A Note From The Inside Of Grief

Have you ever noticed that people don’t write about depression from inside of depression. I mean, a friend or a blogger just disappears for a while, and then they come back and they say, “Sorry I was gone. I was fighting depression.”

Makes sense, of course. It’s hard to write when your brain says everything you do is crap and it’s all pointless anyway.

But have you ever wondered what really goes on inside a person’s head during that time, that dark time when what’s inside doesn’t want to come outside?

When Grandma died in November (it’s getting easier to write that sentence, even though I don’t want it to), I didn’t go into a deep depression and stop writing–in fact, I wrote quite a lot from my grief. I shared quite a lot of it too… but not all of it. Some of it felt too dark and raw. It wasn’t writing so much as feeling that spilled out onto the screen.

Well, here’s some of it. A note from the inside of grief.

December 19, 2013

Yesterday while I was writing about my grandma, I closed my eyes and imagined her voice, so I could get the words down on the screen just so. I wrote them out and then listened to them in my head and suddenly, unpredictably, it hit me that someday I will forget what her voice sounded like. I’ll hear those words in my head and won’t be sure if I’m hearing them quite correctly. I won’t remember the gentle gravelly sound, I’ll think “gentle gravelly” and everything I think of will be only an approximation, it will sound like what you are imagining right now for “gentle gravelly” instead of what she actually sounded like.

I spent the rest of the evening looking for old videos I took of her talking about her childhood. I became more and more frantic as I realized I’ve done a crappy job of maintaining files and that I probably am never going to find those precious, precious videos. That I will probably never, ever hear her voice again.

I finally went to bed, thinking maybe I’d find it still on my camcorder in the morning, after the battery had a chance to charge overnight. Halfway through the night, I dreamed that Dad and Grandpa and Aunt Elea and I were sitting around Grandma in her blue chair (“Am I in mah blue chair? Oh good, I’m so glad I’m in mah blue chair,” gawd I miss her sweet voice) and that she was about to blink out of existence, just like that, to just simply be gone. None of us wanted her to go, and she didn’t want to go either. She never liked goodbyes. And then she was gone, just like that, in a split second, just gone.

And in that instant I woke up and immediately knew it was true, that she was really really gone.

Also, the video is not on the camcorder or, if it is, it’s among the dozens of corrupted files from years past that never got downloaded and are lost forever.

And so even as I’m journeying through my grief (my ridiculously overblown grief, says my critical self; no, no, be gentle with yourself, says my kinder self; it’s okay, just be, says my wiser self) there is this watcher in my brain (my writer self) who is cataloging it all for future use.

The waves of regret (why didn’t I go out more often, take the kids to see Grandma every year, listen to more of her stories, ask her more questions, WHY don’t I have any video?)

The waves of horror (we all die someday and what happens to us then? Where do we go? Is she really still there or is it over for her and, someday, for me?)

The waves of pure sorrow (oh, Jesus, I miss her. So. Much.)

I’ve read so many works where people who have suffered a loss worry about not remembering what a loved one looked like, sounded like, smelled like. When Grandpa died, I took home an old suitcase full of his plaid shirts. I planned to make a quilt out of them, but I never did. I did, however, periodically go downstairs and sniff the suitcase, immerse my face in it. It smelled like Grandpa. One day, I decided it was enough. I was ready to let go. And I dumped the shirts and filled the suitcase with other things.

Yes, I’ve now forgotten what Grandpa smelled like.

And someday I’ll forget what Grandma sounded like.

Dear gawd, I’m not ready to admit that.

*******************************************************************

P.S. Wow. That’s a downer. I still miss her so much it hurts. I haven’t forgotten her voice yet, not yet, but I have to try harder to remember it.

Grandma Grandma and me

The Characters That I Am Not

“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things that I am not.” -Joss Whedon

An interesting thing happened when I sent the beta version of my book out to my parents (hi, Mom). Mom and Dad were, unsurprisingly, thrilled and excited and said all kinds of nice things about it. They were also gravely concerned.

One of my characters, you see, has quite a foul mouth. The swearing is truly atrocious. Dad said he thought that with my brilliant mind I could do better than that. Mom felt I was setting a bad example. I thought: Well, it’s not like it’s me swearing. Blame Tory, for goodness’ sake. All I’m doing is writing down what he says.

Exploring the things that I am not.

Which is true of all my characters, of course. Not one of them is me. It really is the true joy of the thing, getting to know the inside of someone else’s head, looking out at the world from their point of view.

And today I’d like to introduce you to a few of them. Meet Tory.

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Tory paced the cell, tripping over legs and beating on the wall with his fist. One of the boys yelled at the Mercant when it came, but it was pointless. Tory told him he was an idiot. The boy’s name was Kis. Kis asked Tory if he had any better ideas. Tory told him his idea was to shut up.

After about a week, several of the boys had swollen lips and bruised cheeks from fighting with each other. Tory thought he might burst from frustration.

Then one day something happened: One wall of the room disappeared. Tory’s heart leapt for one cruel moment when he saw trees and sunlight.

But it took only a heartbeat to realize: The new space was yet another prison. The “trees” were plastic climbing apparatus, the “pond” was a grimy little plastic pool set in the ground, and the walls were just farther apart.

Three of his roommates had already run out into the space, whooping and hollering as though they had actually found freedom. Kis, who seemed to have finally figured out how pointless everything was, stared out silently. He looked inquiringly at Tory. Tory shrugged. Might as well.

Well, okay, Dad was right about one thing (imagine that). Tory doesn’t need to swear to be who Tory is. So the swearing is (mostly) gone. You’re welcome, Mom.

Even though it’s written with my boys in mind, the book has female characters too. You want to meet Semantha? Say hello. (But she’ll probably just roll her eyes at you.)

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Semantha’s eyes are actually much paler than they look here, and she usually wears that hair in braids. Just so you know.

