Loving the time of Cholera

Screen shot from original Oregon Trail gameWhen I was in fifth grade, my social studies teacher Mr. Sindall organized our class into an amazing race. He grouped us into wagon teams and told us we were Pioneers on a simulated journey out West in the year 1848. The game presented us with challenges and we made tough decisions about life on the Trail. In real life, it was 1982, and we didn’t have computers in my school. I didn’t know then that our project was based on the now iconic Oregon Trail game, the first and most successful educational software for children of all time (read a great story about how it was developed here).

Mr. Sindall fostered an appreciation in me for all things Pioneer, which was further fueled by my love for the Little House series and the idea of living in a log cabin, scrounging for bent nails as Pa fixed the roof, churning butter, hearing the sound of coyotes howling at night. The draw of the wilderness was so strong that I even begged my parents to take me camping. They, immigrants from Pakistan, didn’t understand. Why would we leave our house and go sleep in a tent, when Howard Johnsons existed? That wasn’t fun, they assured me. It was lunacy. 

Over the years, I thought of Pioneer life, like every time I filled my sugar bowl and remembered how much of a luxury something so simple was for Laura Ingalls and her family. Or when I considered how to ford a river from the days of the game. So I was recently thrilled to be invited to write a series of choose-your-own adventure stories based on the original Oregon Trail computer game. Suddenly, I was back in fifth grade, but even better, because I got to pick the challenges this time, and I got to understand Pioneer life at a whole new level.

The assignment had a tight turnaround and was at times grueling. But every time I started to complain, I read accounts of Pioneers burying their children, resorting to cannibalism in the case of the Donner Party, succumbing to Cholera, Dysentery and all sorts of treatable diseases, and suffering horrific accidents—drowning, accidental gunfire, getting crushed by the wheels of a wagon. It was unbelievable. At the same time, there was this amazing sense of wonder and adventure, of braving the elements and the unknown that was awe-inspiring. I often asked myself, how they survived and if I would have had the strength or willpower to pull off a journey like that in a non-simulated experience.

I imagined filling a twenty-foot wagon with enough food and basic supplies to survive a four to six month journey during which I would travel fifteen miles a day. I wouldn’t be riding in the wagon, which was pulled by a team of oxen, but walking since there was no room to sit inside. I’d have nothing personal but the clothes I was wearing and maybe a book if I was lucky. When the morning bugle sounded, I’d scarf down a ration of bacon and beans and panbread, do my chores, and head off, walking past the hurried graves of fallen Pioneers, ignoring the stench of the animals and people around me and the blisters on my feet. I’d walk every single day, through rain or shine, heat or snow, wearing down the ground as the wagon wheels carved deep grooves that can still be seen today. For fun, I’d scratch my name into major landmarks, like Chimney Rock or Devil's Gate.

Could I do it? No way. I whine when I haven’t eaten for three hours. I get a headache from being in the sun for more than an hour and have seasonal allergies. And they didn’t have GPS back then so I’d likely end up going in circles. I’ve accepted that I’m weak and wimpy. The desire to go camping? It’s gone, replaced by my inherited love for climate control. But I do want to get out to Nebraska and Wyoming by airplane and see some of the Trail sites--wagon ruts, gravestones, and rock formations. And then I’ll go back to my air-conditioned hotel, eat something delicious, look at my pictures and read. Some of us were destined to live out wild adventures. Others were meant to write about them.

What do April showers bring?

My garden? I wish! Tulips at Brookside Gardens in Silver Spring, MDSpring has finally arrived after one of the most grueling winters I can remember, and with that comes the desire to abandon my laptop, feel the sun on my face and get some garden dirt under my fingernails. I’ve always fancied having a green thumb. The problem is that my thumb, like the rest of me, is brown. The desire to cultivate a gorgeous garden is fueled by the fact that my neighbors all have them. Some of them are professionally maintained, but several are meticulously cared for by people who not only have an eye for what looks appealing but also the ability to keep things alive.

I, on the other hand, struggle to keep up with the Johnsons and the Kucklemans. When I moved into the neighborhood from a no-maintenance townhouse, I followed their lead, getting a hand seeder and bags of turf builder . I even bought a wheelbarrow to haul mulch and leaves like they did and felt really great about myself. And then, after the weeds slowly choked out all of our grass over several seasons, a lawn service was called in to fix my mess. 

