Discovering New Paths

Ever since I was a child, the beach has been my happy place. As I’ve grown older, it’s become more than that. It’s my place to take a breath. To reset. To reconnect with me.

I could easily sit all day, luxuriating in this sensory world. Listening to the waves. Inhaling the salty air. Sinking my toes into the warm sand.

On lucky occasions, I did, photographing the birds as the sun painted the sky different shades of splendiferous. 

You see, while I grew up in south Jersey – only an hour away from the shore – now I live 5 hours away in PA. Again, not usually a huge problem until…

Enter the pandemic.

Like most, we worked to find a new normal, while keeping our loved ones – and ourselves – safe. While we used to travel (mostly for work) on a weekly basis, we’ve become homebodies. My husband and I learned to conduct workshops and school visits via Zoom. We formed a ‘quaranteam’ so we could see our (grown) sons and their girlfriends. We played games and put together a ton of puzzles.

To feed my body, I learned new recipes. To feed my soul, I took illustration classes. But as spring blossomed into summer, the walls began closing in. My heart ached for the beach.

“Can’t we just squeeze in one teensy trip?” my heart begged.

“Sorry,” my brain answered. “We are in a pandemic and can’t travel.”

Then, one day while on a walk, my heart noticed a nature trail and began thrumming. 

Immediately, my brain launched into a full dissertation on the issues of tics, snakes, mountain lions…

“Sorry,” my heart quipped in a tone that dripped of sarcasm. “We’re going in.”

And we did.

Even my brain had to admit it was glorious. Listening to the bird calls. Inhaling the fragrant air.

Watching the colors flutter by. 

We’ve been back almost every day since, watching the seasons paint the leaves a different shade of splendiferous.

No, it’s not the beach. But it is spectacular. It’s a new place for me to take a breath. To reset. And yes, to connect to me.

What new path will you find today?

The NOW of Pooh

This month, I was asked to suggest a book that has perhaps made me laugh, filled my heart, or lifted my spirits. At any other time in my life, this would have been an impossible task. My brain would have been spinning. There are so many amazing reads by brilliant authors out there – both old and new.

But this is now, so my heart led me back to the classic it craved: The Tao of Pooh.

Personality-wise, I’ve always considered myself to be a 50/50 split between Tigger and Eeyore.

Yet recently, one of our sons pointed out to me that I do tend to worry, overthink and hesitate an awful lot like Piglet.

Which got me thinking. While I believe it’s admirable to adopt a lifelong love of learning, I do step up onto my soapbox every once in a while like Owl. I’ll readily admit I’m a fiercely protective mom (like Kanga) and while I try not to be persnickety like Rabbit, I do become rather frustrated by foiled plans. 

Finally, there may or may not be a host of stuffed animals on my bed that I tend to talk to like Christopher Robin sometimes (okay, a lot…don’t judge. They’re good listeners.)

So, I thought, I’m pretty much a hybrid of all…

Oh… Bother.

That’s when I decided to reread The Tao of Pooh, where author Benjamin Hoff invites one of our favorite bears – Winnie the Pooh – and all of his loveable friends to help explain the wisdom of the Taoists.

Written using examples from A.A. Milne’s classic tales, Hoff explains a complex philosophy in a simple, yet powerful manner, illustrating how a ‘Bear of Little Brain’ has reached that which eludes so many: the state of true enlightenment.

“While Eeyore frets

and Piglet hesitates

and Rabbit calculates

and Owl pontificates…

Pooh just is.”  

– Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

The book is both comforting and empowering, and it offers just the perfect little ‘smackerel of something’ my heart and soul needed.

It may be just what you need too.

Finding My Voice…again.

Like many writers, I’ve had a hard time creating over the past six months. 

It seemed my heart shattered on a daily basis as I watched the news and perused posts on social media sites. My arms ached with emptiness – not only for the hugs I couldn’t share, but for those who had lost loved ones and would never feel their precious embrace again. My brain couldn’t comprehend the hate and the selfishness of those who ignored the cries for help.

(Disclaimer: three of these descriptions still hold true.)

On my best days, fog surrounded me. On my worst, I felt paralyzed. I couldn’t write. My characters’ voices had disappeared, lost to the negative static.

(Yes, I hear voices. I depend on them to write. Many authors do.)

