Tuesday, March 25, 2014

One of Life's Small Magics.

Small magic comes in all shapes, forms and colors. It nests in our minds and our bellies. Hovers at our lips, curls up on our tongue, whispers against our ears, sparkles in our eyes. Our lives brim with various oddly-shaped, sized and scented magics and all we have to do is take a moment to revel in their glow. Laughter is one of these magics. My absolute favorite. Take a moment. Or two. Start small -- smile. Let your smile push its way up your cheeks, nestle in your chest, tickle your ribs, teasing out those first tentative wisps of giggles. Let their chime rattle your belly, shake your shoulders, send your body a-tremor. Feel the joy bloom at your center, warm and tingling, starbursting up to the crown of your head, down to your tippy toes, building like a held breath. Throw back your head. Laugh. It's so, so easy.

I love laughing. Everything about it. The feel of it, the sound, the lightness. It is the bubbling of the soul, a festival of senses, the voice of one's heart soaring. Laughter smooths our aches and hurts, alleviates the sorrow of our disappointments, lifts the oppressing burden of grief and fear, eases our memories, takes the edge of those sharp experiences that diminish, wound or terrify us. Laughter gives us the wings to raise above the gravity of existence. It breaks the scabs of our hurts open allowing the pain to escape and the healing to begin. What's more, the mere act of laughing opens up your mind to happiness, rewires your emotions. (It actually affects you brain's serotonin levels in a positive way, making you feel good.) An illusion that becomes a reality. A true magic.

Decades ago, I read somewhere that it takes twice as many facial muscles to cry than to laugh or smile. How wonderful is that? Imagine all the wrinkles we're not going to get if all we do is laugh, the only creases in our skin worn by grins, while are souls remain crisp and unrumpled as freshly ironed linens. And even if it's untrue and smiling does line one's face, I'd prefer that all my wrinkles stem from laughter rather than from the frowns or lips twisted in disdain. Joy wrinkles I can live with. Joy wrinkles I can appreciate. Did I mention that laughter makes you loose weight? Well, it does! As you let out your most guttural, gut busting laugh, your abdominal muscles contract, burning calories. So much better than doing sit-ups.

And if we have someone in our lives to share in the laughter, someone who tugs our grins wider, who kindles our snorts into full-fledged cackles, who makes us chortle, titter, giggle or chuckle, we must treasure and cherish that person or creature for a miracle that they are.

So go on and laugh...uproariously, giddily, pealing, crowing, snorting...
eyes shut and mouths opened...
Laugh until your head and your soul grow lighter 
and you heart flutters like a winged creature.
Let out a full-bellied, throaty, genuine burst of merriment! 
And if laughter is the sound of your spirit rejoicing,
laugh and make the world's brightest music!

All images via Pinterest

Monday, March 24, 2014

On Hope and HEAs...

"If happy ever after did exist
 I would still be holding you like this..." Maroon 5, Payphone

Ah, the HEAs. As we submerge ourselves in the wondrous worlds of storytelling, we expect them. We crave them. We count on them. To see the heroes triumph and the villains fall is a need deeply ingrained in our subconscious. We've been conditioned to expect this outcome ever since we were trusting toddlers and listening to our favorite fairy tales. It is a fantasy that enchants us and gives us comfort. More importantly, it gives us hope. As satisfying as inhaling deeply on a warm, breezy day, pumping our lungs full of spring. After all, hope is that inhale; it sustains us, drives us forward, moves us past challenges and disappointments of every day life, pumps our sails full of courage to reach for our dreams. Hope is a powerful force! It is also remarkably resilient and will survive almost anything. Even hard lessons taught to us by experience. Often, it is so incessant that it borders on insanity.

Case in point. No matter how many times I watch Romeo and Juliet films -- Franco Zeffirelli's moving rendition of the classic tale, Baz Luhrmann's shocking punkish extravaganza, writer Julian Fellowes' gorgeously filmed vision -- each and every one of them makes me bawl. Because each and every time, I feel the impossible hope that today, the story might be told differently, that today, Juliet and her Romeo might get their Happily Ever After. At my age, I really should know better. They die and the tears come flowing. Last weekend, I dragged my thirteen-year-old (the age of Juliet!) Ptichka into this madness, and we both got misty-eyed at the end of the movie and had to console ourselves with Dove dark chocolate hearts. Lots of hearts. Chocolate cures all woes. Chocolate and hope.

