Category Archives: A writer’s life

Father’s Day and finding my way

Where's Karen? I'm in there to the right of the tall guy in the blue shirt (my son David), in this picture I took reflecting off The Bean In Chicago earlier this month.

My husband was suffering from allergies (or a cold, we weren’t sure which) yesterday, so his Father’s Day was spent quietly. We opted out of our Sunday routine — which typically involves a hike or long bike ride — in favor of lazily lounging around. Dan’s only goal for the day was to make some progress toward finishing the third book in Edmund Morris’s Theodore Roosevelt trilogy.

Both of our sons called in — Andy from Washington, D.C. and David from his new home in Chicago — to enjoy catching up with their dad. All three of the men in my family are extremely knowledgeable about politics and government (which I am not), so I enjoy listening to Dan’s side of the conversation from my perch at the kitchen island, knowing that this is a special bond they share (along with a love of all things sports). My conversations with our sons typically take a different tack. I ask about household/daily life stuff and girlfriends. I share news about extended family members — their grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins.

Quiet Sundays give me a chance to make some small amount of progress toward catching up and getting organized for the week ahead. I spent several hours sifting through emails, writing to-do lists and tending to naggy, small tasks that always seem insurmountable when you’re in the midst of a busy work day. And with no small amount of initial hesitation, I dove back into my Ethiopia notes.

My motivation was an email I received from a mother in New Mexico. She has written a book, Finding Aster, about her own Ethiopia adoption journey. I found out about her because of all the Google alerts I have set up related to international adoption — part of my continued research for the story that began when I first met adoptive parents Brian and Keri deGuzman of Paradise Valley in the spring of 2009 and which, I hope, will find its own book form if I just keep taking small steps to make it happen.

When I found out about Dina McQueen’s book, I subscribed to her related blog. Anyone who writes a blog knows how exciting it is to find out that someone has subscribed to it. Every time I get a message that someone has subscribed to my blog, I click through to find out who that person is. Dina apparently does the same. She found me, found Raising Arizona Kids and wondered, no doubt, about my interest in her adoption story.

She called my office while I was in Chicago helping David settle into his new apartment earlier this month. So she followed up with an email:

When I called your magazine to inquire, I was told about your interest in Ethiopia, which led me to your feature article on your 2010 trip to Ethiopia. Which led me to the remarkable story you wrote about accompanying Brian and Keri to Addis Ababa as they met their two new children. What a beautiful and inspiring story. I was quite moved. Especially as I learned how much some adoptive parents are doing to support their children’s homeland. And how ‘stuck’ I sometimes feel without the resources to do more.

What I can do, however, is share my story and my platform with others who may be able to help me get out there and speak. My mission, basically, is to encourage adoption as a viable and vital way to grow a family. Concern about the environment and women’s health, as well, of course, as the massive issue of parentless children world-wide fuels my passion to keep on connecting with others.

I have ordered a copy of Dina’s book and I look forward to reading it. One of the reviews I read particularly intrigued me. The reviewer said that Finding Aster could truly be called Finding Dina, because of the magnitude of personal growth the author underwent during her journey to become a parent.

With Keri deGuzman as we checked in for our flight to Ethiopia last July. We were both wearing T-shirts promoting Acacia Village, an orphanage the deGuzmans support in Addis Ababa. Photo by Brian deGuzman.

Personal growth — and continued striving for it — is intrinsic to my ongoing connection to the deGuzman family and their continued commitment to the many children who remain orphaned in Ethiopia. It is time to stop hiding behind my fears of being inadequate to the task of telling their evolving story.

Finding Aster may well help me get back to the task of finding myself.

Inspiration from an author’s real-life fairy tale

My mom introduced me to Jean M. Auel‘s Earth’s Children series of historical fiction. She and I both have enjoyed reading the first five of Auel’s novels. So when I saw a story about Auel in Thurday’s Arizona Republic, and realized the sixth and final novel in the series is out, I couldn’t wait to call my mom.

I had other family news to share (my son David just accepted a new job!), so that of course came first. And she had to get to an appointment, so we didn’t have a whole lot of time to talk. But just before we said goodbye, I started jumping up and down, finally remembering that I’d wanted to tell her  The Land of Painted Caves is out.

