Happy Birthday, Brother…

I knew I was off as soon as I opened my eyes this morning. When I sat down to write today’s words, nothing came out. I felt tired and lackluster. I hid my nose in a book for a while, hoping I’d feel better. I didn’t. I jumped in the car to pick up the kids and mid-way through the short drive, my heart felt like it was expanding, in that uncomfortable way that forces hot tears out. I hate crying. Get a grip, I told myself, you’re driving.

Sometimes the words you want to write are not the words you need to write. Today I need to say a few words about my brother, Jeff, who died in July. Because it’s his birthday today. He’s been on my mind ever since I looked at the calendar this morning and realized it was the 17th, but reminders have been everywhere today: Facebook, a nice SPAM-mail reminding me to wish him a happy day, messages from family members.

It’s a strange thing to grow up with a brother who is 16 years older than you are. He was driving before I was born. So my first memories of him are as an adult, with a young family of his own. We never lived under the same roof, we’re not even of the same generation in some ways.

His sweet children are closer in age to me, and have been on my mind today, too. Jayson, who spent so much time with us growing up that I think more people assumed he was my brother than realized he was my nephew. Jaymi, who grew into this amazing, fashionable, gorgeous mama-bear seemingly over night. Megan, who was the first baby I got to watch through every step from birth to beautiful adulthood. And Justin, who is impossibly taller than I am (by a lot) now, an amazing athlete, and on the verge of adulthood himself.

Jeff was quick with a smile or a joke and more than a little inclined to break the rules, which just increased the cool factor in my young eyes. I’ve mulled over many favorite memories today, but the one that stands out is of him, shirtless, sunglass-clad, one hand on the wheel of his ski boat. We screamed over the water in that boat, summer after summer, the wind making my eyes tear and taking my breath away, the sun blazing off the surface of the lake.

When he slowed down on the particular day I remember, his wife, Karen, was already snugging fingerless gloves onto her hands in preparation for what came next. Someone tossed the tube into the water and Karen jumped in after it. She climbed on and we all cheered. He gunned it and she rocketed forward the second the slack left the line holding the tube to the back of the boat. Laughing like a maniac, he circled again and again, tighter and tighter, until the tube tipped sideways and Karen, still hanging on, cartwheeled across the water with the tube, until it finally shot her across the surface of the water in a heap. She came up sputtering with a few sharp words about his crazy driving, but laughing as well. He took it easier on the littler ones when we were in the tube, but more than one cousin lost swim trunks in that lake, and I ate more than my share of water on those wild rides.

There are other memories less bliss-filled than this one, as there always are over the long trajectory of any family’s life. But this is the one I want for his birthday today: one with sunshine on the water and joy in all our hearts.

My Personal Theme Song

Today was a good writing day. Not just productive (although I revised three long chapters), but energizing. The kind of day where I tore myself away from my computer at the appointed hour to make the school run and bounced as I walked to the car. It’s true, writing can give you an endorphin rush that’s right up there with sex and football. Yes, I just wrote that in public (sorry, Mom!).

As my best friend can attest, I’m the kind of person who believes I was plucked from a John Hughes movie and therefore I live a lot of my life with various theme songs playing. Of course, instead of doing something dramatic like standing outside my true love’s window blasting “In Your Eyes” (I’ve done that. He wasn’t my true love though. I digress…), I’m most often doing mundane things like driving to school. And besides, my fellow PTO moms just don’t seem to appreciate it when I squeal into my parking space with the top down (OK, just the windows down since I drive a Golf and not my dream car–a Mini convertible) blasting Sabotage…

So today, when I bounced to the car like an Energizer Bunny on meth, I cranked the music up before I even knew what my iPod would serve up. And I’m not even joking, Deee-Lite blared out, full blast:

There may have been some crazy car-dancing going on. And in case you’re wondering, that’s not really a Finnish thing (as if I don’t always stick out like a loud-mouthed, curly-haired freaky sore thumb enough around here already).

People far more eloquent than I am have written about the manic ups and horrible downs of the creative life, so I won’t. But I will say that every day is not Deee-Lite around here. I have plenty that are like this:

I’m just happy to report that today was not that day. I can’t make any promises about tomorrow. But today, I’m basking in it. And then I get home from the school run, and I find a keynote address for WriteOnCon, the online writer’s conference I’m participating in this week. It’s from Peter Knapp from The Park Literary Group, a fabulous agent I encountered at the Midwest Writers Workshop this summer. In it, he shares an inspiring anecdote for anyone who has ever experienced a moment of doubt. And come on, that’s everyone, not just us creative types. It’s beautiful. So read it, flick your Bic (am I dating myself here?), then dance with me:

And yes, I realize I’m posting more musings and unapologetic navel-gazing. It’s intentional. Writing personal memoir (and humor) takes practice. I’m just doing my practicing out loud, so to speak.

