Tag Archives: writing

State of the Portrait Writer Report

31 Dec

How Did We Fare in 2015?

As 2015 draws to a close, it’s time for the now-annual State of the Portrait Writer report, in which I will examine my writing progress thus far. In re-reading my year-old journal entry of expectations for 2015, I’m amazed at how many of the events I planned or promised last year (to myself and others) never materialized. This is to be expected because, as I’ve learned and re-learned throughout the year, I’m not in charge. In fact, if everything had turned out as I planned, it would have been quite the boring year. Instead, it’s been a year of victory and surprises, and a wee bit of sadness. However, it’s also been a year of seeing first-hand what God can do in our lives if we step aside.

Many of you who have been with me from the start might be bored by this list, but in celebration of the 130 new readers I picked up in 2015 (yay, and thank you!), for today’s blog I will recap the highlights of the Portrait Writer’s year:

In January, the hubby and I celebrated 31 years of marriage, which translates into 30 years of him listening to me yammer about being a “real writer” and one year of watching me in action. By that time I’d been working from home for 11 months and still had nothing to show for my efforts. After a financially challenging and emotionally frustrating year, however, he was, and miraculously still is, my greatest supporter, without whom there would be no Portrait Writer…and no cheesecake.

February was a month of learning to listen, or to discern exactly what I should be listening to. I was fooled by imitation voices in I Got Screwed!, and later fooled by lovely noises, in Ask Not for Whom the Phone Rings, both of which brought much frustration, until I wizened up. I sure hope I’m smarter now, but it’s a daily battle.

Willa

Love

March brought sadness and a greater appreciation for love and family, when Willa, the Fitzsimmons’ matriarch, left us for a far better place. Although her four children are still reeling from the loss, and miss her more with every Bronco victory they wish she could be sharing with them this year, they are finding solace in knowing she’s no longer in pain. One beautiful ray of light that has emerged from this cloud, her children—the Fitzsimmons Four, who seemed to have been drifting apart, have created new, tighter bonds. Despite the California/Virginia divide, they spent more time together and kept in e-touch more in 2015 than they have in many years, and we’re all praying this trend will continue.

Food staring

Livin’ in the Fridge…

April started in a delightfully silly way with a foolish fridge, and then devolved into a month of contemplation. We examined the need for sports-fan-like loyalty for one’s spouse in Married for Life, and hubby tackled school lunches in No Fishy Business.

In May I shared with you my love/hate relationship with lists in My Ship Will Float, and I finished out the month on an overwhelming high with the cover reveal for my first book, “Caged Sparrow.” I also made promises I couldn’t keep for June, but that’s an entry for…

…in June, I realized I couldn’t make my self-appointed deadline for “Caged Sparrow,” and contemplated cutting corners, which gave me a new appreciation for my Best Boss Ever, in Deadlines and Rocket Surgery. I chose my next writing project in Who Says you Can’t Go Home Again?” That project quickly fell to the sidelines to make room for another and to show me that, once again, I’m not in charge. Rest assured, the project is still on the horizon.

Sparrow in prison book cover

Caged Sparrow

In July, “Caged Sparrow” became a reality, bringing to fruition my life-long dream of becoming a PUBLISHED AUTHOR. I gave my first Totally Made-up Interview in Let the Caged Sparrow Fly! And, while the book is not exactly flying off the shelves—more like falling off—sales are progressing as expected. Reviews on Amazon are quite kind, and some aren’t even from friends and family. Joe and I wanted only to hear that people’s perspective changed upon reading his story, and we received many notes and comments that this, indeed, is happening. Also in July, Hubby and I hit the open road and all the open doughnut stores between San Francisco and Pittsburgh, in Down Home America. This saga turned out to be so great it rolled into…

Corn and bean field: Succotash

Succotash, get it? Corn and beans? Nevermind.

…August, with Salt, Bugs and Doughnuts, which lulled me into inertia, nearly bringing my writing career to a halt with its Dangerously Pleasant Anchor. I’d say the biggest revelation of August was that not everyone gets my sense of humor. The succotash field pic is a joke. Get with it folks!

In September we explored the undervalue of Teachers (If You Can Read This…) and canines (Treat Each Other like Dogs), both of whom improve our lives significantly.

October was just plain fun. After examining the light in the darkness in Storms May be Brewing, I took you on a somewhat scary journey through a typical ADD writer’s sleep-deprived night in Left Brain, Right Brain. Then I took you to Naples, Florida for a book signing and interview with the now famous Joe Tuttolomondo. What a blast that was, and I haven’t even shared about it yet…hmmm…could be a January blog…

In November and December, I let my blog wind down, paying tribute to my friend Michele in Five Years Strong and Counting, remembering my non-Norman Rockwell Thanksgivings of long ago, and ending the year contemplating the preposterousness of Peace on Earth.

