April 9, 2013

book three: freefall to fly (and giveaway!)

Book three in my "Year of Reading" challenge brought new delight to my reading adventures: the chance to read a book written by a friend! Rebekah Lyons shared her own writing journey with me as we sat together in Bryant Park last September, on my first-ever visit to New York City. As we looked out over the lush green lawns of the park, skyscrapers towering on each side, I was charmed by the landscape that I had dreamt of for so many years from movies, books and photographs. And I was charmed, too, by my kind, attentive friend, more of an acquaintance back then, who spoke openly about writing this first book and her experiences living in NYC. I knew right then that I could not wait to read this book!
I was honored with the chance to read a pre-release version of Freefall to Fly a couple of months ago, and Rebekah's story and words have lingered in my heart and mind since. Her book tells the story of her life- her recent move from Atlanta to NYC, her journey into womanhood and motherhood, her experiences battling anxiety and depression, and most of all, her quest for meaning and purpose. Her learnings continue to speak into many small moments in my daily life, whisper-reminders of value and purpose and meaning. I read the book in just two sittings - it captivated and engaged me deeply. Rebekah's writing is lyrical and poetic, yet achingly honest and raw. As she shares the story of her own quest for meaning, she contrasts a world of ideals and dreams with the real daily lives many people lead. She shares the painful journey she followed in order to challenge those contrasts, to find a way to 'have it all' in the most true sense, by living more honestly. She speaks openly  of the difficulties of motherhood. She speaks vulnerably about the pain of mental illness, both in each of us and in those we love. She shares the tumultuous inner path of discovery that led her to question everything about her life and specifically, her faith. She asks brave questions and seeks real, lasting answers. As I finished reading this book, I felt comforted, inspired, and most of all, not alone
In my own life's journey, the concept of spiritual faith and my personal beliefs have been muddied heavily through abuse and hypocrisy. With each passing year, I am given new gifts of clarity and purpose which are fueled and nurtured by my faith. But I still feel fragile, and I am not often likely to pick up books about faith, for fear that I will encounter more of those same things that have hurt me so deeply in the past. What I loved about Freefall to Fly is that Rebekah speaks as a real, down-to-earth human first and foremost. In her journey, she finds comfort, meaning, and purpose in her faith, but she shares the moments of ultimate contrast, too, when she was terrified, lost, and uncertain of how to continue at all. My own faith has been strengthened and inspired by her journey. Whether or not a reader shares Rebekah's faith, they will share Rebekah's fears, hopes, dreams and challenges, as they resonate with the vulnerability in her words. 
In addition to the amazingly gorgeous chalk art cover by the incredible Dana Tanamachi and absolutely beautiful page design within, I loved Rebekah's use of musical terms to punctuate her story: prelude, interlude, and postlude. And here is one of my favorite passages, from the chapter called "Park Avenue Meltdown":
I was reminded by a dear friend, 'If you are in hell, keep walking.' Because somewhere along the way, if you stay in the place where your heart breaks and you put one foot in front of the other, the darkness will eventually lift. The crack of light will burst forth on the horizon, far, far away. It will be the slightest breath of hope... You won't know what that light will yield, but the mere fact that it is light will be enough. 
It will keep you going.   
Freefall to Fly officially releases today, and you can learn more about Rebekah and her book here! With each copy of the book, you will receive some extra bonus gifts, too, including an original art print download by Dana Tanamachi, $5 TOMS gift card, and Freefall to Fly digital soundtrack (which includes music by my amazing husband, Ryan O'Neal of Sleeping At Last!). Also, Rebekah is offering a free sample download of the first chapter to anyone who subscribes to her blog here!

In honor of the book's release, I am delighted to be hosting my very first giveaway here on my blog!! For a chance to win your very own autographed copy of Freefall to Fly, please post a comment below, sharing why you are excited to read it! The giveaway will be open until Monday, April 22nd, and I will post the winner's name here on Tuesday, April 23rd! The winner will have three days to reply by email with their address, otherwise another winner will be chosen. Excited to hear your thoughts about this book and SO excited to choose a lucky winner soon! 

April 5, 2013

book two: how to breathe underwater

So far, 2013 has been a great year for my goal-setting and achieving. I will post soon about some of those goals in more detail, but for now, I am eager to get back to sharing some books with you!! I am happy to report that although it may not seem like it here on the blog, since I have been absent awhile, I am still making good strides in my "Year of Reading" Challenge! I am not quite caught up to my average two books per month goal, but I am pretty close and determined to keep working to catch up...

