Friday, May 22, 2015

What's in a Name?

Do our names really influence who we will become?

I mean, we don't get to choose them, that honor is left up to our well-meaning, but occasionally clueless, parents. And for the most part, we live with whatever moniker has been foisted upon us by emotionally-compromised fathers or mothers who may or may not have had a little too much pain medication prior to completing our birth certificate. It is not a typical matter for deep philosophical reflection. Unless you were the victim of an extremely malicious parent like that unfortunate boy named Sue, then you probably suffered no lasting trauma associated with your name.

Not long ago, I was asked, "Do you love your name? Or hate it?" The question itself implies that people fall in one of two very distinct camps. But after a great deal of reflection, I decided there are too many gray areas involved to give a definitive answer. Over the course of my life, there have been many times I didn't particularly care for my name, but for better or worse, it is mine. So, here is my answer to that well-meaning, but poorly phrased, question.

It Could Have Been Worse

Before I came to live in this world, my mom and dad engaged in a typical debate held between couples readying themselves for the arrival of a new family member. They could not agree on a name. Although they each produced solid arguments for their choices and tenaciously defended their positions, my mom emerged the winner. Victorious, she named me Carey – but it could have been worse.

People have always struggled with the proper spelling of my name. In an attempt to make a common name less ordinary, Mom decided a change in spelling was necessary.  Businesses, employers, friends, and even family have frequently misspelled my name over the course of my life. My own grandpa never learned to spell my name accurately, which led to the receipt of yearly handwritten birthday greetings addressed to C-a-r-r-y, C-a-r-r-i-e, C-a-r-y, and even K-e-r-r-y. Of course, it could have been worse. Even though the name is misspelled, I still know they are talking to me. They could have gotten the name completely wrong. Can you imagine being referred to as Terry or Sherry or even as Mary. Misspelling doesn’t seem quite so bad when compared to misidentification.

Elementary school was no picnic either. Do you know how many words rhyme with Carey? A lot, that’s how many. Fairy Carey, Merry Carey, Scary Carey, Hairy Carey. Small children love to speak in verse, and when you have a name custom-made for rhyming, that is exactly what you get. However, it could have been worse. These monikers could have followed me into adolescence. Can you imagine being saddled with ‘Hairy Carey’ throughout puberty? That could have been truly devastating.

In high school, I discovered another problem with my given name. It was boring. While my friends possessed beautiful, interesting names – Yvonne, Gwendolyn, Katrina – I held on to plain, old Carey. I was the third Ingall’s sister, the one that never had any exciting adventures or whirlwind love affairs. The clumsy sister that fell down trying to run through the field during the opening credits – yep, that was me. During these years, I sampled new names. I became Talia for several months, and then adopted Meike for nearly a year. Ultimately, I returned to Carey because it could have been worse. My mom could have chosen an old family name like Gladys, Agnes, Gertrude, or Mildred. Can you imagine trying to live with one of those unusual names around other teenagers? Talk about character building! No thank you, I will just stick with simple, traditional, awkward Carey.

In the end, I decided to embrace the name my mom fought to bestow upon me. It is my identifier, and I cannot imagine having any other appellation. I am Carey. Carey is me. Besides, it could have been worse. My dad could have won. Then, I would have been Cadence. Can you imagine being named after a military march song? Yeah, me neither.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Lessons Learned: Tales from Midwest Memories

A current collection-in-progress - Lessons Learned: Tales from Midwest Memories is a collection of personal essays tracing the long, often humorous, occasionally angry, and sometimes emotional journey of my life growing up in the rural Midwest.

Today's offering is a decidedly emotional essay from this collection. 

How I Learned Moments Matter

Humanity measures the progress of life through a series of signposts. Graduations, marriages, births, moves, jobs, and deaths pave the pathways we each travel during our time on this plane of existence. These milestones, although important, are not what truly shape us into the people we will become. That honor is reserved for less consequential incidents. Seemingly insignificant experiences profoundly influence our interaction with the world around us, but only after time and reflection reveal their fundamental importance.

Tuesday, July 13, 1999 began with an argument. My grandpa was in the hospital for a minor cardiac event – the most recent health issue in a long line of difficulties that stretched back nearly six years. This episode only landed him on his back for three days, which was no more than a hiccup compared to some of his previous illnesses. Although he was due to be released the next day, my husband kept insisting we go visit him. I was twenty-five years old, four and a half months pregnant with my second child, and in no mood to be told what to do. I argued vehemently against making the forty-five minute trip to the hospital.

