Let it all go then write it all down

I’ll admit it. The title caught my eye. In the right context, all three are fun. But what author Adair Lara is talking about in “Naked, Drunk, and Writing” is letting go of your inhibitions and getting your story on paper.

I picked it up and read the back cover with the questions she’ll help readers answer and was hooked:

How do I know where to start my piece and where to end it? (Exactly!)
How do I make myself write when I’m too scared or lazy or busy? (Definitely need help here.)
What makes a good pitch letter, and how do I get mine noticed?
I’m ready to publish – now where do I find an agent?
If I show my manuscript to my mother, will I ever be invited to a family gathering again? (Sorry, Mom!)

Lara, a former columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, MFA teacher, and an Associated Press Best Columnist in California, divides the book into five sections: writing down your story, personal essays, techniques, memoirs, and getting published. Each section is broken into easily digestible pieces, such as outlining the essay, using images to provide details, being careful with tone, and how to handle rejection and acceptance.

The author gets to the heart by asking you to dig deep and be honest. Give the reader specific details, put them in the scene, add emotion but leave out the sentimentality. Make them hear the waves lapping at the jagged rocks, make them feel the heat of your skin reddened by the sweltering afternoon sun.

Additionally, Lara offers writing exercises and prompts within each section. For example, when discussing how to find your voice, she suggests “pretending to admire something to reveal its flaws.”

Another bit of advice: “Part of finding your voice is knowing whom you’re talking to,” she says. Lara tells the story of author Jane Jacobs, who would share her ideas with a Celtic novelist, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin. The imagined conversations often led to new ways of looking at ordinary objects, Jacobs said.

The most helpful part of the book for me has been how to find an angle. Many stories live in my head, but I have trouble figuring out why and how I should tell them. What’s the point in talking about burning old love letters? Lara’s techniques have enabled me to get to the meat of piece and end up with something that, although personal to me, still touches someone else.

“Naked, Drunk, and Writing” has won a place on my writing shelf … next to Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones,” and Brenda Ueland’s “If You Want to Write.”

This piece originally appeared on the now-defunct BookendBabes website.

 

The Running Dream

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen made me want to run more. It’s an invigorating YA novel, and, yes, a fast read.

Just as high school runner Jessica is hitting her stride, the unthinkable happens. On the way home from a track meet, the team’s van is struck by another vehicle, killing one runner and leaving Jessica with life-threatening injuries that require her right leg to be amputated. The story shows her struggle to overcome her depression, retain her identity as a runner, and ultimately, get back on the track.

Early on in the book Jessica pushes away her friends and family. She is understandably shattered … her dreams broken in the crash, her normal life turned upside down. In Chapter 2, she says, “Running aired out my soul. It made me feel alive. And now? I’m stuck in this bed, knowing I’ll never run again.”

She’s not even sure she wants to try again, until she meets Rosa, a girl in her math class who has cerebral palsy, a girl no one has ever noticed. Rosa inspires Jessica to take another look at what might be possible, and Jessica begins to believe that maybe she could one day “sail over the dots of blooming clover” again.

The book does a good job of explaining how a prosthetic leg is fitted, put on, and worn. We get a glimpse of the measuring, the adjusting, and the learning curve that comes with using an artificial limb. Van Draanen also helps us understand the kind of physical therapy an amputee must do daily to ensure the stump stays healthy enough for a prosthesis.

With the help of her best friend, the school newspaper reporter (also her crush), her track coach and team, and her family, Jessica learns that losing her leg doesn’t mean giving up on dreams. It just means the dreams change.

Jessica’s voice reminds me of when I was a teenager, all the angst, the doubt, the confidence, the love, all rolled into one. The writing puts you right there – you feel the stares as Jessica returns to school for the first time, you hear the whispers when she shows friends her new leg, you feel her heartbeat when the boy walks up to her during lunch.

In the final chapter, Jessica looks back and then looks forward. She’s counting “one plus one plus one plus one. Somewhere in my fuzzy mind I made a connection – that’s how everything is done. One by one by one by one. … That’s how anybody makes it through anything.

“My ones are a distance between me and victory, not days between me and tragedy.”

I was a bit distracted by the blossoming romance. I felt it was unnecessary and detracted from Jessica’s strength. Don’t get me wrong; I like romance. I just didn’t understand why she needed one to prove she was a whole person despite losing a leg. However, I get that teen crushes appeal to teen readers.

If you’re a runner or want to be, you’ll enjoy this book. If you’re facing challenges and feel overwhelmed by the odds, you might find some inspiration here. I loved this book. And when I don’t feel like running, I think about Jessica and others like her and do it anyway.

