Sunday, October 31, 2010

NaNoWriMo Here We Go

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who do NaNoWriMo and those who do not.

What is NaNoWriMo? I'm glad you asked. NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. It's a voluntary act of craziness whereby participants pledge to write 50,000 original words during the month of November.

What do you get if you "win". The right to say you did it. And you get to change your website badge from "participant" to "winner". That's it. No writing contract. No money. No fame. Just the satisfaction of showing yourself and the rest of the world that you can do it.

In other words, it is the literary equivalent to running a marathon.

Why am I doing it? Oh, well that's a whole other question. First, this is absolutely the closest I will ever get to running a marathon. I don't actually run IRL, but I am happy to take the metaphor and run with it.

Next, I have a project that I've been wanting to get on paper (or on disk, as the case may be). It's a story that I know well and have been meaning to write for a long time. This seems like the perfect opportunity to splatter my shitty first draft all over my screen.

NaNoWriMo is about quantity, not quality. As their website explains, "The Kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly." For me, personally, it's a chance to tell my extremely vocal inner editor to shove it for 30 days. My goal is to let the writing take me where it may.

Last week, Mary Scruggs, a writing teacher from the famed Second City, talked to us at Off Campus Writers' Workshop (OCWW) about an improvisation game called "Yes, and …." One of the golden "rules" of improv is that you are to take what others say, acknowledge it and build on it. In other words, be supportive of your fellow cast mates and what they want to say. Mary pointed out that writers tend to hear our inner voices and respond with "No, no, no, no, no." What if, instead, we listened to our inner voices — our characters — and responded with "yes, and …"? Where could that take our writing? Would we go places we've never gone before? In other words, be supportive of your characters and what they want to say.

I'm looking at NaNoWriMo as one big experiment in saying "yes, and …" to my inner voice.

A writer friend who I have only met online, the fabulous Lisa Romeo, suggested that we partner up for this year's NaNoWriMo. When she asked, I jumped. First, I respect her as a writer and teacher, and if she thinks it's worth doing, then I believe it is. Second, it's always better to be accountable to someone. Who else would care whether I do this or not (except you, of course, Dear Reader)?

BTW, I won't be posting this month of writing here on Two Kinds of People, or even on my shitty first draft blog — SFD @ 2KoP. The whole point is to create a first draft, for me and me alone, a starting point. Then comes revision, revision, revision, editing, polishing and then … who knows. But first comes the shitty first draft.

So, tomorrow is day one. I've installed a little counter there on my side bar. That way you can all help keep me honest. Scroll back up to the top of this post to see one of the web badges designed for this year's NaNoWriMo. I'm not quite sure how that particular image relates to writing in quantity, but I hope this whole project doesn't make a monkey out of me. Here we go. Wish me luck, or tell me I'm crazy in a comment here.

Ed. note, 11/2/10: Last night, my youngest (12-year-old) son read this post and decided to join in the fun, signing up for NaNoWriMo's Young Writers Program. He has pledged 50K words, too. Here's my post about it on SheWrites. Seth does not have his own blog (yet!), so feel free to leave your words of encouragement for him here and I'll be sure to pass them along.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

You Just Never Know

Laura Munson at a reading sponsored by the wonderful Book Stall of Winnetka.
You never know when or where or how you are going to meet someone who will touch your life in a meaningful way. I "met" the lovely and talented Laura Munson through an online writing forum called SheWrites. We struck up an e-mail conversation, which resulted in a phone conversation and then a real life meetup last month when she traveled from her home in Montana to visit family in Illinois and promote her touching, best-selling memoir, This is Not the Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness.

While she was in town, Laura spoke at a benefit and shared the podium with Dr. Gary Hammer, director of the adrenal cancer program at The University of Michigan (go blue!). Laura posted about her personal experience with adrenal cancer on her blog These Here Hills. The post, "Rare Cancer, Rare Doctor" also ran in the Huffington Post on 10/18/10.

Because this is such an important message, and because Dr. Hammer's hypothetical letter to a hypothetical patient is a powerful treatise on the doctor-patient partnership, and because the post includes a beautiful Two Kinds of People reference, I am honored to include it here today as a guest post. Please read and share.

Rare Cancer. Rare Doctor.
by Laura Munson

Amazing people have come into my life lately, and I can’t help but feel a deep knowing that it is nothing close to coincidence. Doctor Gary Hammer is one of them.

Dr. Gary Hammer
I met Gary because my sister-in-law was dying of a rare cancer that was supposed to kill her within months of diagnosis. Adrenal Cortical Cancer, or ACC for short. Doctors looked at her gravely. Mayo threw up their hands. There are only 300-600 cases in the US annually. That’s 1 to 2 per million. There was no cure. There was very little research being done. It looked hopeless. This is a cancer that often times lays dormant, wreaking silent havoc in the stomach, often caught too late. It goes where it wants. There’s little to radiate or chemotherapize. She was going to die, and fast. Five kids under 16. A woman who never drank alcohol, did drugs, smoked. An athlete, a practitioner of positive thinking and positive being, the definition of community leader, Sandra was that “one.” The one who defined the difference between the “two kinds of people: the ones who think about things, and the ones who do things.” Sandra was a doer.