My protests stemmed from a combination of practicality, experience, and all-day morning sickness. I spent the entirety of my twenties traveling back and forth to my grandparent’s home to help care for them during my grandpa’s many infirmities. I kept house, ran errands, set meds, and prodded Grandpa through his various therapies. It became a quietly running routine. I knew what to expect and what was expected from me. “They’re releasing him tomorrow, and I’m going out on Friday to spend the weekend. Make sure he’s all settled in and that he and Grandma have everything they need. I feel like crap today. I was just there yesterday and spoke to his doctor. He doesn’t even have any physical therapy orders this time. Of course, I’ll stay longer if they need me.” Today, I was wasting my breath.

My husband ignored both my objections and explanations. He would not take “no” for an answer. He headed to the car, declaring that we were going, and I followed reluctantly. I pouted the entire trip and continued to mutter my arguments while staring out the passenger side window.

When we arrived at the hospital, Grandpa was in good spirits. He smiled broadly at me, reached out, and grabbed my hand tightly, “They’re springin’ me first thing in the morning, Sis.”

We sat, holding hands, and visited for nearly two hours. We talked about my son, the light of his life, and the pending arrival of his great-granddaughter. When I told him about the never-ending ‘morning’ sickness, he laughed and commented, “Yep, that’s a girl for ya.” We reminisced about my childhood, discussed his current medical condition, commiserated over the inedibility of hospital food, and negotiated my upcoming visit. At 2:30, we said our good-byes. I leaned over, kissed his cheek, and received my kiss in return. I told him I loved him and would see him Friday. He was smiling as I waved from the door.

The doctor released him from the hospital the next morning as planned. He and Grandma headed off to bed about 10:30 p.m., as usual. Sometime between midnight and 3 a.m. on July 15th, Grandpa went to the kitchen to get a drink of water. An aneurism burst in his brain. Grandma rushed to him when she heard him fall, but it was too late. He was already gone. He died on the kitchen floor in the home he built for his family with his own two hands with his wife of fifty-one years by his side. After all the heart attacks and strokes, this hidden weakness took him from us. None of us saw it coming.

On July 13, 1999, I spoke to my grandpa for the last time. Of course, at the time I did not know it would be our final visit, and it almost did not happen at all. If not for my husband, I would have missed the opportunity to sit and talk with him. I would have lost the chance to hold his hand and kiss him good-bye one last time. I would have regretted the decision not to go see him for the rest of my life. Instead, I learned a valuable lesson that has influenced how I live and love the people in my life. I discovered every single moment we have with our loved ones matters because life guarantees nothing more than the present.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Toughen Up, Buttercup: A Guide to Surviving Constructive Criticism

At some point in your writing journey, if you are lucky, you will be exposed to that wonderful, terrifying, terrible process known as critique. It may come from a teacher or professor. It may arrive in the guise of an in-person or online writing group. It may even turn up as feedback from an editor or a beta reader. But mark my words, if you write long enough and are serious about sharing your work with other readers, eventually it will occur, leaving you alone to decide how to best respond.

What you do next is crucial. Your response to criticism (that you asked for, by the way) will determine:

1. How much or how little you will learn about the craft of writing

2. To what extent your writing may improve

3. Whether or not people will willingly continue working with you

As a writer, the first thing you need to do ask yourself some very important questions. (BE TRUTHFUL, you will only be lying to yourself.)

1. Do I want other people to read what I have written?

2. Do I feel confident that I am presenting the best work I am capable of producing?

3. Am I ready to hear people talk about my writing in ways that may not be flattering?

4. Can my ego take criticism without me becoming: a) angry, b) violent, c) depressed, or d) suicidal?

Did you answer “no” to one or more of these questions? Stop right here! You are not ready for constructive criticism. You are looking for someone to ride in on a unicorn and blow glittery rainbows up your ass. I suggest giving your work to your mom or best friend or someone else who believes everything you do is brilliant and perfect. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT share your work with strangers. You are not prepared.

Did you answer “yes” to all these questions? Fantastic! You are ready for constructive criticism.

