Lessons Learned

November is very much a Tale of Two Cities month for me… “It is the best of times and it is the worst of times.” Growing up, November was an awesome month. I was back in school, classes were past the “Hello, my name is…” stage and we were starting to get down to the nuts and bolts of learning. I could read and write as much as I wanted and call it homework. Then came Thanksgiving and the Macy’s parade, putting up the tree, and starting rehearsals for the yearly holiday pageant.

As an adult, I still get the squee factor of the start of the holiday season. Heck, I have carols on my iPod all year round and am just as likely to start belting out Adeste Fideles in the halls in July, let alone November and December. Even after six years working retail in a video game store in the most crowded mall in Sacramento did not dampen my love of the holidays. Carols are some of my favorite songs (except for two that I positively abhor with a passion you can only dream of and will turn the station in a heartbeat. Both were written by Beatles…’nuff said), and I generally get that swell of emotion so big inside when I sing or hear them that I get misty. That’s how special holiday music is to me.

December is a time when people actually try to be nice to each other, when even the grumpiest might crack a smile, when positivity is in the top fifty percent of most people’s attitudes, and not in the bottom ten. For a positivity person, it’s a truly energizing time of the year. I look forward to it from the day it ends this year to the day it starts next year. But November…well November isn’t the easiest thing in the world. And this year I forgot that.

I started NaNoWriMo feeling whelmed, and then overwhelmed. I finished November with around 26,000 words on the novella more or less. Oh, between work and home, I know I cracked 50,000 words…technically, I could upload the 26,000 of Spirit of the Cat, and 24,000 of the words I wrote at work and get my certificate, but it wouldn’t mean the same thing since half of it wasn’t technically a ‘novel’. Even so, I don’t consider it a failure. I am 26,000 words closer to completing my novella than I was on Halloween. And 26,000 words is nothing to sneeze at.

But why didn’t I make it? Well, halfway through the month you were patient enough to let me work out part of the why. But as usual, my head missed the point completely. My head ignored what was coming up in the hustle and the bustle of the race to 50,000, many projects slipping deadlines at work, and editing the book. But the rest of me knew. I felt down most of the month, and staved it off by smiling until I felt good, and looking at the bright side of life, and all the stuff I usually do to combat the humdrums that annoy uncheerful people to no end. Life’s too short to grump it away and complain and ruin someone else’s day as well as your own. But still.

You see, November is hard because mom was born on November 19, 1924 and she passed away on November 10, 1992. Yes it was a long time ago. But it still hits. Every. Single. Year. So rather than get all down in the dumps, let me share with you how mom influenced my writing and the ‘me’ that I am today. Some of it I’ve already shared with you… not the least of which is that a writer needs to have a day job, so make sure you can hold one down and still have the discipline to keep writing in addition to everything else you have to do.

I have to preface this by saying that mom and dad weren’t exactly what you’d call the best of friends. As a result, mom and I shared a room and a bed until I was eight, at which point I got my own bedroom. That tiny bedroom sat between mom’s room and dad’s room. You get the picture. But in the beginning, mom hit the sack early with me, firstly since 5:00 comes very early in the morning, and secondly, to keep me from staying up reading under the covers.

She was my first storyteller. She didn’t read to me. I was expected to read for myself and give reports on what I’d read after lights out. After my report, she would make up the sequel to whatever I’d finished reading and tell that story to me over the course of a week or so. My favorite was ‘Wilbur and the Spiderlings’, mom’s sequel to Charlotte’s Web, with all the adventures of Wilbur and Joy and the rest of Charlotte’s children.

She was also a pretty strict teacher for an accountant. If I wasn’t sleepy by the time she finished that night’s installment, I would find myself listing all the states in alphabetical order along with their capitols (and if I missed one, I had to go back to the beginning), or reciting the multiplication tables (nines were my favorite until Schoolhouse Rock, where I fell in love with Figure Eight and Three is a Magic Number). She taught me a lot about writing. I always wondered whether she had wanted to be an author.

My first piece of writing advice from mom involved presentation. The Honolulu Advertiser ran an essay contest for students:  “Why Hawaii Isn’t Big Enough For Litter”. Mr. Tolefson mentioned it in the beginning of fifth grade and, being that I liked him a lot, I decided I would enter. I told mom what I wanted to do, and she suggested being different to catch the judges’ eyes. Write the essay as a story. Figure out who would get hurt by litter and tell the story that way.

