Saturday, January 20, 2018

Resolution and Redemption

I don't often make resolutions, mostly because I don't often keep resolutions. Thus, it seems rather pointless to set out with an intention if you know your abysmal track record for making intentions reality. But, this year I've jumped on the band wagon again, primarily because my writer's group set about to articulate goals for this year. I think I also took that plunge because of the life lessons learned from my recent trip. I'm still in that mode of approaching hard things because I know they will reap growth and even when change and challenge seem daunting, I don't want to shrink back out of fear (as I almost did with my solo European trip this past November).

I spent several weeks agonizing over what my writing goals for 2018 should be. I was so torn between making them reasonable and shooting for the moon that I wrote down two separate lists. I figure I can tackle each list in turn. If I achieve the simpler goals from the first list, I can push on into the more intense goals.

The first year I attempted the Nanowrimo goal of writing 50,000 words within the space of a month, I had a blogging friend, Cardiogirl, who participated as well. I should credit much of my success to her. I had access, through the Nanowrimo website, to follow her stats and will admit that when she pressed into the challenge and made a giant spurt of writing, it inspired me to keep up and make my own strides. I might not have reached my end goal without her traversing beside me, helping to set my pace and encouraging me to keep running when I wanted to walk.

This year, my writing group will be a sort of accountability partner for me. I dutifully read aloud my goals (although I hope I didn't discourage a few of the others who hadn't even known that goals were on the agenda and were, thus, making their goals off-the-cuff). By posting them here, I figure I have even more accountability because, come December, I will have to answer to myself on this forum for what I have invested and pursued.

Conservative goals:

  1. Attend some sort of conference/writing workshop and meet with editors/agents
  2. Send out at least ten queries
  3. Revise and polish my travel memoir (the most recent November project)
  4. Do daily morning writing of 2 pages free-association writing
  5. Read The Portable MFA in Creative Writing and at least three other writing books
Lofty goals:

  1. Send twenty queries
  2. Revise and polish travel memoir and pitch it to five agents
  3. Read 5 additional writing books
  4. Get something published in 2018, even if it is just a devotional/essay in a magazine
  5. Secure an agent before the end of 12/18
Another thing I've watched from the sidelines is the practice of selecting one word to focus on for the year. I've never before joined in all the reindeer games, but this year I feel strongly prompted internally to select the phrase "Nothing Wasted." (My blogging friend, Catherine, of A Spirited Mind, often selects phrases instead of words and always articulates her motivation so well, as evidenced in this post about her current word-of-the-year, along with some previous words/phrases she selected.)

The phrase "nothing wasted" comes from a song we sing at our annual Salvation Army Bible camp, CBLI. Written by Eric Himes (son of Bill Himes, who penned another beautiful song I've claimed in a previous blog post) together with Phil Laeger, it speaks of a desire for God to use everything within our lives for His purposes and to redeem every tiny aspect. I've long been a fan of redemption stories (even attempted to write one myself a few years back) and truly want my life to be a clear redemption story to others who see it/read it.

Here are to words to the song:

"Let nothing be wasted,
Not a pain nor a tear,
Not a wound of my heart,
Every lingering fear.
Shape the doubts of my soul
Into prayers you will hear,
Oh Lord, let nothing,
nothing be wasted.

Let nothing be wasted,
Not a burden within,
When I face temptation,
Every fight against sin.
Lord, I come to you now,
For the freedom you give,
Oh Lord, let nothing,
nothing be wasted.

We are pressed but not crushed,
Persecuted, not abandoned.
Struck down but not destroyed.
Oh my soul, take heart
In the trial, in the sorrow
For He has overcome the world.

Let nothing be wasted,
The space in between
The waiting and answers
For a vision not seen.
Let my restless heart know
Your unburdening peace,
Oh Lord, let nothing,
nothing be wasted.

You can go to this You Tube link to hear Eric's group, The Singing Company, sing it (due to be released on an album in March).

It sounds like a dangerous phrase to build my year on. If I focus on "Nothing Wasted," what further trials will God bring to suck the marrow from? Yet, it continues to linger on the periphery of my vision, persistently calling to me as something I should claim. Certainly, in my writing life, I want nothing wasted. All the previous difficulties and trials He has brought me through have been for a purpose and even if they only serve to refine me to be more like Christ, that will be enough, but I long for them to go even further and flesh out into productive, meaningful writing to share with someone else loaded down with burdens.

