Eight-Week Challenge: Week Two

Week Two: not much difference from Week One. Again, a reminder of my goals:

  • eat more nutritious food with fewer empty calories,
  • walk at least 5,000 steps per day,
  • spend one day a week reading the backlog of magazines sitting on the end table, and
  • write at least 500 words per day for at least five days each week.

A summary:

  • Food: Close enough.
  • Walking: Not enough.
  • Magazines: Whew!
  • Writing: Oh well.

As for my last two goals: I am writing, though I’m in the research phase, not the putting words to paper phase.

I’ve been struggling with whether my story of life in Iran in the mid-1970s (what we now know were the good old days) is worth telling, or more precisely, what audience may be interested in the lessons I learned during my 28 months there. As part of my survey of comparable or competitive books, I’ve requested a hold on every book in the San Diego County Library on Iran if it deals with the period spanning 1950 to the present, with an occasional book dealing with history from before that time. All those books are showing up at the same time. I have eight checked out right now. Reading those must be my priority. Those magazines can wait.

This week I’ve read the following:

Sky of Red Poppies, Zohreh Ghahremani. A coming of age novel of two schoolgirls from families professing opposite political viewpoints in 1960s Iran. It was my great luck to meet the author this week at an event sponsored by San Diego Writers, Ink, where she read a portion of a short story included in SDWI’s 10th anniversary A Year in Ink anthology. I’ll be reading more of her work. The Moon Daughter is on my to-read list.

Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America, Firoozeh Dumas. A memoir focusing on the humor the author sees, perhaps only in hindsight, about her years as an Iranian émigré. Her comments regarding the prevalence of Iranians having nose jobs reminded me of the fact that nearly everyone I met in Iran asked how long ago I had had my nose done. Apparently, the one I was born with was the Iranian ideal. I contacted the author via Twitter and exchanged flattering comments, mine about her writing, hers about my nose.

Esther: Royal Beauty, Angela Hunt. When I expressed surprise that there were Jews living in Iran, my new Persian friend, Abie Beroukhim, explained that Esther of the Bible was Queen Esther, wife of the Persian King Xerxes. She and her guardian, Mordecai, who served in King Xerxes’s court, were part of the Jewish diaspora that chose to remain in what became Persia instead of returning to Jerusalem from Babylon when Xerxes’s predecessor several times removed, Cyrus the Great, released them from captivity in 539 BCE.

(An aside: Having read this story, I conducted a Google search for Abraham Beroukhim, Abie’s full name, and found this interview with his nephew of the same name. I’m glad that I had previously learned the sad news that Abie had been arrested in the early days of the revolution because reading—or hearing—about it from this link would have been too much of a shock. What happened to Abie is one of the reasons I want to complete my story—he was a major player.)

Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope, Shirin Ebadi and Azadeh Moaveni. This is the first of Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi’s books detailing her struggles in Iran to defend those facing political persecution or the uneven impact of Iranian legal judgments on women who are considered worth only half the value of men. The most heartrending story in this book concerns the rape of a girl by three men who were arrested and charged. One of the men committed suicide and wasn’t tried. The other two men were tried and sentenced to be executed, but the girl’s family was expected to pay blood money to cover the value of the two men’s lives. In their struggle for justice for their daughter, they lost all their possessions, still failing to come up with the amount demanded of them. As a result, the two men were released.

Honeymoon in Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran, Azadeh Moaveni. The author grew up in California as a result of her parents being caught there when the revolution broke out. In spite of her parents’ objections, she returned to Tehran, intending to remain, working as a journalist for Time. She fell in love, married, and gave birth to a child while in Iran. Nonetheless, the challenges of remaining true to her profession while not crossing lines her security services minder continually reminded her of proved insurmountable.

Until We Are Free: My Fight for Human Rights in Iran, Shirin Ebadi. The most recent of Shirin Ebadi’s books explains how and why she now lives in exile, unable to return in spite of having earlier chosen to remain in Iran, fighting injustice from inside, no matter what machinations the government devised to frustrate her in their attempts to get her to stop her advocacy for human rights in Iran.

So I’m writing through the research and reading I’m doing. That’s good enough for now.

