My writing process. (AKA: I can’t believe I ever get anything written.)

I was asked to blog about my writing process which got me to actually think about my process. While I haven’t blogged in over two years, I have been busy with plenty of other things. I’ve made progress on a novel I’m writing with a friend, continued writing theatre reviews for The Weekly Volcano, joined a writer’s critique group, had a baby, been a beta reader for three novels, went on extended leave from teaching in order to stay home with my two children, and most recently started writing another novel and short story.

Most of the time I don’t feel I have much of a process unless you call typing one handed while nursing a baby and praying the almost four year old doesn’t have a melt down a process.

I do a lot of thinking about my projects. For the novel I just started, I had been thinking about the premise for some time. I had the majority of the plot and characters mapped out before I ever started which made getting the first 8,000+ words in seven days fairly easy even with my typing while getting the baby to sleep method. There were also some 2 a.m. bedtimes as well. However, that week my house looked like a tornado had run through it. So the following week I got my house in order but did not add to my word count.

The other projects, the ones with actual deadlines get more attention the closer the deadline gets. It’s basically the “putting out the largest fire” process.

Some day I hope to have a set writing time every day but until then I will write as I’m able and edit as I go along (for the most part because who knows when I’ll get back to it).

I use google docs for the book my friend and I are writing together as we can track changes and make comments to each other. Since she is currently two states away, it’s the only thing we’ve found that makes the most sense and ensures that we’re both working on the same draft.

I  use google drive and save as a word doc for my theatre reviews since I’m pretty much the only person on the planet who doesn’t have Microsoft Office and no one uses Pages.

For my personal projects I use Scrivener and while I don’t know all the ins and outs yet, it is helping keep all the characters and places straight.

I guess my process could best be described as convenience, necessity, and the occasional neglect of the laundry.


And yes, I wrote this entire post while nursing the baby and typing it with my non dominant hand while the almost four year old happily played with Legos in his room.

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Grandma Tour 2012 – Spring Break Edition – pt. 1

note: I started this nearly two months ago. Um, now four months ago. Oops.

I’m currently sitting on a porch swing in Denver, CO, valiantly trying to type this post on an iPad. We’ll see how well I do in the 5-who knows how many minutes until Ike wakes up.

Since my husband and I both teach in the same school district, we are quite fortunate to get coordinating spring breaks. Because his grandmothers are getting on in years, we decided that we would spend spring break taking Ike to meet his great grandmothers and visiting my husband’s parents.

My husband hates to fly. As in, anxiety riddled, permeating every facet of his life in the weeks leading up to take-off. I used to be this way but I’ve gotten better over the years and wrangling a 20 month old doesn’t leave much time to indulge in my panic.

We left super early last Saturday and after a fairly decent flight we arrived to waiting family who were so excited that Ike recognized them and called them by name (G.G. & Pop). We enjoyed spending a glorious 80 degree day with them and headed to bed early enough that we wouldn’t be dying at our 6:30am departure for Gettysburg, South Dakota.

Yes, we are those people. The people who pack up a vehicle with three generations of family intent upon a 10ish hour road trip. Z and I had no idea how Ike would handle being strapped into his car seat for such a long trip. Thankfully, he surpassed our best expectations. Since he is still nursing, I did have to figure out a way to give him his “muck” while he remained strapped in his chair. Thankfully, we managed and did not have to stop more than planned.

My in-laws were so gracious to do all the driving which enabled Z and I to sit in the back and entertain Ike. Before this trip I was one of those people who was certain that  Ike would not rely on electronics other than an mp3 player to get him through the long car trips we would inevitably take in his life. If looking out the window, reading, and >gasp< talking were good enough for me, they are good enough for him! Oh, how I have had to eat my words. You know what? They taste like cake. Gluten-free cake to be exact.

Thankfully, Z and his mom are more sane than I and between the two of them we had train videos, noise-making books and all the toys and “hnacks” (snacks) a little boy could want.

We pulled into S.D. and headed straight to see “Nana,” Z’s maternal grandmother. Ike warmed up very quickly (possibly because of the M&Ms she gave him, or maybe it was the “wawat” (rabbit) that won him over).

Ike pushing Nana in her chair

We took Nana out to dinner in the next town over. Ike’s favorite part was wheeling her to and from the table. When we woke the next morning the beautifully warm weather had turned cold and very windy. As I watched the wind whipping in all directions through the tall grass, I thought how Laura Ingalls would have experienced the same spring weather. I was wistful for a life I have never known (and began to wonder just where I had put my Little House on the Prairie books).

