Taking Chances

 Lately I’ve been thinking about risk tolerance. The phrase came up in a news conference this week when our province announced its staged reopening plan based on our rate of immunization and our Covid numbers. Because even though the government is establishing guidelines, we’ll have to make personal decisions about how interactive we want to be.  As Dr. Bonnie Henry put it, we will have to decide our own level of risk tolerance.

People take chances all the time. In fiction, we need our characters to do exactly that. I’ve started reading a suspense novel, Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter. It’s fast-paced and gritty and so far, the main character is taking a lot of chances. I’m okay with it because she’s well-motivated and the action is plausible. There are times in books or movies, however, when a character goes too far and deliberately walks into danger when there’s absolutely no reason for it. In the writing community, we refer to that character as being TSTL – too stupid to live.  But if risk tolerance is well-motivated that’s a different thing. In the Slaughter novel the character is young and under pressure; she’s terrified for her mother and acting in the heat of the moment. It all goes to plausibility and it works for me even though I’m naturally risk-averse.

Take the black bears, for instance. They’re back in our neighborhood. Not just one, but five. At least. There’s a mama and two cubs. A solitary male that’s been described as ‘a very large boy’ and two juveniles who travel together and like to knock over compost bins. Clearly the bear equivalent of teenagers. And if my neighbor to the east is to be believed there’s another one roaming around too, for a count of six.

Just last week we had to turn back on the trail while walking Team Sheltie because the lone big boy was up ahead. Yesterday morning, we narrowly missed the two juveniles having a go at the compost bins one street over. A few hours ago, we saw signs of a recent bear visit on the other side of our back fence. I’m watchful and uneasy. Bears pose a risk I’m not inclined to tangle with.

Yet some people feel quite differently. One neighbor finds it thrilling to know they’re so close. Her back yard isn’t fenced and she enjoys it when they wander through. Mind you, she enjoys them from the safety of her house. Another neighbor, Richard, was so intrigued when he spotted the large loner bear on the trail the other day that he followed him. Yes, you read that right. He followed the black bear for ten minutes at least, giving the animal enough space so he didn’t feel threatened but close enough to allow Richard a decent view.

Richard was born and raised on acreage in South Africa where wildlife was common. Respect and common sense are key, he said. To him, following a black bear on a paved trail with houses nearby felt quite tame. He indulged his curiosity, stepping into what he considered a minimally risky situation.

No wonder I’ve been thinking about risk tolerance. I can’t bear the thought of taking those kinds of chances.  

Happy National Limerick Day

                                        

There is a writer who lives by the shore

And sometimes her words simply soar

But her finger is broken

And, no, she’s not jokin’

So today it’s a rhyme and no more.

Okay, so maybe a little more.

Today, May 12th, is National Limerick Day. It’s held to mark the birthday of Edward Lear, the English writer who popularized the limerick in his A Book of Nonsense, which was published way back in 1846.

Limericks are those recognizable five-line poems consisting of a single stanza and an AABBA rhyming scheme. They’re known for their humorous themes, they’re almost always trivial, and they often appear as children’s nursery rhymes:

Hickory, dickory, dock.

The mouse ran up the clock.

The clock struck one.

The mouse ran down.

Hickory, dickory, dock.

Regardless of content, limericks are designed to make you smile, and that’s why they’ve been popular for well over a century.

I can’t say I’m smiling over my broken finger, but putting pen to paper (figurately speaking) and making light of it, helps ease the pain.

Finally, for writers who read this blog, here’s a limerick written by editor Monica Sharman that may strike a chord:

Relentless, insatiable deadlines!

This manuscript’s still full of red lines.

First, I’ll sweat through the edits

And check all the credits

Then chill with my favorite red wine.

Happy National Limerick Day!

That Pesky Point of View

To a writer, point of view is everything. It makes – or breaks – characters. It plays into conflict. It spins a story forward. In fact, no decision a writer makes will impact their story more. Point of view flavors everything in the story world.

