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Thursday, December 31, 2009

What kinds of writing did you do as a teen?

This is my favorite photo ever of me as a teen:

I'm 15 going on 16 and it shows how I spent most of my afternoons as a teenager, sitting in a park (though this was not taken in Scoville Park from Ballads of Suburbia. Sometimes we changed up our park-going routine and went to Mills Park, which is where I am here) and when I wasn't getting into trouble, I was writing.

I always carried a notebook like the one in my lap with me and I filled several of them, mostly with angsty poetry. That line in my bio about getting my start writing bad poetry about unrequited love and razor blades in eighth grade is totally true. My main inspiration as a teen was Sylvia Plath... as well as Hole and Babes In Toyland lyrics. Yeah, most of my poems were total rip-offs of Sylvia, Courtney or Kat. I entered lots of poetry contests. There were tons of shams back in the 90s (and probably still now) to lure in aspiring writers like me. Enter your poem! Oh look, it made it into an anthology! Would you like to buy the anthology? And my proud mom was easily duped. I think she has four or five of those anthologies. Sigh. At least she has actual published books to put beside them now.

In addition to poetry, I also wrote zines in high school. Three friends and I put out four issues of a riot grrrl feminist zine called Kill Supermodels (which was not about killing actual supermodels, but about killing the idea that women had to look like supermodels to be beautiful.) during my junior year. It created controversy at school, which I loved and thrived on, but also got a lot of great dialogue going with some of my classmates about feminism. We also had a lit zine called Crust because our high school's literary magazine was called Crest and you totally had to know someone to get in. We were the punk rock, we'll publish anyone's writing alternative.

I also put out three per-zines: Goddess Defiled, Hospital Gown, and Do Not Go Quietly Unto Yr Grave. Per-zines meant personal zines. Those were the kinds of zines you purged your soul in as opposed to issue-based zines like Kill Supermodels (though I purged a lot in there too) or lit zines like Crust or fanzines for bands. It was almost like publishing your diary. And some people were very proud of me for what I wrote about and others felt I crossed the line. Ultimately, it was the release I needed at the time and I learned a little about boundaries in writing, so I have no regrets. My zines mainly focused on my struggles with self-esteem, self-injury, and Hospital Gown in particular focused on the emotionally and sexually abusive relationship I was in during my sophomore year of high school. That zine led to my first real publication credit that I was proud of. My all-time favorite YA author and idol Francesca Lia Block co-wrote a book with Hillary Carlip (whose book Girl Power turned me on to the Riot Grrrl movement and zine writing) called Zine Scene. They talked about Hospital Gown and reprinted a page from it in their book. Seeing this in print was probably my biggest motivation to get published some day:

Yeah, those zines were kind of intense. I was probably proudest of my last one, Do Not Go Quietly Unto Yr Grave. I wrote that one after graduating high school early and moving into my own apartment in Madison, Wisconsin, when I was seventeen. I reflected a lot on the life I left behind, friends with drug addictions and problems not unlike the ones my characters in Ballads of Suburbia go through. And I also put a short story in one of my zines for the first time. Those short stories were odd, not very good really. Full of image and metaphor-- my current obsession with existentialist philosophy very evident in them. But they were about restless kids sitting in diners, girls struggling with friends and boyfriends were teetering on the edge of something--addiction, depression. You can definitely see the early themes that would become this:

So, my love for writing was definitely honed in my teen years and I think that might be why I write YA!

What about you? Were you or are you a teenage writer?

Monday, December 28, 2009

What kinds of writing did you do as a teen?

Before there was this

or even this

there was this

and this.

My first published works, besides articles in my junior high and high school newspapers, were short stories in the winners' collections for the Alabama Penman writing contest for high school students. When I was in ninth grade, my short story "The Wild Morosa" came in third. If you are super-curious [*blank stare*] you can read it here. I posted it back in 2006 when one of my friends on Live Journal invented "International Embarrass Yourself as an Artist Day." If you read closely and are feeling generous, you'll see it's a little baby romantic comedy, like the ones I write now for Simon Pulse. By twelfth grade, my new short story had made it up to second place! Woot! And it's a little baby teen drama, like Going Too Far or Forget You.

You laugh. But in all seriousness, these prizes meant the world to me. From the time I was fourteen, my writing had affirmation from someone outside my high school. I would cling to that affirmation, I would continue to write short stories and articles for my college literary journals and newspapers...and when I decided a career in music was not for me, I switched to English without another thought. These two Alabama Penman collections are still on the bookshelf right behind my desk, at the bottom of the pile of my published novels.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

What Kinds of Writing Did You Do as a Teen?