We spent the next day with Nana and enjoyed every minute she and Ike were able to be together. Hilarious stories were retold about how a very young Z. locked her out of the house so he could eat all the M&Ms, or requested steak for dinner. While it was a short visit, many memories were made (and pictures taken). The next morning we said goodbye to Nana, loaded up the car and headed back to Denver. Part 1 of Grandma Tour 2012 was over.

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the art of thanking

I’m bad at sending thank you notes.

There. I said it. In fact, I’m not just bad, I’m terrible.

It’s not the writing part that’s difficult. It’s not the grateful part that’s difficult.

And it’s not like I’ve forgotten. In fact I think about writing these thank you at least once a week (usually daily for the first and second weeks). I make plans to sit down and write them but something always comes up. Right now is a perfect example. Instead of writing thank you notes, I’m sitting here writing ABOUT writing them. Sheesh.

Maybe it was because I was rarely expected to write thank you notes as a child. We always stated our thanks verbally, in the moment, and that was that. I can only think of one time that a formal thank you was required. I never thought this was poor form on my parents’ raising of me. It’s just how it was.

Maybe it’s because I have an incredibly ridiculous ability to procrastinate with EVERYTHING and the more time goes by, the weirder I feel about sending a thank you note. Is there even proper etiquette surrounding when the words of appreciation should be sent? What if you’ve kept putting it off and now it is a month, two months or more since the gift was received? Surely there is a statute of limitations? A timeframe which, if you cross, the giver no longer expects a card in return?

My husband, Z, tries to be helpful. He reminds, cajoles, suggests, checks on the status of the thank you. And then there is the guilt. OH! the guilt. Guilty for not getting the note written immediately. Every year (ok, some) I vow that this will be the year that I sit down and write (and send) my thank yous the same day that I receive anything thank you card worthy. And here I still am, lamenting over my shortcomings in the prompt department.

Maybe if I just walk around with a pack of thank you cards in the diaper bag (I don’t even bother with a purse these days) I can get things written sooner. Maybe if I draft some Mad Libs style thank you notes and then just fill in the blanks when the time comes. Sigh. I really don’t know what the answer is.

I do know that I feel great when the notes are written (and mailed) because I am truly grateful to anyone who has taken time, energy, thought, expense to do/give/provide something for me. I am sorry if I have ever owed you a thank you card and didn’t get it sent in a timely fashion (or at all). This is the year I’ll do better!

How about you? Do you have any tips/strategies that could help me?


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my hope for my son and my students of color

I am a mother.

I have only been a mother for the (nearly) 20 months since my son’s birth. I have, however, had many children. Some have called me “mom” because of the closeness they have felt to me but most have called me Mrs. Varnell. Some have been pleased to see me outside of our normal context and readily introduced me to their parents/guardians/friends as ‘their’ teacher. Perhaps, as if I only belong to them and not to any other of my many students.

I am a teacher.

I have been a teacher with a classroom of my own for eight years and substitute teacher for one year prior to landing my first job at the ‘urban’ middle school in my town. We have a demographic that has ranged from 80%-90+% free and reduced lunch and our minority population (if all the minorities are included together) are a slightly higher population than our white population. Some of my kids’ stories will tear you open and leave you wounded and raw. That is, if you take the time and risk to look past the outside shell of the student walking around the halls.

I have told countless students of every ethnicity, “cover up your cleavage, pull up your sagging pants, hide your belly and for the love of everything lovely, take off that hat or hood when you are inside the building.” Until recently, the only time I saw one of my students wearing a hood inside, it was a simple annoyance at having to reiterate the school policy AGAIN to a student who knows better. Now? Now it’s different.

Now when I see one of my kids wearing a hoodie I can’t help but think of the horrible atrocity of the murder of Trayvon Martin. Who, unlike my students, was not wearing a hoodie inside. Trayvon Martin was outside. He was walking home from getting candy for his little brother. An act of thoughtfulness that put him in the path of a racist with so little regard for authority that he disobeyed when told not to pursue this child. This racist who used Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law to stalk, attack and murder a child in cold blood.

