Why I Write

 

My life is divided into before and after. I’m in the after now.

Eight years ago, this coming April, my world turned upside down. Eight years ago, this coming April, I began the slow journey back. I hadn’t written a book then. Since that time, I have finished penning three.

When I got sick, my daughter became frightened. Who wouldn’t be? It was the summer before her freshman year of high school, and she spent her vacation taking care of her mother who needed assistance walking and bathing. It didn’t matter what I told her, or how many reassurances were held out, she was terrified. All the soft gentle words and reassurances never made it past her fear wrapped worry.

Sometimes you need a story.

I wrote her a book about a girl who was afraid her mother would die and leave her alone. In the book, the mother does die. The girl is not left alone, however. She has family and unlikely heroes to depend on. I wrote my daughter a book to make her laugh and cry, but most of all to help her see she was not alone and it wasn’t up to her to save the world. I think maybe it was both comforting and uncomfortable for her to discover how much I understood her.

She’s not a character in a book, and she is not this character. But young girls everywhere get angry with their mothers, at times think they’ve been abandoned, and generally feel treated unfairly by life. They’re often surprised when they discover their mothers were once girls and understand all of these deeply held, secret feelings.

Among the pages of this made up place filled with pretend people my daughter finally understood what I was trying to tell her. She wasn’t alone.

Sometimes you need a story.

A funny thing happened. Out of the story, two more grew. Each of these novels stand alone, and while they don’t lean on each other, they do rub shoulders, exploring the lives of the various characters in the same fictional small Texas town.

It’s quite a surprise to find at the end of these eight years I have three complete novels. I’d freelanced in my former writing life, and even written a novella, which resides in the dark recesses of my computer files, but I’d never attempted a novel length work.

As my health improved and my responsibilities shifted, I had more time to write books. With each novel, I learned better and went back, refining and polishing. I hunted down critique partners and entered contests. I was quite pleased with the feedback I got. Now I’m ready to start querying agents.

I’m telling you this tale because, as with all of my stories, I want to encourage and bring hope to the reader. Because sometimes you need a story.

Donna Jo Stone writes YA contemporary novels about tough issues but always ends the stories with a note of hope. She blogs at donnajostone.com.

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Cleaning Day

“I should be mad at you for not letting me take the car,” she says. Her brows arch in surprise. “But I’m not.” She smiles. A small, sweet smile. The one I would sew a thousand tiny doll dresses, go on a million trips to the park, and bake a hundred chocolate cupcakes for. A yesterday smile.

She is mine for a few weeks. She told me so before finals. She said, “I will be hanging around the house for five weeks.”

I know that won’t happen. She already has plans. There are friends, events to go to, and a dance workshop.  There is a boy. There is always a boy.

Her schedule fills up so fast I can barely squeeze in her dental appointments, an eye exam, and a doctor visit. And she really should be evaluated for that persistent weakness in her ankle. She twisted it at school months ago, stumbling on the theater stairs.

“You were right, Momma,” she told me then. “I should have tossed those boots.”

The worn down heels made her ankles pronate. After she fell that day, I snatched the boots away and trashed them, sending her to buy new shoes with her ankle wrapped tight.

It’s summer break. Today she stays home. We clean. The guys installed an exhaust fan in my bathroom, and the white powdery dust from new cut holes and whatever else they did invaded the master bedroom. It coats everything.

We wipe with damp cloths. I wonder aloud, more than once, why they didn’t consider covering my work space with plastic sheeting. She shrugs, grown wise in the ways of women, knowing I need to grumble and fuss at the mess, knowing it will not make the least impact on our men.

First years are hard, and Baby Girl isn’t so special she dodged the common freshman bumps along the road. Stress and grief dogged her, on too many days panting hard at her heels, snapping. More than once with blood-drawing teeth.

Yesterday she came up on me, armwrapping me from the side. “I feel content,” she said. Has she ever said that before? I wanted to breathe it in, cradle her contentment like an infant-holding  momma smelling her baby’s hair. She still has that peace about her, end of semester relief not yet morphing into boredom and fidgety unsettledness. We rest in this moment, the place between.

We wipe with the damp cloths. It’s so dusty. The rags have to be rinsed, over and over, water turning milky.

I go through the neglected stacks of papers. It wouldn’t be such a chore if I had kept up with the endless flotsam of every day life, but I couldn’t. Clutter accumulated without notice until now. The curtains needed washing, as did clothes left too long in untidy, neglected mounds waiting in vain to be folded away. The washer has been going all afternoon and in to evening. There are a pile of rags and towels in it now, waiting for tomorrow. It’s too late to start a wash now. Rugs are clean, floors mopped, ceiling fan dusted. The room practically echoes with good, simple clean.

