The Art of Giving

Paying forward to other writers isn’t always possible. Especially when you’re a cash-poor mommy like me. Being close to my colleagues in Romance Writers of America is tricky too, what with the Atlantic and all. However, as I pound the streets of Dublin, I listen religiously to my RWA conference recordings and the several workshops therein. In 2011, one standout workshop was Brenda Novak’s talk, ‘The Climb’ – her career journey from unpublished writer to NYT bestselling author.

Brenda gives tips, dos and don’ts, and the story of how she persists through what she still determines is a tough business. She talks with humanity, humour, and a huge dose of honesty. She tells it straight: this job is hard but it’s worth it; the old process of submitting still works; people still need new writers, and most importantly for me, a busy mother can make it.

I listened again, and realised I had to contact this woman. Tell her how her words have touched me, motivated me, energised me. Thank her for her warmth, lend my support for the job she describes as a climb, congratulate her on her awesomeness!

So I hit her website, read her bio, and was blown away by her personal story of needing to find a job that would let her stay at home and raise her children. Wasn’t this my exact same plan? I stay at home to raise my two. I want to work, preferably by writing. If that busy mother could write day after day, persist despite hurdles and rejections, and produce sellable manuscripts, then what was stopping this one?

As I skimmed the pages, I dreamt about a similarly awesome ‘How Nikki Became A Published Author’ story. You know the deal: ‘The Call’, NYTB Stellardom, Oodles of cash. Then I read about her youngest son Thad, his diabetes, and Brenda’s quest to eradicate this horrible disease.

I fired off an email, “Dear Brenda”. Amid my compliments and general gushing, I said something like “when I get published and make some money, I’ll donate to your Diabetes fundraising.”

How delighted I was to read her reply, filled with kindness, tons of support, and a firm reminder to hang in there and keep turning out the pages. Then she wrote: “You don’t have to wait until you’re published (to help the cause)”.

The idea of donating something, either handmade or otherwise, got me thinking.

Donations, handmade, Ireland, me….

Every May, thousands of people visit Brenda’s auction website from all over the world, but the majority of bidders are US-based. Now I’m no marketing whiz, but I do know that the Irish thang is rather huge there. If I could create a piece of art, something really Irish – hand-made, unique, something created right here in ‘good auld Dublin’? Say, writing up some Gaelic sayings, artsy, maybe drawn in inks a la calligraphy I learned many years ago? Something unapologetically Oirish. Would it fly?

Brenda thought so!

‘Seanfhocail’ is a Gaelic word that literally means ‘old words’. Filled with wisdom and wit, these sayings and their English translations lend light and fun to everyday chat. So I got myself to the craft shop, bought paper, cards, ink, and the fanciest wee silver nibs.  I double-checked my grammar, deciphered my Celtic Garamond from my Uncial Antiqua (don’t worry, it’s a font thing), and practised like hell.

I’m no pro, but I knew that if I tried hard enough, I could come up with something eye-catching and worthwhile. And I did. In February 2013, I produced thirteen one-off pieces of art. Old Irish sayings, calligraphed on parchment, suitable for framing. My pieces raised $341 for the cause!

I’m a writer with time and energy. I am blessed with many amazing friends. I am innovative and creative, and I’ll go out on a limb for someone who’s helped me. Brenda’s friendship and encouragement helped me give back. Her can-do attitude, her passion to find a cure, not just for her child, but for diabetics across the world, inspired me to try and help.

One woman can make a difference, and it’s all part of The Climb.

We are each challenged in some way. Brenda has been running this auction for over ten years, and has been helping her son battle the disease for many more. All while writing book after book, building a career, and raising a family. If that doesn’t drive you to don some hiking boots and join us, I don’t know what will.

Producing and donating artwork has challenged me, but it’s given me so much too. I discovered a dormant talent. I raised money. I put something nice on the walls of thirteen strangers. I helped pay for something worthwhile, like the wages of a lab technician, or a week’s worth of printing costs for a Diabetes research lab, or a month’s worth of coffee to keep those postgrad researchers working til the wee hours. To all at Florida’s Diabetes Research Institute who are working so hard to improve the lives of the near-26 million* diabetic people in the United States, thank you.

This year, I am donating four pieces – a drawing of a ‘Celtic Knot’ and one called ‘An Irish Blessing’. Both are designed, drawn, inked, and calligraphed by myself using high quality materials. The third and fourth items will be personalised after the auction – if the bidder has a favourite motivational saying, a prayer, book title, or anything they like, I will design and ink a piece to suit their specifications.

There are many ways you can participate and help Brenda raise money toward a cure:

Visit the Brenda Novak for The Cure website for more details.
Join the cause in a variety of ways- from donating an item to helping us spread the word.
Donate in your own way in the For The Cure Cafepress store.
Visit the auction and make your shopping list! Items go up every day for the auction that opens on May 1st.

