Drop A Pin Here…

In the real world, I type my destination into my iPhone navigation app, and two pins drop—one for where I am, and the other for where I’m going. The journey is mapped out, and the techno voice guides me (hopefully) to the desired location.

Finding the desired location for a novel should be so easy. Maybe it is for some writers. Maybe I should take out a map, close my eyes, and pin the post-it arrow on the next setting. But I know I’m going to live in that place for a while (even if it’s only in my head), so I’m always very selective. For my earlier novels, I always picked a time and place that I wanted to research. That way, if I had never been published, at least I learned something! (That was a conscious rationale, by the way). Before the days of Google, I read tomes about London in the 1930s, leading up to and including World War II. Then I read about Vienna in the 1880’s, when anti-Semitism was festering, political upheaval was getting ugly and the art world was ideologically splintering…all to the tune of Strauss waltzes. Then I ventured out West to Denver in the late 19th Century. My last two novels have been set in places where I have lived: Astoria, Queens, where I grew up, and Southold, Long Island, where I spent summers as a child. These are places I have known and loved. They are places I can smell and feel. I want the reader to smell and feel the setting, too.

A setting has to have interesting traits, just like the characters. As an author, I wouldn’t be happy if I created real people and placed them in a two-dimensional world. If they are alive to me, then they need a place to live and breathe. I have to picture their home, their street. I have to feel the heat of the sun and see what they are seeing. Can they smell the seasons? Do they hear the clamor of traffic or the rustling of leaves in the breeze? What are the people around them doing?

If I want my characters to be alive to my reader, then I have to show them reacting (or not reacting) to their world. It’s as simple as that.

So I’ve decided where my next novel is going to be set. I’ve been to Boothbay Harbor, Maine, a number of times when my sons were growing up, and my recent visit convinced me it would be the perfect backdrop for the story I want to tell. I can already picture the homestead, complete with its outbuildings and old pick-up truck. I can see the sailboats and the busy lobster wharves. I can smell the salty breeze.

There’s a beautiful church on a hill, visible from the harbor. There are interesting shops and good restaurants. In the summer it’s mobbed with tourists soaking up a Maine Coast experience. Off season, however, life goes on up the road from that waterfront, and those year-rounders are hardy folks. That is the Boothbay Harbor I wanted to explore while I was there. Their connection to the land and sea goes way beyond a Maine Coast experience or the aesthetic appeal of their lighthouses and sunsets. Their connection continues when the restaurants are closed and the sightseeing boats are dry-docked.

Which brings me to the premise of my story. It will be about going home…and why home is not always a place.

In The Beginning…No Words Yet

A lot of people have asked me what it’s like to write a book. They especially want to know about the creative process. So this blog will be my answer. As I write my next novel, I will share my quiet insanity. I’ll share the blocks and brainstorms (without giving the story away, of course), the conflict and the discipline, the agony and the ecstasy. I’ll also share the unhealthy effects of a solitary, sedentary job on an otherwise sociable person.

Where do I begin? (The first page is always the hardest. But you knew that).

Human beings are born with instincts and compulsions they sometimes can’t escape. Most people feel the biological need to procreate, and some just need to create. But creating a work of art, especially a novel, can be likened to the long and sometimes painful process of giving birth. In the beginning there’s a spark. (The idea or message). The spark ignites love. (The writer becomes obsessed with the idea). The love needs to be expressed and brought to life. (The writer is ready to forfeit everything to bring that idea into the world). I don’t know why.

By the time the story is born, the writer is usually in physical distress.

I’ve been under the power of this compulsion since the age of eleven. And I didn’t start out wanting to write short stories or poems. I wanted to write hundreds of pages, creating stories for the characters in my pretend world. As a child, I created characters for myself and my friends when we played. Maybe as I got too old to “play house,” I didn’t want those characters to disappear. So I wrote them down and gave them a story. On a toy typewriter. That’s no lie. That’s how it all started.

