Thursday, January 8, 2015

Eggs and Death and Miracles

On Thanksgiving night, my dad died. Here we are, together.

 This is a picture of my bird, Bird.

Bird came to us from a friend. Bird flew into her yard one day. Bird is a gold-capped conure. Male and female gold-capped conures look exactly the same. A genetic test, we were told, would be the only way to determine gender. We never bothered.

In the six weeks since my dad died on Thanksgiving night, Bird has laid four eggs.

None of these eggs will ever hatch. 

Yesterday, the author copies of my first middle grade novel, THE QUESTION OF MIRACLES, arrived.

This is a book about lots of things, among them loss, and love, and eggs. 
Some of which may never hatch. 

This is the dedication page.

I am a writer. My job is to notice things, and write them down.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Turning Point

This is a blog post I wrote to share on author Nova Ren Suma's blog on November 12, 2012. 

            It was the summer of 2009. My little family and I were staying at a KOA camp just outside of Astoria, Oregon. I watched my kids play in the pool—an indoor pool, because of Oregon weather. The whole room was wet with steam, and kids’ screams reverberated off the walls.
            There were lots of families, but one mother caught my eye. Her children were a little younger than mine, also a big brother with a younger sister. I liked the way she spoke to her kids, the way she looked into their eyes, the way she smiled.
            Making friends as an adult woman involves a wooing process. You make eye contact, you smile, you try not to get too much into her personal space, you compliment her children the way a young suitor might compliment a lady’s hair, or her dress.
            I saw this woman and I wanted to be her friend. I had friends back home, but the thing was, I didn’t plan to go home.

            Back up four months. I stood in my kitchen, stirring something in a pot, waiting for my husband to get home and listening to my kids screech on the trampoline in the back yard. It was a beautiful yard. Even though it was in Santa Ana, California, we had chickens in it. For a while there had been a pig named Igor.
            Everything I had was poured into that home, that yard, and those two children. Their childhood was magical. I had made it so, along with my husband’s pretty significant salary and a job that may have been slowly draining his vitality.
            It might not have been that very evening, but it was an evening like that one when Keith came home, sort of a wild look in his eyes.
            “How was your day, Honeyman?” I asked.
            “Well,” he said, “I got laid off.”
            He could have gotten another job. We could have kept the beautiful house. The yard. The chickens.
            Back up another month or two. There was my husband, alone in the garage, smoking another cigar. At first it had just been once in a while; now he was up to two a day, maybe more. I hated the way he smelled. He worked long days. It seemed to me that he spend his evenings hiding from us—from me—in the garage, in the smoky cloud of his cigars.
            He was not a happy man.
            “I don’t care what it takes,” I told him. “Buy a boat. Have an affair. Do anything. Just get happy.”
            So when Keith announced that he had been laid off, we did the math. It was simple math. We could pay our mortgage for two months. I remembered what I had said—Get happy.
I had meant what I said. And I continued to mean it—with most of my heart—as I watched my husband come back to life in the three months that followed, as we finally finished the kitchen remodel and put the house on the market, as we sold it for a price that would allow us to pay the bank what we owed but would eat up all the money we’d put into it, as we sold or gave away nearly everything we owned, as Keith built a bonfire in the backyard, whistling, happy, and burned our scrap wood and broken chairs and sandbox frame.
            And then we were away, away, and my children and I were by turns ecstatic and scared and free and lost. Keith was pretty steadily ecstatic.
            I think that when I saw the woman at the pool, I heard in the way she spoke to her children an echo of how I hoped I spoke with mine, even as I’d uprooted and displaced them.
            I introduced myself. “I’m Elana.”
            “Cheryl,” she answered. We shook hands, maybe. I don’t really remember.
            She asked me what I did. I answered, without hesitation, “I’m a writer. I write Young Adult novels.”
            Now, the truth was, I had never written a Young Adult novel. I’d never written a novel, not really. But the words came out, and they didn’t sound like a lie.
            “I’m a writer, too,” she said. It turned out, she’d sold a novel, published essays, was working on a memoir. She was, I thought, a real writer. Her name was Cheryl Strayed.
            What had brought me to that moment, that introduction of myself as a writer?
            I had written for most of my life, off and on, though all I’d published was a couple of short stories in obscure little journals. I’d studied writing in school, I’d survived graduate workshops. But I’d never introduced myself as a writer. It would have felt presumptuous.
            I always intended to one day write a book, but in the years since conceiving my firstborn, it was like I had amnesia. All my creative energy was poured into gestating, into nursing, into nesting. I didn’t seem to have time for writing, or a need to.
            But now that the house was gone—and with it the pots and pans in every size, the never ending cycle of washdryfoldputaway, the rearranging of toys, the painting of walls, the machinations of housekeeping—now that I lived with my children and my husband and my dog and a ferret in an ugly brown RV… maybe it felt like I didn’t have the right to claim motherhood and housewifery as my job, anymore.
            I didn’t leave the KOA and magically write a novel. We parked the RV not too much later in Corvallis, Oregon, and I got a job teaching at the university—first ESL, and later composition. We rented a house on Roseberry Lane. Keith got to be a stay at home dad. I slogged through stacks of papers.
            I got sick. We moved home to California, living first with family and later in a rented house that may or may not have been possessed. I got better. Keith got another job, and I was home with my kids again. I set up house. We were back where we’d started, in a way.
            But it was out there—those words. I’m a writer. And though motherhood was still beautiful, though it still filled me up in a way nothing else could, I wanted to make the words true. So I wrote.
            Maybe it was because the bad thing had already happened—we’d already lost the safety net of a good job with health benefits, the furniture and the pictures on the walls. Even the walls. Maybe it was because I’d met a woman who was both a mama and a writer, who was beautiful and strong and seemed so sure of who she was. Maybe it was just time.  
            I don’t know exactly the ratio of what caused it to happen, what brought me to say those words. But that day in Oregon, with the clouded-over sky and a whole world of possibilities to choose from, when I opened my mouth to define myself, I named myself a writer.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Letter to a Student