As a teen I loved creative writing. When the assignment called for a short story or descriptive passage, I threw myself into the task. All five senses were given their due; sentence variety was a snap. You want smooth transitions? I’m your girl. And my idea of fun was combing the thesaurus for words with the perfect nuance of meaning. I beamed as my teachers read my work to my bored and restless classmates.

But during study hall I wrote poetry so atrocious the walls of my high school must have shuddered. Except for the shuddering walls part, I’m not exaggerating. The proof is in the brown spiral notebook I’m holding, the one with “Private Property” printed inside the cover.

It should read “Enter at Your Own Risk.”

I wrote poems about my friends, teachers, and boys I liked and didn’t like. I even wrote poems about poems. And I seem to have had a creepy fixation with teeth. In one poem I called a boy's teeth “little stones so ivory white” and in another “a white picket fence.”

Yes, my imagery really was that dorky.

And then there were the “rhymes” I used to glue my images together. What do you mean, “focus” and “atrocious” don’t rhyme? They both end in “us,” don’t they? If I’d written in free verse, maybe my poems wouldn’t have been as awful, but I doubt it.

It’s all the more embarrassing because I had plenty of exposure to good poetry. My mother—who also loved to write—won a poetry contest in high school. The prize was a thick book of poems I read from cover to cover many times while I was growing up. Because I loved reading and reciting poetry, I thought I could write it, too.


In case you still don’t believe me, the following example will remove all doubt. It’s untitled, which is just as well. WARNING: If you are easily traumatized, STOP reading now!

A blur and a swirl,

A dizzying whirl,

Uncomprehending though it seems

Has lights and rays of knowledge beams.

All seems darkness,

But a light

Like the moon on the blackest night

Shows comprehension.

Though it’s small

I know it’s better than none at all.

My mind seems blank and dark and wet.

I know that all’s not hopeless yet!

All may not hopeless, but my poetry definitely was.

Happy Holidays to every one of you!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

What Kinds of Writing Did You Do as a Teen?

As a teen I went through tons of paper and glitter pens writing notes to my friends. I also have several notebooks full of notes that I wrote to one of my best friends, using plenty of code words, of course. In addition I wrote angst poetry and kept humorous journals of my exchange trip to Germany and my family trip to South Africa.

I wrote stories and handed them in as extra credit, even when extra credit wasn't offered. I have a file cabinet full of old stories, poems and school papers. I even started a novel my senior year of high school called, "Visions of Liberty". It's about a girl that runs away to California. She has a quirky family and her dad works for a plastic fork factory. I think I have about eighty pages of the novel written.

I didn't share my poetry much but here is one of the poems that my teacher sophmore year shared with my class. Note: I never had a willow tree but always thought they were cool!

The Old Willow Tree

The old willow tree was always there for me in my time of desperate need.
It was a place where I could sit and grieve.
When hate filled my lungs, the big willow was standing right over me.
I always felt it could protect me. That was my comfort deep inside.

Some days I could just sit and swing on that old willow tree.
Other days I'd sit in my cozy spot and just fall into an endless dream.
I could dream wondrous dreams right beneath that old willow tree.

One unfortunate night a terrible wind storm blew my tree right down.
I could have died at that very spot because that tree was always there for me.
I could no longer dream wondrous dreams.
My nights became sleepless, my bones started to ache with sorrow.

I cried and cried because now I felt completely lost.
There is no other tree like my special willow tree.
I'm telling you it might have only been a tree, but it was always there for me!

I never kept a journal for fear that someone would find it and read it but I did fill a notebook with my poetry. Writing has always been a part of my life ever since I learned how to put a story together in the first grade.

Friday, December 18, 2009

What kinds of writing did you do as a teen?

