Speaking Emoji

My husband is the king of emojis. Our daughter Dana is the queen. Together they comprise the avant garde of the media generation. Like Superman, each is “faster than a speeding bullet” at typing out responses, “more powerful than a locomotive” at snappy comebacks, and capable of expressing complex emotions in a single text. When they send these witty lines to me, I often puzzle over the symbols. Just recently it occurred to me, a language teacher and a student of all things linguistic, that I simply don’t speak Emoji.

All those clever, teeny-weeny symbols make my eyes cross. What the heck does the cat mean? Is it a reference to a real cat or a snarky comment on somebody’s post? Does the blue heart hold different status than a red one? As if that weren’t stressful enough, my own texts frequently are auto-corrected before I realize it, as are those of my friends. Then not only must I decode the symbols of the Emoji Nation, I also must decide what word is intended by the string of consonants in an important message or an interesting bit of data. For example, LOL is easy. NNEEumw remains as mysterious as the Rosetta Stone. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve typed love only to have it come out live, as in I live those festival corn digs.

Anyway, pondering the vagaries of a spell checking AI whose only function is to correct my missives, I find it worse when I attempt to use Spanish, Turkish, Greek or French in my correspondence via social media. The Spanish verb TENGO is changed to TANGO, as in Tango muchos celos. This, understandably, confuses my Spanish-speaking friends who wonder what a dance has to do with  jealous or envious feelings. (Clarifying example for non-Spanish speakers: Tengo muchos celos=I’m so jealous…of your trip to Spain or your winning lottery number!)

The tiny buttons on my phone mean my  fingers sometimes hit the wrong keys, then press SEND way too fast, resulting in a text or social media post with an unintelligible message. Of course, I presume my friends have similar problems as their posts also end up with scrambled words and a line of emojis that require a Google search. I realize that it is best to pretend understanding until someone braver or more curious inquires as to what the hell the emoji or text really means.

Alas, this is the Brave New World we never expected, artificially intelligent processors who pretend to understand human thought processes, small keyboards that require precision typing (not my strong suit), and new pathways in our brains to interpret the language of the 21st century. As I ponder the unintelligible, I leave you with my own twisted Emoji string. Maybe hubby and daughter will figure it out. Maybe they won’t. Maybe my dialect of Emoji will form a subset of the standard and set a new direction for an emerging linguistic phenomenon. Then again, maybe not.

🖌✍️❤️📘🗄🏅😎

There Are No Words…

Walmart, El Paso, Texas. The Oregon District, Dayton, Ohio. Odessa, Texas.

Once more we shudder. Carnage and chaos rule. Three more cities join the long list of trauma victims. I huddle in front of the television and cry.

There are no words.

A week later, my husband and I make our way to downtown Dayton. The faces of the dead look out above  white crosses, their names printed in black. And, there, among the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers, the friends and lovers, each one somebody’s child, I spot a familiar young man who once walked the high school halls when I taught, gone too soon, as all are gone too soon, the victims of these awful acts.

There are no words.

Flowers plug the bullet hole in Ned Pepper’s window. We stand in front of the diminished memorial. Someone has consolidated the condolences and keepsakes, packed them away until a more permanent memorial can be built. They, like our memories, will be stored for future moments of mourning.  A woman holding a child asks me for a pen. I offer one. A man paws my sleeve. He needs one, too. We scrawl our names on the poster, ink platitudes that fail to capture the anguish in our hearts.

There are no words.

Eager for human contact, the man shares his story. Twenty-four hours out of prison and back on the street. No one cares, he says., asks, “How do you spell strong?” I take his hand. Tell him I care. Remind him that he has a second chance. I don’t know if he believes me. I don’t know if I do.

There are no words.

We struggle to leave. The beautiful faces of these beautiful souls stare into the noonday bustle. Gone at the point of a gun. Gone to hate and fear. Gone beyond us now. I need to hold a hand, to hug a child, to wipe the tears that cloud my eyes. I want to pound the sidewalk and demand stronger laws, deliver an end to the culture of violence that consumes our country. But who will listen? Those who think like I do already raise their voices. Those who refuse to see will not. I am sad and angry and searching for a way to reset the pattern.

There are no words.

