An open letter to my writing self…

Dear Writing Self,

Here are some things I’d like to say to you:

1.  Get off your ass!

2.  Quit making excuses!

Oh yeah, and:

3.  I love you.

I guess I didn’t exactly do a great compliment sandwich, but that’s okay.  Sometimes you just gotta tell it like it is.  And it is like this:  To be a writer means to write.  Period.  And a person either does it or she doesn’t.  There really is no gray.

Here’s the thing, I often don’t when I should.  And sometimes I don’t when I really want to.  I just can’t think.  Or I’m tired.  Or I’m lazy.

But I do find solace at least in what Stephen King says in On Writing about the only job he ever had when he couldn’t still write was when he was teaching.  That makes me feel like it’s not just me and I’m not just being lazy.  Yet, the notion also depresses me.  It means that I have to choose.  Teaching is such a giving job, and if I’m going to give to you, I have to choose between you.  True, I can still write.  I can sit down and put words on a page.  But how can I get lost in a world I’m creating?  How can I know what my characters do when I’m not writing them?  How can I lose track of time and forget where I am because you have taken over my brain and heart and physical body so that words gush from me onto the page?

I can’t really invest fully in you when I’m giving so much of me away all the time.

But I am lucky.  I do get to teach other writers and that is energizing.  For that hour each day, I may not get to invest in you particularly, but I get to at least invest in your colleagues who live in my students.  That’s something.  And I’ll try to take that something and turn it into something else that resembles you because I need you so much.  And I am blessed and cursed with two life’s passions.  I don’t think I can choose.

So here is what I’m going to promise you:  I won’t write every day, but I will write consistently.  I will sit down with you even when I’m tired or overwhelmed or frustrated.  And when I can’t sit with you, I’ll sit with your friends who live in me too–the artist, the thinker, the tinker, the dreamer, the observer.  I’ll ask them to be there when I just can’t bring you along.  I’ll ask them to be there so that I can walk around with bluebirds and drumbeats and chorus lines and crazy Aunt Fayes making a home in my head.  I’ll make it real cozy for them–a warm house with layered shag carpets and lamplight and baking smells coming from the kitchen–so when you decide to come and visit, I can sit down with you there and have something to say to you.

Be patient with me.  Don’t leave me.  Come visit the home I’ve made for you and stay when you can.  Because without you, I am an empty house with one sad light shining from the window.




Update: Happy rejection becomes ecstatic semi-acceptance!

I wrote earlier this week about feeling happy even while being rejected by literary magazines.  As it turns out, positive thoughts can lead to positive events.  I received this email today:

Dear Ashley:
Thank you for submitting. I liked this story well enough to pass it on to our senior editorial staff for further consideration.
Thanks for the read. You can expect to hear back soon.
So not quite an acceptance, but thrilling nonetheless.  And the best part is that it was my long shot magazine choice–they have a 1% acceptance rate according to Duotrope.  Even if another email follows announcing an ultimate rejection, I got far enough to keep going.
Kind of like Forrest Gump:  “I made it this far so I figured I might as well keep running.”
You bet your ass I will!

Tales from a Happy Reject

rejectionThe irony of rejection is that sometimes it can actually make you really happy.  My new year’s resolution for 2014 was to write more short stories and start submitting them for publication in literary magazines.  I would say this is the first new year’s resolution that I have ever kept.  And it feels really good.

It even feels good when I get the letters rejecting those stories that I worked hard to craft because with each one of those letters, I get closer and closer to an acceptance.  But the reason I love those rejections so much is more than just that I’m closer to finding acceptance.  I love them so much because they represent me being vulnerable and taking a risk when it actually means something.

Writing has always been a part of who I am–even when I don’t actually do much of it.  I have always written stories in my head and sometimes on paper.  When I think about life as a writer, I can actually feel my eyes welling up with tears.  I have physical reactions to the idea of a life of writing.  So when those rejection letters come in, it means that I’m trying, and there’s really not much more that an aspiring writer can do.

The first letters I received were informal, impersonal, and generic.  I interpreted those as we’ve got so much going on, that your piece didn’t even catch a second glance.  I can handle that.  There are lots of amazing writers out there and who am I to presume I’m better than all of them?

Then I got one not-so-nice letter that was pretty critical of the piece.  I would be lying if I said it didn’t sting when I read it.  But my husband reminded me, “Isn’t that something you can learn from?”  And I pulled my head out of my ass and got real.  They probably had a point.

