Battle Creek Tornado Touchdown, Sunday, May 29, 2011

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The final words from my previous post on learning new things in May were “And just think… there are still 3.5 days left in the month to learn and do even more interesting things.” Little did I know then how much there was to learn in the past three days. (Note to self: NEVER post about future possibilities again, except when writing fiction.)

Back up in time to last Saturday afternoon: I walked around our yard, picking up three handfuls of small twigs. Twenty-four hours later, I wondered how to pick up the several trees in our yard and through our house.

Sunday, May 29, 2010, at 4:29 p.m., a tornado touched down in our neighborhood.

First of all, my husband and I are safe. Although I know of several close calls, miraculously, no bodily injuries occurred as a result of it. I can’t say the same for our house.

Secondly, ever since the tornado struck, we have been without electricity and water. It may take weeks to restore. There is obviously much, seemingly unending, physical labor to do. I am torn between clean-up efforts and recording/communicating. However, I shall post when I can.


Sunday afternoon, my husband heard the tornado siren. Like we normally do whenever we hear it (from years of living in tornado alley Iowa), we headed for the basement. He had on the weather radio, but it only warned of rain and strong winds. A couple of minutes (2!) after we were downstairs, we heard loud, scary sounds of which I’ve never heard before. People say, “A tornado sounds just like a freight train.” Freight trains go through Battle Creek all the time. They sound more like clickety-click than the rushing, whooshing, mob-of-ghostly sounds we heard. I’d always thought the brick chimney which goes from roof through ground floor to basement would be the safest, sturdiest place to hunker down next to in case of a tornado. But the overhead wind and crashing noises kept me several steps away from that tunnel to the tornado.

Things went black. Then came the bams. Loud. House-shaking. Bam. Bam. After I realized the basement ceiling was still in tact and we were uninjured, my husband and I just stared at each other in the measly little generator night-light.

Two trees came through our house – an 80’ oak tree which uprooted and smashed away the corner of our bedroom, and another oak, much taller and thicker, the top half which twisted off and then sailed into our garage roof.

Witnesses say three tornadoes were spotted at the same time, in the same area of Battle Creek – our area!

Once the noise was over, the wind and rain stopped just as if some giant had sneezed. The storm was loud. It was quick. It was gone nearly as quickly as it came.

My husband and I ventured upstairs. Power lines were down. Everywhere we looked, trees lay across our roads and over houses and on cars. Small rivers ran through the grassy ditch dents next to the narrow roads, too wide to leap over without getting wet — the least of our problems. Neighbors trickled from their houses. We all clustered together, as if fragile humans have the ability to protect each other at times like this. I’m sure it was more about security.

Although our cars were apparently safe in the garage, we couldn’t get out of our driveway for the trees laying in it. Even if we could, we couldn’t get more than three houses away.  Trees blocked every possible exit.

Interesting thing from this: neighbors become the old-fashioned neighbors you read about elsewhere. Before this, we mostly acknowledged each other with nods or waves and occasional brief conversations. Now there were individual survival stories to tell. All of us needed to communicate. The stories. Lots and lots of stories.

I will post more when and as I can. This initial post was simply to let you know we are safe.  Much more coming. Promise. Like I said, we people have a need to tell our stories.

(P.S.  When I can get to an SD card reader (not exactly a top priority at this point), I’ll post photos on my FaceBook page.

Why Write? (part II)

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I feel like standing up and saying, “Hi. My name is Sandy. I’m a writer.”

I haven’t confessed to too many people that I actually have four blogs. I don’t post on them all regularly, but they are four very different blogs on very different subjects. For instance, I also have a humor blog where I write true funny family stories, but also stick in some good old clean jokes now and then. That blog is strictly for sharing the funny. Another blog concerns my husband’s occupation — b.o.r.i.n.g. to most people.

Why four blogs? For compartmentalizing different focuses.

I also have written nonfiction articles, as well as stories cross-genre and cross-age, from PB to adult thrillers. (The last is under a pen name, so as not to confuse my dear children readers.)

