Letting Go: A Cautionary Tale for Control Freaks

originally posted on the Emu’s Debuts blog.

reflecting on the surprising angst that followed my book contract. The
angst of letting go.
See, I love the inventive stage of writing. Don’t
get me wrong, writing is damn hard. But, I love that evolving sense of
possibility when worlds and characters spin out of thin air and land as
words on the page. Imagination is magic. Even in nonfiction. From the
moment I began writing my debut, STEP RIGHT UP: THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL
JIM KEY, I occupied the story. All writers do this. Before we can add
depth and motion to our words, writers visualize until our stories
unfold movie-like on the big screen of our mind. We are all eager to
control the script and staging. We like telling our characters what to
do, what to wear, how to stand. If we can’t visualize it, we can’t write
it. In the case of nonfiction, it’s about telling the truth and filling
in gaps. Sometimes, that means converting 125-year-old images from
two-dimensional, dingy black and white to Technicolor. In panorama. And
in 3D.
While writing, the world on the page is mine, mine, mine!
I am in control. Mwahahaha!
Until I am not.
My editor had suggestions on STEP RIGHT UP. Lots of
them. Some of her suggestions were that I undo some of her suggestions.
Add, cut, expand, simplify, redirect, rinse, repeat… In a way, my story
became a collaboration. But, as the word weaver, I still felt a sense
of control. Sort of.
Until I wasn’t.
Enter, the illustrator.
I am in awe of artists who can press “copy” on
their mental printers and, voila! They sketch, sculp, paint, and
pixelate their visual imaginings for all the world to see. More magic!
So, I was surprised to be so full of angst as I awaited the illustrator
reveal. Seriously, y’all. Angst! And worry. And maybe a tiny speck of
An illustrator will have his/her own visual interpretation. Their
own image of the world Doc and Jim lived in. Their own tinted lens
through which the mental movie plays for them. Aaaaack! I found myself
playing the “What-if” game. What if the illustrator can’t capture Doc
and Jim as I see them? What if his/her art is too silly, too serious,
too dark, too light, too cartoony, too portraity, too realistic, too
And, besides, horses are hard to draw. Just ask the
people I forced, I mean asked, to draw for me. (Some of these people
may be related to me. Except for the tile guy.)
photo copy 5photo
 Arin's horse 8
photo copy 6
Donna horse 1

photo 2

Thankfully, I can be confident that an illustrator
will do better. But letting go is hard. As I peruse the books on my
shelf, I’m reminded that it takes many creative perspectives to create
visually stunning and memorable stories. Magic multiplied. Now, I find
that my illustrator angst has given way to excitement. The kind of
excitement I felt, not knowing what kind of wonderfulness was wrapped
under the Christmas tree. There is a childlike wonder in this
I’m ecstatic to announce that Coretta Scott King Honor recipient, Daniel Minter will
bring Doc and Jim to life through his spectacular art. Better still,
Daniel and I have been communicating. He would like my input. I think
I’m in heaven. Check out his work, y’all. My little book baby is in very
good hands.

Summer spontaneity

Well, it was inevitable. Summer arrived and structure departed. The days of somewhat regular work hours while kids are in school are temporarily replaced with other pressing needs. So, I’ll be making only sporadic appearances in the blogosphere for a while.

  • There’s a home remodeling project to monitor, thanks to water damage from a broken water line in our slab.
  • There’s an injured kiddo to entertain while he recovers from a broken collarbone.
  • There’s a new web design and blog transition to plan and implement.
  • There are two new books for an educational publisher to begin.
  • And, I’m willing spontaneous day trips to whisk us away from home every once in a while.

So, y’all save me a seat here, okay? I’ll be back soon.

Happy dog days of summer!


Remember, Dear, You Can Eat Your Mistakes

While de-cluttering my office space recently, I came across a couple stacks of old manuscript versions from two previous projects. As I thumbed through them, I was struck by the evolution of my own writing. These earlier drafts pre-date their own de-cluttering, the pairing down, the cleaning house, the revisions.