A moment of perfect happiness

At a certain point this summer, after months of expat uncertainty, some very, very difficult goodbyes, and the death of my oldest brother, I started to wonder if I’d hardened myself as some sort of defense mechanism against all the grief and chaos. I’m the type of person who cries through all the Budweiser and Olympic commercials, who never fails to alarm my children by blubbing during kid movies like Maleficent, and who can be moved to tears by a beautiful flower, guitar riff, or piece of writing. And yet, when faced with the harsh, gut-wrenching stuff that adult life sends my way, sometimes I find it hard to cry.

Maybe all those saved up tears were just waiting for an excuse to spill out, or maybe I’d just held them in as long as I could, but tonight, watching Hook on the couch with my family, they streamed freely pretty much throughout the entire movie. We retreated upstairs for a whole-family cuddle afterwards and I felt my heart swell with love and gratitude for my family just as it ached with the losses we have experienced.

Caught up in this sublime moment, I hugged my squirmy children and said, “Shhh! Let’s just feel this moment of perfect happiness together.” They stilled for just a moment, so that I could hear all four of us breathing together and I really thought my heart might burst with the poignancy of the feeling. As if he could sense it, my almost ten-year-old, my sweet, sweet, boy, reached his hand across my chest, as if to draw me closer in the already tight embrace four people experience when crammed together into a double bed.

And then he stuck his finger right up his sister’s nose in a fit of giggles. “I just couldn’t help myself,” he cried, as my daughter screamed “Gross!” in indignant rage and leapt from the bed. At another time in life, I might have thought FML and stormed off, myself indignant that my perfect moment was spoiled by such goofiness. But not tonight. Tonight, I know it was just exactly what I needed.

Mental Illness: It’s time to talk…

This morning, I skipped my morning run to finish reading Peter Pan. When I finished the last word, I commented to my husband that reading the book made me appreciate one of my favorite movies, Hook, even more for all the amazing details from the original story that appeared in this very modern retelling. And of course, at the center of this movie is the rivalry between Hook and Pan, portrayed so magnificently by Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams.

So I join the ranks of millions who are shocked and saddened by the death of this consummate funnyman. But I’m also angry. I’m angry because we as a community are going to share a million hilarious YouTube clips, funny quotes, and memorials, but we’re not going talk about what took this brilliant man from the Earth too soon. We’re not going to talk about mental illness.

If we’re not going to talk about it when the mentally ill commit mass murder, then why on Earth would we talk about it now when it’s so much easier to just quote Good Will Hunting (whose award winning sound-track, by the way, was created by another victim of mental illness, Elliott Smith) and go about our business?

This summer, I lost my oldest brother to complications from life-long untreated alcoholism. Although his individual struggle is over, the repercussions of his alcoholism will reverberate through our family–especially through the lives of his four children and his grandchildren–for many years.

I feel such sadness for Robin Williams’ wife and children, and for his close friends and extended family. I wish them privacy and peace during an awful time. But for the rest of us, I wish for the strength to put aside the fears, the stigmas, and the discomfort that come with talking about what we can do as countries, as governments, as families, as communities, to keep these people from feeling so isolated and alone that the only way out they can envision involves their tragic, lonely death.

The Writing Process Blog Tour

I find it funny that my first post after a three month blogging hiatus concerns my writing process. For all you know, I haven’t written since my last post way back on April 15. But I can assure you that much writing has occurred this summer. In fact, I’ve experienced some writerly firsts this summer. I attended my first writers’ conference–the Yale Writers’ Conference. The amazing Terra Elan McVoy taught an exhilarating Children’s & YA session over the five days and I made some great friends.

That alone would have made the summer a success from a writing perspective, but then in July I was lucky enough to attend the Midwest Writers Workshop. My time at Yale felt like a writer’s retreat. This felt like a writer’s baptism by fire. Over three days, we learned about the publishing industry, market trends, how to pitch to an agent, how to create suspense in our writing, and so much more. Another energetic YA session, this time taught by Daniel Jose Older, kicked off the conference. And by the end of the weekend, I had another first–my first request for pages from an agent!

Amid all that excitement, I met even more great writer-friends and one of them, Kathy Palm, invited me to join the Writing Process Blog Tour. At first I felt hesitant–what does someone at the very beginning of her fiction writing career have to share that others might want to read? Then I realized that while my fiction career is in its infancy, I’ve been meeting various writing deadlines for a couple of decades now. So what the heck. Here goes!

