WriMos, start your engines.

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Again with a Poland story! I must be feeling nostalgic.

It was late October 2010, and I’d been in Poland for about a month and a half. I was learning a few new words every day, assiduously mapping out my lessons, and steadfastly ignoring how I felt about any of this.

Within a week of arriving, you see, I had realized something key: The Sonya who had landed in Poland was exactly the same Sonya who had boarded in the U.S., only a little hungrier, a little smellier, and a lot more tired. I hadn’t magically gained the ability to converse fluidly with strangers, or lead a group with confidence, or unequivocally love the company of children. I like kids. I respect them as the future of society, and I appreciate any initiative that tries to give them a good start in life. But it takes a special kind of person to work effectively with them, and as I greeted each new day in Poland, I was increasingly sure that I did not possess that particular superpower.

I know this face well.

I know this face well.

So after a month and a half of feeling like I was falling down a well, I realized I needed a parallel task, to reassure myself that there was something on this planet that I could accomplish. I opened up the document containing my bucket list and surveyed the items. “Ride in a hot-air balloon” — probably not an option here. “Go vegan for six months” — possible, but not very spirit-lifting. “Participate in National Novel Writing Month” — definitely not possible. I couldn’t take the time to write 50,000 words in a month. I had a job. I had Polish to study and people to meet. And besides, it was late October. If NaNoWriMo was a November thing like I thought, there was no way I could think up a novel-length idea in time.

I pulled up the NaNoWriMo website to confirm the timing. Yes, it was scheduled for November, about a week away. And it wasn’t just a self-regulated, work-on-your-own thing … you could fill out a profile, and accumulate writing buddies, and enter your word total each day, and ask for advice on the forums …

"You will ask strangers to tell you about life on a dairy farm. You will wait eagerly for their response."

“You will ask strangers to tell you about life on a dairy farm. You will wait eagerly for their responses.”

So sue me, I signed up. (Show me a blank online profile, and I’ll fall over myself to fill it out.) And in the end, I did manage to find an idea that sustained me to 50,000 words with a minimum of plot bunnies. I also had a lot of fun getting there. But even more than that, I found focus and purpose. No longer was I plodding through each day, glancing at the clock every ten minutes. Now my classes seemed to zip by, powered by my knowledge that when I went home for the evening, I could rejuvenate with a cup of tea and 1,667 words.

There’s a lot of debate over the value of NaNoWriMo. I examined it a little myself when I finished Camp NaNoWriMo this year. But for me, it will always have a special place in my heart as something that saved me during an unpleasant period in my life.

NaNoWriMo: The protective dolphin to teaching's sharks.

NaNoWriMo: The protective dolphin for a new teacher’s sharks.

If I make it to 50,000 words this year, it will be my third win. If I don’t, it will be my third unsuccessful attempt. Either way, I’m planning on having fun. Right now, for example, I’m having a blast developing the characters and puzzling out the plot (… between a full-time class load and three jobs. Gosh. November should be interesting.). I’ve discovered that the best way to do this is to compile everything — all the plot brainstorming, all the setting development, all the town maps and social hierarchies and character rosters — in a Google Docs folder, so I can work on it from any computer.

A big part of this folder is character development stuff. I used to have a terrible time with this — my characters all felt like carbon copies of each other. Then I started sitting down with each of them in my head and asking them personal questions. Below is what I’ve asked my characters this year. If you’re a fellow 2014 WriMo, please feel free to use it — and if you’re found additional questions helpful, I’d love to hear about them.

His/her name

Age:
Physical description:
Fashion style:
Personality synopsis:
Hobbies:
Room decorations:
Favorite social media site:
Celebrity crushes:
Religious beliefs:
General strengths:
General weaknesses:
Sexuality:
Relationship status:
Hometown:
Family:
Educational background:
Strengths in this setting:
Dream job:
Secrets:
If not in this setting, s/he would be:
What s/he wants:
What s/he will fight for:

———

Photo credits: Bored student by PublicDomainPictures, pocket watch from BenjaminNelan, and shark from Taken on Pixabay.

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Counter Action: Baked oatmeal with pear and raspberries

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Five years ago, I was not much of a cook.

I didn’t need to be, really. I had to eat most of my meals in the college cafeteria, and for the rest of the time, I could get by with toast and fruit.

Everything changed when I moved to Poland for a year. All of a sudden, I was not only living on my own in a tiny village, I was also earning a modest stipend and in serious need of a hobby. Cooking was really my only option.

Well, cooking or shopping.

Cooking or shopping or romping through Eastern Europe on my own.

But I went with cooking.

home

How many people can brag that their dining room, their living room, and their bedroom are all the same room? Yeah, be jealous.

When I was packing for Poland, I hadn’t planned on teaching myself how to cook while I was there, so I’d only brought one cookbook. Fortunately, my flat had fantastic wifi, so I figured I could find some good recipes online.

I was wholly unaware, you see, of the concept of food blogs. You can imagine my delight when I discovered first Joy the Baker, then the Pioneer Woman, and then Smitten Kitchen, whose recipes formed the majority of my “to try” list.

This baked oatmeal, from Joy the Baker, was one of the first things I baked in my tiny oven. That appliance would go on to host scores of other experiments, from granola to calzones to rosemary challah rolls, and the baked oatmeal was a delightful christening. I topped it with some fresh gruszki (“GROOSH-kee” — pears) and maliny (“mah-LEE-nee” — raspberries) I picked up at a farmer’s stand down the stand, using my extremely fractured Polish. It was mid-September, I was nervous about teaching, and I knew the winter would be no picnic. But for the time being, it was enough to have something warm and fresh and delicious to look forward to.

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Baked oatmeal with pear and raspberries

(based on Joy the Baker’s baked oatmeal with fresh raspberries and pistachios)

Ingredients:

  • 1-1/2 c. old-fashioned oats (not the quick-cook kind — they’ll get soggy)
  • 1/4 c. brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 c. milk
  • 3 T. butter, melted
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • splash of vanilla extract
  • 1 pear, cored and diced
  • 1 c. fresh raspberries
  • milk for serving

Directions:

  1. Combine oats, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking powder, and salt.
  2. In separate bowl, combine milk, butter, egg, and vanilla.
  3. Combine wet and dry ingredients. Pour into greased loaf pan.
  4. Bake at 350°F for 20–25 minutes, or until the middle is pretty firm.
  5. Let cool for 5 minutes. Spoon into bowls and top with pear, raspberries, and milk. Leftovers will keep in fridge for 1–2 days.