Things

The world feels eerily apocalyptic to me. Everything happened in one long weekend. A wedding of a dear friend. Visiting a cousin in the hospital after a major surgery. Another dear friend collapsing suddenly from diabetes and spending days in the ICU. The Pacific Northwest burning and burning, filling the skies with a melancholy haze.

The wedding getaway car against the smoke choked sky.

The wedding getaway car against the smoke choked sky.

In a short span of time I went from having no stories to tell beyond “I spent nine hours on a tractor smoothing out some dirt,” to having many stories, but feeling too pained inside to tell them.

When someone I love is in the hospital, I want to rush in and fix things. But I can’t. I’m not a doctor. I’m not their mother. Depending on how tired the patient is, my showing up at the hospital could easily be a hindrance, not a help.

As Sarah Beth is living on her own far from most of her family, my mom spent a lot of time in the hospital with her. So I cooked and cleaned and tried to be the mother in place of my mother, who was being the mother in place of her mother, and hoped in some small way I was helping out my friend.

Sarah Beth was discharged from the hospital this afternoon and is now spending a few days in our spare room, as she recuperates and gets used to the necessary lifestyle changes inherent with diabetes.

I read a Truman Capote quote the other day: “Money gets in people’s bone marrow. The rich might give you a Rembrandt for Christmas, but if you need to borrow five dollars, well you’d better not borrow that from anyone who’s rich.”

Sarah Beth is the type of girl who will always lend you five dollars, no matter what. It’s interesting to see how, in her time of need, people swarm from the four corners of the earth to try and help. I honestly think that if she needed a million dollars, she would get it.

Busy

There are times in life when I am so busy that a sustained routine is all that keeps me going. I get up at the same time every morning. I eat the same thing for breakfast. I wear all the uncomfortable underwear in the back of my underwear drawer so that I don’t have to do laundry

All it takes is one unexpected wrench to be thrown into my life, and I have no recourse.

I actively avoid this type of life, but like the uncomfortable underwear in the back of the drawer, sometimes I end up with it anyway.

I’ve been doing fieldwork for the past two weeks. That means I’m on a tractor instead of a combine, and going 5-8 mph instead of 2 mph. (The speedometer is broken on this particular tractor, so I’m just making a ballpark guess about those speeds.)

It goes like this: I pull the disk behind my tractor, turning over the soil. My co-worker follows with the harrow, to break down the soil. Then I drive the land plane over the fields to smooth them out. Again, my co-worker follows with the harrow to break the soil down even further.

My boss told me that we had PLENTY of time to get this done, and so I could work whatever hours I wanted, basically. So in some ways it was my own fault that I was so busy, as I could easily have taken off work earlier.

Two things kept me putting in the long-ish hours, though: First, I knew that taking a day off would force my co-worker, coming behind me on the harrow, to also take a day off. Second, I just wanted to get DONE.

Somehow, fieldwork is much more tiring than combining, though.

Last week was Vacation Bible School, and I did the story for the children every evening. So I’d rush home from work, edit the section of story I was going to be presenting that day, and then rush to VBS.

After VBS I’d sit down at my computer, thinking, “couldn’t I just do a quick post on my thoughts from the tractor?” But I would be too depleted to try.

Oh well.

On Monday, Pauline Scheffel, a sweet older lady at our church, passed away. Her funeral was on Friday.

Thursday I said to my boss, “how long do you think it will take to finish up this field work?”

“You won’t finish today,” he said.

“I know, but I have to leave at noon to go to a funeral tomorrow. Do you think if I came at eight I’d be done by then?”

“Good grief, it’s not October. Just come back Monday and finish things up.”

“Oh. Okay.”

So tomorrow I finish up fieldwork, and hopefully I’ll be able to spend the rest of the summer writing. I know it doesn’t seem like there’s much time left, but bear in mind that my school doesn’t start until the end of September.

I am glad that the busy is over.

Article about Farming

My mother wrote an article for our local newspaper about farming, which captured many of the feelings I’ve felt during the past few weeks as I’ve been caught up in farm work.

Read it on the newspaper’s website here, or on my mom’s blog here.

Thoughts from the Tractor: A Gift vs. A Brand

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A couple years ago I took an Oral Interpretations class, mostly because I liked the teacher. The class was basically about how to read out loud well. We recited poetry, dramatic monologues, and radio programs, and had a good time in general.

The teacher, Ms. Ivey, gave us this piece of advice to combat public speaking jitters: “Remember. When you are speaking, you are giving the audience a gift.”

