It’s About the Trance

The setting: Okefenokee Swamp, January, 1994. The occasion: Mid-term trip with the head of the biology department (Dr. McGinty), an English professor (Dr. Anderson), and an assemblage of hard-core biology students who tolerated my misfit presence among them. The protags: Alligators, pitcher plants, and the blessed heater in the bathroom, where I dragged my bedding one night because somehow my parents thought an egg crate cushion would be enough to keep the mid-winter chill from creeping out of the earth and into my sleeping bag with me.

Chickadees and raccoons put in an appearance that week too. But that day it was just me and the tree.

We had canoed here to Billy’s Island. Deeper in, there are burial mounds even older than the 600-year-old tree under which I sat, cozied up between two giant roots, my back against the trunk, gazing into the ponderous branches above, completely unconscious of the cramps that had been my excuse for stopping here. The others had hiked in toward the burial grounds. Dead people held no glamour for me that day. I wanted to talk to the live oak.

It told me things, too, things that ultimately earned me an “A” grade for the class even though I was late that first morning by almost an hour. Everyone had been gathered in the just-before-dawn gloom, hugging pillows in the glow of the streetlamp, when I arrived, groggy and unbrushed. Once we were rolling down the road at last, a girl leaned over to me in the van and said, “I’m glad I’m not you. Dr. McGinty hates when people are late.”

Maybe that’s why he was fine with leaving me there under that tree alone. I don’t think so, though. I think he understood what I’m just beginning to understand myself. It’s the trance, you see.

Fast forward 19 years. I’m walking the dog down by the brown lake. There’s a light drizzle and you can hear the raindrops plinking on the surface of the water. See them, too, a thousand tiny pinpricks rippling outward. I stop and look, remembering as I usually do now, how much I love the rain. And then there it is: My mind turns. I wonder what it would be like to be under the surface of the water, looking up.

I imagine skimming just under the surface, my face turned up, effortlessly floating, watching the pricks of rain hit the upper limit of my world. The water is dark and the bottom of the lake is mud. There are large things in there. Giant snapping turtles as big around as a kid’s wading pool, grass carp so massive and scaly they look like prehistoric reptiles when they half-beach themselves down by the dam. I imagine skimming through that murky underworld, that dangerous muddy place, and it’s not a fairy tale. It’s a horror story, in fact, but it feels good. Really good.

Back at the house, I rush past Carey to my computer, and I write this in a feverish flurry:

The Summer I Met Mercy

Nobody knew where she came from. I didn’t know where she came from. She was just there one day, down by the community lake, picking at the mud between her toes. Why she would do that when she was covered in mud from head to foot is anybody’s guess, and I didn’t ask. Just stood there gawking at her. Her hair was so caked it looked like it was made of mud, just long gobby strands of filth tangled with pond algae, and her arms were too long, her fingers too long, but the most notable thing about her was that she was naked.

She looked up at me and smiled, an ordinary, girl-next-door smile, and she was quite pretty, for a stringy 14-year-old, even if her teeth were rather large and white and pointy. Even if she was quite, quite naked. Not that I could see anything, not with her bent over her legs like that.

We became good friends, Mercy and I, that summer that my parents were separating, that my world was crumbling.

More than friends, actually. She was the first girl I ever kissed. She was clean the day I kissed her, and clothed. I never did see her naked again, in fact, not that day and not any day after. But I did kiss her. My first kiss.

It wasn’t quite what I expected. Weirder. Much weirder. She drew the tip of my tongue into her mouth with a sucking sensation, and then bit it, sucking continuously, her teeth scraping along every inch as my tongue went deeper. It hurt but not enough to make me want to stop. Not even as much as the throbbing in my groin hurt at that moment, and I didn’t want that to stop either.


I decide it’s the start of my next novel, maybe, when this one is done. The main character ends up under the water, skimming along like I imagined myself doing, looking up at the rain falling onto the surface above. But I had to figure out how to get the character there, and this is the start of that.

Or maybe the scene will join the moldering ranks of opening-paragraphs-for-books-I’ll-never-finish in a folder in Dropbox.

