Wish I could say I didn’t sweat my way through the spelling bee . . .

spelling bee


. . . but that would be a lie.

I’ve never been so terrified of the English language in my life.

And I was not competing.

When I was asked to be the official word caller for a county-wide spelling bee this week, my gut instinct was to run screaming into the cold, snowy night. Though I don’t generally mind public speaking, my head has been so full of home stuff that I worried I couldn’t fit any other stressful event into my panicking brain.

But, you know, it worked out. Load up on caffeine and do that thing, I say!

As a staff member of the local newspaper sponsoring the bee, I felt it was my professional duty to help out. And I like an adventure, a challenge. I said from the get-go that, if nothing else, it would make for a good story.

And here we are. Without potentially-embarrassing challenges, we’d have nothing to share over dinner, right?

Or, in my case, on a blog.

I was tasked with saying a word for each student, then offering the requested definition, sentence, etc. Though I participated in spelling bees as a kid and watch the national competitions sometimes, I didn’t know much about the official rules. And oh, there are official rules. After boning up on the ins and outs, I plunged headfirst into the murky waters of studying for the bee myself.

This was a middle school event, I reasoned. How hard could it be?

Um.

Guys, some of those words were ridiculous. Insane. Unpronounceable . . . even to me. And I’m a book nerd, as we know. I got my bachelor’s in English. I read like a madwoman. I have a daily calendar featuring nothing but word origins, and I consider myself a wordsmith. But this? These? Some of the terms were completely foreign to me — “azimuth,” “keelhaul” — and I spent the better part of Sunday studying like I was back cramming for final exams in college.

Despite being out of school for seven years, I have this recurring nightmare that I’ve signed up for a class and forgotten all about it . . . only to realize it’s the end of the semester, you know, and I haven’t shown up for any of the tests. It’s usually a math class, given numbers make me clammy, but sometimes it’s a history course. Or this crazy logic class I once took.

The spelling bee? This is what that felt like. Like I was late to a party to which I didn’t know I’d been invited, and oh yeah — the party features 49 anxious kids staring at you intently, watching your mouth move for the exact pronunciation of an obscure word. Which you can’t screw up. While parents and teachers and administrators stand by, waiting for you to falter.

I was sweating. Sweating so much.

THE PRESSURE. Oh, the pressure!

Joining the bee as word caller was a last-minute thing, and I felt completely adrift . . . save the packet of 300 words delivered to me Friday. Those words became my anchor, a life raft.

I didn’t want to mess up. Look silly. Embarrass the paper. Look dumb. I was worried I’d trip up on the words, bumbling and stuttering . . . looking completely inept, basically. I was worried my throat would close up, I’d have a panic attack, I’d lose it completely.

That was a bit dramatic, of course.

I did none of those things.

Everything was fine. As always.

Once I hit my stride, it was nothing to recite words and sentences into a microphone. I felt for the kids, all eliminated one by one; I remembered being in their shoes so easily, and it didn’t feel so long ago. But everyone did well, very well, and I was proud.

Of them. And of me.

As I always tell my dad (which always makes him chuckle), Once again, my worst fears were unfounded.

I worry and worry and obsess about these things, and somehow? They always go off without (much of) a hitch. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Thank God for my theater background, though. Being a drama geek in high school has served me well over the years. Once chronically shy, my mom has always said she wanted to save my sister and me the paralysis of public speaking by teaching us not to be afraid of standing in front of a group. My parents got us into dance lessons as soon as possible. I was 3 when I took my first class, and I learned not to be afraid of putting myself out there.

I’m very grateful for that — but I still get scared. I push through it, though. And the bee? It was fun! Really fun. I was honored to have been asked. Tuesday’s winner will be advancing to the national level, and I hope we’ll get to see her in the big competition.

And me? I’m going to go breathe into a paper bag now.

And keep studying, maybe.

You never know when you’ll need to find the azimuth, y’all.


New words, old machine

Typewriter


My grandparents had an old typewriter I loved to set up in their living room, pulling off the dustcover with a flourish on lazy summer days. In fifth grade, well before the age of smartphones and tablets or even personal computers, my typing skills weren’t exactly stellar. It took me forever to type even the simplest of sentences, and I constantly debated carriage returns so I wouldn’t run out of room on a line (the horror!).

