Sunday, December 27, 2009

Not Smarter than a Fifth Grader

We have this game in our house based on the tv show Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? The game tests your knowledge of history, geography, science and math. It's fun if you can get past the obnoxiously repetitive game show music... and the fact that when you fail to answer a question you have to say out loud, "I am not smarter than a fifth grader."
Now, whenever we do something nonsensical, we automatically say these magic words. This whole week my brain has been echoing with them.
It all had to do with my ingenious plan for New Year's gifts. I've been scanning old photos, and I thought friends and relatives would enjoy the fruits of my monotonous labor. So I went out and bought colorful CDs, spent hours selecting meaningful pictures for each friend, and mailed them to parts all over the globe. I even made some for my husband to mail. Being the quality control manager that he is, though, he checked each of his CDs before heading off to the post office.
"Are these the CDs you put the pictures on," he asked. "Because all these are blank."
Turns out I'd done everything except the final step--pushing the "burn files" option. Turns out I'd spent hours fiddling with photos, writing sweet little notes, and traipsing to the post office to mail off discs down a blank memory lane.
I know. I know. I am not smarter than a fifth grader. (But I'm more persistent than one.)
Do you have any "fifth grade" moments to share?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Attention New Writers

The city of Milpitas opened a new high-tech library earlier this year, which I had the honor of helping open. They have a literary luncheon each year, and I was invited to talk about My Half of the Sky during one. They have a fine Rotary Club which often features writers. And , yes, I got to be one of those. The city of Milpitas is always doing wonderful things for writers. (In fact, I often tell my husband that should we ever think of moving....)
Most recently, Milpitas Arts is hosting a short story contest for new writers, which not only offers an opportunity for recognition in the local paper but a $1,000 cash prize. The deadline is Feb 1, 2010 for 2,000 words or less. The category is open-ended.
So grab your laptops and join the fun.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Take a Moment To Breathe

In our house, we say that Halloween signals the beginning of the end. At least that's how it feels. There are end-of-the-year shows and parties and fairs. Guests and shopping. Gift exchanges and letters. It's a downhill slide that goes way too fast.
Still, on your way down, grab hold of a branch or two. Stop yourself. Take a few minutes to yourself--to write, to read, to breathe.

Books of the Week: Love in Translation by Wendy Tokunaga took me back through the streets of Tokyo--high tech signs blinking and ringing next to the sweet-potato seller calling out, the juxtaposition of old and new all wrapped up in cuteness, the strict adherence to a code of unspoken rules. The story is humorous and well-told, and I could identify with the young woman, Celeste, who was unsure of what she wanted to do or how she fit in to this foreign world.
I devoured every page, and walked away feeling as if a dear old friend had come to visit.
In An Uncharted Country by Cliff Garstang is a series of short stories, from that of a young man who attempts to sell off antiques--but has no idea how-- to that of a young couple adopting their first child from China. The characters are rich and the detail so real you feel as if you've been plopped into the middle of all these crises.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Disneyland Approach to Writing Expectations

Today on NPR MIT Professor Dick Larson--a.k.a Dr. Queue-- spoke of "Queue Rage":How people get irritated--sometimes violently so-- when they have to wait in line for a long time.

Dr. Queue mentioned that part of the problem is expectations.

Disneyland knew this when they made their serpentine lines. Not only did they make those lines fun, but they posted ETA signs. And they fudged. Yes, Disneyland discovered that if they advertised a longer time than it actually took, people got really excited. As in, "Hey, we got through the line really fast."

I've decided to apply Disneyland's rule to book writing.

When I was writing my first novel I can remember explaining the concept and the plans to family and friends. They were all excited...the first year. Maybe even the second. After that, at the word "book" their eyes would glaze over. I could hear them thinking, "She's still doing revisions?" I'd start thinking to myself, "I'm still writing revisions?"

But family gatherings should be much more fun (and I won't stress out as much, either) now that I'm armed with my sign: "Estimated Time til End of Book: 20 years"

Books of the Week: I'm not one to suggest a book that I haven't finished reading, but I'm really enjoying The Help by Kathryn-Stockett. She does an amazing job with dialect, dialogue, and bringing us into the conflicts in Mississippi during the 60's. I'm loving every word.

I enjoy fairytales, and whenever I travel one of my first questions of the locals is "Tell me a story." When I first moved to Japan a new friend said her favorite tale was "shin de lay la." I settled down, anxious to hear.
"Once upon a time," she said. "There was a young girl whose mother died. Her father remarried a mean woman with two wicked daughters. Every day, the wicked stepmother made the young girl do all the work-- "
"Wait, wait," I said. "This sounds like--did you mean Cinderella?"
"Yes, yes, shin de lay la."
This week I came upon two wonderful Japanese tales right up here in the mountains of Los Gatos: The Magic Ear and The Fox's Kettle are told by Laura Langston--with beautiful painting-like illustrations by Victor Bosson.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Stick to Level Ground

This past week was a ride from the earth's highest peak to its darkest deepest crevice. I've been honing my latest manuscript...and getting opinions from friends, relatives, critique members, and professionals. I went from having a fine author offer to give a pre-publication blurb to a fine critique member tell me there are way too many Points of View. From a colleague saying it was one of a few books she'd remember the rest of her life to an editor confessing confusion. What to do with so many valuable opinions? As my spirits spiraled up then down, then up then down, down, down my husband reminded, "It's your story. Listen to the words of others--both praise and critique--but remember it's your story."
I know this.
Of course I know this.
But it was good to be reminded--and that's why I'm passing it on. Now I'm back on level ground. It's boring--there aren't any peaks or valleys. But on level ground I can still see the highs and lows from afar. More importantly I can still see where I--and my story--are headed.

Books of the Week/Blogspots: A Walk on the Beach by Joan Anderson. This is a quick read on life and living. Joan Anderson, while walking on the beach, met a lively old woman who happened to be the wife of Erik Erikson, the psychoanalyst. Joan discovered, through their friendship, new ways to look at life, new ways to be. She shares those gems of wisdom in this book.
Check out the Killer Hobbies blog. This week is a Writing Workshop with a different writing topic every day. One commenter from the week wins a copy of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide by Becky Levine.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Latest in Technology?

I'm always coming to technology three steps late. At least. In fact, when my husband and I were first married twenty years ago we were given a huge translation project by one of the big tech companies in Tokyo. My husband would translate from Japanese to English, and I would smooth out the English. One night I read his copy which said "Open a new window."
"What are you talking about," I asked. "A window is something you open to let in fresh air. Surely you're mistaken about this."
As I said, at least three steps behind.
At any rate, a couple weeks ago I mentioned a haunting book by Masha Hamilton. Just yesterday I discovered the latest (for me) in technology--a trailer about the book. What a fun way to hear more about books.
Books/Blogsites: Coming Back to Me by Caroline Leavitt is the story of a young man who finds the family he's always wanted....and then loses it in a medical mystery. I'm sure the producers of the tv show House found inspiration here, although to make the comparison is to take away from the literary prose that makes this such a great read.
Last week I spoke about finding time, the talented Jill Ferguson sent me the following link to one of her poems.
Upcoming Events:
An avid Kindle reader just informed me that My Half of the Sky is now available as an Ebook. Please pass the word.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Make Writing A Tradition You Refuse to Let Go Of