Semantha looked over the top of the book and glared at her little brother. He was only ten and a crappy shooter, but he always got the first turn with the chem gun. Father was issuing the same instructions he had given a thousand times before: “The chem gun won’t kill them, at least not at first, but it’s enough to hold them at bay for a while. If you really want to do some damage, use a flame thrower. Then,” and Father made a stupid “pow-splat” sound with his mouth and Semantha rolled her eyes.

Children weren’t allowed to use flame throwers, of course, not even for practice. Only soldiers were allowed to have them, and only Outside. Jonethen might go Outside someday, but not Semantha. Oh no. Her job was to “grow up and have a nice little family,” as Mother loved to remind her.

Father finished his instructions and Jonethen took aim. And missed wildly. Semantha snorted and returned to the book, a memoir of the Great Perimeter Battle by General Agular Tonsen. She had pulled it down from the shelf in the dusty little pro shop where they rented the chem gun. Mr. Gerban, the shop owner, patted her on the head and said, “You can borrow it, sweetheart. It’ll give you something wholesome to do while your brother practices.” She had faked a smile, said thank you, and ducked out to the target area.

Semantha looked up again to see Jonethen make a couple of decent shots, then miss the entire target again, twice in a row. Father said that was enough for today, and clapped him on the shoulder. He set the chem gun down on the bench and turned to her:

“Go ahead, Semantha. Just bring it inside when you’re done, and don’t lick it or anything. Those chemicals are bad for you.”

Duh.

Semantha pushed her long braids behind her, loaded the gun with a fresh canister. They were just paint canisters for practice, anyway, so it was a doubly stupid thing for him to say. She took the gun to her shoulder and imagined herself taking aim at an Ekross: Pow! Right on target.

Finally, I want to introduce you to somebody who is very, very special to me. He’s the only one whose story is told in first present, and only because he insisted on it. He told me what he wanted rather awkwardly and very politely, of course, and once I understood, he was much happier. He is a gentle soul and often misunderstood. Please be kind to him. This is Jed.

This might be sorta what Jed looks like. Only, skinnier and with more hair. And he'd never have his picture taken with a blue backdrop because they don't have studios in the wild, silly.

The sun is coming up, and the other boys are laughing and shouting already. They’ll leave me alone if I’m quiet and if I remember not to say anything about the plants. When we get where the dirt path ends, I tell them bye and go up toward the meadow. I don’t want to hear when they find roots to dig up.

There won’t be many berries yet, but maybe a few. I always thank the bushes when I take their berries. If I find good leaves, I’ll put a few in my sack—they don’t mind when you do that. If you take the whole plant though, then the screaming is awful.

When I get to the meadow, I throw myself down in the grass, feel the chill earth against my belly. When my breathing gets slow and quiet, I can hear the plants whispering. They’re so glad it’s morning and they’re alive—it makes me glad to be alive too. I wonder if they can hear me saying that to them?

Flowers have a cheerful sound, like tiny bells. The grass sounds smooth. Trees are like big drums, booming up from their roots under the meadow. I like listening to the meadow, but the sun is high and my sack is still empty. I’ll probably have to sit in the ninth circle at dinner again tonight, but what can I do? I’d rather go hungry than kill the plants.

I start back toward home, looking and looking for leaves and berries. Sometimes Mom asks why my foraging bag is never full. One time, I tell her about the plants. She looks mad and says, “That’s a really weird thing to say, Jed.” So the next time she holds my skinny arm in her big warm hand and says, “Jed, why is your bag empty again?” I say, “I forgot,” and she shakes her head. 

So, there they are. What did you think? Whose story do you most want to read? Which one would you most like to hang out with?

And would you like to meet more characters from my book? Tell me. Maybe I’ll highlight them in a future entry. Maybe I’ll even let one of the alien creatures speak to you.

What Is It To Forgive?

I’m having a lot of trouble with today’s prompt. It’s from Natalie Goldberg: ”Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”

The trouble is not that I am afraid to write what disturbs me, or to be split open. The trouble is, I pretty much always write about the things that split me open, soooo… what to write about? well, I mean, there are some things I haven’t shared. And I won’t share them, either, because they involve the stories of people I love, who deserve their privacy.

Ah. And what about those who don’t “deserve their privacy”? What about the prompt of several days ago, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better”? That prompt led to this story about a bad boyfriend, which ended up being by far the most popular thing I’ve written on this blog (though not the most popular thing I’ve ever written–that would be, oddly enough, this post about making fake food. I’m as baffled as anyone.)

Which got me thinking about forgiveness. Because, you see, I thought I pretty much had forgiven that college boyfriend, until I wrote that entry. So, I guess, time to split that one open (cringe). Yup, here’s something that disturbs me: The assortment of thoughts I had while writing it.

  • What if he or someone he knows reads this and decides to sue me (and then I looked him up and found out he’s a lawyer now)? Yikes.
  • What if he or someone he knows reads this and thinks, “Well, I guess I meant a lot to her since she’s still thinking of me”? Ew.
  • What if he or someone he knows reads this and thinks, “Well, she got her revenge”? Well, yeah.
  • What if I become a famous writer and then people look back on this and it becomes well-known, and people write about it and speculate about who “the boyfriend” was and life becomes a living hell for him? Awesome!
  • What if he or someone he knows reads this and then he looks me up and he thinks, “Wow, I missed out on a good thing. Sure wish I’d treated her better.” Oh my gawd. Why why why does a thought like this even cross my mind? Gag.

Yes I. I, who wrote the piece about forgiving the 9/11 hijackers. I have invested hours of my precious thinking time plotting pen-mightier-than-the-sword revenge against a man who once, as a young fellow, behaved badly toward me (OVER THE COURSE OF A YEAR AND A HALF my vindictive inner voice cries out NOT JUST ONCE!).

Sigh.