     I am somehow relieved by my reflection of these earlier works. They are long, yes. They are wordy, yes. And, there are passages and entire sections that make me cringe as I read them these years later. But, tucked into the less-than-prestine arrangements of words are a few spicy, sweet, flavorful snippets- a sentence here, a metaphor there, an invoking imagery that makes me smile. It had been painful to send these unneeded flavors to the cutting room floor, but now I see them as a gift. An unexpected nod from my late grandmother.

     My Italian grandmother’s primary role in life, it seemed, was to feed people. There was always a pot of something bubbling on her stove. In 2003, when she was 92 years old, she was hospitalized when medical staff made a terrible error, unrelated to her minor foot complaint. Sadly, that error would cost her her life, but that’s a different story. 

    A couple of weeks before her death, I flew to Illinois to see her. I knew the prognoses was grim and braced myself for what I might find when I entered her hospital room. What I didn’t expect was to find her on the telephone, counseling a neighbor, a relative, a friend, who knows. I entered, balloons in hand, as my toothless grandma uttered these words into the phone, “Remember, Dear, you can eat your mistakes.”

     I was taken aback by the audacity of someone, anyone calling her for cooking advice, as her health was slipping away by the moment. Then again, maybe that was the best thing in the world for a woman whose life’s work was wrapped up in feeding folks. And now, here I am, weepy over the memory of her as I stare at these old manuscripts and the little sparkly passages that didn’t fit with these particular projects. There they sit, like spices in the cupboard, waiting to be placed in the right recipe, the right story.

     So, here’s a special nod to my Grandma. Though I didn’t inherit the exceptional cooking gene, the writer in me certainly gets the message. It takes a lot of trial and error to concoct a masterful lasagne or a masterful manuscript. It takes creativity and courage to experiment with different flavors and sometimes we learn best by first over-powering the work with flavors that might be better served in a different dish. It’s okay. Without realizing it, we might accidentally stumble upon something new and delicious.

As Grandma said, we can always eat our mistakes.

Now Stop Thinking. Just Throw!

My son is a talented baseball player. Besides his regular team instruction, Kiddo works with a private coach to more individually hone his pitching and batting skills. Coach Brock is a former pro baseball ball player and is wonderful at breaking baseball skills down to their most fundamental movements. It requires strategy, strength, and instinct. Baseball is much more mental than I ever realized and it is important not to get flustered. Errors will happen. We’ve learned some valuable lessons during this mentorship. It struck me how aptly this advice applies to writers as well.

*Muscle memory is about repetition. Learn it correctly, then repeat it until the movements become second nature. (reading and writing = muscle memory, too)

*Daily exercise is crucial. Flabby muscles can’t activate. (daily writing and reading, anyone?)

*Always rely on your power position; the ready-stance that activates your core and keeps you always ready for the surprise play.

*When you’re up at bat, keep you’re eye on the ball. When you make contact, just run. Don’t look back! (what’s done is done!)

*As a pitcher (or a writer,) when you stand on that mound, block out everything else and focus on the catcher’s mit. Ignore the noise from the other dugout. Reach! Focus!

*When you feel overwhelmed, take a step back, and breathe.

*You will make errors. Don’t get flustered.

*Over-thinking can make you rigid and tense. Your mind and body know what to do. Now just throw! (don’t over-analyze. Just write!)

*Above all, have fun!

There you are, dear writer friends. Learn story structure, study good books, take a deep breath when you need to. But, when you step onto that writer’s mound, don’t think too much. Just throw like the wind and have fun with your storytelling. Your joy is bound to lead you to a home run.

Quote for the day:”To write truly good stories, stories that will satisfy you as well as your readers, you must do something no writing teacher, no book, no guidelines, can help you with. You must take risks. Knowing your craft can help you tell a story. But only by taking risks can you make art.” Marion Dane Bauer, from her book, WHAT’S YOUR STORY? A YOUNG PERSON’S GUIDE TO WRITING FICTION