What am I currently working on?

I am working on a middle-grade adventure story–think The Giver meets Hatchet–called The Outlands that I started as part of NaNoWriMo in November 2013.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

There are so many great things going on in middle grade right now. But what I’m missing as I read is a good old fashioned survival story like My Side of the Mountain. I am very interested in medicinal uses for native plants, so that definitely comes into play on Elias’s journey.

Why do I write what I write?

Two reasons: my children, Gabriel & Lily. They fall into the middle grade age range right now. Not only does that mean that I’m previewing a lot of middle grade for them, but also that I hear the thoughts and dialog of middle grade children all day long. That has been really helpful as I fleshed out Elias and his friends.

How does my writing process work?

I used to get by just franticly scribbling things down as a deadline loomed. Now that I’m a full-time mother and a full-time writer, I have to be a lot more disciplined. I try to write every morning, Monday through Friday, while the children are in school and if I’m really in a groove, or I miss a morning session, I write in the evenings after they’re in bed as well. This summer has been a huge challenge because we’ve been traveling all summer. Making time to write was often impossible, but luckily I’m in revision right now, which is a little easier to do in fits and starts than generating new content, which I prefer to do in longer uninterrupted blocks so I can really get into the flow.

And now…I’d like to introduce some of my writing friends who I’ve invited to play along:

I met Jilly Gagnon at Yale Writers’ Conference this summer. She’s smart, hilarious, and writes both YA and adult humor. Check out her blog, It’s (not) Just Another Writer’s Blog.

When Sara Toole Miller and I first met, she was still Sara Toole. Little did I know that my fellow DePauw alum and I would reconnect years later to share the joys and woes of the writing life. Her blog is a great resource for writers!

If I had to describe Gail Werner in two words, it would be: writing twin! When we met at the Midwest Writer’s Workshop, magic happened. We just couldn’t stop talking (I know that surprises those of you who know us in real life). Check out her blog and also her amazing photography!

Big Questions, No Answers in the Expat Life

a picture of me in my straw cowboy hat
Pondering the Big Questions of the universe…

Not knowing what continent you’ll be living on next year brings up lots of questions. You know, Big Questions. Meaning of life questions. Expat life questions. Ones that can only be discussed ad nauseam in detail, never answered. And have I mentioned that those discussions require wine? And chocolate?

I think my subconscious, fueled by these discussions, directed me when I chose the reading materials for my literature class this week. I chose Anton Chekhov’s The Bet. OK, my ego might have been involved too, probably because saying “when I taught Chekhov this week…” was totally on my Lit Geek bucket list!!

On the surface, this is a story about the morality of capital punishment versus life imprisonment, a worthy topic to be sure. Digging deeper, however, you find a story about our motivations as humans in a materialistic world. One man in the story is driven to consider murdering another in cold blood to avoid financial ruin. The other spends fifteen years in isolation and study, only to eschew both the money he’s about to earn by winning the bet and the society that values money over all else, or, as Chekhov (in translation) puts it, “exchange(s) heaven for earth.” Read more

On children’s books

a boy reading a book
My son, book in hand (as usual).

I remember sneaking into the hall closet in our front entryway when I was maybe ten years old. My mom had this old wool trench coat with both collar and sleeves trimmed in fur. For some reason, I fixated on that coat. It seemed like the type of coat that one would find in The Wardrobe. You know the one I mean. The one that would take me to Narnia. So I’d close my eyes and reach out my hands in the dark, feeling for that fur and hoping that the next thing I’d touch would be fir of the evergreen variety.

I never made it to Narnia (if I had, I would have thwarted Aslan himself to remain there and wouldn’t be blogging now!), but that sliver of hope, no, that certainty that getting there was possible sticks with me almost thirty years later. And I have C.S. Lewis and my mom to thank for that. C.S. Lewis for writing The Chronicles of Narnia and my mom for never saying no when I asked to go to the library or asked for a book on our frequent trips to the bookstore.

Now, I have a unique opportunity to relive reading my favorite children’s books for the first time. And no, it’s not senility. It’s parenthood. Nature or nurture, I’m not sure which, provided me with two little ones who always have their nose in a book just like their mama (and their papa). So even as they choose today’s mega-hits like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dear Dumb Diary, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, and the American Girl series, I get to interject a few of my favorites.

