Little wins and big wins

I did the final proofread on a short story of mine that’s being published in an anthology. I lost a regular writing/editing gig, since the one remaining newspaper I freelanced for is shutting down. I sent out new queries to magazines on short stories and to agents on my novel, and got some encouraging rejection letters. It’s been an up-and-down couple of weeks.

But that’s the creative life, whether you’re writing for pay or writing for the love of it (ideally both?). Up, down, forward, back. Be happy at the good news, roll your eyes at the bad news, keep going.

Any success this past year is worth celebrating. Any ability to achieve anything close to normal is worth celebrating. Listen, I just got my first haircut in a year and a half. The little wins are big right now.

So I hope you’re achieving little and big wins, and you’re being as creative as you’re able to under the circumstances. And I hope you’re able to get vaccinated (I’m Team J&J, how about you?) so we can get past this thing once and for all. It’s getting warmer out, and I’d like to be someplace besides my back yard.

Congratulations on whatever wins you achieve this spring.

That future spring

Our second pandemic Seder went pretty well. We read the play I wrote telling the story of Moses (there are fights over who gets to be Moses, who gets to be Pharaoh; I never get any good parts in my own play anymore). The kids proved that they’re much better at finding Easter eggs than the Afikomen, repeatedly begging please one more hint while my husband and I shook our heads. And the cat proved he’s just as interested in swiping the bone off the Seder plate as he is in grabbing Santa’s cookies on Christmas Eve, making him an interfaith thief.

Outside, all the plants have gotten the invisible grow now signal and our irises are poking out of the ground. Inside, I trapped a ladybug and brought it out to the garden before the cat could try to eat it. Ladybug invasion season is generally in the fall, so either this lone intruder got its wires crossed or it did a great job of hiding in our house all winter.

And spring rolls on.

It’s nice to be able to mark the passage of time during the pandemic, when every day otherwise feels the same. It’s also frustrating, because we still can’t see our friends or families in person. We’re about Zoomed out. And every time I go to the supermarket, there’s another maskless shopper.

At some point we’ll get past this. In the meantime, I’m imagining a future spring: Passover and Easter with family, birthday parties with friends, stress-free shopping trips. Dressing up, going outside, leaving the masks at home. That’ll be good, right?

Happy Passover, Happy Easter, wear a mask, get vaccinated when you can. Here’s to next spring.

The lost year

What was the last thing you did?

A friend’s birthday party. She was born in the ’70s, so the party was ’70s-themed. We brought fondue. I wore bell bottoms. My husband dressed like Disco Stu. Another friend is a DJ, so they cleared the furniture out of one room of the house to be the “dance floor.” A bunch of us did the traditional lineup-dance to Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.”

I helped my daughter’s Girl Scout troop during a cookie booth sale. (Those things sell themselves. Cars were pulling up out of nowhere as people yelled delightedly, “There you are! I’ve been looking for someone selling cookies! I’ll take 12 boxes!” Half the time it’s women who used to be Girl Scouts.) We were set up at a Tractor Supply store, so we let the girls take turns walking over to look at the chicks and ducklings in the fenced-in pens.

Meantime, I kept reading the news. The virus was bad. It was getting closer. It was in the U.S. It was in New Jersey.

The schools shut down, we stayed home. We thought it was temporary. We’re still home.

Three people we know lost loved ones. My father-in-law died of cancer and we never held a memorial service, because we were under lockdown.

A friend of ours got the virus and was in bed for nine days straight — and that’s probably considered a “mild” case. At least once a week, we get an email alert that someone at our kids’ school has tested positive. But our kids are home, not around other kids, whom we see running around the neighborhood unmasked.

Things are looking more hopeful now, I think. More people are getting vaccinated. The statewide rate of transmission is ticking down again. Outdoor events (and outdoor dining) are becoming more doable. We might have something like an actual summer.

But it’s okay to be sad today. It’s okay to remember everything we lost. Birthday parties. Graduations. Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas. Vacations. Jobs. People.

I’m sorry for whatever you lost.

Here’s hoping for a better year ahead.