Throughout high school I was more into music, and songwriting was my main creative outlet. But even as I loved singing and playing my instruments, I began to notice that my love of music had an added dimension that didn’t seem to plague my friends and family members. When I heard a song I liked, I couldn’t just sit back and be transported by its entertainment value. I always felt, “God, I wish I wrote that.” Talk about compulsion.

I did a lot of performing—high school glee club, church groups, a rock band—but I was never as comfortable in the spotlight as I was being a writer or composer.

As a young adult working in Manhattan, my leap into the oblivion of serious writing was not a conscious decision. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I was bored at work one day, and I put a blank piece of paper into the typewriter. (Yes, I’m that old—it was a Selectric II typewriter). Two years later, I had a 900-page novel about a Norwegian immigrant who became a lumber baron in the late 19th Century. You can’t make this stuff up. (Wait a minute…yes, I can make this stuff up. Maybe I should say truth is stranger than fiction).

Now, almost 28 years after that first piece of paper went into the typewriter, I have honed my craft. I know my platform. I try to be disciplined. And I implement all the tools I’ve acquired along the way.

But the story still begins with a spark.

There is a message inside of me that wants to be heard. It’s at the root of all my stories. The power of human connection. So this is how it happens: An idea comes to me while I am watching the news one night. Almost immediately, two figures emerge from the recesses of my mind as though they had always existed there. They are my new characters, and they are waiting to be given names, attributes and physical traits.

I want you to love them, so I will be very particular about every detail I create for them. A lot of thought will shape them. A lot of notes will be taken. When I see them very clearly…when I know them by name and sense they are real…I will write biographies for them.

In my next post, I’ll try to explain how this happens. For now, I will simply savor their conception like a satisfied lover. If I still smoked cigarettes, I’d be lighting one up right now.

Excerpt from “The Healing” (Flashback)

Welcome to the Boomer Lit Friday Blog Hop! Once again, authors are showcasing examples of this exciting new genre at http://boomerlitfriday.blogspot.com/ You should check them out. There’s some good stuff there.

Here’s my contribution…a flashback scene from my novel, “The Healing.” Enjoy!

On her way past the lifeguard’s chair, Karen glanced up and saw Mike Donnelly for the first time. He was silhouetted against the bright midday sun, his hair hanging in damp ringlets after a dip in the bay. If his face wasn’t so boyishly Irish and his eyes weren’t so intensely blue, he would’ve resembled some Roman god of the sea perched on his pedestal. Expecting that his gaze would be riveted on Anya’s tall, hourglass figure and melon-sized breasts bumping along in her shocking green bikini, Karen was embarrassed to find him looking down at her. Her. Why was he eyeing the boiled chicken wings when a gourmet feast was right in front of him?

“Hi,” he said, moving nothing but his straight, dark eyebrows.

Karen felt an immediate rush of heat to her cheeks. “Hi,” she echoed, ducking her head. Her heart knocked hard and fast against her breastbone. Idiot, she berated herself.

“How about right here?” Anya was saying to the group with her hand extended, indicating a clear patch of sand like a game show model offering Curtain Number Three. They were diagonally in front of the lifeguard’s chair. “Excuse me?” she called up to him brazenly.

Karen braved another glance upward because now her flirtatious cousin had diverted the lifeguard’s gaze.

“Yup?” he replied, moving only his head. His arms were still draped across the back of the chair and his long, well-muscled legs were stretched out and crossed at the ankles. He looked like he was lounging on a comfortable sofa watching a movie. Except he was wearing nothing but a red swimsuit that was about as wide as a headband.
“We won’t be in your way if we park ourselves here, will we?” Anya asked, peering up at him with her weight shifted onto one hip and a hand shading her eyes.

The lifeguard looked amused. A slow, attractive grin creased his face. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I can forge a path to the water if the deadly riptide tries to claim a life.”

“And the sharks,” Anya said. “Don’t forget the sharks.”

Everyone laughed. There were no man-eating sharks or dangerous currents in the waters off Founders’ Landing. The only time the lifeguard truly earned his pay was when a child capsized on an inner tube or got stung by a jellyfish. The rest of the time he was free to watch bikinis and daydream about the girl he wanted most on the beach.