A dear friend, author and therapist Martha Clark Scala, recently sent me her monthly newsletter which talked about the struggle we all have giving up routine. When we go to the gym we want to use the same locker, the same sink, the same hairdryer. When we have a family feast we expect there to be acorn squash with the turkey. She suggested we learn to compromise--to let go of some of our "traditions."
Although I couldn't relate to the gym..or the acorn squash..her piece reminded me of a course I used to teach overseas to newcomers called "Settling In Singapore." One of my exercises was to ask the group, who had just spent a couple of hours sitting in one location, to get up and find someone new to sit with. Some would bop off to a new location, leaving all their bags behind. Others would gather up everything they owned (fearful of losing anything) and move. Some refused to budge. It was said that those who were willing to move at the drop of a hat--with nothing at all in their hands-- would have the easiest time adapting to their new surroundings. I don't know how true it was, but symbolically it made lots of sense.
This morning--after the never-ending Halloween weekend-- I was struck by how this clinging to the familiar also affects our ability to write. It's scary to wander down the unfamiliar path of writing--bumping into strange characters and dealing with new surroundings. It's much easier to stay put and work at a routine job or chore (or seek out the same sink at the gym.) I can't tell you how many people I've met who have a story to tell....if they could just find the time. And before you think I'm sounding a little too uppity, let me clarify that I'm always in danger of choosing the familiar over a morning of bumping around in the dark, especially after a long Halloween holiday. Or near a holiday. Or even after a weekend. Or near a weekend.
That's why it's important to declare to the world (or at least yourself): This is my writing time. I will write for X amount of time or X amount of words/paragraphs/pages each day. It's important to make writing one of those traditions you refuse to let go of.
BOOK/BLOGSITE of the week: I finally opened Reading Lolita in Tehran. It was a story I avoided, as I was sure it would be bizarre, unbelievable, depressing. It is all of those things, but definitely worth the read.
On a similar note author Masha Hamilton pointed me in the direction of the The Afghan Women's Writing Project. These women have amazing stories to share. One of my favorites this month is My Sister's Golden Hair.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Importance of Group When The Power Goes Out

The mountains were chaos last week. We got 10" of rain in twelve hours. Trees fell. Power lines fell. Everything went dark. PG&E kept saying, "Tomorrow, you'll get power back." After the third day of listening to that refrain, I made up a ditty in memory of Annie: "Tomorrow, Tomorrow, you might get power Tomorrow. If not, the sun shines anyway."
By the weekend, when we still had no power, we decided to move our "campsite" to a real park. New Brighton State Beach. We were a big group of families and friends. My second son asked if he could bike down the Demonstration Forest Path (a 30 mile ride) and meet us there. I said sure, but he needed to include all his friends. One of those friends was not a biker. According to his mom, he had loved biking but had taken a really bad spill. That had been the end of his short biking career. She asked if I could give the boy a ride. When he came down to our house, though, all the other boys were getting ready to leave. "You coming with us?" they asked. "Come on. It will be fun." That boy looked at the group of enthusiastic faces and he got on his bike and rode that 30 mile ride. I still get teary-eyed thinking about it. About the power of positive support, the power of a group.
One such group for writers is the California Writer's Club which now has 18 branches throughout the state. (I had the pleasure of speaking at Southbay's publishing panel last week.) I've been a member of the group since we moved to the US ten years ago, and I'm sure I wouldn't be published if it wasn't for their feedback, networking and encouragement (especially when my power was out.)
Upcoming Events: November 4, 11:30, The Loma Prieta Club, Skyland Church, Los Gatos. I'll be discussing My Half of the Sky.
Book of the Week: The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. This story is about a man who loses everything and his struggle to get back what he can. Garth Stein and I both appeared at NCIBA when My Half of the Sky and his first book came out. (How Evan Broke His Head and other Secrets). While I enjoyed that first book, I wasn't eager to read his second, only because I'd heard it was from the viewpoint of a dog. A dog? But then my neighbor, a fellow writer, who has never failed me on book suggestions yet, said "You gotta read this." She was right.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Remember the Little Things

"Success generally doesn't happen overnight, and it can seem to be limited to a tiny percentage of those who compete." --Lenny Wiersna, Cal State University, Fullerton

Wiersna wasn't talking about authors, but swimmers. My eldest son is a swimmer, and gets lots of magazines related to the subject. Most of them are fluff (some are a retailers version of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition.) So I don't pay much attention. But this morning, I happened to sit down in front of one of the magazines, and this article popped out at me.
Wiersna writes about how swimmers, after losing a race, tend to lose the next and the next because they are mentally defeated. He suggests that swimmers keep an "I Know" list. "I know I'm fit. I know I have a strong kick. I know I'm fast on turns, etc."
I suggest a similar writer's list. ("I know I'm good at dialogue. I know this subject better than anyone. I know I'm good enough to have _______") It's a small thing to do, but when those rejections come in or you start feeling defeated by the business of publishing, that shot of self-confidence might be just what you need to move forward again.
Some quotes I keep with my I Know list:
The longest journey starts with the first step--Chinese saying
I don't write books. I write pages--Dan Fante, Author
What are your favorite inspirational quotes?

Upcoming Events:
October 13, 6pm, I'll be participating in a panel discussion on publishing at the Sunnyvale Municipal Golf Course just off Maude near the 237 with CWC Southbay
October 19, 12:15pm. I'll be discussing the history and benefits of a leaf: tea at the Milpitas Rotary Club, Embassy Suites, 901 E Calveras.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Not Planning to Fall

"Where there's passion, there's no fear." --Ancient Chinese Saying.
Last week's blog about the sorry state of book buying prompted one writer to e-mail me, saying he felt so depressed he was tempted to throw his query letters away.
No, no, no.
I was reminded of the above ancient saying, as well as a camping trip our family took to Big Sur a few years back. Big Sur is unique in that during the spring rushing rapids run through the middle of the park. And if you can climb your way across and up the river, you are rewarded with a lovely gorge.
One spring, my eldest son insisted on leading his sister and her friend on a different path across the river to the gorge. They crossed a rickety log perched over the rushing rapids. There appeared no way for them to reach the other side, barring jumping in the freezing water or climbing up the sheer face of a rock wall. I expected him to return across the rickety log and follow us on our easier route. He instead climbed up that sheer rock face.
He made it across the rock wall, and helped his older sister and her friend. I took a deep breath, gushing with gratitude. Then I stepped forward and--kerplunk-- fell right into the rapids.
“What were you thinking?” I asked my son when we had all made it back to the campsite. “What if you'd fallen? What would you have done?”
“But, Mom,” he looked at me, my hair still wet from the cold river. “I wasn't planning to fall.”

I often think of that episode. It reminds me to keep a positive attitude despite the overwhelming odds. So, take out those query letters. Follow your passion. Climb that wall.

Good Books: 31 Hours By Masha Hamilton. My all-time favorite book of Hamilton's is the The Camel Bookmobile, about an idealistic young American out to better the world by bringing books to remote areas of Kenya. She hardly thinks she'll get anything but warm enthusiasm, and is shocked that some people--the elders--would actually oppose her. It's a funny and fun book.
31 Hours is not funny, but is no less compelling a read. The story revolves around a young Caucasian American who, after a visit to Pakistan, has decided the best meaning he could give his life would be to shake the slothful, greedy Americans awake in a suicide bombing.
Upcoming Events:
October 13, 6pm, I'll be participating in a panel discussion on publishing at the Sunnyvale Municipal Golf Course just off Maude near the 237 with CWC Southbay
October 19, 12:15pm. I'll be discussing the history and benefits of a leaf: tea at the Milpitas Rotary Club, Embassy Suites, 901 E Calveras.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rejection--just a shutter-snap.