I’ve seen the pictures of Trayvon. He looks like many of my kids – clean cut, sweet demeanor, polite, intelligent. Can you tell all that from a picture? I think you can. Every time I see the pictures or hear more about Trayvon, my heart breaks for him and for my kids. My heart especially breaks for my African American boys.

I want to tell them that no matter what their family life is like or how many obstacles their skin color creates education is the key. If they will just become educated, get a college degree, find something they are passionate about and work hard, everything will work out well. I know better now.

I know that if they get a good education and work hard there will be some in the world who will never see them as anything other than a color. Some will never see my boys as anything more than “scary, violent, gang bangers, lazy, illiterate, poor.” The adjectives could continue and my heart breaks all over again. It shouldn’t matter the color of their skin. The only thing that should matter is their integrity, their work ethic, whether they are kind to others. Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in.

Just when I start to think that the sacrifice Martin Luther King Jr. and countless others made is starting to pay off, just when I think that the world is coming around and things may truly be getting better, just when I get a little comfortable something tragic occurs and I am shaken to my core.

Now, every time I look at my boys of color – no matter their ethnicity, I want to hold them. I want to squeeze them tight and not let go. I want to tell them so many things. Not everyone is cruel. Not everyone will judge you based on your skin tone. Not everyone will lay the fault of your victimization on something you have done. For you haven’t done anything. All you have done was be born into a world you didn’t ask for. You have laughed and cried, loved and hated, been knocked down countless times and stood up ready to try again.

I want to make sure they know they have to try again. They have to get up, they have to show the world that they are boys who want the same thing as all the other boys in the world. They want a chance to grow up. They want a chance to leave their mark on the world. They want those who love them to be proud of them. They want to be able to walk to the convenience store and buy an iced tea and a pack of skittles for their little brothers and sisters and make it home without being hunted and killed. They want to go home to their fathers. They want to go home to their mothers.

I am a teacher. I want to teach my students so many things but how can I teach them when there are others whose message drowns mine out with every act of violence or discrimination that continues to be perpetrated. I want the chance to teach my boys of color but how can I even attempt that if they can’t make it home alive.

I am a mother. I want to teach my son to be kind to others, that the outside of someone is such a small fraction of who that person is. I want my son to understand that the color of his skin doesn’t make him any better or worse than anyone else. I want my son to love God and understand that just as he was created in God’s image so was every other human on this planet. I want him to be a man who will do more than place a 911 call when a child is being attacked and yelling for help. I want my son to always come home.

I want Trayvon Martin to be able to go home.

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At the end of the (birth)day

It’s a little after 11:00 pm and the few friends we had over for dinner have gone home. Z made amazing tamales, cheesy rice, guacamole and a 7 layer bean dip.  He surprised me with all of my friends contributing to my first guest post. My present is to get my piano tuned and while I’m very excited for that, the best gift is having such a loving and supportive husband who worked so hard to give me such a special day. Having such an amazing son and great friends is pretty wonderful too.

Here are some pictures that Z took and since a picture is worth a 1,000 words I won’t editorialize/explain the photos. If you would like to read about my birthday you can do that here.

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It’s 3:07 pm on my birthday and everyone is napping except me. I was going to join everyone but I needed to wash a load of diapers and after I started them I walked by my computer and saw an apple on the counter. I ate the apple and now I’m reflecting and writing.

This aging thing is so strange. I don’t feel 37. In fact, I don’t feel much different than I did at 17 or 27. Sure, I feel more tired but I don’t feel any more or less “grown up” or mature. I remember many times in my life when I would think about some future date and how I would reflect back and wonder how it happened so quickly.

I mean, I was JUST 7 and walking with my dad to the bank and getting a sugar cube from the coffee counter,

or 17 and studying theatre at Stephen F. Austin State University,

or 20 and moving to Olympia, WA to take care of my brother’s children (two now in their twenties with babies of their own).

I feel this most significantly with my son. Ike is almost 19 months and the time needs to go just a little bit slower!

I’ve had a fabulous day so far! I got breakfast in bed, was able to take a looooong (25 minute) shower, went on a momma & son date to Corina bakery where we split a vegan/gluten free carrot cake, then we went to the zoo until time to pick up Z from his Admin class. We lunched at Rosewood Cafe where I got a feta melt (my favorite!) and then home. Later we will have a few friends over for homemade tamales, courtesy of Z.

Before I shut down my computer, here are a few of my favorite birthday celebrations/traditions.