Now that you are seriously primed to share your work with others, the most significant information I can share with you is this – 99% of the people who will offer you advice are truly trying to help you be a better writer. The other 1%? Well, the other 1% are trolls and bullies who only feel better about their own shortcomings as writers, and possibly as human beings, when they are tearing someone else down. Don’t sweat that one percent, you will quickly learn who they are and you can ignore them completely.

I mean, technically, you are free to ignore anyone and everyone. You are the creator of your work, and as such, it is your choice whether or not to listen to what other people have to say. However, I would recommend at least entertaining the ideas and suggestions that come your way. They are only trying to help after all.

Now, I obviously can’t speak for everyone out there. I can only speak from my personal experience in both giving and receiving critiques, but I can tell you that I am certainly not going to be easier on a stranger than I am on the 13-19-year-olds I work with on a regular basis. In fact, I know quite a few adult writers who could take a lesson from these young writers. They crave critique. They beg for it. They want to learn. They want to improve. Most of all, they want to write and share their writing with others.

So, in the spirit of these fearless future novelists, playwrights, poets, journalists, and artists, here is my advice for learning to survive constructive criticism.

Your writing is not you.

Don’t get butt-hurt over what people say to you about your writing. People are not attacking you. These stories are your babies. Believe me, I get it, but have you forgotten question #4 already? Oh, yes, I was totally serious when I asked it. If you are going to survive, you had better develop a thick skin – the sooner, the better.

People are not going to sugarcoat things for you.

Don’t expect people to couch their criticism in kindness.
Again, I’m not your mom or your best friend or even your biggest fan. I’m not here to feed your fragile ego. I will NEVER be unnecessarily rude, but I have shit to do. When I am working with a piece, it has my absolute and undivided attention. However, I have other manuscripts and stories to read, reviews to write, and projects of my own to work on. Keeping feedback concise (which can sometimes seem curt) can simply be a necessity.

When the going gets tough, buckle down and work harder.

Don’t quit just because a piece was received poorly by someone or even by a whole bunch of someones. Writers don’t quit. They just don’t. Are you a writer? Then, you can’t be a quitter. Instead, realize that not everything you write will be a hit with everyone who reads it. Do you believe in the story you are trying to tell? Then, keep working on it. If not, then scrap it and write something else. Nothing you have written is time wasted. It all becomes part of the learning process. KEEP WRITING!

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

The first draft of your first story is probably not going to be very good. It is quite possible that it will suck. Writing improves over time. In fact, time and experience is the only way it improves. Revision is your friend. Embrace it. Even the most talented writers rewrite and revise. And then you know what they do? They revise and rewrite some more. Hemingway rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times before he was satisfied. 39 times! Do you think you are more brilliant and talented than Hemingway? Perhaps you should think again.

Edit your work before you give it to someone to read.

GRAMMAR AND PUNCTUATION MATTER! They matter to the entire literate world. I cannot stress this enough! See Question #2 above for further clarification. I am not your editor – not that I won’t point out a misspelling or tense shift from time to time, but that is not my primary goal. If I have to struggle to read what you have written, I will not be reading it. If I wanted to be an editor, I would make a job of it. Nobody has time to try to translate your writing and critique it. Don’t be that person.

Remember that no one is perfect.

We are all biased by our personal preferences. This is as true for readers as it is for writers. I do my best to reveal my own personal biases when I critique, but not everyone does. Just be aware that sometimes a suggestion may come your way based purely on a person’s preference for or aversion to a particular genre, style, or form.

Listen to what people have to say.

When someone has taken the time and trouble to read and comment on what you have written, the least you can do is listen to what they have to say. I approach each and every critique first as a reader, then as a writer. Many of the critiques I offer deal with aspects I would like to see as a reader – better character development, clarification of story points through addition or revision, reduction of extraneous information, and developing better dialogue are the most common. Critique partners and beta readers take their roles seriously. They want your end product to be the absolute best it can be, so pay attention to their opinions and advice.

BUT, take everything with a grain of salt.

Always remember, you have the final say in your work. There is no question you will be given advice that will be invaluable to your growth as a writer. However, there will also be suggestions that just seem to miss the mark. If there is something you love, keep it and move on.

If you choose to follow these suggestions (as always it is ultimately your choice), then you will be well on your way to becoming a better writer. But, regardless of your choice, good luck and happy writing to you all!