"We are all working in the dark these days as none of us has ever experienced a market like this one!"---Top New York Agent

I've been dancing around the 'lost camera' issue. This week, in view of the ever-dipping market, I thought it a good time to discuss that particular loss.
This summer we spent a week in Japan, where my husband and I had lived for six years. I took hundreds of pictures, of the kids at their first "onsen" hot springs, of catching frogs in the rice paddies, of old friends and new. Then we went onto China, and again I took hundreds of pictures, of the new baby bunnies (born the day we arrived home in the village), of grandpa, of the kids 'walking on water' in a plastic bubble-type contraption.
One day, my husband took the camera to church--a province-wide choral gathering. Then he brought it with us to a restaurant. Then we went on to a friend's apartment, in separate taxis. The next time either of us thought of the camera was when we were going out to dinner.
Had we left it at the restaurant? In the taxi? And, by the way, whose fault was this?
My husband went back to check the restaurant. Our friends called the cab company, which I might add was so high-tech that we were able to give the street address and approximate time of the ride, and they could search up on their GPS the exact cab I was in. None of this produced the camera.
It was gone.
It felt like a cold wind had blown through my body and sucked away part of my life. Two special weeks that would never come again.
"We can take more pictures, Mom," the kids said. "We'll just get another camera."
But what about those special shots I'd already taken?
"We have the memories," my husband said. "That's the most important part."
I cried myself to sleep anyway--thinking of the effort I'd gone to to take this shot and that cute pose. I dreamed that someone came to our door the next morning bearing the camera.
That didn't happen.
That next day I had no desire to move. I was defeated. But then my husband took me to get a new camera. At first I only took the few obligatory shots--of friends. (Why expend effort that might be lost again?) But soon I was back to snapping away.
I've gotten to the point where I don't usually think about the lost camera anymore.
The only reason I mention it now is because I recently read that book buying is down 18%. My experience with the camera reminded me of a similar experience: rejection.
When an agent/editor says, "Thanks, but no thanks," that cold wind blows through your body sucking not just weeks, but months, years, decades off your life.
"What am I doing?" you think. "My writing's worthless. I'm worthless."
"It's okay," a friend, partner, writing buddy will say. "You can write another story."
They just don't get it, you think.
"Did I have a bad editor?" you obsess, trying to find fault. "Was my story too long/short/funny/sad?"
"It's okay," a friend, partner, writing buddy will remind you. "Just keep writing."
But it's not okay. Nothing about it feels okay.
You dream that the phone will ring the next day. A happy person on the other end will say, "Sorry, there was a mix up. Of course, we'd love your story."
That doesn't happen.
"It's okay," a friend, partner, writing buddy will continue to urge you, until you sit back down at the writing desk. Tentative at first. (Perhaps it would be better to refurbish the cabinets or get a job at the library.)
Before you know it, you're writing again,though--- that bitter cold,life-sucking rejection a small shutter snap in your world.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Pick up the Brush

When I returned from China, my to-do list was still waiting. (For some reason, I'd hoped it had disappeared like many of the other things during our trip--swimsuit, backpack, camera.) One of the things I'd promised myself was that I'd stain our decks.

Oh, gosh, but I didn't want to do that.

Power-washing the decks is great. Rolling stain on the bottom planks is easy. But the meticulous staining of each piece of wood on the railing is a (sometimes futile) exercise in sanity-control.

There are hundreds of those pieces. No, I didn't count. My shoulders felt the constant up and down, up and down, up and down.

Once I got started, however--and it took some real mental persuasion to get started--I found myself in a rhythm. I could do this. I could finish. Besides, it looked good.

Each day, I made a goal for myself. Each day I tried to beat that goal. By the time I was done (hallelujah!) I didn't even mind going over parts I'd missed. (For of course my engineer husband managed to find parts I'd missed.)

This chore took me back to writing. It's so easy to say, "I'll start on that project tomorrow." Then tomorrow comes and the last thing in the world one wants to do is actually sit down and type out the beginning of what seems like an endless project. It's not necessarily messy, but it's painful and frightening. However once you get into the rhythm, you can start to see a form--hey, this might even be worthwhile--and you see the end in sight. You don't even mind going over parts that your friends, critique-group members, editors think need more work. So, pick up the brush.

**For inspiration, amazing editor Becky Levine will be doing a teleseminar on Professional Memoir Writing this Friday. Be sure to join in.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Loving a Summer Filled with Three-shower-a-day Heat

This past weekend, it was so miserably hot here in California--sweat-trickling-down-your legs hot, mind-numbing hot, three-shower-a-day hot-that my son was reminded of China...although China was more humid. Visiting friends and relatives in China/Japan was where we spent our summer.
China was so dynamic—one day always felt like two...or three. (And that wasn't just because we had sun-induced naps during the day). We always saw something different: neon kites flying like UFOs in the sky or barges piled high with salt floating down the river or a bag of frogs for sale in the wet market or spittoons at the edge of the public pool. We also managed to catch the Solar Eclipse in Hangzhou on July 22, an event that will not occur in that part of the world again during my lifetime.
(A solar eclipse occurs when the moon moves in front of the sun. The sun is 400 times larger than the moon, but also 400 times as far away. So when the moon gets in the sun's path, which it does somewhere on the earth once every six months, it has the effect of blocking out the sun.)
It was amazing to have the whole world go dark—and all the sensor-powered street lights come on. In ancient times, people believed a dragon was eating the sun, and they beat drums and made all kinds of noise to try to scare the dragon away. In modern times, we all watched the event through sunglasses or black-and-white film (one person even watched through an X-ray of somebody's broken arm). When the world went dark, everyone gave a collective awe-inspired, “Ahh.” Then someone lit off fireworks. Five minutes later, the sun began its reappearance, and everyone dispersed. My kids poked me with their parasols. 'Let's go, Mom. We don't have to wait for the total re-emergence of the sun. Besides, it's hot.” That last part was definitely true.

Books of the Week:
Rooftops of Tehran
Rooftops of Tehran by Mahbod Seraji: This was a beautifully-told story of how the governments (including ours) wormed their way into the hearts and minds of small villagers in Tehran. How the Powers ruined everything. Everything. A great read.

No Place to Run by Thomas Sawyer: I love literary fiction, which this is not. But given that Mr. Sawyer worked for decades in television (headwriter for Murder, She Wrote), I can see where his style emerges. The story, which centers on a cover-up of the 9/11 disaster, is an all-night read. What a ride!

The Memory-Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards: This book came out the same month as My Half of the Sky. I meant to pick it up, but then kept confusing it with other titles-- Gravedigger's Daughter, Hummingbird's Daughter, etc. The title just didn't stick with me. Fortunately, I saw it in the library the other day and picked up a copy. Oh, what a treasure. With each character, I feel as if I'm walking in his/her shoes. The plot is heart-wrenching: A doctor delivers his wife's twins, one of whom is born with Down's Syndrome. He makes the quick decision to give the DS child away, telling his wife that the child died--a hasty action which has repercussions that keep coming and coming and coming. I haven't yet finished the book because I don't want to. I want to savor each word, each turn of phrase. It's a title I won't soon forget.

Upcoming Event: US-China Friendship 60/30 National Convention in San Francisco
Saturday, September 5, 9:45-10:45: Filmmaker Rae Chang will show her documentary on the life of Qui Jin, China's first feminist. From 10:45 I'll be discussing My Half of the Sky. The two of us will then lead a discussion on women's rights in China and the ongoing struggle of women caught between tradition and modernity. Please join us.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Thief of Time

"Procrastination is the thief of time." Karl Marx

I'm not a particular fan of Karl Marx—everything I've researched pinpoints him as an arrogant, argumentative man always looking for a sparring partner. (And that was before he came up with Communism.) But I've been reading his works as well as books on the Korean War and the beginning of the Cold War. I learned some fascinating tidbits, such as the Korean War was Vietnam-Part I. General MacArthur enamored by the effectiveness of the atomic bomb in WWII requisitioned 26 (Yes, twenty-six) of them to use on North Korea and China. And "procrastination is the thief of time." Actually I knew that last one –but have never heard it put so succinctly.

**I'll be speaking about My Half of the Sky at the Martin Luther King Public Library on June 27th at 2pm. Please come join us for a fun afternoon in that amazing library.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Process of Writing

This past weekend I had the opportunity to speak at We and Our Neighbor Clubhouse . The clubhouse, built in 1910 to deal with issues affecting the community, is about to celebrate their centennial birthday and is busy renovating. The two hostesses were very apologetic about the looks of the place. Would I mind speaking in the Dining Room?