Common rules of editing

As part of my day job, I edit everything from novel manuscripts to news stories to healthcare content to nonprofit papers. Yes, I do like the variety. But there are some common rules that I rely on, no matter what type of work I’m editing. Here are a few:

  1. It’s not my byline. My name won’t be appearing on top of the article, on the cover page of the book, etc. This isn’t my work, I don’t own it. Ultimately, my job is to best serve the writer. My ego has no place in the process.
  2. Use the writer’s voice. Everyone, if they’ve been writing long enough, has a “stable” of words and phrases they use regularly. They tend to use commas in a certain way, or love to throw in the occasional em dash. Their sentences are long and flowing, short and powerful, or somewhere in between. If I tweak or rewrite something, I make sure to use words the writer would use, or structure the sentence the way they would. I keep it in the writer’s voice.
  3. Add compliments. Creative people are a neurotic, insecure bunch and everyone has imposter syndrome. (Including me.) The tendency when editing is to focus only on what needs fixing, but that can come off as too negative. If a joke works, a line of description is especially lyrical, or there’s really good information shared in a clear way, I make sure to note that. People deserve to feel good about their work.
  4. Stay open to suggestions. The writer’s suggested rewrite might be better than mine. And that’s fine by me.
  5. Be prepared to explain myself. At various publications, I’ve worked with writers who shrugged at whatever changes I wanted to make, saying “I trust you.” I’ve also worked with writers who challenged everything I marked on their articles. Sometimes my explanation satisfied them; sometimes they asked for a different change instead. But if I couldn’t justify the changes I wanted to make, did I have any right to make them? The writers were trying to have some say in the final version of their work. (See rule #1.)
  6. Look everything up. I work with the Associated Press Stylebook, the Chicago Manual of Style, and whatever individual house styles different publications use. That’s a lot of different style guides, some of which contradict each other. (Do I use serial commas this time? Are there spaces around the em dashes or not?) It’s not possible to keep all of that in my head, so I don’t try. Editors and copy editors are more likely to get into trouble when they think, “I know this,” and don’t check to make sure they’re right.
  7. I don’t represent all readers everywhere. I might not be the target market for the work. That doesn’t mean the work should be written to appeal to me personally. That means I need to keep in mind who the target readers are, and edit accordingly. And if that means I need to look up something I don’t know, well, looking things up is my job.

It all comes down to the Golden Rule of editing: Treat the writer the way you would want to be treated as a writer. And that rule has worked well for me.

The hatred in plain sight

It is so deeply frustrating.

After all the horror of last week, watching the unthinkable happen, scared for the future of this democracy, I still feel like people aren’t willing to name the truth when they see it.

This article is an example of how news outlets generally describe Qanon: “a conspiracy theory that Satan-worshipping pedophiles control the government.”

Here’s how they should describe it, per the Anti-Defamation League:

“Several aspects of QAnon lore mirror longstanding antisemitic tropes. The belief that a global “cabal” is involved in rituals of child sacrifice has its roots in the antisemitic trope of blood libel, the theory that Jews murder Christian children for ritualistic purposes. In addition, QAnon has a deep-seated hatred for George Soros, a name that has become synonymous with perceived Jewish meddling in global affairs. And QAnon’s ongoing obsession with a global elite of bankers also has deeply antisemitic undertones.”

So the word missing from the first description is “anti-Semitic.”

I’m assuming you’ve seen the photos of the man in the “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt at the Capitol insurrection. I’m not sharing them here.

When I started writing my novel about a girl fighting anti-Semitism—pennies thrown at her, a fake bomb threat to her synagogue—some of the earliest feedback from people was “are you sure you’re not exaggerating?” Even after the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh. Even though I based some incidents on my own childhood. (I didn’t include the names I was called in the novel. I’d sooner let them die than pass them on to a new generation.)

The interesting thing was when I started asking my family about *their* experiences with anti-Semitism. We’d never really talked about it. Here’s a sampling: a co-worker saying “d’Jew” all the time as a joke. Asking for time off to attend services and getting pushback. Being expected to work on Shabbos (Sabbath is on Saturday for Jews, remember). Prayers from the New Testament before school plays. Tests scheduled during the High Holidays. Jokes about money, jokes about being cheap. Being told “you don’t look Jewish!” like it’s a compliment. Losing friends when they found out you were Jewish. Comments about how “the Jews are taking over everything.” And the most unprovable part, the quiet exclusion: left out of gatherings, not invited to parties, not part of the social circle at work.

That’s just from my immediate family. Imagine how many other people have stories.

(Side note: There is no such thing as “looking Jewish.” There are Jewish communities all over the world, and we come in every single skin tone. And that doesn’t even factor in interfaith families or converts.)

You can draw a line between incidents like that, and the guy wearing the Auschwitz sweatshirt at the Capitol. The line is shorter than you think.

We can’t address these issues, we can’t fight ignorance and hatred unless we’re willing to be honest, with ourselves and each other, about what that hatred really is. And obviously, the same goes for all other types of hatred and bigotry.

Comments turned off for this post. If you agree, though, or you’d like to learn more, there are a lot of good resources at the ADL’s site. Read a book about someone different than you. Find a nonprofit that could use your help. Have those uncomfortable conversations with people who keep saying things that aren’t true, or making “jokes” that were never really jokes. You have more power than you think.

Thanks for reading.