I love Auel’s stories, which are based in the European continent during the Ice Age. Her heroine, Ayla, is independent, resilient and resourceful. The series begins when she is a young child who is separated from her family, and her tribe, during a terrible earthquake. Her journey to survival and self-discovery is filled with adventure and fascinating, detailed descriptions that illustrate the tasks Earth’s earliest human beings had to perform simply to exist.

Auel did a staggering amount of research to bring a sense of authenticity to her writing. Getting inside the heads of characters from more than 25,000 years ago couldn’t have been easy.

But it’s Auel herself who captivates my imagination. She was 44 when she published the first book in her series. She had never written a book before that. As she promotes her sixth book, traveling around the country to speak and autograph copies, she is 75.

When I read Randy Cordova’s interview, I was enchanted by the audacity of Auel’s creative effort. She writes for herself, doesn’t worry how her books will be received and doesn’t bother with blogging, email, social media or “building a platform” for selling her books, which is what all the industry experts say you need to do. As I struggle in my own writing to bring dimension to characters who are living, breathing and actually telling me their stories, I am awed by the leap of faith and courage her effort required.

Her story is itself a fairy tale — of the very best kind.

Post-a-day angst and the Weekly Photo Challenge: Light

Discipline is good. Obsession is not. I know this. Yet the message from The Daily Post at WordPress yesterday still had me tied up in knots.

“You’ve now completed 25% of the challenge!” it cheered, applauding the thousands of bloggers around the country who (like me) are trying to meet the challenge of writing a daily blog post. Three months down, nine to go. I should be feeling great. But I don’t, because I’ve already failed to meet the challenge. Two 24-hour periods escaped my attention, consumed by fatigue or other priorities.

Then came the April Fool’s Day prank. I wonder who thought it was funny to exponentially inflate the site stats? My tiny moment of hopeful elation was quickly deflated when I realized it was all a joke.

The hardest thing about blogging daily is finding the audacity to believe that you have something valuable to contribute to the universe. Many, many days I feel like that is far from the case. But I’m going to try again, starting today Maybe I’ll do better in my next 25% of the challenge.

So here’s my submission for the Weekly Photo Challenge, and my revenge on the person who suggested the April Fool’s Day joke: I spent part of my day taking pictures along the Batiquitos Lagoon Trail in Carlsbad, Calif. I’ll bet whoever inflated my site stats did not.

Make my day: Feedback

Writers and editors put a lot of information out into the universe each day and never quite know how and where it sticks. So feedback, both positive and negative, is what we live for. It tells us people are paying attention.

The following message came from Melanie Rogers, who wrote our April issue story, “The Kid’s Speech: Finding Support for a Child who Stutters.”

I had a stack of mail to go through last week, and didn’t realize the magazine was out until I received a wonderful email from someone I know who saw it. I quickly went through my mail and am so pleased with the fantastic job your editors and art [director] did with the story. Nate was thrilled to see his picture in your magazine, and I am so glad to get the word out about stuttering support.

Thank you so much for allowing me in your magazine. It’s been a favorite for years, and I’m tickled pink that I had an article published by you.

Giving positive feedback, I’ve discovered, is just as satisfying as receiving it. So I wrote back:

Glad you liked the spread, Melanie. It was nice of you to write to say so! I thought the article (which came out just after “The King’s Speech” won the Academy Award) was very timely and full of helpful information for parents. I also really enjoyed watching the video you and Nate put together…what a great thing you are doing by empowering your son to educate others about his stutter.

The video I’m referring to appears on the home page of the National Stuttering Association:

The best laid plans

Sometimes the day doesn’t go the way you expected. Despite your best intentions. And because of them.

My husband and I planned to attend a girls lacrosse game on Saturday morning. We wanted to watch my honorary goddaughter, Ace Jenkins, in her first game of a new season with the Desert StiX. We showed up at the field at 11am, the time I’d noted on my calendar.

The game actually started at 10. It was my mistake; I’d entered it incorrectly on my calendar. So we missed the whole thing. But we enjoyed the chance to catch up with 10-year-old Ace and her dad, Tony.