It doesn’t matter really. It does but it doesn’t. Because I realized for the first time today that it’s really about the trance. It’s this thing that happens, this altered state of consciousness that I always, as far back as I can remember, slip into so easily I never realized that it was special. I seek it, hungrily. It feels good. It’s why I crave un-interrupted swaths of alone time, because I cannot sink into a deep trance when besieged by the emotions of others.

I told Carey about this, and he said he thinks everyone craves a trance-like state. Which makes sense. It’s why we do drugs, isn’t it? Meditation, running, extreme experiences, and sex are all pathways to the sublime as well. Maybe some people get there easier one way or another–maybe that’s why some people run the AC 100 and some people write novels.

Maybe it’s why some people sink into addiction and never come back. Maybe it’s why some people come back scrabbling, hanging onto art, spewing out songs or poems or paintings as if their life depends upon it which, in fact, it does.

Books are my drug of choice. Neatly packaged, easy-to-swallow nuggets of pure meditative trance. But they’re not the only way I get there.

The tree and I spoke for hours. I felt the peat-filtered moisture coursing up through its roots, a constant, never-ending flow like the pulse of blood through my veins but steadier. The sunlight on leaves, warm energy generated in those green powerhouses spreading through an endless network of vessels, fueling root growth and slow slow slow branching.

The tree was breathing, respirating carbon dioxide and returning it as oxygen, when the Timucua Indians sought refuge here in 1750. Already hundreds of years old, it watched impassively as the Timucua were followed by Spanish missionaries in fretful urgency to bring Truth to the wild. The tree watched for a hundred years as slaves and Seminoles and refugees of all descriptions passed into the swampy refuge from the violence unfolding outside its borders.

The tree was there when giant dredging machines began building a canal to drain the swamp and divest it of its lumber, and there when the canal project succumbed to the wild. There when Charles Hebard laid a railroad track 35 miles directly to the island, and built a church, a movie theater, and a school for the children of the workers who were stripping the swamp. And there when the village faded into a ghost town.

I didn’t know all of that then, and the tree didn’t tell me in so many words. But I felt it, felt the history, the ancient knowingness of that old being. The trunk felt warm against my back, though the air was chill. I never knew before that day that trees generate heat. Most people will tell you that they don’t, in fact. Heck, maybe even the scientists who study trees will tell you that they don’t. Maybe they don’t. But that tree did, that day.

When the humans returned, flushed with triumph–they had stumbled upon a cemetery and the ghost of an old town–I returned also, reluctantly, from my trance. We paddled back to camp, I rowing in front, Dr. Anderson steering in rear, the others paddling their own vessels in pairs. It was the boys’s turn to cook that night, so I pulled out my journal and wrote about my tree, and I’m pretty sure that’s why I earned an A, and why Dr. McGinty started smiling at me, even though I had been late.

Maybe. Doesn’t matter. Regardless, that trance, or rather my ability to sink into it so easily, is why I’m a writer. And that matters.

How do you reach sublimity? Does it make you who you are?

This is not my tree. I don't know where my photos are from this time. Photo courtesy "nonweasel" at DeviantArt:

This is not my tree. It is a live oak, probably as old as the one I sat under. I don’t know where my photos are from this time. Photo courtesy “nonweasel” at DeviantArt:

Who or What Made You a Writer

I’ve been rather out of it this week. Some sort of stomach bug or something and today the Headache. I’m so far behind at work I can’t even remember what it’s like to be caught up. That’s pretty normal though. Somehow everything seems to get done despite me.

Meanwhile, I’m doing what I always do when I’m overwhelmed. Procrastinating. Wait, no. I’m building my network. It’s important that I engage with the writing community. It’s part of my job. Yes. So I’ve been over at Absolute Write, reading threads and “engaging with the writing community”–you know, working. Working hard. (Look me up, I’m there under my real name. It’s Heather Head).

Anyway, today someone asked “Who or what made you a writer?” I expect it will become a popular thread. It’s a great question, and I wanted to share my answer here. Oh, by the way, I’m more than halfway through first-round revisions on my book. Yippee. Is that a light at the end of the tunnel? Probably not, but even a mirage can be motivating. Here we go.


Who or What Made You a Writer?

Maybe it was Grandma, Grandma shouting out that motor-home window. Probably not, though. Even if I had died, even if I had walked straight out into the road that blistery sunny morning in California, across Hwy 49 and in front of that family on their way to Yosemite driving way too fast, my nose in a book for one-more-chapter-before-school–even if I had, as I say, died that day, I still would have been a writer.