What we’ve accomplished

President-elect Joe Biden has won the election for approximately the 473897328763287643th time, front-line workers are starting to get vaccinated, snowpocalypse is coming tomorrow. Already it’s quite the week.

For Hanukkah, we did a chilly outdoor get-together with my parents, chatting behind masks until the wind was too much. For Christmas, we’re doing nothing. My in-laws live too far away, outdoors isn’t an option, staying there isn’t safe. It would’ve been nice for the kids to see their grandmother since they lost their grandfather to cancer in April, but that would’ve required more people (not to mention our leaders) to follow virus restrictions this year, wear masks, care about other people instead of blah blah blah freedom, so here we are.

If I sound angry and frustrated, that’s because I am. Those “we’re all in this together” ads have never been true, not once.

Still, those of us who are still here have managed to survive the pandemic and the horrific political climate of the past few years, and that’s an accomplishment.

If you’ve managed to create anything during this year, that’s an accomplishment, too.

In between rounds of edits on my middle grade manuscript, I started writing short stories again. One was published in Daily Science Fiction. Another will be published in an anthology called “Strange Fire: Jewish Voices from the Pandemic,” out next year. A third is waiting in a submission queue (argh).

I haven’t found an agent yet for my kidlit work, but I’m ending the year with two middle grade manuscripts that are stronger than they were in January.

I worked with some wonderful author clients this year on their manuscripts, including one for the second time. My coaching client got another article posted. And I picked up some new freelance writing work.

What about you? Did you create something? Did you make a sourdough loaf? Did you keep your household going despite all odds? All successes. We’re still in the tunnel, but there’s a light at the end of it.

So whatever you celebrate, have a happy, safe, quiet holiday. If you need an editor in the coming year, please do reach out. And go easy on yourself. You’re surviving a pandemic. You’re doing fine.

On staying home

My first job out of college was on a newspaper copydesk. This means I worked nights, weekends, and holidays. I spent several years not seeing my family for Thanksgiving. Once a friend and I got together for a Cornish hen lunch before my shift started. A few years later, my in-laws-to-be arranged to eat super early so I could join them. Skipping holidays was just a thing you did, because you had to get the newspaper out.

Skipping holidays is also a thing you get used to when you’re Jewish. We don’t automatically get our holidays off. So I haven’t always seen my family for Passover, the High Holidays, Purim or Sukkot. When I was a kid, my district didn’t close for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, meaning my parents had to sign me out of school those days. Missing a day’s worth of schoolwork to spend a chunk of that day in synagogue is not the party time you think it is.

And I’ll be super honest here: I was never under the impression that Thanksgiving is this wonderful perfect family occasion for most people. I thought it was more “Home for the Holidays.” People eat too much, people argue, people ignore their visiting relatives because the football game is on and apparently more interesting (just me?). And hosting means the added stress of cleaning and cooking and remembering who likes to eat what, and how to entertain the kids while also preventing them from snarfing all the cheese and crackers. And if the guests are staying with you, then you’re also planning breakfasts and lunches, multiple days, and no matter how big your home is, it suddenly feels small.

So, because it’s safer, we’re staying home on Thanksgiving. We’ll miss our family, but we’re not having them over. And we’re … kinda happy about it.

The house will be messy. The kids will be watching the parade on TV in their pajamas. We’ll be eating hors d’oeuvres for lunch and the usual turkey, stuffing, etc., for dinner. All of the food, none of the stress.

I know people are already clogging the airports so they can travel for the holiday, and I have multiple unprintable thoughts about that. But for those of you who also read the news and see virus cases rising and are staying home, I’m letting you know you’re not alone and you’re allowed to enjoy the day. It’s going to be peaceful and quiet, and case numbers are probably going to skyrocket in a week so we should take all the peace and quiet we can get.

Because I was out getting groceries yesterday, and I saw one guy with his mask down around his chin, and another who pulled the mask off entirely to answer the phone.

Because a fellow parent, a few weeks ago, told me that his neighbor’s mother had died. When the parent walked over to offer condolences, the neighbor said, “The doctors said she died of covid, but I don’t believe them.”

This is where we are. This is why it’s going to get worse. You’re doing the right thing by staying home, and you’re keeping away from the people who won’t take proper safety precautions in the middle of a pandemic because they still think the pandemic is fake.

Keep calm, protect yourself, have some turkey. I’ve got a short story to revise; how about you? Can you use the time to be creative?

We don’t know what will happen next, but we can control how we spend our day. I hope it’s everything you want it to be. Happy Thanksgiving.

Do what you can

This morning, the kids had online orientation sessions with their teachers for the start of virtual school next week. I confirmed to the board of ed that my son would rather continue occupational therapy virtually than do it in-person at the school. And I’ll be taking him “school shopping” for clothes that his classmates will only see part of, onscreen.

