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.

 

Little lockdown victories

So, how’s everyone doing?

How’s your sourdough starter? Your new at-home exercise routine? How are all of your Zoom meetings going?

If your answers to the above are: 1. awful, 2. sourdough what now?, 3. nonexistent and 4. where do I look on the screen, who even is talking, do I need a fancy background AAAHHH THE PRESSURE, that’s OK too.

(For the record: Banana bread is more my speed, define “exercise,” and I find Zoom confusing. And New Jersey canceled in-person classes for the rest of the school year, which was not a shock but still upsetting, so I’d say we’re doing … eh.)

We’re trying to survive a pandemic. We don’t have to accomplish great things. We don’t even have to accomplish a sourdough starter. We just need to get through the next day, the next week, the next month, until we’re out the other side, whatever that looks like.

I managed to clean out my closet, after at least five years of meaning to do it, and I’m going to take that as my big (little) lockdown victory.

So, whatever you’re able to accomplish creatively is fine too. I’ve finished revising one manuscript (which I started revising pre-lockdown) and noodled around with another. Writing anything whatsoever makes me happy. If it makes you happy, too, go for it. Two words. Eighteen words. Three chapters. Whatever you’ve got. If the thought of being creative in any sense is a crushing weight hanging over you, don’t even try. Get through the day.

And if you’re in a relatively good space, meaning you have money and food and a peaceful home, maybe you can do something to help other people. Donate to a food bank, or your local hospital. Sew masks. Give blood. (I’ve done a few of these things, except sewing masks, because that would require sewing ability. I bought my mask off Etsy.) Support the Postal Service—write someone a letter. Support your local journalists and buy a newspaper.

And I’m going to echo the advice of the two nurses and a respiratory therapist I interviewed last week for an article: If you are able to stay home, if you can afford to stay home, keep staying home. You’re not just helping yourself. You’re helping them.  

However you’re coping is fine

So. How are you?

Staring at the walls? Stress baking? Getting work done while your kids grumble their way through online assignments and your cat attacks the back of your desk chair? (Okay, that one’s me.)

Whatever you’re doing is fine.

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Someone has been leaving rocks with sweet messages along our local walking path.

It’s okay to be upset. Especially if, like me, you already know someone who’s died from the coronavirus. I didn’t know him well—we worked together briefly—but I worked with his wife for years. Both wonderful people, by all accounts, and this is awful.

It’s okay to be completely non-productive and let the kids stare at screens a little more.

It’s okay to work in your pajamas. Or in a fancy dress. Or in a three-piece suit and slippers if that’s your thing.

It’s okay to write, or draw, or create in whatever way you want if you’re up for it. It’s also okay if you’re not up for it and you’d rather lie on the couch and watch “Star Trek.” (This week, I’ve done both.)

It’s okay to take walks. Please take walks. Wave hello to people from a distance.

It’s okay to acknowledge that these are scary times and we’re trying to get through them as best we can, without getting sick or making other people sick.

Stay safe, wash your hands, enjoy the sunshine even if it’s only through your kitchen window.

 

P.S. It’s not okay to get all your news through social media. Many newspapers are currently making their coronavirus coverage free to non-subscribers. If you think they’re doing a good job, please consider subscribing.

Yes, the jokes matter

Exercise class had just begun and some of the other students were joking about how this was the “slow” class, because we’re mostly newbies. Uh-oh, I thought, already seeing where this was going.

Sure enough, a few students made the “we’re the special class” joke, and then another one said it: “They’ll have to send the short bus.”

“My son used to ride that bus,” I said quietly. “Can you not make that joke?”

Someone muttered an apology. “Thanks,” I said, and let it drop.

I have no idea whether the other students respected my stance and felt at all bad about their “jokes,” or whether they waited for me to leave so they could complain about blah blah political correctness and you can’t say anything anymore and it was fine to make these jokes when we were kids and how come everybody’s so sensitive now?

Now, I don’t totally expect people of, let’s say certain generations to understand how the ground has shifted around them. Yep, it sure was okay to make those jokes when they were kids. I heard those jokes when I was a kid.

But it was never okay.

I’ll repeat: It was NEVER OKAY.

It’s just that people didn’t think the feelings of special needs kids mattered then. Or that special needs kids mattered, period.

My son is 12, and he knows he’s not like the other kids. They laugh at him. And if he ever heard an adult making those jokes, it would crush him.

He’s not required to “toughen up” so the people around him get to keep being jerks without consequence. The people around him need to not be jerks.

I say this as a kidlit writer, and as a parent. What we pass on to the next generation matters. That includes what we joke about, and how, and what that shows about whether we respect the other person.

If people are serious about wanting to change the mental health problem in our country, if they at all agree that we need to raise awareness, it’s not enough to say, “Well, I don’t make those jokes.” They also shouldn’t stand by while someone else makes those jokes.

If someone is saying something mean, or crude or obnoxious, about another person or group of people whose great offense is being different from them—if they’re punching down, as the saying goes—anyone listening has the power to stop it. Anyone listening. Because nothing changes unless we stand up for each other, and look out for each other.

You want to joke around? Great, me too! But get some different material. Plenty of other things to joke about.

So, we’ll see what happens at the next class. Maybe the others will just ignore me. But maybe speaking up changed something. You never know.