I don’t remember learning to write. Or spell. Words just always made sense to me. I remember acing my older brother’s spelling quizzes right there in front of him, my mom reading off the questions, she hushing me with that sideways frown as he stumbled over the simple words that appeared so clearly in my mind. No wonder he hated me. Maybe he made me a writer, torturing my pet ants in front of me just for fun, luring me into dangerous games with the promise of friendship that never materialized, taunting me in his quiet voice, “You don’t even know how to spell the F word, do you?” until I did, loudly, right there in the back of the car so that my parents had no choice but to punish me.

But probably not. Certainly not. Not him.

Mom or Dad, too cliched. Mom kept all my scraps, my childish attempts, in a brown paper bag now ripped and spilling its contents across my basement floor, “They’ll be important when you’re famous.” She chronicled me, but didn’t make me–not in that sense, anyway.

Maybe it was Mr. McGuiness, first grade teacher, who patiently woke me from my reading trance by touching my shoulder when it was time to move on, un-annoyed by the difficulty of gaining my attention once I was down the rabbit hole of a book. Maybe it was Mrs. McDougal, 2nd year (6th grade) teacher at St. Felix Middle School, Newmarket, England who assigned us a novel to write, and awarded mine first place against my protestations that it wasn’t fair. I was practically a professional, I thought, where was the sportsmanship in that, against a bunch of school children? It was her fault that I spent so many afternoons curled in a corner honing my story, adding chapter after chapter, drawing maps and illustrations. Or it could have been Mrs. Dodd, JD High School (won’t name it here fully for fear any piece of respect attached to me might rub off on it but Mrs. Dodd she was worth a few days in that hell anyway), who taught me to write in paragraphs, or Dr. Deal’s cigarettes and greasy hair, those creakily opening doors in my mind, the shoes thrown out the window, Paradise Lost and my first-ever C on an essay. Wine stains on white dress shirts, he laughing up into my startled face, “I really did that, I am so badass,” Jungian symbolism and drooping plants in a dusty English department lounge and me, draped across a second-hand couch with sagging springs.

Maybe it was Dr. Deal. Huntingdon College, Montgomery Alabama of all the gosh-forsaken places to open one’s mind. If it was any of them, it was him.

But probably not. I was already a writer.

Or maybe it was Grandma. The genes had to come from somewhere.


P.S. Who or what made you a writer? Do share.

Sunday Morning (Today Is Tuesday)

Sunday morning, Carey and I woke up before the kids. He made coffee. Our kitchen was clean. We sat at the white tiled table and sipped.

Dreams, ideas, and books. These are the things we talk of when we are alone together. The things that matter.

It was beautiful.

Then, despite all my pleading, the day refused to get longer for us. It took that hour in the kitchen and it made me pay for it.

I am human. I am mortal. I am going to die (eventually) and there are only so many hours in a day. I want to spend more of them with my husband. Something else must give.

Not my novel because it is my life’s work, and not my business because it is our life’s sustenance. What I am giving up is my manic obsession with keeping up keeping up keeping up keeping ahead. My crazy obsession with being freakin awesome, as though good enough weren’t good enough. Good enough is good enough. For now.

And that is why you will see me here only sometimes for a while. Not every day any more. The book will still see me every day. I hit page 97 in revisions today, nearly halfway through. It will continue apace.

And when you feel the urge to read this blog, when you’re missing me here, if that happens for you (I know that I miss my blogger friends when they take breaks), think of me in the kitchen with the morning light angling hopefully through the cobwebbed panes and lighting on our faces as we talk of many things of shoes and ships and sealing-wax. And sip your coffee, dream your dreams, and meet me here when time stretches out enough. See you then.


Carey and Coffee

Thirty-three Percent

2013-8-1 Manuscript


The top pile is the revised portion of my manuscript, with the un-revised (but correctly ordered) portion below. It’s almost exactly 33% of the way (through this round).

What does this feel like. It feels like when I turned ten and a family friend asked, “What does it feel like to be 10?” About the same.

