One Thing I’m Not Good At

I’m good at a few things. I’m a pretty good writer. I was always top of class in literature. I like plays, and poems, and novels, and short stories. I’m good at understanding all those things. I’m good at singing and thinking and … parenting? (Jury’s out on the last one.)

I am NOT good at many things too.

One thing I am not good at is math. And by “math” I mean “counting.” And by “counting” I mean knowing how many days I’ve been blogging for. And by that I mean yesterday was not Day 30, today is. Premature celebration.

Fortunately, I never made any promises about these entries being any good, so instead of trying to write something good today when I thought I wouldn’t have to write at all, I’m just going to tell you about my day and then we’re all going to say, “Whew, 30 blog entries. For real this time. Done done done done done.” And then we’re going to go have a beer.

It was, all in all, a mixed bag day. We tried to get rid of the rest of the stuff from our old house and pretty much completely failed to do so. It turns out that when you post details about really nice stuff that you are offering for a very low price, and all people have to do is show up between the hours of 10am and noon, this is what happens:

  • Some of them text you at 8:15am to find out if you still have the items you said would not be available before 10am and when you tell them yes but that the items will not be available until 10am, they say “Oh, whoops, we’re already on the road, smiley face” and you say, “That stinks. Get some breakfast. Smiley face.”
  • Some of them text you at 1pm to find out if they can come look at the items now that it’s only one hour past when you said you would no longer be available, and then they will come (because you are still there and the thing did not sell so you may as well) and look at your item and tell you everything that is wrong with it and ask if they can maybe give you half of what you were asking even though it’s already 10% of what the item cost new, and then they will stand around for 45 minutes waiting for you to agree to a price that you have already told them in no uncertain terms is not an acceptable price.
  • Some of them will not show up at all during the stated hours. Wait, no, ALL of them will not show up during the stated hours. As in, you will sit there for two hours and NOBODY will come. During the stated hours. Only before and after.
  • Some of them will show up twenty minutes early and text you from the road in front of your house and you will text them back that you will open the door at 10am and when, at precisely 10am, you turn the sign around that says, “We will open at 10am” so that it says, “Come on in,” they will text you with the message: “You said 10 clock whats up” [sic].
  • These same people ^ will tell you that they will come back for the item in one hour and that they won’t bother putting their money down because “ain’t nobody buyin that” har har and then not come back and you will decide that they are planning to come back and steal it. And they probably are. So you take it apart yourself and remove it from the property so that you can later donate it to a dog rescue, which adds another hour to your day.

You will finally arrive back home at around 2:45pm and remember that you have a friend coming over and it’s purely by luck they haven’t arrived already*.

And you will realize that THIS is why you nearly always donate good usable items instead of trying to sell them. Because you hate people. Because you love everyone and want others to benefit from your unwanted items. But really because you hate people.

Who needs a nice fridge?

Who needs a nice fridge?

* And that will be the “mixed bag” part of the day which is to say, you’ll get to watch this friend fall apart with laughter at the autistic reporter. And that will be the best part of the day because you hate people but not all of them.

30-Day Round-Up

We made it. Thirty days. This is it, folks. Last one for probably about a year while I recover from this marathon. So let’s round it all up, shall we?

What I Wrote About:

30 Day Challenge Chart

 

I don’t know why it won’t post that as a larger image, but if you click on it you can see what each color represents. Two things are clear from the data:

  • I like to philosophize and confess. Combine the green and purple slices and you’ve got a picture of just how much I like it. There’s a great deal of overlap between my philosophical and my confessional essays. I had a hard time deciding which to put where, and almost counted them as a single category. Then decided that would be way too big a slice, and divided them up.
  • I don’t really do advice.That’s the little bitty light blue sliver. Occasionally, on request, I offer tips, but mostly I think people are smart enough to figure things out, so I prefer to tell stories and let people draw their own conclusions.

Since the philosophical/confessional topics are so large, I decided to break them down further. If the numbers don’t add up, that’s because I was more fluid in interpretation on these, sometimes including the same entry in more than one category, and in some cases leaving entries out altogether if they didn’t fit in with anything else.

What I philosophized about:

30 Day Challenge Philosophical Chart

 

Again, click to actually read the chart. WordPress, y u no display full size?

It was also interesting to see how readers responded to each entry. Ultimately, I wasn’t able to discern any patterns, but perhaps you will.

Most Popular Entries of Past 30 Days (in reverse order):

5. “What, Exactly, My Book is About” Here’s where I published a brief synopsis of my book for the first time ever. It generated a fair amount of discussion and was a particularly fun one to post. 35 views.

4. “Those Are Pearls” This entry came with a trigger warning. It featured three real-life horror stories and some philosophizing (imagine that) about the importance of not looking away from the terrible things in life. 39 views.

