Tag Archives: writer

Parenting Teenagers, Titling a Book, and Saving the World

During the months of editing and revision before I’ve Had It Up To Here With Teenagers hit the shelves, when friends, family, or even strangers asked my teens, “Is your mom writing a new book?” my kids responded—with long-suffering sighs and dramatic eye rolls, “Yeah. She’s writing a book about us. It’s a revenge book.”

It became such a well-established joke around my house that I almost called it Mom’s Revenge Book. In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to commit to that title, however. It seemed too harsh, even for a mean mama like me. Later on, I tried out Have You Lost Your Mind?  as a working title. I still like that one because I ask my children that at least once a week. It conveys the spirit of the book well. Unfortunately, that title brings up too many dementia hits in a Google search. Strike two.

I next became partial to Mind Your Mother as a title, but it didn’t wear well. It’s too sanctimonious and preachy, even though I do, indeed, believe that “mind your mother” may be the three words an angel whispers to a newborn on its way toward the delivery room. It’s good advice. Golden. Also, the Mind Your Mother title makes my children sound like they’re still in single digits. They’re not. Two of the three are a foot taller than I am. The height discrepancy isn’t a problem for me. I have no hesitation about reaching up, grabbing a handful of shirt, and dragging one of my boys back down to my eye level. I prefer eye contact when I’m yelling at someone.

A lot more thought goes in to titling a book than you might think if you’ve never tried to come up with a perfect one yourself. It’s tricky. I’d rather write a whole new chapter than think up a title that will satisfy all the different search engines, copyright laws, and a myriad of editorial and sales requirements. As a writer, I can tell you that by the time you sell your friends and your publishing house on a title, all the humor has usually been massaged right out of it.

Confession time: I’m going out on the proverbial limb with my latest book. It could get mighty shaky out there. In fact, someone might take a shot at me on that limb. I have to use my own life as writing fodder–I write humorous non-fiction: what else could I do? Those of you who’ve read my first three books know that my kids appear in earlier books, but usually only on the periphery. They make cameo appearances. This book is different. The teens in these pages aren’t the charming toddlers who appear in my earlier books. This time, I’m parading the little parasites and all their teenage angst right in front of God and everybody. Sometimes, nobody looks good—neither teens nor parents.

We’re not the perfect family—not by a long shot. We’re just regular folks doing the best we can with what we’ve got to work with. I make lots of mistakes. I’ll be the first to admit that, but I never stop trying to do a good job as a parent. Never. Some days go better than others, just like in any other job.

As you might expect, this book’s publication required some delicate negotiation on the home front. It would have been much simpler if my kids had just read the chapters as I wrote them and lobbied for cuts or changes as I went along. That’s what I asked them to do. It would have been a piece of cake to remove the bits that embarrassed them or write around the sticky wickets. I’ve been known to think up a whole different metaphor on the spot if I run up against a hard-to-spell word. It’s faster. Of course, my kids were too busy to read back then. Now it’s too late. Que sera sera and all that.

Raising teenagers is not for the meek, the tenderhearted, or the easily nauseated. It’s a bit like going on a religious Crusade, loaning money to a third-world country, or hiking your way out of the rainforest without a machete, a GPS, or an antivenin kit—only harder and riskier. The stakes couldn’t be any higher. We’re trying to grow people here. Not green beans. Not cotton. Not even the economy. PEOPLE. Think about that for a minute. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

If I do a good job raising my teenagers, and you do, too, we’ll have SAVED THE WORLD. Truly. The fate of the WORLD lies in our hands as parents. We’re raising the people who will have to save the environment, feed the ever-growing world population, and find a lasting peace for war-torn parts of the globe. Talk about pressure!

My theory is that we’re all in this together: teens, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, teachers, coaches, neighbors, and random strangers who cross our paths and influence my kids for good or ill. This is big, meaning-of-life stuff I’m writing about here. Nothing matters more. That doesn’t mean we can’t laugh about all our trials. Of course, we can; I think we should!