Well, so what. SO WHAT. If he wanted me to write warmly about him… well…

I am not obligated to forgive. In fact, as this article eloquently describes, it’s a mistake to forgive too easily and quickly, or to feel obligated to forgive at all. Not my job. Not my job at all.

Nope.

Of course. Well, there’s this. “Forgiveness frees us from bitterness and anger. We become free from the harm that resentment does to our souls. Our hearts can become wild once more.” (Courtesy my friend Angela Koestler Knipfing.)

Well and the truth is, I know this is true, because at one time I HAD forgiven him, and many others as well. It is a beautiful feeling to forgive.

So why–oh why!–does it come back like this, why should I again give head space to someone who has occupied nearly none of it for so long?

Well, I guess it’s like this. Forgiveness is not a constant state. It’s sad and unfair, but forgiveness is not something we do once and then are done. Like life itself, forgiveness is a journey. It is a thing we must undertake again and again, especially when the hurt has been deep.

So I undertake it. I remember the people who have harmed me and I think of them as innocent children. I think of their hurts, their pains. I think of how torn up inside they must be. And then I say, “I forgive you.”

And it is not a thing I do only once. It is a thing I do again and again. And every time one of their names pops into my head, and my heart begins to race with anger, I say, “I forgive you.” A funny thing happens then. The tension goes out of my face. My shoulders sink into relaxation. My breathing returns. And my heart is set free.

P.S. If you, like me, struggle to forgive someone sometimes, you might find this resource to be as helpful as I have:

http://tinybuddha.com/blog/how-to-forgive-someone-when-its-hard-30-tips-to-let-go-of-anger/

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23 Things Every New Blogger Needs to Know

So. The urge to write is burning in you. You’re thinking of telling your stories. You want to open yourself to the world via a blog.

Right now, your mind is swirling with questions: Plug-ins and themes, SEO and followers. You wonder what platform to use. Simultaneously, you’re “confronting the nameless fears that accompany launching your work into the big, wide world,” as Blogger To Be Kate Lyons so eloquently puts it.

What if you put yourself out there and it sucks? What if people hate you? Or, worse, ignore you? What if it’s not any good and your friends think bad things about you? What if you’re really not cut out for this? What if you get started and then you stop and you’re one of those millions of blogs with like three entries and they’re all two years old?

The first thing I want to tell you is: Don’t be afraid.

Every blogger in the history of blogging started from zero. So will you. You may even suck at first (I did). I’ve been blogging, off and on, for more than seven years, and I can tell you that your fears are nothing compared to what you will gain from the endeavor. Do it.

You don’t even need help. You don’t need this blog entry, you don’t need your friends egging you on, you can do this alone. But since nobody wants to do it alone, I give you permission to procrastinate just a little longer, while you check out my list of 23 things I think you will want to know:

Getting Started

  1. Fear is your biggest obstacle to accomplishment. Whatever you are afraid of, don’t be. It’s going to be okay.
  2. Blogging will make you a better writer. It’s a fact of life that if you want to be good at something, you gotta practice. Blogging provides not only an opportunity for practice, but also a unique way of receiving feedback. Powerful combination.
  3. Blogging will help you find your tribe. People will find you, and you will find them, and you will make friends who share your values and your interests, and some of these people–most of whom you will never meet–will become some of your best friends.
  4. You’re going to screw up. And that’s okay. Screwing up is how we learn. Be bold, make mistakes, and say, “Oh, hey, I learned something new. Awesome.”
  5. Take the slow road. Patience here is a virtue. Sure, you could be a prodigy, but what is the fun in that? A child who hits her peak of performance at the age of nine, what does that profit her? Consider instead climbing steadily and with enjoyment toward your peak, rather than burning it out all at once. Be patient. You are building a body of work, not a single flash-in-the-pan one-hit wonder here. Give it time.
  6. You will change your theme about a hundred times before you find the one you like. Then you will change it again in six months. Don’t stress.
  7. It does get easier. All the bells and whistles will start to feel intuitive, and someday you won’t remember why WordPress (or Blogger or whatever) ever seemed hard. For now, just play. Don’t stress. It’ll come.
  8. Choosing your blog platform is not a life or death decision. WordPress is a more powerful platform, giving you all the functionality of a full website, and full control over the look and functionality of your site. It’s also more complicated and, if you’re using the free version, will post ads to your site. You have to pay a fee to get the financial benefit and/or control over those ads. Blogspot/Blogger is simpler to use and allows you to place ads on your site that pay you when people click on them (or to not have ads at all), but it’s more limited in terms of functionality and appearance. Ultimately, however, the choice is a minor one. If you change your mind, you can always switch. You’re probably going to start about fifteen different blogs over the course of your career anyway, we all do. Don’t stress.
  9. You won’t have a following at first. That’s okay. Just start. Even Jesus didn’t have followers when he started.
  10. You can build a following if you want one. Some people just want to write, and if someone finds them, great. Other people are driven to share their stories with as large an audience as possible. Wherever you fall on the spectrum is fine. If you do want to build a following, you can. I’ve included some beginner’s tips at bottom.
  11. But most of your friends won’t follow you. Sure, lots will come check out your blog when you first post about it on Facebook (but some will click “like” without actually reading your blog, and you will know this, because you will go check your blog stats and it won’t show any views yet even though two people clicked “like” and you will feel indignant and want to rant about it. Don’t. It’s okay. They’re just excited for you, but don’t have time to read right now. It’s okay). Everyone will click through when you post that awful one about that thing that happened to you that you later wish you had kept to yourself, so no worries. But for the most part, most of your friends are not *that* interested in reading your blog. Let it go. You will find a tribe that does want to read your blog, and you will build your relationships with your other friends in other ways.
  12. You don’t have to have a niche. It’s popular among “how to build a following” experts to cite the importance of focusing on a single topic or area of interest. And indeed, if you do this, you will find it easier to build an initial audience. But what if you don’t know what you want to focus on? What if you don’t want to focus at all–you just want to write? Forcing yourself into a niche early on is only going to stifle your creativity. Don’t worry about it just yet. Blog in order to find out what you want to write about. Don’t let the desire to “build a following” become a strait jacket.
  13. Plug-ins are great. You will find some you love and others that mess you up. Don’t worry too much–just get started. But when you’re ready, here are a few of my favorites: Yoast makes SEO easy, Jetpack site stats are a blast, and Akismet will reduce the amount of spam you have to delete.
  14. It’s okay if you get started and then stop. Most bloggers go through periods–sometimes years–where they don’t update their blogs. Even famous bloggers. If you never pick it up again, you will still keep the skills and the lessons you’ve learned. And if you do pick it up again, or change tacks, or start a whole new blog and abandon the old one, that’s all okay too. Blogging is a game, so play it. If you want to settle in and become dedicated to it, you will eventually. Don’t ever beat yourself up.