It also heavily flavors our own lives. Today I’m going for my first Covid vaccine, and I’ve never been this excited to get a shot. Most of my family and close friends are on board and have either gotten their first jab or are waiting to book. From their point of view, the decision to get it is a no-brainer. But not everyone shares that sentiment.

The topic of the vaccine came up last week while we were walking Team Sheltie. We stopped to say hi and admire a dog belonging to a couple we’ve seen only a few times. I asked if they’d had their shot yet. They hesitated before responding, and I had the fleeting thought that perhaps I should have asked ‘how do you feel about the vaccine?” Fortunately, they weren’t offended and responded by saying they were getting it in a few days.

I should have remembered that hesitancy on their part when I asked one of my cousins if she’d registered yet for her shot. She danced around the issue for a while before finally saying she wasn’t about to subject herself to changes in her DNA or a possible microchip implant. She was serious, and I was momentarily speechless.

It’s a point of view, a perspective I’ve read about but never expected to hear from someone I loved and respected.  

Point of view is everything. Not just for writers, but for all of us. It flavors everything we do: our relationships and our choices, our lifestyles and our attitudes. It flavors consequences too. And these days, some of those consequences can be far-reaching.  

Beginner’s Mind

Like a lot of people these days, I’ve been teaching myself to make sourdough bread. A friend gave me a starter and I’ve had fun feeding it and trying out recipes.  The results have been mixed. Subtext: the results haven’t been what I expected or wanted.

I cook a lot and I enjoy it. I’m no professional but I know my way around a saucepan, I can turn out a decent meal, and I can bake. At thirteen I made my first batch of cream puffs; the choux pastry was so utterly perfect even I was surprised. I’ve made quick breads, flat breads, yeasted breads. Lots of bread, and almost always with delicious results. How hard could sourdough be?

Turns out, it’s harder than I thought.

The cinnamon buns disappeared quite quickly, and after a couple of tries, I eventually ended up with a passable loaf of bread. But it didn’t have the texture or lift I’ve come to expect from the sourdough breads I’ve devoured in the past.

Because of my previous experience with all things flour I figured I’d be able to do it well right out of the gate (those successful cream puffs spoiled me). But in reality, professional bakers can and often do spend years perfecting the perfect tangy, chewy sourdough loaf or crispy croissant. Working with just a few basic ingredients, they combine their scientific knowledge of the chemistry of baking with their life experience and personal philosophies to create an edible piece of art. Those same ingredients, in different hands, produce very different results.

It’s a bit like writing. Working with only 26 letters, authors combine their understanding of the craft of storytelling with their life experiences and personal philosophies to create readable works of art. Those same letters, in different hands, produce very different results.

My disappointing experience with sourdough reminded me of the people I’ve met who believe they can write a bestseller the first time they sit down at the keyboard. I believe they could write a book if they put in the effort. But they aren’t thinking of the learning curve or the effort involved. They believe that because they write articles for their club newsletter or a professional journal – because they are imminently capable of relaying information in written form – the first book they write will be a rousing success. And that’s unrealistic. It happens, just like perfect choux pastry can happen the first time you whip those eggs into the flour, but it’s not a given.  

Zen Buddhists have a concept known as shoshin. It means beginner’s mind. It’s about letting go of preconceptions, being willing to learn, and being open to whatever happens. It’s about focusing on possibilities and not judging outcomes.

Sourdough is a unique beast in the breadmaking world. There’s no question I’m a beginner at it. One Zen master calls beginner’s mind “a mind that is empty and ready for new things.”

I’m definitely ready for new sourdough baking adventures. I’m not sure about an empty mind, but I definitely have an empty stomach.

Rituals and Writing

This is the season of pumpkins, black cats, and superstitions, and that has me thinking about writers and their rituals. Not all of us have rituals, but many of us do, and we’re in good company. 

Apparently, Charles Dickens had to arrange the ornaments on his desk in a certain way before he started writing. May Sarton cued up 18th-century music. Maya Angelou used the same writing ritual for years: she got up around five am, drove to a hotel, and was writing by 6:30. Longhand. On yellow pads. And she asked the staff to take everything off the walls so there was just her, the Bible, Roget’s Thesaurus, and some sherry. Isabelle Allende begins writing every new book on January 8th, a tradition that started in 1981 with a letter she wrote to her dying grandfather, a letter that sparked The House of Spirits. 