Teenagers are exhausting. Worrying about them is a full-time job before you factor in the laundry, college expenses, teeth straightening, and allowance. Take a few hours off this week and read about my experiences with teenagers. I want to hear your stories, too. Post them on my Facebook fan page; send me a sympathetic Tweet; post a comment on my blog, or send smoke signals down South where I live. I promise to read every single message. Get that foot off the ledge right now! I promise you: it’s not YOU. It’s THEM.  If you haven’t had any teenagers in your home, but you’re planning on that some day, all I can say is . . . buckle up.


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Ask Melinda: Where Did You Get That Idea?

Question: How do you get ideas for your books?

The truth is: Everywhere. Anywhere. Seems to me that topics-I-really-need-to-get-on-paper-immediately-before-I-forget sprout up like dandelions. At least ten times a day, I say to myself, “I want to write about that!” I get up every morning and start my day just like the rest of you. I plan on dieting. Then I eat too much. I make a to-do list at dawn and end up crossing nothing off before sundown–even though I was so busy all day I never even sat down for a glass of sweet tea. As a mother of three teenagers, no matter how much writing I plan to do, other less important (to me) tasks—like laundry, dinner preparation, or ferrying children hither and yon–interrupt my day and clamor for my attention. William Faulkner said that a writer only ever gets a few minutes here and there to write. He got that right.

Here’s how I see it: I’m lucky. I write about my regular life. That means that I don’t have to beat the bushes for material. It comes to me! I thought about titling my first book The Ordinary Exalted. I still like that title. It sums up my life philosophy perfectly: there are moments of heaven sandwiched right in the minutia of the daily grind. You have to look for them. They’re easy to miss. Because God sends me lots of character-building adventures every single day, I never know what will happen next. I always tell my readers: “You may be in my next book! Prepare yourself.” I use good material wherever I find it. I do not have time to fool around. Like the rest of you, I am a busy person.

Bottom line: I get inspired to write by odd things—a sentence or two from someone, a conversation I overhear, or a story I read. I am often inspired by my interaction with people in daily jaunts to the store, school, and church, ordinary places we all go. Human beings never cease to amaze me—by the heights we attain in the direst of circumstances and by the depths of our depravity. Humor is my way of coping with life. Nothing makes me happier than hearing someone say he or she laughed out loud reading my books. Nothing. I love when readers say, “You are writing about my life!” Yes, indeed, I certainly am. I can’t wait to hear what you think of the new book, I’ve Had It Up To Here With Teenagers. I have a feeling I’m going to be the recipient of some entertaining stories. I’m gleefully anticipating hearing about what happens at your house! Lord knows, you know all about what happens at mine.


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Ask Melinda: Telling It Like It Is

Question: Is everything you write about true?

I decided to take a break with this Friday’s “Ask Melinda” post from the recent flood of how-to-parent teenager questions. Teenagers are exhausting. I’ve found that, occasionally, it’s best to change the subject for a while. Today’s question is one I am asked frequently at speaking events by readers who stand in my signing line afterwards.

On the surface, whether I write non-fiction or fiction simply determines where my book is shelved in the library or bookshop. However, the implications of the truth v. fiction debate are far-reaching. It’s a cosmic question, I believe, much weightier than the categorical debate. What do you think about historical novels? Literary journalism? Truman Capote was the first Southern writer to deliberately explore the blurry boundaries in his novel In Cold Blood. My books of humorous essays are nothing like his novel, of course. (In fact, I prefer Capote’s short stories. “A Christmas Memory” is my all-time favorite, and I recommend the Celeste Holmes reading of it if you can find it. It’s rare.)

I suspect that the reader who asked today’s question had no earthly idea I would end up answering with a Truman Capote reference. All I can say is that you can start out anywhere you want to when you write. In my experience, you never know where you’ll end up.

