Tuesday, November 30, 2010

NaNoWriMo Carnage

"I believe that the so-called 'writing block' is a product of some kind of disproportion between your standards and your performance ... one should lower his standards until there is no felt threshold to go over in writing. It's easy to write. You just shouldn't have standards that inhibit you from writing ... I can imagine a person beginning to feel he's not able to write up to that standard he imagines the world has set for him. But to me that's surrealistic. The only standard I can rationally have is the standard I'm meeting right now ... You should be more willing to forgive yourself. It doesn't make any difference if you are good or bad today. The assessment of the product is something that happens after you've done it."

William Stafford, poet

For many of you, today is the day of reckoning.

Got your 50k?

As many of you know, I didn’t participate in NaNoWriMo this year. While I’m a prolific writer, writing most of my manuscripts in five or six weeks, my most recent one has had more stops while I’ve reflected. I don’t want the pressure of having to start by a certain date and churn out 50k words in 30-days.

And why November? It’s a really busy time of year. I’d rather choose February when it’s too cold to want to go anywhere. Of course, it’s a shorter month.

At the start of November, I wished my blogging friends who were participating well. And I’ve supported from the sidelines. Many bloggers still posted pretty frequently, which surprised me, though many were shorter and writing-related.

Facebook was where I noticed all the NaNo updates taking place. Since I don’t have a Twitter account, I can’t confirm it, but I’d imagine there was plenty of writing-related chatter there too. On Facebook I got to see in real time, how much progress (or lack thereof) writers were making.

One writer, who is also an agent, had most of her word-count completed within a week. How she did it, I have no idea. She reached her 50k goal early.

Others have finished as well. Those NaNoWriMo awards are popping up everywhere.

Last night, one poor soul put a post up:

“Got to the point with my nanowrimo project...about 30k words where the characters were going so far from the plan that I feel it ruined the story. And am losing all confidence in the project. I can't take characters derailing in a way that destroys plot, mitigates the tension...it gets to the point where I think..even if it's finished, it won't be serviable (sic).”

My heart broke a little for her.

Then the sympathetic and encouraging comments rolled in. She rallied, writing more. While I doubt she’ll make it to 50k by tonight, she’s hanging in there.

I find writing a manuscript (mostly) a joy. The idea comes to me, and I can’t wait to get it down on paper. My hands can’t type as fast as my thoughts. I think about my baby/manuscript all the time. Sometimes, I awake in the middle of the night after having a dream where a scene unfolds. I rush to my laptop to record it before the ideas evaporate. When I’m done, I’m satisfied.

Edits are another story.

And there are those droughts –

No new ideas.

No motivation.


Writing has always been in my control. Until I have an agent and editor, I answer to no one. I’m as prolific as I want to be.

Or not.

Then there’s NaNo…

NaNo has raised many questions for me:

Why do you writers do this to yourselves? (wink)

Do you have a salvageable manuscript when you’re done?

Does NaNo force you to complete a manuscript when you wouldn’t otherwise?

Do the edits take longer or the same after completing your NaNo manuscript?

What have you learned from NaNo?

Would you do it again?

For those of you who’ve met the NaNoWriMo Challenge and succeeded, CONGRATULATIONS!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


“Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us all be thankful.” - Buddha

(This is a revised post I entered in a contest last year.)

I never thought much about what Thanksgiving meant to me until last year, which should be a blasphemous confession coming from someone who’s taught American History for years.

Thanksgiving just wasn’t ranked high on my holiday favorites list. There aren’t presents, like on Christmas and Hanukkah. It’s getting colder rather than warmer, unlike on Easter and Passover. There are no fireworks, like on Independence Day. And I don’t get to dress up and eat candy, like on Halloween. Worst of all - there’s always a dish of yams, which are vile, even if you dress them up with brown sugar and/or marshmallows. Besides, everything is decorated in oranges and browns, which are not flattering colors for my complexion.

Over the years, Thanksgiving has grown on me. Twenty years ago, I was a Catholic girl who began dating a Jewish boy from the same high school. While there were other issues with us being of two different faiths, choosing which side of the family to visit for the holidays wasn’t one of them.

All Christian holidays were celebrated with my side of the family. In comparison with his family, my family is huge. I had the pretty sedate Irish side of my father’s and the boisterous Italian side of my mother’s. Virtually everyone lived near one another on Long Island.