When I was a freshman in college, my advisor — a very plump woman threatening the existence of her chair, with narrow eyes which burned into your very soul — asked me what I wanted to be (when I grew up). I got all fluttery and replied, “I just don’t know. I love being outside, but I love working with kids, and I want to help people, and I want to explore places, and –” She slammed her hand to her desk to stop my babbling. I was startled because, after all, she’d asked. She waggled her finger at me and said, “Focus. Decide on one thing and do it.” Then she waved me out of her presence with the back of her hand. I was devastated. But then, I ended up in a profession which did all of the above. I was an elementary school teacher, and a girl scout leader, later becoming a wife and mom and cub scout leader. I really COULD do it all. Ha on her!

Coming back to my wide interest in writing… I feel my former advisor shaking her pudgy finger in my face with a “Focus!” Will I ever learn? Could I focus on just one series and write a bazillion stories with those characters? Not sure it’s in my varied personality. But because of my families adventuresome spirit, I don’t need to do tons of research for what it would be like in many situations. We’ve been there. OH! something I hadn’t thought about because it is far too scattered to focus into one book — a memoir!

How To Write When There Are Others Around, Part III — Some More Solutions

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One very important thing I failed to mention concerning writing when there are others around, was/is personal discipline.

Besides my husband working in the den of our house for much of his work, we have company at our house now — for about 10 days. I’ll have a 3-day break at the end of next week before we get in a different set of company (family — hurrah!) for two weeks. I’ll have company in our house 24-7 for most of this month. It’s a might distracting for the writer.

It’s now 7 days into the month. How much writing have I gotten done so far this month? Confession: very little. Excuse: entertaining guests and traveling to touristy places. However, I have done some writing, and I’ll share the reflections of my experiences.

How to write when there are others around? Unfortunately, I’m not rude enough to shut myself up behind a closed door. Besides, when I do that, I inevitably get distracted by laughter from the next room — which I’m SURE was some great writing fodder story which I’ve lost out on. So…

1) Sneak away for a five-minute writing break. It feels glorious. You may feel sneaky and somewhat guilty, but glorious all the same. I know this. I am a writer. I need to write each and every day. If I end up not writing, I make Oscar the Grouch look as singing-sweet as Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

2) When you do get the chance to sneak away, do not — I repeat, DO NOT — spend your glorious writing minutes with checking your email, catching up on FaceBook, LinkedIn, favorite blogs, how far the Gulf Coast tar balls have drifted, etc..

3) Enjoy your company. Relish in visits from family. Love them to pieces. And learn to delegate. (e.g., “Oh, say… how ’bout if you folks clear the table and wash the dishes?” Then go sneak in your cherished writing minutes.)

4) Microize your normal writing goals. (I sure hope I made that word up instead of used some swear word or laser weapon. No time to research it now. Remember? I’ve got company in the next room.) Instead of giving yourself 3 hours to spend in revisions, limit yourself to one chapter a day. Microize your normal writing goals.

5) When company leaves, and there are sheets to wash, floors to mop, toilets to scrub, mountains of laundry to do, etc., don’t forget to work back up to your normal daily writing schedule. W.E.D: Write Every Day.  (Rats! Another made up word.  I sure hope that isn’t some acronym for a porno site. No time to look it up.)

Sticking Out Tongues and Pigtail Pulling

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The other day I was thinking about the naughty things kids used to do just a few decades ago– like, when they got mad at each other, they’d stick out their tongues while “making a face.” Or, if a boy wanted to tease a girl, he’d pull on her pigtail.  The victims tattled, and the offenders got disciplined, usually by staying after school for a certain amount of time.

Flash forward to today — and I know this from recently teaching and subbing in elementary schools in three states. When today’s elementary aged kids get mad, they can threaten lives (“I’m going to kill you.”), they say words one would need to watch R rated movies to hear, or they grab the opposite sex in “the privates,” with the boldness to lie about it to the adults who witnessed it, and then threaten to sue the teacher and the district if there is any discipline done. And no one can stay after school because most students are bussed.