Register as a shopper today (the link you have already works great) to be able to bid on hundreds of items. It’s a great place to find birthday and holiday gifts for your friends and loved ones.

Do you have some special words I can draw up for you? I take orders for personalised calligraphy according to your specifications.

Cheerleading for Beginners

Can you cartwheel? Shake your pompoms? Flip someone high into the air? I’m thirty-seven and I’m far from energetic. I can’t do a high kick or even the splits. But as moderator of an online writer’s group, I am a wannabe cheerleader. I train with my squad, I practice new routines, and I beam like a teen at tryouts.

When I first joined the Procrastinator’s online group (belonging to RWA chapter ‘From The Heart’), I was lost in more ways than one. It was May 2012, and my first child had hit his milestone first birthday. I yearned for an identity that wasn’t just “Mommy”. I wanted to jumpstart my career – prove to myself that I might just realize my dream of raising a family while writing for payment.

But when the loop moderator needed to step down, it was clear that if no one ran this group, the help that I needed might never come. ‘Maybe YOU could moderate!’ The voice came from nowhere, but I made sure to give that troublemaker a sharp slap upside the head. I mean, I couldn’t possibly run an online group! I was unpublished, I knew zilch about the job, I had a baby who refused to sleep…

Despite the sleep deprivation, the voice wouldn’t quit. Damn it.

I fretted. Will I be lumped with more work than I can handle? Will I have to be a Pushy Polly? Will I completely suck? I was unsure of everything, but you know what they say – when doubt strikes, strike it right back. Something certainly struck me the day I rattled off an email to my chapter president. ‘I’ll do it!’

Volunteering myself is completely alien. It’s not that I’m not warm and generous – I am. (I’m super-modest too.) But first and foremost, I look after myself and those closest to me. Selfish? Perhaps.

By contrast, a can-do spirit is something I’ve always yearned for, and have admired in my American friends in particular. Could it be that moderating would help me build that can-do attitude, even if I had to fake it at the start?

Reading the posts of previous moderators, women who appeared a veritable troop of Katy Perry-like trailblazers, I saw messages of strength, motivation, hope and backbone. Writers were spurred on with phrases like: “Let’s do it!” and “Way to go!”

Let me explain. As an Irish person, I don’t think I’ve ever uttered the words: “I believe in you.” Not out loud. Maybe during mass in high school? You see, we Irish can be slow to enthuse. Like, allergic. We rarely praise. We’d much prefer to not compliment someone, thereby reducing the risk that they’ll get above themselves. (Heaven preserve us!)

I have, on occasion, been accused of thinking I’m fabulous. (My immodesty strikes again!) If you’re Irish, this is A Bad Thing. Similarly, being motivational can hex you as being dramatic and downright over-the-top. In reality, I’m prone to happiness. I keep it to a minimum, but is it something that should be curbed?!

As long as there aren’t too many of my countrymen nearby, this Irish lass can whoop and clap like a seal at feeding time. I started to think about the quintessential All-American cheerleader: dazzling, daring, dedicated. Impassioned. Inspirational. Could I swap honk for hoot?

Again, I jumped. In September, I snuck from the moderator’s changing room in an outfit that was too tight and clung to a smile I knew was fake. Behind the grin, I felt lost, under pressure to reflect the spirit of the group, to grab my runaway doubts as moderator and writer, and keep them caged.

As you recall, I joined the Procrastinator’s group, because, well, I put off writing. I’m great at it. So tell me, how can the moderator be seen to procrastinate? To fail to meet even those “ickle baby” writing goals she made so fervently? Wasn’t I here to drive the squad? Inspire them with my ‘incredible core strength’, show them how to jump with style, cartwheel with confidence and shout “Go, go, go!”?

Without advice, experience, or pompoms, I was far from being “writer motivator” material. I was way out of my league.

But I couldn’t quit. 

For one thing, my chapter president had put her trust in me. She needed someone to run the show, and if I panicked and ran, the group could dissolve. Busy women needed help. And as busy as I was, I was desperate to find motivation to write. And I did.

Since I’m a member as well as moderator, I participate in writing drives. I have to. Whenever my squad turns up, I line up alongside them. Even when I’m coach, I’m base too. I tumble all too often. Many a time, my word count is low. I take a fall, but I always pick myself up. Every now and then, I make the kind of progress that was once unthinkable. So yeah, it’s nice to be flyer too.

Looking after loop members isn’t difficult (not hard when they are as amazing as this bunch). Which brings me on to the best thing about moderating: the utterly superb people who call themselves ‘Procrastinators’. My buddies, my friends, my squad.