But just the other day I got the best rejection letter of all.  I’ll share it with you here:

Dear Ashley ,

Thank you so much for your submission.  We enjoyed reading your work but ultimately decided not to accept this particular submission.

We hope that you’ll send us more of your work in the future. We really do. Your prose style is quirky and engaging.

We’re sorry we don’t have the time to explain the reasons why we reject submissions.

Best of luck to you!

They didn’t accept the story, but what does that matter?  Magazines receive hundreds of submissions all the time.  The possibility of getting a story in one is truly slim, and when that day finally arrives, I’ll be thrilled.  But the fact that someone at this particular magazine took the time to thoroughly read my work, understand what I meant to get across, and respond personally to me means the world to me.  Someone gets me.  And isn’t that a writer’s goal in the first place–to find another soul in the world who understands your message?

I have arrived.


Image taken from Google Images.

Life lessons learned from a 2nd birthday party

My girl is two!

My girl is two!

My beautiful little baby morphed overnight into a two year old.  Don’t ask me how it happened; I don’t even know.  Apparently I live in a Kafka novel because that is how absurd it feels to me.

Yet the celebration of this surreal event brought with it life lessons that taught me a bit about living.  I’ll share them here…

1.  Mo’ money, mo’ problems.

Well, not money exactly, but junk.  Specifically junk in the form of toys and sweets and all of life’s other tempting treats.  We don’t give Nina a lot of sweets, and we certainly don’t give her mountains of toys, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by the junk hangover she woke up and wrestled with all day the next day.  My sweet little girl had somehow been snatched up by a frenzied wild beast who razed our house to the ground.  After sleeping it off that night and waking up normal again, our decision to refrain from too much junk and stuff and crap felt validated.  Bottom line:  The more junk you have, the crazier you act.

Rough morning.

Rough morning.

2.  We all need a retreat.

At one point during the party, after Nina had been passed around from guest to guest for a while, I looked around and said, “Where’s my child?”  Only to discover that she was sitting outside on the screened in porch by herself.  I went out there and found her sitting in the swivel chair peacefully snacking on her ham sandwich.  Apparently even at your own party, sometimes you just gotta get away from it all.

3.  When you know what you want, just roll with it.

Before any birthday party, the traditional phone chain begins, guided by one main question:  What should I get the birthday girl?  Our response was hands-down, “baby dolls.”  But we didn’t really pay attention to how many people to whom we gave this answer.  A few gifts in, we realized the trend and I got a little nervous.  Nina seemed unfazed and pretty happy about it.  But what really jerked her jolly was the opening of a coveted baby stroller.  It seemed for a brief second that the party was over as she jumped up from the pile and rolled it to her bedroom, seemingly to never return, until she victoriously marched back out with her favorite baby doll strapped in safely, proud as a peacock.  Everyone clapped and cheered.  After come coercing, we were able to talk Nina into opening the rest of the presents, but she never took her eye off her stroller sitting to the side.  As soon as all the presents were opened, the other kids pounced and made their claims, while Nina happily strolled off with her baby.  In hindsight, I should have just let her go to town with that stroller.  It might have been rude to the guests, but hey, it’s her party and she’ll stroll if she wants to.

Oh yeah, baby dolls!

Oh yeah, baby dolls!

4.  Sometimes it’s really not about you.

An hour or so before the party began, one of my best friends, a disgruntled mother of three, called and timidly told me that she and her husband had miraculously scored football tickets and an affordable babysitter all in one day, so they would not be coming to the party.  She was really concerned that I’d be mad, and (surprisingly) I really wasn’t.  I knew how badly she needed a day out, and I genuinely wanted her to have it.  Over the past few years, I have been known to get frustrated when people don’t show up or when (gasp!) people fail to recognize how much it really is about me.  But something about seeing your baby sprout like a weed overnight puts it all in perspective:  When you love someone, you just want to watch them grow.  And it’s really not about you when you’re thinking about the growth and happiness of others.