Next, I planted a variety of bushes and perennial flowering plants to fill the beds in front of the house. It looked pretty for a very short period of time, until the plants grew out of control or died and a professional landscaper was called in to . . . fix my mess again.

Since last year, I’ve come to term with my limitations and I now stick to potted plants. I’ve spread a bunch of planters on my deck and around the entrance, which I fill with bright annuals. So what do April showers bring? May flowers, of course. But let’s see if they can make it to July. I’ve learned which ones are the hardiest varieties that thrive with neglect. Because once the heat, humidity and mosquitos kick in, my laptop wins over the great outdoors, and those suckers are on their own.

Getting around the writer's block

During school visits, I’m often asked about “writer’s block” and how I overcome it. I generally talk about how I take a break, read something else, or just push through. And that’s true, for the most part. When I was as young as these kids, I imagined writer’s block to involve anguished moments of staring at a blank page. I’d be unable to pull words out of my brain, frozen like a stubborn hourglass on my outdated laptop. But now that I write for a living, I realize that’s not quite how writer’s block manifests in me.

There are many times where I’m unmotivated or uninspired to work as I stare at my computer screen. And then my fingers sneak away from the keyboard to the mouse, where I click on social media, shopping sites or my inbox. Sometimes, like I tell the kids, I do manage to push through, telling myself to put something on the page that I can edit later. On rare occasions I have a burst of creative energy and the words flow out easily. I recognize those moments because I am literally pounding on the keyboard and the sound distracts me enough to pause and be pleased with my progress. And then somehow I end up back on Facebook before my inner voice scolds me to return to what I was doing. Yes, I inevitably end up wasting a lot of time when I’m “writing.” But that isn’t actual writer’s block. It’s just the way I work.

For me, writer’s block is self-doubt—those moments of despair where I question what I’m doing altogether and am “literally” paralyzed. This can strike at any moment, although there are of course the obvious triggers: rejection letters, the black hole of non-response from agents or editors, and at times, even other writers’ new books and the ugly, envious feeling of “why not me?” The hardest moments are when I read what I’m working on with a self-hating lens. Suddenly, the exciting project I’ve been devoted to for days or months seems futile. “This is horrible!” my inner voice moans. “Will anyone want to read this? Will anyone publish it? Am I just wasting my time?”

So what do I do in these instances? I wish I was the kind of person who could read an inspirational quote or do yoga to get out of my funk. But more often than not (okay, pretty much always) I owe it entirely to someone else. A friend who reminds me how lucky I am to do what I love. My critique partner, who commiserates and shares a personal low moment. Or a stranger who reaches out to tell me she loved my books for no reason other than kindness.

I recently received one such beautiful note from an educator in Iowa named Jane. At the time I was deep into a full-blown pity party that might have included the phrase “this is pointless.” It shamed me and thrilled me at once to read her letter, including how much she appreciated Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns, how she shared it with others, and how she was even thinking of framing pages from it for her home. And she closed with an encouraging, “please continue to write more books!”

Jane’s message served as the giant reboot I needed. It snapped me out of my ungrateful mood and reminded me that there is an audience out there welcoming and appreciating what I am doing. I turned back to my screen reenergized and recommitted to my writing, and hopeful for more people out there like her. Because even though this industry can be filled with rejection, and at times lonely, confusing and bleak, you all make it completely worth it. Thanks for being the remedy I need.


Writing your cake and eating it too

My birthday book cake, at the Night of the Moon launch party in 2008It’s always inspiring to hear accomplished writers speak about their experiences. This past Sunday I listened to Candace Fleming, while accepting a nonfiction award from the Children’s Book Guild of Washington, DC, share charming anecdotes and tips about her writing. One thing she said especially stood out to me, as someone who derives much satisfaction from baking and having other people enjoy the things I make. Candace described a time when a student at a workshop told her that she preferred to write non-fiction over fiction because non-fiction was “easier.” Disagreeing with the student’s assessment, she likened the process of writing to baking a delicious cake. 