Here’s how I see it: The South produces a plethora of gifted storytellers. We know how to embellish, embroider, and use colorful hyperbole to tell our stories. We can entertain a crowd for hours with tales of our eccentric relatives without jumping off more than one branch of the family tree. We enjoy it, and we’re good at it. I always say that writing non-fiction gives me the same satisfaction as tattling.

Bottom line: Every single essay I write is true. They’re not all completely factual, however. If you’re Southern, you’ll know what I mean by that. Usually, the more unbelievable the story is, the more likely it is that it happened exactly the way I tell it on paper. For example, I really did stand in line at the post office behind a woman who was mailing her mother’s ashes to her sister—just like an L.L. Bean catalogue. I wrote an essay about that experience called “Mailing Mama.” I did not exaggerate one detail. If you live in the South like I do, you don’t have to make things up. Real life is interesting enough.


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My First Bite of Apple

     Go ahead. Take a bite.  I did. I feel every bit as powerful as Eve in the garden. You’ve probably been tempted, too. Give in. I’m telling you: the Apple is good. If you’re thinking about buying a new computer, go ahead and cough up the extra cash. It’s worth it.

     I’m a writer, so when my HP notebook died recently, it was a five-alarm fire in my life and, consequently, the lives of everyone around me. Let’s just say that I’m not one to suffer silently or alone. It was almost a literal five-alarm fire, in addition to being a metaphorical one. I smelled burning plastic. It doesn’t take a computer geek to know that no good will come from that smell.

     I was unhappy, to put it mildly. You’ve heard the saying, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” right? There’s a reason for that cliché. Ask any mom: one month before Christmas is not a good time to try and massage a new computer out of the family budget. Do you know how many words I have to write to pay for a new Apple computer? Thousands. I’m not sure I can count that high. However, I’m entirely confident that there’s an Apple app that can figure out the total for me in a jiffy. I now believe that Apple computers can do the dishes and maybe cure cancer. I know they’re psychic for sure. They know what I want or need before I think of it myself, and they usually suggest a solution before I resort to begging. An Apple computer is what I imagine having a wife would be like.

     For the last two years, I could not turn my computer off without dire consequences. I know, I know. Before you greenies (okay, now green is blue, I’ve recently learned, but you know what I mean) swoon in consternation, let me add in my defense that it wasn’t my fault I couldn’t turn off my laptop. Of course, I wanted to. I’m not a total idiot. I walk upright and have opposable thumbs just like the rest of you. I knew I was burning energy and money unnecessarily. Unfortunately, every time I managed to turn the dadgum thing off, there was no guarantee it would ever start up again. Sometimes it took days to resurrect. I became fearful of approaching my computer without prayer beads or garlic. I touched the keys ever so gingerly like they were packed with C-4 explosives.  Every night, I schlepped my laptop into my walk-in closet and plugged it in there so I wouldn’t have to stare at the blue screen all night long like the giant nightlight from hell. Every morning, I hauled that sucker out again.

     That got old mighty quick.

     Finally, the day arrived when no amount of cajoling, pleading, force starting, bargaining with God, or crass profanity could raise a cursor flicker of life from my computer. I tried every trick I knew short of firing a shot of epinephrine into the hard drive. Nada. No sign of Lazarus.

     I’d rather lose almost anything in my house than my computer. As a writer, I NEED my computer. I use it every single day. So I did what any woman in my position would do in such a crisis. I cried. I screamed. I drank. I pouted in a bubble bath. I threw a fit that would have embarrassed a two-year-old and whined about my computer problem to everyone who would listen.

    Finally, I sucked it up and headed to the Apple store. That was a first. I’ve never bought an apple product before. Sure, my husband and kids have iPhones, iPods, and my husband has an iPad, but I just use whatever gadget is leftover when someone else in my house upgrades to a newer, faster widget. I look at it like my thirteen-year-old Suburban. As long as it gets me there, I don’t care what it looks like. I have no ego invested in technology.