Last year the Portrait Writer published one book, edited two others, wrote 20 short stories and about 30 blog posts—all fulfilling, fun work. The short stories provided enough income to keep me writing, and I’m excited about what’s around the corner. More on that in 2016.

Have a happy and blessed new year, everyone. And remember, you’re not in charge.

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In his heart, a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps. — Proverbs 16:9

Inertia, a Writer’s Dangerously Pleasant Anchor

26 Aug

I just don’t feel like writing today. This makes no sense because I love to write. However, today I just want to lie here, wrapped in this cozy blanket of summer memories, and watch the world pass me by.

Corn and bean field: Succotash

Have you ever wondered where succotash grows? Well, here’s a crop just outside Lancaster PA. 🙂

It has been a wonderful summer, filled with travel and family, good food, and idleness out the wazoo. I played in the salt, hung out with Marine buddies I haven’t seen in nearly ten years, and stumbled upon a succotash field—all adventures that would not have been possible if I hadn’t left my writing chair. All the while, my trusty laptop has sat idle by my side. Sure, I checked email and played a few crossword puzzles with the thing, but I wrote only two blog posts in six weeks. I thought about writing. I pondered various blog topics. I felt inspired to write on many occasions by my surroundings. But somehow, no words actually made it to the page.

Regrettably, I’ll bet that if I were to add up all the moments between actual adventures, I’d probably realize that I spent much of my summer doing absolutely nothing…staring at the miles upon miles of Iowa cornfields as we drove past, sitting in hotel rooms gazing at mindless television just because the thing was on, watching other people go about their lives. Prime, inspiration-filled writing days down the drain.

Boats on the Trent River

Watching the boats at sunrise. What would I name my boat? That could be an entire blog…

On my most recent trip to a U.S. Marine Combat Correspondents conference in New Bern, NC, I spent much of our non-meeting time looking out the hotel window at the lovely Trent River Harbor, a relaxed and peaceful boat-packed city where time practically stands still. By my third day there I’d given names to the two SCUBA divers who leave every morning on what are surely the most amazing quests I’ll never know about; to the dog walker and her Westie, who stopped to greet everyone on the path; and to the man with the bucket and hose, who moved methodically from one pier to the next, scrubbing yachts in preparation for weekend voyages. But instead of writing about them, I just stared and thought.

I wasted nearly an hour one morning trying to catch a train bridge in motion. Every time I looked out the window, it would be either opened to boat traffic or closed to let a train chug across the river…yet I could never catch it in the act of rotating.  I’d leave my post for only a second and, bam, it would change.

I wasted more time wondering how many copies of Caged Sparrow I’d have to sell to afford a yacht of my own, what I’d name my yacht if I had one (so far, I’m leaning toward Page Turner), and wondering what I’d actually do on it because I wouldn’t want to sail it myself. I think that if I couldn’t convince my hubby to skipper the thing, I’d just keep it moored and spend every waking minute on the shaded deck enjoying the rhythmic rocking and smell of salt water while I write…or think about writing.

I told myself it’s okay.

You’re on vacation. You can write when you get home.

But I didn’t. I kept watching the world. It feels terrible to not write, as if there’s an anchor pulling my creativity to the bottom of the river, and potential beauty is just sinking away…but I’m lying here, letting it happen.

This morning, after being back four days and finding myself still in idle mode, it struck me. I’ve inertia-ed myself into a state of mind atrophy. I liked doing nothing. I liked it too much. I think our minds react to laziness the same way our bodies do, and the only way to get back on the writing track is to actually write. So here I am, with nothing special to say but the urge to say it anyway. We’ll call this blog my stretching exercise, and hopefully I’ll be back running next week.

Hey, would you like to help? Let’s try a writing experiment. Give me a topic, any topic…preferably something that’s not math-related. Either add it to the comment box below or send me an email at RoseFitz.portraitwriter@gmail.com. I’ll blog about the top three suggestions throughout September (right after I tell you why I think retired Marines are the greatest people on earth.)

Who knows, perhaps you’re the one who will wake me up, for which I thank you in advance, or I will after my nap.

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How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a thief and scarcity like an armed man. — Proverbs 6:9-11

Deadlines & Rocket Surgery: Lessons Learned from a Lil’ Ball O’ Hate

16 Jun

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” — Douglas Adams

So, the big Caged Sparrow debut date came and went, and I’m still staring at a not-quite finished project. I tried so hard to make the promised deadline, but life had other plans. Good plans, mind you…purposeful and fruitful disruptions, but disruptions nonetheless.

I am reminded of something Carrie, my former boss and now great friend, used to say whenever someone would complain that we’d missed an arbitrary deadline because of changing priorities. Usually some self-appointed informant would storm into her office all purple and blustery and announce, “That document! It’s LATE!”