3. Name My Book I’m delighted that this one hit the top five, and even more delighted that it received more on-blog comments than any entry before or since. It’s the one where I asked for help on the title of my book. I still don’t have a title, but I sure have a lot of great ideas for one. 50 views.

2. “No Black Woman, Indeed No Woman” This piece highlights the racism (and sexism) that is still shockingly prevalent in our society, and encourages women to speak up so their voices will be heard. It received 53 views.

And, the number one most popular entry, which broke this blog’s all-time record:

1. “If People Wanted You to Write Warmly About Them” This confessional-style essay about abuse and the importance of telling our uncomfortable stories took the highest honors, blowing out all previous viewing records for the blog (the previous record holder was Riding the Whale from November 19, 2013, at 152 views). How many of those viewers were former college classmates who wanted to know if the guy I dated when they knew me was really as bad as they thought? I suspect he was worse. 181 views.

Most Popular

Least Popular Entries (tied at 4 views each):

  • What Do Your Dreams Look Like These Days? What is it that makes one entry popular, while others go barely noticed? Sometimes the heavily read pieces get shared with new networks, and that always helps. But sometimes an entry I really like flies right under the radar, like this one, which compares my favorite homecoming story in all of literature, Penelope and Odysseus, with the task of a middle-aged writer trying to make sense of her dreams.
  • We Are Not Pretending. And sometimes the entries that fly under the radar deserve it. Like this one, which was basically a cop-out on a night when I really really really did not want to write. I think it’s about my book, but it’s not even memorable enough for *me* to remember. It did have an awesome list-picture-meme-thing in it though.
  • The Characters That I Am Not. And this is the one I’m saddest got so few views. It’s the one where I actually published snippets from my book ACTUAL SNIPPETS Y’ALL. I introduced three characters I love and nobody read them. Sad face.

Here is what I learned from the challenge:

  • Not much. I mean, what am I supposed to *do* with the above information?
  • I did get thirty extra hours of writing practice though, so there’s that.

I also hit some milestones:

  • Surpassed 100 posts on this blog.
  • Hit an all-time high (for this blog) on views on March 23

So, about that “not much” & the thirty hours. It’s true that an extra 30 hours practice never hurt no one (I write real good now). It’s just that, well, here’s a conservative estimate of the number of hours I have spent actively practicing the art of writing over the course of my life:

  • 5 hours per week every week of my childhood from the age of 7 to 18: 2,860 hours (I was the kid tucked into a corner writing every chance she could)
  • 10 hours per week every school week of college: 1,280 hours (English major…)
  • 2 hours per week every non-school week of college: 160 hours
  • 5 hours per week every week of grad school: 780 hours
  • 1 hour per week every week from end of grad school until I became a professional writer: 208 hours
  • 15 hours per week for the first 8 years of professional writing career: 6,240 hours
  • 25 hours per week for the past 5 years: 6,500 hours

Total: 18,028 Hours

According to Malcolm Gladwell, that qualifies me for mastery. Ha. I feel like I’m still swimming in the kiddie pool of everything there is to know, but the point is, thirty hours is tiny. But it’s still a difference, and I’m not sorry I did it.

In fact, I’m glad I did. I enjoyed it (mostly), it’s great to know I CAN do it because I really HAVE done it, it was fun to hit some milestones, and I’ve had a blast watching statistics after each entry. I think I’ve gained some new followers, and I know I’ve had some great discussions.

And maybe I learned a teensy bit about letting go.

And with that, I’m letting go. ‘Night y’all, sleep tight, see you in a few. Bless.

We Are Not Pretending

Remember when I realized the book needed some changes, but we were pretending that they were minor? We are not pretending any more. This has gotten real, y’all. We are all the way down deep in #4.

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This morning I realized it’s not just the last part that needs rearranging, it’s the whole thing. My book is a mess. I am a mess. (So is my house but whatever.)

On the bright side, I’m learning a lot about maintaining and building tension. The sort of thing you only learn by studying and applying, then studying more and applying more. Well, the sort of thing *I* only learn that way. Maybe other people are born knowing. I don’t know.

It’s messy and chaotic but I’m learning.

Sorta like life, you know? You figure out you’ve screwed something up, and you try again. And you keep trying and you keep learning and it’s messy and chaotic and it seems like you’ll never get there and you won’t. You won’t ever get “there.” The only thing you’ll ever get to is “here.” So you may as well enjoy it and learn something as you go.

And now I’ll expand on that idea, draw it out, present a catchy little story that illustrates the point and wrap it all up in a nice tidy bow.

Frig it. No I won’t. I don’t want to write in my blog right now. I want to work on my book. I want to rearrange some chapters, rewrite a couple others, add some details in a couple places and give one of the minor characters a bigger role to play. I think maybe I can sort of see what needs to happen for this to work right.