The break, though, that made a difference. I feel fresher. More patient. I realize now how the frenzy that had overtaken me was working against me. I’m back to being okay with this thing taking me another year or however long to finish, which is a healthier approach, both for me and for the manuscript.

I’m okay with no feedback on it for a while.

I’m okay with just slogging.

While I do that, please entertain yourself with yesterday’s New York Times. No, really. Seriously, read that link. It’s about how much I love Stephen King how I want to be Stephen King’s child how much Stephen King rocks how Stephen King screwed his kids up royally but at least they’re good writers now. I’ve started making the kids tell me bedtime stories.


Well, it’s official. Science has finally proven it: True creatives walk a fine line along the edge of crazy. Read this fascinating article in Scientific American about the link between specific mental illnesses and creativity.

In short, both creative genius and schizotypal disorders are caused by a lowering of the filters between different types of information (internal and external, one sense and another, one type of experience and others, etc.), allowing leak-through, which results in new and interesting… and sometimes totally cray-cray… combinations to emerge.

One example is when the brain interprets internal and external stimuli in the same way… so that, for instance, a schizophrenic “hears voices” that a normal person would interpret as their own internal monologue.

So, anyway. In totally unrelated news, I spent my entire writing hour this morning in conversation with my main character. Here’s a partial transcript:

Me: Jed, what do you want?

Jed: Um. I, I just, I wish everyone would get along.

Me: But Jed, what do YOU want?

Jed: For, I want, I want Nat to be happy.

Me: That’s what Nat wants. What do YOU want?

Jed: I want Nat and Cons to like each other.

Me: But what do you want for YOU?

Jed: I don’t know. I, uh. I guess, I don’t know.

Me: Do you want Nat to like you?

Jed: Yes, I guess so.

Me: Do you miss your  family?

Jed: Yes, but, I, uh, I wish Nat … I just want Nat to be happy.

Me: And to like you, right? Do you wish Nat would hug you more?

Jed (blushing): I guess so. Yeah. Can you… can I tell you something? You, uh, you can’t tell anyone… okay?

Me: Okay. I won’t.

And then he told me. You didn’t think I’d tell you what he said, did you? That’s just between us. I don’t spill other peoples’s secrets.

So anyway. I’m back. It feels good. The break was right, you were all right, I needed it. And my main character… well, he’ll be interesting now, because I’m interested in him. In fact, I’m slightly crazy about him.

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.

Jed looks a bit like this. 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 captivity, silly. But those big eyes, the thoughtful quietness, the pensive innocence. All of that. It’s fitting that this picture comes from a site dedicated to finding missing children (see below).


Cutting. Fighting. Breaking. That’s how I’m starting to title all my blog entries.

It’s possible I’m a little stressed.

The doctor has prescribed two weeks in Hawaii. Ha. Ha.

I am prescribing one week break from my book.

I wouldn’t have the strength to do it were I not also convinced that it will make it a better book. I know that there is a time for distance, and now is that time.

My main character needs work. My subconscious needs time. My body needs sleep.

I’ve been working on my novel every single morning (minus two) for at least one hour (often more) since May 1. That’s very nearly 90 days straight. Taking a break.

I’m skipping out on the blog, too, unless I see something I just can’t not post. This is perhaps the hardest bit, because the blog provides instant gratification. Stats! Comments! People paying attention to me!

I need a break from that too.

A part of me, the manic part, is terrified that if I take this time off, I won’t go back. That this is the beginning of the end. Telling you this publicly, announcing my intent, is my way of soothing Manic Me. No, no, dear. I will be back. I will. This is all part of the plan.

One week from today. I will be here, on this blog, announcing my return. And my book will be one hour closer to completion.

In the meantime, I’m going to be spending more time like my son here:

Monty asleep

I’m going to take care of myself.

Maybe I’ll get a manicure. (I couldn’t say that with a straight face to my husband but I can pull it off here. Probably still won’t happen. Not really my bag. Maybe a massage though. Yeah. Maybe a massage).

Ciao for now. See ya on the other side.

Like a Fighter

I totally ripped this photo off. Click to see original source.

This is me. But only metaphorically. I totally ripped it off. Click to see original source.

I feel like a fighter. Scratched and bloodied with a smashed-in nose and mangled fingers. This morning I got up not wanting to write. The thought that kept me going was this: Mornings when I don’t want to write usually end up being the most productive of all. This was not one of those mornings.