It was fun, and I wrote all sorts of short stories — mostly about a bunny family or a tornado ripping through a small town (watching too much “Twister”). I’m pretty sure some “Star Wars” and Luke Skywalker fan fiction was sprinkled in there, too. But being a lifelong perfectionist, having to cover up my mistakes with correction fluid was intolerable.

Intolerable. And messy.

Friends, I was the kid who could not stand cross-outs and misspelled words in her assignments — yet refused to write in pencil. To this day, I’m a gel pen girl all the way. I was OCD enough to rewrite any essay littered with mistakes, carefully forming the letters until it was absolutely crisp . . . even if it took all afternoon. Rough drafts all the way.

I wrote on college-ruled paper, refusing to touch the wide-ruled stuff. I hated my handwriting until middle school, when I began to practice and practice and practice creating words and sentences until they were pretty and perfect, just the way I wanted to be.

I haven’t changed much.

Though I loved the look and feel of that old typewriter with its thin, unmarred pages, it was a potential disaster zone of incorrect punctuation and unclean sentences. Living in the digital age, I love the ease with which I can crank out thoughts on a “page” — or, um, Word document — to be shared in a blog post, on Instagram, in a Facebook post. I love the instantaneous connection of Twitter, the community we’ve built here.

But there’s something nostalgic and romantic about the humble typewriter, isn’t there? Out at a giant antiques store with my mom and sister last weekend, we found tons of them on side tables in vendors’ booths. The one at top was a favorite — weathered, a little dusty, but able to produce bold words again.

When Spence and I have the space, I’m getting one.

Maybe it’ll even be pink.


Words on offer

Holiday Mail 2


As we draw ever closer to our Sunday wedding, I find myself reading and re-reading the many notes and cards we’ve received over the last few months. Some came during my bridal showers; others were dropped in mailboxes across the country to wish us well (like Melissa’s, which so touched my heart).

When I talk to others about my love of mail, I often get a wide-eyed look and knowing grin. Their little smile says something plain as day: Well, aren’t you just adorable?

I mean, I get it: mail is considered old-fashioned. Stodgy. Outdated. Letters are a thing of the past, really; one step up from antiques or — gasp! — printed books.

It’s not cool to send mail. Or collect stamps.

But I wish I could change that.

I love to write letters — real, serious, tangible letters. Cards. Mail. I write to my grandma, I write to service members, I write to folks who simply need some love and light in a complicated world.

I spend at least part of my day almost every day with a Sharpie and stack of note cards, sending some words out into the world . . . for no other reason than I feel compelled to do so. It’s my small way of sending joy.

I’m not rich. I don’t have piles of money for worthy causes, though I wish I did. But words? Encouragement? I can do that. I will offer that. Which is why I send letters every year through Holiday Mail for Heroes, a program sponsored by the Red Cross. It may sound a little early to be writing out Christmas cards, y’all, but life is going to get super busy very quickly. It’s not too soon to start thinking.

It’s a simple thing, really: a humble piece of mail. Just words scrawled in honest-to-God handwriting in blue or black or red ink. But it means something to someone, I promise you — just like it means something to me.

Don’t give up Facebook or Twitter or email . . . but remembering how much you value your real-life connections, too. Instead of dropping a “how’s it going?” text to a friend, grab a card. A silly one, a funny one, a random one — whatever speaks to you.

Then let it speak to them.


Holiday Mail 1


The great English transition

Paper


I didn’t start out as an English major.

Wanting to follow in my dad’s footsteps, I started college planning to go into journalism — be a reporter, work at a newspaper, become as intrepid and adventurous as he is. I spent my first year in community college wading through the prerequisites before transferring to the University of Maryland in the fall of 2004, where I learned I’d have to apply to the College of Journalism.

And then I kind of panicked.

When I imagined my lofty journalistic goals, they had nothing to do with . . . well . . . real journalism. In my daydreams, I imagined myself typing self-righteously on a keyboard in a busy newsroom, covering some explosive local news event. I saw myself at the end: polished, professional, well-respected. I visualized all the sparkly, exciting parts without any sense of reality. I never thought about the hard work. I didn’t think about muddling through the middle, working hard to rise to the top.

Isn’t that how it always goes?

Between my sophomore and junior years of college, I actually interned for our local newspaper’s community section. I answered phone calls and emails, tried my hand at laying out pages and wrote a few features on local folks doing good in Southern Maryland. I’ll never forget seeing my name in print for the first time: the extreme thrill, the pride and awe. I still remember my first article on a local theatre director and his immense collection of costumes. I remember my lead, too.