Dan, who played lacrosse in college and was an enthusiastic fan for the eight years our son David played in high school and college, gave Ace some pointers. He encouraged her to practice picking up the ball with her stick, and explained a drill she could do on her own at home. Pickups are important, he explained, because the team that is most often in possession of the ball usually wins the game.

As we were talking, we noticed an older group of girls gathering at the other end of the field. As Ace and Tony left to go home, Dan and I walked down the field to investigate.

Dan, who still follows both boys and girls high school lacrosse in Arizona, quickly figured out what was going on. It was tryouts for the traveling team that will represent Arizona in the Women’s Division National Tournament at Stony Brook University in New York over Memorial Day weekend. Dan spotted Jessica Livingston, coach at Chaparral High School, who was leaning on crutches as she watched the warmups and drills from the sidelines. (She torn her ACL playing lacrosse a few weeks ago and won’t likely be playing again for the next six months.)

I needed a story for the Sunday website. Dan is always happy to write about lacrosse. And I had my camera. So my best laid plans gone wrong ended up right on track.

Read Dan’s story here.

Going back to my father’s book

I hadn’t opened the binder for more than two months. I couldn’t even remember why I stopped reading its pages. And yet there it was, on my living room coffee table, waiting patiently for its turn among the piles of books, magazines and research notes demanding my attention.

My father’s book has waited 20 years for me to read it. I guess another two months wasn’t such a big deal.

On this particular night, my husband was going to be out late. My work was done (enough of it, anyway), my house was fairly tidy and I even had a big pot of my favorite Barley Minestrone Soup on the stove. I had at least two hours ahead with no interruptions.

It was time to go back to my father’s book.

My father always said that everything he wanted to say to me and my brothers, but couldn’t, was in the novel he wrote during the months before his death, just after Father’s Day, in June 0f 1991. You would think we’d be eager to read it. We each started to, but never managed to finish it — partly because it’s written in a style that is antiquated and cumbersome. (My dad placed his novel in Australia during the mid-1800s and tried to mimic the language of the day.)

But for me it was also because I was afraid I’d be disappointed. That there wouldn’t be any great insights. That his words would not solve the lingering mysteries of his life, or the frightening, painful death that he endured without letting any of us know that he was ill.

In January, I decided that the specter of that book was messing with my mind — with my own goals to write a book and my emerging sense of self as a middle-aged mother of two grown sons. So I mustered my courage and dove back in.

For several nights I slowly poured over each chapter, trying to read behind the lines and understand the process behind his choice of story line, characters and setting. I read with purpose, pausing after each chapter to jot down notes about my initial impressions. I looked for fictionalized interpretations of my real-life experience as his daughter. I read with kinder, more understanding eyes than I had offered as a self-centered, 35-year-old who still carried no small amount of resentment about her largely absent father.

The first time I tried to read my father’s book I didn’t get past the first 40 pages. This time I made it to page 58. There, to my great distress, I discovered that some pages of his manuscript were missing. So I start again, at page 64, hoping the answers I am seeking aren’t lost forever with those six missing pages.

Questions about copyediting

Maggie Pingolt, a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communications, called our office to ask if she could interview one of our copyeditors. Ours work on contract, so they aren’t typically in the office.

“I supervise the copyeditors,” I said. “Do you want to talk to me?” I was on my way out the door but we agreed to a time later that day to talk on the phone.

Being interviewed by someone isn’t a routine event for me. I’m used to being on the “asking questions” side of interviews and I was surprised to realize how hard it is to talk about the things you do and think about every day.

Maggie: What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Me: Okay, this is kind of a joke, but not really. Keeping up with my email! I get so many hundreds of emails each day it’s beyond manageable. The rest of my job as editor is joyful. I like what I do. But the effort to keep up with my email is a constant source of stress and really eats up my time.

Maggie: Describe your office environment in one word.

Me: The first word that comes to mind is “crazy.” We always have a lot going on at once because we’re a really small staff trying to do the work of a bigger magazine. Call it “crazy,” “chaotic”…any way you can think of to say it that doesn’t make me sound like a lunatic. By the way, this isn’t going to published anywhere, is it?

