The Broken Window

IMG_3111This is a new poem. It’s fresh, so it’s not polished. But that’s where I am right now, so there’s that.

The Broken Window

When your world spins
penny sided, copper streaked
like blood from the runway slit
on his wrist when he landed
on the other side
of the window
when he cried and told you
the truth of his heart
threw it at you like a bible
the corner piercing into your motherhood
a sacrifice til the blood ran
copper streaked and dizzy with his
stitches in the ER at 1:00 a.m. his
pretty nurse making him
hold still, a moment,

one moment

 
and you watched as he
centrifuged down circling
circling around and down
and then he
stopped.

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Five Young Adult Books for the Mom in Your Life

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It’s almost Mother’s Day, so here is my list of YA novels you may want to consider if you are looking for a great book for your mom. Nothing is hotter than YA right now, and for good reason-bookstore shelves are stacked with lots of wonderful YA reads. YA is honest, accessible, and just plain dreamy:

5. Being Henry David, by Cal Armistead. When a teen boy wakes up at Penn Station with no memory, he follows the only clue he has-a copy of Walden. Mom’s will be drawn right in to this lost boy thriller.

4. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. I never promised they would all be modern classics. In this coming of age story, Jane tackles adversity, a Gothic mansion, and a lot of mystery.

3. I capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith. Yes, that Dodie Smith. The one who wrote 101 Dalmatians. In this charming tale, a young English girl, sequestered with her has been author father and an assortment of family oddballs in a dilapidated castle, discovers that life can bring you surprises in the most unlikely of places.

2. Zel, by Donna Jo Napoli. This retelling of the classic fairy tale brings us the story of Rapunzel through the eyes of the three key characters, Rapunzel, the Prince, and the Witch. Every true mom’s heart will soften when she reads the witch’s side of the story. This is a book that reminds the reader what it is like to be young.

1. Reckless, by Cornelia Funke. If your mom likes fairy tales and magic and a little romance, this is the story for her. Let her escape for a while to another time and place where fantasy reigns supreme. Funke’s imagination and beautiful language never fail to captivate.

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Foolish Thoughts

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As we say goodbye to April, some thoughts on foolishness keep demanding my attention in their uncomfortable fashion. You can’t be an artist without feeling foolish sometimes. We put our best work out there only to find out that we hadn’t looked at it with enough of a critical eye. We misspell agents or editors names in our attempts to get something out even though we are submitting bleary eyed as a deadline looms. We find typos immediately after we have pressed the send button.

We also write about characters who live through raw emotions: love, hate, fear, grief, rejection, failure. If our characters don’t ever fail, then they aren’t very interesting. If a character is never a fool, then there is nothing for them to learn, no journey for them to go on. They have to want things, to try, to fail, and sometimes to be foolish in all these things as they follow their quest.

We fall in love with out characters because we share their shame as they make fools of themselves. We seek their redemption as if we are seeking our own. In a way, we are. Every one of us has played the fool, we all know how much it hurts and how hard it is to take that first step after we pick ourselves up, how hard it is to walk with a head held high when we’ve trusted the wrong person, or jumped a chasm we couldn’t possibly land, said the wrong thing at the wrong time, or stood helplessly when we should have fought like a badger.

But it’s just that foolishness that makes our readers fall in love with our characters, too. They don’t want characters who sit quietly and look pretty. They want characters they can relate to. Characters who make mistakes. Characters who play the fool. Because they’ve been there, too. We write so that we don’t feel alone. But we read for the very same reason.

So the next time you are foolish, be glad. There is a reader waiting somewhere out there for a character who is just as foolish as they are, and, because you’ve been foolish, too, you can give them that character in all his or her splendor.

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The Face of Institutional Racism

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The other day, my high school freshman son had a lacrosse game for school. My white son goes to an independent college preparatory school that prides itself on its diversity. As a result, his team is made up of kids from various racial, socioeconomic, and cultural groups. There are about 65 students per class. It’s not a school known for its athletic titles, but it has a few. They played a large (about 425 students per class) suburban school that is predominantly white. Despite the fact that our opponents had more than twice the number of players on their team, I didn’t see a single kid who didn’t appear to be white. They beat us by a score of, I think, 16 to three. I really wasn’t keeping track of that, I was just watching to make sure my kid didn’t get hit in the head and no one notice it.