I have taken razor blades away from a fifth grader, and broken up many fist fights. One parent tried to run me over with her car after school on the day she found out the principal gave her son a three-day in-school suspension. Her son was one of my students. Another parent yelled at me for several minutes in the hallway, defending her first grade daughter for  angrily throwing markers at my back. I know teachers and counselors who will not place their desks near windows for fear of being shot at.

Times are a’changing. No more tongues sticking out nor pigtails getting pulled. Is childhood innocence really a thing of the past? If so, what’s a writer to do?

One could write fantasy, mysteries, or historical fiction. Or best yet, no matter what the genre or age of your reader, write truthfully, and give your readers hope.

Happy, safe writing.

School Visits and the JOB of being a writer

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A writer friend of mine — Ruth McNally Barshaw — was in my town last week, doing five school visits. Of COURSE, I had to both meet up with her and sit in on one of her school talks. I was not disappointed. I never expected I would be.

Ruth’s story is interesting. She sketched in journals all her life, but it wasn’t until she went to the SCBWI NY conference (sketching the whole way on the train and back), did an agent approach her and tell her about the new genre called graphic novels. Ruth found both her nitch and her dream job, and she’s good at it, too.

My former career was as an elementary teacher. I’ve sat through hundreds of school assemblies or special events. Some were awesome; some were utter flops.  I know what works and what doesn’t. I know how to be flexible and change things mid-stream (although there is always THE PLAN to rely back upon). After seeing Ruth in action last week, I made a startling discovery: I want to have that job. I want to write stories for kids, then travel around from school to school encouraging children to write (and read).

Oh. Wait. That’s what I’ve been trying to do for a while now. Ah. It’s all about the confirmation. Someday…

Character Changes in Past 50 Years

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This week I caught up on some ancient reading history. I read a couple of Newberry books from the 1960’s.

Okay. I know this epiphany should not at all surprise me, but it did. Before these latest reads, I’d been doing what “everyone” says to do — read the latest books in the field in which I want to get published to see what IS getting published out there today. There are many great reads. Too many books, too little time. However, I noticed that in the books of the ’60’s the main characters experienced a lot of what main characters in today’s writing world do, too. (There is nothing new under the sun.) Only, back then, the kids were fifteen years old or older; today’s main characters who do the same actions are nine or ten years old.

This can only mean that in another fifty years, we will be reading of two and three year olds fighting off villans with mad sword skills, and dashing through streets or forests to rescue the fair maidens in distress or find the enormous lost treasure. Good thing I’ll be dead by then.

If You Had One Million Dollars

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An ancient time ago, when I was in grad school, one of the touchy-feely things we did in class one day was that each student was given “a million dollars” to spend on a select number of items for which we had to bid. Some of the items included material things, like cars and boats and houses. Some included less tangible things, like a best friend who always listened to you, or good health. Most of the students in the class spread their money over ten or fifteen things.

I looked over the list and looked over my funny money. I ended up putting it all on only three items. First, I gave away 1/10 of the money as a tithe. Secondly, I chose to buy an island. Several others bid on the island, too, but had spread their money too thin. Yeah! I bought myself my first-ever (and only-ever) island. Yeah!

The second thing I bid on for nearly half a million dollars, was to never have to bathe again.  When my hand quickly shot up for the bid, those closest to me scooted their chairs away. Seems I only needed to spend one dollar of funny money, since no one else bid on that particular item. I didn’t regret it, though. I felt it was (would be) well worth it. But because I could tell my fellow students were mentally putting me in an entirely different class of animal from them, my social awareness kicked in and I felt I needed to defend my choice.

“Oh, you all just thought it meant never taking a shower or bath again,” I said. “I wouldn’t need to spend half a million dollars to do that.” I laughed lightly. No one else joined in. I swallowed and continued. “What I’m buying for that amount of money is a machine, a machine where in about two minutes, I could walk through each morning and be washed, shampooed, makeup-ed, and dried and hair styled. I hate wasting a necessary hour or more each day to do that. In just one week, I’d have about 7 hours free which I didn’t have before. What I’m really buying for my half a mill is seven free hours each week.”