I went away and thought about it, and then wrote my entry (and even then I made sure to do three copies, just in case). I wrote it from the point of view of an awapuhi, a ginger plant (I don’t think it’s the same plant that ginger root comes from, but it smells nice). The awapuhi lives on the Pali Highway gets smacked upside the head by an empty can of Primo and bombarded 24/7 by people chucking this and that out the windows of their cars. I finished the story, walked to the post office, and mailed it, and promptly forgot all about it until the official letter came some weeks later saying I’d won first prize in the Grade Four to Six Division (a ten speed bike…squee!) and could I please come to the ceremony at the State Capitol with my parents and my teacher?

I was dancing around my bedroom (by that time it was my own room) when mom poked her head in to ask who the letter was from. I told her I won…well it was more like “I won I won I won!!! I won a bike!!! My story won!!!” At which point she said I had never shown her my entry, and could she see it. I forgot I had mailed it myself, and pulled the other two copies out of my drawer to show her my story.

Rather than the ‘congratulations’, I had been expecting, mom looked up and asked if what I had mailed looked like what she held in her hand. I told her it did, and promptly got a scolding. My story was handwritten in pencil, in the cursive that had not quite gained the elegance of Arthur Conan-Doyle’s penmanship (okay, let’s be honest, my cursive stank to high heaven at that point…chicken scratch is too kind a phrase). It was on plain old three ring binder paper, smudged and wrinkled. Although in my golden memory it was perfect, I’m sure that spelling errors had also insinuated their way into the narrative.

‘How could you do that?’ She asked. ‘Never ever ever turn in writing until it’s the best you can make it.’ She explained how lucky I was that they had read it at all, considering what it looked like. She asked why I hadn’t typed it (…even though I used two fingers, I knew my way around the manual typewriter). To be honest, I hadn’t even thought about it. I was so into telling my story that I didn’t think about the other part of the relationship…the reader. And while mom did say that the story must have been good or the judges probably would have put it down straight away, it was still a shock that she was telling me off until I went away and thought about it from the judges’ point of view.

That sobered me up…I thought about how many kids across the islands had probably entered (there were also Grades 7 to 8, and High School Divisions), and how much work the people at the Advertiser had to do to read all those entries in addition to their other work. I had made it harder for them to do their job. I felt awful, but also a sense of wonder that they had liked my story enough to keep reading even in the horrible package it came in. It was my very first lesson in ‘make damn sure to give the reader your all…they don’t have to read what you write…they could have a million better things to do’.

The second lesson was one I didn’t understand until much later. As most mothers and daughters, we weren’t great friends from about seventh grade until I left home, so by that time, mom’s lessons fell on my ears as complete unfairness and attempts to keep me from doing what I wanted to do. I remember when I started writing in earnest, her constantly telling me to get my head out of the clouds, and saying ‘you can’t just write Star Wars…’ In my mind, I thought ‘well it worked for George Lucas…what do you mean you can’t just write Star Wars?’ and went on my merry way with pale imitations of other people’s stories.

It took forever to realize that what she actually meant was that I have to have that day job to be able to write…and I have to build my own worlds and tell my own tales. I have to read diversely and study copiously to have a foundation to build from. What mom was trying to tell me, though I didn’t understand at the time, was ‘Don’t try to be the next George Lucas…be the first Dover Whitecliff.’ It took meeting the Treehouse Authors to finally be able to put mom’s thought into words and have the confidence to do something about them.

Both of those lessons made me a better writer, and a better person. I wasn’t home when mom passed. But we were friends before she left. And every Thanksgiving, I pull out the handwritten instructions she sent me on how to cook my first turkey, down to the ‘it’s okay to use your hands to mix the stuffing as long as your wash them first’ and read them, and wonder, if NaNoWriMo had been around back then, would she have entered with me? Because deep down, I know that it was from mom that I got the stories inside fighting to get out.

Miss you, mom. Know you’re having a grand old time up there somewhere… just wanted to let you know I finally got it…

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Categories: Editing, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Lessons Learned

  1. This is a nice story for the season, when we miss those we love the most.

  2. Your Mum sounds amazing. I’m not surprised you still miss her a lot.

    • Thank you, Sir. She really was. My only regret is those lost years when we were at it cats and dogs. I panic to this day to think how I would have felt if we hadn’t become friends again. Hope you have a great holiday season, Ducks! Happy Christmas!

  3. One of the hardest things we can see and accept as youth is the wisdom that our parents are attempting to give to us… and sometimes we think it came out harsh or that they didn’t care. I am glad that your mum passed on her wisdom in her own way and guided you in becoming you.

  4. Vladamir

    Vlad say is good things to say.

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