I found things that have been lost for months. It’s good to wipe away the dust, to rest in the inbetween, finding contentment in the stripped down rooms of home.

 

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How to Talk With Teens About 13 Reasons Why

13 Reasons Why is the Netflix special everyone is talking about. The series is rated MA for mature audiences and explores suicide, bullying, sexual assault, and many other serious topics teens and young adults face. The series contains graphic depictions in some episodes. I have not read the book 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher yet, but it is my understanding that the book is significantly different. This post is about the Netflix series.

I searched for a discussion guide to go with the Netflix series but I am disturbed to find some had the tendency to minimize the issues. I found an excellent list of talking points to start meaningful discussion from the JED Foundation and provided that link below.

If you have any suggestions to add to my list, please put them in the comment section.

It seems a common thread among some of the people who discuss the series often include an element of denial. Instead of closing our eyes, perhaps a better way to address the issues brought up by 13 Reasons Why is to ask questions, listen, and guide our young people. If your teen or young adult has not watched, I still suggest parents look for ways to bring up the subject matter.

Thirteen Reasons Why is rated MA.

If your teen/young adult has already watched, I strongly suggest you watch each episode, stop, and discuss. Take time to process. This series deals with heavy topics and is emotionally draining.

Advice for Parents

Talking with kids can be hard. Decide what the most important topics are to bring up to your young person and ask questions, letting them do most of the talking. This is a time to offer guidance rather than lecture. Bring the topics up more than once.

I would be very honest with your young people. Perhaps not every person they go to for help will respond appropriately, but most adults are here to help. Sometimes asking once isn’t enough.

Relate a personal story to them if you have one and offer solutions.

Do not minimize your young person’s concerns and experiences.

Ask direct questions.

Talk to them. Not only once, but continually.

Know what they are watching.

I am not a mental health professional. The questions listed below are simply the type that can be used to start a dialog. Each of these suggested questions should lead to many more.

What did you take away from this story?

What do you think this series is about? Is it about more than one thing?(Some young people may miss that this story is driven by Hannah’s revenge against those she feels responsible for her suicide.)

Which of the characters seems the most balanced or healthy emotionally? Why do you think that is?

Are any of the depictions in this series believable? Which ones? Which actions are not?

What behaviors do each of the characters engage in that are questionable or plainly wrong? What should they have done? In this situation, what would you do?

What do you think you would do if you found yourself in some of the situations Hannah does?

How can you decide what secrets should be kept and which should be told? Who should you tell? Why or why not?

What are the signs of suicide? Other emotional issues?

How can you help someone who is suicidal?

How do our actions impact others? How do their actions impact us? How can we deal with that?

Who is the victim in this story? Is there more than one victim?

How does the school depicted compare to your school?

After each episode ask you young person for their takeaway, and what they thought. Examine the ideas put forth. Ask “what did you think” and “why or why not”.

If you seek help and are ignored or denied, what should you do then?

Does this story have a ‘call to action”? What is it?

Extension

What do you think of some of the reactions people have had to 13 Reasons? Can you give examples of appropriate/inappropriate reactions? Explain.

For further reading

Click here for a link to resources on 13 Reasons Why the Netflix Series from the National Association of School Psychologists

Click here for Talking Points from the JED Foundation.

 

Keep talking and discussing books, movies, and issues with your children and young adults.

 

Please add to the discussion by commenting below.

 

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Crappy First Draft: My Smiling Pile of Poo

All writers know first drafts are less than perfect. In fact, they are usually awful. Crappy first drafts are par for the course.

At Walmart one day I was shopping with my son. I saw a Smiling Pile of Poo Bank. Jokingly, I said, “When I finish the rough draft for my novel I should treat myself by buying this to hold all the money I earn when I’m a famous author.”

He took it off the shelf and put it in the buggy. “I’m buying it for you.”

“No, no,” I said. “I have to finish the draft first.”

“You will,” he said.

“What if I don’t?”

“You will.”

It gave me the warm fuzzies to think he had faith in me. The guy must believe I could write a novel if he parted with cash to purchase such a thing.

I’m not really sure if having this bank represents earnings I will make selling books. Perhaps, being empty, it better represents all the money I have spent attempting to learn the craft of novel writing.