As if we didn’t know.

Carrie would calmly look him in the eyes and ask, “Late for what?”

Best boss ever.

Lil' Ball O' Hate

Tony-the-illustrator’s rendition of Ms Carrie in Mother Hen mode

Carrie has more common sense than anyone I know. She’s a tiny thing, who can tie a belt around an NFL jersey and still look ready for a Vogue cover shoot (not an exaggeration—I’ve seen her do it), yet she packs a lot of spitfire in that little frame, particularly if someone tries to strong-arm one of her Quality and Dissemination chicks. You’ve never seen a more effective mother hen. (Heheh,that’s why we lovingly nicknamed her Lil’ Ball O’ Hate.)

I loved working for Carrie for many reasons; she’s not only wise, but also funny, brilliant, calm in the face of (our) perceived calamity, and she can do some amazing things with chicken and a can of Cheez Whiz. Working with Carrie taught me to focus on the larger picture—what’s really important here? That may be why so many of her words of wisdom are echoing around my brain this week.

Carrie is full of…wisdom. (Missed opportunity, Q&D Gang, I know.) My favorite Carrie-ism, although least relevant to this post is, “It’s not rocket surgery, you know.” Logically, I should have omitted that for the sake of flow here, but I couldn’t NOT share. So there you go.

Carrie also taught me that one of the most important steps in a project is the final “quality control” check. I was so tempted to skip this step in Joe’s book, because I was THAT close to making the deadline, and I’d told so many people it would be ready. I didn’t want the book to be late.

Then I heard, “Late for what?”

…and I realized I’m only shooting for June 15th because I set a June 15th deadline.

Yes, I could actually hit the “go live” button right now if I really wanted to. All the parts are there. Joe has given his final thumbs up; Tony, the illustrator, has patiently tweaked the cover so often the words, “just one more time, I swear” no longer carry meaning (but it’s exactly the right cover now!); and I’ve received excellent feedback from my beta readers, Mary, Becky, and Michele, who noticed a few missing words, some awkward phrasing, and one extremely improbable juxtaposition in the space-time continuum.

Which brings me to another Carrie-ism. Having people find mistakes in my writing doesn’t bother me as much as it used to, particularly mistakes found before final print. I think of the beta readers as angels who, knowing what a klutz I am, walk ahead of me clearing tree branches and stones from path so I don’t fall on my face. At the office, on the rare occasion when a typo did slip through the cracks and make it to print, we could count on some arrogant know-it-all to toss a copy of the manuscript on her desk, offending typo circled thirty times in thick black marker.

“Sure, I see it,” she’d say, and then grin. “But did ya happen to notice the seven thousand words here that we got right?”

So, yes, I could have rushed through the last few steps and uploaded the final version, but as my hand hovered over that button, I thought of Carrie again.

I remembered her more than once staring down a petulant customer, usually someone who thought an editor can zip through a 75-page passive-voice nightmare between the two-hour staff meeting and the mandatory pot luck luncheon and have enough time left over to design a cover for it. After all, editing is just reading, right?

“Look, Bud,” Carrie would say, “you can have it right or you can have it right now, but not both.”

Page One edits

One day when I’m famous, I’ll tell the story of how I rewrote the first page of Caged Sparrow a gazillion times and it will be funny, somehow.

So I’m not going to rush this. I’m going to finish these last changes unhurried, and then get one more proof copy so I can see for myself that the cover looks exactly the same in hand as it does on the screen, and THEN, I’ll hit the button.

New arbitrary deadline: 27 June.

Carrie would be proud of me, I think. If she’s still talking to me, that is…

You see, Carrie is such a great boss, she once left a card on my desk that posed the question, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”

…at which time I decided to quit my editing job.

So, essentially, this book is pretty much her fault

Best boss ever.

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The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. – Psalm 145:15

Story of a Story: Caged Sparrow Announcement

15 May

It’s hard to say when Caged Sparrow became a book.

The Event occurred in Buffalo, NY in the late ’70s, when Joseph Tuttolomondo was convicted and sent to prison for a crime he did not commit.

The idea to write about it began even earlier, when he and his wife started collecting newspaper accounts of his arrest and recording details of his story in case “one day” ever came.

He thought “one day” had arrived many times, but the timing was never right, so he got on with his life. Then he met someone named Linda at a dinner in Florida. Linda, a writer, showed an interest in his story, but biographies were not her genre.

A year later, Linda met me, by chance, some would say, at the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference in Asheville, NC. I had been trying to tell people about my writing projects, hoping to find some backing. The conference was nearly over. I’d given up telling people I write contemporary parables and sat moping in a lobby area of the hotel, thinking the entire week had been a bust. It didn’t make sense, considering how many people were praying for me to find my direction. I had a whole team of friends praying, because I’d honestly believed something was going to happen at the conference that would enable me to quit my “day job” and write for a living.