I got this note from a student:

Hi Elana,

Thanks for responding! My biggest question right now is: when did you know you really wanted to make a living writing and how did you know you were good enough to do it for a living? Because I think I want to be a writer, but saying I want to be a writer kind of freaks me out because it only happens for a very small number of people and I don't know if I'll be good enough to really write for a living. Also, do you have any tips and all for the writing process itself? Because I find that I'll start a lot of stories but I have a lot of trouble finishing them because I don't think I'm doing anything worthwhile. Those are the major questions I have for now, thank you again for responding!

This is what I answered:


I have always wanted to write for a living. I currently have 5 books, published and forthcoming, and I still can't say that I write "for a living"--that is, I do not earn enough money to support my family. MAYBE I could support myself on what I earn from my books if I were single, rented a room in a shared house, and lived VERY carefully.

I make extra money by teaching and sometimes tutoring, and my husband provides the bulk of our family's income, though my dream is to retire him with my writing. I know lots of writers, and only a couple of them count their books as their sole--or even primary--source of income. It IS possible, though, especially if by "writing for a living" you include freelance writing, grant writing, technical writing, advertising, copywriting, etc. I DO encourage people to try to publish and make money with their writing, but it is certainly not a steady source of income for most writers. I suggest that you write with the goal of making it your living (if your heart drives you to do so) but that you also have another way to support yourself (or many more ways to support yourself). It IS hard to balance a day job with writing, but most writers do, some until their first book is sold, some for a few years, and some for always.

As far as finishing things... you will not know if you have something worthwhile for a LONG TIME in the process. More important than the quality of what you finish is the fact of finishing. YOU MUST FINISH A BOOK if you want to know what you have. You are a good writer and an interesting human being. I'll bet you write pretty good stuff already, and it will get better through practice.

Do not ask yourself if you are doing anything worthwhile. When that little voice tells you your writing is shit, answer, "Yes, that might be true, but I'll just keep writing anyway and see where this goes." DO NOT allow yourself to cripple yourself. If worse comes to worst, jump up and down and scream, "LA LA LA LA LA!!!" It's impossible to hear the negative voices if you are yelling and hopping.