Tiffani Hill-Patterson is a former sportswriter and copy editor. She played softball in college and still considers herself an athlete. She’s mom to a bionic teen (really!) and is working on more essays and trying fiction.

This post originally appeared at BookendBabes.com.

Growing a reader

(Originally published at Bookend Babes, September 2012. Granma passed away Jan. 8, 2016.)

I’ve always loved to read. Growing up, books and magazines were always lying around at our house. Momma read suspense and romance novels and magazines like Better Homes & Gardens and Woman’s Day. Daddy read Louis L’amour westerns and Field & Stream and Auto Trader. And they still enjoy getting lost in a good story.

However, it was Granma who let me into the world of grown-up reading. She always kept a stack of magazines by her bed, and when I’d spend the night with her in the summer during my tween years, I would read through them all. Cosmopolitan. Glamour. New Woman. Mademoiselle. The National Enquirer. And seed catalogs. Granma has always had the greenest thumb ever, and she grew the biggest, prettiest zinnias and the most red, ripe tomatoes. I’d stay up late reading then get up early and pick beans and shuck corn with the rest of the family.

Back then the late Helen Gurley Brown ran Cosmo and it was about finding yourself before finding a man. I read mostly the career and fashion articles (I wanted to be a well-dressed novelist), but occasionally I’d pore over a more adult piece. Back then, I felt like I knew way more than my sixth-grade classmates did after reading Cosmo. (I may have had the knowledge, but I sure didn’t know how to put it into practice.)

When I got a little older, I moved on to Granma’s novels. The first one she and I both read and shared a love for was Gone with the Wind. She lent it to me to read over Christmas break during my sophomore year of high school. I couldn’t put that thick, blue paperback down – I stayed up until two in the morning reading about Scarlett and wondering why she couldn’t see that Rhett was The Man. I felt like a grown-up after reading such a long book! And I felt for Scarlett when she had to harvest those potatoes.

The next was the North and South trilogy by John Jakes (Charles was my favorite character), then we moved on to his Crown Family series and the Kent Family Chronicles. Many more followed, such as John Grisham’s lawyer books (we think we might be distant relatives of John’s), the Da Vinci Code, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, a ton of trashy romances by Sandra Brown, a Jackie Collins or two. Rhett Butler’s People was the last book we shared. So it seems we’ve come full circle.

Granma, who just celebrated her 90th birthday, has always been a free spirit. She has always known how to enjoy life. Whether it was seeing Elvis in small-town Alabama, or telling stories while shelling purple-hulled peas, or going out dancing with her boyfriends in her 60s and 70s, she’s always known how to have a ball. And she’s always known how to pick out a great book. I’d like to think I learned that from her.

How do you write when you have nothing to say?

I’ve forgotten how to be a writer. I no longer know how to take a germ of an idea and plant it, water it, give it sun and room to breathe, pull out the weeds and watch it bloom. It’s just a dirt pile full of jagged rocks, stinky wet leaves and random candy wrappers.

While I’m working at my day job, every essay or story idea I have sounds like a best-seller. Until I get home. And have time to write. Then every idea sounds corny. Or stupid. And I can’t remember why I thought it was a good idea in the first place.

To paraphrase The Commodores, I have no direction, no purpose, no one to love and no one to love me for me … wait, that last phrase should be for another post.

I’m searching, and it’s been hard trying to find my way, but I’ve got to keep on searching harder, day by day.

Low Places

The smell of corn dogs and funnel cakes coated the air and Bob Seger’s “Main Street” played on the staticky speakers when Jake spotted me standing in line for the Tilt-a-Whirl. He wore a purple button-down and jeans. And that smile. Always that smile.

That memory about a junior college crush led me down a rabbit hole of journal entries and early 1990s music. Back then “big-hat” country played on all of our stereos, and Garth Brooks was its king. Listening to him, 20-year-old me swore the connections I made then would last forever.

Read the rest of my piece on how Garth Brooks shaped my college memories at Kelly J. Baker’s Cold Takes as part of her Albums Series.

The smell of puberty

Ah, take a deep breath. Do you smell that? It’s the smell of puberty. And it makes parents of tweens everywhere ask three important questions before the kids head out the door each day.

“Did you put on deodorant?”
“Did you brush your teeth?”
“Are you wearing clean underwear?”

One day our kids are toddling around in footed pajamas smelling like baby powder, and the next they’re stomping around in week-old socks smelling like, well, week-old socks. A change has come … and many times they’re oblivious.