I'm not begging to be pressed, persecuted, or struck down. I don't relish the idea of further trials or sorrows, but I know that hard place between the waiting and the answers and I am committed to leaving every tear and pain in the Lord's hands to be used for His glory and my eventual good (My Bible study last week focused on Romans 8:28-39  - verse 28 says: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.") In my writing and in my life, I want to see His redemption. I claim His promise, this year, that nothing will be wasted.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Book Review: In the Middle of the Mess

Christian singer Sheila Walsh has openly and honestly shared about her battle with depression before. In this book, In the Middle of the Mess: Strength for This Beautiful, Broken Life, she offers hope and healing to readers who struggle with suicidal thoughts. She begins by sharing a letter addressed to her father, a man who took his life when Sheila was only five years old. In her innocence, she carried the weight of guilt for far too long, believing she was responsible for her father's death, and she eventually had a nervous breakdown. Over time, she has learned the power of confession and intense authenticity before God and encourages readers to spend time in confessional prayer on a daily basis.

At one point, in a discussion about confession and salvation, she quotes Nicky Gumbel:

"'Salvation' ... is a huge and comprehensive word. It means 'freedom' ... There are three tenses of salvation: we have been set free from the penalty of sin, we are being set free from the power of sin, and we will be set free from the presence of sin."

I think that was my favorite quote in the book. I love the alliteration and parallel structure of the quote almost as much as I love the depth of meaning. While the book didn't offer up any earth-shattering new insights into God's power to defeat the pull of depression, it was an easy, helpful read. I admire her quest for authentic Christianity. Too often people assume that believers have some magic ticket that takes them out of their brokenness. Walsh urges readers to bring their brokenness to God and share honestly with God and others in the midst of the pain and difficulties of life. I ended the book feeling an overwhelming sense of "Me, too!"

Monday, January 15, 2018

Book Review: Prairie Fires

It has been years since I read the Little House on the Prairie book series. I loved them as a girl and probably read them through two or three times, at least. My mother gave me our set of books when I left home. I was aware of the friction between fictional and real elements to the story and knew they were pitched as a set of novels, but had never really explored a biography of Laura Ingalls Wilder before. What an interesting life and story she lived. If parts of what she shared with the world were fictional, I'm not offended. I think the heart of her story communicates the reality of what she experienced.

For me, the most interesting and frustrating bits of this biography by Caroline Fraser centered on Laura's daughter, Rose. What an absurd and unscrupulous woman! Moreover, far too much time was devoted to Rose instead of Laura. Indeed, the relationship between Laura and Rose was intensely complicated and fraught with a give and pull of support and distance. However, I do think that Rose began life at a disadvantage. Even if she wasn't truly responsible for the fire that took her parents home when she was three, she believed herself responsible and that burden of guilt must have trailed her throughout her life (as evidenced in her constant need to build and establish new homes for herself and others). It was hard to follow the back and forth nature of their support of one another. Rose encouraged and edited Laura's writing, yet often inserted herself into the narrative process far more than she should have. Moreover, she had quite a tendency to overembellish the truth (in the celebrity biographies she wrote and in the autobiographical fiction she and her mother presented to the world). She sent money home to help support her parents, yet was often deeply in debt.

I appreciated how the author placed Laura and Rose in the context of history (when the Peshtigo and Hinckley fires were mentioned, I remembered one of my favorite reads in 2013, Under a Flaming Sky, by Daniel James Brown). It did seem at times as if the author had her own political agenda in the way she presented the history. Still, even though this book was lengthy, I was thoroughly pulled into the story of their lives. Indeed, I put this book down wanting to pick up Laura Ingalls Wilder's children's series all over again. Although I have quite a few other titles in the wings waiting to be read, I may try to fit the series in anyway.

Friday, January 12, 2018

My Ten-Year Blogiversary

Hard to believe it was ten years ago today that I began my blogging journey! I remember lying in bed trying to think up a suitable name for my blog. Focusing on what I wished to blog about - primarily two things, my boys and the books I read - I settled on the name "Of Books and Boys" and haven't regretted the choice or looked back with a moment of regret. Indeed, at my writer's group this past month, I was asked for the name of my blog and I explained that I should perhaps change the name now since I seldom write about my boys any more (they have grown to an age where they no longer provide me with hilarious anecdotes to share and would probably be mortified if I did share anecdotes about them). Still, I will keep the name with its Steinbeck associations and its clear summary of the focus of my life.

I went back to view my very first post, a brief, barely-edited description of my middle son's great love of Bath and Body Works soap - "Of Boys and Soap." I had several thoughts as I read the initial blog posts from January of 2008. At the outset of my blogging, my husband insisted that I blog anonymously, even to the point of wanting me to label my sons, ES (eldest son), MS (middle son) and YS (youngest son). Thankfully, over time, he relented and I now use their names freely. I also laughed because I just received another shipment of Bath and Body Works soaps, including Warm Sugar Vanilla. My younger boys continue to be big fans and I do relent and spend money on their soaps when I can find them at sale prices of $3.50 or less. In an early book review post, I mentioned reading the first Little House book to the younger boys in January of 2008. They were 3 and 1! But the biggest observation I can make is that I have grown so much as a writer through this simple process of blogging.