The Jewish holidays were reserved for my husband’s side, which were usually at my boyfriend’s parents’ house. Then came Thanksgiving.

Since my family seemed to have more of everything: people, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and so forth, Thanksgiving at my boyfriend’s parents’ home became a tradition. At first, I didn’t think much of it, but in the last sixteen years, several events occurred that made the location and the holiday take on a greater significance.

First, my father’s side of the family began dropping off like flies for various reasons: moves, deaths, and alcoholism. As my father’s family demised, my mother-in-law began encouraging me to invite my father and sister for Thanksgiving.

Second, my mother’s side began to stop making the effort for all holidays, but Christmas. As a child, my parents, along with my mother’s siblings, took turns holding holidays. Over time, divorces, moves, and estrangements messed with our traditions.

Christmas was fun, but never had deep meaning for me, and once I converted to Judaism, I only celebrate at my Aunt and Uncle’s home.

The fact that Thanksgiving has become more important to me is a direct result of my mother-in-law. Most people I meet do not get along with their mother in laws, but that isn’t the case with me – she’s more like a mother. For twenty-one years, she has extended an invitation to my mother, father, and sister, and other relatives and friends she thought might need a place to go. Just like her, her home is a warm and inviting place.

Since I was nineteen, I’ve always felt welcome in her house, enhanced by the fact that my relatives were welcome as an extension of me. When my husband and I made the difficult decision to move all the way to Massachusetts nine years ago, she set everything up to feel like our second home. We’re always invited to visit as often as we want, and to stay as long we’d like.

Thanksgiving is a whirlwind three days of cooking, feasting, cleaning, and visiting relatives. I look forward to it more with each year. When so much of life feels like chaos, the holiday feels like an anchor. The Thanksgiving tradition has become just that.

Our “traditional” Thanksgiving is atypical:

- There’s never a designated time to begin, so people show up when they feel like it. Sometimes this means that the turkey is done hours before dinner.

- Since I’m complimented for my soups, I usually cook one for a first course, which is also probably not normal.

- We’re the only family I know that does Thanksgiving dinner buffet style, with tables set up in the dining room, and people eating casually at chairs in the kitchen, on couches and on the floor at the coffee table in the living room.

- Because of the Jewish influence, there’s usually at least one dish per person, so leftovers are enough to feed many people for many days to follow. The atmosphere is light and festive, while we all weigh ourselves down with food. Everyone leaves satisfied.

When I look back twenty-years-ago, my family seemed so large, while my husband’s seemed too small. So much has changed in twenty-years. Our one constant is my in-laws’ home. Each year for Thanksgiving, there’s a slightly different group of people at my in-law’s home, but the same core are always present: my mother and father-in-law, my sister-in-law, her husband, and two children, my sister, my husband, our two kids, and me. My mother always stops by for a while. Everyone else is just gravy.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Balancing Act

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning."

- Maya Angelou

I always knew having a full-time job would wreak havoc on my personal life. If you’d care to peruse the archives of my blog (and I know you do), you will find many instances when I say that I should appreciate being underemployed because someday


I will lose my free time.

Free time to keep up with laundry.

Free time to keep up with ironing.

Free time to cook more than a 30-minute meal.

Free time to drop my children off and pick them up from school.

Free time to ride my bicycle.

Free time to blog. (I miss you. I'm trying to keep up.)

Free time to write.


Of course, bringing home a bigger paycheck has its own kind of freedom. And, of course, being an extended term substitute doesn’t provide the same pay as being a regular teacher. Though it sure beats being a daily sub.

Right now, I don’t feel like I do anything well.

Even with all the help from my husband, the house feels a millisecond away from chaos. We keep it going, but just barely.

I’m with middle schoolers in my home or at school pretty much from 7:00 am until 9:30 pm. (Either my son or I go to bed at that point.)

Every single day during the week, my children have an activity after school. Food, laundry, homework – it’s all squashed in between.

While I know there are many, many people in similar situations, I’ve never had to face this reality.

It’s hard.

I feel guilt for the time I’m not spending with my children.

With my husband.

With myself.

And everyday, I stand before my students. Some classes go well. Some go really well. Some go not so well.