But recently, I remembered back to a time long ago when another voice had disappeared. As a teen, I had silenced my own. No, I hadn’t stopped speaking all together, but I learned to carefully measure my words – swallowing those that might upset the delicate balance in a household that had been through trauma. Too often, I heard the – sometimes well-intended, but often patronizing – advice of ‘get over it’ and ‘let it go’.

On those rare occasions when I did speak up to let them know their words hurt my feelings, they claimed I was ‘too sensitive’.

Those voices eventually took up important real estate, living rent-free in my mind.

Needless to say, that repression wasn’t exactly a healthy decision. Thankfully, in my twenties, I had a wonderful therapist who encouraged me to listen closely to the voices – not just what they were saying, but who the voices belonged to. Would I myself say those things to another person going through distress? And if not, why would I allow them to speak to me that way? 

Little by little – and with a lot of help – I learned to express myself once again.

Over the past few months, those negative voices have crept back in. I didn’t recognize them at first. Oh, sure. I noticed the ones who showed up screaming and foaming at the mouth. They were easy to spot. But others arrived with smiles. Their words coated with sugar. Spouting love and concern…then lashing out when I asked questions or took issue with their positions.

They told me I was naïve. Stupid. Wrong. They belittled me. Ridiculed who and what I hold dear. Told me I didn’t know what I was talking about. And when I dared to say they hurt my feelings, they told me I was ‘too sensitive’.

That’s when I acknowledged I’d let them move in. Again. And that’s when I decided to evict them.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote this poem:

It

By Jodi Moore

Move past it, She said.

Then She walked away and left me alone.

With It.

Get over it, He said.

Then He took the ladder and left me alone.

With It.

Let it go, They said.

Then They slammed the door and locked the windows and left me alone.

With It.

At first, I pretended It wasn’t there. But It was. Staring at me through the darkness.

Then, I raged at It, screaming for It to leave. But It stayed. Waiting for me in the midst.

Finally, I turned away, cowering in the corner, sure it would devour me. But It didn’t.

Through the silence, I heard soft crying.

And then I realized that It had been lost, and left, and locked away too.

With me.

I took Its hand in mine. Together, we opened the door and left Them.

I can’t say I’ve completely broken from ‘Them’. But I can say that I’m working hard not to let Them break me.

In silencing the negative voices, I’ve empowered my own. In piecing my heart back together, I’ve begun to breathe life back into my art. In leaving them, I’ve begun the journey of reuniting with myself.

And my characters? They’re back, stronger and more insistent than ever. After all, they’ve got stories to tell, and it’s my job to let their voices be heard.

Stories of the Nighttime

Last night, the moon told me a story.

It beckoned to me as it began to rise over the mountains near our house, bright as the sun in the sky.

And though dinner was almost ready, I flew out the door, ran across a few neighbors’ yards, down the street and to the park. The trees had already gathered around to listen, but they welcomed me into their space.

Together, we sat, in the stillness of the night. And we listened.

tree against full moon

Someday, I hope to write down the words the moon spoke. But for now, holding them in my heart is enough.

 

Writing During the Pandemic

This post is hard for me to write. Heck, everything lately has been hard to write. Which is, well, weird.

From the time I can remember, I’ve always found solace in the written word, whether it be reading a story written by another or creating my own. Stories helped me make sense of the world. They were my safe place. My literal and literary shelter from the storm. And the door was always wide open and welcoming, like a soft, reassuring hug.

Until now.

Sure, I tried opening the door. I opened files to write, but the words wouldn’t come.  It’s okay, I tried to convince myself. You just need to fill up the well. So, I reached for a book. Then another. Then another. I read the words, but nothing resonated. I couldn’t concentrate. Couldn’t connect. Not even with my old favorites. The words fell to the floor like forgotten confetti from a party long abandoned.

Music seemed to help, but only while it actively played. As the sound wound down, so did the effect.

Somewhere, somehow, the door had become locked from the other side.

lock

Maybe my heart was trying to protect itself from the chaos outside. Maybe it had grown weary from reading so much depressing news. Maybe it had broken once too many times and had forgotten how to piece itself back together.

In the midst of a pandemic, when people should be working toward a common goal – toward a common good – the world felt crueler than ever.

Then I remembered something else I’d buried a long time ago. When I was a child, I loved picture books not only for the words, but for the illustrations. I wanted to be an artist…no, as a child, I was an artist – untethered by expectation, rules or critique.