Eight-Week Challenge: Week One

It’s time to report on the results of my first week. As a reminder, my goals for the eight-week challenge:

  • eat more nutritious food with fewer empty calories,
  • walk at least 5,000 steps per day,
  • spend one day a week reading the backlog of magazines sitting on the end table, and
  • write at least 500 words per day for at least five days each week.

 

Week One Results

This is not a picture of success. My Body Mass Index (the measure of my nutritious food goal) remains in the desired zone, but the weight figure it is based on has been going up, not down. My failure to meet my activity goal—5,000 steps—contributes to this trend. I must do better.

I didn’t simply fail to reach my writing goal of 500 words per day. Except for the first day, I didn’t write any words at all. (I wrote the four posts published this week earlier and scheduled them for the first four days. It would have been cheating to count those words, right?)

My one success in Week One: cutting down my magazine backlog. Admittedly, I tackled the smallest magazines, the ones I could get through largely by skimming, not reading. That gives me breathing room for tackling the larger issues, Writer’s Digest and The Sun.

Here is some of what I learned from my reading last week:

From AARP Bulletin of March 2017: The median daily cost for long-term care in a semiprivate room in 2016 in North Dakota was $359, the fourth highest in the country. Only Connecticut, Maine, and New York costs are higher. More surprisingly, the median costs in the three states that border North Dakota were $205 (South Dakota), $215 (Montana), and $242 (Minnesota). I think the makings of a story can be found in those figures. I mean, North Dakota routinely appears on lists of the 10 best states to live in, raise children in, and for opportunities. Minnesota also appears on those lists. So what makes it so much more expensive to receive long-term care in North Dakota?

That issue’s “Scam Alert” article defines 19 terms to describe scams, most of which are related to online activity, though one, vishing, the use of recorded phone messages intended to trick you into revealing sensitive information for identity theft, may target someone who doesn’t own or use a computer. AARP often reports on seniors being targeted because of their greater vulnerability. (Did you notice I used “their,” not “our?” Denial, denial, denial.) AARP even offers Fraud Alerts to protect you from con artists’ scams and schemes. Sign up here.

Of more value to me are that issue’s article listing 50 ways to live longer. Those that surprised me include

  • Say yes to that extra cup (of coffee)
  • Eating hot chili peppers may add years to your life
  • Fidgeting is good. A 2016 British study finds that sitting for seven or more hours a day increases your risk of dying by 30 percent—except among active fidgeters, who see no increased risk.

The rest reflect conventional wisdom, not much news, or in my case, motivation.

Eight-Week Challenge: Preparation 4

Write More

  • Write at least 500 words per day at least five days each week.

I’ve been spending a lot of time reading and very little writing. I blame the Goodreads challenge. Last year my goal was to read 50 books. That was so easy I met the goal before the end of August. So this year I set 75 books as my goal. Well, we’ve just dipped our toes into June and I’m only eight books short of completing my challenge.

For the remainder of the Goodreads challenge, my goal is to read books that relate to my major work-in-progress: a memoir of my two-plus years in Iran. That’s one strategy for getting me back on track with the memoir.

Last year I reviewed most of the books I read, to keep up the habit of writing. I began this year with good intentions, but few of the 67 books I’ve read so far have prompted me to write a review. I give out stars on Goodreads, but not much else. Writing up reviews of the more memorable books is a strategy for establishing better writing habits.

One new project for me this year is to encourage a group of women connected with my Sons of Norway lodge to write about their growing up years. We met this morning and I gave them an exercise to get them thinking. Our group doesn’t meet during the summer, but I promised (some may think I threatened) to send them writing prompts periodically during the summer to keep up the remembering. I wouldn’t dare send out a prompt without putting together my own thoughts to share. That’s my third strategy for improving my habit of writing.

And my last strategy: I pledge to share some of the wisdom I glean from all those magazines I will be reading. After that, I’ll be sharing the magazines themselves with my read-and-critique group, friends I think might be interested in them, or I’ll leave them in the doctors’ offices my husband and I seem to spend too much time in these days.

IWSG-October

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge
Here we are at the first Wednesday of the Month where many of us bloggers write about our hopes and fears in the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, founded by Alex J. Cavanaugh. Please visit either site for more info and a list of participating bloggers, to join, or offer encouragement.

This month’s question is “When do you know your story is ready?”