Any writing counts

So recently I’ve written about a grocery service that delivers your order in reusable containers, then picks up the empties afterward; a (possibly?) haunted house that was featured on a ghost-hunting TV show; a trio of artist friends who’ve been exhibiting their work together since the ’80s; a book club discussion about white nationalism; and a popular teen “Real Talk” program at a Massachusetts library. The day job offers much variety.

None of this has much of anything to do with my fiction work. That’s fine. I don’t expect the day job to overlap with my kidlit projects. And many writers, artists, and other creative types have a day job of some sort. Because there are bills.

So, is it breaking my “brand” if I write about all these different things? Will it confuse people if they see my articles and also hear me talking about my manuscripts? I don’t think so. Everything you write is part of who you are, so why hide any of it?

Writing about one topic, in one particular style, doesn’t stop you from writing about other things as well. Switching up what you write about keeps your mind sharper. And the storytelling techniques are about the same no matter what story you’re telling. The real difference with me? The articles are about real people, and me quoting what they say. The manuscripts are about people who live in my head.

Writing is writing. The more you do it, the better you get, whether it’s a magazine article, a blog post, a press release, or a manuscript. Just make sure you set aside time to focus on the type of writing you love the most.

 

We need each other’s stories

So what do you call it when you write a novel about a Jersey girl fighting anti-Semitism and then there’s a mass shooting at a kosher grocery store in New Jersey? Is that irony?

I don’t know what to call it, but every time I worry that I overdid it in the novel, real life tells me I didn’t.

I know anti-Semitism is an uncomfortable topic for some people. Being Jewish, period, is an uncomfortable topic for some people. I’ve watched eyes glaze over when I mention it, like it’s some sort of embarrassing thing not to be discussed publicly. I have a lifetime’s worth of people not knowing the first thing about any of my holidays but expecting me to know every little detail about Christmas.

Plus, you know, the pennies and the names that got thrown at me in elementary school when I was the only Jewish kid in class.

And the time in college when I attended a friend’s church service to hear him sing, and the layperson leading the service that day talked about how the Jews “know of the light, but they walk in darkness” because they haven’t accepted Jesus as their savior. (And after the service, she mistook me for my friend’s Catholic girlfriend and said, “Haven’t I seen you in church?” And it took all of me not to reply, “No, haven’t I seen you in synagogue?”)

And the time post-college when I turned a guy I knew down for a date, and later that night, as a group of us sat in a diner booth, he started telling Jew jokes. (I finally shut him up by saying I knew better Jew jokes than that, and then telling a few of them.)

People don’t want to talk about this stuff. They don’t want to talk about how anti-Semitism is just as bad as, and intertwined with, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and Islamophobia. But the uncomfortable stories are what we need to share with each other, if we’re going to understand each other. If we’re going to help each other. We don’t understand and respect each other’s differences if we’re not willing to listen.

So, I’ve told some of my stories. I’m here to hear yours.

And if you’re looking for ways to help the families of the victims in Jersey City, the Star-Ledger has the info here.

 

Remember it’s subjective

Here’s where the day job is at (AKA, the newspaper/magazine writing): I heard from one editor who’s happy with my work. Then I heard from another editor who doesn’t like my work and wants changes.

And *shrugs* that’s how it goes.

Different people are going to react differently to your work. Some will love it, some will hate it, some will go “meh.” When it’s an article, or some other type of work-for-hire, well, revisions are part of the deal (which is why I’m revising). When it’s your own work — say, your novel — you’ve got a bit more leeway in how you respond to those reactions.

But here’s the key: These opinions will vary by person. This is why literary agents usually have a line about “this industry is subjective” in their rejection letters. A manuscript that leaves them feeling “meh” might completely wow the next person to read it. You are the same person, and your work is the same work, no matter who’s reading it. You can’t control the other person’s reaction.

I’m not saying writers (or artists) need to toughen up, or grow a thicker skin, or whatever other figures of speech are floating around. But it is useful to take someone’s reaction, positive or negative, and evaluate it to see if there’s anything you can learn from it. If so, then go ahead and use that feedback. If not? You’re entitled to nod politely and move on.

Your opinion of your work, in other words, should exist a little apart from the opinions of others. And it should sustain you on the negative days.

Rejection evolution

When you get a rejection from an agent or editor, you should:

  1. Grumble loudly and stomp around the house
  2. Eat ice cream
  3. Announce to the world that you are never ever writing a single word again
  4. No, seriously, take a breath, it’s OK

(Please guess 4.)

Hey, 1. and 2. are fine. I’ve done both, sometimes at the same time. But the thing about rejections is, they really aren’t personal. They don’t mean you’re a bad writer. They do mean you should keep trying.

I deal with rejections at the day job as well as with my fiction. Not every article pitch gets accepted, even from editors who know and like my work. Maybe they just ran a similar article, or maybe the topic doesn’t wow them. It’s not personal, so I shrug and move on to the next thing.

But for a while, I had a harder time doing that with my fiction. Those stories feel like pieces of me in a way that something I write for a magazine or other publication doesn’t. So I stomped around the house, got epically frustrated, silently begged friends and family not to ask how my writing was going. And ate ice cream.

I finally had to ask myself why I was doing this. Was it helping me improve my writing or my chances? And how could I teach my kids about persevering and working to achieve their goals, if I weren’t willing to do the same?

So I changed my reaction. I quit taking it personally.

This week I got a rejection on a short story I’ve been sending around. I read the email, shrugged, and moved on with my day.

It’ll find a home somewhere, or it won’t. The point is to keep trying.