Karen’s eyes remained riveted on the lifeguard’s face as he broke into that full smile. When his laughing blue eyes fell on her again, he caught her gawking at him, slack-mouthed and air-headed. Snapping her jaw shut, she unfurled her towel and hastily set it down on the sand. While her friends wriggled out of their shorts, oiled their young bodies, and stretched out in various poses to sunbathe, providing wholesome visual entertainment for their new prospect, Karen sat on her towel and hugged her knees, careful not to move or risk another glance for a long time. She stared out at the bay, conscious of every sound and movement behind her.

From the Beginning of “The Healing” (Second Installment)

If you were born between 1945 and 1964, listen up!! There is a new literary genre out there just for you! It’s called “Boomer Lit,” and I recently joined a group on Goodreads for authors who have written books that would be of particular interest to the baby boomer generation. This group has put together a blog-hop called Boomer Lit Friday, and we are sharing excerpts to offer examples of this new genre. Check it out at http://boomerlitfriday.blogspot.com/

Here is the next installment from the very beginning of my novel The Healing…(you can skip to the boldface type if you read last week’s excerpt)…

Karen Donnelly stood on the grassy overlook and gazed out at Long Island’s Southold Bay. The beach at Founders’ Landing had always been a special place for her, but lately it gave her no comfort. While the gentle surf lapped at the shore below, anxiety pulsed through her—a tide with a force all its own. The roaring in her head drowned out the summer breeze rustling through the nearby trees. She was in a constant state of tension, and no curative setting, not even the place where her best memories were born, could bring her peace of mind.

She closed her eyes and took a deep, shaky breath. If she tried hard enough, she could slip into that other lifetime and ward off the melancholy that threatened to overwhelm her. It should have been easy to pretend it was thirty years ago. The same dense maple trees shaded the familiar spot where she stood. The same picnic tables still offered cool respite from the heat of the sun. The air smelled like it always had. But when Karen opened her eyes, she was still standing in her altered world. She looked around like a child lost in her own backyard. There was no sound of splashing water or laughing children rising from the beach like music from an old transistor radio. The picnic tables, once hidden amid the chaos of vacationing families and randomly parked station wagons, now sat like weathered sculptures on an abandoned landscape. There were no children playing, no dads barbecuing, no moms chatting over iced tea. It wasn’t peaceful or heartwarming. It was just sad.

Karen swallowed hard and walked down to the beach. Over the past few months, she had learned how to suppress the anguish. When it formed a lump in her throat and threatened to erupt in a raw scream, she swallowed it and kept moving.

She removed her sneakers and felt her bare feet sink into the warm sand. Every summer growing up, when school was over and she had come to the beach for the first time, Karen would cherish the moment her shoes came off, and they usually didn’t go back on until Labor Day. It was an annual ritual she had always associated with freedom. Did kids appreciate that kind of thing anymore?

Karen looked around. Only three families were enjoying the beach, and only six or seven children were in the water. A few yards away, two teenage girls were sitting on the swings and pushing the sand around with their toes, ignoring their surroundings as they muttered discontentedly to each other. Their heads were bowed, their loose hair hanging forward like curtains of rebellion. They reminded her of her own nineteen-year-old daughter, Lori, who had been battling depression since adolescence and who already had a jaded view of life.

From the Beginning of “The Healing”

If you were born between 1945 and 1964, listen up!! There is a new literary genre out there just for you! It’s called “Boomer Lit,” and I recently joined a group on Goodreads for authors who have written books that would be of particular interest to the baby boomer generation. This group has put together a blog-hop called Boomer Lit Friday, and we are sharing excerpts to offer examples of this new genre. Check it out at http://boomerlitfriday.blogspot.com/

Here is my offering for this week–an excerpt from the very beginning of my novel The Healing…

Karen Donnelly stood on the grassy overlook and gazed out at Long Island’s Southold Bay. The beach at Founders’ Landing had always been a special place for her, but lately it gave her no comfort. While the gentle surf lapped at the shore below, anxiety pulsed through her—a tide with a force all its own. The roaring in her head drowned out the summer breeze rustling through the nearby trees. She was in a constant state of tension, and no curative setting, not even the place where her best memories were born, could bring her peace of mind.