#5 here I come.

“Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” James Joyce

Those Are Pearls

*****TRIGGER WARNING.*****

If you’re suffering from anxiety, depression, or other mental anguish, save this one for a day when you’re feeling stable. Or not at all. This entry contains graphic images and stories of extreme suffering.

If you do decide to go on, please read the whole thing and don’t look away.

*****SCROLL DOWN FOR STORY*****

 

 

 

 

 

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“I have told of only a few of the many things that happened in Camp D-1. There was so much suffering from sickness and diseases. The most common disease was beri-beri. There were two kinds of it, the wet beri-beri and the dry Bberi-beri [sic]. Of the two, the dry was the hardest on the men and some died from it. The difference was that in the wet beri-beri the bones became soft, and when one pressed on the shin bone, the impression would last for hours before it came back to normal. One always had a “washed out” feeling like the sooner you died, the better off you would be. This was the kind that I had. Dry beri-beri had lots of pain and burning to go with it. There were many nights in the winter that men would go to bed with their feet in small wooden tubs filled with cold water, and in no time at all the water would be hot. A number of men had this type disease, and it was nothing unusual for them to find that a toe had dropped off during the night. There was one man in my squad who lost three of his toes in this manner. The little toe would drop off first, and then the other smaller toes would follow in order.

“Early in 1944 a Marine by the name of Robinson whose number was 986 was having trouble with his urinal tract. He just could not pass water, and there were no catheters in camp. This man died a horrible death as each hour you could see his stomach swelling larger and larger, until he finally burst and then died.”

-From the journal of Corporal Pierce Wardlow, WWII POW in Japan.

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“On 27 July 1994, Carter [this iconic image's photographer] drove his way to the Braamfontein near the Field and Study Centre, an area where he used to play as a child, and committed suicide… aged 33. Portions of Carter’s suicide note read:

“I’m really, really sorry. The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist… depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners …”

[Source: Wikipedia]

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Under Creative Commons License: Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike”

“In South Africa, one person is raped every 26 seconds, according to aid groups and local organizations. Forty percent of those are children and babies.”

Read  more.

“One in four men in South Africa admitted to raping someone and many confessed to attacking multiple victims, according to a study conducted by the Medical Research Council and reported by the Mail and Guardian. The study also found that gang rape is common in South Africa because it is considered a form of male bonding, reports the BBC.”

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

About a year ago, a blogger I follow started posting entries about a friend of hers whose 12-year-old son Jack died in a drowning accident. My own oldest son was born the same year as Jack. I did not read those entries.

I wanted to not even think about it, to not think about it. But I kept thinking about it.

About that same time, I started writing my novel and before long I realized that this writing thing is what I’m supposed to do. It’s what I’m here in this crazy world for.

And I realized that if I’m going to use my one wild and precious life to its fullest, I have to stop looking away from obscenity. I have to look it full in the face, in all its awesome, terrible glory.

Jack’s story started calling me back. I listened to the call. I flowed into that icy cold water with him, and I flowed into his mother’s heart as it fell apart. I watched her look for him under that bridge. It felt like when you’ve lost something, maybe you’ve left your wallet somewhere, in a shop perhaps, and when you go back for it, it’s gone. You know it’s gone, but you’re convinced it’s still there. You keep looking. You look under the table. You ask the cashier, and then you go back to the table again. You look at the back of the chair. And under the table again. If you just keep looking maybe it will appear.

Except it’s not your wallet, it’s your son.

And some day soon you will walk into his room and you will look at the lego creations lined up on a shelf and you will remember that his hands, his living hands, built those, and you will pack them up anyway and you will give them away, because you can’t make a child go on living once they’re gone. You don’t get to do that.

It is only one of the horrors and sorrows of this insane, mixed up world. And if you want the truth of life, which you must if you want to be a writer, you can’t look away. You must not step back, turn back, go a different direction. You must go straight into the pain, you must step unflinchingly into the heart of darkness.

Then you must keep going, onward and through, through the peak of grief and horror. You must not stop. Only when you go in, and through, and lose yourself to the horror, then and only then may you find your way to the other side, transformed into something rich and strange.

This thing you witnessed, it will come with you too, and you will take its marrow and suck it dry and face the world again and say: I have conquered. And so may you.

We writers, we have a job to do. Our stories can change the world. But only if we look at it first.

“If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth.” Tim O’Brien

No Black Woman, Indeed, No Woman

“No black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much.’ Indeed, no woman writer can write ‘too much’… no woman has ever written enough.” -Bell Hooks.

Bellhooks

When I moved to the U.S. deep South in 1990 as a senior in high school, I was stunned by the racism. I had never encountered anything like it.

