Saturday, October 16, 2010

Working Mom: How to Write Fiction

I have often wondered this myself and of course am no expert. I usually prefer writing about my own life and the people in it. I have written a few fictional pieces, my most recent was based on my own life as a recent college grad trying to find her way in the real world. It was so similar to my real past that even friends who didn't meet me until much later were saying, "Uh, yeah, you can totally tell it's about you."

I often wondered how in the world to fiction writers come up with all those details. Do they have to experience it themselves? Do they actually visit the places they write about and take photos or notes? Do they interview people who have been through those situations? I truly have no answers here, but I imagine that it depends on what they're working on and the methods they are comfortable with.

In any case, I need to write a fiction story for an upcoming assignment, and I really welcome the challenge but had no idea how to go about it this time. Writing about an American woman who is married to an Asian guy and living in his country is a bit too close to home.

I hit upon a useful method while at work because I am in the middle of a project with my seniors. In groups of five, they have to write a soap opera scene or set of scenes from scratch, and in November, they'll have to perform their scenes on stage. This project is in its eighth and possibly final year, so I am hoping it goes well. (It may be cut due to certain teachers' opinions that a soap opera drama is just not challenging enough for our high-level students who should be spending their time debating and discussing serious social problems. I am into discussing social problems - in fact, I created the Current English elective class where they do just that, but right now, we are talking about the required English Comprehension class that we only have once per week.)

Step One:
The Soap Opera Project begins with magazine cut-outs of various people - some famous and some not, but that doesn't matter in the end. We let the students choose pictures from a combination of five categories: Women under 40, women over 40, men under 40, men over 40, and children/teenagers. Some groups will have no children in their combination while other groups will have no one over 40. It's kind of random, but it's one way to force them to be more creative.

Step Two:
Now that each group has five images of people, we ask one person to come up and choose five cards from our stack of "character cards." The character cards each have two characteristics on them, for example: heartless and cruel, shy and timid, lively and outgoing, sensitive and kind. The cards are facing down so they cannot choose the cards based on the what is written.

Step Three:
We do the same thing with "job cards." The number of job cards matches the number of characters over age 15. So, if a group has a child character, they can only take four job cards. Examples of jobs include super model, hotel receptionist, millionaire, flight attendant, doctor, etc.

Step Four:
The students now have five images, five characteristic cards, and four or five job cards. Then next step is to match everything up, and decide names for each character. This takes a little while, and we usually have to write a variety of girls' and boys' names on the board.

Step Five:
Sometimes we skip to Step Five and let them do Step Four a bit later in the process. Step Five consists of choosing two "setting cards". In each soap opera, there must be at least one change of scene or they must show action in two different places. Examples of settings include ski resort, the bathroom, a pub, a church and an airplane.

Step Six:
The last card is a "plot card." Students are often surprised we won't even let them choose their own plots, but we think this forces them to be creative as they try to fit the puzzle pieces together. Each group chooses one plot card, and some examples include family argument, money problems, an accident, natural disaster and a crime.

Step Seven:
The writing process which takes the longest begins here. Of course, the group members must all agree on the outline of the story and it takes quite a while to first figure out the relationships between all the characters and how the setting and plot will fit in. Once they are ready to start writing, we hand out blank script sheets and they begin the process. Currently, my seniors are at this stage, and I am hearing rumors of a tornado that carries an entire casino full of people to another land and era; a group of four neighbors ganging up on their money laundering super-model neighbor. It's all good, but we'll see how these stories come out in the end. I will post about that in November after the performances.

What's this got to do with me?
So, here was my dilemma. For the AFWJ Journal, the theme for December is to write a fiction story and remembering my last attempt (back in 2004 when I was editor), I really wanted to give this a try. However, rather than base it on my own life, I wanted to do something really different. Sitting at my desk one day this week, it occurred to me that I could use the soap opera method and have elements of my story chosen for me by the cards! I quickly went through my stash of famous/not famous magazine cut-outs and chose five characters, randomly picked out the appropriate cards and set to work.  I am now on page four of this awesome story.