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Okay, I promised some tips on building a blog following. I believe in the slow road to growth, but if you’re eager to start getting readers, here are some ways to speed the process a bit. You don’t have to do all of these things to see benefits–any of them will build followers. The more of them you implement, the faster the growth. Just be careful and don’t burn yourself out.

Growing Your Following

  1. Produce great content. Look, this is the bottom line. You can play all the games in the world but ultimately, if the content sucks, the only “people” who will come back for more are spam bots and link farms. Focus first on exercising your writer muscles, and getting good at this thing.
  2. Develop an interesting voice. People don’t read blogs in order to get dry news or information. They can get that from Wikipedia and news outlets. They want to see a unique take, an interesting angle, or a fun voice to listen to. It’s like going out to coffee: Would you rather discuss the news with George of the Monotone Voice and All the Info, or with Shelley of the vivacious wit and pealing laughter? Be Shelley. No, no. Don’t be Shelley. Be you: You in the full glory of your most true and open self. That is what you can do better than anyone else in the world, so do it.
  3. Engage with other bloggers. Bloggers tend to be blog readers (and followers). Check out blogs you’re interested in, and post in their comments section. They’ll love you for it and they’ll come check yours out. Don’t by any means limit yourself only to uber popular blogs. The less well traveled bloggers will be grateful for your interest and more likely to engage with you in return. Of course, a great comment on a popular blog can also drive readers over to check you out, so balance your approach.
  4. Push every entry out on social media. Not all your friends will follow you, but the more you are in front of them, the more they will become interested in what you have to say. This is also a great way to strengthen your muscles at headline writing–you’ll learn over time which headlines attract the most attention. You’ll also develop social media followers this way, and it allows your friends to share your content with others in their network. Don’t worry about annoying people: They can ignore you if they want to.
  5. And engage with others on their social media. The more you engage with others, the more they want to engage with you. Sometimes, posting an apt comment on someone else’s update will send potential followers over to your profile to check you out.
  6. Engage in relevant forums. Participants in forums tend to be avid blog readers. The more you engage in a community with quality comments, the more they’re going to want to see what you’re up to on your blog. Most forums allow you to post a link to your blog in your sig line: Do it.
  7. Post on timely topics. People love to read about the news of the day, whether it’s a holiday, or breaking news, or a “National Donut Day.” Post about what everyone’s talking about, and you’ll see must faster engagement and more shares.
  8. Post frequently. This 30-day challenge has been an interesting exercise in watching how the frequency of my posting increases views, even in proportion to the number of posts. This works. It’s also one way to fast-track your skills along with your following.
  9. Check out advanced techniques. A quick Google will give you lots of resource lists of advice. There are many advanced techniques for building a blog that can give you a fast start. Just be careful. Slow growth has one huge advantage over fast growth: It allows you to build your voice and your skills as you build your following.

One final, very important note: Don’t let anything in this entry intimidate you. Blogging is actually very simple: Start a blog. Write in it. That’s it. That’s all you need to know. Everything else will come. Just get started.

Okay. What are you still reading for? Go forth and blog!

P.S. After you get yours set up and going, come back and leave me a comment. I’ll come check yours out and leave a comment too. Your first step toward building engagement. Go, you!

The Glaring Problem With My Book

You guys. I am so excited. I can hardly contain myself. Something wonderful happened this morning and I have to drop what I’m doing to tell you about it:

I found out there’s something dreadfully wrong with the climax of my book and that I have to completely re-write it.

  • It lacks tension
  • There’s nothing at stake
  • We already know the outcome
  • Everyone–all my betas AND Carey–wants to stop reading right before the exciting stuff happens
  • The exciting stuff isn’t all that exciting

Carey got up early* to tell me all about it this morning, so instead of working on edits in my book, I listened to him elucidate all the reasons why, ultimately, my book fails.

Isn’t that great? Doesn’t that just make you feel all squishy and wonderful inside?

Yes, I’m serious. No, I’m not completely insane (well, maybe, but that’s another topic entirely). Let me explain.

I woke up this morning reeeeaaaaally not wanting to write in my book. My alarm went off at 5am like it does most mornings, and I turned it off. Sadly for me, I accidentally hit snooze, so it went off again at 5:08. Sigh. I got up, and then procrastinated for nearly an hour before opening my book file.

I’m working on edits on chapter twenty and following. Chapter twenty is where everyone–Carey and all of my betas, among those who basically like the book, stopped reading. (Not everyone who received an early copy of my book loved it–those who didn’t, stopped reading much sooner, per my instructions–and I thank them for their honesty. Luckily, enough of them did love it that I have faith that it’s basically a good book. With problems. Obviously.)

When the first reader (Carey) stopped reading at this point, I assumed he just got busy. He’d pick it up again soon, I figured, and wouldn’t be able to put it down until he was done.

He didn’t finish the book for almost six months.

Maybe a fluke?

Except that the book had gone out, by this time, to several other readers and they all said variations on the same thing: “I started wanting the book to wrap up around chapter 20.” “I’m so sorry, I got busy and haven’t finished the book–I got to chapter 20.” “I’m at chapter 20 and I’ve got to take a break. I’ll come back to it!” The kids stopped asking me to read it aloud to them right around… chapter 20.