Of all the public speaking advice I’ve received over the years in various classes and from various teachers, this has stuck with me and helped me the most. When I’m standing in front of an audience, with that shaking, sinking feeling, her words come back to me.

“You are giving the audience a gift.”

Suddenly, the focus shifts. It’s not about me and the likelihood of my failure, it’s about blessing the audience. They’re not judging me. People don’t pick apart gifts to make sure they’re good enough, they accept gifts and are thankful for them.

I’ve begun to try to apply this philosophy to other areas of my life as well. Specifically, the world of online creative content.

It seems to me that lately everything in the world is about branding. This was a hugely pervasive idea in the Journalism program at UO–that you had to figure out immediately who you were, who your audience was, what you wanted to prove–and subsequently brand yourself as such.

Think about the blogs that get the heavy traffic. The Instagrammers who get thousands of likes on their photos. They do certain kids of posts so that certain kinds of people swarm to them. They may be “the fashionable one,” or “the cook,” or “the mountain climber.”

They have a brand.

Personally, I find this sad and somewhat scary, to think of the pressure to find a brand to garner fleeting attention. Because brands don’t bless people. Brands don’t have consciences. Brands exist solely to sell product.

I don’t want to live in a world where everyone is trying to sell me something.

So today, as I circled around a field, disking the soil into bits, I thought maybe I should think of the web as a place to give gifts, instead of a place to create a brand.

If you post something funny on Facebook, or link an interesting article, someone will enjoy that you did that. It’s a gift. As long as one person gains value from it, it’s a successful gift.

Conversely, if you post an Instagram picture and only three people like it, it’s not a very successful brand.

There’s a freedom in this, because there’s nothing to prove. You don’t have to figure out if you want to be the bookworm or the happy mommy or the political junkie. You can bless the world by just being you.

So, you’re welcome for this blog post (insert humble curtsy), and thank you to everyone who has blessed me with interesting articles on Facebook, pretty picture on Instagram, and nice comments on this blog.

(hint hint)

How to make a Head Covering from a Vintage Handkerchief: A Tutorial

Have you ever picked up a vintage handkerchief at a garage sale, and tried to use it as a bandana-style head covering, only to find it much too small?

No?

You blew your nose in it instead?

Well I tried to use them as head coverings, because they are so cool and vintage-looking. I found a way to modify them so that they work well, and I thought I would share this bounty of wisdom with you.

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(Please pardon the bag of potting soil in the corner)

Okay. All you need for this project is a handkerchief, some coordinating ribbon (I recommend grosgrain, because it isn’t as slippery, but I used this sheer stuff because we didn’t have any grosgrain) and basic sewing supplies.

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First step: Iron your handkerchief. (I made sure my tea was in the photo because I thought it looked artsy. If you follow my example you may end up with a tea-stained head covering and ironing board.)

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Now, using chalk or a pencil or something, draw a curve on the top half of your handkerchief.

angleThe higher the curve, the bigger the head covering will be, as illustrated by the red curve (small head covering) and the purple curve (large head covering).

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I folded the handkerchief in half to cut the curve, to make sure that both sides would be exactly even.

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This is (approximately) what it should look like when you’re done cutting. (I obviously didn’t do a very good job at ironing this. Good grief.)

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Cut your ribbon into two pieces, about six inches long. I didn’t even measure. Long enough to tie into a bow easily.

Now, hem it however you wish. I chose to serge the edge, and then fold it over and hem, placing the ribbons in at the corners.

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Is it just me or does the serger look like it’s bleeding?

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The ribbon should go under the folded edge, like this.

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If you don’t have a sewing machine, just hem it by hand.

Trim the ends of your ribbons into points, and dab a bit of fray check, or clear nail polish, or Elmer’s glue, on the ends to make sure they don’t unravel.

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Now, iron your new head covering and use the ribbons to tie it onto your head like a bandana.

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Ta da!

(And yes, that is a pen sticking out of my hair. If you want to know how to put your hair up with a pen, check out the only other tutorial I’ve ever done, here.)

P.S. If it grosses you out to put something on your head which someone once blew their nose into, just imagine that it was used, instead, to dab away a young damsel’s tears when her fiance went off to war, or something.

Guest Posting

Hey guys! I did a guest post for Asher Witmer’s blog today.

I wrote the story of how I learned to love learning, and about how changes come into our life through difficult times. You can read it here.

Enjoy!

The Cliff and the Staircase: A Writing Journey (Or a sum of every bit of writing advice I know how to give.)

