Monday, October 29, 2012

World Saved

I've been a bad blogger, but I've been good at some other things.

My theater company likes to sing about saving the world -- I mean, the last line of our closing number in That's Weird, Grandma is "World Saved!" It's cavalier, but the humans I know seem happiest when they believe they're doing some good in the world.   

Well, there's a song in Chicago's Weird, Grandma right now based on "Too Much Pressure" by Lazaireus P., a kid I taught at Morton Elementary, in which Batman sings: 
"I think I shouldn’t have to save the world every day is because I is saving the world every day."

I feel a little bit like Batman today though I know I am lucky. This is the schedule: 
5:35 -- Alarm!
6:25 -- Pick up fellow Monkey actor Immanuel
7:00 -- Breakfast Meeting
8:00 -- Rehearse at Chalmers Elementary
10:00 -- Perform in Brand New Chalmers Show
11:30 -- Make movie about giving birth to help train doctors in South America? Long story. 
3:00 -- After-School Program Meeting
4:00 -- After-School Program rocks the children's minds
6:45 -- Rehearse for Chicago's Weird Grandma
8:00 -- Perform in Brand New Chicago's Weird, Grandma show

World. Saved. 

by Lazaireus Peoples, 5th Grade Morton 2012 Argument
(Song composed by Nicholas Hart)
I am Batman and I believe that I shouldn’t save the world every day. One reason why I think I shouldn’t have to save the world every day is because I is saving the world every day and he has a life and it should not just be about saving people because he could probably die just like other humans could. One more reason is because while he is outside trying to save the world who will save his family from danger because it’s not like he could teleport. The end

Monday, September 10, 2012


I'm pretty pleased to be a part of many families. Right this moment, I'm sitting on my parents' back deck in Alabama wearing my Battle of the Monkey Stars shirt, flashing back to years worth of Monkey retreats.

Organizing my iPhoto, I came across a picture from an early retreat at House in the Woods, 2004. My face is shadowed by my baseball cap, but I got to hold the sign. I've been with this company since 2000 -- they really are my second family.

Then there's the greater theater community in Chicago. When I checked out the Facebook group "Chicago: 1995-2005", it reminded me of how invested I was for a while in seeing All the Shows. Now, I do theater only when it sounds fun, but I still see all those actors at weddings and fundraisers -- it's like a family reunion where you can't remember all the cousins' names, but everybody's friendly.

The kids at my after-school program make up another community. Even the ones who don't participate say, "Barrel of Monkeys!" and wave when they see me.

I recently served as a bridesmaid in my friends Sarah and Mac's wedding and was reminded of that amazing feeling of belonging a wedding can create, the sense of being one of many witnesses and active supporters of the next step in two friends' lives. And I just got back from vacation with another community of friends, the kind where everyone knows each other's business and where the mention of an inside joke ("He hid a lemon under the duvet!") can lead to hours of hysterical laughter.

Today, I caught up with my grad school class of writers, online of course. Allyson has a new book cover. Sue's stuck in a stinky harbor on her boat. Jess has a new job. Varian's visiting the fam. A bunch of us will be retreating together at the end of September, and I can't wait to see them in person.

I have my greater VCFA community, but they're online as well, spread out all over the country.

What I've been missing is a local community of writers -- people to check in with face to face, to commiserate, to keep accountable . . .

Recently, Amy Rose Capetta and Mary Winn Heider and I formed a formidable writers' gang: The Other Other Chicago Fire! or TOOCF! Whichever Chicago Fire you're thinking of (19th century disaster or soccer team), we're the other other one. I have high hopes for TOOCF, but we've only just begun. 

I dip in and out of SCBWI here, but I've never really gotten in a groove with it.

So when the Chicago Writers Conference popped up on Kickstarter, I signed up. I've got my tote bag. I'm printing out my tickets today. And I'm psyched to meet more Chicago writers in person, to feel a part of that community.

I'll be giving a reading at the CWC Special Edition of Tuesday Funk. If you're a Chicago writer, come say hi and we'll commune! 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Coursera, Grimm's fairy tales, and Buffy

A friend alerted me to a free online course with Coursera, Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World taught by Eric S. Rabkin from the University of Michigan.

Since I've recently been writing fantasy and reading widely for inspiration (and procrastination), the idea of doing focused reading for this course appealed to me.

Plus, I cited Rabkin in my critical thesis for grad school, and it's a nice small-world feeling to take a course with him, even if it's a course online with thousands of students from all over the world.