5.  What you think you want is often the last thing you want.

For the past two weeks, Nina has been obsessed with the birthday song.  She wants me to sing it several times before bed, when she wakes up, and on the way to and from school.  I explained to her in detail what would happen at her party and how everyone would sing before she blew out her candles and ate cake.  Although she’s a two year old, she seemed to get it.  But the moment arrived and Nina shut down.  All of those eyes staring at her, people hovering around her and clamoring for her to “blow out your candles, Nina!” was all too much.  She clung to me, gripping my skin, muttering “no, no, no.”  I blew out her candles for her and she eventually made peace with the ordeal once she got her hands on the cake, but she seemed truly disturbed for a minute.  As much as she thought she wanted the birthday song, when the time came, it was too much–just like that craving for Cheetos I get at 4pm on a Monday.

Please don't sing.

Please don’t sing.

6.  When it’s all over, there’s always something positive to remember.

Throughout the day, Nina had her ups and downs.  It even took her a while to figure out whether or not she liked the cake and ice cream (crazy girl).  But the next morning, between meltdowns over the baby doll’s clothes, which book to read, and how to put the new puzzles together, Nina cuddled on the couch with her daddy, looked up at him, and out of the blue said, “Cake is good.  I like cake.”

Now there’s a girl who gets it.

Life is sweet.

Life is sweet.

Update: Delicate geniuses need empathy too

I posted a week ago about my frustration with doctors.  Well, not so much with doctors in general, but the slack cut to them verses the constant badgering other public servants (teachers especially) have to deal with.

Since then a doctor from my hometown committed suicide.

Although I didn’t know him personally, I did go to school with his daughter and I started to think about her, whose face I could picture, and other members of her family whose faces I could not.  I felt sick to my stomach for them and reminded myself that you never know who might need your empathy and compassion–even those who seem to have it all.

I’m currently reading a book that has really stuck with me called 10% Happier by Dan Harris.  In it, he discusses his journey through learning how to meditate and become a more compassionate person.  He is a skeptic of the whole process, but pushes through because he feels the benefits of the practice in his life.  Reading his book has forced me to think more about being more aware, more open, and more empathetic to others.

Photo taken from

Photo taken from

When I heard the news about the doctor from my hometown, I tried to remember the lessons I’m learning about mindfulness from Harris’ book, and I spent a while trying to send compassionate thoughts to the gastroenterologist last week who so frustrated me.  It turns out it was pretty easy to do, because just as I try to remind my students and their parents that I am a human and not just their teacher, I should remember that lesson myself as well.  My mail carrier has his own dogs to walk, the woman who helps me at the post office has grandchildren she doesn’t get to see enough, and the twenty-something serving me iced tea works really hard to pay her bills.  We are all more than one facet of ourselves.

I posed this question to my students last week and now I’ll pose it to you:  If you lived your life in a padded room and never interacted with another human being, would you still be you?  Or do all those people shape you into what you believe is your identity?  Am I a mother without my daughter?  A wife without my husband?  A teacher without my students?

We all need each other, and sometimes that might mean being patient with a grumpy doctor and putting aside resentment for the unequal treatment of our professions.  Because you never know what kind of stuff swirls around in his head when he leaves his visit with you.

Learning about compassion in Poland

Teaching has provided me many opportunities–I pretty much have the best job ever–but one opportunity that I don’t think I ever really digested was going to Poland in 2005 to tour concentration camps with Holocaust survivors.  Last night, while digging through baby clothes in the basement, I came across my journal from that trip and felt inspired to write about it.  Here it is…

This place is a grave. This whole place is a grave. Yet, flowers, grass, and trees grow without the knowledge of what has happened here. Life must go on. Suffering exists, but life must go on. May, 25 2005.
I remember, for some reason, feeling like I was starving. And I felt guilty for feeling this way because of everything that I was learning and witnessing. We had scheduled meals provided for us and I even wrote in my journal, “I’m really beginning to enjoy Polish food.” But I couldn’t get eating out of my head. I sat on the bus with fellow teachers traveling from cemetery to monument to concentration camp and all I could think about was drinking a cold, frosty coke, which doesn’t exist in Poland. Europeans like their soda hot, I discovered. I looked around me and saw young and old teachers, Holocaust survivors, Holocaust experts and thought, do they wish they had a coke too?
But about three days into the trip as I scarfed down food at one of the scheduled buffet meals, I looked over to Irving Roth, a Holocaust survivor traveling with us who lived in Kentucky for many years after the war, and who I was both in awe of and felt to be a kindred spirit. With a plate piled with food in front of me and plans already to help myself to seconds, I looked at Irving who sat quietly, almost religiously, sipping one small bowl of soup. I thought to myself, he knows truly what it means to starve and here I sit complaining while he sips silently and contentedly. Every time I thought of food, or coke, I’d picture Irving savoring each sip of his broth as if it were his last, and I’d try to remember to savor it more.