But there is action. DO SOMETHING, the crowd shouts when the governor comes to speak. DO SOMETHING the Eagles sing in a plaintive song about making a difference. DO SOMETHING the nation cries. Politicians waver. The status quo prevails. It falls to us to make the change we want to see. Thank you, Ghandi, for showing the way. No more words.

Write a letter.

Call a politician.

Demonstrate.

Donate to groups working for sensible laws.

Run for office.

Vote.

Let the chorus of our actions speak for us.

No more words. Do something.

The Literary Gardener

The last weeks of summer arrive on a hot wind and a prayer. Birds of unknown origin cluster in the wildflower patch and nestle in the branches of the pine tree. Our newest addition to the backyard scenery — a tulip tree native to Ohio — defies a summer planting, the promise of white-orange blossoms in the spring now only a long-distance hope. So much like the chapters springing up on my computer screen, a newly-drafted manuscript that settles now, resting, watered by revisions and that fragile promise to become a book.

How much the exterior world mirrors my interior landscape. I am a literary gardener. I read for pleasure and to discover the tricks used by authors to make the work live beyond the moment. Like a tree establishing roots in the rock-strewn yet fertile moraine of this area, my writing searches for that deep connection, sends out a taproot into the dark, underground heart of the universe.

I use my hands to delve in the dirt of my garden beds, spray red pepper solution to keep insects from devouring tender leaves and maiming the new growth. In much the same way, I use my hands to create new paragraphs, use form and function to deter errors. I toil over words as much as I toil over vegetables, sorting the useful from the stunted, checking for weeds. Both are chores I welcome, the rewards from the labor sweet enough to keep me going in the face of the elements. In the garden and in writing, many things are beyond my control. Still, I refuse to abandon the effort, convinced that the process provides its own reward.

A Brief Treatise On Free Books

I confess. I’m a book addict and proud of it. My personal library shelves overflow with books – classics and moderns, all genres and sub-types, favorites I’ve re-read mulyiple times and new books I’ve only been through once. However, the budget doesn’t always support the habit, and free books can be beguiling, especially when touted as award winners. However, lately the creative side of me whispers a warning. This month, as I prepare to launch a new book of my own in the fall, the alarm has been sounding louder than ever. What price are writers really paying for all these free books?

Since I read widely and often, I have acquainted myself with award-winning authors and those who are first-timers. Many self-published authors offer their books for free. Publishing houses allow readers to claim ARCs. The first thing I’ve noticed about the more prevalent giveaways on Internet sites is the lack of quality control. Many times the stories themselves just aren’t that good. Period. They haven’t been well-plotted. Characters are not well-developed. But the greater disappointment is in the editing. Now, nothing is perfect, especially without repeated passes through a manuscript. But the blatant ignoring of grammar, punctuation, the lack of continuity, all have me abandoning more books before page fifty than I ever did before.

The second big problem is this: when all these writers offer work for free, they devalue their own and, by comparison, mine and yours and the books of all who are serious about the art and the craft of writing. I fear that readers will do onwe of two things. Either they will discount all work as being of this poor quality OR they will accept mediocrity in place of superior writing. This saddens me. What will this dilution of  reader expectations mean for future readers and writers? In many ways, free books are contributing to the de-literization of readers. (Is that even a word?) When thousands willingly except third-rate work as competent, they may lose the ability to recognize truly good work. Then the organizations that legitimately evaluate and critically appraise find a diminished audience for the best of what is written.

Or not. ARCs are valuable and can be used to publicize good work and gain critical positive reviews. Offering contests or giveaways can boost a writer’s name recognition and, perhaps, readership. Self-published writers benefit greatly from building a readership through giveaways.. One gentleman whose podcast I recently heard boasts of giving away 200,000 copies of his books in order to pave the way for future releases. But if these free copies don’t result in greater sales, have the freebies done more harm than good?

As an author, I spend one to two years developing a concept, drafting, revising, editing, querying. I have listened to others who crank out books in six to eight weeks and publish them afterward. I simply can’t understand how to infuse my writing with quality by moving so rapidly. Should all those hours I have given be sacrificed without recompense in an attempt to win over those reluctant to pay for my work?

I find myself conflicted by the increasing availability of free books even as the miser in me welcomes the opportunity to add to my literary stash. I welcome serious and thoughtful responses to this dilemma. Let me know what you think.