Linda sat down across from me and just started talking. “And what do you write?”

A harmless question. I’d answered it many times that week. I didn’t know her, and I didn’t particularly want to chat, but manners suggested I should at least be polite.

“Personality stories,” I answered. Where did that come from? I’d not written personalities since my Marine Corps days, when I wrote for the base paper. They’d always been my favorite assignments.

“Oh, you do?” She beamed. “I have a story for you!”

Next thing I know, I’m flying to Naples, FL to meet quite possibly the sweetest, most humble man I’ve ever known. He told me his fascinating story and I brought it to Virginia as a box of letters & documents, and about 12 hours of recorded interviews.

I quit my day job.

Since then the project has gone from data to text, to chapters, to completed story. It became a proposal a year ago, and was picked up by a wonderful agent. The agent tried for months to find a publisher for it, to no avail. Undeterred, I decided to publish it myself. After many revisions, this month I uploaded it into a template and received a proof copy of what it will look like. I will make one final revision, after I hear from Mary, a friend and editor who is reviewing it for grammar and flow.

So, is it technically a book? I think so. Although you can’t order it yet, the critical elements are all there: Story…check; ISBN…check; author bio…check; UPC code…check; and, to my absolute joy, an incredible cover…CHECK!!!  Here’s where I give a shout out to Anthony Cash, who can hear pictures and transform them to paper. He listened to Joe’s story and made the most remarkable cover anyone could hope for.

Next week will mark two years since that day in the lobby. I estimate it took about a year longer than necessary because of all I had to learn along the way. Then again, I think the timing is perfect. I hereby announce that Caged Sparrow will be available for purchase June 15, via a link on this website and as many other venues as I can find.

But for now, I’ll give you a sneak peek at the cover…

Sparrow in prison book cover

Coming soon!

My Ship Will Float, as Long as I’m Listing

4 May

I have a love/resent relationship with lists. I love them because they keep me on track—help me prioritize. Without lists I’d fall completely apart, and I’d have to change my standard salutation to “I’m so sorry…”

The resent side I’ll explain later.

Scattered through my home are myriad notebook pages, index cards, junk mail envelopes, and napkins, all bescrawled (sure, it’s a word) with reminders. I carry some from room to room as I work; others are actually filed. Filing is on my Saturday list.

Of all my memos, the most important is my daily “Priorities” list. I start this at the beginning of every week, optimistically attaching a huge “Monday” label to the top, which I then replace with a smaller “Tuesday,” and an apologetic-looking “Wednesday” as the week progresses. By Thursday, I usually have to start over because I’ve added and crossed off too much to make sense of it any more. I’ve never crossed off everything on the list. Well, I could, technically, so let’s say instead that I’ve never actually completed every task on a list.

Aside from my daily list, I keep lists of tasks other family members have to accomplish…particularly my teenager, whose most common query response is, “Sorry, I forgot.” This paper is usually left on the kitchen table so it can be easily spotted by said teenager. Somehow though, it often disappears.

Then there’s the “Some Day” list, which consists of all my promises to myself and others that I truly intend to get to, but…well, you know. This list survives on the premise that one day I’ll get to the end of my daily list and wonder what I should do next. Research phone plans? Make an eye appointment to see whether I need glasses? Visit that web page someone told me about? Spray the couch with fabric guard before it’s—what? That thing is five years old? Well then, I can cross that off the list. The good thing about the Some Day list is it kinda self-regulates that way.

I keep my Prayer List in a prominent place on a neon yellow card. Those of you with ADD know that a neon yellow card will not be ignored. I try to look at a different name each time the card catches my eye. Most days, I get through the entire list. If you’ve asked me to pray for you, know that I’m praying for you.

My “books I want to read” list gets longer every day. I rarely update this because I like remembering those I did read, and I jot notes beside them: Unbroken—highly recommend! Brave New World—good read but disturbing; Sweet Potato Queen’s Book of Love—not for me, thank you. (Which reminds me to ask you: I’m always looking for humorous books, and I’m SO often disappointed because humor requires more than a funny title…what hilarious books have you read lately?)

And yes, of course I have a bucket list. At the top is my hope to go a week without my lists. Just below that is the experience of seeing my book on a store shelf—and not because I put it there…

I also have lists of blog ideas, short-story ideas, potential publishers and magazines I’d like to check out, birthdays (a list I always seem to look at after someone’s birthday), quotes that touched me, and dogs I’d consider adopting when I one day move to a house with a huge back yard…I don’t think you should tell my husband I’m keeping that list.