Maybe not a fluke.

So, chapter 20 is what I was slated to start on today, and I had no idea what to do. I thought maybe I could just cut a bunch out, make it short so people wouldn’t feel so burdened by having to read it.

I cut 2,000 words before I realized the stupidity of that approach. I mean, I’m not knocking brevity, but I don’t want people who read my novel to finish it by giving themselves pep talks: “Hey, at least it’s not that much longer, man. Keep trudging! We’re almost there!”

I want the reader to be sorry it’s over. To wish it were longer, not shorter. To sit in stunned silence staring at that last page and thinking, “Oh my gosh. That… was… amazing. I can’t believe it’s over.” I want the reader, when he has recovered from his shock, to get on Facebook and post links to my book on Amazon. I want the reader to post memes.

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April-25-2013-22-42-38-books

So I sat and stared at my screen, with no clue how to accomplish this end.

Then I distracted myself with blog stats, and aimlessly Googling “What is wrong with my book?” (Which, by the way, yielded this, which is a really raw and beautiful read and also thoroughly depressing for someone who is recently convinced her book sucks, so you know, check it out…?)

Google, by the way, is a miracle-worker. Google helps with research, sure, but Google is so much more. Google is like the great Problem Solver. Sometimes Google helps me through my depressions (omg, Google is all-knowing, all-seeing, benevolent, and starts with the letters G-o… I think I’m having an epiphany… no time for epiphanies right now, crazy brain. Stop it!).

One of the links Godgle (I just invented that word. I’m a genius) served up was to a Writer’s Digest article that turned out to be a useless piece of twaddle, but it had the word “tension” in it, so it wasn’t a totally wasted click.

And “tension,” it turns out, is exactly the word I needed to hear.

There’s no tension in chapter 19, chapter 20, or most of the following chapters of my book, until the very end, and even that tension is weak and un-compelling. The problem? I suddenly go soft on my characters. I let nice things happen to them. They get comfortable.

This is all very nice and fuzzy for them, but not very interesting for the reader. If you’re a writer, you don’t get to play Mrs. Nice Guy. You can’t afford to.

This insight was very exciting. I did as any considerate person would do under the circumstances, and didn’t wait another moment to share my insight. I ran into the bedroom, switched the lights on, and shouted at Carey through the protective shield his arms had inexplicably formed over his eyes:

“I think I have to leave someone behind, so there’s more tension!”

Carey is something of a miracle to me. He doesn’t always follow my sudden non sequitur leaps but when he does, it’s 5:45am and the overhead light is burning his eyes out. “In the lab?” he said.

“In the lab. Like Hedi or somebody.”

He smiles wryly, “It wouldn’t exactly raise my tension if you left Hedi behind.” He doesn’t exactly like Hedi.

Well. Crap.

“But you’re right about the tension. It’s not there.”

Well. Crap.

And then he proceeded to tell me all the reasons why not.

Well. Awesome.

No, really. Awesome. You see, understanding what is wrong with it, in detail, is how we figure out how to make it better. And we did.

We came up with two critical changes I can make to ratchet up the tension without leaving Hedi behind. Which is awesome because I happen to like Hedi (take that). Also, leaving her behind would require massive re-writes, so, yeah.

It’s not the first time Carey’s brought my attention to glaring problems in my book. Because of him, I had to completely rewrite every single chapter containing my main character, seeing as how the main character sucked. It took a long time and is one of the primary reasons the book has taken almost a whole year to get to this point. It’s also one of the primary reasons the book is as good as it is. Carey’s insight made my book awesomer.

This time, the changes are mostly just rearranging things so that the reader finds things out in a different order. So they’re left wondering about things they actually care about. These changes won’t be all that time-consuming.

Oh, who are we kidding. There will be massive re-writing. But we’re all pretending, right now, that this is a minor thing. That this will just take a few days. WE ARE ALL PRETENDING THIS RIGHT NOW.

It will actually take several weeks, maybe months… 

And when I’m done making these little, bitty changes, the ending is going to explode like a bomb. The sort of bomb that makes readers go, “Oh, wow. Holy crap. That was good. I want moar.” And then they will beg for it to be made into a movie, loudly and persistently until it actually happens, and I will live happily ever after as a wealthy full-time novelist writing Big Important Books.

They will post memes.

hangover

Or, if that doesn’t happen (but I’m sure it will), at least my book will be good. The best I can make it. Which is really all any of us can do.

So of course I’m excited. I have a partner who loves my book, and clearly sees what’s wrong with it. Who is willing to tell me what’s wrong with it, in detail, fearlessly and without apology.

This is a priceless gift.

Omg. It needs a meme.

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*In this context, “got up early” means, “was unjustly awakened before he was ready and then worked with me even though he had other Big Important Things to do.” I love my husband.

Quiet People

Stop. Listen. Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

I don’t want to tell you anything. I just want you to listen.

Let me explain. Most Sunday mornings, Carey and I pack the kids up and head to Quaker Meeting. We enter the building in silence, quietly greet a few people, and enter the Worship Room to sit for an hour in near-total silence.

Charlotte Friends

The silence in a Quaker Meetinghouse is akin to what other Christians might call prayer. Only, we’re not exactly talking to God. It’s funny, when you think about it, this notion of talking to God–as though somehow we might think of something to say to God that God does not already know. As though God, whatever or whoever God is, doesn’t already know our hearts.

Quakers have this idea that it might actually make sense, instead of trying to tell God things with our noisy noisy minds, to try listening to God. God is, after all, the one with all the intel. So that is what we do. We sit for an hour in “expectant waiting,” listening for the “still small voice” of God.

I mean, we try. Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about work or money or that hole in my cargo pants I just noticed. Sometimes I can’t stop falling asleep.