     I had two goals for my first Apple purchase: ease of use and reliability. Everyone I asked, every review I read, and random strangers I accosted on the street all said the same thing: buy an Apple. The kids in my carpool said, “You need an Apple, Mrs. T.” My 75-year-old father said, “You need to buy an Apple.” My teenagers said, “PLEASE, Mom, PLEASE buy an Apple!” I’d like to think that was an unselfish thought on their part, but I’m not so sure. If I’d asked a gypsy fortuneteller, I’m sure she would have said, “Go ahead, you cheapo woman. Get off your wallet. Buy an Apple.”

     So that’s what I did. I arrived at the Apple store on a weekday morning, about five minutes before the doors were scheduled to open. There was already a line outside and a guy with a clipboard organizing the customers.

     You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. The economy stinks, and people are standing in line to buy this store’s products! That says a lot; don’t you agree? (I was reminded of the time when Blue Bell ice cream debuted in grocery stores. If you’d told me that someone new could come in and dominate the ice cream market with “homemade vanilla,” I’d have said, who do you think you’re kidding? This is not my first sashay down the frozen-food aisle. It just goes to show you. You can reinvent the wheel—or make another vanilla ice cream—and make a killing IF YOUR VANILLA IS BETTER THAN ANYBODY ELSE’S VANILLA.)

     Blue Bell did that. So did Apple.

     I was already defensive before I hit the door. I was determined not to be talked into buying a computer that could launch nuclear missiles. I don’t need that kind of temptation at my fingertips. I wanted to buy what I needed and only that. Price mattered to me. We have three teenagers at our house. They’re expensive. Every dollar counts. 

    First of all, every Apple employee I encountered was friendly. It was unnerving. Even the guy at the door with the clipboard was nice when I laid out my demands in a tone I would use to begin negotiations with terrorists.

     “I don’t speak computer. I need someone who can be patient with me and translate what I think I want into what I should buy, and I need it today.”

     “No problem,” clipboard guy replied.

     “Okay,” I said, trying not to look as doubtful on the outside as I felt on the inside.

     Then clipboard guy walked me inside to a row of computers and left me there to gawk while he summoned an apple genius. I’m not kidding about that. When Jeff arrived, that’s what his card said: Genius. You have to love that. I did. At first glance, I thought . . . this is not a good match. Jeff had a full beard, tattoos up both forearms, and although he was wearing the standard blue Apple T-shirt, he gave off a vibe of big-city, downtown hip. I, on the other hand, look exactly like what I am—a middle-aged, suburban mom. Then I met Jeff’s eyes. It was immediately apparent to me that Jeff was smart.  Fabulous. I can work with smart.

     Here’s one of the keys to Apple’s success: they hire smart people and train them well. Sounds simple; doesn’t it? Why doesn’t everyone do that? That would make my life so much easier.

     Here’s the next amazing thing that happened. Jeff listened to me—really listened. I don’t mean that he kept his trap shut while I vented my computer angst and then launched into his sales spiel. Frankly, I don’t think he even had a sales spiel. Apple geniuses don’t work on commission. They just get paid well, so he had no personal incentive to sell me any particular product. Score another one for Apple.

     I began to trust Jeff.

     I spoke quickly, my eyes darting around the crowded store, certain that we would be interrupted at any moment and my chance at one-on-one help would vanish like a bag of Krispy Kreme doughnuts at a sleepover. Finally, I couldn’t stand the pressure any longer. My naturally bossy mother instincts hijacked my mouth.

     “Are you going to get in trouble for spending so much time with me?” I asked, genuinely worried that he might.

     “Don’t worry about that. I have as much time as you need,” he answered. “Really,” he said, when I looked skeptical.

     I told Jeff I was positive I wanted an iMac desktop. No mouse. Trackpad. I left with my computer already loaded with software, my email up and running, and I was able to go home and plug in my computer BY MYSELF and use it immediately.