Just then, our staff writer/photographer, Daniel Friedman, walked by my office door and I heard Calendar & Directories Editor Mala Blomquist call out, “Hi, fried man!”

Maggie: If you could change one aspect of copyediting, what would it be?

Me: These are hard questions! I guess the only thing I really wish I could change is that I wouldn’t miss things. We have several layers of copyeditors who read the magazine before it goes to press and yet there is no way to ever get it perfect. You’re never going to be able to change one thing that solves all the problems. You’re dealing with human beings and a complex language with all sorts of exceptions to rules. I like rules, stylebooks…they give me a sense of certainty as opposed to having to make judgment calls.

I wish copyediting didn’t take so long, but it does — to get it right. I wish it weren’t so important but it is. In this day and age, where everyone is throwing stuff up on the web without a second thought, I worry that the value of copyediting, and factchecking in particular, has been lost.

Maggie: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to go into the field of copyediting?

Me: Really know the basics — grammar, spelling…and understand how important factchecking is. Study the AP Stylebook, get the app on your iPhone and use it…basics! I can’t tell you how many freelance submissions I get on a daily basis with typos, grammatical errors, informal language…it’s disrespectful to an editor to be so sloppy. People don’t take the time they should. All writers should think of themselves as students who are trying to impress the teacher.

Maggie: What’s your biggest pet peeve as an editor?

Me: That’s an easy one: People who are sloppy. Sloppiness indicates disrespect…they couldn’t take the time. I’m a firm believer that you do something until it’s as good as it can be, and only then do you let it go.

Maggie: Are there specific examples of grammar or word-use errors that bother you?

Me: Things that bother me? “It’s” and “its”…a lot of people don’t get that you only use “it’s” when you mean “it is.” Not the possessive.

I cringe when I see “all right” spelled as one word: “alright.” And then “there,” “their,” “they’re”…people misuse those all the time.  I can’t stand run-on sentences…all of that drives me crazy.

We all make mistakes; don’t get me wrong. But when I see a freelance submission that has more than one or two it makes me want to claw my eyes out.

A journey past distractions

A little girl named Hannah was dancing around my table, her long, curly  hair bouncing as she dipped and swirled. When an older gentleman walked past us (who am I kidding — he was probably my age), he misstepped. His iced latte went flying out of his hand, crashing to the ground and spreading a milky river across the sidewalk.

Remarkably restrained, he walked back into the coffee shop to explain what had happened. A few minutes later, he exited a different door, a new drink in hand, calling “Thank you!” to the barrista. Another employee came out with a big bucket of soapy water, releasing it with a forward thrust to push the mess toward a small patch of grass.

Hannah danced closer to the soapy, light brown puddle, clearly intrigued.

“Stay away!” her mother shouted cheerfully from a nearby table, where she was enjoying a late afternoon coffee and chat with a friend. “It’s the alligator lagoon!” Hannah looked up, alarmed. Then she met her mother’s eyes and smiled, enjoying the joke.

For a few hours, this was my happy place: a coffee shop at a busy intersection in north Phoenix. A place where little girls danced and mommies talked and customers oogled pastries as they debated how many shots of espresso and how many pumps of syrup they wanted in $4 coffee drinks.

I, too, had an expensive iced coffee, though mine was free because I belong to the “frequent buyers club” and they send me a postcard offer for a free drink every year near my birthday. I held onto my card for two weeks, waiting for a special occasion. Today felt right.

I sipped my drink (more milkshake than coffee), popped earbuds in my ears and pulled out my laptop. Blenders whirred loudly. The music of the Eurythmics (“Here Comes the Rain Again”) was jarringly loud. I wondered if I’d even be able to concentrate.

But when I pushed “play” on my recorder I was instantly transported. As I listened to an interview I’d conducted several months ago, I remembered the emotion of that meeting, the clarity of purpose I’d observed in my subject. I listened, typed, replayed, listened and typed some more, bracketing new questions that occurred to me and adding observations I thought I’d long forgotten but which now came flooding back.