Fiction, she said involved making this cake using whatever ingredients your heart desires, based on a recipe you choose: chocolate chips, coconut, nuts, and so on. On the other hand, she said non-fiction writing was sending someone else to the store, who returns with an assortment of odd ingredients: liver, boiled peanuts, and cabbage, and then trying to make a cake that anyone wants to eat out of them.

I’ve watched countless episodes of Chopped, the Food Network show where aspiring chefs open baskets of mystery ingredients to dramatic music. They inevitably concoct desserts that look pretty palatable out of unusual ingredients like garam masala, cucumbers and basil. But they also get to add whatever they draw from the pantry to mask, dilute or intensify the flavors. As much as I enjoy the show, I’ve always considered the judging of it to be unfairly arbitrary—some chefs get chopped for not using enough of one ingredient, others for too much, some are told they don’t reinvent them, others lost standing because they aren’t true to form. There is no one formula or path to success.

It seems to be the same with writing. All writers, whether they are working with the ingredients they selected or have been given, use the pantries of their imaginations to transform, enhance and elevate their stories. Their struggle, much like the chefs on Chopped, is to create something they find delicious versus guessing what the judges out there want to taste. As I continue to send stories to the chopping blocks of the literary world, I’m hoping to get the balance right. My goal is to write something so irresistible you can’t put it down until it’s done. Anyone out there have the secret ingredient?

A writer's retreat

My son sets up our spot at Navio beach. Could you work here?

I’ve always loved the thought of writing on the beach. I’d sit under an umbrella, listen to the soothing sound of waves, and feel inspired to create. So when an extended weekend beach getaway approached while I was in the middle of a writing groove I thought I’d test my idea.

I packed my laptop, backed up my files on a flash drive, and made sure I had my outline. And then my family arrived at the island of Vieques, off the coast of Puerto Rico. Excited to see the pristine beaches I’d heard about after we checked into our charming hotel, I helped load the back of our Jeep with chairs, a cooler and towels. There was plenty of room left for my laptop, but I didn’t give my computer a second thought.

The beaches in Vieques were everything I had hoped for and more—it took a bit of effort to get to them by dirt road, but once we did, they were perfection. For the next two days we relished in the powdery white sand, soaked in the warm crystal clear waters with fish circling us, and watched the intense turquoise sea blend with royal blue sky on the horizon. Best of all, we were often alone. It was quiet and there were no distractions other than a crab running across the sand or the beautiful shells my son collected. I could have pounded out a chapter or two. But my laptop stayed safely stowed in our cozy hotel room, untouched.

The laptop came home with a tanner and slightly wiser version of me, as I learned a few things I probably should have already known. First, sand and laptops don’t really mix—a detail I hadn’t really thought through before. Second and equally obvious, relaxing and unplugging are not only good for the soul and for the family but reenergize and get creative juices flowing. Finally, if I’m picking a writer’s retreat location in the future, it’s got to be somewhere where it is really cold outside, preferably with a fireplace. Unless someone has some beach front property they are looking to give away—then I’d learn to get used to it.  

Caracas beach at sunset

What would you do?

My fifth grader recently needed to pick a quote that spoke to him for a school project. Searching for Martin Luther King, Jr., he selected a passage from his speeches that dealt with big issues like ignorance. I realized that, ironically, he didn’t quite understand what ignorance was, and urged him to choose something that really meant something to him. So he ended up finding a line from The Lorax about caring. His project made me think about quotes that resonate with me. I often see thought-provoking passages on Facebook statuses, in signatures, and in articles—beautiful words by the likes of Dr. Seuss, Lennon, Mandela, Rumi and Mother Theresa that serve to inspire, elevate, or ground us. But the one that kept coming to mind is a simple anonymous saying written on a pewter paperweight that my friend Shazia gave me years ago. It was a gift of encouragement as I prepared to go back to work for a research organization after consulting from home and raising my kids for five years. The paperweight says, “what would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” I’ve never told Shazia that I often stared at that paperweight on my desk for the next five years at my office, at times thrilled with my decision to be there, and at other times hungry for something more creative. And I still look at it today, now sitting on the desk of my home office while I finally attempt to do exactly what I would if I knew I could not fail: writing for myself and trying to make a living doing what I love most. I’ve been blessed by the support and encouragement of my loved ones to take the risk, whether they realize it or not. Thanks, Shaz!