     I’m not lying. That really did happen. Neither I nor anyone I know works for Apple. Honest.

     For the next two days, I spent hours working on my new iMac. The desktop screen is HUGE. I literally got a pain in my neck struggling to find the right distance to make my progressive reading glasses work. For the first time in ten years, I was working on a desktop again, but my fingers seemed locked in laptop muscle memory. I grew increasingly frustrated.

     When my husband came home from work the second day, I threw myself theatrically across the bed and declared dramatically, “I think I’ve ruined my life.”

     “How so?” he asked in an even voice, while thumbing through the mail, not nearly as moved by my crisis as I needed him to be.

     “I hate working on my new computer! I think I bought the wrong one. I am miserable!”

     “You’ll get used to it,” he advised, “give it some time.”

     “No, I won’t,” I said, “It doesn’t feel right to me. It’s my own fault, too. I thought it was what I wanted, but I was wrong.”

     “So take it back,” he said.

    “How can I? I’ve been using it for two days. It’s loaded up with all my stuff,” I said.

     “Yeah, but it’s Apple,” he said, “They’ll work it out.”

     You know what? They did. I called for One-to-One (Buy it. That’s all I can say. Even Consumer Reports recommends the Apple warranty and One-to-One service.) help. They made an appointment for me to go back to the Apple store and exchange my iMac for a MacBook Pro.

     I arrived at my appointment loaded for bear. I was prepared to argue. If anyone even looked at me funny, I was likely to burst into tears. I’d worried all night. Guess what? I didn’t have to argue, explain, or justify myself at all. There was no guilt, nothing but let’s-get-you-what-you-need customer service. It was all about me, me, me.  What a lovely thought. I’m going back soon for a specialized tutorial, and I’m obnoxiously excited about it.

     Yep. I drank the Kool-Aid. I’m now an Apple groupie. My son leaves for college soon, and as soon as I can scrape up enough money to buy him his very own Apple, I’m going to do it. Eventually, the other two kids are going to get one, too. I’m never going back to inferior products and service again. I mean it. One bite of the Apple, and I’m hooked forever.

     When I make a big purchase like this, I always tell the salesperson, “I’m a Southern woman. Women talk. I’m also a humor writer, so beware. I’m going to write about you—nationwide. It can be good or bad. Your call.” 

















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Blog #1 Embracing the World of Social Media: Yuk

     It’s almost impossible to make a living as a writer. Do you have any idea how many words you have to write to pay for the removal of four wisdom teeth from a teenager’s mouth?  I do. I figured it out this week. I have three teenagers. They have four wisdom teeth each. That’s 12 teeth that have to go at roughly $1,500 a pop. Each of those teeth is worth about 5,000-10,000 words, as best I can figure it. Teenagers are expensive.

     At some point or another, every famous writer you can name wrote about the struggle to combine the desire to write with the practical demands of regular life—like being able to afford groceries, for example. Most of the writers in the great canon of literature—you know, the mostly dead guys and gals you were required to read in school– nearly starved to death. I’m not exaggerating. When he died, William Faulkner was out of print. Can you believe that? You couldn’t walk in to a book shop and find his books on the shelves. My point is that if Faulkner had trouble paying his bills, and he did, then what in the world is going to happen in my own life?

     I definitely need a high-paying back-up career. Prostitution is out. I’d have to lose twenty pounds, step-up my gym workout, and, well, it is illegal and all. I’m a mother. Also, I’m married to a judge. I can cook, but as the mother of three teens, I already work as a short-order cook every single day. I can teach. I used to love doing that, but nobody really cares where the apostrophe goes anymore. I can also sing but only in a church-choir-garden-variety way. Nobody is going to pay cash to hear me. I can also arrange flowers, but that is not exactly a rainmaker either. There you have it: writing, teaching, cooking, singing, and flower arranging. I would have been a hell of a 19th century woman. Unfortunately, here I am, right smack in the 21st century with the smarty-pants mouth to prove it. It’s a good thing I’m married to someone with good health insurance.