I typed until my right hand index finger was stiff and numb. Until I, too, found a place of clarity. Until the sun started down on an almost perfect day and I knew it was time to get home for dinner.

The agony of uncertainty

I get it now. I understand what I’m doing to people when I dawdle and drag my feet and wring my hands and don’t get to it. When the pile is too high or the queue is too long or I’m just not sure what I want to do.

When I procrastinate, avoid making decisions, delay responding and keep other people in limbo because I’m overwhelmed, distracted, tired or uncertain. When the effort to make a decision — and communicate that decision to someone who’s waiting with bated breath — just seems like more than I can manage.

Now I know what it feels like to be on the other side of the writer/editor equation. To be the person who’s not in charge of the decision but the one who offers herself up to be judged. To be the person who carefully does the research, learns everything she can about a magazine, reads the writer’s guidelines, spends a full day writing a query letter and offers up her story idea for publication.

And then waits. And waits. And waits some more. With nary a “we are in receipt of …” message in return. To wonder if it’s okay to write again (perhaps the email didn’t make it through?) or if that will be perceived as pushy. To take a deep breath, wait a month, write again and still hear nothing back. To repeat that process two more times.

To give up. To wonder why she tried in the first place. To question her goals, her ability, her basic worth as a human being.

Sometimes editors ignore writers because the writers aren’t very good — or have so blatantly failed to respect published guidelines for submission that the editor feels no sense of obligation to respond.

But sometimes, sometimes…editors are just busy.

And finally, five months later, the writer gets a message saying, “We want to publish your story.” And the floodgates of doubt fling open, completely overrun by the sheer joy of affirmation.

Ethiopia is calling

Ethiopian President Girma Wolde-Giorgi and his guests (from left): Haddush Halefom (who oversees the Acacia Village project for Christian World Adoption), me, Zerihun Beyene (who works for Christian World Adoption), Brian deGuzman, M.D. and Keri deGuzman. Photo courtesy of the president's office.

I had a dream that I was back at the palace in Addis Ababa, sitting in the office of Girma Wolde-Giorgi, the president of Ethiopia. I was waiting for the president to enter his spacious office so I could interview him for a story.

I saw the same high ceilings, the same heavy curtains, the same bronze cowboy statue on the massive desk — the very statue that intrigued me when I was in President Girma’s office last July, during my trip with adoptive parents Brian and Keri deGuzman.

At the time, I found it ironic. There I was in Africa, thousands of miles from home. And yet what drew my attention was a cowboy, that classic icon of the American Southwest.

I didn’t ask President Girma how a cowboy statue found its way to his desk. Our meeting that day was about the deGuzmans, who were in Ethiopia to welcome two babies into their family. They were invited to meet the president because of their involvement with Acacia Village, a home where 250 children can be nurtured, healed and transitioned into adoptive families. President Girma serves as honorary chairman of the board for Acacia Village, a project of Christian World Foundation.

In my dream, I was waiting in his office by myself, tending to unfinished business. I woke up before I found out what that business was.

A few days later, someone else told me about a dream she’d had. In her dream, I was staying at a beach house in California. The deGuzman family—Brian, Keri and their four beautiful children—had come to visit me. And so had my staff at Raising Arizona Kids magazine. I was fixing lunch for everyone. It was some sort of special occasion.

Ethiopia is calling to me in every way it can. In my own dreams and even in the dreams of someone who is close to me, I am reminded that there is work to be done, stories still to tell.

I have lost some ground in the last few months. The period between November and the end of February is always the busiest and most stressful for my small staff. It begins with research and fact checking for our 128-page Schools, etc. guide to education, which mostly happens in November. December brings double-issue production deadlines for the book and our January magazine.
The holidays throw us all off our game, as various staff members take vacation time to be with family and friends. And then, once we return to work in January, we’re back on deadlines for February, March and the last weeks of planning for our annual Camp Fair.

I knew that I would make little headway with my Ethiopia writing during this time, so I made a conscious, proactive decision to ride it out without punishing myself (too much).

But now it is time to get back on track. After this week, when the April magazine goes to press, I must recommit my time and attention to this story, which has gotten under my skin, dominating my conscious thoughts and seeping into subconscious ones, too.