Somewhere along the lines, however, someone told me I wasn’t good enough. They ridiculed my sketches. Laughed at my attempts. And even though I designed the insignia for my elementary school in sixth grade, I soon found myself comparing my work to others’. Doubt seeped in, drowning any small amount of self-confidence I had. That ‘someone’s’ voice became my own, echoing inside my head.

I locked the dream away.

I don’t know if my heart stumbled upon that old dream because they’d bolted themselves into the same room or whether it had been screaming for recognition the whole time. But I’m grateful, because somehow, when I tried to connect to my creativity once again, I found a tiny note that had been slipped through the keyhole.

Art, it said.

My brain snorted. All the festivals, theaters and museums are closed.

No. ART, my heart whispered.

Art. I let the word sit, savoring it for a moment and I felt my heart twitch. Art? Like a verb…?

Yes, it said.

A few memories bubbled up about how much I used to draw. How even after I stopped drawing for others, I still used to draw for myself. How it calmed me. How it helped me make sense of the world.

When had I stopped?

It doesn’t matter. Start, my heart said. Art again

That’s when I realized my heart hadn’t locked itself away. It was me who’d done so. I was the one who bolted that door. But as my heart demanded, it was time to open up again. Time to reconnect. Time to art.

So, I did some research and signed up for a drawing class through Storyteller Academy.

Now, this may sound dramatic, but it’s true. I believe – no, I know – this class saved me the past nine weeks. It reconnected me to my very soul. There are days I’ve spent 10+ hours drawing – no lie – only realizing the passage of time as the room grew dark. I’ve developed new characters for my stories and fleshed out ones that already existed. I’ve been able to read again. I’ve been able to me again.

It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s happening. Little by little. My own personal reawakening.

It was no surprise to me that creativity needs to be fed. What I didn’t realize is that sometimes there are extra mouths in the nest that have been too long ignored.

Robin baby CHEEP

What needs to be fed to spark your creativity?

Building New Paths: Turning Fear & Anger into Hope

I’m basically a terrified person.

I wasn’t always. But when something terrible happens in your life that you never expected – never dreamed could ever happen – ends up happening, it suddenly seems possible that something terrible could happen at any time. And the possibilities feel endless.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons I became a writer. To somehow channel those possibilities. To make sense of them. To calm my fears with fictitious resolution.

Recently, a lot of things have plagued my mind: climate change and environmental protection, Covid 19, racism. One of our sons expressed concern that I might grow paralyzed by fear.

And I realized something. I’m not paralyzed by fear. I’m angry. No, I’m enraged.

Because what’s going on isn’t unexpected. It was predicted. All of it.

Was it inevitable? I don’t think so. It could have been rerouted if the path had changed.

And here’s the thing. It can be rerouted NOW.

But paths can’t change themselves. New paths are created by footsteps. Lots of footsteps…walking together, step-by-step, rejecting the previous road.

Sometimes there are markers to follow.

YAOTL Marked trail

Sometimes we can team up with friends.

Bunny row

Sometimes we need to start a new path on our own.

YAOTLWoods

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’m still afraid, but the anger is grounding. Refreshing. Empowering.

And I’m starting to see some change. People who’d grown silent are starting to speak out. Those who have been yelling into what must have felt like an abyss are finally being heard. Despite the threat of illness, millions are pouring into the streets to protest.

Paths are being carved. With feet. Hands. Hearts.

Some are walking, some are running. Some are screaming, some are singing. Some are talking, some are writing.

Most importantly, some are listening.

With these new paths come bridges that connect us on both physical and philosophical levels. With these bridges come empathy. And with that empathy, a glimmer of hope.

Come with me…we’re making progress, but there’s still so far to go.

Let us share our stories, promote change and help heal the world.

Oh, and if you join a protest? Please wear a mask. Like I said earlier, I’m basically a terrified person.

Let Them Read What They Want…& What They Need

When our boys were toddlers, we’d read a stack of books every night before bed. And they’d always ask for ‘just one more’.

Sure, part of it was extending bedtime. But I also recognized the enchantment in their eyes with each tale. The excitement of each page turn. The love of story.

As they grew older, we’d giggle over the antics of Captain Underpants and Junie B. Jones,

captain underpants

weep as we read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, sadako

and tremble with our own goosebumps after volume upon volume of R.L. Stine.

goosebumps

Then, one day…we didn’t.