Wandering the Classical World

I’m back from my trip to Greece, but my heart remains in the space between the blue sky and the blue-on-blue sea, in the waters that birthed Poseidon, the mountains that hosted Zeus. Wherever you dig, the Greeks say, you uncover another glimpse of the ancient world.The soil coughs up ramparts and pottery, imparting truth and mystery in equal measure.

I walked the streets of Athens, immersed in the bustle of city life. I sampled the cuisine at a street-side restaurant and contemplated the adventures waiting for me. The following day, with great care for the slippery rocks that underpin it, I climbed to the top of the Acropolis, then spent time in the Museum there, marveling at the old city hidden beneath the new. Next year, the uncovered ruins will become part of the museum experience when visitors can tour the city underground.

Each day brought a new adventure. One day, with fellow travelers, I clapped the perfect acoustics of the Theater of Epidaurus and inhaled the pine-scented air of the healing center of Aesclepius. Another morning I passed through the lion gate  at Mycenae, stared into the tombs Schliemann found. On the island of Hydra, I marveled at the displays of patriots’ swords, models of ships, and pictures of the heroes who fought for Greece. Each moment carried portent, an awareness of history riding my shoulders.

In the harbor of Poros, a school of fish came by, jumping in the morning sun as the five-minute ferry rumbled closer and I, enchanted by the sparkle of waves that watched the birth of so many wonders, welcomed the birth of new ones in my own creative space. I thought to discover poems in the patterns of sea and sky. Instead, I discovered stories, dug up from the soil of past and present conversation.

Perhaps, in the virtual landscape of our own writing lives, we carry personal history like seeds that flourish only with time. All those humming voices of characters, those dream-like settings and half-voiced themes need time to rise. Like the beehive tomb of Atreus, perspective is everything. We build not knowing who will wander through our landscapes but certain that, for us, the journey is everything.

From Seed to Sprout: Nurturing Ideas

Readers know that when the trees turn green, so do my thumbs! I welcome the chance to sow my garden beds with tiny seeds, provide water, fertilizer, and sunlight, and wait for them to grow. Just so, I scatter my ideas into the virtual universe and pray for seedlings to emerge.

Today, lettuce winks at me while the spinach plants race to claim their place in the new raised beds. In the older, in-ground beds, potatoes and peas are rising on small but sturdy stems. In my desktop bed, I’ve spent time adding compost to my own emerging stories and poems. Some are more reluctant than others to emerge into the daylight.

So, where do ideas come from? Mine hide among the columns of the newspaper, linger in overheard conversations and family gossip. Sometimes they emerge from dreams, knocking against my brain at the most inopportune times. I have proof…a myriad of paper scraps with titles, characters, themes, or snatches of good dialogue.

These I transfer as soon as possible to my file titled Story Ideas. There they settle in until my brain warms enough to let them grow. Not all offer themselves openly. Sometimes, I have to coax them into existence, showering each reluctant plot or theme with the waters of my imagination. Often, I need to allow them breathing room, to incubate longer in the fertile dirt of creativity. Because writing, like gardening, means you have to get your hands dirty. You have to kneel before the awesome power of life — be it plants or stories — pay homage to the ground from which each seed grows, and sow each one deep enough to thrive.

Happy Planting, writers! I join you in the garden.

Thank You, AWW!

Since I began to write seriously, I have been blessed by my association with a number of groups who supported, believed in, and encouraged me to pursue my writing dreams. My allegiance to those organizations has been unwavering. So, it is with a sad heart that I acknowledge the ending of one of my favorite workshops — the Antioch Writers Workshop.

Held in July in Yellow Springs, Ohio, for all but two of its 33-years, the workshop featured a unique schedule. Each morning authors of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry would present hour-long sessions on those genres, interspersed with presentations on query letters, small press publications, agent talks, and first-book talks by authors who attended the workshop. In 2017 I was privileged to be the first-book talk speaker. The afternoons were dedicated to small-group writing sessions. Attendees would read and critique each other’s submitted work with the guidance of established authors. As a participant, I immersed myself in the ambience of tiny Yellow Springs. During the early years, classes met in a number of local establishments and buildings. Lunch involved making the rounds of the great restaurants in the town. If one stayed late enough, you could listen to authors reading from their works and perhaps share a drink and conversation in one of the town’s drinking establishments.

