Figurative thoughts, that is. Four years ago I posted this in regard to my son attending Saint Ignatius, a rigorous private school. I used Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Traveled,” and I used it in that wrong way so many do (but I don’t care). The idea being, find a barely perceptible path in the middle of nowhere and it will yield you a wild-forest-of-a-life. For who wants to stay on the boring path? I wrote that signing up for St. Ignatius was akin to signing for an Everest hike, that if Luke didn’t at least try, he’d look up at the mountain one day and regret it. But. If he tried and managed to climb even to base camp, he’d have a beautiful view, a valley to appreciate. Some of my favorite moments are when I cease the proverbial hike, pull out a glass of wine, and survey where I’ve come from and where I’m going.
This I wanted for my son.
Luke had been homeschooled all his life. What he knew was the plush couch, great books, experiential learning in organizations like Civil Air Patrol, mastery learning in everything, and the yours-truly-taskmaster who—at that point—was losing her ability to motivate him. A Bear Grylls type, Luke thrives in the wild. Any wild will do, even high school. The kid didn’t even know how to work a combination lock when I sent him off with a brand new backpack into the inner-city campus wearing his first tie. I could hardly believe I wouldn’t see him for a whole day.
In a week he’ll be done with high school. To say it had its ups and downs covers it as well as an article from Lady Gaga’s wardrobe. I’d confess the four years of mother angst in diary-style, but my son would kill me, private man that he is. In the end, what I can say of his high school years is he hit the ball out of the park. From the kitchen table to Saint Ignatius to Cornell University. This proud mom thinks he made it to his personal Everest, that he hacked a path of his own and it made all the difference.
For from [God] and through him and for him are all things. To him be the glory forever! – Romans 11:36
What makes 5000 Words stories stand out? I believe it’s the boot camp dynamic of the class. For 12 weeks, we immerse ourselves in a great work of literature (this time, Lord of the Flies) while churning out copious amounts of stellar writing. Students who can handle the demands of the class come out with a serious portfolio—far more than 5000 Words.
Each session we hold a peer-judged creative writing contest where students craft an original story and run it through the gauntlet of a class critique. 100% of students survive the workshop (but they do fret). They revise, and the final stories are judged by anonymous vote. Rachel Carpenter, Katelyn Steyer, and John Grigoli were our winners. Click on the titles to read and be amazed by their winning stories.
Rachel Carpenter is 18 years old and a senior in high school. She will be attending the University of Akron in the fall of 2019. Dance is her passion and her major in college, but she has other hobbies to occupy her time when she is not dancing. She enjoys writing fictional stories, playing with animals (especially cats), and spending time with her friends and family. She also enjoys stepping out of her comfort zone, making new memories, and giving back to people in need by going on mission trips. Her faith is very important to her and is one of the reasons why she goes on mission trips. Rachel has been on a total of four mission trips and will be going on her fifth in June of 2019.
Katelyn is seventeen and the oldest of six kids. She has participated in the 5000 words class for the past five years. When she was first enrolled to take the class, she cried because of the unknown. And when the session came to an end, she cried because it was over. Without 5000 words her passion for writing wouldn’t have been discovered. She has enjoyed every minute of the past classes and is forever grateful for Mrs. Griffiths and the lessons she has taught her.
John Grigoli is 14 years old and in eighth grade. Besides writing, he enjoys baseball, basketball, cross country, playing piano, and camping. He has a love for the outdoors, which grew from being a member of Boy Scouts. He is currently working towards the Eagle Scout rank. In his first full year in the 5000 Words class, he quickly gained an appreciation for creative writing, as well as the class discussions. Additionally, he is grateful for the peer critiquing and the instruction from Mrs. Griffiths.
In college, I was into modern dance, which was my introduction to the green room, to theatre, and to the adrenaline rush of performing. I loved the jack-hammering of my heart as I stood in the dark wings. I loved the blinding lights and the one or two dancers whose epic fits would make the rest of us feel so poised. Confession: I loved the attention. As a young person, I was an attention junky, and I wasn’t picky about the sort I got. Bad. Good. Legal. Illegal. Here I am, notice me. was the mantra of my life. But with dancing, I was part of a team or a duo. Even if I was dancing a solo, I was a cog in a machine, and we were making something lovely.
Ever after, when I would watch a play, I’d be crazy-jealous of the cast members. They seemed to be having so much fun. But I sing as well as a cat in heat, and I’ve never acted before. As much as I missed the stage, as an adult it wasn’t happening for me.