After the game when my son got in the car, the first thing he told me about the game was that some of the opposing players had taunted his black teammates with racial slurs. One boy, in particular, they targeted with insults because he is very tall and muscular for a junior. I had heard some of the other team’s parents complaining that this boy played too roughly and that the referees needed to “do something” about him. I didn’t notice him playing all that aggressively, but he has a tremendous reach because of his size and he wasn’t letting anyone intimidate him into not using that size. It’s lacrosse, after all, a fairly rough sport. But when my son told me what had gone on during the game, I understood why the boy was so determined not to let anyone intimidate him.

This kid is really nice kid. He’s also a super smart kid who is going to have his pick of Ivy League level schools. But despite his qualifications of character and athleticism, he was made a target by some jealous kids because of his race. And then parents from that team singled him out for his play even though it wasn’t anything the refs were willing to even call.

I asked my son if the refs had heard these slurs. He said no, he didn’t think so. It’s not the first time I’ve seen something like this. My oldest played hockey with a kid of Pakistani descent who sometimes had racial slurs hurled at him. There are strict league rules about it. In one instance, my son, who was never a fighter, had stepped between his teammate and the kid targeting him. The refs then got involved and, I believe, threw the kid out of the game and suspended him. I trusted the system to take care of it.

I think most of us, in general about everything, trust the system to take care of problems of racial, gender, disability, and other forms of discrimination. But what has come to light in the news in recent years and sparked the Black Lives Matter campaign is the fact that our trust is often misplaced. Too often the system does not address the problem, and, in fact, is part of the problem. I thought about this yesterday and I became increasingly concerned that the boys on that field from my son’s school would see another instance where the adults they trust would trust a system that ultimately might fail to do its job.

I talked to one of my son’s coaches today. They were aware of the issue at the time, this coach had himself heard at least one slur. They had yelled to the refs that it was going on, but the refs said they hadn’t heard it. So, after the game, they lodged formal complaints with the other school’s athletic director and the league. They talked with our boys. I don’t know what the league will do, but I am hoping they will have an investigation and take action. The athletic director of the other school apologized on behalf of his students and has promised to take action. I worry that not much will come of all this, or at least not enough. Because the discrimination against our players was demeaning and wrong. It was demeaning and wrong for our targeted players in particular, and it was demeaning and wrong to every boy on our team. It was offensive to every boy on our team. But it matters that the process is there. It matters that the system is being used by my son’s coaches and that they will do their best to hold the kids who used these racial slurs accountable. It matters that my son and his teammates know that there are adults trying to fulfill a promise of a world in which we judge people by their characters rather than by their race or gender or sexual orientation or any other criteria used to marginalize human beings. It matters that every kid from every race on my son’s team knows that the system is going to be used to protect them and their classmates, teammates, and friends from discrimination, for every type of discrimination suffered, but especially for racial discrimination because it is so prevalent. And, most of all, it matters that we all start paying attention to whether the system is held accountable to work as it’s supposed to do.

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The Art of Letting Go

Letting go

Letting go

I’ve never been a big fan of change. Maybe because I was never very goal oriented, at least not in the sweeping sense of achieving some great feat. I was the slow and steady type, plodding forward on the path of expectations, going to school, always practical and low maintenance for the other people in my life. I suppose if you have a big dream, then change is a reflection of each little step toward that dream and so you would welcome it. But for me, change always meant uncertainty and letting go of the people and places who made up my world, for better or worse.

I don’t know how old I was when I began to associate change with letting go, but I must have been pretty young. Maybe it was my mother’s stories about growing up, and all the people she talked about who were no longer present. I never knew any of my grandparents. The closest I came was having my paternal grandfather know that my mom was pregnant with me before he died. But my mother would tell me stories about the past and I wanted so much to touch it, to touch the people she talked about, to know them and have them know me. My mom always spoke of her mother with so much love, and I heard that from all my aunts and uncles, all my cousins who had known her. My mother always would say as she told me about my grandmother, “Oh, how she would have loved you.” But things change, and I never got to know her.