Many writing rituals are more mundane. One author friend writes her first draft in longhand using a particular type of pen (she orders them in bulk). Another can’t write with shoes on her feet, only slippers. My ritual is an early morning walk, a check of email while I drink my first cup of coffee, and a glance at my ‘to do’ list. Then I’m ready to write. But I do like to have a sweater hanging on the back of my chair to pull around my shoulders when a chill (or insecurity) hits. The latter ritual goes back years to a hand-knit sweater my aunt gave me. Having it close was a reminder that someone had my back. It was a good feeling. 

You might think I’m fussy or just plain weird, but there’s nothing weird or merely superstitious about rituals. Neuroscience tells us that rituals can increase confidence, reduce worry, and make it easier to get things done.   

When we repeat behaviors, the neurons in our brains communicate together, wire together, and activate each other. If we do things fairly often in a similar sequence, our brains get used to that order and become more efficient at the task. 

“It’s like developing friendships,” says Dr. Brian Christie, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. “At first, the conversation is awkward and stilted, but as you become more comfortable and better friends, those conversations flow more easily. It’s the same with neurons. The neurons that fire together, wire together.” 

That means if the neurons for writing are activated at the same time as you follow a specific routine – whether that’s pouring your first coffee of the day, pulling on a familiar sweater, or rearranging the things on your desk as Dickens did – they’re primed and ready to go. And the more regularly they fire together, the bigger, stronger, and more powerful they become. 

I don’t know about you, but I can use all the help I can get. So, I’m off to check my email, glance at my ‘to do’ list, and get to work.  

A Writer’s Better Half

Today happens to be my anniversary and though the news of the world is grim, I’m choosing to focus on happiness. Here’s a blog post I wrote five years ago in honor of my husband. It’s as true now as it was back then.

Happy anniversary to my better half  . . .  a guy who wears a variety of hats:  Mr. Petrol Head, Dad, son and lord & master over Team Sheltie (and thank God someone is in control of those two).

The phrase ‘better half’ is something of a cliché these days. While it’s come to mean the superior half of a married couple, it originally referred to a person so dear that he or she was more than half of a person’s being. Whatever way you look at it, the intent is clear: someone who is good and true and holds a place of deep importance in one’s life.

That would be my better half. Much has been written about the wealth of support writers receive from editors and readers and critique partners and writing friends. It’s support we depend on and appreciate. But a writer’s better half is rarely mentioned. It’s too bad. They’re a silent (and sometimes not so silent) yet intimate companion on this crazy publishing journey, a journey they didn’t always expect when they took their vows. In our case, there were signs but I’m pretty sure Mr. Petrol Head chose to ignore them.

Over the years, he has offered advice and solace, he has paid the bills when my writing didn’t, he has brainstormed plots and character arcs, he’s made too many dinners to count and he spent as much time as I did with our children so I could have this career. He built a sluice box for my gold rush book, designed business cards and websites, and he gave me innumerable hugs when the journey seemed too tough to manage. He has helped me make sense of royalty statements, understand the business side of publishing better than some publishers could and he has pulled me back from the brink when I’ve been ready to press send on an irate email that needed a more tempered response.

He accepted without reservation my decision to trade a lucrative and successful job as a journalist for the uncertain and low paying job of a novelist. He has believed in me and loved me and never once complained that things didn’t turn out quite the way he expected on the career front. He is the wisdom and calm in my world.

He is, and always will be, my better half.

Watch For It

What are you doing next Tuesday, May 19th? Can you spare an hour? If so, plan to catch this Facebook live event (find it under events on your Facebook page) at 4 pm, Pacific time. That’s when a group of us will be talking about writing and illustrating and all things children’s books. I’ll be answering questions about my latest YA, No Right Thing. Thanks to Crwth Press for setting everything up. We’re looking forward to it, and we hope you can join us!