This is going to be a short blog because my answer is... none!!
Outside of school that is.
I was a huge reader as a teen, but not a writer. I know there are girls who loved to write their deepest, darkest feelings in a journal and, as hard as I tried, I wasn't one of them. I have "journals" completely blank except for the first page, where I promise up and down to write something every day. I didn't. And I'm sort of sorry. I'd love to know what a teenage me was thinking back then, as my memories are bound to be revisionist in retrospect.
As a matter of fact, I don't have a single piece of writing from high school. In college I did a little, but only because I took creative writing classes. I didn't major in English and didn't even minor in creative writing because, while I loved the writing courses, I hated the literature courses that were required. I took a total of 1 and 1/16 literature classes in college (I lasted for four classes before dropping).
Hated the one lit class I took Freshman year. Then, senior year, I decided to try again. Ugh. Yuck. Why would I want to spend time being forced to read books I didn't want to read when I could read books I wanted to read anytime I wanted? So I dropped the course. Which meant going into my last semester senior year I was short a single credit that I needed to make up!!! (I'd taken summer courses at other colleges that made up for the rest of the credits).
Faced with a dilemma - add another course to my schedule or not graduate (not an option), I found a 2 credit course in Middle Eastern Dance. Otherwise known as Belly Dancing. Yes, I walked into the dance department for my first time ever my last semester of college. And had a great time belly dancing and learning all about the art of Middle Eastern Dance. And I graduated.
So, long story short - didn't write in high school; didn't write in college outside of class; didn't major in anything remotely having to do with writing or reading; learned to belly dance.
There you go.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Time to exercise!

I know everyone is looking at that subject title and going wait... what? Now is the time for holiday eating and winter laziness! See but the thing is I'm going on a honeymoon in a month. I'm going to be in Florida on a beach in a bikini, so I've been amping up the workout routine.

I started seriously exercising three years ago. It was my New Year's Resolution for 2007--the only New Year's Resolution I've ever kept, aside from the resolution I made when I was 13 to never eat meat again.

I did not enjoy exercise as a kid. I wasn't totally opposed to physical activity, but aside from a couple things, like bike riding and swimming, I did not ever enjoy it. Well, I also did ballet and gymnastics and loved both of them. I wasn't great, but I wasn't terrible. I think what it came down to was that I was terrible at team sports-- too short for basketball, too uncoordinated for kickball or soccer, I just thought football was stupid, and even though I was great at hitting the baseballs my dad threw in the backyard, it didn't translate to gym class. Gym class was the place where I got made fun of. It was the bane of my existence. The annual mile run/ President's Fitness Council thing they make you do--my own personal version of hell. Another thing to get teased about. I would just walk the mile-run to show that I didn't care if I came in last. (Actually I did care.) And don't get me started on doing push-ups and pull-ups. My frustration at those made me declare years ago, so I have no upper body strength I DON'T CARE, I have very strong legs, dammit!

But when I was a kid and a teenager I could get away without exercising, or just taking a ballet class once a week and calling it a day. I had this awesome metabolism. Then I went away to college, gained that freshman 15 and suddenly I was a little flabby in some places. I lost muscle tone because there were no more required gym classes and the only dancing I did was when I was drunk at a club.

In my early twenties, I was having all these problems with insomnia and depression. My doctor, my therapist, my nurse mother, the magazines I read all started saying the same thing: if you exercise, you will feel better and you will sleep better.

Still holding on to angry gym class memories of the mile-run, my lack of endurance and upper body strength, I decided to try pilates. It was an ab thing and I wanted a flatter stomach. It seemed to be about flexibility and I was okay at that from the years of dance.

Pilates was my gateway drug to exercise. Within a few classes, I noticed I was feeling stronger. I was starting to correct some of my back problems (terrible posture has seriously affected my shoulders). I was even developing some upper body strength. My mood also did improve. My Pilates teacher commended my hard work, but said that it was really important to get some cardio as well. So, reluctantly, I joined a gym, telling myself, I would walk on the treadmill. Maybe jog a bit.

That was my routine for awhile, but fast forward to New Years of 2007. I'd been dating my now-husband for about a year then and had gained some more weight as tends to happen when you start dating someone because you go out to eat a lot. I've had body issues in the past, so I was determined to lose it in a healthy way and to get strong. I decided to join the gym on the university campus where I worked instead of the gym across town from my house, figuring I would go more regularly either at lunch or right after work. Plus it was super cheap!

The plan definitely worked. It worked really well in fact because I hated my job and going to the gym at lunch to blow off steam was exactly what I needed. I discovered the joy of zoning out to bad TV on the elliptical. (I have bad knees and ankles from gymnastics so I can't do the treadmill nor can I run outside much, though I do like a nice jog through my local cemetery when weather permits.) And, oddly enough, I also came to enjoy what I'd once hated-- gym class.