As a teenager, letting go seemed to be something ritualistic. We become fully aware of letting go. We let go of high school, though for many of us it’s not much of a loss. Let’s just say that I’m among the many who can say, thankfully, those were NOT the best years of my life. But still things change and we let go. My best friend moved to Arizona and we lost touch for a long time. Our two dogs, a brother and sister born when I was four, grew up with me and outpaced me and became old. They died a few years apart. Two of my uncles died. The last family from my grandmother’s generation passed away. The landscape of my childhood began to shift and change. I became an unwilling student in the art of letting go.

Sometimes we find that letting go is the healthiest choice we can make. That guy who broke your heart? Or that person you thought was your friend? That school you didn’t get into? Like James Bay’s song Let It Go, sometimes we are the ones who need to change:

I used to recognize myself
It’s funny how reflections change
When we’re becoming something else
I think it’s time to walk away

I grew up. I went to college and law school and got married. I turned thirty and let go of unrealistic dreams that were never going to be. I had children, welcoming each as the most wonderful change in my world. But change doesn’t let you freeze-frame or pause. I learned to let go of their hands, their bikes, their passwords. I learned to let go of their choices and their time. But somehow, despite all this practice in life, I haven’t really gotten any better at letting go than I was when I was young. I’m generally an optimist, and I know that as an optimist I should say that letting go frees us up to new experiences, new hands to hold, new possibilities we can’t imagine while we are holding onto other things. But the truth about letting go is that, for most things, it’s hard. It hurts. And sometimes the fastest way to heal is to just let yourself feel the pain. I think maybe that is the lesson here. That the art of letting go is is all about walking across the coals, knowing it’s going to hurt, but moving forward anyway. Because, just like burning your tender feet on hot coals, it’s only when you have finally crossed that you can start to heal.

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Other People’s Expectations and Assorted Cosmic Mistakes

The Path of Expectations

The Path of Expectations

Today I was tutoring a kid who told me that “Meeting expectations is hard. Especially when they aren’t even your expectations.” He grimaced as the words struggled out of his mouth.

I’ve only tutored this kid twice. His mom hired me a few days ago to help him with an English paper on Hunter S. Thompson. But the first time I met with him, it quickly became clear that he really didn’t need my help to write the paper. He was articulate and labeled himself a confident writer when I asked him how he felt about writing. He was at the stage where he was writing supporting notes for the paper, and he knew exactly what he wanted to say. I told his mom at the end of the session that I really hadn’t helped him very much. She said she just needed someone to help him be accountable. Someone to give him the reason to sit down and do the work. While I was happy to help him, I suggested she find a tutor closer to her home and less expensive if that was all he needed, trying to make her life a little easier.

She texted me today and asked me to meet with him again. This time, he and I talked more about the books his paper is about, and that’s when we started talking about expectations. He wants to be a musician, but that’s not what his parents expect of him. I told him I get lots of students at the University where I teach who struggle with the same problem. And he is right. Expectations are hard, especially when they aren’t even your own.

I’ve watched my own son deal with this issue this year, as he entered his senior year full of anxiety and depression. I’ve told my kid for a couple of years now that he didn’t need to go straight to college, that he could take a gap year or two if he needed them. He and I thought those gap years would be spent playing junior hockey, but when he quit hockey last summer, we were both suddenly unmoored. He was getting a lot of pressure from school to complete his college application process. It all became too much and he ended up having to step back and take a break from the whole idea.

The thing about other people’s expectations, though, is that they’re like stars. They can guide you, but they aren’t the only lights in the sky. They don’t have to be in opposition to your own dreams. They don’t have to derail you from following your own passions. Expectations create opportunity, but they aren’t the same as destiny. The world is big enough for these things to coexist. It can take some creativity. Sometimes a lot of creativity. It can take time, and maybe some expectations get delayed or ordered into a different sequence. Maybe those expectations merge and morph into something else completely as you travel along. Some expectations may drift away like falling stars. But once you realize that expectations are nothing more than constellations to help you navigate the milky way that lies before you as your future, other people’s expectations aren’t nearly so stressful. You may even find that you can talk about them without grimacing.Because the only real cosmic mistake you can make is shutting your heart to opportunities without wishing on the stars first.