Here’s the rest of the article, pasted here since the magazine where it was originally printed took down all its previous links.

“I just had a battle with a certain 12-year-old girl,” Amy Vanwestervelt, mom to three, said. “She was ready to head out to school in the shirt she was wearing the day before (that she also decided to sleep in), hair not brushed, and hadn’t brushed her teeth. She was ticked off that I made her change, brush and pull her hair back and brush her teeth.”

Give them the lowdown
Getting kids to pay attention to hygiene is an ongoing battle. My daughter loves to look cute for school – she’ll put together a pretty outfit and take time to put her hair in an actual bun. But brushing her teeth? It’s like I’ve asked her to deep clean the toilet with a toothbrush! And she has braces, so not brushing can lead to double trouble.

Short of constantly checking behind their ears and standing at the sink with a timer, what can frustrated parents do to get our children to take care of their bodies?

Jennifer Sheehy-Knight, Ph.D, psychologist at Children’s of Alabama, said education is key. “One of the things I often recommend is to pick up a book about what’s happening with their bodies and start reading it with them when you start seeing the first signs of puberty, usually around the ages of 9 or 10. This introduction will help with later discussions and you can use it as a reference.”

A few clues it’s starting: oilier skin, a growth spurt, growth of body hair, breast development in girls, and a change in voice for boys. If you’ve noticed a couple of these, welcome to puberty!

Kids this age are already anxious about starting middle school, the new boy-girl dynamic, and changes they feel in their bodies, so the last thing parents want to do is make it worse by telling them they stink.

“Talk about the changes in terms of puberty and development and that as a result their sweat is changing,” Dr. Sheehy-Knight said. “Hormones change in each stage from childhood to teenage years to adulthood and everyone goes through it. Along with that development comes body odor – it’s a natural part of growing up. But that odor also signals that it’s time to get serious about how you take care of your body.”

Getting social
Additionally, puberty and its symptoms can also affect children socially. Who hasn’t been turned off by a friend’s bad breath or sweaty feet? Let’s face it, sometimes, even though we know it’s not nice, it’s hard to be around a person who stinks.

“Often kids cannot accurately smell their own odor,” Dr. Sheehy-Knight said, “It’s important to use good hygiene, even if you think you’re OK, in order to avoid negative comments. Kids this age have to be more thorough. They can’t just give it the ‘once-over.’ Emphasize that it can impact them socially and help them understand that people will shy away. This might help them strive toward better hygiene.”

To do: Loosen the reins
This age group requires us parents to balance their autonomy with our authority. Explain the expectations then let them try to fulfill them. “They’re no longer children, but they’re not yet mature, so you still have to watch and monitor,” Dr. Sheehy-Knight said. “As they’re making this transition, they are working toward more independence. However, they’ll also be forgetful, so a checklist might be a good idea.”

We all have to-do lists, at work, at home, on weekends. “You can help them create one for the morning routine and one for bedtime,” Dr. Sheehy-Knight said. “This will allow them to take more responsibility and develop good habits.”

A checklist can work in tandem with a rewards system. For instance, set a showering goal of four days a week and when they reach it, they get extra video game time. Just make sure the incentive is something that will motivate them. It can be as simple as giving them a choice.

“A couple of things I do is buy a bazillion kinds of deodorant,” Heather Smith Davis said. “The girls can use any kind they want as long as they use it. And showers are on our chore list. Feed dogs, water dogs, sweep kitchen and hallway, take shower. They don’t get allowance if they don’t take a shower. And we have a gazillion soaps in there. Use whatever kind you want as long as it’s used.”

Orthodontist Britt Reagin, DMD, MS, said getting kids to take ownership is crucial to good hygiene, especially when they have braces. “We educate the child with an instructional video on how to take care of their teeth and what will happen if they don’t,” said Reagin, who completed his residency at UAB and now practices in South Carolina. Then he has them sign a contract, making them responsible for their teeth. “Most kids have never signed a contract, so it is a big deal to them. We also have in-office contests for kids who maintain regular hygiene visits with their dentist, and we grade hygiene at each visit. Much like homework, ultimately, it is home life and parents that determine good hygiene.”

Of course, parents still need to check that the kids taking care of business. Are they walking out the door with stained jeans or unbrushed hair? Are there more than two pairs of underwear in the laundry basket? Is the toothpaste tube still full? We can use our powers of observation to find out, no nagging required.

Light at the end of the tunnel
While we might think this battle over body will never end, hope abounds. Many parents report that one day their kids started showering daily or brushing their teeth without being told to, or, miracle of miracles, doing their own laundry! Eventually, they get the importance of good hygiene, as these moms can attest.