She closed her eyes and took a deep, shaky breath. If she tried hard enough, she could slip into that other lifetime and ward off the melancholy that threatened to overwhelm her. It should have been easy to pretend it was thirty years ago. The same dense maple trees shaded the familiar spot where she stood. The same picnic tables still offered cool respite from the heat of the sun. The air smelled like it always had. But when Karen opened her eyes, she was still standing in her altered world. She looked around like a child lost in her own backyard. There was no sound of splashing water or laughing children rising from the beach like music from an old transistor radio. The picnic tables, once hidden amid the chaos of vacationing families and randomly parked station wagons, now sat like weathered sculptures on an abandoned landscape. There were no children playing, no dads barbecuing, no moms chatting over iced tea. It wasn’t peaceful or heartwarming. It was just sad.

Creating Characters Everyone Will Love

As a fiction writer, I love to study people. And growing up in a city like New York gave me a good education in the subject of people-watching. Every kind of character lives here—every color, stripe, and texture. If I had a whole millennium to write stories for every interesting character I’ve encountered, it wouldn’t be enough time. But what goes into creating memorable characters for a novel? I pondered the likeability factor found in some of the best loved protagonists in modern literature and movies, and what I found to be the most striking common denominators should come as no surprise. They are as ancient as the art of storytelling itself.

Create Characters You Would Want to Hang Out With in Real Life

I’ve noticed over the years that my favorite characters in books are the ones I have “befriended.” This holds true for the writing process as well as for my recreational reading. Usually about a third of the way through writing (or reading) a novel, the characters should become very real to me. At this point, I have to care about them. I have to like them, feel their pain, and desire things for them. Otherwise the story falls flat. Even with twists and turns in the plot, there is no life for me in a story without a heartfelt connection to the characters.

How are main characters born in my mind? Sometimes I see a physical image, which I then endow with the nuances of a personality. Lately I have taken to writing a detailed bio, which helps me get to know them before I start writing Chapter One. I make sure they have strengths and flaws, a history that has shaped them, and issues to work through. Real people have lots of layers. That doesn’t mean a writer should go into lengthy descriptions or feel the need to squeeze every one of those details into the novel. But it’s important to get inside your characters’ heads with actions, reactions, and interactions. Make them self-conscious about something. Make them perplexed at times. Know what makes them laugh. Know what they worry about. Do they have a short fuse or a long fuse? Either way, know what sets them off.

In short, everything you know about your best friend you should know about your main characters.

Make Heroes Out of Ordinary People and Ordinary People Out of Heroes

Character-driven stories are the stories that have the ability to break out of their genre and make an impression. But how does a writer create a larger than life protagonist who is still relatable? It’s simple, really. Give them a heart. I can cite two very clear examples of this in movies. When my boys were young, their taste in books and entertainment were very different from mine. (They still are). So I was very surprised at how much I enjoyed “Gladiator” and “Braveheart” (beyond the Russell Crowe and Mel Gibson eye candy). Maximus and William Wallace were ordinary characters motivated by universal human emotions—love and loyalty—to become extraordinary. In “Gladiator,” Maximus cherished those little figures that represented his family. In “Braveheart,” William clung to a little piece of cloth given to him by his wife. Characters like these cross all demographics because we understand their sentiment. Their motivation to heroism becomes tangible to the average person.

The same holds true in writing novels. In any genre, I believe giving heroes a heart is just as vital as giving them a story.

Design a Different Mold

It might be easy for an author of fiction to fit their characters into pre-designed molds. Whether it’s for a particular genre, (like the handsome hunk in a romance novel), or a matter of the author’s own taste and experience, I have found that when I like the work of a particular author and read a few of their novels, a very clear pattern sometimes emerges with their character structure. Jodi Picoult creates the champion mother. Richard Russo creates the beloved small-town, ordinary guy. Nicholas Sparks creates the loving husband. (Don’t get me wrong…this isn’t a bad thing. Most published authors are prolific and talented enough to create varied characters within that structure and engage us in their storytelling). As I became aware of this, I looked back at my own patterns and found a strong father-daughter relationship in most of my work. No surprise there…I was a Daddy’s girl. So now I want to break that mold and change it up a little for my next project.