This wasn't just any old dining room, though. A quarter of the room was once walled off and used as the first branch of the Santa Clara Free Library system. It was so cool to stand there surrounded by the energy of books from years past. As several people came up to me after the talk saying they were inspired to go home and write, perhaps they felt the same energy. We discussed the Process of Writing:

1) Writing is a Never-Ending Process: The quote "Each time I strive for perfection, I realize it's a moving target," can be applied to the writing process. Each time I think I'm done, someone--editor, friend, critique group--points out an area that needs fixing and I realize there's more that I can do. As one writer pointed out, there comes a point when you just must stop.

2) Writing is ever-changing: What works for one story may not be the best method for the next story. Don't be afraid to experiment. A story doesn't always need to start on page one.

3) Writing requires a routine: I need to figure out a schedule and stick with it, so as not to be pulled away from the project--to check e-mail or take the dog on a walk or clean a spot in the rug. Regular journal writing is a trick I use to slide into "the real writing" of the day. Once I get going writing about the events of the previous day, it's not so hard to switch gears just a bit and keep typing.

What thoughts and additons do you have?

Book of the Week: The Honk and Holler Opening Soon by Billie Letts centers around a wheelchair-bound Vietnam Vet who owns a restaurant in a lily-white area of Nebraska. It's not a thriving business--opening only when the first customer arrives--until an American Indian woman shows up needing a job, then a Vietnamese immigrant fix-it man arrives. The themes that stood out were racism, religionism, fear of others. It's a fun--and funny--read.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Re-Writing til it's Right

It's coming down to the wire--before the kids' school vacation when all semblance of a writing routine disappears. So I'm writing and re-writing, hoping to get my manuscript ready before that mid-June deadline. I saw a great quote the other day, which I thought could be easily applied to the writing process: "When you aim for perfection, you realize it's a moving target."
For each time I think--oh, this is it. This is perfect--I realize, "Hmmmm. You could flesh that character a bit deeper or add a few more smells to this chapter."

Any great quotes to share?

Book of the Week: Blowback: the Costs and Consequences of American Empire by Chalmers Johnson
Johnson, author of over a dozen books, is a retired Professor of Asian Studies at UC Berkeley and UC San Diego, as well as a former consultant to the CIA. While at times I felt like I was drowning in information--I would get halfway down a page and have to start over, gasping for air after each sentence--the picture Johnson portrays of America's presence and policies in Asia after WWII is frightening. The continuing presence of American military in places like Okinawa, Japan, and South Korea when the Cold War is no longer an issue is mind-boggling.
Blowback is apparently a term the CIA use to refer to unintended consequences of policies kept secret from the American people. In this book, published in 2000, Johnson predicted disasters to come (like 9-11), as well as the horrible economic mess we sit in. It's a sobering read. And once I've gotten my breath back (meaning read a book of fiction) I'm diving into the next book in his series: The Sorrows of Empire.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Never Just One Viewpoint

Last week, I got an e-blast from a parent at the elementary school about a strange car which followed the school bus the previous day. The male driver and a small boy had stopped behind the bus at each stop. The two had watched as the children got off the bus, the man smiling and waving at the kids in such a creepy manner that the bus driver took down his license plate number. The note ended by giving us a complete description of the sicko and his car, and mentioning that this information had been handed over to the school and CHP.
A few hours later I got another e-blast from the same parent. An apology for making us all concerned. Apparently, the CHP had gone to the sicko's residence to question his behavior. It turned out that this man's son was about to start riding the bus home, and this dear father was showing the boy the exact route the bus took.
I loved this. How one moment the man was a child molester, the next he was Father of the Year, depending on the believed intent behind his behavior. This incident served as a reminder--not just in real life but in fiction--that no two characters will ever view a situation in the same way.

Book of the Week: Only A Girl by Lian Gouw takes us into the lives of the Lee family in Indonesia during one of that country's most dynamic periods (1932-1952). Gouw brings the struggles of that time to life, as the Lee family grapples with which rituals to follow when the world beneath their feet changes year after year, from Dutch control to Japanese control to Indonesian control. It's an amazing piece of history, a fascinating story.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Always another village

I heard a great saying this weekend written by Chinese poet Li Bai (701-762).

At the end of the mountain and the end of the river, when you doubt there is a road beyond...there's another village nestled in the flowers and bushes.

In other words, in difficult times, don't give up. There's always another village...another road.
Do you have any sayings to share?

Books this Week: I had the misfortune of reading Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, a novel about the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his mistress Mamah Borthwright. I enjoyed the historical tidbits about Wright's life--but oh the dialogue (I mean monologues), the lack of editing, the point of view switches , the tedious detail about things like their dog's fur. What a disappointment--made more so as the book is a "New York Times Bestseller."

Monday, April 20, 2009

In My Cave

Last week, a dear woman asked why I haven't been speaking lately. What a thrill. To be honest, I've been holed up in my writing cave in a mad dash to finish my latest manuscript before summer vacation. (During the summer--when children are out of school--life slows, creativity beyond camping trips vanishes, time slips faster than a setting sun.) I'm pleased to report that Draft 1 is completed, and I'm in the process of editing: my favorite part of the writing process. The piece is there; now it just needs to be massaged, massaged, massaged.
I've been asked to come out of the cave for a day. On May 16th I'll be speaking about the writing process at We And Our Neighbors Clubhouse in San Jose from 1-3pm. If you're interested, please join us. (RSVP Carolyn Newt at

Book of the week: Forbidden Family was like reading a letter--full of secrets, humor, gossip--from a friend. Margaret Sams, who went to the Phillippines hoping for an adventurous life got more than she could have ever imagined. Her husband of the time was sent off to join the Bataan Death March, while Margaret and their 3-year-old were rounded up and told to bring "enough supplies for three days." They were taken to Santo Tomas Internment camp in Manila where they lived for three years.
During that time Margaret met and fell in love with another prisoner, Jerry Sams. Their affair shocked the sensibilities of the camp (even amidst all the war issues.) She writes about being shunned (and Jerry being punished), constantly worrying about being shot for hiding a contraband radio, scrounging for food so they wouldn't starve, attempting to escape. It's a fascinating history, an amazing story.

** Someone noted the book links no longer go to the amazing Kaleidoscope Books. That wonderful store--to our great misfortune--is no longer.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A week of fluff

Famous pranks. Fun parties. Hundreds of activities to choose from.
Am I already signing children up for summer camp? No. This was the contents of college tours I went on last week with my eldest son. I noted that the Cal Tech tour guides/admissions officers repeated the same prank story over and over, suggesting pranks might not be top on their list of important school activities. Still, I was amused to see such an emphasis on fun.

I had fun taking spring break and reading fluff.

Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich--I always put down an Evanovich book feeling happy, but not sure why. (The same way I feel when watching a sitcom.) The scenario is crazy--bounty hunter female gets involved in ludicrous situations and is aided by hot-looking special ops lover or boyfriend cop. The dialogue is funny and upbeat.