One of my different guidelines this year from previous years is to remove rules that might limit my reading enjoyment. And the second book I read this year is an example of that. As I mentioned in my post about The Great Gatsby, I find that I really avoid re-reading books, and especially works of fiction. Somehow, reading a book a second time feels like a potential "waste" of my time, since I could be reading something new in that time, instead. But I have heard it recommended SO often by other readers and writers that it is really important to embrace re-reading. So much can be gained from a second reading, just like watching a movie for a second or third or millionth time (as I may have been known to do over the past ten plus years, perhaps embarrassingly, with "You've Got Mail"). You might catch new details, or understand the way the writer weaves their story with new insight, now that you know where they're going in the end. So I embraced re-reading with Gatsby, and now a second time with Book Two of my Reading Challenge.

I first read How to Breathe Underwater, a collection of short stories by the incredible Julie Orringer, at least ten years ago. The collection was hand-picked for me by my friend Katie, also a writer, who was kind enough to share her own passion for reading with me by curating a personal selection of reading suggestions. I had not read many short story collections before this one, save the stories and excerpts assigned for class readings in my college literature courses. I was skeptical about embracing this foreign form, having fallen so hard for the indulgences gained in reading lengthy novels. But I was captivated by Ms. Orringer's writing from the very first story in the collection.

Re-reading this collection of stories did NOT disappoint. And to say it much better (though not more eloquently), these stories absolutely blew my mind. I am so much further along my own writing path now, and I read with so much closer attention now, I think. I relish examples of structure, specificity, details and imagery, collecting them in my head or through the furious underlining work of my pen as I read. What I loved about this collection before only multiplied a hundred-fold in this second reading, through the new writing filters I have developed over the past ten years. Orringer's characters are so vivid and specific, and the worlds she creates for them are at once both extremely complex and disarmingly simple. The stories in this collection are united by themes of youth and her characters' struggle to come to terms both with themselves and with the world around them. She contrasts light and dark so beautifully, as the innocence and youth of her characters are presented against deep, dark shades of their haunting and often disturbing circumstances. And I am crazy over her story titles - I need lots of help with that in my own work! These nine stories are richly diverse and demonstrate a fascinating, captivating range of characters, setting and plot, and even form. Yet her writing feels so very cohesive, so unmistakably her, and this is just about the highest thing I could hope for in my own writing ambitions.

If I have to pick favorites, my most-loved stories in this collection are "The Smoothest Way  Is Full of Stones," "Note to Sixth-Grade Self," "The Isabel Fish," and "Stations of the Cross." Here is one of my favorite passages from "The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones," to give you just a taste of Ms. Orringer's gorgeous prose:

"Real bees weave above me through the grass, their bodies so velvety I want to touch them. For what feels like the first time all summer, I am alone. I rub the pebble with my thumb, imagining it to be a magic stone that will make me smaller and smaller in the tall grass. I shrink to the size of a garter snake, a leaf, a speck of dust, until I am almost invisible. There is a presence gathering around me, an iridescent light I can see through my laced eyelashes. I lie still against the earth, faint with dread, and I feel the planet spinning through space, its dizzying momentum, its unstoppable speed. It is God who makes the shadows dissolve around me. He sharpens the scent of the clover. He pushes the bees past my ears, directs the sun onto my back until my skin burns through the cotton of my Shabbos dress. I want to know what He wants and do what He wants, and I let my mind fall blank, waiting to be told."
If you are an aspiring writer, and especially interested in the craft of short stories, I highly recommend that you check out this wonderful collection!! How are you doing in your reading practice for this year? Let me know if you have any great new recommendations for me!

Order your own copy of How to Breathe Underwater here!!

(Eeek - having trouble uploading my photos like usual today! Sorry for the not-as-personal photo... will try to figure that out for the next post...)

January 31, 2013

a submission

One of the important mantras I have embraced over the past year is the quote "begin anywhere." These words helped me to start sharing my writing through my blog last year, and often come to mind as I sit down to write, no matter what I am working on. They seem most effective when I am willing to hear them over and over again. The minute I have practiced beginning one thing and then followed it through to the end, it is time to begin again, somewhere new (anywhere!). I am a self-motivated person, but I also thrive on patterns and rituals. If the patterns are thrown off when my schedule grows busy or unusual, I can become seriously lost. I am so grateful for these words, always there to remind me to start again toward my goals, to begin even when I am not sure where or how. 

Every goal on my list this year will require me to begin somewhere, and I need these words to help me keep moving forward, to help that somewhere become anywhere at all, just to get me going. Over the past three weeks, I have seen this advice take shape more clearly, more succinctly, than ever before. When I look back on the past year, I see rapid growth in my passion for writing and my willingness to take risks in order to pursue this passion. I have grown braver in sharing my writing, and I have become more confident in considering myself to be a writer. I feel proud and motivated by this growth!