My gym offered several free classes a week. The first one that my friend and I tried was called "Ab Lab." Due to Pilates I knew I had good core strength, so I would probably do okay at it. It actually kicked my ass, but I liked it. Then it was on to cardio kickboxing. We hated our job. It was fun to go in there and pretend we were kicking the people we didn't like at work. Next was this thing called 20/20/20, 20 minutes of kickboxing, 20 minutes of step aerobics , and 20 minutes of... basically gym class. Running drills, doing push ups and squats. And some twisted part of me liked it. Maybe it was because I was doing it with a friend, someone I could struggle with, and we laughed together when we sucked at something, no one was laughing at me. Maybe it was because I had a lot of aggression to get out. Or maybe it was because within six months, I could rock a bikini like this and not feel self-conscious:

The hardest thing about quitting my job to go back to bartending/have more writing time was giving up that gym. Leaving my job meant losing my membership to the gym because it was the University gym (hence it was so affordable and had fun free classes). I'd also be making a lot less money so another gym membership wasn't an option. I raided my savings and bought a good elliptical machine.

Every day after I finish writing I go down to my basement and work out. I'd been kind of slipping lately. Not skipping the workout (I watch my beloved soap opera, One Life to Live while I'm on the elliptical to bribe myself), but I've been half-assing it. And I haven't been varying my workout at all, which means I've lost some of that valuable arm strength. (Plus I was getting bored.) So instead of doing the elliptical five days a week, I've substituted workout DVDs twice a week. My favorite is The Firm: Total Body Time Crunch, which reminds me of that 20/20/20 class since it includes some kickboxing and cardio mixed with strength. Not nearly as fun, but definitely forcing me to build that upper body is Jillian Michaels' 30 Day Shred.

I want to get some new ones. This Cardio for Indie Rockers DVD looks great and is on my Christmas list since I would prefer to exercise to cool music. But I could really use some fun kickboxing DVDs too.

Yes, I just called exercise fun. Twelve year old me would totally be gawking and perhaps weakly trying to punch me. But you know what, after I banished the demons of the mean boys who would pick on me back in school (by imagining them while kickboxing of course), I realized that exercise was truly empowering. I love feeling stronger and I love the release it gives me. So if you are feeling the winter doldrums, I'd highly suggest a little workout to give you a boost.

If you do exercise regularly, what do you do? I know our Jenn Echols is a runner. Ooh and if anyone has workout DVD recommendations, I'm all ears. I need to get that bikini body back again fast!

Monday, December 14, 2009

'Tis the season

Maybe it’s the nasty weather (for you, snow, perhaps; for Alabama, rain and fog), but I always get a lot of reading done this time of year, shopping and family gatherings notwithstanding. My family gatherings actually perpetuate the tradition of reading rather than talking to each other. We are not particularly social. We are a family of brainiacs. When we got together at Thanksgiving, the climax of the evening was bundling up and waddling outside to watch the space station streak across the sky.

So over the holidays, we will settle around the fireplace in the den and read according to our personal tastes. I have asked for lots of YA novels for Christmas, plus all the Jennifer Crusie novels I haven’t read (write faster, Jenny...I am running out). My brother has asked me to buy him those timeless holiday classics, The Battle for Leyte Gulf: The Incredible Story of World War II's Largest Naval Battle, and Clash of The Carriers: The True Story of the Marianas Turkey Shoot of World War II. Festive! My mom will be re-reading Diana Gabaldon, again. My dad will settle down for the latest issue of Plane & Pilot and a long winter’s nap. My husband will continue his recent and inexplicable Laura Ingalls Wilder addiction, and my son will read whatever I will pay him 50 cents to read.

What’s even more exciting, to me anyway, is that this is my writing season. For some reason I write more during the winter than any other time, and my stories are always about spring or summer or a sun-struck fall, often at the lake or the beach. I’m really looking forward to getting up at 4:30 a.m. every morning during vacation so I can write before the family gets up, and I am saying that with no hint of sarcasm whatsoever.

How about you? Do you read or write more at a certain time of year? It sure seems to me that my book sales go way up during the holiday season, but maybe that’s because everybody gets bookstore gift cards in their stockings. :)

Friday, December 11, 2009

To Kindle or Not to Kindle...

That's the question I'm asking myself. The other day I was on Amazon and I decided I wanted a Kindle. I thought it would be cool. So I told my husband that's what I'd like for Christmas.

But then as the days went by I thought to myself: "Really? Holding what amounts to another computer in my hands while I read? As if spending all day on a laptop isn't enough. As if my nighttime routine doesn't already include powering down a computer after checking my emails one last time. Do I really need another electronic gadget?"