Write, and write, and be gentle with yourself. There is time.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Sherman Arnold

If you have been to my house, you have met my dog Sherman. Most likely he didn't give a good goddamn about you, unless you had food. But Sherman loved me completely. I was his soul outside his body. This was a big responsibility, and an honor. Today I held Sherman and told him he was a good boy, and that Mama loves him, and I said goodbye.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Denise Dare... What would YOU Burn?

Today, I am sharing a poem written by a dear friend and an inspiration, Denise Dare.











Destroying old ways

Embracing the light 
as we move through our days...

Light the torch of Passion
Always Burning
A guide upon our way to Being
Ever more fulfilled and inspired
Full of Hope
Fear behind us.


The dark.


The light.

A spark to the flame...

Let our hearts be our guides.

Let us burn through the hatred, isolation, despair.

Let us emerge, like the Phoenix, and drink in fresh air.

Let us gift one another with a smile and a glance.

Let us shift into empowered delight...ABUNDANCE.

Burning through the darkness

A new light radiates

We are wise

We are brave

We are brilliant

We will shine all our days.

When we CHOOSE to ignite

Let the BURNING begin

Be it strong

Be it bright

All together we attend...

To this adventure, this journey.

Reveal your soul’s truth

Revel in the freedom

To be who you be...

Burn through the darkness

Shine brightly your light

Be Joy-full

Be Vibrant

For we are ALIVE.

Let us BURN...and BE FREE.

Visit Denise here.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Scott Blagden, What Would You Burn?

I have never met Scott Blagden, but he and I share the incalculable boon of having Rubin Pfeffer as an agent. Scott's debut YA novel, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, DEAR LIFE, YOU SUCK is out now, to rave reviews. I haven't read it yet, but now that I've read Scott's BURNING blog contribution, I am off to buy myself a copy post haste.

Here is what Scott Blagden would burn:

I’d burn that basement bedroom. That basement bedroom in the little red house in the woods with the cheesy paneling. That basement bedroom where I watched my dad straddle my brother on the yard-sale twin bed and beat the shit out of him. I’d burn that kitchen. That kitchen in the little red house in the woods with the enormous oak table and bench seating. That kitchen where I watched my dad slam my mom against the sunflower wallpaper and choke the shit out of her. I’d burn his booze bottles. I’d burn his belt. I’d burn the holidays when Dad said all he wanted as a gift was love. I’d burn the front-row pew he made us sit in at St. Mary’s. I’d burn the cancer cells that straddled his lungs and beat the shit out of him. The cancer cells that left him paralyzed in a pile of his own shit on that yard-sale twin bed in his filthy apartment. The cancer cells that forced me to forgive and forget. I’d burn all that shit.

Visit Scott at his website and follow him on twitter.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sara Wilson Etienne, What Would YOU Burn?

I met lots of cool writers last year when SACRED debuted, Sara Wilson Etienne among them. I knew right when I saw her--purple curls, big smile--that I wanted to be her friend. Today I get to share her guest post, one that resonates with me and, I'm guessing, with lots of people.

What would I burn?

My ego.

There is a part of me that dreams of creating great stories that people LOVE. It dreams about teaching other people how to write for children and teens. And about author visits and book tours. This is the same part that drives me forward. That makes me work hard and get things just right. It is my ambition--my unshakable belief that I am good enough to share my stories with the world. And it is an essential and joyful part of who I am.

But let me introduce you to ambition’s sister…ego. My ego is dark and small-minded and ruthless. It craves praise and awards and gold stars. And it wants not just to create great books, but to do it BETTER THAN EVERYONE ELSE. And this isn't helpful…not in any sense of the word.

The problem is these sisters look so much alike… it’s easy to confuse the two. Because both can be a driving force. Both look like they take you to the same place...a place with a career and published books. But one is a big-hearted, vulnerable dreamer. And the other is a mean-spirited miser.

I would burn the miser if I could. The part that whispers fears about what I’ll never have. That tries to judge my success by how many Amazon reviews I have, instead of the joy I get from writing my books. It makes me always want moremoremore, never satisfied with the work I'm doing. And it makes me feel small.

 BUT I AM NOT. My ego is. 

Sara Wilson Etienne is the author of HARBINGER. You can visit her here.