Me and Irving Roth

Me and Irving Roth

I walked in, not expecting to see it, so it startled me. It smelled like death. A pile of hair from the murdered corpses. May 26, 2005.
Fred Spiegel, another survivor with us in Poland, walked with us into the room piled with human hair, the stench of burning flesh and rotting hair hanging in the air, and he stood aghast at the sight of one long blonde braid on top of the pile, perfectly in view from where we stood. He told us, once he caught his breath (this was his first time back to the camp since the war), that the last time he saw his little sister was as he stood watching her blonde braid dance across her shoulders as she bounced away, unaware of her fate. I looked around at my fellow teachers, sensitive people with a desire to foster change in the world, and eyes were welling up with tears at the realization that this man felt true pain and hardship with which we could never understand or relate.
We attempted to understand Irving and Fred’s pain later when we sat for 12 minutes (the amount of time it took to die from the gas) in the gas chamber at Majdanek. I looked at the concrete walls and stared at the scratch marks on them where dying human beings sucked the last shred of air while desperately fighting for their lives. The scratches blurred through my wet eyes, dancing like a very sad and gray Van Gogh painting. Some of us cried softly, dripping privately in our anger and desperation and others of us left choking on our sobs. Some went to be alone, sitting and writing; others were hugging and talking through what they felt. I looked around at my colleagues’ and friends’ blotchy, somber faces and noticed, within walking distance, a house. A woman was on her balcony, hanging dull-colored clothes on a clothesline. Everything I felt from the images my imagination had created for me in the gas chamber disappeared as I thought, this woman hangs her clothes out to dry every day beside a massive human grave. My thoughts were interrupted when someone in my group decided to create a prayer circle. There was no pressure, just some people who quietly joined hands and before long everyone had joined hands in quiet prayer and contemplation. I looked around that circle and recognized that there were people with joined hands from all religions as well as atheists, but everyone came together for one purpose: to pay quiet tribute to those who were murdered.  I looked up to the balcony where the woman had been, her clothes flapping in the wind and wondered if she ever prayed for her neighbors whose graves were below my feet. I hoped that she did.

Gate to Auschwitz

Gate to Auschwitz

I keep telling myself that the war is over and this does not and will not ever happen again. But seeing all this makes my heart ache. I know inside that we’re closer than we could ever imagine. May 27, 2005.
Days later we went to a synagogue where a rabbi and Holocaust expert were to speak to us about both his experience and his knowledge of history. The rabbi was late and we became restless sitting in our cold hard pews waiting for him to show. Finally, as he became inexcusably late, a leader in our group called him on his cell phone to find out what delayed him. He was told, through exasperated breaths, that the rabbi had been harassed on his way to the synagogue. Two thugs confronted him on the street and began pushing him around, chanting Poland for the Poles! over and over again. Again, the teachers sat in silence when we heard this news. A hush fell over the synagogue. I suddenly felt hopeless. What am I doing here, I thought, one teacher can’t stop hatred and violence, no matter how much history I learn. The rabbi finally arrived and his demeanor encouraged me; he was happy to be there and brushed off the act of cruelty as something that could be stopped if we just kept trying. He told us a story about a dog that saved a man’s life during the Holocaust. The man was a Jew who fled through the woods and found a barn belonging to a Gentile man who kept his dog inside it. The winter was brutal. The Jew shivered in the back of the barn, nearing death from starvation and hypothermia. The dog growled aggressively at the Jew in the beginning, but was in the habit of leaving half of his food when his master would feed him in the bowl for the Jew. The dog spread out his hay, sharing it with the man through the days and at night would lie close beside him, warming him with his body. The Jew said later that he suspected that the dog’s master knew he was there, yet pretended not to. He hadn’t enough compassion to let him into his house, but enough to allow him to sleep and eat in secret with his dog. The dog, however, shared lovingly and completely. As this rabbi spoke, his hair messed from the ordeal he had just undergone and glistening with a tint of sweat, I looked in wonder. Here stood a man before me who faced hatred and violence with hope and patience telling a story about a compassionate animal who saved the life of a man when no one else was brave enough to do it. I thought, if a dog can have compassion, surely any human being can, if they let themselves. And I wondered could I ever be as brave as the rabbi had been that day?