatively nice, at least to me.
I am told our class was unusual in that sense.
Still, a small group of boys and girls ruled. They were the starters on sports teams. They were the members of the Winter Carnival Court. They were the stars of the dating scene. They went to most every prom and could get away with most anything.
I accepted my place.
I believed I was simply not good enough.
Until I moved to Florida.
I was already at a low point when my mother announced she was leaving. I had failed to make the final cut for basketball, which meant I would hardly see some of my closest friends all winter. My family was falling apart and we were broke. I had only two pairs of jeans to my name and five or six tops, but I refused to shop in thrift shops because the popular cliche did not.
I feared they would find out and my status would worsen.
I had nothing to lose, in my opinion.
So I left.
No one knew me in Florida. No one knew my family. Their only option was to test the waters and  find out who I was, whether I was worthy of their attentions. I was shocked to learn that I was indeed worthy, that Emma, Beth, Amy, Lance and Mike all were drawn to me because I was me.
I was surprised that my teachers found me worth their investments because they saw what my mind could do, not what my siblings did before me. I was stunned to learn that other people’s parents liked me for who I was, not for who my parents were or were not.
My social issues back home were of my own making.
It was lack of confidence that made me feel inferior, lack of experience beyond my small-town realm. Certain people fueled that lack of confidence, but only because I was naive to my own worth. I let them.
I returned to Saranac Lake after five months because I missed it. I missed school, I missed my friends and I knew I wanted to attended college where the climate was more to my liking.  But I returned as a different person.
Yes, I still had problems. Lots of them.
But social confidence was not one of them.
I couldn’t change the culture in my school, but I found I lacked the desire to do so. I no longer shared the values of the elite because I knew how truly absurd and insignificant those values were. I discovered I could be friends with anyone because I no longer envied them or feared judgment. I also learned to cherish the friends I had even more.
Greater trials awaited me as I dealt with a fractured family and feelings of abandonment by both parents. That lead to a different kind of insecurity. But my new-found social confidence provided a core strength that pulled me through.
There are benefits to a small-school culture that are invaluable. We chose this for our children over city living for many excellent reasons. Our older children, who have experienced both cultures, have said they would never choose to go back.
This girl has a long ways to go. Six more years. But those years can be great years if she can find that confidence, if she can learn to elevate herself above her own insecurities and love herself so much that no else will be able to define her.
She has a family that loves her fiercely and so many others who love and appreciate her. She is worthy, much more so than she believes, and I’m willing to bet her costume was awesome. All of that is easy for me to see and say as a 50-year-old though.
I know her road will be hard and I want so badly to pave it for her.
To make it smooth.
I want to do that for my own children as well.
But I can’t.
No adult can.
That kind of perspective can only come from within.
The best we can do is to constantly expose them to difference and to our love, and hope they figure it out.

The incurable itch

A high school senior told me recently she intends to pursue creative writing in college. I mentioned this to her father, who sighed.
He is trying to talking her into something else, he said.
Something more practical with more job opportunities.
Good luck.
I was that girl.
I fought it.
I lost.
The forces of my childhood pointed me toward a career in writing.
I won a local poetry contest in elementary school. I wrote radio commercials for our small, always-broke Catholic school. I wrote short stories for a short-lived junior high school publication.
Writing was my therapy when I sensed trouble between my parents, when my parents finally separated and when they later divorced.
(Okay, writing and alcohol, if I must be honest.)
But I’d grown up with no money and I wasn’t about to grow into the same situation.
I didn’t even consider majoring in English or creative writing.
Instead, I chose geochemistry when I enrolled at SUNY-Oswego. I loved rocks. I loved chemistry. I was strong in math and science. I could work for an oil company like my cousins. It made sense.
Until I took the first course and realized it was (gasp) work!
At a loss for a major, I enrolled in an interpersonal communications class because I wanted to become more confident. At the same time, I registered for a fiction writing workshop just for fun. An elective, I told myself.
Even as I grew more interested in interpersonal communications and declared it my major, I continued taking classes in creative writing through the English department: ficton, poetry, journalism.
Why not take a few literature courses as well, I thought.
I even enrolled in summer sessions so I could take more classes in both fields.
I told myself my involvement in the college newspaper — first as a writer, and then as an editor — was simply communications-related. Same with my internship at a Pennsylvania television station.
Then my advisor enlightened me: With just another course or two, I would have a double major in interpersonal communications and English/creative writing.
A newspaper journalism internship was among the creative writing courses I needed, so I tracked down the regional editor at the Syracuse Newspapers and asked whether I could write for free. The free work became a paid internship and the paid internship led to a full-time job when I graduated.
And there I was, writing for a living.
Great, right?
End of story?
Of course not, because that itch is incurable, that desire to write fiction.
It lay dormant for several years, satisfied with the human experiences journalism afforded me and the opportunity to grow within the craft of writing nonfiction, but I missed voice. I missed character. I missed plot.
I missed it all too much.
So what did I do?
It took me six years of working full time and driving two hours each way, twice a week to Binghamton University to get my master’s degree in creative writing. But the need to scratch kept me in motion.
A degree still wasn’t enough though. Just before I graduated, my husband and I made a deal: We would move to Arizona to pursue his dream job. When we were settled enough financially, I would pursue my dream of writing fiction.
It hasn’t been easy.
Kids came along (Yay!) and finances dictated that I bring in some money, forcing me to set aside plans to write fiction full time. I have worked part time as a college English instructor, a magazine freelancer, a book editor, a website moderator and a taxonomy specialist, trying to balance work with family and writing.
So far, that has resulted in three published short stories and four unpublished novels that are in the hands of my wonderful literary agent, Liz Trupin-Pulli. Two more novels and a couple more short stories are in the works.
I have come to terms with my passion for fiction and my need to constantly scratch that itch (I suppose I could come up with a more pleasant metaphor.). It’s been a long and complicated road, but that instinct, passion, itch — whatever you want to call it — never let me stray too far.
I am not alone.
I know so many other writers who also went to war with their natures and lost.
Some are best-selling authors. Some are mid-list. Some are still looking for publishers. Many gave up lucrative careers in other fields — interior design, law, education. Why? Because the forces that drive us to create in such a way are simply too strong.
Fighting it leads to depression, and who wants to be depressed?
So don’t be surprised, my friend, if your daughter ignores your advice and majors in creative writing anyway, or if she heeds your advice and later gives up her financial stability for the pursuit of the written word.
She’s not being disrespectful or trying to mislead you or acting out of youthful ignorance.
She is simply abiding by her nature.
She’s scratching that incurable itch.