The one attribute I bring to the theatrical table is my willingness to look stupid, especially at church. If we can’t mess up there, where can we? (That may be an upside-down perspective for those who think church is for the perfectly put together.) Enter, Heaven’s Gates & Hell’s Flames, a mind-blowing spiritual drama that explores what happens the second after we die. Seneca said, “The day which we fear is our last is but the birthday of eternity.” Audiences come to be entertained, but they come away with much to think about. Isn’t that the point of art—to shine a spotlight and shatter dogmas?
So I told the insecure miscreant who lives inside my head and comes out whenever there’s a hard and/or uncomfortable thing to do…I told her to shut up, and I went and read the script. I got a little part, and I—with God’s help—performed. I got to be a cog again. This time, making something lasting. And I hope, lovely. A performance to make people stop and think about what they believe.
April 6th, 2018. It was the Cleveland Indians’ home opener. I was at University Hospital having an opener of my own. Brain surgery.
A year later the skin on my head is still tight. I often run my fingers along the dents in my skull. They can’t be seen because my superhero surgeon managed to extract a kumquat-sized tumor without shaving my hair. My jog pace is three minutes slower and hurts worse. I mess up numbers and dates with freakish consistency (just ask my students). But thank you, God. I can write. And teach. And hug. And walk. I can have coffee with my grown daughters, watch my son graduate high school, watch my teenager swim. I live with a new perspective: life isn’t forever. Don’t waste.
Carpe diem, we’re told. Seize the day. I am a Jedi-Master at day-seizing. I climb volcanos. I sled head-first and backward. I slide down the hot metal handrail in swanky pools. I dance the Stanky Leg stone sober and the YMCA without regard for which way the “C” goes. I rock the high dive, the low dive, and any balcony or roof within ten feet of a pool.
Professional day-seizer, right? Au contraire mon frère. That is thrill seeking. To carpe diem is to hug tightly, to look someone square in the eyes, to hold hands like they’re welded together. To carpe diem is to write love letters, make meatloaf, be interruptable, do dishes, leave the dishes, serve a meal, smile, cry, all of it without vanity.
When things go south—not just hiccup south, but kamikaze-nose-dive south—God takes over. It’s magnificent.
But first comes poverty. Blessed are the poor in spirit. I remember going to church and wanting to stop my ears at the upbeat worship songs. I wanted to scream, I had this piano dropped on me! Why are we all singing like it’s standard ops? Where are the thunderclouds? Where is Mozart’s Requiem? I could not sing. Those words weren’t for me. Are you kidding me? Poor? I was destitute in my spirit.
We think we deserve a smooth road. We pray for asphalt, lay down good habits and programs to assure a wrinkle-free trip; we buy apps, sign up for accountability groups. Sometimes we sin for a toll road. And when a root trips us or a bridge is out—don’t we just howl in indignation? How could you, God? How DARE you! Fact is, the Awful with-a-capital-A moment has to come in order for the After to come. Like Jesus. His Awful was the cross. We live in his After. I’m glad he went through with it. He had a choice.
When you know something is very wrong with you, but you don’t know exactly what, or you can’t fix it with diet and exercise…you are meek. You’re at the mercy of your broken body, of doctors, nurses, health insurance policies, lab techs, maintenance personnel (did they sanitize the instruments?), high-tech computers, the unbroken flow of electricity during your surgery. You feel at the mercy of gobs of stuff. But that’s a lie. You’re at the mercy of only one thing: God.
There are no promises of healing. Only: blessed are the meek. This I experienced. I am blessed by the fact that my brain surgery was a success, but even beforehand I was blessed by the way I felt…held is the best word for it. Not alone. Not forsaken. Not punished. I was exactly where God wanted me to be. For other people, the place to be was the baseball home opener. I cannot compare myself to others. Do you think it’s possible I wasn’t jealous of those hotdog-eating fans with their perfect health? I wasn’t. That was my miracle.
In the face of no guarantees, here is my takeaway:
Love however it looks for you. Maybe it means speaking up. Or shutting up. Love can be as easy as smiling at a stranger. But it’s more fun when it’s kissing my husband. Bob taught me what love under duress looks like. The mention of 2018 gives him the willies, but I have fond memories of his arm around me, his hand in mine, his Oscar-worthy declarations of you’ll-be-fine. And he was right. Ever the optimist is my husband. He’s trying to get me to see things that way. It’s less painful to be an optimist. But see, Bob would have said, “It’s more pleasant to be an optimist.” I still have halfway to go. 😉
Today I’m doing something I’ve always wanted to try. (It’s scary and exciting and entirely legal.) What is it, you ask? I’ll let you know if I actually go through with it.
Cheers! And happy brain surgery anniversary to me.