I used to see the prospect of being a “real writer” as a giant cliff, looming before me. Somehow I hoped to get to the top of that cliff, and look down over the not-as-lucky populace, and know that I, Emily Sara Smucker, was a real author.

How would I get there? I wasn’t sure. Those who stood on the cliff always seemed to dole out dubious advice on how to follow in their footsteps. “Read more and write more,” they always said, as though that alone would allow us to sprout wings and join them on the elevated plane where they resided.

I didn’t buy it.

I viewed myself as already on a higher plane than my peers when it came to writing. An in-between cliff of potential writers. After all, strangers were reading my blog, and my writing teachers praised my work. How had I gotten to this point? By reading more and writing more? No. It had just happened to me, like magic.

Writing

I figured when it was time for me to reach the cliff of real writers, it would happen in much the same way. Magically. Boom. And I would live up there and publish books and drink sun tea for the rest of my days.

Everything worked out exactly as I’d imagined it. When I was 17 I sent my writing samples to a woman who was looking for teenage memoirists, and was chosen to write and publish a book. A real book, published by a real publisher. I had made it. I was on top of the cliff.

Now what?

Something happened which I had never anticipated. Now that I had this new identity, now that I was a “real writer,” I had to live up it. I had to write real things. Silly blog posts weren’t going to cut it anymore. The prospect of falling from that cliff, of letting this little memoir be the peak of my writing career, terrified me. Especially because, when I started researching other young authors, this seemed to be a trend.

I discovered The Outsiders during that obscure in-between time of life when my book was written but not yet published, and I was just beginning to grapple with the identity issues that came along with the process. I was living in Colorado at the time, and I used to ride my blue scooter up Main Street and visit the cute little shops that constantly popped up and disappeared overnight. My favorite was a used bookstore that was so crammed full of books that they were stacked up in walls and barriers, and I could slip into a corner where no one would see me and read for hours.

It was there that I discovered, and subsequently bought, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I sat on my porch reading it for hours, engrossed in the story.

I became even more fascinated when I googled the author. It turns out that S.E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was still in high school. A teenage author, just like me. How did she handle reaching “real author” status at such a young age?

Not too, well, it turns out. S.E. Hinton’s early success led to a huge case of writer’s block that lasted three years. It only ended when her boyfriend, tired of her depression, “made her write two pages a day if she wanted to go anywhere.” That seemed to help her, but she never became a terribly prolific writer. Today she is 66 and has only written about seven books, of which The Outsiders is still the most popular.

“When are you going to publish another book?”

One small success, and everyone seemed to want more from me than they’d ever wanted before. I was on the cliff, right? I ought to be writing more books, because that’s what real writers do, right?

I started to realize what nobody else seemed to notice; being on the giant cliff of published writers got me nowhere. It didn’t make novels magically flow from my pen. I still was the same Emily, with roughly the same level of talent as before. I could have easily written another book in the vein of my first book, but the books I really wanted to write were just as far out of reach as they’d always been.

I still wrote prolifically. I wrote a novel, but it wasn’t good enough. I blogged. When I started college I had less time to write, but I took classes exploring journalism and short story writing. And still, people wanted to know, “when are you going to publish again?”

Novel beginnings popped up with great excitement and then disappeared quietly overnight, the way the cute little shops on Main Street used to. My dreams of sprouting wings and nimbly flying up to another level of talent began to seem more and more far-fetched. I didn’t know what to tell people. I didn’t know how long it would take.

Even more depressing than the story of S.E. Hinton was the story of Zoe Trope. I found Trope’s memoir, titled Please Don’t Kill the Freshman, in a thrift store several years ago. I didn’t purchase it. I perused it a bit in the store and wasn’t impressed. However, I was quite interested in the author, who, like me, published a memoir while still a teenager.

At first I was somewhat jealous. Trope, it turns out, is from Portland, Oregon, and apparently received a six-figure book deal when she was fourteen. Her book was much more popular and widely read than mine.

Although I was able to dig up extensive coverage about Trope from 2004, when the book came out, I couldn’t find much about where she’s at today. That’s what I really wanted to know. Has she published more books? Does she still own a residence upon the cliff of real authors?

No, it turns out. She is a librarian at a community college.

Maybe she’s perfectly happy being a librarian. Maybe she never even wanted to publish another book. I have no idea. But I didn’t want that. I wanted to be a real writer, not a one-hit-wonder(ish).

I just had to accept the reality that publishing my memoir had not been a magic gateway into anywhere. If I wanted to write a novel, it was going to take a span of time. I had to be okay with that.

Reading about Veronica Roth derailed me a bit, though.