Dasha loved the film. Surprisingly, her favorite character was not swoony Romeo or sweet Juliet, but Romeo's scheming, well-meaning confidante Friar Laurence played by delightful Paul Giamatti. I watched her watching the story with bated breath, saw that bright, fervent light shine beneath her eyelashes and felt an invisible thread of hope tying us together, connecting us; though at times, I couldn't keep from mumbling under my breath, "Darn kids! If only they had better parental supervision!"

Coincidentally, Dire Straits' Romeo & Juliet happens to be one of my all-time favorite songs. It's just so beautiful, so romantic and absolutely perfect for those of us who ardently believe in HEA, even if it is only a faint flicker of hope far off on the horizon.
 Dire Straits' cover by The Killers.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Writers are Meant to Take Chances! SCBWI New York. Impressions.

I spent months looking forward to the SCBWI New York Winter Conference (my first one on the East Coast), fussing over my manuscript, making hasty revisions and re-revisions and later (just as hastily) restoring the much-butchered files to their original glorious disorder. I had also become aware of the great lack of warm winter clothes in my closet and the even greater lack of said items in my favorite downtown shops. With ferocity I packed layers upon layers of sweaters, scarfs, tights and ponchos (those proved especially comfy and toasty) -- California's perpetual summer made me spoiled and alarmingly thin-skinned. No matter. I was ready to brave New York's blustery winter chill, to endure hours of turbulence at 33,000 feet above ground and even (gasp!) to face rounds of critiques by my peers and publishing professionals alike. All for the love of  words. Most storytellers are a fearless lot and, as a writer-friend insists -- self-punishing.

From the smooth, easy flight to the balmy, sunlit days awash in cool blue light (no frost! hardly any snow!) to the inspiring keynotes to the roundtable critiques friendly in spirit and rich in feedback, the conference proved an experience full of surprises -- all pleasant. The halls, the conference rooms and the very intimate-feeling workshops brimmed with positivity. The kind that makes one want to pick up a pen and start scribbling away on any loose bit of paper, the kind that truly inspires. Yet, despite all that nurturing of intent, despite all that validation of purpose, the speakers didn't glaze over the harsher realities of writing -- writing takes work, no-nonsense, nose-to-the-grinding-stone work; months, years, perhaps decades of honing your craft, of enriching your palette, of slowly growing rhinoceros-thick skin by experiencing failure, after failure, after failure.

The subject of failure, or rather the fear of failure, struck an all-too-familiar chord with many attendees (after all, the paths of artists and writers are often paved and painted with it) and became the focus of Kate Messner's fantastic lecture "On the Spectacular Power of Failure". Spectacular, indeed. I might as well call it crippling. Or paralyzing. But... inspirational? Hardly. Ms. Messner put a fear so many of us know on a first-name basis in an entirely new context. And her seemingly hopeless premise blossomed into an ode to hard-work, perseverance, and, above all -- fearlessness. Only by embracing our missteps can we ever hope to reach our destination. So true. Lives are meant to be lived to the fullest and writers are meant to venture out and take chances. Fear of failure keeps us from realizing our full potential, of discovering what we might have to offer; it is a lock that guards the vault of our minds. If none of us ever feared taking risks, what would we accomplish? What would we learn? Teach? Create? How free would we be to pursue our dreams? How brave? Failure often becomes the much-needed catalyst that pushes us in an unexpected direction, opens us to a myriad of new possibilities; suddenly one path branches out into a thousand new roads, one idea splits into a dozen visions. It can be a strangely positive, transformative force. A threshold to success, even.
"How so?" you may ask.

~Failure tells us that we're going in the right direction.
~Failure teaches us to ask for help.
~Failure brings us together as a community of writers.
~Failure teaches us to celebrate the dance. 
~Failure lets us be role models.