The thing is, I love books. I love book covers and book jackets and dog earing pages. I love holding a book in my hands. I love going back to read phrases I enjoyed. Replace that with a "device"? No way.

So a few days later I told my husband that I decided I didn't want a Kindle.

But apparently I was too late, because the next day a box from Amazon arrived in the mail and it was addressed to him. And it was the exact same shape as a Kindle.

Now I'm wondering if he'll send it back or not. And I'm torn. It would be great for traveling because I usually take 3 or 4 books with me on vacation. Unfortunately my vacations also include beaches and water and sailboats. Do I really want to have to be careful with my "book" when I'm reading? Do I really need another thing that requires technical support when I'm having problems?

Not to mention the guilt factor. I love my local bookstore. But if I'm buying ebooks off of Amazon, I'll feel like I'm screwing them out of a sale. And we need local bookstores!

If you have a Kindle or ereader, what are your thoughts? If you don't, why not?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Random Thoughts from the Heart of the Blizzard

Nothing says winter like the worst snowstorm in 30 years. I’m sitting here in my freezing office wearing three layers of clothes topped off with a hooded sweatshirt--hood up, naturally. Just outside the window, more than 15 inches of snow are blowing around on 40 mph winds. It’s 2:00 in the afternoon, and I’ve spent about three hours shoveling snow. A half dozen of my young guineas have been sitting in a tree for two days because they’re afraid to land on the white stuff covering the ground. If they don't freeze to death, they'll have a great story to tell their chicks.

Blizzards in Iowa aren't anything new, but they aren't any fun, either. Here’s a short list of some things I’ve learned about blizzards:

1. Blizzards aren’t impressed about the plans you’ve made for the day—or the week.

2. Blizzards don’t care if your frustrated dogs use the deck and front porch as bathrooms.

3. They yawn when cabin fever drives your cats to shred every plant in the house.

4. Blizzards aren’t sympathetic when you fall on the front porch, the sidewalk, and on the path you just shoveled to the guinea cage.

5. After you’ve shoveled the front porch, the sidewalk, and the path to the guinea cage, blizzards find it amusing to refill them all with snow.

6. Blizzards laugh at knee-high boots, hooded coats, and insulated socks.

7. Blizzards are cold-hearted beasts!

But I have the last laugh because eventually blizzards end and spring comes. March is only three short months away!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Other careers that I've considered...

From the time I wrote my first book in first grade, I've always wanted to be a writer. However, over the years I've pondered and dabbled in other careers. So I thought it would be fun to share some of them.

1. ACTOR--Since I was five I also wanted to be a movie star. I took acting classes throughout my childhood. Even though I was shy,I enjoyed being up on the stage. I started out in college as a double major: Creative Writing and Theater. At the end of my sophomore year I decided to ditch the theater component and opt for saving money and graduating a semester early. My parents were very happy with this choice. I never made it to "Hollywood" but I've always dreamed of having a cameo in my own movie!

2. RADIO DJ--During college I worked as a DJ and really loved this experience. I did send out audition tapes after I graduated. I got a call from one station in Martha's Vineyard that was interested but told me flat out that I would need to get a second job because radio did not pay very well. I decided not to make the move because I made more money babysitting!

3. JOURNALIST--In college I got a job at a local town paper. I was given the really exciting assignments like zoning hearings, school board meetings and neighborhood feuds. It was a great experience but it was not easy sitting through those meetings.

4. MIDDLE SCHOOL ENGLISH TEACHER--I do come from a family of teachers so this is a career path that has always interested me. I enjoyed teaching kids how to be better readers and writers. The kids also kept me on my toes and provided me with a lot of great material. I ended up teaching for seven years but eventually left to concentrate on my writing and taking care of my kids.

5. COPYWRITER--After receiving my BFA in Creative Writing my first job was at the supermarket deli counter. Yup. That was in addition to the job I already had at the movie theater. I totally panicked that I would never find a job in my field and rushed off my application to graduate school. I was accepted and received an MA in Marketing Communications & Advertising. I worked as a copy writer for several years, mostly while in grad school. I learned so much about the business world but I really missed writing for myself and wasn't the biggest fan of the cubicle.

These are just some areas that I dabbled in and they all helped shape who I am today. I treasure each experience and really learned a lot along the way. In my next life I plan to be a rock star, geologist and a resort tester.