I don't know if others will agree about its awesomeness, but I am really enjoying this process. The most fun part, I think, is that rather than including entire situations from my own life, I am just choosing small details here and there. For example, I listen to the podcast Foolish Adventure which is about how to build an online business, and I listen to several other podcasts as well. In my story, one of the characters has her own online business where she hosts a few podcasts every week. Another example is that one of the characters spends a lot of time at Starbucks. Oh, and the whole story takes place in Chicago because Yusuke is in the middle of planning his trip to Chicago this winter, so I'm envisioning Michigan Avenue here.

One great thing about setting a story in a place you are only vaguely familiar with is Google Maps and Earth. You can actually pick up a little figurine of a green man and make him walk through the city and you can see everything from his point of view.

Though I am used to writing and getting interrupted many times, I find that with this story, I enter a zone where I can sit there typing and feel like only one minute has passed, when actually an hour has gone by. Therefore, it's hard to do this at night when I could be interrupted at any moment by the kids or by Yusuke. Same problem at work. Anyway, the process is definitely fun and exciting. I'm looking forward to the finished product.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Prepping for Grad School

People, particularly my family, have been asking me how the heck I am going to pull this off with a full time job and two small kids. Since I opted to start classes in January to give myself 5 months to prepare, I've been spending my free time arranging my life to fit this new venture into it.

Here is what I am working on in terms of "arranging things":
a. Negotiating with Bilingual Kids Club to move their monthly meetings to Sundays so that the kids and I can still participate.

b. Looking into hiring a house cleaner to come in once a week and clean for 3 hours.

c. Cleaning up and sorting through and storing all my scrapbook stuff. My desk is bare now and I will be making it into a study zone.

d. Signing up for Saturday Daycare at the kids' daycare. There may be some weekends when Yusuke wants to spend the day with the kids, but I have a feeling that on most weekends, he will be too tired or annoyed to do it. My classes take place every Saturday morning, but then I can spend the rest of the day studying if I need to.

e. Getting information on all wi-fi cafes and internet cafes in our area so that I have a nice place to study and use the internet on Saturdays, when I cannot be at home.

f. Looking into buying a laptop computer that I can use at these wi-fi cafes OR upgrading an old laptop we have. I guess the latter is a bit cheaper, but it is starting to add up to more than I imagined. (I will tell the story of my laptop in my next post!)

g. Borrowing interest-free from our other savings accounts to pay for the grad school bill in December. If I pay in full, I get an extra 10% off!

h. Finishing up some personal projects. I'm making a few more decoupaged magnetic boards, taking a class to make my own photo album based on the book Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, turning my articles for the AFWJ Journal into a bound book through a web site called Blogs to Books.

i. Paring down - once again, it's time to pare down our stuff, and it is definitely time to get rid of Luka's baby stuff because he is not a baby anymore. It will feel good to clear the house of some of these things. I am not sure if we'll ever be able to get rid of that crib though. We barely even used it with Ailin and almost never with Luka, but since MIL gave it to us, we are kind of stuck with it, out of Yusuke's sheer devotion to her.

j. Giving in to Japanese food - I have decided that the easiest and most economical types of dinners consist of Japanese food. Why? Because it's easy to buy it and there are many dishes which are quite simple to make. I prefer donburi, which is food placed on top of rice and served in individual bowls for each person. Many of the side dishes served in Japanese cuisine can be purchased ready-made and no one blinks an eye if you serve the same side dishes every single day. 

What do I want to hold on to?
This is a good question since I realize that for the next two and a half years, I need to spend a lot of time concentrating on my studies. But, there are certain things I don't want to let go of completely. I had to make a list of everything I do and then decide what I needed to change, stop doing, or just keep in my life because I need it or love it so much.

1. My Blog - obviously, I love to write and it is a good way to keep in touch with family and friends without writing separate emails to each person. And, this stuff will be valuable to me someday, so I want to keep recording my thoughts in this way. I'll do whatever I can to keep my blog up to date even if they are much shorter entries than usual.

2. Bilingual Kids Club - I started this club and I really like it, so I don't feel right giving up on it. I am also afraid that if I don't continue going, it might not survive. I'm not sure. I would feel bad if Ailin could no longer see her friends, some of whom she has known since she was six months old!

3. Sundays - I decided that I would deem Sundays sacred family days, so aside from the monthly BKC meetings, it would be nice to devote Sundays to family time. Now, to figure out a way to get the grocery shopping done...