One hundred days …

You know that last post?
The one about the Christmas dream?
I should have been more clear.
I meant the Christmas of 2015, but I’m not picky.
Christmas of 2016 will do.
In fact, I would prefer it.
So much has changed since I last wrote:
I took a part-time paying job to help meet mortgage payments on our old house until it sold. (Yep. I am now a taxonomy specialist. Ever hear of that? Neither had I, but it’s kind of cool.)
My mother-in-law broke her hip and came to live with us. (She calls herself my fifth child, but don’t let her fool you. She’s 88, but she’s already back in the commander’s seat, itching to permanently move back home.)
My agent and I agreed to switch submissions strategies after only a handful of publishers, shelving the thriller for a bit while we push the rewritten mystery/suspense series. (Working on book three of the series now!)
So my time has not been my own and the timing for my debut into the publishing world would not have been great.
At least, that’s how I rationalize the situation to quell by my impatience.
Distraction is key, so I plan to hunker down for the upcoming months and devote any free time to my work-in-progress. But I hope you’ll forgive me if  I steal a few moments to toss pennies into fountains with my eyes closed, cross my fingers and write a few letters to Santa.
Christmas of 2016 is only 100 days away.
Anyone know of a stocking appropriate for a book contract?

A Christmas Dream

My Christmas dream …
that at this moment, dozens of editors are in their homes, curled up on sofas before warm fires, wearing thick socks, cozy pants and sipping coffee laced with Baily’s while reading my manuscript and … that they are so immersed, they can’t even pick up their cell phones to tell my agent just how badly they want to buy it.
They will.
Soon.
When they are released from their book-loving hazes.
That’s realistic, right?
Merry Christmas to all and may all of your dreams come true!

Don’t read down.

“Don’t read down.”
Those were the words of best-selling novelist Elizabeth George during a panel at New England Crime Bake, a mystery writers conference I attended earlier this month in the Boston area.
Those were the words that set me free.
The moment I heard them, my muscles and my mind relaxed, releasing a tension I hadn’t known existed.
It didn’t take long to figure out why.
With my gradual immersion in the mystery/thriller genre over the past decade came a feeling of obligation, a need to read novels published by authors I’d met, or  novels beloved by other writers more successful than I in the business.
I wasn’t choosing for myself anymore.
I was letting obligation dictate my reading list while sneaking in a few fictional “treats” on the side.
While I discovered some wonderful works among that obligatory pile, I also wasted a lot of time pushing through pages that didn’t hold my attention.
Part of that disinterest might have been personal preference. Sometimes best-sellers just don’t click with me, despite all the five-star reviews. Other times, I recommend books that turn other people off. That happens.
But many of those novels were simply not that good.
I was reading down.
When I returned from Crime Bake, I looked over the books on our shelves that remain unread, books that I had scheduled for the months of December or January or February. Most of them I know nothing about. I bought them out of obligation.
So here’s my plan.
I’ll give each book a few chapters.
I did pay for them, after all.
But I’ll give myself permission to close the cover if they don’t keep my attention beyond that. I will no longer waste time reading down when the direction I want to travel in is up
Thank you, Elizabeth George.

It’s submission day (again)!