The Pile of Poo sat in a central place. I saw it every day. We all saw it every day. If I had been good and worked on my novel, the face smiled encouragingly at me. On the other hand, on days I could have written but didn’t, I swear that pile of poo mocked me with its big, round bugeyes and sly, silly grin. Plus, now my son was invested, having bought that pile of poo for me.  He is a grown man, but he is still my kid. If he had enough faith in me to buy a ceramic bank with his own money, I had to be worthy of that pile of poo.

poobank

It was about this time last year when I heard back from an agent. My full manuscript had been requested, but in the end was turned down. I wasn’t entirely sure what the issue was, so I hired book coach Sarah Hamer to help me. 

Here we are many months later with about 40,000 words added to the story. Many of these words were written 500 at a time as I kept to my daily minimum goal. Over time I did pick up speed, learning to use speech to text and making adjustments to current challenges.

New characters walked onto the stage, and the plot is better. I decided to change from Middle Grade to Young Adult, and hopefully corrected any major story flaws.

Finally, my draft is finished! You know what that means. Now I get to begin re-writing and editing.

And my Smiling Pile of Poo will be here to encourage me every step of the way.

Oh, and by the way, one of my other boys bought me this lovely first draft notebook, trusting I have another story in me waiting to be written.

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It’s wonderful to have supportive kids, even if they give me lots of crap, I mean poo.

#AmWriting

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Baby Dresses

The smell of hot cotton fabric permeates the air. I used to hate ironing. I never could get every crease out. A ready iron in my hands had a tendency to create more problems than I could erase, playing hide and seek with wrinkles until it drove me to despair.

The trick is to iron only cotton fabric, cut into squares . I like the small, well-behaved pieces, the calm way they lay still for me, not like hard to manage shoulder seams that always want to squirm away when you try to hold them flat enough to iron.  Simple, unsewn pieces have no curves and strange corners.

I push down on the fabric, slowly drawing the heat across a multitude of tiny blue flowers. The busier the pattern, the less the wrinkles show. Still, I pass the iron over the field of blooms again and again, until the scent of hot cotton lingers, memories of little girl dresses.

I had other plans for this fabric. I can still picture the dress in my mind, the one I imagined when I chose this fabric. But then life happened. Time got away. The white and blue dress was never sewn.

The iron creaks. I never had the money for a good iron, so I made do. There were irons I coveted after. Maybe if I had owned one of those my ironing would have been more successful. Nevermind.

I whisk my palm across the hot fabric, not resting there, always moving, moving. I am going to put this in the shadowbox as a background for the dress.

I barely finished the dress in time. Last babies. You understand. The final embroidered flower was stitched in place while I was in the hospital bed recovering from my fourth c-section, and she was brand new to this world. Silk roses on a baby dress. What nonsense.

Two of the flowers need repair. I hesitate. Was it really so long ago her hands were small enough to catch the tiny loops and undo all my meticulous work? It was a trial to keep her from unraveling them all. I thread the needle.

White thread and a twist. One, two, three stitches. The thread knots. I take my time and unravel it. When I was younger, I was always in a hurry, leaving snarls and wadded thread behind on the back sides of my stiches, not worried about what didn’t show.  I tease out the tangle and leave a clean, smooth stitch behind.

On her way out she breezes by, her fingers lighting on the dress for two, maybe three, seconds as she walks by. She says, “When I have my baby girl, she will have her picture made in this dress.”

I say nothing, because even though we have said this very same thing a thousand times, I can’t say it today.

Not today.

She opens the door, her hand jiggling the keys impatiently. They hit against each other and jangle.

She has one foot out the door when I say, “Text me when you get there.”

The response is automatic. “I will, Momma.” Her mind is elsewhere, on her to do list.

Before I assemble the dress and backing into the shadowbox, I pass the iron over the blue flowered fabric one more time, breathing in the smell of hot cotton meant for little girl dresses.

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Encouragement for Mothers: Diving In

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You are ready.

It will be glorious or horrible and, most definitely, it will be messy. There will be sunshine and roses, rain and thorns.

This is what will happen.

The washer will break.

Flu will haunt your house like a hungry stray cat you accidentally fed.

Some days you will forget what blue sky looks like, but on other days you will be able to taste it when your mouth opens wide and lets laughter fly free.

There will be tears.

You will be expected to sweep up sharp broken pieces even while your bare soles are smudged with blood. You will never be enough and always be enough.

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You will never be enough and always be enough. (Tweet This)

It will be scary hard. You will be forced to plant your feet, take ownership of your failures, and stare them down. You will fall short but you will be forgiven. You will learn to forgive yourself.