But sometimes. Sometimes I slip into a deeply quiet state and for one or two or maybe even three shining moments, everything is so, so very clear. I realize the light I’ve been waiting for to shine into my life is already here, all around me, or I see that there is nothing to fear for help will always come, or I know that my work as a mother is the most important work any person can do. In that one shining instant, I don’t just know it, I know it.

I grew up not really understanding the whole “Holy Spirit” thing. Who are we kidding–I still don’t understand it. But I think I know what Holy Spirit feels like. Holy Spirit feels like the best possible kind of knowing.

Call it God, call it spirit, call it the material brain creating illusions of meaning. Call it what you will, but whatever it is, I’ve never duplicated the experience of silence by any other method.

So that’s why I want you to stop reading this and shut up and listen for a minute. Or an hour. See if you can hear a still, small voice.

Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

**

“Quiet people have the loudest minds.” -Stephen King

This is the third in an impromptu series in which I use one of these fearless writer quotes as a writing prompt. The first two were: If People Wanted You to Write Warmly About Them and Love Stories

Let’s Do It For Life

Last November, I developed an irrational fear that I would choke on my food and die. I barely ate for several weeks. When I did eat, I felt constantly like the food was on the brink of lodging itself in my throat permanently. A smoothie seemed dangerously chunky.

My grandmother was very ill and dying in California, and I flew quite a lot during this time. I found I had suddenly developed an intense fear of flying as well. I spent interminable hours locked in a sardine can with sweating palms and a racing heart. I would get off the plane, shaking with pent-up panic-induced adrenalin, and cry wet tears of relief that it was over.

I was afraid of other things too–driving, crossing the street, headaches, my boobs. Fear became my constant companion.

It seems obvious in retrospect, but I didn’t initially connect what was happening to me with what was happening to Grandma. One day, I was writing about Grandma, trying to capture what she meant to me, trying to understand why my grief was so intense, when it struck me, loud and clear: The world is not a safe place without her.

Without Grandma, the world had become the sort of place where you might choke on a smoothie.

About the same time that my grandma died, the mother of a little girl we knew also died, very suddenly. A couple weeks after that, the little girl–we’ll call her N–came over for a visit. She was cheerful and chatty. I’m not sure how she was holding it together, because at the age of 40 I was a hot mess of grief still over the loss of my grandma, and this tough little ten-year-old whose mother had just died carried on as if nothing bad had ever happened to her.

I couldn’t even hold it together for the duration of N’s visit. I went back to the bedroom to cry. And to look for Grandma in my hope chest. I mean, pictures of Grandma.

A short while later, N joined me. She sat down on the bed and asked me what I was doing. I told her I was looking for pictures I maybe had forgotten I had. I showed her some tea towels that Grandma had given me. I was crying the whole time. I knew it was ridiculous, to be showing the intensity of my grief to the girl whose own cause for grief was so much greater. But there it was.

N listened to me, and then she said, “I wish I had pictures of my mom.”

And there it was.

We cried and held each other for an hour.

**

When I was pregnant with Monty, I read a book called The Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff. Liedloff describes a Stone Age tribe she lived with for several months called the Yequana. When she first arrived there, the villagers asked her who her family is. She said she didn’t have one: Her mother and father had died.

The tribes people were aghast. To their way of thinking, being without a family is a massively unsustainable condition. Being without parents, even as an adult, was simply untenable. Fortunately, they had a built-in system to remedy the problem: Leidloff was officially adopted into one of the tribe families, and became their daughter for life.

facePaintingJean

This seems an incredibly good idea to me. Imagine if we never had to be cut adrift, never had to navigate this dangerous world and its chunky smoothies alone. What if someone always had your back, no matter what? What if, even after your mom and dad are gone from this world, you still had parents.

I’m lucky. I still have my mom and my dad. During Grandma’s illness and after her death, we gathered in California to take care of each other. We tried hard to be kind to one another, and we mostly succeeded. We hugged a lot more than is normal for the stoic Mann family. We cried a lot more too, and gave each other a lot of leeway for that.

N is lucky too, in a way. She still has her dad, and he is a good one.

But what if we never had to worry about it, what if we always knew that we would have family, for life, no matter what? Sure, we would still dissolve in a hot mess of grief when it’s time to say goodbye. But it wouldn’t be so scary, because we’d know that we weren’t alone, that we were not going to be set adrift. Maybe we wouldn’t spend so much time choking on smoothies.

So I want to make a proposal. I want to suggest that we adopt each another. Maybe formally, maybe not, but let’s do it for life. Let’s make it a policy to be each others’s safety net, to never give up on being there for each other. Let’s be each others’s family.

Who’s in?

Love Stories

Argos

He’s a promising young pup. No dog in the pack can match him for tracking wild boar. His master, Odysseus, is rightfully proud. But when Odysseus is called away to war, everything changes. The ensuing years are unkind. Careless men take over the kennels, use up Argos’s potential, and then discard him to fester in fleas and root in manure for his meals.

Argos

Meanwhile, halfway around the world, his master likewise falls on evil times. After ten years at war, Odysseus is forced to travel through perilous lands for another ten. When he finally returns, he does so in rags and disguised as a beggar, finding his home overrun by unscrupulous men.

He limps into the courtyard of his old home with a servant. Argos is lying on a trash heap, barely able to move his arthritic limbs. He has never forgotten Odysseus, not for one day, not through the hunger nor the neglect nor the beatings at the hands of lesser men. He’s sleeping, but when he hears his master’s voice, he raises his head and looks right at him.

Odysseus, that master of disguise, cannot help himself. He dashes a tear from his eyes, trying not to give himself away. “Servant,” he says. “What a noble hound is lying there!”

Argos cannot rise, but he signals joy at his master’s praise with a wag of his tail: At last! And as Odysseus passes into the banquet hall to deal with his enemies, Argos passes “into the darkness of death, having seen his master once more.”