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Marketing a Novel for the Introvert

As authors, we eagerly seek the validation of publishers, sending out our polished manuscripts into a world stacked against them on the desperate hope that someone, anyone, will believe in our story as much as we do. A novel. A published novel. Rarely will you find someone writing one who doesn’t harbor the hope, secretly or openly, that his story will find an audience. Add into the equation that many writers are introverts and suddenly you have an interesting moment of truth when a publisher accepts a manuscript. An introvert with a published novel. That she needs to market. Yikes.

This is exactly where I now find myself. My young adult historical fiction novel, Leaving Kent State, was accepted this past November by Harvard Square Editions and will be forthcoming later this year. It’s a small press, so there is no massive marketing team waiting to lead me through the challenges of the debut author crucible. My publisher does have a plan in place to help me, but the more that I can do to promote the book myself, the more likely it will have a successful sales record. I’m still very early into this process, but here are five marketing tips that I’ve learned so far:

5. Check out websites for bloggers that discuss marketing. Selling a book is a lot like making a blog popular. These sites, such as The Nectar Collective, can give you  a lot of great advice about SEO, using social media as a marketing tool for your book, or organizing your marketing strategy.

4. Search for book reviewers and start making connections with them before you need to actually contact them to request a review. This isn’t that difficult. Search on Instagram, Goodreads, Twitter, etc. Once you tap into reviewers, you will see quite a lot. Notice how often they post, what kinds of books they like, and whom their audience is. These things will help you narrow a list, because you will most likely have to send them two ARCs (advanced reader copies) of your novel, and you are most likely going to be footing the bill for these ARCs yourself (unless you’ve landed a six figure deal with a big publishing house, and then you aren’t reading this anyway….)

3. Ask authors who are further ahead in the journey how they launched their first book. Take them for lunch or coffee. Writers are among the most generous of professionals with their time and ideas, probably because our journey to make a living as a writer is so challenging. There are as many ideas out there for marketing a book as there are books. Brainstorming with other writers about how you can make your marketing plan for your particular novel stand out is an invaluable resource for the debut author.

2. Contact independent booksellers. Call them, walk into their stores, email them. Because my novel is centered around the shootings that happened at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4th, 1970, I spent an afternoon looking through the websites of every independent bookstore in Ohio. Some clearly aren’t going to be interested in my book (for example, one specializes in Jane Austen and regency literature only). Some of them were listed as specializing in young adult literature, so I called to ask whether my book would be something they would carry. One of the stores, despite it’s description as a bookseller of YA, in fact only deals with books through middle grade (age 13). But when I called another bookseller and explained the reason for my call, the woman gave me a ton of helpful advice, both about independent booksellers in general and about the Ohio market in particular. I learned more about marketing my book in that fifteen or twenty minute conversation than I have from hours of my own research.

1.  Reach out to the people who have supported you and are further ahead in the journey. It took me a month, and encouragement from a friend (okay, actually two friends), for me to screw up my courage and ask for book blurbs from established writers I know. It was really hard for me to ask (I’m Italian). But everyone whom I asked was enthusiastically supportive of me. Which is awesome and generous and really, really helpful. But the point is, if I hadn’t asked, they wouldn’t have known that I wanted their help.

These are my top five marketing tips so far in my journey toward launch. What are yours?

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New Year’s Resolutions

Being a writer, I’m very aware of the semantic trappings of New Year’s Resolutions. Dictionary.com defines resolution as “the mental state or quality of being resolved or resolute.”

To be resolute in purpose is to be goal driven. Humans are goal driven creatures, and it’s only a short jump to understand why we are so drawn to making resolutions, even when we don’t really believe we can be resolute in making them come true.

But resolution also has an optical definition: the act, property, or capability of distinguishing between two separate but adjacent objects or sources of light or between two nearly equal wavelengths.