So, what’s the down side of keeping lists? For one thing, I become dependent on a piece of paper I cannot always find. For another, it’s difficult to bend when a new item wants to not only work its way onto the list, but be seated at the top. And finally, some days I wonder whether I’m using the lists or they’re using me.

This past week was particularly busy, with my husband leaving for a trip that required some administrative and logistical assistance; a neighbor who left town and asked me to feed and walk her dog; a teen staring at SOL tests for which he’s woefully unprepared; doctor’s appointments; funky car noises that must be addressed; oh, and I work.

Interestingly, to me anyway, I felt peace as I worked through the lists. I was busy, and tired at the end of each day, but at peace. It was, dare I say, a fun challenge.

List of tasks

Sometimes you just have to walk away from the list…

With obsessive focus and a lot of prayer, I made it until Thursday before my ship started listing (see what I did there?). Then a sweet friend reminded me about something that should have been on my list but wasn’t, which needed to be done that day. As she was talking to me, I remembered I hadn’t picked up my son’s completed physical form from the base clinic, and that they’d said they would hold it only 10 days. I tried to focus on her words as my brain tried to calculate whether this was day 9 or 10. ADD will not let go at times like this. Nor will that voice that tells me I’ll never get it right. I went to my car and allowed myself a brief sob.

My sobs turned to prayer, as they often do, and I prayed for the peace I’d felt at the beginning of the week. Immediately I thought of my friend and former boss, Carrie. One reason I love her is because whenever someone pointed out a mistake her editors might have made, she’d respond with, “and how many words did they get right?”

She gets it. Instead of focusing on the …wait while I add ‘em up…FORTY-SEVEN tasks, responsibilities, and promises I made good on, I let myself melt into a woe-is-me puddle of self-proclaimed inadequacy over two I’d forgotten. In reality, I’m doing pretty darned well, thank you very much.

Long story short, it was day 9, and I did get the task accomplished, but not before accepting that none of us will ever get everything done. When I shed this temple and start on my Kick the Bucket list, I will leave behind many uncompleted tasks. As long as everything I do here, I do for the King, I’m doing just fine.