Jack

A few years ago, one of our neighbors down the street was moving out, and they had many of their possessions on display in the driveway for strangers to pick through. Who can resist a little voyeuristic shopping? So I went, and took my young son Monty, who was 8 at the time, with me.

There were cars parked all along the street, but there was still a lot of good stuff left. We picked out a set of rose paintings for the bathroom, and some green cloth napkins. As we left, Monty stopped to pet a little brown dog that was wagging her tail at him.

A gentleman standing nearby tipped his cap at us and smiled at Monty. “She’s friendly,” he said, nodding at the little dog.

“Is she yours?” I asked. “She’s very sweet.”

“I wish she were,” he said. “She belongs at the house up on the corner. She comes out and walks with me every day. I walk for my heart, you know, doctor’s orders. Her name is Mercedes. I call her Sadie.”

The house on the corner, well, I will leave it out of this. Let’s just say that it’s no wonder Sadie takes every chance she can to follow Jack around the neighborhood.

Of course, anybody might want to follow Jack around. I do it too. I start running up the hill when I see him passing, and walk the block with him, just to bask in his company. Always a smile, always a kind word, always that same flat driving cap. He’s 86 and cares for his ailing wife, Lana. She’s his first wife, he’s her second husband.

Lana likes to knit, and to read, and to do crossword puzzles. It’s about all she can do nowadays, given how difficult it is for her to walk. Jack takes care of the house, and the lawn, and cooks their meals. They have no children, only each other.

About the time that I started getting to know Jack, the family on the corner got tired of Mercedes and decided to send her to the pound: Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here. Nearly 10,000 lives a year are ended at this pound.

Fortunately for Sadie, someone in the family had a brain–and a heart. The daughter, the troubled girl gone most nights on a motorcycle with her latest in a string of boyfriends, this girl. “Please,” she said. “Let me just see if Jack will have her.”

And Jack did. Jack gave her a bath. Jack bought her a leash. Jack sold one of his beloved cars to pay the $600 vet bill. Jack.

We’ve since moved out of that neighborhood and the thing I miss most is Jack. I run into him, on a visit in the area. He tips his hat to me, kisses my cheek.

“How is Lana?” I ask.

“Thank you for asking,” he says. “Lana is, well, Lana is about the same. She’s Lana for about ten minutes a day. The rest of the time she thinks I’m her first husband.”

Wow. That must be hard.

He bows his head slightly, “It is,” he says. “Lana calls me by his name now.”

I shake my head. I don’t even have words.

He smiles. “And I answer to it.”

Lorraine

Me

It’s time to go.

“I’ll miss you” I tell Jack.

“I already miss you more than you know,” he says.

Yeah, I say.

Then he smiles. He always smiles. “Nothing is forever,” he says.

****

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” Sylvia Plath

This is the second in an impromptu series in which I use one of these fearless writer quotes as a writing prompt. Yesterday’s was the first.

If People Wanted You to Write Warmly About Them

I’m descending the main stairway in Hanson Hall. My boyfriend is waiting at the bottom, and I greet him with a smile. He says, “Is that what you’re wearing?” My smile falters. I’m in shorts and a t-shirt, the summer uniform of every college student in 20th century America.

“At least put a belt on,” he says.

I run back upstairs. When I return, he expresses distaste for the belt I’ve chosen. It’s my only belt. He says fine, I’ll buy you a new one.

Meet my college boyfriend. His name is Charlie. Wait. No. Let’s make it Pete. Or Jim. Can we think of a name that won’t malign somebody unfairly? No, it’s Charlie. We’ll just call him Charlie. Even though that’s not his real name (don’t sue me). (It is his real name.)

Charlie was charming. He spoke seven languages, read Kierkegaard for fun, and had the body of a Greek god. He was funny and smart and gallant. I fell for him hard.

Well, maybe not at first. I actually liked his brother (we’ll call him Roger, which was most definitely not his real name but the brother never did anything to deserve malignment by me, so we’ll let him use somebody else’s name). Had a crush on Roger from the first time I met him. But Roger had a girlfriend–a bat-sh*t crazy girlfriend, it’s true, but there it was.

Charlie, however, was available. And into me. He was cute, and interesting, and liked to talk about God, and Christian theology. He had a cool old car and great taste in restaurants. He was well-traveled and intense. A dream.

The first kiss was, admittedly, a little odd. Kind of cold and close-mouthed, but you know–first kisses are often a little awkward, right? He told me later–months later–that he was startled by how open and insistent my return kiss was.  He told me this so that I would understand why he thought I was more “experienced” than I said I was. He always tried to help me understand things, you see.

Shudder.

I could tell you things about Charlie–and about me. How he misused my trust and my innocence, and then accused me of impurity and deception. How he gradually led me down a path of hate and insanity–his that became mine.

How I followed.

Why did I follow? I could tell you that, too, but not in an hour. Shall we just say that I understand why abuse victims often aid and abet their abusers?

I got out eventually, obviously, thankfully. It took me a year and a half, and I had help. I wish everyone had the kind of help I had. I wish everyone had the right sort of stories.

Let me explain. If there were an abuser’s manual (and maybe there is. I don’t want to know), step #1 on the to-do list would be: Isolate your victim. She must believe she is alone, with no one to help her. Turn her against her family, pry her away from friends, create a vacuum around her.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t let her get her hands on stories.

Stories, you see, are how we find out that we are not alone. That others have been down this path. They show us our options. They show us our truth.

In many countries where women are still treated as chattel, the men have a problem, and the problem is soap operas. Soap operas are not exactly known for their world-class literary quality or forward-thinking social agendas, and therein lies their power. What is the harm in a silly little story on a television screen?

The harm is that the stories, trite by Western standards as they may be, show women other ways of being female, other possibilities for themselves. They raise revolutionary feelings in their viewers. Before long, women start thinking they own themselves.

Why do you suppose slave masters, those worst sort of abusers, didn’t want their slaves learning to read?