Each experience makes me reflect. What can I do better next time?

Everyday is new. Nothing feels like a routine. We’re all still sizing one another up.

Some days I come home. I say, “I can do this.”

Other days I drag myself home. I say, “I can’t do this.”

My daughter is having a really hard time with the change. She misses me coming into her classroom. She misses spending more time with me.

I miss her.

Last night, at 8:30, I got ready for bed. She asked my husband if she and I could have a short sleepover. So we both crawled into my bed and fell asleep. At midnight, my husband brought her back to her own bed.

Many nights, I can’t shut my mind off. I think about the students I’m not reaching academically, discipline issues, lessons. Those nights, I don’t get a break from being a teacher.

My manuscript calls me, but I have to ignore it for now.


Each day gets better. I become a better teacher. The lessons become more interesting because I’ve had more time to find my way.

I know their names. (Believe me, that's a feat.)

I remember how long it took me to find my voice as a writer. For the longest time, I didn’t get it.

I had my suburban high school teacher voice, I had my fifth-grade assistant teacher voice, and I had my substitute teacher voice (which had many inflections based on grade and subject).

But I never had a middle school social studies teacher voice. Each day it gets stronger.

I don’t want to be a pushover.

I don’t want to be a nag.

I don’t want to be severe.

I want to show I care and be in control.

It’s a balancing act.

There are bright moments. One student goes out of his way to greet me and has complimented me to other teachers. Another has given me a hug. Two have asked if I’ll attend 8th-grade graduation even if the other teacher has returned from maternity leave. One student asked me if I’d be going on the 8th-grade trip to D.C.

There are days the class is too noisy.

There are days when my lesson falls flat.

There are days when my class is enraptured (sort of. probably.)

Those are the days when I find my inner-fierce-teacher.

I love those days.

I want each class, each day, to be like that.

But I know it takes time.

Despite my experience, I’m a first year teacher who started six-weeks into the year, and was thrown right in.

I’ve made mistakes.

I feel like I’m getting through my life rather than savoring each moment, but I know it won’t always feel that way.

And tomorrow.

Parent-teacher conferences.

I’m afraid of what I’ll hear.

All that someday…

is now.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


“So many things I'd like to be, yet I am cursed as what?

A writer with no publisher? A teacher without a class?

Turn the radio up a bit, to drown out these silly thoughts.

I want to drown my sorrows in the many things I'm not.”

- Kelli Steele “Past Lives " (The whole lovely poem is HERE.)

Several weeks ago, there was an announcement there would be layoffs at my husband’s company. We had to wait 3 ½ days. The 3 ½ longest days I’ve every waited in my life (except for being 12 days late with my son and 8 days late with my daughter. While pregnant In the Summer). While we waited, we rethought everything. Regrets about choices of jobs in the past, regrets for money we didn’t save, and so on. We discussed what we’d do in a worst-case scenario.

My husband considered looking for jobs out of state.

I began to look for car insurance jobs. I worked at a car insurance company that has some lizard mascot for eight years. I was full-time in the beginning and then part-time while in graduate school and having my son. The company was good to me and I did my job well. I could’ve had a decent career. I might even be an upper-level supervisor right now. I hated the job.

Even before the job scare, I’d considered another field. Problem is I really like having off in the summer and spending the time with my children. So I began looking for jobs on the school calendar.

I’ve been so frustrated to be on the job market for so long. Since August I’ve had three interviews. Since I’ve begun looking, I’ve had four. That was some loooong dry spell.

And then my husband’s job scare made me feel worse. We didn’t have my income to rely on because there wasn’t much income to rely on.

The day after my husband got the notice of layoffs at work, I saw the ETS (Extended Term Sub) job open up and applied. And that day, I received an e-mail from the assistant principal that I’d hear about an interview in a couple of weeks.

My husband didn’t lose his job.

I scheduled the interview.

I got the job.

In March, I may be a daily sub again. But at the end, I hope to do well enough that I have recommendations from coworkers. Even more, I hope the students miss me and I’ll miss them. Right now it feels new and scary and overwhelming.

There were three parents on my interview committee, which is a story in itself. One parent was a former high school student of my graduate school instructor who guided me through my student teaching all the way in New York. They’re still friends. I thought that was an uncanny connection.