Taken together, resolution becomes an act of distinguishing between our desires and our goals, which may exist on separate wavelengths, and may carry separate obstacles and value to our lives. In this vein, New Year’s becomes a time of reflection that is inseparable from our most mindful self, and may present a mirror we don’t necessarily wish to look into. Like a magic mirror, this reflection holds not only our own image, made of the present and past merged together, but also the wake we may create with each step, every potential future ripple of that wake just beyond our reach and waiting to be examined. Our resolutions are not merely acts of atonement, an effort to “do better,” but the manifestation of the worth of our desires to impact others going forward. In thinking about our resolutions, it’s no less important to wonder how our resolve to bring together our desires and goals may affect others, how we may spin the world further on its axis in a way that improves the world, while leaving us more enlightened than we were before. Our resolutions may, at times, seem insignificant, but the ripples they create deserve our consideration in a world where wavelengths travel so very easily.

So this year I resolve to think not only about my resolutions, but also of the impact they may have on others, and my responsibility of citizenship and stewardship for them. By doing so, I hope to look at the world with more love and a little bit less resistance.

Happy New Year.

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I’m Not Sure Where November Went

November, 2015

November, 2015

The only thing I am sure of is that it’s long gone. It’s been a kind of whirl wind month for me. My first young adult novel has been accepted at Harvard Square Editions and will be forthcoming sometime next year. Last Friday, I went “cover” shopping with a writer friend of mine. We met for coffee at my local Barnes & Noble and then looked at covers from various YA genres to get ideas for what mine might look like. It felt a lot like Christmas shopping, in a very good way. I’ll definitely update on what the publishing experience is like as I go along.

Also last month, I attended my Western Pennsylvania Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators annual conference. There were some amazing and inspiring presentations by editors and agents, and it reminded me a little of being at my MFA residency, that kind of immersion in craft and ideas that makes you feel like anything is possible if you just open yourself up to your creativity. You can learn more about the SCBWI and the WPA region here. Also, be sure to check out our Assistant Regional Adviser’s blog for additional information. Her name is Kate Dopirak, and you can find her here. She’s an awesome author, too, by the way.

And, finally, my young adult short story, Honor’s Justice, came out today in Lunch Ticket, the MFA journal of Antioch University Los Angeles. You can check that out here. I’m very proud to be associated with this edition and it’s emphasis on the human condition.

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Monsters

I love Halloween. The rustle of the leaves, the cool of the night, the damp shine of a rain-slicked street, the quiet of fog. I love the flicker of candles in jack-o-lanterns and black cats (I’m very partial to black cats), the caramel apples and chocolate everything. The only part of Halloween I’m not crazy about is the scary part. I’m much more of a Disney scary movie girl than a Freddie Krueger kind of girl. I like my monsters on the light side, like mayo.
The thing about monsters, for me, is that nothing is scarier to me than what human beings can do to one another and animals. I can’t make myself believe in ghosts or sasquatches or werewolves. Even if those things do exist, how many times do they actually attack human beings? How many documented cases of murder by ghost are reported each year? Human beings, well, that’s another story completely. They scare the daylights out of me.
But monsters, the really scary kind, whether they are human or otherworldly, make for great stories. As writers, we have to seek out the monsters in our stories to create tension. Every protagonist needs an obstacle. Even if that obstacle isn’t, technically speaking, a monster, it needs to act as a monster. It needs to knock the protagonist to his knees and make him fight for his life, whether that’s literally or figuratively. Monsters are the stakes in the story, the obstacle that wants to take away the protagonist’s dreams. And every story deserves a monster as scary as Samuel Whiskers, an obstacle that can materially alter the course of the protagonist’s life for the worse. It can be hard to unleash monsters on our protagonists. We love our protagonists, because, after all, we create them. They are like our children, so we don’t really want to put them through the darkness that a true test will. Our instinct is to shelter and protect them. But just like our real children, our protagonists must face the world with all its darkness, and we can only hope we’ve given them the strength and tools they need to succeed. Okay, with our protagonists, we get to choose if they do, so it’s a lot better than when we have to watch our kids struggle through life. So bring on the monsters in your stories not just at Halloween, but all year. Your readers will thank you for it.emma
Spooky Tortie

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