The Winds Come Sweepingby Marcia Preston is more serious. It's part mystery, part romance, part literary fiction about a young woman who left her farm and her daughter to go to the big city to become an artist. She returns to the farm after her father dies. She attempts to save the farm from bankruptcy by using modern technology, much to the anger of the neighbors...She attempts to find her daughter.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Search & Rescue of Ideas

Last week I did a search and rescue of a backpack...
"You better take daddy," my son (the owner of the pack) said. "And a flashlight. And a ladder."
I drew the line at the ladder. I wasn't planning on scaling any 8ft fences...although the school where we headed was surrounded by them.
My son has been traveling all over the Bay Area this year with his soccer team, because some joker in a pick-up did donuts on our school field. Last week, we went to a huge, well-locked school in the city. (For the game we accessed the soccer field by sneaking through the gym where a volleyball game was in session.). In the excitement of a hard-fought win, my son forgot his backpack.
When my husband and I arrived in the dark,we were in luck. That gym was still open (some poor kids were still playing volleyball at 9:30pm) and we snuck through to the field. As soon as we exited the gym, though, CLICK, the doors locked behind us.
We searched over every blade of grass. No backpack.
“Let’s go,“ I suggested, heading back towards the gym. I hoped that there would be some straggling volleyball enthusiasts who would answer our frantic knock.
“We came all the way out here,“ my husband said. “Let’s just look a bit more.”
I followed--not with much hope. We walked through the basketball courts, the playground, past several more locked entrances, by several classrooms. No backpack. We continued to a huge entrance, obviously locked, the whole time laughing about how this security was unbelievable. Perhaps we should have brought that ladder.
Just as we reached the gate, a car pulled up. My first thought was that unlike our school where derelicts do donuts, this school probably had cameras. Surely police had been alerted to two suspicious trespassers.
A young woman emerged from her car. But instead of barraging us with questions, she unlocked the gate.
“I’m just here to pick up some work I forgot,” she said, as if WE deserved an explanation.
‘That was amazing,” my husband said when we were walking, free at last, back to our car.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “All that security. It felt like a prison.”
“Not that,” he said. “When we needed to get out, a woman came out of nowhere to the exact gate where we stood.”
The search and rescue of the backpack reminded me of the search and rescue of writing ideas. I’m often struck by how when I’m totally lost about where to go next in my story, the answer comes. It’s not necessarily inspiration. I still have to check every blade of grass, walk through playgrounds and basketball courts, and reach the point of exhaustion (or pass it). But the gatekeeper eventually appears to set me free.
What's your experience?

Books of the Week:
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
This took a while to get going, as it's an unusual voice. You feel like you're attending a one-man show, as the character describes the setting, what the other characters are doing, etc. The story is of a Pakistani Princeton graduate who is offered a top position in the New York business world. Then 9/11 happens, and this perfect world he's been invited to join reveals cracks...too many of them. It's a fascinating story. Once you get started, it becomes an all-night read.

Raise Rules For Women by Jill Ferguson and Laura C Browne.
I'm ashamed at how fearful I was to read this book--it's been on my shelf for months--as if the contents would reveal that I really wasn't that strong and modern. Rather than shaming me (although at times I cringed,) the pointers offered gave me insight and information I can carry about getting the monetary validation I deserve. A helpful read.

Monday, March 30, 2009

I'll Take My Advice

Recently I was asked to critique a 3-page college essay. As I went through it, I felt like a lot of words had been included to fill space. To mask obscure ideas. And then there were some fun errors--like “vibrantly remember.” Do you mean “vividly remember?” Isn’t “remember” good enough?
I sent off my ideas, and while the student accepted some of them, she got busy and ended up not reading through all my comments (“vibrantly remember” stayed). I was initially miffed--if you’re not planning to read my ideas, why bother asking?
But then I noted, when I sat down to write, that I was more aware of my use of the language. Were all these words necessary? Was I just filling space with these sentences? In essence, I remembered the reason for critiquing: it’s as much to the benefit of the critiquer as it is the author.
Writer’s Digest is putting out a book on critique groups. The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide: How to Make Revisions, Self-Edit, and Give and Receive Feedback by Becky Levine. It covers all aspects of critique groups. What to expect. How to behave. What's the purpose. How to find the positive aspects of a piece as well as those which could use improvement. Even as a seasoned critique member--I’ve been in my group for 9 years-- I've pre-ordered a copy (as I tend to vibrantly forget some of these important points.)
What are your thoughts on critique groups? What stories do you have to share?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Discovering this new DR.

I always associated DR with physicians until my son got his assignment for the Amigos Program, a non-profit organization which sends volunteers to Latin American countries to encourage self-development. He's going to Azua in the Dominican Republic, often referred to as "DR."
I'd never heard much about this DR, except as a small group represented in the Olympics. My brother, however, said his wife and mother-in-law went there on holiday, and they enjoyed the beaches, the sparkling Caribbean waters, the five-star hotels. I loved that image, and even bought a shoe-string guidebook to the place. What an amazing island!
On the other hand I found it hard to believe that a non-profit would spend months preparing my child for aquamarine waters and white sandy beaches.
A past volunteer suggested reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. On the surface this Pulitzer Prize winning novel is about the love life of Oscar, a poor New York boy who is originally from the Dominican Republic. But it's a complicated story--with footnotes and lots of Spanish--about the fall from grace of a prominent physician during the Trujillo regime. Oscar is the doctor's grandson.
While at times confusing, the book gave me some insight into Azua, which Diaz calls "the Outland, the Badlands, the Cursed Earth, the Desert of Glass, the Burning lands, the Doben-al, the Salusa Secundus, the Ceti Alpha Six, the Tatooine." (like I said, at times confusing.) The book gave me insight into the Dominican Republic, a lovely island which has suffered nightmare after nightmare in its leaders. Or more specifically, its Leader Trujillo.
Do you have stories about the DR? Books to recommend?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Cultural Binds

No written law has ever been more binding than
unwritten custom supported by popular opinion.
--Carrie Chapman Catt, Senate Hearing on women's suffrage , 1900

Wednesday, I got to play hookey....
At least that’s how it felt as I left my manuscript behind (I’m down to the last few chapters which aren’t flowing as easily as I’d hoped) and went over to take part in the Foothill Authors Series at Foothill College.
This month is Women’s History Month. Since My Half of the Sky focuses on a young woman who wants to change with the day but is held back by tradition, I was pleased to speak on this auspicious occasion.
To be honest, though, I couldn’t remember Women’s History Month from my childhood. Or what we did. How we celebrated.
I was relieved--sort of--to discover the reason was not my mental capacity. When I was a kid, Women’s History Month was only a day (which started in 1909). The day turned into a week in 1978. The week turned into a month in 1987. Perhaps if we can keep the momentum rolling, we can look forward to a year....a century....a millennium...forever.
The Foothill gathering was interesting, as one would expect with a room full of intelligent students. One question that particularly struck me was a student who asked, “Do you think that part of the culture that defines gender is speech? Are men and women’s speech different?”
Although I couldn’t think of examples in Chinese, I was reminded of Japan where there was definitely a difference in the way one spoke as a female/male, superior/inferior, stranger/friend.
The question has me still thinking. Does the English language have gender-based speech differences? Can you think of examples in other cultures?

Book of the Week: The Soloist by Steve Lopez.
LA Times Columnist Steve Lopez takes us on a fascinating trip into the life of gifted musician, Nathanial Ayers, a past student at Julliard who impressed the professors so much he was annually given a scholarship. The third year at Julliard Mr. Ayers went nuts.
For thirty-some years he battled the demons in his head and wandered the streets. He was happy playing his music in the tunnels of LA and sleeping outside a factory in the toy district where he used a pair of drumsticks to keep rats at bay.
Mr. Lopez often saw him on his way to work, and one day wrote a column about Mr. Ayers, thinking it was a one-off topic. But Lopez became so entrenched in the well-being of this man that each time he tried to back away, he was drawn back in. The story is his unsuspecting, funny, depressing, sometimes heartbreaking journey.