Oh, the ecstasy!
The emotions are etched in my memory like a high-contrast, high-definition photograph.
I actually screeched that day six years ago when my then-agent emailed a list of editors at various publishing houses who received my manuscript for consideration.
It would all fall into place from there. I just knew it.
My novel would be on the shelves within a year.
The next novel would result in a bidding war.
Everyone would be reading my stuff.
Yup, that’s what happened.
Not!
What a contrast from today.
Today, marks my third submission day (My fourth if I count rewritten and resubmitted work.) and the emotional picture is far less jarring than it was six years ago. It’s more like soft-touch through a sepia filter. I feel no euphoria. Only a pleasant buzz.
And I like it that way.
The first time around, rejection was devastating. I had jumped so high that I had a long, long way to fall and the landing hurt — a lot. My then-agent was new to the business and had set his own expectations just as high.
We had buried several truths in our ignorance:
– The manuscript was not ready.
– My agent did not have the necessary connections. (He now represents only nonfiction.)
– Debut authors are a hard sell.
You know that saying, that ignorance is bliss?
It’s not.
Ignorance, in this business, often invites disillusionment. Disillusionment takes weary, broken writers by the shoulders, spins them around and encourages them to walk away from that which has hurt them. They leave their dreams behind because they don’t want to experience that kind of severe impact again.
That could have been me, but one thing kept me from surrendering to disillusionment’s power: my journalism experience. When the first novel failed to sell, I started researching the business of publishing while writing another novel. I connected with established authors and aspiring writers like me. I asked questions. Lots of them.
I needed realism and I found it.
I met authors who had written multiple novels before they celebrated publication. I became friends with a writer who sold her first novels in mere days, not only because she is that good, but also because she is smart and savvy. She had spent as many years researching the markets and the players as she had writing.
I also met writers who had simply gotten lucky.
I opened my eyes and saw the mistake I’d made in signing with an agent who had no experience beyond his previous job working for a publisher. He knew a great deal about the after-market end of the business, but not enough about selling to publishers.
I left my agent with two completed novels in hand and started all over.
I had just started a third novel when I connected with my current agent, Liz Trupin-Pulli, a woman who has been in the business longer than I can ever hope to be. Liz is calm, but enthusiastic. She is practical, but ambitious. She’s connected, but in ways that run deep. Her contacts are more than business associates. Like her clients, most are friends.
And she’s worn off on me.
I hope this novel sells, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t dream of it. But I won’t let those dreams overwhelm or distract me. I refused to pour all of my being into the fate of this one novel. If it sells, I’ll be screaming from the roof tops, but I’ll wait until that happens to climb up there.
For now, I’ll just sit on my porch, where the ground is only a few feet below me, and focus on the next novel like the one under submission doesn’t exist. I know I’ll lose my balance if this novel doesn’t sell. I’m only human, after all. But the landing won’t hurt so much and my recovery time will be minimal.
And I’ll climb right back up the stairs to the porch and start writing again.

Pink: The color of opportunity

I told myself I would remove the pink silicone bracelet when my sister was cured.
Then she died two months ago and I didn’t know what to do.
I couldn’t take it off.
I couldn’t bear the sight of it.
I nearly kicked down the display of pink I saw in the grocery store only a week after her death, more than a month before the kickoff of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I wanted it gone. Pink made me angry.
A symbol of false hope.
A cash-cow for certain companies that dupe buyers into believing they are donating to the cause.
A month when simply wearing a color makes people feel like they’ve done something when they’ve done nothing at all.
All the pink in the world couldn’t save my sister.
Pink was a constant reminder of what I’d lost, what her children and husband had lost, what my siblings and her friends had lost, and it was unbearable.
Until last week.
I was at the grocery store again, the same grocery store with the premature display. The clerk was ringing up my groceries when she asked me about the bracelet. I told her about my sister, Kathy Riley. She offered condolences.
“That’s why,” she said, “I never skip a mammogram.”
For a moment, I was furious. How dare she assume my sister didn’t heed the same advice? Our mother is a survivor. Our grandmother died of breast cancer. We were vigilant, my three sisters and I. My sister’s breast cancer was detected a month after her mammogram. Her then 2-year-old son leaned against her breast and it hurt. She checked and felt a lump.
Then, through my anger, I glimpsed opportunity.
I told her my sister’s story and stressed the importance of monthly self-checks. I explained that mammograms can miss cancer in people with dense tissue and that further, more sensitive tests, can sometimes be necessary.
She expressed surprise that anyone could be diagnosed so soon after a mammogram and admitted she never did self-checks. She would from then on, she promised, and suddenly, pink didn’t make me so angry anymore.
I am still bothered by the commercialization of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and by those people who seem to revel in the color itself rather than in the meaning behind it. But I am no longer torn when I look at my bracelet.
Pink started that conversation, and who knows? Maybe the insight she gained through our talk will someday save a life. Maybe she’ll find a lump early enough for a cure, or maybe she’ll tell a friend who will tell a friend, and the conversation will keep going, moving others to do self-checks regularly.
So that’s what I ask this month of anyone who reads this.
Don’t just wear pink.
Wear it with a purpose.
Wear it as a reminder, as motivation to educate, as a conversation starter. Buy it from companies that donate to research, education or support. Wear while you send a note to someone who is battling the disease or make a meal for a cancer patient or participate in a fundraiser.
It doesn’t have to be bold and brilliant.
It can be small and subtle.
Sometimes, it’s the little things that catch people’s attention.
Little things like the bracelet on my wrist.