After attending a few workshops, I applied to be a workfellow, eager to increase my involvement with the community and the dedicated members of the Board that organized and ran the workshop. I loved the behind-the-scenes activities — making airport runs to pick up presenters, copying handouts for morning classes, assisting the afternoon sessions with whatever last-minute changes occurred. As an attendee and as a workfellow, I had the honor of meeting and working with Silas House, Nahid Rachlin, Lucrecia Gerrero, Elizabeth Strout, Myrna Stone, Nikki Giovanni, and so many more talented and creative minds. Every piece I workshopped at Antioch ended up being published, which allowed me to apply for and win the Goddess Award for a piece that started at AWW and went on to publication. Many more ideas were birthed in the waters of the week-long writing stream.

But as the years passed, changes took place. The workshop moved from downtown Yellow Springs to the MacGregor Building on the edge of town and then to the University of Dayton. The number of participants dwindled. Despite all the added activities — mini workshops at Books & Co, a fall writing weekend, literary salons — the difficulty of financing the program became evident.

Now, the Board of Directors has decided that the workshop can no longer sustain itself. Like my writing group that dissolved under the pressures of time and interest, like the Ohio Writing Project that morphed from a teachers’ workshop to encourage teachers who teach to also write into a series of classes to be taken for CCUs, AWW has reached the end of its run. I am saddened by the loss of this quality conference close to my home, which made it accessible, affordable, and so very instrumental in my writing. Certainly, the proliferation of writing conferences held in every part of the world means I will not run out of choices. However, most of them entail a larger expenditure of money, time, and travel, and the formats of each tend more toward the nuts and bolts of writing than the actual writing itself.

I already miss the close comfort of a week spent with writers focused on writing, the long summer afternoons dedicated to reading fellow authors’ work and composing/revising my own. Already nostalgia rushes in to fill the space anticipation used to occupy. Thank you is not enough to let the Board, staff, and participants know how much this workshop has given me. Of course, like all things, on this earth, there is a time for each to prosper and a time for each to die. I wish it were not so for this pivotal event in my writing journey. Perhaps another local group will step in to fill the void. Perhaps, like the legendary phoenix, AWW will rise from the ashes, reborn from desire and dedication, and fly again.

Lion Or Lamb?

Folk adages suggest that March, that sly, greening mix of Ides and shamrocks, comes in like a lion. Roaring with wind and bluster, the days extend tendrils of promise as spring tints the undergrowth, then settles like a lamb just in time for April to glide in on soggy shoes. Hmmm…reality doesn’t always conform to this old saw, but we find comfort in the thought. Weary of wintry blasts, our hearts skip a little thinking about less restless days and milder temperatures.

Of course, this got me thinking about what kind of writer I choose to be. Am I a lion, bold, predatory, submitting and entering contests, willing to take bigger and bigger risks? Or am I a quieter soul, given to gambols across the word landscape, waiting for time and luck to change my course? Do I lead the pride, stalk, attack? Or do I follow the leader, easily herded and easy prey for stronger, fiercer writers? It is a fine line to follow, that knife-edge between abrasive and bold, yet I suspect each of us has, at our core, that instinct to hunt.

One of my 2019 commitments is to be more pro-active in sending out work. While this may appear on the surface to be an easy resolution, there are pitfalls. Editors typically take a long time to respond. Contests provide deadlines months out from the initial call. Agents fall into several categories: the ones who respond immediately (Thank you, dear ones!), those who tease with requests for full manuscripts and then seem to forget you, and those who provide no response at all. I can deal with the first two. It is the third that makes me crazy.

Every article I’ve ever read on queries includes a caveat about being professional and courteous. Shouldn’t those admonitions apply to agents as well? A NO reply is temporarily ego-crushing. A NO RESPONSE is an on-going open wound. Did my query arrive? Did I pick the wrong agent? Did my sample end up formatted in some crazy, unreadable font? Most of all, when I hear nothing, I spend too much time pondering the final question — What did I do wrong? Yes, I know the number of queries received by agents makes their job difficult, but email provides an easy way to send a reply. I, for one, would deeply appreciate knowing definitively where I stand. But…the lion wastes little time on the one that got away, choosing instead to pursue the next one in view.

So, dear reader, have I wandered too far off topic or is the meandering spot on? Like the unpredictable month of March, a post can begin with one thought and segue sharply into another. It’s interesting to study my writer’s interior monologue, to follow the twists of my fevered mind! But, I insist on returning to the initial question. Which are you — lion or lamb? Which do you want to be?