THAT feels like science fiction, right? Or it would have when I was born. I'm excited by the potential of this kind of education, and I'll be curious to see how the peer grading feels. I've already noticed that knowing I'm meant to evaluate other students' work makes me more inclined to take my own work seriously and gives me a sense of responsibility. I could see that feeling shifting depending on how seriously it feels like others are taking the course.

There's a grade attached to the course, but it doesn't mean anything. There are no real stakes other than mutual responsibility and interest.

I just turned in my first assignment, an essay on Grimm's Household Stories, translated by Lucy Crane and illustrated by Walter Crane, who apparently wrote the first book on the art of illustration

I got interested in the stories that focused on collective action and cooperation since so much of western literature focuses on a single, strong protagonist on a hero's journey . . .

I'm not sure I've mentioned here how much I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She's my heroine of choice. Back in 2000-2002 when seasons five and six were airing and I was fighting my own demons, I dreamed about her and the Scooby Gang all the time.

One of my favorite things about that show is its union of singular powers towards a common goal, the gathering of a team. The heroine rejects the isolation of her fated path and survives by accepting help.

The tension between the solitary hero and the collaborative team continues as a theme throughout that show, and some of the most frustrating things about season 7 result from the exploration of that tension. I'm not in love with season 7, but I do appreciate its resolution in shared power and responsibility.

Who saw this post turning into a meditation on Buffy? I would say I didn't, but it happens to me enough that it no longer comes as a surprise.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Juliette Balconies

I blogged about Juliette balconies at the my agent's blog, the Crowe's Nest.


Well, really I was blogging about setting, how I sometimes forget about it, and some ideas for tapping back into it. Go read that, and then come back here!

Juliette balconies were part of the conversation because I'm home-hunting.

I was kind of making fun when I mentioned Juliette balconies. I didn't even know what they were until a year ago when my grad school class was shopping around for a rental where we could have a retreat, and one of the ads boasted about the charms of their Juliette balconies in a way that I found deluded and hilarious.

BUT, I just looked at an apartment that has one. Not an old-school Italian one with beautiful peeling paint ... a regular one overlooking a courtyard. And yes, I'm picturing myself wooing a lover from high over the garden, dumping a bucket of water on his head if he displeases me.

It's so romantic.

But seriously, I may have fallen in love with a setting. Wish me luck!

And while I'm pointing you elsewhere, my grad school roomie Jessica Leader, author of Nice and Mean, recently blogged about a discussion we had about the fear of committing to plotlines. Yes, it plagues me, and it's the main reason I find outlines and synopses so hard. I have trouble seeing them as explorations. Everything feels so final. Jess describes really well that fear that committing to one path means "killing off ... better versions" of your characters. Read it here!

After getting some feedback from Jess on a synopsis of my current WIP (which was mildly painful, but helpful, to write), I've dived back into yet another potential path, and the fear ... I'm still trying to shake it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Samuel Beckett says, "Habit is a great deadener."

Well, Samuel Beckett was a hero of my young adulthood, but you know what? He had boils and cysts and probably a panic disorder, and I still bet he didn't have junk all over his floor.

No, I mean, I know what Beckett meant. Don't get bored. Don't be boring. A lot of us fear this ... being normal, being less than quirky-creative all the time.

Part of my self-identity is wrapped up in being the one who brings tarot cards, the one who's experimenting with food coloring, the one who dances in the rain ... and yes, the one who's too busy writing to clean up her own mess or be on time.

But you know what? The manic pixie dream girl trope has outworn her welcome; she can't take care of herself, so she's been sent to a home.

Manic pixie poster girl Zooey Deschanel has become a parody of herself.

Charlize Theron's woman-child on Arrested Development turned out to secretly have the mental capacity of a first grader.

I have the mental capacity of an MFA grad, and I can take care of myself, but I don't always choose to do it. Sometimes I fill up every corner of my life with creativity until I'm drowning in it ... and not being very creative.

Avoiding routine chores starts to look a lot like inertia. Have you ever put off doing the dishes or laundry because you felt it was more important to write?

I mean, I have.

And have you ever worried that if you get too concerned with having a nice, calming place to call home that you'll normalize and forget your crazy artist dreams?

Let me level with you (and me) for a sec. Being normal ... not a threat. It's never going to happen. It is safe to work towards having a nice, calming home. It is safe to take a break from writing to do the dishes.

A certain amount of habit is necessary. Otherwise, the laundry never gets done, and the papers never get tossed, and ... ahem, the writing never happens.