***If you haven’t had a chance, please ask your local library to order a copy of My Half of the Sky.
Please leave your opinion about the book at your favorite online bookstore (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells,/etc.)
Please keep spreading the word.
Thank you!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Important Stories

Thanksgiving two years ago, we were all gathering at the dinner table ready to feast. My eldest daughter, however, was missing.
“Oh, she went down to the mailboxes for a minute,“ my husband said.
The mailboxes? On Thanksgiving?
When mouthwatering steam no longer rose from the turkey slices, I decided to check the mailboxes.
I walked down (our boxes are a ten-minute walk) and there was a car parked haphazardly across the road. My daughter sat in the car next to some boy without a shirt on who gestured wildly to his chest where there were some red markings. I went up to the car and knocked on the window, expecting the boy to get out and introduce himself, perhaps even explain what he was doing here...on Thankgsgiving...without his shirt. Instead, he locked the doors and continued talking--no, shouting--at my daughter. My daughter rolled down her window, saying “Mom. It's okay. He needs my help.“
The boy wanted my daughter to accompany him to a temple somewhere to do some ceremony that would keep him from dying that night. Mentioning Thanksgiving dinner on the table as an alternative activity seemed frivolous, but I did. Would he like to stay?
The whole night he talked of God. How he was God. We were all God. We could do anything. I kept thinking this lonely kid had ingested more during the day than turkey and cranberry sauce. God ended up spending the night on our couch (with my husband sitting vigil), as he was afraid to go home.
As soon as the holiday was over, I called the boy’s mother. She listened, and while I expected her to say she'd investigate a 12-step recovery program or contact CASA, she broke down and said. “He has Lyme’s disease.“
At least that was what I thought until last night when I saw the movie Under Our Skin. Lyme disease, caused by tick bites affects 200,000 Americans every year. It's more rampant than West Nile Virus and AIDs.
The disease affects every part of the body and is often misdiagnosed as Lupus, MS, Parkinson’s, craziness--or drug problems . The best treatment so far is long-term antibiotics (2-3 years), but health insurance companies don’t want to pay for that so they do their best to keep doctors from finding Lyme’s disease, including registering complaints against and having licenses revoked from some of the best-known Lyme Disease doctors.
The movie was quite an eye-opener.
Another eye-opener on a much grander scale was Greg Mortenson’s book, Three Cups of Tea. I’m probably coming late to this tea party, as the book won the Kiriyama Book Prize, was a New York Times bestseller, and every club I know has read it. Still, on the off chance you haven’t read this phenomenal story, I wanted to mention it.
Mortenson, a nurse with a passion for climbing, was conquering K2 (Pakistan) one year when he got separated from the other climbers and lost. A porter found Mortenson wandering around the next day, hungry, dehydrated, and disoriented. Mortenson was so grateful to this porter that he offered to build a school for the man's village. He thought it was a one-off kind of thing, that he would build the school and then “get on with his life.” However, one school led to another to another. During the 9/11 crisis and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mortenson was in Pakistan and Afghanistan building schools and trying to help the US government see the humane side to these lands. He's still there.
Two great quotes from the book:
“You have to attack the source of your enemy’s strength,” said Brigadier General Bashir Baz. “In Americas’ case, that’s not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. The enemy is ignorance. The only way to defeat it is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise the fight will go on forever. “
“I had no idea what education was,” said Jahan, a Korphe, Pakistan village girl. “But now I think it is like water. It is important for everything in life.”

**This Wednesday, I’ll be doing a talk in honor of Women’ History Month at Foothill College. Please come join the discussion.

**Also, if you haven’t had a chance, please ask your local library to order a copy of My Half of the Sky.
Please leave your opinion about the book at your favorite online bookstore (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powells,/etc.)
Please keep spreading the word.
Thank you!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Dealing with Our -Isms

I took part in a fascinating panel at the Indian Business and Professional Women Council discussing Silicon Valley Reads Not a Genuine Black Man by Brian Copeland and the heavier outcome: race relations in the US...and the world. I was really pleased to be part of this panel, as the central theme of my novel, My Half of the Sky, is how do we reconcile traditional thoughts (and fears) with the reality of the moment?
The other panelists included journalists, Mike Swift
Diana Rohini ,and De Anza Professor Ulysses Pichon.
Moderator Shubangyi Vaidya asked us what part of Copeland's book reminded us of our lives. Copeland grew up in San Leandro, an all-black family in an an all-white neighborhood. His mother had trouble getting their apartment (and keeping it.) To that part of the book, I could totally relate.
When my Chinese husband and I went looking for our first apartment in Japan, we ventured outside of Tokyo (where it was cheaper and greener). In fact, we traveled willy-nilly on the train until we saw enough greenery. When we got off the train, there were three real estate agencies beckoning to us with huge advertisements for lovely apartments. But when we walked into the first one, they said, 'Oh, we have nothing right now. Sorry."
We walked into the second place and got the same response.
"This is too strange," I thought. "Something else is going on."
At the third place, I asked my husband--who spoke Japanese fluently and who had lived in Japan long enough to look the part (short spiky hair, jeans, clunky shoes)--to please go in without me. This time there were plenty of apartments.
What had been the problem? Foreigners, the agent explained. Foreigners weren't raised the same as Japanese. They made big grease fires, cooked smelly foods, left a huge mess...needed special permission to live.
Our IBPW panel, after hours of discussing various experiences at home and abroad, came to no ground-breaking solutions to the issue of Fear of Others. We concluded:
1) There is no innoculation against racism. We need to just keep addressing the issue over and over and over again.
2) It's not just about color, but about ethnicity--traditions, language, culture. (We didn't even get started on religions.)
3) It's important to constantly question our -isms: racism, sexism, agism, homophobism, etc. Why do we act and react the way we do?

Do you have any experiences to share? Any thoughts to add?

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Best Way to Ski

This past week was “going to the snow” holiday we went to the snow. However, while I grew up conquering black diamonds and getting lots of air, while I taught my kids how to ski as soon as they could bear to wear those clunky boots and fall in the snow without thinking this was some bizarre torture, I’ve lost my passion for the sport.
It started a couple seasons back, the worrying. What will I do if I break a leg? Or worse, an arm? How would I write? I thought all this paranoia was too much caffeine in my diet. But the next year when I was down to drinking hot water instead, I was still hemming and hawing.
I realized I enjoyed the chairlift ride more than the actual skiing. That instead of reveling in the “jump-age” (kids’ word) and excitement, I prayed I’d just make it down in one piece. I realized that the kids I’d taught to ski were leaving me in the powder spray (and had moved on to snowboarding the black diamonds.) Oh, sure, we always met up to do one run together, but even then I could tell they were really humoring the “old lady” (kids’ word).
So this time, while I brought my skis just in case I had a sudden craving to return to the good old days and race down the hill crying, “ye-ha,” I also brought lots of books.
Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos is a book I avoided because of the title--it sounded like a Harlequin Romance. But when a friend of mine said it was great, I plunged ahead. While the book has an abundance of beautiful people, the ending is happy and somewhat predictable, and it is a romance, the voices of her characters are strong and witty, the dialogue is amazing, and the story is fun. I enjoyed reading it so much I picked up her second book, Belong to Me (another yucky title).
Home Was The Land Of Morning Calm by Connie Kang tells of Korea’s history during the 1900’s through the voice of a woman and her family. It’s fascinating the twists of fate dealt this small-but strategic and highly-coveted--island country, and hearing these facts through the real history of family makes it even more interesting.
So I had a wonderful going-to-the-snow holiday, and I did venture out into the snow, on long walks with the dog, on hikes to the local store, and while shoveling out our car which I’d run into a snow bank (long story). But this snow --except for the snow bank incident--felt safe and friendly. I didn’t hem and haw once. I came away thinking it was the perfect “ski” holiday and why hadn’t I done this earlier? But then the best editor I’ve ever known once said to me, “Just because a character realizes something, doesn’t mean he or she will immediately act upon that realization.“ A thing to remember in fiction as well as life.
**I’m doing an author chat this week on Library Thing. It’s an interesting site with lots of events going on, so stop on by.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Fun with Language