It was brutal.

I completely rewrote the last half of a chapter that I’m sure is worse now than before. Nothing happens, no change from start to finish. Well, there’s change, but it comes from outside instead of integrally from the events of the scene.

An entire hour of struggle, and I’m going to end up cutting the whole chapter, the work of several days.

But it’s not about the chapter. It’s about the whole book. My protag is boring. I love him, but he’s not interesting. He’s… lethargic. And slow. Not dumb, he just moves slow. And nothing interesting ever happens to him. Which makes no sense, because EVERYTHING happens to him, so why isn’t it interesting?

Is my book hopeless if the main character is boring even to me, his creator? If all I want to do is get through his chapters to the next, where there are vibrant characters and interesting things happening?

And is it actually boring? At one point, I cut a bunch of “boring” exposition from another chapter. Carey read the revised version and without ever having seen the removed portions, told me to put a bunch of stuff in the chapter that happened to match up with the stuff I had taken out.

Impossibly frustrating and lonely this writing thing.


Why is this so hard?

Just Write the Damned Book Already

Read that. There, above. Click through and come back. That was helpful, wasn’t it? Apparently, it’s hard for everyone. And the fact that I’m doing this comes with a reward: The right to be inwardly snide when someone says to me, “Oh, you’re writing a novel? I have a great idea for a book too.” Yeah, I’m sure you do, but I’m actually writing one.

Only, I will not be snide with you if you tell me you have a great idea for a book. No. I am not in the mood to be nice. I intend to leave you writhing on the ground in a bloody, bruised, shivering lump. So I’m going to tell you to write the book. And I’m going to mean it.

Go ahead. Try me.

(P.S. Don’t watch that video if you’re easily offended. Or ever offended. It’s pretty offensive. I put it there so you will be very clear just exactly how bad*ss I am. I will tell you to write that book.)


Me and my beat-up manuscript resized


This is where I am. I printed the whole thing out this morning (my printer is demanding a new toner cartridge), and started cutting, quite literally, and rearranging. I think all the existing scenes are in the right order now. I’ve got blank sheets with a few hand-written notes for scenes to be added. And several sections with a big note at the top that says: Probably CUT. Everything is clipped according to which section of the outline it goes with.

Here’s what it looks like put back together.

rough rough manuscript resized

Satisfying, somehow, to have it all printed out, even if it is still crap. Feels more real. I wrote that. I can’t tell if it’s actually longer than my college honors thesis, which seemed so immense at the time, but I think the thesis was probably a fourth this long. Who knows. Memory is a funny thing.

I worry, in fact, about it being too long. Where can I cut? Where can I cut? Which scenes don’t I need? What can it live and breathe without?

I feel this way about my life too.

I’m tired. I’ve been getting up at 5am for months now to work on this book. It’s taking its toll. I slept all afternoon Saturday and Sunday. I’m still tired. Our naturopath told us recently that unless we can find a way to get a break, like maybe two weeks in Hawaii once a year (originally, I typed “once a month” here, and caught it on a re-read. Ha. My subconscious is maybe sending me a message?), our bodies are just going to keep breaking down and keep having to be fixed. We’ve been slogging for a long time.

But what can I cut? What can I live and breathe without?

My extended family? I make the effort to go see them… an expensive and time-intensive prospect that leaves little time nor money for weeks in Hawaii. I do this because I love them and I know I won’t always have them.

My pets? They rely on me. The streets or euthanasia without us. Not a viable option.

My kids? They’re my kids. Don’t be daft.

My clients? They take care of me. I don’t see the poorhouse as a viable option.

Business development? An option. But without biz dev, I have no long-term plan that will get us off the treadmill.

My husband? Ha. Not even close. He feeds me, emotionally and spiritually. AND literally–he does this magical and wonderful thing called cooking. Besides: Life without him would be a barren wasteland by comparison. What would be the point?

Self care? Hm. I take care of myself when I remember so I don’t get sick and lose the ability to do all of the above. Seems important.