     I write books of humorous essays. No one thinks, “I think I’ll grow up to be an essay writer.” Of course not. It just happens. I had three children in five years. I thought I was losing my mind, so I began writing for twenty people just for fun. Humor comes quickly to me. It’s easy, and back then I needed to write in short blocks of time while my kids were napping. You can guess what happened. Those people had friends, relatives, and roommates, and soon that list grew to 5,000 people in thirty-eight states.  That’s when I wrote my first book, SWAG: Southern Women Aging Gracefully. The success of that book led to the 2nd, The SWAG Life, and the third, I Love You—Now Hush. I have a new book coming out this spring: I’ve Had It Up To Here With Teenagers. If you’ve ever lived with a teenager, or you plan to live with a teenager in the future, or you want to laugh about your own teenage years from the safe distance of adulthood, this is the book for you. I promise you will laugh.

    When my publisher suggested rather firmly (as in “let’s put it in the contract from now on”) that I “embrace a significant online presence as an author,” all I could think about was: Not more passwords. Please. No more passwords. I have trouble remembering the ones I have already! Wi-Fi. Bank accounts. Bill-paying. Cable. Cell phones. School accounts for my kids. PayPal. eBay.  I’m not a number person. Numbers are horrid, inflexible things. “You’ll love it!” my editor wrote in her email.

     I doubt it, I thought.

     Now my day goes like this: Check my Facebook fan page. Twitter. Blog. Change the cat litter. Get the kids to school. Revise. Run errands. Edit. Do laundry. Cook. Blog. My life is already busy and complicated. I decided the quickest way to get past the looming social media hurdles was to hire a professional tutor. I found a highly skilled, poor graduate student and offered him cash and baked goods to get me up and going. He accepted. Then I never heard from him again. I worried about him. He seemed like a highly strung individual. His parents are missionaries. He didn’t look at all well-fed to me. Later, I heard he got a real job offer and moved away. Good for him! Bad for me. I found another woman to help me. I like her. Our first session went just fine until we accidently invited everyone in my address book to “friend” my new online accounts. Not good. Not good at all. Awful, in fact, the exact thing I’d hoped to avoid by hiring someone who knows a lot more than I do about social media. Frankly, I could have made that mistake all by myself and saved the hourly fee.

     The result? I inadvertently invited the guy who fixed my refrigerator to be my friend online. I also hit on my sons’ basketball, baseball, and football coaches as well as perfect strangers who have interviewed me or asked me to speak to their groups. The receptionist at my doctor’s office got a friend request. It was very unprofessional, a little creepy, and just plain embarrassing.

     That wasn’t all. The mother of all accidental friend requests went to: The Bishop. The big dog himself. Yep. You read that correctly. I am an Episcopalian. Our Bishop has no sense of direction. I know that because when he read a chapter about my own lack of innate navigational skills (“I Can’t Get There From Here”), he emailed me. I responded. That’s how his address ended up in my address book, and that’s how he got propositioned by me accidently.

     I was mortified, as you can imagine. Luckily, I am quite accustomed to humbling life experiences. They’re my bread and butter, in fact. I get all my material for my books from my real life, and God sends me lots of character-building lessons.

    Pretty soon I got to wondering: Would the Bishop accept my friend request? The way I see it, he has to, doesn’t he? I’m a sheep in his flock and all that. Right? That’s part of the Bishop job description, don’t you think? Tending to lost sheep? I’m not lost in the big picture, of course. I’m not a drug addict or suicidal or thinking about blowing anything up, but still–I’m out here panhandling with words, trying to make a living as a writer in suburbia. I’m expecting a call from my parish priest at any moment. I may be in big, big trouble.

     I’ll keep you posted. Stay tuned.


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