So, what am I giving up? 
For the next two years, I am okay with giving up things like our monthly Craft 'n' Chats, paper scrapbooking, certain podcasts, subscriptions to magazines, etc. I am pretty confident that Chris will carry on the Craft 'n' Chats, and the scrapbooking will still be there when I finish grad school. If I get really desperate to make a page or two, I can make something very quickly on Photoshop.

Lifestyle Changes
I think that I need to seriously consider changing my lifestyle in terms of my sleeping/waking schedule. I tend to stay up late to do chores or work on hobbies, but then I have a hard time falling asleep. Keep in mind that I sleep on a futon with both of the kids, and I am still nursing at night. There are times when I need to go and tend to Luka for a while late into the evening, and I STILL try to get up and continue with my projects until late. It would be best to just go to sleep with the kids and wake up early. If I could wake up at 4am or 5am, potentially, I could work on laundry, read or study, catch up on email and maybe even get ready for work before everyone else wakes. I talked with Shannon about this, and I was saying that someday I would like to take up "running." Well, I don't see this happening anytime soon, but she suggested that I get up early and fit running into my morning routine. That would defeat the purpose, I think. I wanted to do chores and study, not go out for a run and then shower upon my return! Maybe I should think about waking up at 3am. No way. Running can be taken up somewhere way down the road.

Anyway, over the next few months, I am going to do some trial runs (excuse the pun!) of this new lifestyle. Maybe a week here and there to see if I feel okay with it. There are some disadvantages to it, but they might be outweighed by the advantages. I keep ya'll posted.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

TGIF: No, really, I'm glad it's Friday

This was a tough week at work. It should have been really easy because our 2nd graders are away on their school excursion so our schedules were lighter than usual. This is supposed to give us more time to catch up on evaluations and lesson planning.

I am slowly making progress on a joint excel spreadsheet we made for evaluating 120 speeches from the annual speech contest held at my school. It took a while to figure out that two people cannot work on the same spreadsheet, even in different tabs, without messing something up.

The most stressful thing though was watching certain 3rd graders flounder as they made their big final presentations for an elective course I teach. We've been working on these presentations since June, and I thought their Power Point slides were well done, but even if you have great slides, you still have to practice the presentation. As always, more practice was needed, but I see these 3rd graders are kept really busy in their other classes as well as preparing for their university entrance exams. It kind of hit home for me when I realized that every presentation ran over time, I was doing way too much trying to manage all of it (there is only ONE of me, you know!), and what would have been a 2-hour class turned into a 3-hour class because we made students stay after school to finish the 1st-day presentations. Why did they run over time? Because even with the 10-minute time limit, they had not practiced enough to know that they should make some cuts. They each had a 1/2 hour appointment with their teacher during the week before, but for many, this appointment was their first and possibly only practice! I see that now. On the teacher side of it, could I have done something differently? Well, just to get through the 2nd day of presentations, I will be asking some of the students to help with classroom management during the next class. This means that one student will need to work the video camera, one student will be in charge of the timer and one student will be operating the remote control for the presenter. This way, I just need to introduce each presenters and then sit down and concentrate on the the initial evaluations during their presentations, and manage the Q and A session after each one. That's enough for one person, right? You may wonder where my co-teacher is during all of this. Hmmm, good question.

As always, I need to look back on my week and figure out what I learned and/or what I am thankful for. This is a good way to decompress after a hard week.

At work:
I learned that 8 (students) is a really good and perfect number to make the current English class work well. 20 is way over the top. We are planning to request that since it's an elective and the Japanese teachers don't want to limit the number of students, there should be a student teacher ratio of 8:1. This means that 3 teachers (and three separate sections) would have been ideal this year.
I learned that excel spreadsheets really cannot be edited by two people at the same time even if they are working in different tabs.
I learned that pumpkins at Costco cost 1280 yen this year, and that it feels really good to buy one after all these years of never needing to.
I learned that English teachers and other teachers really don't care what we Native teachers are doing.
I learned that I am still responsible to clean my section of the school even if my students don't show up to clean.
I learned that, as a working mom, I need to take advantage of every opportunity to take a day off either for myself or to do catch up on housework.
I learned that communication is really important and if others don't feel the need to communicate with you, it doesn't mean they don't have something to tell you.
I learned that staying late at school to help my students makes me very tired, and that I am getting old.
I learned that if I get over the habit of staying up late and I get up really early instead, I can probably accomplish more, lose weight faster, and feel healthier. (This is from a student's presentation.)