“My daughter is 12, and this summer she started showering without prompting and downright being made to,” Heather Hurlock said. “She now showers daily on her own. It has helped tremendously with the maintenance of her hair, and she even likes her hair being ‘cute’ again.”

Apryl Chapman Thomas said, “I battled with my daughter last year, but since she started sixth grade, she’s changed. She wants to blow dry and fix her hair. She loves lotions and spray from Bath and Body Works. I think her changes are not only because of her age and being in middle school, but also because she sees her friends doing the same, too.”

“It all comes down to education and understanding the possible consequences,” Dr. Sheehy-Knight said. “If you’re not cleaning your face regularly, you’ll get pimples. If you don’t brush your teeth, you’ll get cavities. Once they start keeping up with good hygiene, it will become one less thing they have to worry about when it comes to finding their fit socially.”

And parents can change the out-the-door conversation.

“Great job on that last report card!”

“Nice outfit!”

“I love you!”

Burn, baby, burn

FireYesterday I was doing laundry and piddling when I came across my journal from my final year of marriage and the months of separation until the divorce was final. I took it to the closet and stashed it out of sight on the top shelf. Then I saw it. An old popcorn tin filled with letters from when we were dating. Those letters had been there for 18 years … 18 years.

Of course I took them out, unfolded them and quickly skimmed them. “I miss you.” “You are the best girl a guy could have.” “We should talk about our future together when I get back.” “I love you.”

We were so young. And so dumb. We were 23 when we got married and had barely lived away from our parents, much less experienced life as adults.

Instead of putting those letters back in their hiding place, I took the tin full of paper and ink and memories and once-upon-a-time love to the patio and set it on fire.

I watched the sweet words curl up and become ashes after the fire. It was as if my heart was being cauterized. Sure, as I thought about what we had for a while, a tear rolled down my cheek. I wiped it away and stirred the scraps in the tin again, making sure every envelope and sheet of paper felt the fire.

After I was satisfied that every piece burned, I poured water into the tin and headed back inside.

Throughout the evening I peeked out the door, watching as the ink, ash, and paper froze.

Saturday night and the single mom

Here’s my latest column for Birmingham Parent.

Saturday nights used to be my favorite time of the week. After a day of fun, we’d be settling down for the night, looking forward to one more free day before heading back to school and work. Now I hate Saturday nights and bedtime. I feel guilty about what I did or didn’t do while Riley was with me. (Riley’s dad picks her up on Sunday mornings, and she’s with him until I pick her up after school on Wednesdays.)

When Saturday night rolls around, I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about everything I did wrong. Am I the only mom who feels this way? How do you stop the guilt? How do you balance “mean mom” with “fun mom”?

Did I tell her enough that I love her? Did I yell too much because she wouldn’t clean up the paper clippings and glitter after an art project? Will she smile thinking about cooking chicken burritos together? Or will she cringe because I got frustrated after telling her for the umpteenth time to brush her teeth?

Enjoying life with my 10-year-old is my goal – I want our days together to be more satisfying and less frustrating. More calm, fewer arguments. Of course, I know every single minute will not be a party. What’s fun about your mom making you put away dishes and laundry or making you write your spelling words three times each?

Lately, I’ve been focusing on taking a deep breath when I get frustrated instead of yelling. I admit it: I yell a lot. I’m not proud of it, and I’m working to chill out because hollering only makes it worse for both of us: Riley’s feelings are hurt, and I feel guilty. And the dirty clothes are still on the floor.

Maybe we should pull out the old chore chart again. She does what is on the list and gets rewarded with her chosen prize. Or she doesn’t do her jobs and faces the consequences. Dirty clothes not taken to the laundry room? Don’t fuss about your favorite shirt not being clean. Markers and glue sticks are missing? You should’ve put them away before I put them in the “earn it back” box. Either way, I stop yelling about it.

Besides, I try to balance the “boring” days with small outings at least once every week. We have season tickets to our local children’s theater and a standing Friday night dinner date. And during the week, we watch a couple of “Big Time Rush” episodes after homework, or she does my hair. Sometimes we just sit with my laptop and laugh at a slideshow of her old baby photos.

One Saturday night soon, I’ll be able to to drift off to sleep easily, knowing that even though I’m not a perfect mom, Riley understands that I have to be both “fun mom” and “mean mom” in order to be a good mom.