I wish the coffee would stay hot, even down to those last few sips. When it’s first brewed I put my face in the mug and pull the aroma into my nose. Those gloriously warm first sips are the best. Then it gets mindless. I’m in the world of my manuscript, slugging down the caffeine for its properties and not for the flavor anymore. By the end and especially if I’ve forgotten the mug for a bit, those cold shots are all willpower. The will to not waste.
If we were having coffee, I’d tell you I’m still waiting to hear from agents who have my full manuscript. Have I ever mentioned what a patient person I am? No? Exactly. The customary wait time before it’s polite to nudge an agent is 90 days. 90! Jesus was in the desert for 40. Meanwhile, I’m all over the place as far as my manuscript goes. I believe in it. I love it. But I also wonder if I’m about to sustain another round of near-knockout punches from which I’ll have to rise. And I will. Rise. I’ve fed myself author stories about overcoming. One writer had over a hundred rejections a year for three years before landing an agent. Same book, mind you. I thought a hundred was high. Here’s where I’m at as of today:
55 queries sent since June, 2018
4 full requests; 1 rejection, 3 still out
43 rejections or no answer (which means the same thing)
8 recently sent and not yet rejected (my goal is to have 7 always in the hopeful queue)
I have to tell you, it felt like more than 43 rejections. At rejection 26 (November 2018) I revamped my query letter with the help of Query Shark, and I received my first requests for fulls. Ah…the validation. But what is validated? My ability to entice an agent. Check. My ability to write fifty good pages. Check. But do I have what it takes to write the full monty? I now believe the ability to finish doesn’t rest on my current level of talent but on my constant level of persistence. Unless a book is in such a shamble that it cannot be fixed (think flattened roadkill), there is hope. I will continue revising. Until I’m agented. Until I’m published.
That is what it means to be a writer. Grit. Rejection. Revising. Some would say that in order to have the audacity to create an entire world with words alone, one must possess a cyclopean ego, its one bulging eye fixed on fandom. And to temper the writer’s god complex is the querying process. Confession: I have never felt my ego was large enough for this industry. If anyone has ideas on how to bulk up the ego at any stage of a manuscript, please share. I do pray though. And I find that if I stop looking at myself (oh poor little me and my homeless manuscript…) I’m happier.
Meanwhile, I use every opportunity to better myself. I listen to podcasts on writing and follow people who are in the querying trenches. This month I applied for a mentor at Author Mentor Match. I should hear any day now. I also entered Trespass in the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. It was exciting for me to enter because last year at this time I was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had to have surgery. I was unable to focus on anything but loving my family and friends. I missed the deadline.
I hunt down beta readers and join writing groups. All these things I do to keep moving toward my goal, the most important being to put my butt in the chair and work on my 2nd manuscript, 19,233 words in, but who’s counting? Today I managed 588 words. A thousand is a good day, but I am a slow creator and a rabid revisor.
Thanks for sticking with my update! Hope the coffee didn’t get too cold for you. 🙂
Many thanks to Eclectic Ali for getting the coffee brewing and the conversation started. Ali describes her casual posting plan: Weekend Coffee Share is a time for us to take a break out of our lives and enjoy some time catching up with friends (old and new)! Grab a cup of coffee and share with us! What’s been going on in your life? What are your weekend plans? Is there a topic you’ve just been ruminating on that you want to talk about?
Today for coffee we could head over to the Starbucks at the University of South Carolina. Luke is applying to colleges, and we’re all dreaming of what’s in store for his future. While we haven’t heard back from many of his hopefuls yet, USC accepted him into their honors college and invited us to visit. It was 30° when we left Cleveland. Our walking tour yesterday was 70°, and I was feeling my long sleeves. Not complaining, though. The birds were singing. My skin wasn’t getting frostbit. Students were dressed in shorts. Everyone refers to us as y’all in that southern accent that’s as sweet as their tea.
I have managed to embarrass my son already. They keep throwing us into soirees, the kind where you walk into a room full of clusters of people already engaged in deep, robust conversation, and you must figure out how to pry your way in gracefully. I am not known for my spontaneous verbal grace. One of the many reasons I prefer writing: the backspace key.
We enjoyed breakfast at the top of the Capstone House, a revolving room 18 floors high with floor-to-ceiling windows. I was introduced to the concept of shrimp and grits from a distance and had the most delicious chocolate cheesecake. Cheesecake for breakfast. Oh, and I had it last night for dessert too. I’d do well to walk back to Ohio.