But when I look at the path ahead, it is still so long! I have many hurdles ahead of me in order to discover exactly where my writing is meant to go, and what I am meant to accomplish. And the only way I can find these answers will be through a million and one more beginnings to come. I must begin again with each new step. I know I am meant to take these steps because they sit at the top of my heart, clear and strong and so exciting that it almost hurts to think about them. I know they are right because I want so much to reach these goals that have no clear path or guaranteed outcome. And even though I try to shut them down sometimes, these goals remind me of the analogy of beach balls, how the harder you try to push them down under the surface of the water, the harder and faster they come rushing back up the second they escape your control.

Last Fall, I came across an article in a newspaper advertising their annual short story contest, and I knew the second I read the article that I needed to make this contest one of my goals. Now, I realize that for many writers, this would not be a big deal - it is such an important part of the craft to submit your work far and wide and as often as possible. But this is one of those hurdles I mentioned, the ones I saw ahead of me on the path. I have never, ever officially submitted ANY writing to be published anywhere except on this blog! I was soooo scared to take this step. 

Over the past few months, I have tried to talk myself out of submitting for this contest. I have reasoned that I have not learned enough about writing, that I would certainly be submitting less-than-best writing, guaranteeing myself failure and, of course, embarrassment. I reasoned that I needed more training first. I panicked that I did not know enough about short stories to even understand what quality would be. I tried to read more short stories so that I could "learn more" about them, and subsequently freaked myself out even more as I felt the huge chasm of space between the writer's quality of writing and mine. The thing is, I have never even completed a full-length short story on my own, let alone revised or submitted one! Still, I could not shake the sense that I was meant to submit to this contest.
I began the year with this short story contest as my main, immediate goal, since the submission deadline was February 1st. Shortly after the New Year I met for coffee with my friend Chris, who is also a writer. Chris has been a great support to me this past year because we are in such similar places with our passions and ambitions for our writing: we have identified that this is what we want to do but we are both sort of feeling out how to keep reaching toward these goals. There is no one road map for this sort of journey, only the map that each of us feel as the truth inside ourselves. Chris suggested that we should start pushing ourselves to share our stories, and I told her about the short story contest and my goal to submit. Even as we laughed about how we had no idea what we were doing, we set a date to share our stories and then meet to discuss them. 

I found myself faced with a plan that I had no idea how to execute, and this forced me to begin anywhere once again. I had some story ideas started which I thought might work, but I had no idea how to turn them into something I felt good about. Soon after we met for coffee, I sat down to my desk one afternoon and determined that I would spend an hour free-writing with pen and paper. Within two paragraphs, I found myself in a story. I tried not to think too much about it but just to keep going. I worked to keep my hand moving with the current of thoughts flowing rapidly through my brain. As the story unfolded, I had to ignore the impulse to switch to my laptop (faster but more prone to editing as I go) or stop to re-read what I had written. I kept writing through the fear, through the uncertainty, and when I got stuck, I began again wherever I could think of beginning. 

After three hours of writing, I had written a very rough draft of a complete short story for the first time in my life. I started revising as I typed the story into my laptop, and then completed two more drafts of the story before I was ready to share it. When I sent the story to Chris, I felt terrified that it was going to be a failure. But when we met to discuss our stories, I found that I gained so much encouragement from sharing my experience with a friend who was cheering me on and helping me be the best I could be. After a couple more drafts based on helpful feedback, I sent my story in to the contest yesterday. And it feels SO good to have reached this goal!!
Whether or not the story is even very good, I needed to prove to myself that I could begin with this one step. I had to give myself permission that you don't have to be perfect in order to take the next step. Maybe the next step is what will teach you what you need to know in order to be the best you can be next time! This goes against everything in my nature, but deep down inside, I know it is right. This goal of submitting to the contest was necessary in order for me to believe that I can keep going and reach for my next goal, and the one after that. And someday, when I have finally published my work, I believe I will still be saying the same thing. It will always be critical to keep reaching for what I know I am meant to do next.

I still don't know how I even actually wrote this story in three hours, or how I finished drafting it in time to submit it. It may or may not ever happen again like that. But I am trying not to think too hard about it, because that is not the point, or the lesson to be learned. The lesson is to keep on beginning, again and again, with each new goal set before you. 

Be sure to check out Chris' blog WildMoo Books!! Great source for book reviews and book-inspiration of all sorts!