Christmas without my girl

Light showEver wondered what it’d be like without your child at Christmas? Well, here’s what it’ll be like for me this year:

I’ve been a single mom now for two of my daughter’s birthdays, one Mother’s Day, a dance recital, one softball season, a year and a half of school, and this month will mark my second Christmas.

However, this holiday won’t be like any other – I won’t be with my daughter. And like Elvis once sang, “it won’t seem like Christmas” without her. Riley will be with her dad, visiting his relatives halfway across the country. While I know she will enjoy her time away, I’m dreading it.

What do I do on Christmas morning when she’s not here to wake me up, shouting that Santa left boot prints on the floor? How will I handle seeing her stocking on the mantel the day after Christmas? Do I want to go to my family’s big Christmas dinner with everyone else’s kids there? Or do I want to go to a movie alone and wallow in my sadness for a couple of hours first?

Keep in touch
Recently, I was clicking through Pinterest, an online bulletin board where you collect ideas for crafts, books, outfits, home decor, and I saw a recipe for a crockpot breakfast casserole with the note “great for Christmas morning.” It sounded yummy, so I repinned it to my board. Then I thought, “Oh, never mind. Riley won’t be here, and that’s too much food for just me.” It’s the little things that sadden me most.
Of course, I’m not the only one going through this – in 2009, 40,000 other Alabama residents saw their marriages end, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  And many of us are wondering how to handle the holidays, especially the first one away from  our children.

According to Lee Block, a life coach, author of The Post-Divorce Chronicles blog, and a divorced mom of two, it should be a priority for children to talk to both parents, if possible, on the holiday. “It’s a great way to still feel connected and also help the other parent who is without the kids,” she explains.

Because I knew my daughter would be out of town over the holidays, I decided to upgrade to an iPhone with FaceTime, or video calling. When I message my daughter’s iPod Touch, we can actually see each other when we talk. If I can’t wake up to her smiling face in person, at least I will have the gift of seeing her via modern technology on Christmas morning.

IMG_0432If you don’t have an iPhone, try Skype to video chat – all you need is a computer, Internet connection and webcam. It’s easy to set up and free.

Invite folks over
Another way to banish the holiday blues is to make yourself do something fun, Block says. Fill your home with the sounds of laughter and friendship to ward off the melancholy.

I’m sure with all of the prep and planning and buying and wrapping some of my friends could use a breather right about now. A night of cocktails and cookies, no prep needed, would be a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of the holidays – just bring a favorite drink, whether it’s a hot chocolate or a hot toddy. Or how about sharing the wrapping duties while watching a holiday movie, sipping lattes, and making plans for the new year? Hmm, I think I’m on to something!

“Just because you’re alone on the holidays doesn’t mean you have to wait to get an invitation somewhere. Have your own celebration and invite everyone to you,” Block says. “Having a house full of people will keep the loneliness at bay.”

Start new traditions
Of course, because your family has changed, the way you celebrate will change, too, so Block suggests creating new traditions for your kids. “Because you are no longer the same type of family unit, it is important to do things a different way than you did them before.”

Each year, Riley and I open one gift on Christmas Eve, bake cookies for Santa and leave him a letter. We make reindeer food and sprinkle it in the front yard so Rudolph and his pals can spot our house from the sky. And each year we get out the Nativity sets and read Luke 2 aloud.

But this year will have to be different. Since we won’t have Christmas Eve together, maybe my daughter and I can make New Year’s Eve special. We could get dressed up and go out for a fancy dinner then to a movie. And top it off with some hot chocolate, admiring the gigantic tree at our favorite outdoor shopping area. Or we could invite a few friends over to ring in the new year with a Wii Just Dance tournament.

If we make it through December
Nothing will cure the ache that I’ll surely feel when I hear “Blue Christmas” on the radio around December 23 and I’m missing my girl but having a plan to lighten up when the holiday blues creep in makes me feel a bit better. And time apart will make my time with her that much sweeter.

And while I know Riley is excited about her trip to see her dad’s families, today my heart broke for her. As we were driving home from school I was singing along with the Christmas songs on the radio. Normally she sings too, but she had her hands over her ears and wouldn’t even listen.Pretty pretty lights

“Mama, turn off the Christmas music. I don’t want to hear it.”

“Why not? You like it.”

“I don’t want to listen to it.”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

“Because I want to be in Alabama with you on Christmas.”

Oh my heart! I told her that it was OK and that she will have a ton of fun on her trip. I reminded her that we’re going to do Christmas with my whole big family before she goes and with me and my parents when she gets back. She’s satisfied for now. I sure hope our FaceTime works while she is out there because it’s going to be hard without her.