I'm fighting my own inertia (in stuff and in writing) by reading books with titles like It's Hard to Make a Difference When You Can't Find Your Keys. Today, I threw away about 8 square feet of paper. Yesterday, I donated about forty pounds of clothes and shoes. Two weeks ago, I gave away a TV, two chairs, my late dog's luggage, and a never-used-by-me citrus juicer. I drive for work so much that I used to keep half of my life in my car; for a month now, the car has been clutter free.

They say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. I, however, have not found that to be true. I have found forming an awesome habit -- like eating ice cream before bed every night -- takes less than one day.

Taking care of myself and my space (and my writing because it all tends to work together) is awesome. Habit formed.

Originally posted at Quirk and Quill.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

My own mythology

I'm drawn right now to Celtic histories and lore.

Yes, I'm trying to make sense out of all the stories, the weird, weird stories. Like, I just read about Math, Son of Mathonwy, in which two brothers, Gwydion and Gilwaethwy are turned into male and female pairs of MANY different animals and made to breed with each other (they take turns being female), and then their offspring turn into human children -- really confused human children.

And I read about Druid glass, which is a little, apple-shaped ball made from the excretions (saliva or semen, depending on what you read) of a congress of serpents. You (assuming you are a Druid) must catch this little ball and ride with it over a running stream to avoid getting bitten by the vipers. Then, it can help you do all sorts of magical things ... like win lawsuits.

I'm looking for the roots of story, old story, in this slippery thing I've written -- several unfinished drafts totaling over 85,000 words. How can one write so many words and still not have story? I've been making things up, mixing them up with myth, and the rules won't come clear. So I'm sifting through magical lore and old gods and trying to recognize what might have percolated up through my blood to get stuck in my own mythology.

And I'm missing the Appalachians and North Carolina, where magic seems to run in the mountain streams and hide behind trees. This is fairyland, where a neighbor once tricked my father into believing by placing little fairy statuettes in the crease of a wall of rock for him to find.

Where the peaks have names like Devil's Courthouse and Chimney Top.

I love Chicago, but it's very flat here. You can always see things coming from far away.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Oh Deer, You Startled Me!

I've been a shabby blogger. As a peace offering, I share with you my last post from Quirk and Quill:

I spent a lot of time in grad school studying the fantastic. For my critical thesis, I adopted Tzvetan Todorov's definition from The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1975):
In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know ... there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world.

Is that a DEER driving a town car?

If there is a plausible real-world solution, we have experienced something "uncanny." If something truly supernatural has taken place, we are in the realm of "the marvelous," the world is not as it seems, and all bets are off.

Deer don't drive in our world, so there must be another solution. The brain starts spinning as we try to work it out.

According to Todorov, "The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty."

Marianna Baer's fantastic (double entendre intended) Frost is a great recent example of this. It resolves by leaning towards one end of the uncanny-marvelous spectrum, but I won't spoil it by telling you which.

Fantastic stories often lean one way or another eventually because the fantastic is a balancing act. The reader feels off-balance, and it's the writer's job to keep him there as long as she chooses.

As a reader, I love this not knowing, but as a writer, I want to know everything. Now.

In my current WIP, I keep rushing ahead to one end of the spectrum. It's so much easier to deal with a known quantity, and I'm finding it hard to write something that revels in uncertainty when I so badly want certainty in my plot.

Maybe the fantastic needs to wait for a later draft when I've made some firm decisions about the rules of this world -- it's hard to write the beginning until you know the ending etc., etc. -- or maybe I need to feel off-balance and appreciate the myriad possibilities of this stage.

Have you decided yet about the deer? Was it a man in a deer suit? The next step in evolution? A case of elaphine possession? (That's a word for Linden's grandpa!)
On the uncanny-marvelous spectrum (from top to bottom), these options might look like this:

UNCANNY: Man in suit.

FANTASTIC: Genetic mutation, but is the source of the mutation scientific or alien or magical?!?! We may never know for sure!

MARVELOUS: Haunted deer.

As long as you haven't decided, things are fantastic.

When you decide what you saw was a happy accident, an illusion captured on film, things may get less interesting, but if you're close to the end of the story, a satisfying answer may be exactly what you want . . .

I mean, I will sleep better knowing that deer isn't driving around my neighborhood. Plus, it's super cute.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Mia Bella!

The year has wrapped up at Barrel of Monkeys' after-school program. We won a visit from the Headless Horseman, which I blogged about on the Monkey blog.

The final performance included hand puppets from the little ones . . .

. . . comedy stylings from the middlies, and an amazing, full-length Monkey show from the oldest group.

This shadow play was an adaptation of Bella's story, "Object Survival" about a little bird lost in a post-apocalyptic world. It was eerie and beautiful.