You will be pulled and stretched until every bit of your bounce is gone. Flexibility will be your middle name. On certain days you will wonder if the shape of deflated balloon is the permanent price your spirit will pay. But then, when you develop eyes to see the magnificence of stretch marks, the vision will leave you without air.

You will breathe beauty.

You will take a small hand in yours. If you don’t let go you will both grow into your feet, getting big enough to walk in the land of giants. You will begin to understand that perfection does not dwell in the world of mortals. In times to come, a backward glance will reveal the perfect, unerring, working out of the distance you have already traveled.

This is what will happen.

You don’t get it all. You get the prize.

You don’t get it all. You get the prize. (Tweet This)

Your sisters are all lined up along the edge. They will help you if you are wise enough to understand that you are not alone.

Dive deep.

You will be fine; more than fine. How do I know? Look at you, sister-friend, momma-lady, baby-girl.

You’re already treading water.

 

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Distracted

I’ve neglected my blog.

I have a million reasons why. I even have finished posts, somewhere, that I intended to put up, but they never made to the blogosphere.

Things around here are in what I like to call a “creative” phase. It’s a period of a thousand project beginnings and me hopping from one to another. It may seem like nothing gets finished, but I hope eventually progress will become evident. I’m banking on it.

There is a lot going on to distract me.

I have been working like crazy on the book-I-thought-was-almost-done and discovered it is a long way from the finish line.

This is our last year of homeschooling and that comes with a heap of things to finish, and quite a few to get into motion. Ready or not, this phase of our lives will soon be over. People always ask, “What will you do?” A friend of mine once answered that by saying, “Clean the house!” That is definitely not the answer I give. Usually I sigh dramatically and say, “Nothing! I’ll be retired! ” and we laugh.

I find myself distracted by the notion of endings quite often.

Baby Girl is, at this moment, practicing an en pointe competition dance. It is a variation on the same dance she has performed on stage since she was tiny. Whenever there has been a space between the last time I watched her dance to this song, Treasure of Jesus, and she practices it again, the tears come.

My very favorite memory of her dancing this particular piece was when she was about eight. It was late, and she was in her nightgown. I had come to tell her it was time for bed.  She didn’t know I was there, hidden in the shadow of the door frame, watching her sway to the music, lost in it, worshiping Jesus. It was one of those catch-your-breath moments that you know are a gift.

I watch her now, a beautiful accomplished young woman, still that little girl blowing kisses to Jesus. It presses on all the tender, hope-filled places of this mama’s heart.

There are so many things to get ready. This is a year of lasts and firsts, endings and beginnings. It is a strange place to be, living in a space over filled with happy sadness.

Forgive me if I’m a bit distracted.

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Home Invasion|The Visit Continues

We were driven out into the night to seek shelter at my son’s house a week or so ago as I wrote about in an earlier post.

When we got here, you could tell it was definitely a guy’s house.

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But soon, his sister made her mark. I thought the man of the house finding this in the cabinet was hilarious. He was not as amused as I.

wighead

 

The master bedroom did not have a bed yet and was used for office space.

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He used one of the smaller rooms that he had bought a mattress for, intending to rearrange things as he acquired more furnishings. The closets are spacious, but he kept his clothes here.

clothes

Perhaps this was more convenient. I resisted hanging up his clothes. I did find clean sheets and left them on his bed, simply as a suggestion.

Being a good sport, my son has adapted somewhat to being invaded by not only mom, but sister as well. Brothers have often been here and require little adjustment. Girls, on the other hand, are different. There have been purchases of things boys have no need of, like extra silverware, baking pans, first aid supplies, laundry booster, and fresh fruits and veggies.

I am happy to report the bathrooms and kitchen were fairly clean. Almost shockingly so! Warms a mother’s heart to realize the endless task of teaching does pay off.

I worried about crashing in on him, but he keeps assuring me he likes us being here . . . most of the time. He grumbles at times. It would be nice if his sibs loaded the dishwasher. You would be proud of me, Mommas. I say nothing to that, nor do I gloat. (By the way, the sibs do contribute to upkeep and mess management.)

We were talking about how nerve wracking it can be to have family around all the time and he told me he wasn’t bothered by my being here at all.

“Because,” he said, “You’re not judgmental.”

For some reason. every time I think of that it makes me tear up.

How has your summer been so far?

 

 

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Why Momma Cries | Beauty From Pain

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When she asks me why I am crying, I can not speak. I send her away with the words all mommas use so often it’s second nature.

“In a minute.”

She has come upon me unexpected, caught me in the grip of a journey’s end emotion.

I redirect her, unable to untangle my thoughts and feelings.

“Don’t you need to get ready for dance?”