Every year, my dad would take out the birthday kid for lunch (or dinner). With six kids in the family, it was the one time we were guaranteed undivided attention. He let us pick the restaurant and we’d get Baskin Robbins afterwards. One year I chose Pizza Hut and they messed up our order so they let us keep the mistake (pepperoni and onion) AND they made the correct one (pepperoni and black olive). Most years I chose Taco USA – a legend in Nacogdoches. They had a claw machine and one birthday my dad persevered and won an aqua colored dog with yellow ears.


For my 31st birthday my sister flew up from Texas to spend my birthday with me (as she did for my 25th). My birthday was on a school day (my first year with my own class) and she was going to observe me. When I went downstairs to leave, my entire living room was covered in balloons! My asthmatic sister had stayed up most of the night blowing up balloons just to surprise me! We had a great day at school, one of my students brought me coffee and then we went out for Mexican food and karaoke.





The next day, she and I got to play runway models at the New York Fashion Academy Spring Runway Show.






There have been other birthdays that had wonderful moments but if I listed them all this post would be ridiculous. I’m very blessed and grateful.

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Guest Post – 7 stories

The following post is a bit of a special treat. It’s Joann’s birthday today, and this is her husband. We have a group of friends over for dinner and they have all been invited to come prepared with a picture, story or anecdote to share about Joann’s creativity – something she made, something she made with her friends, or something she shared. This post is a tribute to Joann Varnell – a friend, a wife, a mother, a singer-songwriter, a seamstress, a naturalist, a gluten-free baker, a rockabilly girl and a model citizen of the east side of Tacoma. These are her stories.

I have a small tattoo of a trifold on my right wrist. I chose this symbol because it means the cycle of life or change. If you are around me long enough and pay attention, it shows up in a lot of my art and design projects. Joann, who is not normally a jewelry designer, created an olive green brooch in a trifold design for my last birthday. When she presented it to me, she said, “Let me know if it falls apart. I didn’t really know what I was doing.” Joann, I’m reporting that I have worn it several times and it has not fallen apart. In addition, it looks fabulous on me!

About seven years ago I created a poster with my friend Tom called Red Brick Town. When Joann saw the poster she was inspired to write music based on the words from our poster. I have always loved her songwriting and she shares honest transparent stories from her heart. I love this girl. That was Lance, this is Dana now 🙂 One of my most memorable moments was the morning of 9/11 and at the time Joann was living next door to us. She showed up at our front door on the morning of the disaster in tears and disbelief of what was going on in our country and the pivotal moment in history unfolding right before our very eyes. We watched the events for hours and I could see Joann’s humanity as we stared speechless with what was happening. Joann has such a heart for people! That was my mom. This is Emily now! I like how nice Joann is and how much fun it is to be around her and Ike and Z. And Indie and Wally.






When I met Joann I knew that I wanted to be her friend. She has such a free spirit that is loving and accepting of all. When Joann was pregnant with Ike we made a trip to Portland for the weekend, that’s where that picture is from. Even with her basketball belly we walked everywhere and explored the city. Joann has a contagious love for life and is constantly making me laugh. She lifts my spirits and is truly a great friend. Happy happy birthday! I like you a lot!





This is Adam… I’m the guy in the picture who is actually bald but is too scared to shave his head. Her name is Penelope. Z is the guy on the right with the shaved head. He’s Joann’s hubby. We’re all friends. This photo was from our hilarious weekend trip to Portland. I’ve known Joann for a few years. We were in a band together and made music but the woes of life have taken over yet the hope that the band reunites still remains. Joann is a truly talented woman who has an incredible voice. Seriously, ask her to sing sometime. She has always been a great friend and I couldn’t be happier that she married Z. I wish the best for their family in the coming year and look forward to continuing on in the journey of life with them. Happy Birthday Joann! Here’s to yet another year of sheer awesomeness for you and the fam!

This lady is such an amazing woman. She will not take anyone’s drama, yet when you really need her she is right there for you. She is the most creative, caring, loving, outstanding woman you could ever meet. I have countless memories of times where she and I laughed so hard we were crying; from CRAZY Scrabble games, to house hunting and claw foot bathtubs. She is such an amazing friend that I cannot believe how lucky I am to say she has been my mentor and #1 role model. The one thing that comes to mind with her is that she has this sense of humor that cannot be compared to anyone else. Honestly, there can not be enough words to describe this amazing lady! Happy Birthday Lady!

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