Divine Timing

The garden sent me a lesson the other day. It’s a lesson I’ve witnessed repeatedly in writing and gardening. But it’s a lesson I’ve yet to master. Everything happens when it’s meant to happen. The unfolding of life has its own rhythm. And as much as I’d like to think I’m in charge, I am not.

I’d seeded tomatoes and peppers and broccoli and basil. Sweet peas and eggplant and cilantro too. The broccoli popped up first, quickly followed by basil, tomato and sweet pea seedlings. The eggplant was slower, but it eventually germinated. The pepper and the cilantro seeds languished under the starting soil. I hovered and fretted and hovered some more.

Cocooned in their dark bed, the pepper and cilantro seeds paid no attention.

Meanwhile, the effects of the Covid-19 slowdown continued. I learned of more work cancellations and delays. I heard of more writer friends having their book releases postponed. Or having their books come out without the expected fanfare of a launch (if you’re a writer with a book releasing during the Time of Covid, email me and I’ll plug it on this blog).

Nothing was going according to plan, one friend wailed after she’d been hit with a particularly bad piece of cancellation news.  Indeed.

In the big picture, she and I both know what matters is life and health and slaying the Covid dragon. We know it’s shallow to worry about book releases or cancelled tours when people are dying. We’re wearing our grown-up pants (yoga pants) these days. We have our priorities straight. But at the same time, we wish things were different. We wonder why things are the way they are. We worry that maybe if we’d made different choices or worked a little harder or taken a different route, things would be going according to plan. According to our plan.

But they aren’t.

Maybe they will eventually.

And maybe they won’t.

The peppers finally germinated. In spite of my very best hand-wringing, the cilantro never did.

Life has its own rhythm, my seedlings whispered. Maybe someday I’ll learn the lesson and won’t need the reminder.   

My March Reads 2020

The crocuses are open and the daffodil tips are swollen with promise and ready to burst into bloom. The color is a welcome spot of cheer at a time when the world feels grim and fearful. Things are changing at such a rapid pace that whatever I say about today’s news will be out of date tomorrow. But one thing that won’t change is the need for good books, the need to escape.  Here’s what I’m reading this week:

The Midnight Line by Lee Child

Animal Speak by Ted Andrews

Japanese Farm Food by Nancy Singleton

Books read to date in 2020:  20

Passion Play

Not long ago, a friend recommended we watch “Somebody Feed Phil.” The Netflix documentary series follows Phil Rosenthal, the creator of “Everyone Loves Raymond,” as he travels and eats his way through various countries around the world. The show is a wholesome, family-friendly version of Anthony Bourdain, only unlike the sometimes cynical approach Bourdain took, Rosenthal is unabashedly positive and overwhelmingly enthusiastic. We liked the first episode so much we quickly watched two more. Now, “Somebody Feed Phil” is a show we turn to when we’re ready for a TV break.

Around the same time as we discovered “Somebody Feed Phil,” I was asked to write an article about a local artist, Sheila Warren (if you haven’t discovered her art, go here https://www.sheilawarren.com/.)  During our interview, Sheila talked at length about the passion she has for her art, adding that if she doesn’t have a strong emotional connection to her subject, it will show in her paintings.  

As I watched Phil eat his way around the world and then later visited Sheila at her gallery, I realized that their passion was infectious. I felt happy and uplifted after only a few minutes in their presence. I also realized something else. Passion is fuel.

It’s hard work writing and producing a TV series, even though we don’t see the hard work when we watch a one-hour episode. It’s hard work painting a canvas, though we don’t think of that when we enjoy the results of that labor hanging on our wall. It’s hard work writing a book, which I know from personal experience, yet when I’m engrossed in reading a novel, that thought never occurs to me.

For creators, when passion is our fuel, work becomes like play. Hours are lost to the joy of the moment, to the creative process.  Passion and play become intertwined and the process is often magical, transformative. Not only for the artist or the writer or the TV personality, but also for those people who enjoy whatever we produce.

Passion as play yields powerful results.