She looks at me sideways, then nods. She knows me well and gives me the small moment of peace I need. I know her, too. She will be back in two heartbeats. I breathe.

When she returns, I am ready and not ready.

I start out OK. I tell her how proud I am of her. Half a sentence into the conversation, words have trouble squeezing past my heart. They come out wobbly but march on.

Baby Girl has had hard, hard times. Life is harsh to our young. No one grows up without a heavy dose of pain.

If I had one real come-true wish I would make the world gentle for her, but I can’t. The enemy is often invisible, but the battle scars are there, plain to see. When she lets me.

On this day she is going to rehearse a dance she choreographed to Beauty From Pain. One she will dance on stage in front of the whole world and everyone who is watching. She will dance with all the grace she can muster. She will dance with all she has, speak with movement and make the song sing a new way.

I tell her, “I know what the dance means—I know what this cost you.”

We can’t look at each other in the eye because now is not the time to puddle up.

Instead, I wrap my arms around her and she rests, enveloped. Her hair is in my face. It should be pony tailed or bunned. She needs to get ready. I don’t release her yet. I tell her to make sure she takes a water bottle. An experienced dancer, she does not need this advice at all.

She nods and I let her go.

 

 

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The Lies and Omissions of Teen Girls

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I wanted to write this post because my heart is breaking. Right now, girls are keeping destructive secrets, cutting, starving themselves, engaging in risky behavior, feeling trapped in abusive relationships, bullied and bullying, all right under their parent’s noses. I don’t even know if parents want to know. This post is for the strong of heart who are willing to take stock of their relationship with their daughters.

Teens cover up. They all do it. It doesn’t matter how close a parent is to their teen, deep secrets can end up buried far away from parental eyes and ears. Teen girls always keep a bit of themselves to themselves, and rightly so, but when they are engaging in potentially harmful behavior or need guidance teens need to be able to talk with parents. It’s part of our job as a parent to be available and aware.

Why Teen and Preteen Girls Don’t Talk to Parents

Shame

Even if there is apparent evidence to the contrary, our teens want to please us. If they feel ashamed of the opinions or thoughts they are having and are afraid of being shamed for them, teens will resist letting the parent in. They really do care what parents think, even when the teen disagrees.

Embarrassment

It seems like a teen girl is embarrassed by everything. Discussing intimate feeling or touchy subjects is brutally embarrassing. Did I say teen girls? I still get embarrassed by certain subjects with my mom and a fair amount of time has passed since I was a teen!

Rejection

Fear of rejection keeps us all from sharing our feelings. Who wants to have a heart to heart with someone when there is less than a 100% chance of your feelings being recognized as valid?

How to Get Teens to Talk

Be Honest

No one wants to talk with a hypocrite, and teens tend to operate from a black and white perspective until they gain experience. Teen will call you out on your inconsistencies. Be as honest as possible about your failures. Admit that you don’t know it all, but you are giving them your best advice.

Be Understanding of Your Teen’s Point of View

Teens are full of drama, and it is easy to dismiss conversations that from an adult point of view seem frivolous. Try to remember what it was like to find a place to be in a  confusing world.

Realize that they may be coming from a vastly different place than teens in years past have ever experienced. The first step to seeing from another person’s point of view is to realize they have a different perspective and respecting that perspective. You don’t have to agree with someone to respect their right to have an opinion. Finding a place to relate to each other is key to communication.

Listen Don’t Lecture

As parents it is our job to correct, admonish, and train but jumping in too quickly with advice or even worse, “I told you so” will bring any conversation to a screeching halt. Most of us have already done a fair job of laying down the rules and letting our kids know what we think and believe. Fostering a two way communication is an entirely different scenario. Listening is hard work. Resolve to postpone your input. A big part of communicating is found in quietness.

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Schedule Time to Talk But Talk Outside the Schedule Too

Communication takes time. Building trust takes time. Setting a teen down to ‘have a talk’ is not the same as ongoing dialog that is relationship building. Be deliberate in your pursuit of communication with your children.

All of these suggestions apply to boys as well as girls. While girls tend to talk more, it seems they also keep certain things to themselves.  I do not know if it holds true for all girls, but of all the girls I’ve known, we talk more but hold back more as well. We learn to do this young.

I wrote another post about Raising Conversational Men, but I am not so naive as to think my children tell me everything. The best I can do is to make it crystal clear to them that if and when they want to tell all, tell bits, or tell anything, I am here.

Do you have any tips for getting your teen to talk to you? I’d love to hear from you! Add your comment to the conversation.

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