Ha. The devil thought he had my number…but it’s unlisted.

~~~~~

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.” 

–Colossians 3:24

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May’s Christmas Year-round Suggestion

Invite a neighbor or two to your home for an evening, particularly some you don’t know. An evening can be so much more relaxing when it’s not one of many seasonal engagements. I recommend you nix the eggnog, however.

Saluting the Grammar Police…Heroes from a Whole Nother Era

4 Mar
Egg's and Chicken's

Last year’s sign (thanks Albert). Still funny, in a sad sort of way…

I just can’t let National Grammar Day go by without sending a shout out to all my red-pen-hearted peeps out there who are struggling mightily…to find the page-sized “X” option in the track changes menu so they can truly express their preferred course of action.

Sorry guys, but that type of editor satisfaction has become a thing of the past. Sadly, it appears the well-written sentence is fading as well.

We just don’t seem to pay attention to our words as much as we used to. I recently came across a briefing slide that claims, “The average American consumes more than 400 Africans,” and a parking lot sign warning that, “Violators will be towed and find $50.”

Words are losing their identity faster than department store credit card customers. Nouns are verbing (as in, “I don’t want to brain today” and “trending this week”), and verbs are nouning (“The accomplishment resulted in a pay increase.”) Worse still, we’re getting lazy with real words. Why do newscasters insist on using the terms, “terror plot” and “War on Terror,” when we’re actually fighting terrorists and terrorism?

Our dictionary writers are caving. Find a dictionary less than 5 years old and look up “nother,” as in, “that’s a whole nother story.” It’s in there.

The AP Style book is caving. Thanks to the wonderful world of advertising, the word “over” is now an acceptable substitute for “more than” and it’s okay to start a sentence “Hopefully” without a supporting pronoun. (It’s also okay to write “ok” but I can’t make my fingers do that.) The Chicago Manual of Style may be caving, but it’s too big so I don’t use it. (I was going to tell you about Super-editor Christina here because she is the only person I know who has cracked that tome open, but I can’t exactly say she uses it—she has it memorized.)

Fat free milk

It may be fat, but it’s also free!

Why are we taking our cues from the advertising world anyway? These are the same people who gave Victoria Secret the, “You’ve never seen body’s like this!” campaign, and had Michael Jordan touting the Lay Flat Collar! Not the sharpest tools in the shed, if you know what I mean.

Just look at the printed world around us. We live in a country where the milk we drink is not only fat, but also free. And, if that doesn’t satisfy, we can swap our milk for some orange juice toted as “the most tastiest.”

Now, before you jump on my blogwagon, yes, I understand that language evolves. One day we’ll need a dictionary to remember how to use “hash tag” as a noun and to learn the purpose of a selfie stick. However, it’s not the new words that add to my life’s uhtceare (There, find your own dictionary!); it’s the wrongly used words, and the wrongly punctuated words.

So, if you’re in the writing business, hug an editor today.  You’ve probably been saved at least once by that red pen tracked change luminary. If you’re an editor, dry you’re “tears” and take a heart. Sadly, the very existance of such a day ensures you’ll halve employment for as long as your want it.

Ask Not For Whom the Phone Rings…

9 Feb

I needed two quiet hours, that’s all.

An hour’s worth of un-transcribed audio notes from a recent phone interview sat on the table, screaming for my attention, but a litany of interruptions had been pulling me away all morning. So, when my awesome husband announced he’d be taking our teenager out for some father-son time, I was thrilled.

Even before they were out the door I started racing around to get settled. (That may sound oxymoronic, but ask any parent on the cusp of some quiet time—it’s a bona fide activity.)

Let’s see…Coffee? Check. Laptop plugged in? Check. Notebook? Check. Cell phone near so I don’t have to get up? Check. Cozy workin’ blanket? Check. Snack? Check.

Good to go.

I hit the button on the audio player and started typing. The sound quality was fantastic, for a change; our voices came through crystal clear (I could write a whole other blog on whisperers, bad connections, accents, and static-riddled conversations). I started typing like a madwoman.

I might just be able to pull this off before the boys get back.

Then the phone rang.

Not the cell phone, which, although annoying, I could have easily picked up. No, it was the house phone, ten whole feet away.

…Click off the tape, transfer the laptop onto the table, kick the cat off the blanket, pull off the blanket, race to the kitchen, and grab the phone.

Dial tone.

I can’t believe they hung up.

I brought the house phone over to the computer and settled back down. At least I’d be ready if it happened again.

I hit the audio button and resumed typing.

“Ring!”

Hah! I hit “pause” and grabbed the phone.

Nothing.

This happened about four more times, always one ring. I sent a text to the boys to see if they were trying to reach me. Perhaps they had a poor signal?

“Nope. Wasn’t us.”

I sent the same text to my best friend. Not her either.

Again it happened. And again.

Cat by broken phone

Careful everyone…she’s in a mood…

Yes, I considered the potential for a hidden camera, and even looked around with not a little paranoia before shaking my head. Hard.

Twice more I resumed my typing. Twice more the phone rang. The little girl in me was seriously ready to start crying.

Okay, I’m going to try to ignore it.

I started transcribing again, focusing on the voice on the tape with all I had. The phone rang once—you should know I have ADD and cannot ignore a ringing phone—twice—focus, focus, focus!—three times. If you can make it to four the machine will kick on.

Then I heard my voice on the tape saying, “Just ignore that, Sir; it will go to voicemail at four rings.”

I’d spent the better part of 30 minutes trying to answer a phone that wasn’t ringing.

Crystal clear audio. It’s not always your friend.

It made me wonder though…

How often, in my stubbornness, do I run on autopilot and not even notice that the one true voice has stopped talking? There are a lot of imitations out there…stay alert!

For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. Matthew 24:24

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Christmas Year-Round assignment for February