Our friendship, warmth, and support are nothing short of phenomenal. This past year, we have consistently fought procrastination and produced hundreds of thousands of words of fiction. Some members were published writers, and at least two more writers have joined that category, securing their first publishing contracts within the last few months. Bearing witness to their writing journey is my privilege, hearing them chant and cheer as they reach another writing goal. Seeing them accomplish so much brings me unadulterated joy. Nothing and no one can stop me clapping ‘til my hands hurt.

So what about other times? You know what I mean. Life barks every darned day. Sometimes it bites. And when that happens, members don’t meet their goals. Maybe I should snap or snarl or pull their problems apart like a T-bone.

I wouldn’t and I couldn’t. In life, I try to reserve judgment. Aren’t there at least two sides to every story? Maybe it’s okay to push a group, but never an individual. Even then, pushing should be an exception, not the rule. At least, that’s my rule. I myself have been pushed. I’ve been bullied, pummeled, misunderstood. Believe me, it’s not nice.

Compassion and an open mind are crucial in any job, and it’s no different for a moderator. So when replying to a member’s post, I remember that I’m talking to one specific person. One who has feelings, fears, needs, and problems that I know nothing about. Because no one knows your life like you, right? If you post that your day job knocked the very breath out of you and now your word count is short, I’ll believe you. If you say that your week was so tough you couldn’t write one paragraph, I’ll accept it.

Members have to know they can safely and honestly spill their results at the end of the writing week – be it a zero word count, or 100% of their writing goal. Honesty is crucial. From day one, I have placed trustat the forefront of this group. Trust shows up in many ways. It is faith in oneself, faith in the group. Trust that we’ve practiced the motions, we know the routine, and should one of us be unlucky enough to fall, there’ll always be someone there to catch us.

Now, if I were a cheerleading pro, I would drum up some inspirational quotes for my group. I could probably invent some new writing challenges too. Heck, maybe I could even become Pushy Polly! However, I am still learning. And I’m busy too, writing manuscripts, dreaming big. With every word I write, the cheers sound more convincing. Belief in my team has led to belief in me, and that gives this rookie something to shout about.

A marriage take-off

Tell me, how do you celebrate an anniversary? A romantic dinner? A special long-saved-for gift? Sweet huh? It’s ‘paper’ for a first wedding anniversary, isn’t it?

Not if your husband’s an aviation nut. So it didn’t surprise me when mine suggested we each take an introductory flying lesson on our first year wedding anniversary. But it floored me that I agreed to it. (The bottle of prosecco we’d polished off might have had something to do with it.)

My instructor Brian is a good-humored man with (thankfully) many years’ experience. His easy-going, friendly style of instruction is no doubt an attempt to try and soothe my inner turmoil. That is, if he can tell I’m terrified, he’s great at hiding it.  

After we get strapped in (the Cessna 152 gives a whole new meaning to ‘intimate’), Brian takes me through the basic workings of the plane, my head nodding maniacally throughout (trying to shake out old episodes of ‘Air Crash Investigation’ you see). Brian called into the tower in confident captain-esque tones, then mentioned the "decent cross-wind" that might make for a bumpy ride. "Oh", I chuckled, "I can handle it." 

How wrong I was. 

Our little aircraft is assaulted the moment we leave the ground. Mild turbulence it isn’t, as the Cessna yoyoes up and down like a giant pogo stick. Then somewhere during the climb, Brian, in a moment of suicidal madness, hands me the controls - OMG.

He does a great job of ignoring my complete freakout, as I jerk the controls every which way. All I can think is 'whose bloody idea was this?' Damn that prosecco! Somehow we make it to 1,000 feet, and I breathe again - the longest minute of my life is over.  

But then, once you’re up, you’re up! And yes, I admit the view is incredible. Against every instinct, I force myself to do most of the flying – its what I signed up to, isn't it? Not that different to those heady vows I took a year earlier: to go the distance with my husband through good and bad, in sickness and in health, all the days of our lives. 

Like I say, heady.  

Learning to fly is not unlike marriage. No matter how grounded you are, how long you’ve known each other, or how deeply in love you think you are, taking that plunge can shake even the toughest of people. As I so quickly found out, it certainly doesn’t stop at ‘I do’. 

In flight, you need to keep one eye on your surroundings and the other on your instruments. Tricky huh? Once in position, the plane will naturally fly itself but like life, those darned external factors meant that she can veer off-course easily.  

Love though can be even more awkward – I mean, how can you be sure you’re heading in the right direction? At least in the Cessna I have a compass... 

In between my instructor’s prompts, I remind myself to just relax, enjoy the ride. In so many parts of life, we veer between extremes of caution and abandon, and can forget to take in the view along the way. 

They say a good pilot will scan all her instruments regularly, realigning where needed, a little at a time. And in marriage too, isn’t that a good principle to live by?  

How do you and your partner celebrate the highs and lows of your relationship?  
(And if you've any ideas as to how we can mark the next anniversary, please shout! A trip through the Amazon collecting venom samples? A class in redback-spider juggling?)