I’ve already cut these scenes: Television, video games, house cleaning, laundry (though I am rather tired of pulling dirty dress pants out and putting them through the dryer with Febreze twenty minutes before a client session always only having one clean pair of pants ready), hanging with the kids, hanging with friends (mostly), hostessing, and pretty much anything having to do with food except whatever bare minimum I can get away with and not have DSS showing up at the door.

I don’t see what else I can cut. Not really, not viably and responsibly and in any way that will ultimately be more fulfilling. So I suppose I’ve gotta just keep cutting the sleep scenes. Those are always boring anyway.

What are you cutting from your life so you can write? What are you cutting from your book?

P.S. Look closely at the picture at the top. That is indeed a spare tire fat around my midriff. I asked Carey to airbrush it out. He said okay. I said, no, don’t. I want him to do it. And I won’t let him do it. I believe in the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. This is what sitting at a computer and eating chocolate to stay awake looks like. I won’t airbrush the ugly details out of my life. I am chubby. I’m gradually writing that scene out of my life. Unfortunately, it requires adding these scenes: Weight Watchers and running. The latter takes no extra time–already walking the dog. Now I run the dog. The former adds a couple extra hours to my life: Weekly meetings and tracking every bite I eat. Cutting sometimes requires adding. Just like when revising a novel.



First to Last in A Single Cycle?

Here is the best thing I’ve seen recently, in terms of solid practical advice for revising a novel. And also the worst:

From First Draft to Last in One Cycle

Some of the techniques in the “Part One-Discovery” section seem particularly useful: Writing a one-line story arc, finding and listing the themes. Her systematic approach, from major changes to minor, is good sense. And she doesn’t really leave anything out. Very handy guide.

But really. All in one pass? Insanity.

I get the point of limiting it, not getting bogged down. And to me, trying to do ALL THAT in a single pass would totally bog me down.

What about you? How many revision cycles do you go through? Anything in that article you are already doing? Anything new you plan to implement?

From Narky's very funny blog. Click to check Narky out.

Writing Later

Still Life With Manuscript

Here’s roughly what one hour of revision looks like for me:

  • 20 minutes getting back up to speed on where I left off. Gathering the threads, reminding myself where I was and what I was planning, re-reading my notes.
  • 20 minutes staring into space and/or jotting more notes, rearranging the outline, filling in details on scene order, typing notes into character sheets.
  • 10 minutes rearranging things inside the main document.
  • 10 minutes cutting scenes and writing or rewriting others, and generally being productive.
  • Done. Time to close it down and move on with my day. I’ll have to start over again tomorrow.

This does not feel productive to me. It is too big to do this in only an hour a day. Too much ramp-up time for each session.

I told Carey this and he said why not consolidate, and write for more hours on fewer days. Maybe. How about just plain more hours?

Today I wrote for two. Perfect. Enough time to prep my brain, gather the threads, be productive for a long stretch, then plan tomorrow’s work, which will reduce tomorrow’s ramp-up time. Sadly, the day has not obliged me by adding an extra hour to my tally for other things I must do. How can I sustain this?

It’s weird how my perception of myself has shifted while writing this book. Revising is hard but there is this one thing I like: As I finish a round of revisions on each chapter, I print it out and add it to the growing manuscript beside my keyboard. It’s bound with a clip at the top, and several sheets of notes attached at the front. And it sits there all the time and this is the thing:

It feels like it’s my work.

That didn’t come out right. What am I trying to say? I once thought my children were my work. They are not. I love them, I have a role to play with them, but they are their own people, they don’t belong to me, they’re a very special play I am privileged to watch from the front row, and sometimes join in.

In a sense, my business is my work, it’s consuming and I love it, and I believe in it. Same with my blogs–not as consuming, but I do love them, believe in them.

But this, this is my Work. It is what I am here for. Not this book in particular, necessarily, but all the fiction I will write. The growing stack of paper, my manuscript, is simply the physical manifestation of my purpose in life. I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to realize this.

Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Thursday. Those are days I can sleep later. Monday because Carey is home with the kids and he walks the dog and there’s no rush to get everyone ready for the day. Thursday because I’m home with the kids and, although I usually work, I don’t generally have client meetings. I sleep till 6 or 7 on those four days. A year ago I would have laughed at the notion that “6 or 7″ is “sleeping later.”

Ha. Sleep? Who needs it. Not me any more.

From now on, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Thursday, are the days I get to write later.