By the time I started schlepping up to College Park every day that fall, I was a little burnt out on the newsroom. I love to write, of course — I’ve always loved to write — but I had an immediate, sinking suspicion that reporting wasn’t going to be my bag. I bonded more with the copy editors and editors themselves: those who craft their own sentences from time to time, yes, but mostly tinker with others’ words.

I like tinkering.

But reporting? I’m not a reporter. I lack the edge, the finesse, the dedication of a real journalist. Between my summer at the local paper and the following year’s internship at a D.C. daily, I accepted something I might have known all along: I’m better behind the scenes. My favorite week at the Examiner came when I left the Washington office to proofread pages in Virginia. I’m just better at tinkering.

My journey into the wide world of English came when I was finally honest about that. Though I was nervous to tell my dad I wasn’t planning to get into the newspaper biz, my parents were very supportive as I changed my plan. The same sunny afternoon I called with my idea about switching to a Bachelor of Arts, I marched over to the English building and declared a new major. It was the first time I felt really excited — and not anxious — about the future. I never looked back.

That was the first of many “adult” decisions I made in school: these little transitions that put me on a different path than the one I’d first started marching down. It was a scary moment to veer off a course I felt had been laid for a long time, but I’m proud of having made the decision — especially because it was the right one for me.

Of course, ironically, I did still go into journalism . . . though not as a reporter. I was hired as an assistant editor in 2007 and have spent all of my young career here. In 2009, I was tapped to write a local personal column that has evolved into more than I could have ever expected — and despite veering into English rather than journalism, I’m still living the dream I had as a kid: writing. Writing for a living.

So life takes us where we need to be, I’d say.


Linking up with Blogtember today on a time my life took a turn.


I started writing something

writing


After chewing a small slab of espresso-studded dark chocolate before driving back from Spencer’s last night, I was smacked face-first with a story idea.

It’s been so long since I wrote fiction that I almost overlooked the whole thing. Like any good aspiring novelist, I once kept a notepad in my purse for turns of phrase and plot points and character names I loved. Anything and everything could become the basis for a new poem, a short story . . . or, when I was daring, a new book. I’ve started countless novels but only finished two since college, both during National Novel Writing Month. I’m proud to have finished them — even typing THE END — but reading through them now makes me cringe. They’re great drawer novels.

Since starting working at the newspapers I’ve called home the last six years, I’ve written primarily for print — and all decidedly non-fiction. I scribbled made-up stuff for four years in school before a personal column opened up so many chances for me to grow. But while I honed my real-life storytelling, my desire — and inspiration — to create fictional characters withered. I became focused on paying work (and rightfully so?), but I’ve always felt something was missing. From my writing life.

I talk about my “writing life” and my “reading life” and how important both are to me: Megan, a literary-minded and bookish gal with frizzy hair and an overactive imagination. I started writing stories as soon as I mastered the concept of a pencil, and I was telling stories even before that. I’m not saying they were any good, you know, but I was playing make-believe with characters of my own creation before I knew that could be . . . well, an acceptable thing.

Driving home tonight, Hanson blaring through my car’s worn-out speakers, I suddenly thought of an old plot I’d turned around in my head for years without ever putting finger to keyboard: a girl who wakes up in a hospital room with every man she’s ever loved crowded around her bed. Is she awake? Dreaming? In limbo? How did she get there, and what does this mean?

I looked up at the fat supermoon, hanging bright and low in the sky, and something finally clicked. I started to flesh it out. Even without my trusty notepad handy, I began to create links and back stories and wild characters before I finally reached my driveway. I’d planned to read more of Chocolates For Breakfast and crash before starting another work week, but the words and thoughts and people came so furiously that I had to sit at my laptop before they disappeared.

I wrote 4,500 words without stopping. Now it’s 12:30 in the morning. The espresso-laced chocolate seems to have worn off, but now I’m running on pure adrenaline.

This . . . I’d forgotten how good this feels.

I feel like me.


One Jane for each day


I’m back on my Jane Austen kick. And I partially blame “Downton Abbey.”

Okay, the pair aren’t obviously connected on the surface — but it’s hard to deny that “Downton”‘s British charm evokes the class differences, family dynamics and romantic entanglements of Austen’s work set 100 years earlier. Spence got me season one of the popular TV show for my birthday last week, and we’ve already plowed our way through half the discs. It’s like salty, delicious Pringles; since I popped, I can’t stop. (Y’all were totally right — it’s awesome.)