Okay, you’ve had your baking break. It’s time to get the pans out again. This month, bake a batch of cookies for a neighbor…and not one you know well, either. No, you don’t have to decorate them, and yes, deliver them in person. Write to me about your new friend!

Hope among the Embers

31 Dec Ocean

Author’s note: This blog was written in response to yesterday’s writing prompt challenge on A Writer’s Path: Ten Quote Tuesday, in which we were to write about “A human cage, built without a lock.” It’s a great writer’s site–very inspiring.

Hope among the Embers

My shelter sits on the edge of the Sea of Fear. I have all I need here.

I’ve been building this place for nearly 50 years, and I’ve stocked it well.

The floor is warm, lined with newspaper clippings and childhood essays with large, red A-plus marks scrawled across the top. The yellowed by-lines on some of the articles whisper my maiden name. I re-read the stories now and cringe at my poor grammar and worldly naiveté. Still, I keep them because of the accolades from teachers and publishers; their sparks ignited a fire that still burns in the shelter’s camp stove.

The shelter beams were fashioned over many years through friendships and mentorships. I run my fingers along the loving, encouraging messages engraved throughout in scrawling gnarled script. “I love your writing.” “Don’t ever give up.” “If you ever write a book, I’ll certainly read it.” Each beam is treasured. Some can never be replaced.

I’ve fortified the walls with tools of the trade. I’ve joined writers’ groups, taken tutorials, purchased How-To books, attended online seminars, and traveled to conferences. I’ve taken more notes and saved more useful files than I’ll ever be able to read, even if I knew where they’re stored on this blasted computer. Still, it gives me peace to know they’re there—if I ever need them.

Photographs pasted on the walls chronicle 40 years of growth and maturity, depicting victories over mind and body. Swimming across the Sakonnet River. Gaffing trees. Rappelling. The first time I fired Expert at the shooting range. Periods of extreme grief. The love of a good man. Raising two boys. Unspeakable joy. Jobs of increasing significance. Walking away from the last job to write. Writing a book. Rewriting the book. Rewriting the book.

Firelight from the camp stove illuminates the open front door and the sea beyond. I sit with my belongings and watch the water’s ripples kiss the shore. Hemmingway, Poe, Harper Lee, Erma Bombeck, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Orson Scott Card, Maya Angelou, Nicholas Sparks. My tables, my chairs, my blankets, my friends. Nestled here, I’m safe and I’m happy, but I’m not content.

There’s something out there, across the water, and it is good. My raft bobs at the pier, like hope ready to burst. It’s big enough to carry me and my shelter, and everything in it. But the sea is so vast. I don’t know what creatures lurk in its depths, or whether a storm sits on the horizon, preparing even now to churn the waters into a frenzy. If that happened, I’d lose everything. I look across the sea, and wonder…

Enough for today. I reach up and pull the shelter door closed, then snuggle against the cold with Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Drowsily, I listen to him whisper from across the years:

“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know. 
Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.” 

The fire in the camp stove has been refueled. Tomorrow, I will try again.

Ocean

Or perhaps it’s a sea of endless possibility…?

Bamboo Faith: Why I Can’t Quit Writing

9 Oct panda and bamboo

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by your own ineptitude? I’ve been there for the past two weeks, and last night, it almost beat me.

panda and bamboo

Mei-Jing and bamboo (the flag was outside; the artist was 5 and all about details)

I was throwing away a bamboo stump that had been a living plant in our home for at least the past 12 years. It represented a simpler time in our lives, a time when watering plants was part of the weekly routine, and wishes were easily satisfied. We bought the plant when my youngest, who’d just acquired a stuffed panda named Mei-Jing (what else?) asked for bamboo for Christmas, explaining quite simply, “You can’t have a panda without bamboo.”

Bamboo is like cactus, in that it takes a lot to do it in. It thrives, even when neglected. My friend tossed a dying bamboo root in her back yard a few years back and now she has a forest out there that would make any panda feel right at home. But then, I’ve killed many a cactus plant in my day. And now I’ve killed Mei-Jing’s food supply as well, because I no longer have a weekly routine.

So last night, I stared at that clump of former life and had a pity party. I told myself it represented the past few weeks, in which I’ve been racing around to accomplish “stuff,” but really, I’ve gone nowhere. Joe’s story has received two rejections from publishers; I’m having trouble finding blog time, which is one of my favorite things to do; and when my fledgling business was begging for water, I prayed for water and got a firehose. I cannot operate a firehose, so I just about drowned everything in my…ineptitude.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve become accustomed to, and accepted the reality that…well, I’m not the brightest bulb in the dirt. (See how that doesn’t work? Nevermind.) I come by this quirk honestly. Once when my dad was in a hospital waiting room, fretting over Mom as the doctors worked behind closed doors (she was ok—that’s not the story), the doctor came out and told him it would help if he got some donors. My dad made a beeline for the exit and was gone for 20 minutes. When he came back, he presented a pink box to the doctor and said, “I didn’t know if you wanted glazed or jelly filled so I got some of both.”

So, yes, I’m a bit off, but I’m generally capable. I can juggle many tasks, write a fine short story (if I do say so myself), and make kids laugh without actually falling down. That’s why, when I left my job to write full-time, I had a certain degree of justifiable confidence in my ability—until this week.