I first taught Bella in 2008, and it's been so cool to see her and all the other kids in her group grow with the program. Of Bella's oeuvre, I have had the privilege of playing the protagonists of her "Standing Cat" and "I Won the Wolf Races" in both Celebration of Authors and Grandma, and hey, there's that Standing Cat in Loyola Park, Live!

All this makes Bella one of my most long-standing and lauded collaborators.

She is currently 10 years old.

Friday, June 1, 2012

All the things

It's been a busy life, you guys. I went to Barrel of Monkeys' Big Prom!

Why, yes, that is Matthew Broderick and Mia Sara on my Prombassador pin.

I visited those schools, making my first school visits as an AUTHOR-to-be. That felt a little surreal, but oh so good. The AUSL Schools of Excellence were excellent and covered with life-affirming messages, even in the stairwells: 

I helped the students write bios and choose excerpts from their writing to share on display boards for their celebration. They asked great questions and said smart things along the lines of, "Isn't it interesting how the protagonist in a dystopian novel is often a member of the society that's being critiqued? For example, in Fahrenheit 451 . . ." That was an 8th grader.

They really did have faces. I've just blotted them out for privacy.

And my poor puppy had an allergic reaction! He was actually pretty happy when this picture was taken, but he looked like a Macy's Thanksgiving Day balloon.

Since then, we have started a food trial, discovered all the messy side-effects of steroids, and spent lots of money. It is going okay.

The Loyola Park After-School Program wrapped up for the year. More on that to come.

I acted in the Monkey Morton and Dixon shows and the matinee plus evenings round of Grandma.

I sang with Laura on Laura in a Yelp Song! Walgreens Madrigal:

I blogged about my hood at Quirk and Quill and guest-blogged about Zombies for the Neos. 

Amidst all of that, and oh so much more, I've been advancing with my current novel in progress. It makes me feel like this, which is real good:

Now I'm getting ready to do Celebration of Authors -- the 300 something seats are SOLD OUT! And I get to play a nervous werewolf, so I'm pretty psyched.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Oh children, dear children

I'm coming to mentor you!

Through Barrel of Monkeys, I taught a residency at Morton Elementary, an Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) school, last year. In fact, I taught the class whose picture shows up first on their website right now.

At the AUSL Festival of the Arts at Solorio High School last May, I saw even more of the impressive creative work coming out of these schools across the city. 

Well, AUSL just selected winners from their first-ever Young Authors competition, and part of the prize is visiting with a working writer. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be that writer for five of these schools. We'll talk shop. I'll be sharing my work and helping the winners create author bios and choose excerpts to represent their own work. 

I saw some amazing creative writing at Morton (um, "The Sound of Karma" anyone? Greatest title of all time?), so I have no doubt the winners of this contest will also startle and amaze.
Bang-ba-bang-ba-bang boomerang fangs bangs!
If that is not The Sound of Karma, it's close.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Chicago Writers Conference

In a fit of community spirit, I became a backer and secured admission to the Chicago Writers Conference. I'm aware of many small writing communities in Chicago. I'm excited to see them brought together under one giant, sparkly conference roof!

The project needs a little more cash to kickstart . . . Get on it!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Big Prom

Tonight is Barrel of Monkeys' BIG PROM!

That's right, we're going to relive one of the most awkward nights of young adult life in an attempt to raise money (and do things better this time around).

As I explained in one of the Big Prom promo videos, my school did not have a prom. Instead, we had a Roast Pig Feast at which we, yes, roasted a giant pig, along with our school's faculty.

The closest thing we had to an actual prom was a dance put on by this nice young man's mom.

I was his date, and I hope he won't mind me posting this picture. I don't know him now, and I barely knew him then.

My best friend, and go-to fake date, had an actual girlfriend at the time. And SHE had bought the exact same dress as me, a lavender-sorbet-colored cocktail-length dream with a chiffon wrap that was meant to hang around the front of your neck and trail behind. Very 90's chic.

I wanted to wear that dress, but I did NOT want to wear the same dress as my BFF's date, so I borrowed the above navy number from my second cousin once removed and friend (yes, the Deep South) Annie. It clung exactly right, and it made me feel oh-so-sophisticated. I still have not worn the lavender dream. Le sigh. But it hangs in my closet at the parents' house.

Tonight, I'll be wearing a dress I've worn, I think, four times. It's red, sparkly, frilly, and it's what I would wear to every dress-up occasion if I though I could get away with it. I first wore it in 9th grade to a Coming Out dance. Not normal "coming out" either -- weird Southern debutant/sorority coming out.