Drop me a comment and tell me what you think…:)

Of Bloody Moons and Purpose

During the Blood Wolf Moon in January, close observers witnessed a bright flare on the lower right quadrant. Astronomers hypothesize a small piece of a comet or an asteroid hit the surface. This one bright and blazing strike captured the imagination of earth-bound viewers. Still, the brief encounter probably won’t leave a mark visible to the naked eye. Who can say what the lasting impact will be?

Contemplating the brevity of moonstrikes,  I thought about how ideas appear as if out of nowhere, strike our mental moons, and disappear. Then I segued from thinking about the writing process to contemplating the writing purpose. What is it that calls me to put words on a page, to examine the motivations and desires of fictional characters, to sit silent at my computer for hours while the house clamors for attention and my interior nag reminds me I need to go to the gym? Although I aspire to win my stories a wider audience, I acknowledge the reality that that may never happen. So, humbly, my life is but a blip on the surface of time. How do I make this tiny flare count for more than a brief and fleeting moment?

I know I read more into the social climate these days than most people do. I suspect the majority are more concerned with their next meal or paycheck than they are with the moral implications of genetic manipulation or the consequences of a warming earth. In this current culture of celebrity, when consumerism drives the global economy and buying is king, the importance of virtue, the healing nature of art, the impact of compassion seem to cede space to the uglier side of human nature. I  ponder the rise of spectacle over substance and wonder how my personal fragment of space dust will find its intention amid the blare of the extraneous.

As a writer, I feel compelled to infuse my words with meaning, to create stories that combine wonder with revelation. My daily life, too, should reflect that deeper purpose. the raison d’etre, for being here in this precise galactic moment. My trajectory is uncharted, and perhaps that is the point. Each journey is a constant unfolding of that purpose. With a little luck, someone will be watching when I land.

Snow Daze

I always wish for snow. I know it is not a popular wish. Most people welcome the warmer days, the dry roads, the sunny afternoons in January. But the child in me misses winter as I remember it: sledding down our street, carrying ice skates to Mill Creek Pond, stamping a giant pie in the back yard and chasing my sibs up and down the radii until our cheeks grew flushed and our hands tingled inside our mittens. I recall sitting in a classroom at St. Nicholas Elementary staring out at the flakes swirling down over the rosary garden and the sports fields beyond. I didn’t think about snow days off from school. To be honest, I’m not certain we had them then. But I knew that  snow meant outdoor play that ended with cold noses, wet feet, and hot chocolate made from scratch. We planned for these events as surely as we laid out our school clothes each night. Anticipation made the world spin.

My writing desk looks out over the side yard and the street that curves past our house. Each winter morning before I sit myself to write, I check to see if perhaps a miracle has happened, that snow has fallen and layered the grass and the garden beds, dusted the shorn prairie, skimmed the pond with ice. Hoping for snow, I bend to the tasks of the day, but the simple act of wishing gives me purpose. Beauty is always waiting in clouds laden with gray foreboding, in patterns traced in the grass by wind and rain, in the bright glimpse of a dog walker’s scarf set against the backdrop of January gloom.

I have two favorite quotes. One is by Khalil Gibran: We live to discover beauty. All else is a form of waiting. Each of us finds beauty in distinct and separate moments: the flutter of a baby’s eyelashes, the shimmer of a butterfly wing, the coda of a symphony, the bold colors of a Rothko print. In those special moments, we find a way to transcend the warts of society, the horrors of history, and to remember what makes life so acutely sacred. Each time I set a sentence down on the blank screen, I hope that scribing that computer ‘snow’ will result in some small measure of beauty.

My other favorite quote is by Ghandi: Be the change you wish to see in the world. This, too, sets the tenor of my days, for if I do not approach the future with hope, then all those gifts of beauty, those exquisite glimpses of life as it could be, will be lost, dissolved like snowflakes into grime and road salt.

It’s not snowing this morning. Weather reports for this tail end of 2018 and the initial days of 2019 in southwestern Ohio indicate a huge storm plans to roar across the nation, stranding travelers, wreaking havoc on the roads and airways. As I pack for a trip to Canada to see family that I miss, my secret heart keeps ticking off the chances for snow. I’d like to try out my new boots, a gift from my husband who knows only too well how much I wish for that white blessing.

May you find beauty around every corner and purpose in all you do.

Happy New Year!