The Creator made us in His image because he is God. If we, as authors, continue to create our characters in our own image, readers might not be as impressed.

A Little Nobility Goes a Long Way

I hope I’m not being overly optimistic when I say people always recognize nobility and gravitate toward it. In literature, even a villain will garner sympathy upon demonstrating the slightest hint of humanity. If readers understand the motivation, even of a villain, they become vested in the outcome. I don’t think any reader rejoiced when Inspector Javert took his life in “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo. He was done in by the extreme nobility of the hero, Jean Valjean. Mercy is a powerful force. So is humility. They are the foundation of true nobility, both in the real world and in literature. The difference is this: In the real world, mercy and humility are rarely obvious to the people around us. Sometimes they are even mocked. In literature, however, the reader gets an omniscient perspective. The character is laid bare—every thought, every anxiety, every attachment. If an author wants a hero to be well-loved, endow him or her with traits that are universally admired. Like good, old-fashioned nobility.

I would love to hear some author/reader feedback on this subject. Who is your favorite character in literature and why?

The Great Disconnect

THE GREAT DISCONNECT

I was home with the flu two weeks ago. Needless to say, the television was on all day, and I watched an unhealthy amount of news broadcasts. The news cycle has been mind-boggling. There are heated debates about gun control. Al Qaeda pockets are springing up in new regions, and something significant may have happened at a nuclear facility in Iran. And then there’s the national debt. Ah, the debt. But one news item really had me wondering what planet I’m on.

A star college football linebacker was in love with someone who didn’t exist? I can’t get this story out of my head.

No matter how this story unfolds, the truth (hidden somewhere under a well-crafted pile of debris) is a tragic testimony to a generation raised in a parallel universe. When I was a kid, this was the stuff of science fiction. This would have been an episode on Twilight Zone or Night Gallery. The twist at the end: SHE’S NOT REAL!

Even if it turns out that Manti Te’o did the unthinkable and made the whole thing up for publicity, it’s still a tragedy. Except the twist would be: HE’S NOT REAL!

Do you get my point?

I am a fiction writer. I have been writing stories with make-believe characters since I was ten years old. But even at that age, I had a crystal clear perspective on the lines of separation and the knowledge that storytelling is an art form. I played outside with friends who were real, and I learned how to interact with human beings. I played board games on rainy days. I competed at school—winning at some things and losing at others. I had a sense of myself, for better or worse, and where I fit (or didn’t fit) into the world around me. As a football player who grew up in Hawaii, I doubt Manti Te’o stayed locked in his room. So what happened?

Now we have the ability to create and recreate alternate, simulated selves. Kids know their gadgets and games better than they know their peers. They are disconnecting from reality, and that’s a fact. So while we’re all fighting about gun control and making incessant attempts to legislate ourselves back to sanity, this “catfishing” story points to a much deeper problem. Are we to believe a handsome, well-built, academically-gifted, soon-to-be-rich, popular young athlete had a girlfriend he never kissed? If not, then we have to believe he is calculating and arrogant enough to think he could make up a story for self-promotion without suffering any consequences. Either way, this story should be a springboard for a real debate.

Should we continue to let kids exist in a cyber world where there are no limits and no reality checks? If we do, then maybe all high school curricula should drop subjects like social studies and anthropology and replace them with marketing and cyber-psychology. After all, if we don’t do something about this great disconnect, marketing a celluloid self is all the next generation will have to know to get by. Right?

A Cup of Coffee…Another Life Lesson

As a writer, I like to observe everything around me. Growing up in New York City honed those awareness skills. I was riding the subway with my friends and window shopping on 34th Street in Manhattan before I was a teenager, so awareness was necessary for survival. One of the things I find hard to accept in today’s changing world is how many people are oblivious to the people and places around them. I just don’t get it. I can’t imagine being so caught up in my own doings that I am not aware of who is passing me in the street or do not consider what effect my actions may have on those around me. It’s ingrained in me. I’m a people watcher, I’m sociable by nature, and I take every opportunity to interact with others. Even in a huge, bustling city like New York. But maybe I’m a dying breed. Maybe that’s the reason people are so polarized lately. God knows they don’t seem interested in finding their common ground as they plod through everyday life.