Why was Malala shot in the head?

I think if I had had the Internet when I was dating Charlie, things might have gone differently. If I had had access to Google, that semi-anonymous search for truth, it might have allowed me to more quickly put context around what was happening to me. I might have found the right stories, the stories that paralleled mine just so. They might have shown me how to get out, given me the courage, and the belief in my own worthiness, to do so.

Nowadays, one of an abuser’s early jobs is to separate the victim from her Internet network. Perhaps he convinces her to share a Facebook profile with him instead of appearing on social media independently. Likewise, email accounts. He monitors her Internet use, watches what she’s searching for. Maybe he installs keystroke monitoring software.

An abuser’s job is so much more complicated than it used to be. Alas for technology, right?

In my college days, life was in some ways easier for an abuser. I didn’t have access to stories about abuse, wouldn’t have known what I was looking for even if I did, and certainly was not about to go ask a librarian to help me find them.

My friends and family, as much as they loved me, couldn’t reach me. I interpreted their attempts to talk reason into me as attacks.

One person, however, ultimately did get through to me. He didn’t try to talk reason into me. He just listened and… you guess it… told me stories. His stories are his to share or not share, so I won’t tell them here. It’s enough to say that they were the stories I needed to hear.

They were the stories that showed me I was not alone.

I think that if we humans have a primary job here on Earth, something concrete and actionable, that job is to tell our stories. To tell them out loud. To tell them without fear, shamelessly and truthfully.

I think our stories are the primary way we show one another love. Stories are how we give each other strength.  By opening our stories to others, we light paths for them toward their own truth. I can’t think of anything more powerful and revolutionary than that.

 

And if anyone should end up maligned in the telling, well… maybe they should have behaved better.

You can clearly see how my clothing choices might have provoked ire in a caring boyfriend. This is several months post-Charlie and you can see how I've fallen back into my slovenly way. Oh, that's a plant press I'm collecting specimens into for field biology. It's a shame I'm not dressed more stylishly for this activity.

You can clearly see how my clothing choices might have provoked ire in a caring boyfriend. This is several months post-Charlie and I’ve fallen back into my slovenly ways. Oh, that’s a plant press I’m collecting specimens into for field biology. It’s a shame I’m not dressed more stylishly for this activity.

*Nodding to Anne Lamott, from whom the title of this entry is stolen: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better,” from Bird by Bird.

If I Waited for Perfection

I originally planned to do a half-way point check-in on Day 15, something like “what I’ve learned so far,” but that slid by me in a cranky mess. So here it is: Halfway point musings, a day late.

  1. Sometimes the days you most hate writing are the days you are nearest a breakthrough.
  2. And sometimes the days you most hate writing are the days you most hate writing.
  3. Every day has an hour in it for writing if you make an hour for writing in it. Even if that hour is 11pm or 5am.
  4. Blog entries where I talk about my book seem to be the most popular.
  5. Blog entries where I ask people to help me write my book are the most popular of all.
  6. Titles with the word “boring” in them get read less than anything else. Go figure.
  7. An hour is not anywhere near long enough to get a decent, thoughtful, illustrated blog entry done.
  8. Not every blog entry has to be a decent, thoughtful, illustrated blog entry. Sometimes it’s okay to just be a blog entry.
  9. Halfway points suck. Far enough from the beginning that the new shine has worn off, far enough from the end that you can’t quite see the light yet. And now you know just *exactly* how much work is left and it’s a LOT.
  10. I can do this.
  11. Inspiration doesn’t always come just because you sit down to write. At least, not in just an hour.
  12. My best entries have nearly always taken well more than an hour, and so I don’t think it’s a good idea to always limit myself to an hour. 

What I hope(d) is that I will(would) learn to produce higher quality in an hour by doing this, and maybe I will, but I strongly suspect that TIME is just one of those critical elements necessary to great writing. That and inspiration (see #11), and so forcing the every single day thing may not be a good long-term strategy.

That’s not to say that I think a person who intends to be a writer shouldn’t write every day. FAR from it. Writing every day is EXACTLY what a person does to become a good writer. I wrote my first book simply by deciding to write every day. It never would have happened otherwise.

What I am saying is that maybe it’s not such a good idea to force oneself to write for an hour a day and then hit publish. Or, at least, not for me.

A few years ago, a client asked me to take one of those strengths/weaknesses/personality type tests as part of our working relationship. The result was spot on, and one of the things it said about me is that I’m a slow processor. Which is to say, not a *poor* processor, not *slow* in the old-fashioned “special” sense. Just that I work best when my brain has time to digest things, to season them a bit.

This has always been true and is why (along with the fact that my dad did it and it seemed like a good habit to emulate) I refuse to make on-the-spot decisions. If someone insists that I do something/make a purchase/otherwise act instantly, then my decision is always “no.” I don’t move forward that quickly, because I don’t make my best decisions that quickly.

And I think this is true for my writing as well. I simply don’t do my best writing without time to season and digest.

On the other hand, as an exercise, I think it’s been incredibly helpful. It’s good practice to push things out quickly, it’s like sprints for a long-distance runner. Sprints may not be a runner’s strength, and may not ultimately teach her everything she needs to know, but they certainly can help with building speed and muscle.

So I guess that’s what this is for me. A little sprint training to build speed and muscle. So it’s fine. It’s good. I’m glad I’m doing it.

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Gratuitous Selfie: Exhausted Me At the Halfway Point

P.S. Today’s moving sale actually went well. We made quite a lot more than I expected, and I’m feeling considerably less cranky. Though exceedingly tired.

P.P.S. This has been going around Facebook and I LOVE IT. It’s a list of 25 quotes from famous authors that will help you be more fearless in your writing. Some of my favorites: “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better” (Anne Lamott, of course), “Mistakes are the portals of discovery” (James Joyce), and “If I waited for perfection I would never write a word” (Margaret Atwood).