Here’s the situation: Despite the negative news (so far) for Joe’s story, my freelance business is taking off. I’d been writing one story a week for some time now. Last week, because I forgot to take my name off a list of availability, I managed to sign up for three stories at once. Naturally, I was too proud to say it’s too much. I figured, the interviews have been averaging two hours (recorded on an mp3 file), and the stories are so intriguing they practically write themselves, so I thought I was up for the challenge. HOWEVER, both interviews this week have been well over three hours. One is with a woman who speaks with a heavy Romanian accent and the other had some sort of technical glitch forcing me to fight through static to transcribe the conversation. It has taken me six hours to transcribe the first hour of each tape. The rest awaits. Ineptitude. I woke this morning dreading my work for the first time because I have so much to do and still another interview tomorrow. I’m overwhelmed. I cried in my pity party and thought, perhaps I’m not cut out for this.

Here’s where I praise God for that few moments each day that ARE routine. You see, every morning I try to spend my first 30 minutes or so studying the Bible. Lately that’s been in the form of Beth Moore’s Children of the Day study of 1st Thessalonians, in which I read about Paul’s concern for the new believers after their trials. He wrote, not to assure them they’d be okay, but to remind them that they would be hard pressed to come out unscathed. He added, “I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless.

And bam! I remembered: I’m not doing this on a whim, but because I believe it’s the Lord’s plan for me. Anything that comes against my decision to write is not of God. I know the “tempter” isn’t looking out for my best interests. What he holds out before me is not escape and relief, but surrender. When I’m wounded and angry, he’s delighted, because I’m close to giving in. (That’s one reason he attacks our loved ones, by the way—to get us where we’re vulnerable—but that’s another blog). Simply put: he plays dirty. And I know what he wants from me. Not my business. Not my stories. Not my hopes and dreams. These things mean nothing to him, except as a means to get what he really wants.

New bamboo plant

My plant of new hope…it better hope I remember to water it.

He wants my faith.

He’s not getting it.

So this morning I bought a new bamboo plant and set it in the same vase as the last one. I watered it (so that’s at least once…) and set it where I can see it. I’m not inept. I’m administratively challenged. But I have a Counselor who isn’t, and so I leave that part of this job to Him. These next few days will be challenging, and before I’m done I might be speaking with a static-y Romanian accent, but I know there’s victory coming.

Now, I’m heading back to finish my transcription; but this time, I’m armored up and ready to fight. Are you with me?

But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.” 1 Thessalonians 8

Writing Tips about Readers: One is Enough to Get You Started

19 Sep
Stephen King's On Writing

Good place to start a writing journey

Today’s blog is inspired by Stephen King, and an unknown reader.

I’ve just finished reading a book that I recommend to anyone who writes or wants to, whether for a living or just for the simple pleasure of putting words on the page.

It’s Stephen King’s On Writing; A Memoir of the Craft.

Author’s Note: Let me make it clear here, I tend to avoid Stephen King books because I have an imagination that cannot relinquish images once they flash before my mind’s eye. (The Green Mile’s John Coffey is as real to me as any person I’ve ever met; he scares me, and he’s one of the good guys.)  However, I appreciate good writing and admire King’s work because he can create those vivid images, and in a way that seems effortless. In fact, if he weren’t such a phenomenal writer, I wouldn’t have to avoid his work—how’s that for a back-handed compliment?

But this book is different. It’s a beautiful depiction of writing as a passion that, once it grabs you, simply must be acknowledged and satisfied. King’s memoir weaves stories of his personal journey with bits of advice and encouragement to writers and examples of beautiful prose in a way that would have inspired me to quit my day job if I hadn’t already. He makes me appreciate anew the joy of writing for writing’s sake.

And as a bonus, from the pages of King’s beautifully written narrative, I’ve picked up two valuable bits of advice that I’m incorporating into my life right away.

The first is that to write, one must read. If Stephen King says so, it must be so.

All I can say is, YAY!

(If there were a way to make that look happier without one of those flashy neon “marching ants” borders, I’d do it; it’s just that cool. But for now, “Yay!” will have to suffice).

So, in the Portrait Writer’s world, reading is now a sanctioned, necessary part of the job. That’s like sending a kid to a candy shop for time out. To all of you back at the office who are still suffering through those annual training classes on filling out travel claims and understanding the importance of submitting form 3C with your timecard request to adjust for an unanticipated increase in traffic volume on I95, I can only say…

“Boo-ya! I’m studying Barbara Kingsolver!”

Of course, I will share my reading adventures and recommendations along the way, so you can skip right to the good stuff on your own reading list. (Life’s too short to waste time reading bad books.)

The second concept I’m adopting is to write to an ideal audience, and this epiphany couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve learned over the past few weeks that not everyone likes everything I write (gasp!) and, if I took to heart all the advice I’ve received lately, my next blog would be a politically correct, non-offending piece of drivel. I’m grateful for every person who reads my blog, and I appreciate your feedback, particularly because it helps me see some things from different perspectives, but it won’t change my writing. In fact, I suspect that when I hit a nerve, it’s not the words that cause you to wince.

King suggests writers choose one person that they respect and know well, and write only to that person. And so I have identified my ideal reader as a young man we’ll call Fred. He’s well educated and knows who God is, but has never really read God’s love letter to mankind. He’s angry at this entity we call God and, as a matter of fact, is gathering evidence to support his claim that if God does exist, He can’t possibly care for us very much. I cannot convince Fred otherwise, but I can show him over time why I believe differently.

And by the way, Fred thinks I’m hilarious. That’s why every once in a while I have to write something silly, just to make him laugh.

Fred, I promise you that if you keep reading, I will keep writing. I wish I could promise more, but the rest is not up to me. I’m a Proverbs 16:9 girl; I’m not sure where this train is heading, but I’m glad to be along for the ride.

 

In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” Pr 16:9