I like to do that. I like to find common ground with other people. And I like to learn from them. Sometimes a person crosses your path at an unexpected moment and says something you needed to hear. Sometimes they teach you something you never knew. But you have to be open to it. You have to believe you can learn something new every day. Otherwise, you don’t grow wiser.

Yesterday I had coffee with a few friends of mine at a local café. We have a deep bond and chat about very deep things. But yesterday there was a new face across the table. One of our friends brought along a newcomer. Would she be open to our candid girlfriend exchange? Or would she feel funny when we delved into childhood secrets, religion and family dilemmas? I liked her from the start, but I never expected to leave the café feeling so enriched by her presence. (I felt like I was back in high school and just met the coolest new friend). This woman is the granddaughter of a former South American president. She is a career woman and a personal friend of one of the largest cosmetic moguls in the country. She is charismatic, attractive and successful. But that’s not all. She is grieving the recent death of her father. She is a breast cancer survivor. She has some family turmoil. Being Hispanic, she has even encountered some prejudice in her life. So she shared with us. She laughed with us. She even wept a little at one point. And we learned from her. Maybe she learned from some of us. How beautiful life is when you appreciate your connection to people. Yesterday, each of us probably came away from the table with something different, but what a great gift we were to each other. For that moment, and for some purpose.

All for the price of a cup of coffee. Wasn’t that time well spent?

A Profile of the Modern Writer

If someone stopped you on the street and asked you to name five traits describing the typical writer, what would you say? If you’re a writer, you might know this is a trick question.

Most would say writers are solitary people. To some degree it’s true, but the image of a writer holed up in an isolated cottage with quill and paper is only a partial profile in today’s world. Unlike their predecessors, modern writers, like all modern artists, have to be very visible. If they are introverts by nature, they have to be extroverts in cyberspace. Modern writers who want to make a living at their craft have to be globally engaged with social media, and this isn’t an option. They have to be comfortable with self-promotion, and this is another reality that might be unpalatable to most writers. I will openly confess that when I started writing in response to creative compulsion and passion for the art, I never imagined people would care about my life or my motivation. It was always about the story. Luckily, I have one of those flexible personalities—I’m very outgoing by nature, but I’m also very happy doing my own thing. This fits the new profile.

I think it’s safe to assume most writers are creative people. Again, this is true, but now they have to be creative in ways that have nothing to do with their art. The time spent in the actual creative process (the raison d’être for any artist) is a small fraction of the time spent on the project as a whole. The true test of a serious writer is what follows: the lengthy editing process (which may feel like you’re cutting off your own left arm), the production details, and the marketing. Everyone knows the writer gets to visit other worlds in the creative process. Well, the marketing process isn’t just another world; it’s a whole new dimension. Writers today don’t necessarily need a degree in literature or journalism, but it’s helpful to have a degree in marketing and communications.

Modern writers, like all writers throughout the ages, must be disciplined in a lot of ways. Some might perceive all artists to be the “free spirits” who follow their heart and work when the mood strikes them. For good writers, as for any artist who wants to produce a masterpiece, the opposite is true. Good writers still need a command of the language. We still have to spend hours doing research. We still have to draft and redraft until we can’t stand our own words (which makes it easier to comply with the suggested changes of an editor). It worries me when I see the lack of quality control that has emerged in the publishing world, especially with so much self-published material being marketed on the internet. It seems anything sells with the right marketing. My book, “The Healing,” was self-published, but I made sure it went through the wringer. Raw talent is not so special. Raw talent fueled by discipline and hard work is the formula for a masterpiece.