Of course, it didn’t happen overnight. But it happened. And it wasn’t just that somehow we’d stopped sharing books together. It seemed as if they’d stopped reading for pleasure.

I tried to convince myself I hadn’t failed as a parent. (And failed.)

But then I realized they hadn’t stopped reading. Steve – who was devouring every magic book the library had to offer at age 8 – told me that David Copperfield said, “It’s not the trick, but the performance” and informed me he needed acting lessons. Alex, at 10, was already writing code for our computer.

It’s said that the body will crave what its lacking in nourishment. Our sons were reading what they wanted to. What they needed to. What their minds and hearts craved.

And it was important, as a parent, to let them do so. Whatever category. Whatever genre. Whatever format.

Now, we giggle over the hilarious video games Alex develops. And just recently, we wept over a stunning production of Spring Awakening that Steve directed and choreographed.

They never stopped loving story. They simply knew what they needed to read to create their own.

Coloring Outside of the Lines

This month on YA Outside the Lines, most of the blog entries focus on teen interviews. After all, it’s important to reach out to your audience. To be able to fill the void in their world. To know their wants. Their needs. Their hearts.

And after all, the name of the blog is YA Outside the Lines.

I thought about this assignment for weeks. You see, my audience is different. I write picture books. And although most book selling sites will categorize the target age as 4-8 years old, it’s important to realize you not only have to engage the children, but their adult readers as well.

So, rather than do one interview, I’ve decided to share some of the questions, comments and thoughts that have offered insight into my target audience over the years.

  1. Kids are empathetic.

1st Grader: “Can you write a book about the boy’s sister next? All the bad stuff in When A Dragon Moves In seems to happen to her.”

Others joined in: “Yeah, she needs a dragon too!”

Spray sand from Dragon
Illustration from When A Dragon Moves In (Flashlight Press), artist Howard McWilliam
  1. It’s not the kids who have the short attention span:

Kindergartener: “I wish the book could’ve been longer, but I guess you’re pretty busy.”

(Note: This comment squeezed my heart. We’re constantly told that kids don’t have the patience to sit through longer stories. Methinks it might be the adults…?)

  1. Kids listen to our words and look to us for inspiration.

Letter from 4th grader

I received this note from a fourth grader. Children are bursting with potential. Be the wind beneath their wings, not the one clipping the feathers. (This squeezed my heart too, but in a good way.)

  1. Kids are smart. They want to read, but we have to let them choose their own stories.

I’ve participated in too many festivals where children ages 8 on up pause in front of my booth to pore over my books. You can see their eyes light up as they absorb each page, each word, each illustration.

And then, the tug from the adult. “You’re too old for that book. Look at these over here.”

What these parents don’t often realize is that picture books are mini art museums, where each turn of the page offers a new delight and an avenue for the imagination to embark on a fresh journey. Plus, some readers are more comfortable connecting to stories in a visual sense.

Thankfully, I’ve managed to sway some parents to acknowledge and embrace the power of graphic novels. And look what happens when my own Dragon is interpreted by a brilliant, young artist:

Dragon graphic novel

  1. Kids need to see themselves in books, physically, psychologically and emotionally.

I’m a great supporter and advocate for the We Need Diverse Books campaign. Please read more about it here.

Girl Power

I’d also like to share a personal experience.

During a signing event for When A Dragon Moves In and When A Dragon Moves In Again, a woman approached me and asked what the books were about. I wasn’t even sure she was listening as she paged through a copy, lost in Howard McWilliam’s brilliant illustrations. But when I explained how “Dragon” acts a little naughty when no one believes he’s real, she looked up. “It’s about a child’s frustration?” she asked. And that’s when she shared a bit of her story with me. I felt my heart splinter. Without divulging personal details, suffice it to say that her granddaughter was dealing with challenges no child should ever have to.

With tears in her eyes, she said she thought her grandchild would identify with the boy and his dragon in my story. Would see herself. And that it would help her. We both cried then. And hugged. (Ya know, long ago when we were able to.)

  1. Finally, kids inspire US.

During one school visit, I mentioned that I’m working on a middle grade novel as well as a YA. “How long does it take for a book to be published?” one second grader asked.

“It can take years,” I told her, and described a bit of the process for them.

“Perfect,” she said with a grin. “That means I’ll be old enough to read it when it does.”

And with that beautiful smile in mind, I must go write. Because if there’s one thing I know for sure,  I don’t ever want to let any of these kids down.