Failure is... one of life's many experiences, an experience that shapes, tempers and enriches us. And the following lessons help us master the courage needed to walk towards our goals despite how often, or how hard, we fall:
Lesson #1. Be Brave! But it's okay to be afraid.
If you're not nervous, it's not worth doing.
Lesson #2. Never underestimate the power of failure.
As writers and illustrators we set all sorts of bars for ourselves with the statement: "If I could just…"
If we keep moving the bar, we can turn anything into a failure. We cheat ourselves of our many successes. 
Lesson # 3. Instead of focusing on failure, celebrate your successes no matter how small.

In her talk, Ms. Messner cited Art and Fear. Consider this quote from the book:  You learn how to make your work by making your work.”  It's as simple as that. Keep at your craft no matter how frustrating or futile it might seem; you learn by making mistakes. By trying and failing. Making art is daunting, it is hard, sometimes terrifying (otherwise, everyone will be doing it). It is also incredibly rewarding. Fulfilling. Joyous. Liberating. As close to magic as we'll ever come. Totally worth those bleak moments of self-doubt. Those sleepless nights and shadows under the eyes. Ray Bradbury said it best, "You fail only if you stop writing."

And another quote from the book that, to me, spoke true: "Art making involves skills that can be learned. ... Even talent is rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of hard work."
“A ship in harbor is safe — but that is not what ships are built for.” — John A. Shedd.

For me (in addition to Ms. Messner's keynote), the highlights of the conference had to be author Jack Gantos' witty and warm account of his journey as a writer, Nikki Grimes' speech on Patience, Perfection and Poetry (and daydreaming), wonderfully informative workshops on world-building and character development, those initially dreaded critiques that allowed glimpses into the works (and wild, wild minds) of my very talented peers. The thrill of meeting new people and reconnecting with old friends at the Gala Dinner/mixer, the pleasure of picking out new books in the vast and well-stocked conference bookshop and, of course, oohing and ahhing over gorgeous works in the Illustrators Portfolio Showcase with my favorite husband-friend (Troy made time in his ridiculously busy schedule to accompany me to New York! Best. Husband. Ever!!!) were extra icing on a delicious, multi-layered cake. Mmm... cake. Next year, I will definitely be returning for another slice!
 Illustrations by Lori Nichols,
winner of the Illustrator Portfolio Showcase

Happy National Reading Month!

Did you know that March is the National Reading Month across the United States? To my shame, I had no clue until Amazon sent me an e-card. Imagine -- a full month of literary awareness! Springtime reading! It sounds so... energizing! Uplifting! Bright! Kinda like opening a window and letting all the fresh air and sunlight flood your room.

So, air out your soul, let the wind and the sun tease your imagination, celebrate with a new book! Now is the perfect time to stop by the library or a bookstore or even your own bookcase and peruse the shelves for anything that catches your attention, takes you away to a world as real as your dreams, makes you wonder, moves you to tears (or to laughter), inspires you to feel.

May your days be filled with the scent of new paper and ink, the promise of a journey and the joy of discovery and your cup overflowing with freshly brewed coffee (or tea). Cheers to good reading and new finds!
some of my recent book picks

Little Free Library -- Share Books You Love

Strolling through springtime Pasadena neighborhoods -- the weather called to be outside and walking -- we came across this lovely, decorated birdhouse-like box full of books. Yes. Books. Lovely, many-genred and free for the taking. These festive bookhouses are known as Little Free Libraries, and -- now, that I'm paying attention -- I see them popping up everywhere. The community-based "take a book, return a book" program is so easy and fun -- folks put out decorated bookhouses that serve as lending libraries for the area. Anyone can stop by and pick up a book or bring one to share. Coolest thing ever!
The selection varies day to day. I saw richly illustrated Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory on the same shelf as Sapphire's Push, Carrie Ryan's The Forest of Hands and Teeth and M.M Kaye's The Far Pavilions.
 Somebody thoughtfully placed this colorful bench next to our neighborhood bookhouse.
You can order your own Little Free Library or read about the movement here.