So when she was stripped of her future, she caught her breath, and then she did the impossible. She lived for another nine years. She lived on will and positive affirmation and love. And then eventually, the cancer came back, and the only hope fell in the hands of a man who has devoted his life’s work to finding a cure for ACC. Gary Hammer, who is the University of Michican’s director of their adrenal cancer program. He is one of the only doctors in the US doing research on her kind of rare cancer. One of the only people in the world. When she barely had the energy to walk down the stairs of her home, Sandra participated in his clinical trial, travelling week after week with a family shepherd from her home in Ft. Collins to Denver to Chicago and back in the same day, processing the side-effects of the treatment, which is essentially a pesticide banned in the 1950s for use on crops. Because who wants to put money into such a quick killer of so very few. If you ask her children this question, they’ll try to find grace, because that’s what they learned from their mother. But inside they feel mad, ripped off, and beyond shocked that they live in a country that even still has expendable populations. How are they supposed to find trust again? How are they supposed to find faith after this tragic loss?

Gary Hammer is their link to making sense of loss, tragedy. It’s doctors like him around the globe who are blazing new trail, despite the odds, and in-so-doing, become the gatekeepers to new terrain. I am so inspired by Gary and his work, and also by his spirit. He has not detached from the heartbreak of his chosen field. He has moved deeper into it. He learns from his patients and has much to teach us about finding freedom even, and especially in the most challenging times. He is the sort of person who reminds us to have faith in the things that matter right now, wherever we are in our lives. My nieces and nephews can’t regain their mother, but they can rediscover faith.

My book is about rediscovering faith. Faith in yourself, against the odds. Mine were different odds. But finding faith in yourself is fundamental, whether it’s in death or love or both. For we all face both. In my book, there is a section that has to do with clear vision in the midst of crisis. The crisis, as you may know, had to do with my marriage, but on a deeper level, it had to do with my husband’s relationship with himself. Like me, he had rigged it that his personal worth was only as good as his career success, and though he worked so very hard, he wasn’t seeing financial results. He went into a crisis of self in which he questioned his love for me and our marriage. I felt that this was a crisis of his own self, and felt in my gut that the best thing I could do was to get out of his way. To not engage the drama. To focus on what I could control, and let go of the rest.

There began a time of soul searching for my husband that came together with crystal clarity when he went to be the family shepherd, assisting his sister on the long trek from her home in Colorado to the clinical trial here in Chicago and back again. He called me from the waiting room with a tone in his voice I hadn’t heard in a long time. He was flattened by the weight of cancer all around him. Whatever fears he had about our finances and his job were washed upon the shores of his own good physical health, and his relationships. “It’s who you love and how you love,” he said, as humble as I’d ever heard him. That was his sister’s gift to him. To us. She passed away a few months later. And in her dying, she taught those of us who loved her how to live.

Her message was to find the freedom of the present moment. To affirm life in all its abundance right where you are, whether you’ve been given months to live, or if your husband has announced that he no longer loves you. Her message was and is one of empowerment.

Gary has written something that is ground breaking. He debuted it last week in Chicago at a hospital fundraiser where we were the keynote speakers. You could have heard a pin drop, but for the tears. I would like to share it here. I have never known a doctor to show this sort of vulnerability. Here is his hypothetical letter to a doctor from a patient diagnosed with cancer, and his hypothetical repsonse. This is the very definition of empathy. I am honored to have him in my life and to call him friend. Please pass this along to everyone you can think of who would benefit from it. It gives us hope.

To that end, here is what appeared the night my sister-in-law died. Over her house, for all of us to see. I’m going to believe that it is possible to make rainbows if we want to deeply enough.

Dr. Hammer, then, is making rainbows in acts like [this open letter to cancer patients] (get out your tissue).

Thank you Laura. Thank you Dr. Hammer.

Comments welcome comments here.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Split Personality

There are two kinds of people in the world: regular people and superheroes.

I was never a huge superhero fan. Sure, I watched hours of Superman reruns (the black and white one with George Reeves) and Batman (Pow! Bam!), but that was only when there was nothing better on (like reruns of Petticoat Junction and Gillgan's Island).

Maybe it's because there weren't many great female superhero role models. I hated Wonder Woman's outfit. Bat Girl and Super Girl were lame wannabes. Then there was Catwoman, but she was kind of an antihero whose only superpower appeared to be sex appeal. Besides, I could never have pulled off that skin-tight black thing she wore.

The guys had the real super powers — faster than a speeding bullet and all that. But if I could reinvent myself as a superhero and choose my own super power … hmm, what would it be? Time travel? Invisibility? Teleporting? Flying? So many choices.