As I type this Luke is in his interview. They play it super low key. My kind of people. The director of admissions joked to a room of scholar-nerds and their nerd-parents that yoga keeps her out of prison. I could definitely have coffee with a gal like that. She and I talked a bit about Pat Conroy, whose books are often set here in Columbia and in Charleston. I am in the middle of Beach Music (a volume so thick you could jack your car on it), and there are scenes that take place on the campus. I got to see the Horseshoe, a beautiful green I just read about, as well as the student union where Conroy has a Vietnam demonstration take place. Very cool.
I’ll tell you though. Even with the 15° temperature, nothing beats home. Looking forward to sharing coffee with you from my beloved Keurig, next time.
Judging is a buffet where I love every dish. How do I pick just one? As I read through the entries, I jot notes down and assign a number to rank them. I re-read the top-ranked stories and even some lower ranked ones that are still on my mind. Then I wring my hands and generally feel desperate about having to pick just one winner. Lucky for me, my dear friend and fellow author Kathleen Joyce joined the fun!
A couple of things I look for:
Narrative or character arcs. Movement. Unexpected growth or a twist.
Style. Did you use tone/voice well?
Dialogue. If you worked that in, bonus points.
Grammar. It always helps. Always.
Genre. Did you write in a recognizable genre?
Did your story make sense?
Was there more story off the page?
Some entries were super clever and took risks with narrators, genres, and plot. All had praiseworthy moments.
But the winning entry embodies all seven points. It started out with me thinking funny romance and took me to a creepy place I wasn’t expecting. (I always enjoy a surprise.) With voice alone, the author accomplished this shift! As the tone evolved into zombie/vampire/werewolf/something-terrifying-I-can’t-imagine, the dialogue served to steep it in reality. Horror is my favorite genre. The story is polished, makes total sense, and yikes!!! —how about the story off this page?!? No one wants to imagine what’s next for our hapless narrator.
Movie Date by Rachel Carpenter
There was something not quite right about the way the ticket vendor gave me my ticket. I’m pretty sure she judged me for being alone. I wanted to tell her I was meeting someone but decided against it. I pushed the thought from my mind and pulled out my phone and asked him where he was. He replied and said he would be there in a few minutes and to go into the theater. I was a little upset but decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I sat down in the theater and pulled out my phone again. Three minutes till the previews started and I was fuming. I shoved my phone back into my jacket pocket and crossed my arms. After a few minutes, I got up to leave, but then I saw my date walking up the stairs. He got there before the actual movie started and I was a little relieved I was not stood up. He sat down and I noticed right away that he smelled repulsive. Like something died on him. I also noticed there was some red stuff on his shirt and pants. I asked him what it was and he said paint. I became too uncomfortable and I told him I had to leave because of a family emergency.
“Let me walk you out,” he suggested.
“Are you sure you want to leave the movie?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s cool.”
When we got to my car he stopped me and apologized for being late. I told him it was fine and started to get into my car. He suddenly grabbed me and covered my mouth. I saw a van pull out from behind me and I was thrown into the van, I tried screaming, but it was no use.
Our second winner was chosen by cozy mystery writer, Kathleen Joyce, who graciously read the entries and sent me her choice for #1. Here’s what she had to say: My vote goes to Gloria Blumfeldt. I liked her story. All your students have great imaginations. I enjoyed reading them.
Kathleen regularly reads and edits adult work and mentioned that many of the student stories were of a surprisingly high caliber. You guys make me proud. 🙂
Backyard Discoveries by Gloria Blumfeldt
There was something not quite right about the smell that came from the ground that one morning as I walked through my woods. Rotten and vile. It Almost smelled as if a person had been buried there, but not far under the surface. My keen sense of smell had landed me many, very important detective jobs. I could pick up and define even the faintest of smells. But there’s no way there’s a crime scene right in my own back yard? I put my nose closer to the earth, sniffing the surface. It is- But it can’t be? Could it? I thought as the smell of a rotting body filled my nostrils. I could find out.
I stood over top of the soiled earth for minutes, unable to get the thought of digging it up out of my head. I knew I wasn’t supposed to act on any of my suspicions until I had reported them to the chief, but this consumed my mind. I couldn’t control myself. Curiosity took over.
The soil was soft and easy to dig into. In a matter of minutes, I could see a piece of blueish fabric peeking out from the dirt. Frantically, I uncovered the rest of it. Moments later a fully uncovered body lay in the ground in front of me. At the sight, I ran back to my house calling for my partner. Finally, I got to the door but and saw my partner through the glass. I yelled more to get his attention. He rushed outside asking a million questions but I just led him to the body.
“Wow,” He said as he stared at the body, “We’ve been looking for her ever since she went missing last year. I can’t believe you found her. You’re really a special dog.”