I was raised air force. I was raised on books. I was raised on Jesus. I was raised on love. I was raised completely oblivious to class and race.

Kids_hugging_BRAND_PHO_EN

When I was twelve, my best friend dated my brother’s best friend. She was white, he was black. We were mildly appalled. We giggled about it behind their backs. We speculated how long it would last and what their children would look like if they got married.

We were suspended in that state of horrified fascination that overcomes witnesses to some terrible accident. But not for the reason you’re thinking.

We giggled because we were twelve and they were our friends and none of us had ever dated before and it was weird. It never occurred to us to think of their respective races. They were Colby and Angela, and they were dating. That was plenty to be appalled about.

So imagine me, age 16, entering my senior year at Jefferson Davis High School, Montgomery, Alabama. De facto segregated classrooms. The (almost) all-white choir (one very talented black boy, whose family could afford the required year-long tux rental and whose voice had won him a reluctant place in the Southern Belle teacher’s heart, had made his way in). The white girl whose study group had to borrow someone else’s house to work in because her dad wouldn’t let the black kid in their group come in through the front door.

Summer. That sweet, innocent white girl I got to know when we roomed together on a mission trip. She forgot her shampoo, and was horrified when our other roommate–Lesley, my friend with the missing eye and the short close-cropped African hair, and the laughter that filled the room–offered to loan hers. Summer leaned in to me later, conspiratorially, and asked if she could borrow mine instead. “It’s just, you know,” she said. I didn’t. I didn’t know at all. “Well…” Still not understanding, sorry.

“I don’t want to borrow her shampoo. It’s just…”

It’s just. Oh.

Did you know that by 1995, the Montgomery Country Club still did not allow the children of black employees to swim in their pool, and not because they were employees. The children of white members shouldn’t have to share a pool with [insert ugly term here], of course. They might, I don’t know, leave… something… in the pool…? Contamination, you know.

I consider myself lucky to have been raised color-blind. But it’s not an unmitigated virtue by any means. The down side of color-blindness is embedded in its name: It’s a form of blindness.

In my AP English class that year in Montgomery was a boy named Les. I’ve spoken of him elsewhere. I didn’t like him at first–he fell asleep in class regularly, played practical jokes constantly, and the teacher treated him like some sort of prodigy. Which, it turns out, he was. I liked him better once she explained: He had a thyroid condition that caused him to gain weight and fall asleep uncontrollably, his mother was sick, he worked nights to pay the rent, and he was enrolled in four AP classes in hopes of earning a scholarship that was the only way he would ever go to college. The kid fell asleep during the AP exam and still won top marks. He got his scholarship: To Harvard.

He was black.

For years, I used Les’s story to defend a deeply held belief that race doesn’t matter. Look at Les, I’d say. He was born in a poor black family in the South, and he did fine. Look at Les. Race doesn’t matter, not if you’re willing to work hard and overcome. Race doesn’t matter.

I didn’t understand why black activists had to be so in your face about it. I mean, I know racism sucks, but it’s not like it stops a person from doing the things they want to do. Look at Les. Not everybody can get into Harvard, of course, but if you don’t like the racism of the South, why not move North? Look at Les.

This was the form that my own color-blindness took.

In the time since, both forms of blindness have fallen away, for better and for worse. I notice race. When I meet someone for the first time, it’s one of the first things I notice about them, somewhere between noticing whether they’re smiling (after) and what they’re wearing (before). I am no longer color-blind.

I also recognize racism’s insidious harm to our society. No, it’s not enough that a rare prodigy can break away from the poverty and cultural deprivation that was planted in slavery, grew in segregation, and continues to flourish like an insidious ivy digging its roots into a crumbling brick wall. It’s not enough. I am no longer color-blind.

When two professional black women are apprehended and searched because a pair of shoes was stolen from a shop they were in earlier; when two out of five couples run into legal trouble for their home births and it just happens they’re the black couple and the bi-racial couple; when this commercial starts a fire-storm of hate talk:

When THIS:

When this is what your black friends face every day, well, it’s not enough that a few people are okay, that some break away. None of us is okay so long as some of us are not.

I don’t know what the answers are. I wish I could say, “This social program,” or “This private initiative.” Heck, I wish I could say that I myself have never had a racist thought in my life. I wish I could say that.

The only thing I know for sure is that stories change things. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Twelve Years a Slave (the book not the movie) changed slavery. Martin Luther King Jr changed segregation with his speeches. Sojourner Truth and Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker and it’s still not enough.

Keep writing. Keep writing. It’s not enough yet, but there’s hope for us. There’s hope:

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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/

ghandi-quote-on-forgiveness

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.

256px-My_blog

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.

bookfession1

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.

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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.