I first started thinking about this after hearing the Superpowers episode on This American Life, way back in 2001. (Subliminal message: it's pledge week — support NPR if you can.) But the question resurfaced today when I was tagged by E. Victoria Flynn of the fabulous blog Penny Jar. The first question:

If you could have any superpower, what would you have? 

It has finally become clear to me that the only superpower I really need is the ability to be two places at one time. It all started when I married a man who had two children, and the two places at one time thing would have come in very handy. It would have been handier still when I had twins. And then two more boys, just 16 months apart. It would be really handy tomorrow at "Take-your-parent-to-school Day", because those two boys are both at the same school. At the same time. In different classrooms. You see where I'm going with this. 

2. Who is your style icon? 

It's my daughter, who was recently voted the style icon of her freshman (college) class. The girl has the "it" factor and, man, can she accessorize.

3. What is your favorite quote? 

Oh, there are so many. I love the Fitzgerald quote in this post; and Robert Benchley's Law of Distinction — the ultimate Two Kinds of People quote. But today I think I'll go with a little ditty by Ogden Nash:

"Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker."

4. What is the best compliment you've ever received? 

When I was in college, I wore this fabulous black trench coat and a real Stetson fedora. I was sitting in a cafe when a waiter came up to me with a martini. He said that a gentleman  had bought it for me because I looked like Greta Garbo. When I asked who the gentleman was, the waiter told me that he had ordered the drink on his way out because he thought that I wanted to be alone.

5. What's on your iPod/CD player right now?
Mercy by Duffy. Also liking OK Go's new tune, White Knuckles

6. Are you a night owl or a morning person?

Please. Have you seen what time I usually post? Night. Owl.

7. Do you prefer cats or dogs?

As the co-owner of a pet store, it would be unethical (and unwise) to express a preference. But it may be a future 2KoP post, so stay tuned.

8. What is the meaning behind your blog name?


And now, I offer you these three exceptional blogs: 

Artichokes and Aristotle
Darryle Pollack — I never signed up for this …
Christine Wolf's Blog

Those of you who are blogless or who have yet to be tagged, feel free to leave your answers to any or all of these questions by leaving a comment here. And while you're in the the neighborhood, stop by and see my latest post on The Chicago Moms, which also went up today.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

At Two With Nature

"I am at two with nature." Woody Allen

There are two kinds of people in the world. I'm not the only one who thinks so, either. Robert Benchley wrote it into law. Ian Gibbs writes a comic called Two Kinds of People and this guy stole my first choice for my blogspot URL, even though he has never written a single post.

Lately, everywhere I turn I see two kinds of people. In comedy, "There are two kinds of people" ranks right up there with "A priest, a minister and a rabbi" as the start of a groaner joke. I recently even ran across the Two Kinds of People List (good fodder, if I ever run out of my own ideas).

But now it seems Two Kinds of People has gone highbrow. Most colleges and universities ask applicants to submit a personal essay (or two) as part of the admissions process. This year, applicants to the University of Chicago are offered five options, and Essay Option 2 sounds mighty familiar:

"Dog and Cat. Coffee and Tea. Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?" They claim this was "Inspired by an alumna of the Class of 2006."

I'm telling you here and now that while I have yet to post my coffee essay (I call it "Regular or Decaf"), I wrote it long before I read U of Chicago's prompts and have only been waiting for the right time to post it. You can find one variation on the dog and cat theme on last year's post called "Pet People and Proud of It". And if you have to ask whether I'm Team Gatsby or Team Catcher, then clearly you never read "Sensory Perceptions".

I hear the University of Chicago calling to me, but I can't quite decipher the message. Is it saying: "Carpe diem (which it would definitely say in Latin, because it is The University of Chicago, after all). Apply to our Master of Arts Program in the Humanities (MAPH) Writing Option." Or is it saying: "For God's sake, you just had a significant birthday. These essay prompts are designed for 17- and 18-year olds. It's time for you to let go of this whole Two Kinds of People obsession." (I don't know how to say any of that in Latin, but I think carpe diem may still be appropriate. And just FYI, Google Translate says that "Two Kinds of People" in Latin is People duplex; maybe I should change the name of the blog.)

On further reflection, I'm thinking the University of Chicago MAPH program may not be right for me. It's more of a creative writing option for people who are studying another discipline within the humanities. Perhaps I should explore other MFA programs more in keeping with my writing goals ('cause that's going to happen with two kids already in college and two more coming down the pike).

But I'd like to think there's still plenty of room to explore the rich world of Two Kinds of People, even for an old fogey seasoned writer like me. In the meantime, perhaps I need to start my own graduate program. We'll call it 2KoP-U. Click here to ask a question, leave a comment or request a course catalogue.

And now for a little Two Kinds of People trivia. In what movie will you hear the following quote and who said it?

"You see, in this world there's two kinds of people, my friend: those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig."

Bonus question: There's another Two Kinds of People line in the same movie. What is it? Answers here, but don't cheat.

Graphic credit: (love this title) Two of Arts — 2000 visual mashups by Q Thomas Bower via a Creative Commons License.