With that explanation, nearly everyone in class nodded and grunted an affirmation of the length of time taken to do one’s toiletry every morning. I felt relieved that they felt relieved. Explainations are a good thing.

Sure, they agreed with the time factor, but none of them moved back any closer to me for the rest of the class time.

Spell-Binding History for Writing Fodder

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I just read a news report from the BBC about a mass grave found near Weymouth (UK) last June, where construction workers discovered 51 decapitated men, recently determined to have originated from Scandinavia (i.e., Vikings). They were apparently buried naked since no metal objects, nor bone buttons, etc., were found near them.

Many things struck me concerning this article, which has me still reeling in thought. I find that from either point of view (Vikings or Saxons), the story is emotionally charged.

There is the wonder and horror of the Saxons living near the coast, getting invaded by Vikings, probably more than once in order to be so prepared. There is the remarkable capture of 51 men, assumedly warriors. There is the killing by beheading of these invaders, assumedly witnessed by many people. There is the unceremonious mass burial. Then, there is the last line of the article: “Most of them were in their late teens to early 20s, with a handful in their 30s.”

My father-in-law was born in Sweden. My mother-in-law was the only one of her original family not born in England. My mother’s people are from England (5 generations ago). My sons are in their late 20’s. I love being on the sea.

Is there a story in this find? Certainly. Undoubtedly many stories.  Will I attempt to put flesh and blood on the skeletons for a story? Not sure. It’s still too soon after reading the article for me to process the implications, but for some strange reason, the story is hitting very close to home. I can almost see their story, from the boat, from the land. See their faces. See their hopes. See their fears. See the horror. It all flashes before my eyes as if I’m right there, over 1,000 years ago, carrying a video camera on my shoulder, a silent observer in this tragedy-victory. I can’t seem to stop shaking.

Day 30 of NaNoWriMo — Last Day Reflections

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Although there are still a few hours left till the end of NaNoWriMo, I’ve turned in my count. I’m not a winner for writing 50,000 words this month, but I did write 37,000 words, all on the same story so… yeah! 37 K!

Looking back, here are some of the things I learned this month:

* Since I like to keep my promises, signing up for National Novel Writers Month was a scary thing.

* About every day I worried that I wouldn’t make the 50 K.

* I wrote just about every day, anyway.

* Even today, when I knew I wouldn’t make the extra 13 K, I still wrote.

* What I wrote was drivel. I knew it at the time, but counted the words, anyway. It was really bad whenever I went back to see what I’d written and then deleted most of it! The rest of what I wrote this month will have to be either deleted, revised, or seriously rewritten sometime later.

* It was great to work on just one piece of writing at a time v.s. many (story) sticks in the fire.

* I’m a procrastinater.

* I work best in the morning. By mid-afternoon, you could find me staring mindlessly unproductive at a blinking curser on my computer screen.

* Family comes before writing. I’ve always believed that, but this month several major things happened: my father was/is dying; our son and DIL came for a wonderful 5-day visit; DH got to see his first-ever Packers game, live; me, too; my brother got laid off of work; I accepted the position of co-chair of another writers’ conference next October when the one co-chair up and quit. (I know that last one isn’t really family, but it was a major time-commitment.)

* I cheat. (So do lots of other NaNoWriMo folk, but that’s no justification for it.)  I counted each day’s date and each time I wrote in caps about research questions. It was still NaNo story related. (Defensive, aren’t I?) At first, I was really good about just sticking to the story. Then I spent a day working just on plot. That felt great. Another couple days I spent writing autobiographies on some of the major characters; this not only rounded them out, but I also discovered each of their voices.

* I spend way too much time reading and answering emails.

* I must always remember to save periodically, so when I press a combination of magic key strokes, I don’t erase an hour’s worth of work!

* I will probably do NaNoWriMo next year.