And the weirdness continues.

There are no good solutions here, and there are no winners. In-person classes raise the risk of the virus. Remote classes don’t let kids socialize. Parents aren’t qualified teachers. Teachers and school staff shouldn’t have to risk their lives (or their families’ lives) for their jobs. Parents shouldn’t have to choose between their kids or their jobs. Families shouldn’t have to worry about loss of income because they don’t have child care. None of this is right.

But normal isn’t an option. We don’t get normal until we beat the virus.

If you walk around silently seething at the world under your mask, trust me, you’re not alone.

So we do what we can. We make school work, in whatever version of it we have. We get our work done, by whatever means necessary. We order out to support local restaurants and go shopping to support small businesses and we take walks on nature trails because we’re still not comfortable with fitness classes. And we write at midnight because that’s when the house is quiet.

(Okay, all of that was me.)

How do you stay creative during an endless crisis, or rolling series of overlapping crises? Cut yourself lots of breaks. You’re tired, take a nap. Your mind’s shut down, have ice cream and watch “Galaxy Quest.” Stuck on writing one thing? Write something else for a while.

I’ve spent a lot of this year revising my middle grade novel, to the point where I wasn’t ready to work on another novel. So in between rounds of revision, I started writing short stories again. They came out much better than I thought, and switching around loosened up my brain so that I was better able to focus on revising the novel. I like feeling productive, and that’s what keeps me going.

So much is wrong with this moment in our history. The way we get through it is by acknowledging that nothing is normal—shouting it from the rooftops if necessary—and by taking care of ourselves and each other.

Happy holiday weekend. Wear a mask, stand up for what’s right, keep writing. And however you’re voting this year, GET IT DONE.

Telling our stories

Apropos of nothing (ha!), I’ve been thinking about which stories get told, and which don’t.

I never learned about Juneteenth in school, or the “Black Wall Street” massacre in Tulsa. And I learned more about the civil rights movement from Rep. John Lewis’ “March” books than I ever got in school. All of that makes me angry. How can we have useful conversations about racism if we don’t all have the necessary knowledge?

But I already knew that the history we were learning wasn’t complete, because sometimes I learned something different in Hebrew school.

For instance: the Crusades. I learned in elementary school that the Crusades led to the expansion of trade routes throughout Europe, and about how that impacted European civilization. I raised my hand and, shaking with the effort, pointed out that the Crusades also led to the slaughter of many Jews and Muslims, which was what I’d learned in Hebrew school. The teacher said “Mmm-hmm,” or some other non-response, and after a short pause, went on with her lesson. And I sat there, still shaking, realizing that I’d challenged the teacher for nothing.

If we’re going to teach history, we have to teach all of it. We shouldn’t be leaving out the parts that make us uncomfortable, or that might make our “side” look bad. All of it.

Which is why it’s so important for people from all backgrounds, with different experiences and perspectives, to be able to tell their stories. That’s how we learn. That’s how change happens.

I’m telling my stories. I hope you’ll tell yours.

A dream worth having

This has been the longest March ever. Yes, I know. Ha ha. My joke was funnier in April and May. Now it’s July, and it’s harder to laugh.

How are you doing? How do you feel? Relieved school is out? (Same.) Tired of staying in the house, but nervous to leave it? (Yep, me too.) Excitedly looking forward to the library reopening so you can return the books you’ve had since February and finally get some new ones? (That might only be me.)

Fortunately mask-wearing is fairly consistent where I live, except the guy behind my husband at Lowe’s who didn’t think he needed a mask in the “outdoor part.” When told yes, he did, he snapped, “Whatever,” and pulled out a mask. Hey, at least he had one.

These are horrendous times to try to be creative. These are horrendous times to try to do anything. But we have to eat, and we have to live, and we have to keep dreaming our dreams. So we’ll figure it out.

We also have to keep trying to change things.

I freely admit I’m not the perfect Jew. But there’s a Jewish concept I agree with: Tikkun Olam, or repairing what’s broken in the world. To me, that means we’re here to help each other. It also means making sure everyone is free to live their lives as they choose, without fearing for their lives because of who they are.

Black Lives Matter. Trans Lives Matter. It’s been heartbreaking to realize, these past few months, how much work needs to be done. But let’s do the work.

For what it’s worth, the BLM protests don’t seem to be causing an increase in coronavirus infections. My own experience: I attended two protests in two weeks, then got tested to be sure. I’m fine. Everyone at both events was wearing masks.

Wear a mask. Read and promote diverse books. Figure out how best to support your friends, your family, your community. It’s why we’re here.

At some point, we’re going to come out the other side of this pandemic. We can make sure the world we step into is a better one. That’s a dream worth having.