My only relevant experience with determining whether something is “ready” is with submissions to anthologies. As a member of the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild, I have been submitting short pieces (the limit for the first three years was 1,500 words; this year’s was increased to 2,500 words) since I joined in 2013. In each case, I decided my story was ready when the deadline for submission was upon me. This year I took the additional step of having one of my read-and-critique groups review it with me as part of the revision process. The result was a much stronger story.

Read-and-critique groups are great!

At the same time, however, I have been struggling to determine just when to ignore the well-intentioned advice from my read-and-critique groups with my larger project. Ignore is not the right word, but I can’t come up with a more precise one. What I mean is that I realized recently that I have been adjusting my goal (an admittedly amorphous goal never committed to paper) as I have received feedback. For example, my original vision of my memoir was a single book packed full of stories of the many adventures I encountered while living in 11 foreign countries over a 30-year period. I had an elevator pitch to describe my project: My journey from seeking adventure to finding a mission. And I had lots of first drafts of the subplots and vignettes. I just needed to find the right order for them. At least, that’s what I thought.

After trying out a number of read-and-critique groups, I found two I felt fit me. I read with one group and then take the feedback to revise the pieces to read with the second group. That way both groups hear the whole piece. The feedback has been fabulous, except for one thing: I allowed the enthusiasm of the participants to make me think I should break up my story into separate books for each country.

And that’s when I got stuck. I don’t have a whole story for each country. And while I perhaps could squeeze out enough from my memories for a whole book on the first country, I don’t feel that wouldn’t make a very satisfying story. At least not for me. Because the story of my experiences in my first country is a story of failure.

I allowed myself to be lured down a path I hadn’t intended to go. But this does not mean I should have ignored the feedback. I needed the feedback to make me realize that I hadn’t done the groundwork to define my whole story. I thought the route would become clear once I began writing. Instead, I should have spent the time drawing the map so that I wouldn’t be tempted down another road.

So I’m backing up. I’m re-reading Marnie Freedman’s 7 Essential Writing Tools: That Will Absolutely Make Your Writing Better (And Enliven Your Soul) (I told her I would never finish it because there is so much in it worth another look) to help me draw my map first. Then I’ll get back to writing the story.

In the end, I hope I will know that story is ready when it fits the map I have not yet completed.

 

 

 

IWSG-September

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge
Here we are at the first Wednesday of the Month where many of us bloggers write about our hopes and fears in the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, founded by Alex J. Cavanaugh. Please visit either site for more info and a list of participating bloggers, to join, or offer encouragement.

This month’s question for IWSG Wednesday is “How do you find the time to write in your busy day?”

A better question for me would be “How do you fill your day while you procrastinate on your writing?” And that’s easy for me to answer. I read. I read some more. I watch another episode of Midsomer Murders on Netflix. When I have seen all of them, I’ll find another multiple episode series. I check my three e-mail accounts, plus the account of the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild, to be sure I haven’t missed anything important. Then I check out Facebook, including my personal account, the Guild’s page, my Toastmasters club’s page, all of which I manage. And for good measure, I’ll check out the Meetup group pages for the multiple groups I administer.

Oh, and then there are meals to prepare. My husband eats meat and I rarely do, so that’s two different meals to prepare for lunch and dinner. He takes care of breakfast on his own.

And I have to find time to wash clothes at least once a week.

Oh, and I need to get in 10,000 steps each day.

And there’s that new 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle that I just have to finish. Putting the pieces together helps clear away mental cobwebs I am convinced are blocking my neural pathways to better writing.

These are the activities I have filled my days with recently because I’ve reached the point where I have to decide whether to include some of the tough stuff in my memoir: events I’d rather forget than include or events I’m not sure my colleagues at that time will forgive me for mentioning. Including such subplots might add the tension all my writing instructors insist must be included, but my life has been more marked with incredibly good luck (nothing bad happens while I’m in town, though revolutions may be brewing in the background) so I feel including them as (minor) “inciting events” into the arc of my memoir is manipulative.

The question I know I need to answer at this point is just what message do I want readers to take away from what I write. I should have answered that question long ago, but I’ve been dragging it around with me for the past year as I write, edit, read for critique, and then rewrite.

Here’s what I’m going to do before October’s IWSG Wednesday: I’m going to reread Marni Freedman’s 7 Essential Writing Tools: That Will Absolutely Make Your Writing Better (And Enliven Your Soul) to focus attention on the planning steps I’ve been avoiding while I’ve been balancing my checkbook and entering all my receipts and expenditures into Quicken Essentials. Then I’ll apply the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair and get back to writing.