At home:
I learned that Ailin has a really good memory. I promised to carve a pumpkin with her this weekend and she has been asking about it every day since.
I learned that Yusuke is still in his own little world and really doesn't pay attention to anything I am doing (or not doing!) unless it's related to housework. (Then he notices big time!)
I learned that Luka loves to push buttons, so this will explain why the hot water suddenly turns cold in the middle of a shower, and why the rice is only half-cooked when I am ready to serve dinner. You should hear me swearing then.
I learned that when I stay late at work to help my students, it is not helping my kids or myself because then I am too tired in the evenings.
I learned that parenting is not always teamwork, and that I can't count on my husband like I imagined I would.
I learned not to send my husband to do the grocery shopping by himself. He spent more money than usual and he still couldn't get everything on my list.

Out and About:
I learned that Kiwiberries taste really good. They are like miniature kiwis but without the hairy skin. Even Ailin likes them.
I learned that old computers fixed up to be as good as new are just as expensive as brand new computers.

Okay, I feel a little better. Decompressing has begun. Hopefully this will be a nice weekend as I promised Ailin we would carve that darn pumpkin and we would decorate our apartment for Halloween.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

September Round-up

Lots of happenings this month but I'm afraid that I don't have much to scrapbook about!

Three friends gave birth to baby boys!
Sept 12, Christine had a boy whom she named Ken.
Sept 19, Alya had a boy whom she named Ryohei.
Sept 22, Dai and Yukiko had a boy they named Zen.

I love baby boys. You can tell because I am so in love with my little Luka.


  • My dad celebrated his 65th birthday on Sept 17. I forgot to send him his favorite chocolate from Japan, but I will be sure to do that soon.
  • Adie celebrated her 28th birthday on Sept 16. We spent an afternoon at Starbucks discussing work-related issues for an upcoming meeting, and I treated her to a coffee and snack. It's so nice to get out of the office sometimes, but shhh...don't tell anyone.


  • We took the kids to Nihonbashi in Tokyo for the day and ended up in Ginza, as always. We ALWAYS hang out in Ginza when we go to Tokyo. I managed to not buy anything while there, but I did get Yusuke to take my photo in front of the Prada store, just to say I was there.
  • I took the kids shopping for fall/winter clothes. The weather changed suddenly and it was a bit of an emergency.


  • I am preparing to start grad school in January, so my scrapbook desk has been cleaned up and most scrap stuff is being put into storage. I am working on selling or donating other stuff. I will be doing digital scrapbooking for the rest of the year, and then who knows after that?
  • I got a gold star for losing more than 5 pounds since starting Weight Watchers in July. I won't make my goal by December, but at least I am on my way!

New Developments for Ailin:

  • Ailin can now fold an entire load of towels when she puts her mind to it. I was amazed last weekend when we were all cleaning together, and she folded all the towels while I folded the rest of the clothes. In fact, she does a much better job than Yusuke ever did.
  • She has developed an affinity for several stuffed animals and insists on bringing her litter everywhere with her, claiming that she is the mother, Luka is the big brother and I am the big sister. Papa is still papa though.
  • Ailin likes to draw faces and can make a variety of faces with different hairstyles and eye expressions.
  • She prefers that I pick her up late so she can have the 6pm snack. In fact, she gets mad at me when I pick her up early.
  • (Edited on 10/05/2010) I forgot to mention this before, but Ailin is now up to the letter G. She is learning how to write the letters, and she sometimes watches the Sesame Street podcasts which go through each letter.

New Developments for Luka:

  • He plays chase with Ailin and with Max sometimes.
  • He can now eat by himself, for the most part, and rarely gets frustrated during meals.
  • He loves sweet potatoes now.
  • He indicates when he has dropped food on the floor and wants me to pick it up before Max can get it.
  • He wore blue jeans for the first time.
  • He likes to peek at me from around a corner and then run away.