This parent, who has a big job at a nearby university, sent an e-mail:

Dear Ms. Milstein,

I wanted to congratulate you on getting the position as ETS replacement for redacted (your excellence was clear at the interview) and to pass along greetings from redacted, who remembers you fondly.

This e-mail meant the world to me. I’ve been so down on myself for being underemployed. It’s been ages since the instructor this parent and I both know complimented me. After coming to observe me, he said, “Teachers are either born or made. You were born to be a teacher.”

I never forgot these words, carrying them with me in my darkest times, a reassurance that I was good and had just screwed up by waiting too long after student teaching.

Even though I’m overwhelmed with a class chockfull of discipline problems, 90+ names to learn (I’m horrible at this.), lessons to plan, papers to grade, parents to meet, and I don’t even know what else. Even though my transition was faster than had been planned. Even though I’m sleeping and eating less. Even though.

A week into teaching, I stood up in front of a class and started a discussion from the textbook and the kids got excited and I got excited.

A reminder.

The next day, I dealt with the tough class. Okay, the hardest student was absent. And I was in a room with desks instead of tables so it was easier to keep them separated. But one girl confronted me and I stood my ground.

A battle won.

All these years teaching college, being an assistant in the fifth-grade, subbing. And I’m still a first-year teacher who didn’t even get to start at the beginning at school. In addition, I don’t have my own room, but carry a cart from class to class. (Seating chart nightmare, anyone?) Of course I’m freaked out.

It’s normal.

I have to be the person I said I am in the interview. I meant every word at the time. I have it in me.

Teachers, what was your first year like for you?

Readers, what fears did you face? How’d it turn out?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Another Article

I have an article published on BlogHer.

You may have seen it previously as a post here or it may be new to you. Please visit!

Did you have a good weekend? Do anything fun?

My friends who are participating in NaNoWriMo, how's your writing going?

My teaching friends, looking forward to Thanksgiving weekend as much as me?

This weekend I went with my husband, children, and sister to visit my dad and his girlfriend in Maine. It was typical New England weather - bitter with a threat of rain. But it was nice to get out of the city and be with family.

P.S. Don't miss THIS Fabulous Giveaway at Emy Shin's Blog!

Thursday, November 4, 2010


“Where’er we tread is haunted, holy ground.”

- Lord Byron

Thanks for all who participated in the Halloween Haunting. I had the most comments, ever. And I noticed many of you had several new followers on your blogs. YaY!

Without further ado:

JC Martin, Fighter Writer won 3rd place and will receive a copy of Travel Team.

The Words Crafter, Rainy Day Wanderer ,won 2nd place and will receive a copy of Green Angel.

Michelle McLean, Author won 1st place and will receive a copy of Tantalize.

Congratulations, winners!

I miss your blogs. I visited almost everyone who commented on the Halloween Haunting post before or during the Haunting, but very few since then. Even if I’m not commenting as much, I’m thinking of you. And I’m trying to keep up with some of you Facebook, but not everyone is on there.

On the writing front, I’m up to 23,500 words on Naked Eye. There isn’t much time to write but I can’t let it go altogether. I’m aiming for 1k-2k per week. Periodically, I’m sending a few chapters to Aubrie Dionne for editing so I feel like I’m still in the writing game.

Teaching has been challenging. I've had good days and bad days, good classes and bad classes. I have stories to share, which I'll probably get to next week.

ANNOUNCEMENT: Vicki Rocho has voting set up for her "Worst Day Ever" contest. I have an entry, but I won't tell you which one. It's appeared on this blog before. (Can you guess?) Anyway, there are funny entries, so go vote for your favorite one!

In other news, Jennifer Daiker is holding an awesome contest for being near 1000 followers! You saw that right – that’s NOT an extra 0. If you don’t follow her now, help her reach her goal.

Monday, November 1, 2010


Today is the last day of the Halloween Haunting HALLOWEEN HAUNTING! Make blogging friends, find critique partners, win prizes.

If you've participated already, I hope you've made found followers and blogs to follow and are finding critique buddies. If not, it's not too late!

And it's not too late to advertise to enter for a chance to win.

It's open internationally. To participate, comment on the previous post, NOT this one.

And for those beginning NaNoWriMo, good luck! (But then again, I'm sure you're not blogging today.)