Dare to Fail Gloriously!

Years ago, I happened upon a poster that said:

“Dare to Fail Gloriously!”

Since then, it has become somewhat of a family motto, as each one of us is involved in some form of the arts, including music, theater, design, directing, choreography and writing. And while we love what we do, there’s no guarantee others will.

You see, one of the true challenges of any artistic endeavor is to create honestly. We owe it to our audience. We owe it to ourselves.

It can be scary to put oneself out there. Because when we share our art, we share the most vulnerable parts of ourselves…our hearts.

But it can also be exhilarating and rewarding beyond measure.

Through art, we have the power to make people pause. Think. Feel. We can make them laugh. Cry. Remember. We can inspire empathy and understanding. And we can promote connection.

Pretty powerful stuff, no?

So, how do we deal with the ‘dare to fail’ part?

feet in pool water
Come on in! The water’s fine!

First, you need to jump in. You need to start.  A blank page can be intimidating. Inscribe that first word. Craft that first sentence. Hey! It’s not blank anymore! Keep going. Write that initial terrible draft. Odds are, it will be just that. Terrible. But that’s what revision is for. And getting started puts you way ahead of those who simply talk about it.

Second, don’t listen to the ‘no’-it-alls. Yes, this business is filled with rejection. There are countless people out there, from family and associates to professionals, who will tell you ‘no’ for a variety of reasons. But all it takes is one ‘yes’. And if I can do it, so can you.

Finally, connect with others who share your passion. Consider joining professional associations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (scbwi.org), and/or participating with online communities such as the 12×12 Challenge (https://www.12x12challenge.com/), #PBParty (https://michellehauckwrites.com/contests/picture-book-party/),  Storystorm (https://taralazar.com/storystorm/) and Reading for Research (http://www.reforemo.com/p/reading-list.html), to name but a few. These groups not only instruct, inspire and guide you, but they’ll open your world to a treasure-trove of potential critique partners and true friends…ones who will be there to celebrate your successes and hug away the hurts.

And if that isn’t glorious, I don’t know what is. Will you accept the challenge?

Confessions of a Flop-timist

Not gonna lie. This past year was rough.

I lost my dad December 2018, so 2019 was a year of difficult ‘firsts’: the first New Year’s Day I wasn’t able to share my silly resolutions with him. The first birthday of his I wasn’t able to call him on the phone to say, “I love you.” The first birthday of mine I wasn’t able to hear him say that to me.

Full disclosure? I told him anyway. Yep. I talk to him all the time. About my day. About our family. About my fears. About my dreams. Sometimes, I feel his hug. Other times, I can hear him roll his eyes. Both make me smile. (Okay, since I’m in full disclosure mode, both have prompted tears as well.)

Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself this year, it’s that I’m a ‘floptimist’. You know, that tenuous soft spot between optimist and pessimist, that fragile balance between “if it’s not okay, it’s not the end” and full-on dystopia? In other words, if you evaluate my emotion on a scale of 1 to 100 Acre Wood, I’m a total mashup of Tigger and Eeyore.

A floptimist is someone who believes in oneself fully and unconditionally, except when one hits a bump in the road (a.k.a. “flops”.) A floptimist will then cry or rant, but ultimately understands that a rejection, diversion, or even an overwhelming loss, however painful, can eventually be redirected, revised or crafted into something positive and/or inspiring. We acknowledge it hurts, but also recognize it promotes growth.

It’s a useful tool for me as a writer.

This past year, I found it a lifeline as a daughter. I wanted to create a scrapbook to honor my dad’s memory, to honor his legacy, to help us heal. But my Eeyore was in full swing. Like many families, ours had suffered some dark times, where there were limited photographs to commemorate birthdays, anniversaries and graduations. What’s more, the current politics were inflicting even more cracks. How could I do this? Where could I even start? Thankfully, Tigger bounced in right when I needed him most.

Tigger hugging eeyore shirt

(Note: I found this t-shirt advertised on Etsy. It’s by Miko Tees. And now I want it, lol!)

Sure, there were things that had tried – and still aim – to tear us apart. But there was a lot more that we shared, that connected us, that bonded us: our love of music, of art, of sportsmanship. Our love of dancing, of parties, of food. Our love of holidays, of animals, of each other.

Our love.

Because ultimately, that’s what matters.

At least to this floptimist.