I love listening to non-native English speakers. Their words put a twist on the mundane and offer a refreshing look at life.
Author Phyllis Mattson who wrote War Orphan in San Francisco, a fascinating story through letters of how she and her parents were separated during WWII, mentioned that the word “become” in German means “to get or receive.” She said it took her a long time to stop “becoming” an artichoke or piece of bread when she was just asking for some. But what a neat concept--the you-are-what-you-eat mentality.
My youngest daughter’s Russian piano teacher once said, when my daughter had forgotten to keep the beat, “You do not like to remember to count.” Exactly. How many times do we forget because we do not like to remember?
My Chinese husband doesn’t provide as much raw insight anymore. This past week though, I thought he‘d given me a new one. He was in Thailand on business and had stopped to see some old friends of ours who recently moved to Bangkok.
“We went to a restaurant called Cabbages & Condoms,” he said.
I was sure that this was an interesting language issue.
“You heard me correctly,” he said. “There were condoms on the walls and dripping from the trees.” (Actually he didn’t use the term “dripping,” but I could just imagine.)
At the end of the meal, which he didn’t describe as he was so busy telling me of the ambience, they brought the check and fortune cookies? No. Dinner mints? No. You guessed it.
Apparently, C&C is a non-profit whose aim is to combat the lack of Family Planning assistance and promote safe unions.
But back to language. Most recently my eldest daughter called from college, procrastinating. She had to write a paper on Democracy and Capitalism.
“Ughh," I sympathized.
“It should only take a couple of hours,” she said.
“That’s it?”
“Oh, well this isn’t the final paper,” she said. “It’s what my teacher-- who’s from Serbia-- calls a Discovery Draft.”
The Discovery Draft. How hopeful and inspiring without alluding to the garbage it will become. How beautiful.
Have you heard any interesting uses of language? Please tell.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Hiker Friends for the Journey

We have a beautiful dog named Scotch. She is a sweet dog, and one of many dogs on the road...some of whom are not so sweet. In fact there's a posse of six right up the road who will bark at a falling leaf, and whose ferocity brings out the "flight" instinct.
Still, Scotch loves being outside and wandering, and she'll often go on walks with the neighbors. Then she'll stop and say hello to the friendlier dog population. At night, she comes back home.
This past week, though, she went out early in the morning and she didn't come back. So I called one of our neighbors and asked if there had been a Scotch spotting.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "Saw her heading up past the corral with another dog."
I got in my car and went looking. I drove past the corral down towards another neighbor's. Just as I pulled into her place, she was driving out with Scotch in her car, ready to bring this guest home. It wasn't the first time.
My dear neighbor had a theory that Scotch followed hiker friends up the road, but then was afraid to go back down, "past the barrier" of six barking soldiers on our road.
It seemed a funny thing. I mean why would she walk past this menacing barrier a first time, but not a second? Obviously having the hikers by her side made all the difference.
This episode reminded me of my own writing. About my barriers: How will I find time to write in the middle of x, y, and z? How should I start? How will I get past the murky middle? What will my mother (sister, brother, husband, friends) think of this? These barriers are no less daunting even though I've passed them before.
And I definitely agree with Scotch. It’s necessary to have "hiker friends"--CWC, my critique group, my writing buddies-- along on the journey.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Things I Love

Yesterday, we were invited to a Superbowl Party. I have no feelings about football. It’s a foreign world to me that I don’t care deeply enough about to want to learn more--kind of like Sanskrit. My eldest daughter used to be on the Dance Team at her high school, meaning she danced football halftimes. I always timed it so I’d get there just for her performance. Except once--the homecoming game--my daughter said I’d better get there early or I wouldn’t get a seat. I went, taking a sweater along to knit as I whiled away the l-o-n-g minutes. I sat next to this elderly gentleman (in his 80’s) who had graduated from the school and never missed a game if he could help it. Although I didn’t ask, he began explaining the various penalties and plays. At one point, he took my elbow. “You must stand for the kick-off,” he insisted. I was impressed. He really wanted me to understand this world.
Although, thanks to that kind man, I’m a little more knowledgeable I’m still no big fan of the game. So fortunately last night, true to form, I showed up at halftime in time to hear The Boss.
Last week I was “tagged” by two dear bloggers: Becky Levine
and Nina Amir to answer questions about what I love. They’re both great writers. Becky’s an amazing editor, and writes Young Adult fiction as well as non-fiction books for writers. Nina does non-fiction articles on faith, her dancing son, cooking, and how to become an expert. They asked for between 7-20 things I love. I’ve chosen the number 8, a favorite number of mine as in Chinese the character represents “ever-increasing harmony.”
I take my family & friends as a given in this. I love :
1) Watching my kids participate. In swimming. Basketball. Dance. Music. Theater. If they were in football, I’d love that too.
2) Mornings when the words just dance from my heart so fast my fingers can‘t race across my keyboard fast enough.
3) The beach.
4) Traveling someplace new
5) Playing games--Scrabble, Worm, Charades, Cards
6) Hiking & Swimming
8) Hearing a good story or reading a good book…which brings me to my latest, a book I had no intention of reading. Last month I read the book Beautiful Boy by David Sheff, a non-fiction story written by a father whose wonderful son became addicted to methamphetamines. Tweak by Nic Sheff is the book his son wrote about the experience. I felt as if the father’s book was as much as I wanted to hear, but my teenager (who had also experienced the father‘s viewpoint) wanted to read Tweak.
I thought I’d best preview it. What if it said something like drugs were the most wonderful thing in the world? And it did….for the first 30 pages. But then young 20-something Sheff keeps talking (and it always felt like he was chatting, revealing secrets only a really close friend would)
Like the gentleman at the football game, he took me by the elbow and showed me his world, leading me through the darker side of the streets of San Francisco, defining the drug world that had become second nature to him.
He wrote bluntly about his struggle. How he would go days without eating, had no place to stay, spent hours trying to break into an apartment complex just to take a shower, crawled to the LA airport in his socks, as he’d lost his shoes, stole from his family, begged on the street corner, sold his belongings and his body. All because he’d spent every last penny on getting high. Many times he’d gone sober…and then relapsed. The ending brought me to tears….and I passed the book onto my son.

Oh, yeah, Now I get to do the tagging. I pick Lynn and Sara

Sunday, January 25, 2009

No More Dragons

Explosions come from all around. The air is so smoky you can hardly see five feet in front of you. The night sky is filled with lights, bursting and dripping through the air. It's Chinese New Year.
I've only been back to China twice for the New Year. But each time the firecrackers went from dawn til midnight. The fireworks exploded more than the 4th of July. The story behind firecrackers and Chinese New Year is a wonderful symbolic one I think of often...especially during the New Year.
According to legend, there once lived a dragon. He came out of his cave once a year, forced his way through the village gates and kidnapped a young virgin in his thick, hairy hands--like a guest picking up a toothpick.
The villagers were terrified of this dragon.
The village priest suggested building the village walls higher. Setting a bonfire. Making a fake dragon. None of these methods worked.
Then one year as the dragon approached, a child lit a pocketful of firecrackers, one by one. Kaboom. The dragon jumped back on his haunches. Kaboom. His scales turned bright yellow. Kaboom. Kaboom. The dragon turned and ran away, never to be seen again.
I love this story, because we all have dragons: Dragons who say you can't accomplish this or try that, dragons who breathe their intimidating fires, dragons who make you afraid to follow your heart. Imagine the sound of firecrackers. Kaboom. Kaboom. Kaboom.
Happy Year of the Ox. May it be one of Happiness and Prosperity...and No Dragons.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Find Your Piece of Ground