Veronica Roth wrote a New York Times bestselling dystopian novel called Divergent. I bought it for my brother for Christmas, and of course, read it first (that’s why books make the best presents). I thought it was interesting enough, though not particularly remarkable.

Then I read the author bio and my jaw dropped. Veronica Roth was only 22 when she wrote Divergent. 22! Being 23 at the time, I was jealous. How did she magically have the talent to do this, when I couldn’t even write a novel without plot holes?

Divergent turned into a three-book series, sold extremely well, and got made into a movie. However, when the third and final book was published, something happened that completely altered my beliefs about the magical cliff where real writers live.

It started when I noticed that Allegiant, the conclusion to the series, had a very low rating on Amazon compared to the first two books. 20% of Amazon reviewers had given it 1 star, as opposed to 1% and 2% for the first two books. Curious, I began reading the most helpful negative reviews, and what I read surprised me.

According to the reviewers, Roth set up the interesting world and wrote the first book without really knowing where the story was going. In order to wrap things up, Roth wrote gaping plot holes, had her characters act in odd out-of-character ways, and “explained” the dystopian world with strange reasoning that scientifically made no sense. The book was written from the point of view of two different people, but their voices were so similar that reviewer after reviewer reported getting constantly confused and having to flip to the beginning of the chapter to see who was talking.

The reviews completely de-bunked my notions of who Veronica Roth was. I was jealous that she had this magical writing ability that I couldn’t seem to grasp, but that wasn’t a complete picture. Yes, she had the talent to begin a fantastic New York Times bestselling series, but she still didn’t have the talent to finish it well.

What would have happened if she had waited? What if she had taken her time world-building, and working out the kinks, so that when she published she could present a satisfactory story with a workable ending?

It’s okay to wait, I realized. It’s profitable to wait. And it’s entirely plausible to be a young writer with the talent to write one thing, but not another thing.

That’s when I decided that being a real writer is not a cliff, it’s a staircase.

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Publishing was a wonderful opportunity, but it didn’t make me a better writer in any way. I still had to become a better writer, one step at a time.

It was somewhat saddening to realize that inborn writing talent would never give me wings to magically fly to a new level of talent. Being born with talent was like being born with strong calves. As a teen I was able to climb up the stairs faster than my peers, but I still had to climb them. Every writer has to climb them.

Even L. M. Montgomery had to climb the staircase.

My mom used to read A Tangled Web by L.M. Montgomery, and just marvel at the sheer talent displayed in the book. “It just doesn’t seem possible that I could ever write like that,” she used to lament to me.

I was re-reading Anne of Green Gables one day when it struck me that Anne of Green Gables, despite its charm and worldwide fame, is not nearly as well-written as A Tangled Web.

Anne of Green Gables is almost more a collection of short stories than it is a fleshed-out novel with a perfect rising action and climax and all that. Yes, there is an overarching story in which Anne moves to Green Gables, and Matthew and Marilla learn to love her dearly. However, the novel is made up of many small stories. The story of Anne dyeing her hair green. The story of Anne sinking her boat in Barrys’ pond and being rescued by Gilbert. The story of Anne and Diana jumping on Aunt Josephine in the spare room bed.

L.M. Montgomery didn’t roll out of bed one day suddenly able to craft the intricate masterpiece that was A Tangled Web. She began much, much smaller, publishing short stories and poems in magazines. Eventually, when she was about 34, she published Anne of Green Gables, her first novel.

As far as I can gather, L.M. Montgomery used this “collection of short stories” approach for most of her novels, and didn’t write a fleshed-out novel with a beginning-to-end plot until she was 52 and wrote The Blue Castle. A Tangled Web, which stylistically was her masterpiece, was written when she was 57.

She had to climb the staircase too.

 I don’t know if you want writing advice from me. But if you do, this is what I’ll say: kill the myth of the cliff.

You can’t accomplish anything by looking at the far-off things that seem impossible to achieve. Get your eyes off the cliff, and focus on the staircase.

What can you do right now?

Can you write a mediocre blog post? Write a mediocre blog post. Then try to write a better blog post. After that, try your hand a writing a good blog post.

Can you compose a good story in your head? Write it down. If it is horrible, who cares? No one has to see it, and you can move on to the next step of the staircase.

Remember this, though: You don’t have to be very high on the staircase in order to bless people with your writing. When L.M. Montgomery wrote Anne of Green Gables, it didn’t matter that she didn’t yet have the talent to write A Tangled Web. People loved that book. Whatever you can write, right now, be it an article or a blog post or a letter to your grandmother, it can be a blessing to someone’s life.