Lily reminded me of the heartbreak in Black Beauty. Gabriel & I relived the devastation of losing Thorin Oakenshield together. And, most recently, I got to console my son when he awoke in the night convinced that he was Harry Potter, mumbling spells under his breath and rubbing the spot on his forehead where his painful scar ought to be. To regroup after the intensity of the Harry Potter series, I’ve turned him loose on My Side of the Mountain. So of course he’s planning to run off in the wilderness in search of a peregrine falcon and a hollow tree in which to live.

These stories are absolutely real for my children, just as they were for me when I was their age. So I didn’t have an answer ready when someone recently asked me why I was “just writing children’s books” instead of literary fiction. Sure, I love literary fiction as much as children’s books. I love words that have more business in adult fiction than in a novel for nine year olds. I would like nothing more than to some day write something that could be compared to the work of Barbara Kingsolver or Donna Tartt. But, as much as I loved their books, their words, and their stories, they never made me believe so utterly in a fantasy world that I went scrambling into a dark closet hoping to end up in Narnia.

I’m not saying I’ll ever write something as transporting as The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Even my grandiose ego is not that overblown. I’m just saying that I consider it a lofty goal, a heady challenge, and something worthwhile. I hope C.S. Lewis got to see a child creep into a wardrobe at least once. I’m pretty sure life-affirming wouldn’t even begin to describe it.

A Morning with Tove Jansson

Photo of Tove Jansson
Visit the Tove Jansson exhibit from now through 7 September at the Ateneum Museum in Helsinki.

As much as I may dream of spending a morning with beloved Finnish author and painter Tove Jansson in the flesh, a morning at Helsinki’s Ateneum Art Museum visiting the Tove Jansson exhibit still thrilled this Moomin fan. The exhibit celebrates the 100th anniversary of Jansson’s birth and demands a visit if you are in the Helsinki area in the next six months.

Tove Jansson created the iconic children’s fantasy world of Moominvalley and populated it with strange and wondrous imaginary creatures in tales published both as books and comic strips. The principal characters of this world, rounded white-bodied trolls called the Moomins (or muumi in Finnish), go on adventures with an unusual assortment of friends through a world that seems a lot like Finland–full of forest, seas, and sweeping valleys. Released as World War II came to an end, I imagine the child-like innocence of the characters as well at Jansson’s fanciful drawings appealed to many people who had known nothing but deprivation during the war. Read more

In Defense of Mr Business

Like most other elementary school parents in the known universe, I <del>endured the torture of</del> took my kids to see the Lego Movie this winter. And while I found the 3D glasses unnecessary and the plot schmaltzy, the final scenes between Mr Business and Emmet/Will Farrell and his son almost made it worth the Everything is Awesome ear worm. Almost.

Since we saw the movie just over a month ago, we’ve been working on a LEGO city of our own in the play room.

Read more

Breaking the Silence

IMG_2454 copyWhat do you write when your last post came out over a year ago? Do you just upload a super cute beachy pic of your family and hope that will distract everyone enough that you can just pretend it didn’t happen?

Did it work? No? Damn.

As 2013 draws to a close, the Artz family still finds itself in beautiful Finland. We’ve spent every year we’ve been here suspecting it would be our last, and this year is no different. The recent news that Microsoft would buy Matt’s particular portion of Nokia means that uncertainty remains.

That said, it’s been an amazing year. My favorite part of this year is that I’m writing again. OK, not blogging much obviously, but writing stories. And that’s even better (for me, at least).

This summer, we spent a few glorious weeks in Andalusia. While we ambled through the rather dry, desolate countryside, I started thinking about how, like a Twinkie, this remote landscape could remain unchanged even in the craziest sort of apocalyptic scenario. Like if the polar icecaps melted and, at the same time, bird flu killed off a huge chunk of the population. Fun stuff, right?

Well, I thought it was fun, and a great setting for a story for my avid reader son, Gabriel. So in November, as part of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I wrote a book about it.

I do hope to show up here a little more frequently than I did this year, but my main goal for 2014 is to write something and get it published. The first step was to make writing a habit again. I think I’ve managed that. The next step is to get as many eyes on what I’m writing as possible. So I submitted the first three chapters of my novel, The Outlands, to JukePop Serials as part of a contest they’re running for NaNoWriMo authors.

I don’t yet know how I feel about coming out with a new story in such a hugely public manner. I’ve certainly never done this with any of my other stories or the forever unpublished first novel I wrote a decade ago. But you can bet I’ll let you know what I think, maybe even in a timely fashion, although I make no promises.

In the meantime, if you’re curious, take a look at The Outlands and give it a +Vote if you’re so inclined.