Eight-Week Challenge: Week Seven Results

Week 7

One week left! Each week one of my goals takes a back seat to something. This week the goal I was short on was writing.

As a reminder, here are my remaining goals for the eight-week challenge:

  • eat more nutritious food with fewer empty calories and
  • write at least 750 words per day for at least five days each week.

Healthy Eating

I continue to try out new vegetarian recipes–or more often just try putting vegetables together in new ways. This week I found organic strawberries and rediscovered what strawberries are supposed to taste like–so much better than the commercially grown and chemically treated bits that taste more like styrofoam than fruit.

Writing

WWIndexingEvent

My goal to write at least 750 words at least five days a week took a hit this week. Earlier in the week, the cause was too many other things on my plate–a common occurrence, according to my husband. And he’s right.

But the last three days the cause was my participation in the Family Search Worldwide Indexing Event for 2016. For those three days I reviewed scanned versions of draft records, death certificates, and lots and lots of Kentucky marriage records going back to the 1850s. Nearly every record I indexed suggested story. There were the cases of much older men marrying young women, very young barely-older-than-juvenile boys and girls marrying, even one case of a note being filed to request that a marriage license not be issued to a teenage boy and an older woman.

So many of the records of marriages in the early 1940s listed the occupation of the groom as US military. No surprise there.

All in all, I felt it was a good trade. Perhaps I’ll be able to marry up the experience with my writing goals in the future.

 

IWSG-July

Insecure Writers Support Group Badge
Once again, the first Wednesday of the Month has arrived, the date on which many of us bloggers write about our hopes and fears in the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, founded by Alex J. Cavanaugh. Please visit either site for more info and a list of participating bloggers, to join, or offer encouragement.

For the past five weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of catch-up reading; not novels or memoirs or anything else with a hard cover. I’ve been reading back issues of magazines that have been piling up on a cabinet next to the sofa. The result has been both inspiring and anxiety producing. The range of topics inspire, as does the excellent writing. But that also explains the anxiety. Following are some examples:

Most occupants of my complex, as far as I could tell, had a mental disability or illness. Meghan’s speech and mannerisms suggested that she was no exception. . .she didn’t seem to fit in with the group, standing off to the side, looking miserable and rolling her eyes at their immature wisecracks. . . .

Wearing her usual frayed blue sweat suit and graying sneakers, Meghan plowed past me, head down, swinging her free arm, dragging that leg, and ignoring me for all she was worth. Though we had encountered each other six or seven times in the hall, she had not greeted me once, as if she were angry about something I’d said or done.

Poe Ballantine, “Even Music and Gold,” The Sun, November 2014

I love this description of Meghan though not a word about her height, weight, hair color, body shape, face shape, or eye color appears. I can see her, though I know I have supplied all those usual descriptions missing from Ballantine’s description. These sentences inspire me to describe one or more of my characters using behavior and actions in place of the usual.

One evening Cole invited me to his house. I didn’t want to go, but I had no strong sense of self, nothing to steer by. I had no way to say no. . . .My deepest fear wasn’t death at the hands of Cole, although I did fear that. I was more afraid of being like him.

. . .I’d thought college would be like the library table in high school, but instead of skipping school, we’d stay at the table and turn into smart people. . . .I knew more trees than people.

. . .I felt I was making a mistake. But, then, I always felt I was making a mistake: walking into a classroom, going on a date, eating dinner with a friend. Everything I did felt wrong, wrong, wrong. . . .I simultaneously wanted to protect Cole and to pretend not to know him.

. . .But I hadn’t discovered a bold, brave part of myself. It was nothing like that. What I’d discovered was that I could pretend to be someone I was not, and that people could be fooled by this, and that this could save my life.

Heather Sellers, “I’ll Never Bother You Again,” The Sun, February 2015

Much of the above feels very familiar. But that would probably be true for nearly any woman who survived her teenage years. In addition to their familiarity, these passages are frank and brave for their self-revelation (a note on the article indicates names were changed to protect privacy, indicating the piece is not fiction). I hope I can become as brave in my memoir writing. I suspect what I have been hiding of myself in my work may make the difference between a series of sometimes humorous vignettes and a story worth sharing.