The second time (the memory's not sure about this one) was for the Snowflake Ball. I was invited by a friend a year older than me and was one of just two or three kids in my class who got to go. I was so nervous the day of that Ball that I threw up on myself while driving to buy last minute tights and had to turn around. I think I ended up borrowing tights from my mom.

The third time was for an awards presentation at college, when I was supposed be a cheesy host.

The fourth, and last, time was for the first ever Barrel of Monkeys Fancy-Schmancy fundraiser -- I believe nine years ago.

This dress still fits me perfectly. Yes, I might be part vampire. MWA-HA-HA, aging, I defy you!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Nerd Nite Interview

I recently gave an interview about YA fiction, its history, its current appeal, and some of my favorite weird YA books on the Nerd Nite Podcast.

Appearing with me is me longtime friend and future librarian, Tom Malinowski.

Tom makes nerdiness an art -- we have nerded out on many topics: World of Warcraft, the Black Canary and other lady superheroes, horror movies, German board games . . . mostly superheroes, movies, and games. So it was really fun to nerd out with Tom about YA.

I was a little bit terrified of being recorded trying to sound experty, but the conversation went to some interesting places, and I only made a few mistakes. You can listen here.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Powers Activate!

Most days, I write alone. Often, I write in bed.

In the dark.

In a cave made of comforters and warmed by the breath of my sleeping dog.

 By the dim light of orange words on a black screen (full screen mode in Scrivener).

This is me writing at the Quirk and Quill retreat:

Writer friend, Mary Winn Heider says it looks like Halloween, and "doesn't that hurt your back?"

Sometimes, but I love Halloween, and I prop up with lots of pillows. I like that it lets me tap into my subconscious, that it makes writing feel like dreaming, that the only barrier between me and the words on the screen is my fingers' ability to keep up with my thoughts.

And then some days, I fall asleep writing in bed. Where is my Wonder Twin Zan saying, "We've got to stay awake, Jayna!"

Where is the ice unicycle that will aid my giant octopus in defeating those aliens? Or, you know, writing 1,000 words before it's time to go to work?

 My first experience with writing in public was in 2006. A classmate in a Young Adult Novel class taught by Cecil Castellucci told me about what he called "Power Writing." It sounded "powerful." And maybe fun. So we met at a cafe, plugged our laptops in, set a timer, and wrote. Power!

Later in class, Cecil would give us exercises and invite people to read aloud. I am not the read-aloud-after-writing type, but the force of a room full of people scribbling away is strong. It made me write.

"Power Writing" works for me, but I rarely make group writing sessions happen for myself. Checking in with an online support system, like the #amwriting hashtag on Twitter, helps, but it isn't the same as the present energy of other writers at work.

Recently, I met up with two other VCFA'ers in Chicago, Mary Winn Heider and Amy Rose Capetta, and we plugged in around Mary Winn's dining table. We started late, 9pm on a weeknight. I never write at night. I never write with friends. I never write when I've worked all day and have reason to be tired. But sitting with those two ladies and listening to our keys (all MacBooks) snap-tapping, I wrote more than twice my usual word count for one session.

And I loved what I wrote.

And we're going to do it again. Power up!

Cross-posted at Quirk and Quill

Friday, April 6, 2012

I'm Ba-a-a-a-ack!

I went away for more than a year. More than a year?

I know. I know.

So, some stuff happened.

I got an agent, the divine Sara Crowe. Right?

We made a deal with Harper Children's. Right!?! I know.

From Publisher's Weekly 3/1/12:  VCFA grad Rachel Wilson's debut DON'T TOUCH, about a girl who is afraid to touch another person's skin, until the boy playing Hamlet opposite her Ophelia gives her a reason to overcome her fears, to Rosemary Brosnan and Andrea Martin at Harper Children's, at auction, by Sara Crowe at Harvey Klinger (world English).

I showed up as an "Exciting Debut Author" at  RT Book Reviews' Forewards: The Books Before the Buzz. I mean, all they've read is the announcement, but still, that's real nice.

I served as a Graduate Assistant at the last VCFA Residency, where I got to hobnob with the new faculty and meet the current cohorts! And I attended the program's 15-Year-Reunion at AWP in Chicago last month, where I won a very special commemorative bear.

I've been loving on Twitter more: @storybookgirl

AND, my VCFA grad class, The Super Secret Society of Quirk and Quill has started a group blog called Quirk and Quill. Setting up that blog inspired me to come back here. I'll be blogging, there and here, more often.

I've given this blog a mini-facelift. It may change or move in the future, but for the time being, this is my blog. Thanks for visiting, or welcome back!