My sister got me the journal above — Jane-A-Day, a journal that asks diarists to reflect upon 365 different Austen quotes each day for a five-year stretch. The idea is to see how your thoughts and reflections change in that half-decade, which is pretty cool. I’ve stumbled across similar projects and, since I gave up journaling a few years back, this seems like a good alternative to the long, rambling and exhaustive posts I used to write before bed.

I don’t know why I stopped. I guess because I began dividing so much of my writing time between my column and this blog. After discussing life’s events in two other mediums, my enthusiasm — and desire — to recap some things for a third time in my personal journal just sort of evaporated. It started to feel like work. Plus, my journals saw me through some emotionally difficult times in my life — bad break-ups; growing pains. Once I was finally happy and in a good place, it wasn’t the catharsis it used to be. I guess I’d moved on.

Sometimes I miss it, though. My life can feel very interior. Despite the fact that I “put myself out there” in a variety of ways, mostly through a computer, I tend to keep many of my worries to myself. It doesn’t seem useful or productive to bother others with my nonsense. And in the old days, my journal — that dear, nonjudgmental friend — would have been my confidante. I’ve changed so much over the years.

Maybe my Jane-A-Day can be a good in-between.


‘Proud of you’


I got a note from my second grade teacher yesterday.

It’s funny how people emerge from the past like specters, and just a few sentences can transport you back to a different time. In my case, that would be 1992 — and I would be a boisterous 7-year-old with flowing curls just discovering books. I’d always loved being read to, and my parents’ penchant for storytime was a favorite pastime. Someone was always reading in my house.

Mrs. Brown was the first teacher to notice I loved to write — and to encourage that interest. I distinctly remember showing her a story I crafted about Carrot the bunny and his bunny family, and Mrs. Brown’s kind expression as she read my work and offered some helpful tips. “After someone is speaking, you don’t always have to say ‘he said,'” she explained, indicating a string of dialogue that probably went something like this:

“I’m going to the store,” Carrot said.
“Don’t go alone,” Mama said.
“I won’t — I’ll take Brother,” he said.
“Be back by dinner,” she said.

Pure poetry, I know. The greats reveal their genius early.

I have many memories from Mrs. Brown’s classroom, which was close to the “little kids'” recess spot on the far side of the school. That class of 25 or 30 kids was where I first met Daniel, the kid on whom I nursed a wicked crush and sent lovey-dovey Valentine cards. It was where I started to understand math and history, and when I realized I could write stories like the ones I found in books.

Mrs. Brown was the first teacher to encourage my writing, telling my parents that she thought I had talent. Twenty years after Carrot the bunny, she reads my biweekly columns in the local paper — and she wrote me a note to tell me so. The entire message is very sweet, but the best part comes at the end: “I am proud of you.”

How simple those words are.

How powerful those words are.

As a kid (and teen), I idolized my teachers. I can vividly recall every one of them, remembering their lessons and soothing voices and homework help. Each was special in their own way, and it’s so crazy to think of them now — these women (and a few men) I put on pedestals, more than mere mortals who could do no wrong through the bright lens of my childhood.

Knowing Mrs. Brown is reading the work of her former pupil — me — and remembering the kid I once was, the kid I still am inside, makes me extraordinarily happy. I’ve heard from my elementary school librarian (she was so awesome!), my first grade teacher, my beloved gym teacher. I smile uncontrollably every time, remembering the sunny days spent in their classrooms and on the playground. I had a really, really happy childhood — probably a better one than most. I was too young to realize that.

I’m glad I was too young to realize that.

Pride is such a powerful emotion. All I’ve ever wanted was to make my family proud, my teachers proud. My sister. My boyfriend. My friends. And someday, some shiny day, my children.

Hearing from Mrs. Brown gave me an opportunity to do what we rarely think to do: thank her. Remembering the pride I felt when she read my Carrot story aloud still fills me with warmth. She’s the first teacher to put books in my hand; she’s the one who encouraged me to write crazy stories, then rewarded that creativity with kindness instead of dismissal. I’ve never thought to reach out to her. But now I have.

It takes just a moment to say a kind word, to forge or reform a connection. The simplest word from you can change the trajectory of someone’s day, of someone’s week. Maybe someone’s life. If you have a moment, thank someone who has helped you along the way. I’ve never regretted it.