I think most people would agree writers are good jugglers. Real life often intrudes on the writer’s created world, and vice versa. A lot of balls are circling in the air at all times. This is especially true of writers who face deadlines. Stable bridges have to be built between the real world and the writer’s “other world,” and sometimes we cross that bridge a hundred times a day. While juggling. As a writer of fiction, it’s my own personal experience that family and friends have no idea how real that “other world” becomes to a writer, and I realized at a very young age that I couldn’t expect them to understand. There’s something very schizophrenic about my involvement in an imagined world. It’s like my own warped God complex.

Finally, true writers have always been identified by their love of words. We are “words people.” And it isn’t just the written word that gives us pleasure. It’s the witticisms, the crossword puzzles, the word games, the puns…language is our ball park. Using all seven letters on a Scrabble board is like hitting a home run in the bottom of the ninth. But the modern writer has to be a numbers person, too. How many read your blog? How many followers on Twitter? How many likes on your Facebook page? The modern writer has to be techno-savvy and cyber-connected in a realm that reaches far beyond words. The modern writer can even come to like that new realm.

Solitary, creative, disciplined, juggling people who are in love with words. Those are the five traits I think people perceive in the true writer. I’m hesitant to invite feedback on this one, but does anyone want to give me a reality check? Words like delusional are now coming to mind…

Avoiding the Personal Meltdown

The impact of a personal meltdown may not be global, but it
sure can shake things up in our own tiny corner of the world. As a mother of
two sons, there are two things I never wanted my kids to see. One doesn’t need
to be mentioned because it would be stating the obvious. The other is a
personal meltdown. I never wanted my kids to see me fall apart or lose control
of myself. A small part of this was based on preserving my personal dignity,
but mostly it was for their sake. I believe a child’s sense of security and
emotional well-being is very delicately hinged on how firmly mom and dad have
their feet planted on the ground. That doesn’t mean I don’t respond to bad
behavior or show my grief when appropriate. To me, keeping my cool under fire
and talking myself down from angry reactions is a parent’s end of the “trust
bargain.” I taught my boys that trust was fragile—one lie can undo a lot, and
it takes years to rebuild it. The same goes for a parental meltdown. A child
sees it once, especially if they’re young and impressionable, and it is
emblazoned in their memory forever. Like a criminal record or a true confession
gone viral. You can’t get away from it, and it might get thrown in your face
for the rest of your life.

How do I know this? I had one of these incidental meltdowns
in the car when my kids were about 8 and 12. It wasn’t a major episode, but I
behaved like an angry teenager and showed them a side that was very out of
character for me. I spouted the “F” word and flipped the bird to someone who
cut me off. Not so bad? It was in front of my mother-in-law. According to my
boys, my fisted hand, with the middle finger thrust upward, was right under Grandma’s
nose. Very nice. And what a good example for young men who were only a few
years away from getting their driver’s license. I gave them a lesson in Road
Rage 101 instead of teaching them how to diffuse it. They laugh about it now,
but they enjoy bringing it up to embarrass me. In other words, that slip off
the “mommy pedestal” is something they will never forget. So they make sure I
don’t forget it either.

If this minor incident had such an impact, imagine how a
daily dose of this “fly-off-the-handle” behavior affects the children we raise.
They are little anarchists at heart.

Anger and fear are the two emotions that we have to deal
with all the time in real life. How we deal with those daily challenges affects
everything. Small glimmers of fear can explode into crippling anxiety when left
unchecked. I’ve seen it happen with people very close to me. Small resentments
morph into bitterness and ruin relationships. Small sparks of anger can fester
into contagion and consume everything in its path.

For me, faith is a grounding rod. I try to see the good in
people (not always easy), and my conscience was formed with the firm belief in
an “All-Seeing Eye.” It gives me the ability to talk myself down when something
ugly threatens to undo me. Some people reserve a sanctuary in their own mind—a
“happy place”—where they mentally escape to avoid a regrettable reaction. Some
may simply count to ten, allowing reason to hold sway over emotion.

The ways we avoid a personal meltdown are as varied as the
individual. Instead of claiming that one way is better than another, I think
it’s better to pose the question and allow people to share their thoughts on
this. You might be helping someone who needs to hear this advice today.

How do you talk
yourself down when you’re on the verge of a meltdown?