Last week, I took my youngest daughter (9) to see Brian Copeland speak. He's the author of Not A Genuine Black Man, this year's Silicon Valley Reads, and he was doing an opening interview in Campbell. I'd heard Mr. Copeland speak several times. We both presented at East of Eden, and then again at Book Group Expo. It's not that I expected to hear new material. But I wanted to be there to support the opening of this great book, the story of a young boy growing up black in the 99.9% white neighborhood of San Leandro. (I've given away more copies of this book than any other.)
It was like a girls' night out for my daughter and me, as we went to dinner beforehand and played several games of uninterrupted tic-tac-toe. When we got to the theater and sat down, I marveled at how wonderful it was to be there, sharing this moment with my daughter. I enjoyed the back-and-forth between Mr. Copeland and his interviewer. Then I felt my little one tug on my sleeve. "How long does this last?" she asked.
Later when we sat down for a bowl of ice cream, I asked, "What do you remember about the talk?"
"Uh," She lifted her spoon to her mouth, as if to think. "He has three children."
Well, that's true, I thought, wondering again at how our world is shaped by what we hear or think we hear. And how she might grow up one day to tell her friends how she got dragged to this theater to listen to some man talk about his three children. How everyone in the city had come to hear about those kids.
What I remember of the talk is the story he told of how he got started writing. He was talking to his friend, Carl Reiner (producer, The Dick Van Dyke Show) and bemoaning the fact that he didn't know what to write about. Mr. Reiner said, "You have to find the piece of ground that you alone stand on. Then write about that." Copeland realized that nobody else could tell the story of a boy growing up in the heart of diverse California and at the same time experiencing segregation and racism as though he lived in Mississippi. When he figured this out, it was as if the gates had been opened. He had found his voice.
What is your piece of ground? What unique dish do you bring to the table of life? These words echo in my mind when I am at a loss for which direction to turn in my own writing...or even in my life.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Milpitas Treasure Chest

"Now said a good book unto me.
Open my pages and you shall see
Jewels of wisdom and treasures fine
Gold and Silver in every line
And you may claim them if but you will
Open my pages and take your fill”
(Excerpt, Michigan’s Poet Laureate, Edgar Guest)

An indispensible friend to every cook in need of a recipe, author Lynn Walker, asked to hear about the Opening of the Milpitas Library this past Saturday.
The Milpitas Library , a 10-year-dream in the making, is twice the size of the old library where it was often so crowded you couldn't find a seat, where the checkout line was longer than that at Costco.
What I found most wonderful about the new library, though, was that it incorporates a special building: the first Milpitas Grammar School. The Grammar School was used to educate from 1916-56, then it became City Hall, then a community center, then a senior center, and now it is the auditorium and reading room for the library.
I found it so heartening that the people of Milpitas adapted the old school to meet the needs of the community.
So, while I’d been asked to talk about my current writing project, I was inspired by Milpitas’ dream to talk about my first dream, My Half of the Sky. My dream took longer--12 years which often felt like FOREVER--and was about a village, unlike Milpitas, which couldn’t adapt to the changing aspects of the world around it.
The afternoon was fabulous and memorable--with music, dancing, speeches and tours. It was an honor to be there with Terri Thayer, author of four murder mysteries, to help open this lovely treasure chest. If you get a chance, stop by and admire their jewels.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Give Yourself Time to Do Enjoy

Happy New Year. I hope you enjoyed the holidays. We had a house of twelve, relatives from the midwest and southern CA, and we enjoyed so much--endless games of Scrabble and Charades and Ghost--that this morning everyone left the house as though going off for a lethal injection.

One of our interesting trips was to San Francisco. Initially, I wasn't planning to go. I had a thousand other things to do (send off Holiday cards, read a manuscript, figure out dinner.) However, my favorite sister-in-law insisted I join. As we were a big group (11) we took two cars, and I told my husband we should just meet the rest of the crew for lunch in Chinatown and then come home.

I had forgotten what a vortex Chinatown is. There are so many things to see (people were playing ancient instruments on the street the day we went). So many shops to browse--the fresh vegetable shops, the medicine store (we needed our cold medicine 999), the inexpensive luggage place, the Chinese New Year store, etc.

We didn't stay as long as we wished and we still got home later than our relatives. In fact, by the time we got back, they had fixed dinner.

I had to laugh at myself. I'm always doing this. Most often with writing. Often I just want to get the day's writing done, done, done, as I have a dozen other things on my plate. I don't allow myself time to enjoy and explore the scene or the character, instead rushing in with "only enough time for lunch." I end up feeling cheated ...and still late to pick up the kids from school.

So, in this New Year, lets give ourselves time to do the important things well. And to Enjoy.

**One great book I read over the holidays was Fortune Catcher
by Susanne Pari. The story focuses on what happens when life as you've come to know it becomes illegal, immoral, a reason for your death. Laylee, a woman born in Iran but raised in both Iran and the US, returns one year with her Iranian fiance to marry, and the country they knew and loved had disappeared and been replaced by religious fanatics. A fascinating read.

**Hope to see you at the opening of the Milpitas Library this Saturday, 1pm at 160 North Main Street, Milpitas. :)

What People Are Saying About My Half of the Sky

My Half of the Sky was the BookSense Pick for August 2006 as well as a Forbes Book Club Pick.

"McBurney-Lin tells a wonderfully entertaining story with the traditional coming-of-age theme (which is experienced universally)...weaving in the cultural challenges of growing up in China's rapidly changing social system."
Mary Warpeha, co-President of the Minnesota Chapter of US-China Friendship Association
March 2010

"The novel ...includes many of the tales and the folk ways of the people living in the rural areas of South China, still followed provincially. The story takes place in current China, but could relate the dilemma of any young woman in rural China through the ages."
Kitty Trescott, National Board of the Midwest Region of US-China Friendship Association. March 2010

"A lot is expected of a young Chinese girl. My Half of the Sky by Jana McBurney-Lin is the story of Li Hui, a young girl who has just achieved marriageable age. She seeks to make the most of herself, but the expectations all around her make it difficult, as her parents seek to use her as pawn to their advantage, she is faced with what she believes to be true love. She must balance career, romance, and family, all to somehow make everyone happy, a tough endeavor indeed. An engaging and entertaining read from beginning to end, "My Half of the Sky" is a poignant tale of the modern Chinese woman, and recommended for community library collections.
--Midwest Book Review November, 2008

“It is a rare women’s novel that sensitively describes the life of a young educated woman in modern-day China in its full complexity, without resorting to unnecessary sentimentalism. Jana’s deep knowledge of the realities of life in China and Singapore makes the reading extra rewarding. In fact, with every new page the novel gets harder to put down and you find yourself gobbling it up before you know it. Finally, the author has given a voice to the Li Hui in all of us, as we struggle for the golden middle between tradition and the modern momentum of our world.”
Isabella Sluzek
Friends of the Museum Book Review 2008

You'll be rooting all the way for Li Hui as she struggles, ahead of the curve, to be her own woman in an emerging, modern China. Jana McBurney-Lin's My half of the Sky is a beautiful, witty, touching debut novel.
Thomas B. Sawyer
Head Writer TV Series "Murder, She Wrote,"
Author - The Sixteenth Man

A complex and mesmerizingly original tale of a young Chinese woman caught between the modern world and the pull of her ancient culture. McBurney-Lin’s intimate portrait of China sparks with insights and is peopled with characters so rich and alive, they seem to breathe on the page. Dazzling and unforgettable.
Caroline Leavitt,
Author - Girls in Trouble

McBurney-Lin's debut novel is a gift. Li Hui is a memorable heroine, a young woman torn between her heart and her culture.Her daunting journey is a trip into China's complicated soul, and a deeply moving exploration of love, honor, duty, and loss." Frank Baldwin, Author - Balling the Jack

My Half of the Sky is a wonderfully-crafted story that was obviously written with a piece of McBurney-Lin's heart. A masterpiece."
Lee Lofland, Author - Howdunit: Police Procedure and Investigation

My Half of the Sky heralds the arrival of a fantastic new storyteller. With artistry and precision, Jana McBurney-Lin's clear-eyed prose takes the reader on a new journey into a past world that speaks to a modern sensibility, a modern world, a modern woman. This is a book to be treasured.
Emily Rapp, Author - The Poster Child

Through vivid descriptions of sights and smells, Jana McBurney-Lin's My Half of the Sky is a haunting, emotional journey of what it means to be an honorable female in modern China. Jill Ferguson, Author - Sometimes Art Can't Save You