When I first began blogging, I did so with abandon. I wrote 28 blog posts in the month of February 2008 and 250 in the first year. I cannot imagine keeping up that pace now, since I seldom have anecdotes to share and would never have enough time to read 250 books in a year. Still, knowing how much my writing has improved encourages me to continue this little exercise, even in moments when I think to myself, "who really cares about what you are reading or your opinions on what you are reading?" Truly, even if nobody read my blog posts, I would continue to write them because I gain so much from the exercise in articulating my thoughts and opinions. I have met other bloggers through the process. I have honed the skill of summarizing a book in a sentence or paragraph (the most crucial part of a query letter to agents/editors). I have a tangible in-depth analysis of my reading habits, as well as documented memories of my times with my boys. The posts have served as a memory capsule for all those moments, big and small, in a decade of raising sons. Their worth cannot be measured.

So, as I look back over a decade of blogging (and review a few of the 1525 posts I have written up to this point), I pledge to continue this writing endeavor. A few of my favorite general posts and book review posts are listed at the bottom of my blog. Who knows, maybe I will spend even more time reviewing previous posts and come up with a list of favorites to have bound in book-form.

May the next ten years provide even more blogging fodder and greater improvements in my writing skills. Every word brings me closer to the goal of publication (indeed, my blogging efforts must have made some dent in what Malcolm Gladwell calls the "ten-thousand hour rule," the idea that it takes ten thousand hours of deliberate practice to achieve success in any field). But, even if I never reach that elusive goal, I will look back on my blogging efforts with satisfaction. There is a joy in writing for writing's sake alone just as there is joy in living, even if one doesn't accomplish anything of note.

"We write to taste life twice - in the moment and in retrospect." - Anais Nin

"If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others:
read a lot and write a lot." - Stephen King

"The only writer to whom you should compare yourself
 is the writer you were yesterday." - David Schlosser

"You fail only if you stop writing." - Ray Bradbury

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Book Review: The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling

When I searched for audio Christmas books at my library's website, The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place came up and I had heard good things about it from both Sheila (The Deliberate Reader blog) and Catherine (A Spirited Mind blog). It had the added bonus of being short, at only 5 discs long, and thus easy to digest in only five or six treadmill sessions. I will say that my husband winced every time he came into the room because one of the voices the narrator used for the lady of Ashton Place was extremely high-pitched, whiny, and grating. Of course, this would probably go unnoticed by young children (the target audience is readers between the ages of 8 and 12).

Miss Penelope Lumley is on her way to her new governess job, unaware that she will be asked to rear children who were quite literally raised by wolves. Penelope has no idea where her own parents are (she, herself, was reared at the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, when her parents left for parts unknown), so she is a perfect fit for the job, even at only fifteen years old. She does her best to teach them to speak, to conjugate Latin verbs, and to memorize poetry. Will her efforts to civilize the children be enough when the lady of the house decides to show them off to guests at her Christmas party? How did a stray squirrel get into the house during the festivities and who sent the letter requesting the theatre troupe to present plays about wolves?

I will happily seek out further books in the series, but may look for the hard-cover book instead of the audio, to avoid the ear-splitting narration. I don't think it would appeal to my sons: however, for children interested in England or governess tales, this would be a perfect fit. The witty words of wisdom sprinkled throughout provide an added bonus.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Big Hit Gifts of Christmas 2017

I hit pay dirt this Christmas! I was so very thrilled with the gifts I received.

When I saw this horn decoration at a local flea market, I had to mention it to my husband that evening. It looks remarkably like an alto horn (the horn I play when I play in Salvation Army bands):

I received a few other decorations, as well:

I will hang the London tea towel on my kitchen wall. I used to have four or five British tea towels on the walls of our kitchen when we lived in DeKalb, but never dug them out of storage here (besides I really only have enough wall space to hang one near the kitchen).

I can't wait to play this word game with the younger boys (we've been playing rounds of Balderdash after finding an inexpensive set of game cards at the thrift store for only $1.50). Thankfully, they both love words and word games.

My absolute favorite gift was one I didn't even request. Bryce reflected on my interests and gave me these beautiful book ends:

I think I will display them on the fireplace mantel and keep my current reads there (these are the six books I am attempting to tackle this month).

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Top Ten Reads from 2017

If I could go back and only read ten books this past year, these would be the ten I would choose:

Best Adult Fiction:

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

This Was a Man by Jeffrey Archer

Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase

Best Christian Non-fiction:

Best YA fiction:

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Best MG fiction:

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng

Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk