Thursday, May 31, 2012

You Don't See It Coming

I have spent the past hour trying to decide if I should post this or not. 

Those who have read my previous blog already know of certain things that nag at me, things that have worked their way in deeper and deeper--like a splinter.  As I was writing and working on a character today--a character who just got her world turned upside down--for some reason I remembered an email I sent a bit over a year ago to a blogger whom I had only just began following.  Maybe it was presumptuous on my part, but it was meant to be from the heart.  Fortunately she could sense that, and she decided to share it in her blog. 

In my email to her, I talked about those blasted purple panties.  For those who aren't familiar with the story of the purple panties, you need to understand this: my aunt was murdered.  There is no polite, graceful way to segue into it.  Murder doesn't tend to segue, it crashes in on your life when you aren't looking and blindsides you.  It tears a hole in your world.  Or at least it did mine.  The hole ripped open in my world on November 13, 1998.  My aunt worked in a prison; an inmate murdered her. 

As I explained to Eden in my email to her:   
I ordered a copy of the autopsy. For some reason, I was gripped by the need to know exactly what happened.

The autopsy came in the many crisp white pages. A diagram of a generic female stared back at me; her every wound meticulously documented. She was stabbed sixteen times. Her aorta severed. Her death would have been swift.

Then her killer locked them both in a storage closet off the prison kitchen and barricaded them inside while he made a superficial attempt at suicide.

I read the pages over and over, but the only things that I can still remember about it was that, even though she smoked her lungs were perfectly clear and healthy, and she had been wearing purple panties.

For some reason, the purple panties haunted me. Perhaps it was the stereotype of a nagging mother reminding her child to wear clean underwear "in case they got in an accident." Who the fuck cares what your underwear is like if you are dead?! No. That's not it... When I actually let myself acknowledge it, I know...

That morning was like any other. She got up, tugged open the top drawer of her dresser, and picked THAT pair--whether haphazardly or by design--and she had no idea what would soon happen. She had no idea that this was to be her last day on this earth. The idea that bad, terrible, painful, life-altering days start out exactly the same as the boring, mundane days...this is what keeps me up at night.

Because when you are in the middle of don't see it coming.
So here I am, finishing the final few chapters of  my book, and I start thinking about all of this.  Perhaps it is me picking at old wounds that have never properly healed.  Or maybe I am parceling out my emotional baggage onto my characters.  Whatever it is, these are the writing days that make it feel as if I am using my blood for ink. 

Some days writing goes smoothly--every line is perfection.

This is not that day.

Certain characters will not survive, and I am haunted by those blasted purple panties.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Homecoming

While I keep working away at the novel, I thought I would share a short piece that I wrote earlier this year for the NPR "Three Minute Fiction" contest.  The rules were simple:  (1) use their first sentence as a prompt, and (2) keep the story at 600 words or less. 

Here was my attempt:


She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door. 
I watched in silence from my office.
I saw the way she looked when she studied the first photograph in the book.  I had made sure they placed that image prominently.  I knew that the sight of the child’s tiny body, so helpless and trusting, would win her for us.  She looked at it far longer than necessary.  I knew she would.  I also knew that images like that were the reason she rarely slept, and yet I kept adding to the collection in her mind.
"I'll do it," she said, raking her hand through her short dark hair.  "Only because of the little girl, though," she clarified.  "This is the last time."
"I understand," I said.  “We need the problem resolved by the end of the week.”
She nodded.
I nudged a thin file across my desk; she snatched it up without looking at it.  I watched the way she clasped it against her chest, her fingers pale with the strength of her grip.  Later she would study the file; she would commit every detail to memory.  That was how she worked. 
There had been many nights when I woke up to the sound of pages turning, only to find her sitting at our desk sifting through the photos and notes, her pale skin almost golden in the soft light of the candles that were clustered around our bed.
“Come back to bed,” I would urge her, my voice hoarse with desire.
“When it is done,” she would promise.
But then one day, she didn’t come back.  I didn’t try to find her; that would have been like trying to chase sunlight.  So I waited.  I waited a long time…and, when she was needed, she returned.
I stared across the desk at her; she looked the same as the last time I saw her…tired, but the same.
“You know,” I said, my voice low, “You don’t have to do this.”
She glanced down at the file before she returned my gaze. 
“Yes, I do,” she assured me, her dark eyes blazing with something akin to hatred; then she turned and left me again.
I leaned back in my chair and sighed, rubbing my eyes wearily.  It might be several days before she confirmed.  Once it had taken several months; another time it had only been a few hours. 
I reached for my coat and locked the door behind me.  I’m not sure how long I drove, but it had been dark for quite a while by the time I got back to my apartment.  I immediately dug around in the sofa cushions for the remote control and turned on the television to ward off the silence that always seemed to linger here.  It was a habit I had developed after she left, and I have never given it up.
The local anchorman wore a pink bow tie and his usual expression of concerned contemplation as he detailed the day’s atrocities.
“Authorities are asking for your help to solve a gruesome murder tonight,” he confided.  “Richard McNabb, a music teacher at ‘Jude & Leonard’s Music Emporium,’ was found dead outside his home around 9:45 this evening.  Mr. McNabb had been a ‘person of interest’ in the disappearance of his former student, six year old Emily Rhodes—“
So it was done.
I turned off the television and, with a smile devoid of all joy, I disappeared into the bedroom.  As I lit the last candle, I heard her key in the door.

Feel free to leave your thoughts, input, and suggestions (keeping in mind that the first sentence had to be used as written, and that the word limit was a mere 600 words)! 

Writers love feedback!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Life vs. Art

The past couple of weeks have been a tug of war between the realities of life and the art that I am so eager to make.  I want to be able to sit down, to focus, to create...but life has a way of thwarting those desires.  Sometimes life demands too much time and energy, and there is not much strength left to dream, or create, or even breathe. 

I had an ultrasound on Monday. On Tuesday they called to tell me there was a .4 cm mass. There have been calls to this doctor and that doctor to try to sort it all out. Most likely, it will be nothing. The odds are good that it will be nothing more than just one more momentary distraction that drains far more time and energy than necessary. Life is like that.

I had an ultrasound on Monday.  On Tuesday they called to tell me there was a .4 cm mass.  There have been calls to this and that doctor to try to sort it all out.  Most likely, it will be nothing.  The odds are good that it will be nothing more than just one more momentary distraction that drains far more time and energy than necessary.  Life is like that.

Moment by moment you have to choose where to invest your time...your energy.  Moment by moment you try to focus, but other things pull you in different directions.  Life vs. Art.  This vs. That.

For several days, I focused on doctors, and googling, and borderline obsessing.  But then, for an hour over yet-another-peanut-butter-sandwich in the corner of the office break room, I stared at the computer screen and the words came.  Six hundred and fifty four of them.  Certainly no record, but good solid words that were hard won in a week when Life seemed to be winning over Art.

I will take this victory, small though it may be.

We find our victories where we can.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

"...and the ghost again possessed me."

There are lessons in life that we learn.  Hard lessons.  Whenever these lessons rear their ugly head again, I think of these words from Norman Maclean (a wonderful but underappreciated author):
[...] sometimes saving one's life depends entirely upon taking one's life in one's own hands and that at other times one's life and the lives of others must be put entirely into the hands of one boss--old lessons that throughout time have to be learned and relearned, only to be forgotten again.*
This has been a week of learning, and forgetting, and relearning.  I have reread books that I have not read in years.  I have rewatched movies that I had nearly forgotten.  And in the rereading, and rewatching, I have found some answers (or perhaps I am simply recalling them), and with the answers I find more peace...

The book has been on my mind for a while, so I went and got it off my shelf.  The copy is well worn and well loved.  I was young when I bought the book.  I was young, and I loved to read, and somehow I heard of the book and I simply had to have it.  I had to special order the book from our local book store, because it was not a book they routinely carried.  The book made it into my hands on November 11, 1993.  (I know this because, at that age, I had a habit of writing the date which I acquired a book inside the cover.)  The book was "Young Men and Fire" by Norman Maclean

Norman Maclean

The book looked back on the Mann Gulch fire on August 5, 1949, but it spoke to me even then...and it speaks to me even more so now.  Even then, in my early twenties, I knew the words were not just beautiful, but wise.  I underlined passages and dog earred pages.  When I flip through the book now, the words still hold the same urgency:

I find in trying to record the tragedy of a good many characters who were young and much alike that a few remained distant from me and anonymous and were always dead--only some came close to me and asked me to visit their crosses when I returned to Mann Gulch and to try to be of some comfort to them.

Strange, how some people--long gone--reach out to us.  How words on the page can transcend time and distance and create a connection across the ages.  How words, once read, can burn into our soul.  How dreams, once dreamt, can haunt us long after we awaken.

I want to write.  Not just to write, mind you, but to write words worthy of being underlined...worthy of a dog-earred page. 

The evidence, then, is that at the very end beyond thought and beyond fear and beyond even self-compassion and divine bewilderment there remains some firm intention to continue doing forever and ever what we last hoped to do on earth.
These words, in particular, carved themselves in my mind.  They brought to mind Sisyphus and the agony of of his eternal task--the completion of which goes forever unrealized.  For years this idea nagged at me...tormented me.  But now, so many years after I first read those words, I wonder:  Maybe, instead of an unresolved task, it refers to continuing to strive for our goals...defying time and death to finally realize our heart's desire.

Perhaps, as T. S. Eliot penned,  "That is not it at all, That is not what I meant, at all."  But this new interpretation gives me hope; I think I will hold onto that for a while. 

So I will try to move beyond my continue doing what I hope to do on this earth.   "I had once seen a ghost, and the ghost again possessed me."

Fear.  Such a strange thing.  Nearly as impalpable as time itself.

[...] fear being only partly something that makes us run away--at times, at least, it is something that makes us come back again and stare at what made us run.
*All quotes herein are from "Young Mean and Fire," by Norman Maclean. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

Designated Sick-Ware and Open Windows

I took a big leap of faith today.  I decided to enter the first 250 words of my book in the Miss Snark’s First Victim “Secret Agent” contest.  Each month, The Authoress offers writers the chance to submit their story (assuming it meets the genre requirements for that month) for review/critique.  The first fifty applicants are chosen.  Along with fellow writers and entrants, a “Secret Agent” will also be reviewing the submissions.  The agent will choose the winner(s) and may request additional pages, or the completed manuscript for review.  Some writers have been signed (and book deals made) from these humble beginnings.

My husband offered to take the kids to school so that I could be ready at exactly 8:00 a.m. to hit the “submit” button.  I sat at the dining room table, my email ready to go, counting down the minutes until I could pounce.  My daughter sat on the other side of the table working on her laptop, my son sat next to her watching her play some-or-other game over her shoulder.  My middle child paced nervously on my behalf.

I threatened to throw up.  My middle child graciously retrieved the “Puke Bowl” from under the cabinet and handed it to me.  (Yes, we do have “designated sick-ware” in our house.)

“Wait until after you send it,” she advised me, with wisdom beyond her scant eight years.

DISCLAIMER:  This is not my puke bowl.  My puke bowl is red and plastic.  
However, if I were the type to waste money on something silly
rather than being practical and saving money to patch the roof,
this is almost certainly the puke bowl I would choose.

“FIVE MINUTES!”  I shouted, causing my children to jump then giggle nervously.  The “FOUR MINUTES!” exclamation brought an annoyed chorus of “Mommm!”  “THREE MINUTES!” was just ignored.  “TWO MINUTES!” warranted a few nervous glances.  “ONE MINUTE!” received a sharp intake of breath, and then the countdown commenced: Fifty-nine, fifty-eight, fifty-seven….  Finally I was greeted with “SEND IT!  SEND IT!” 

So I sent it.

A moment later I got a confirmation email advising me that my entry was selected.  The nausea passed.  Then it came back.  Then it ebbed again. 

So, while my plan has not changed, I decided to do as all the footwear commercials advised and “Just Do It!” 

In the interest of full disclosure, I just want to mention that the night before I hit the “Submit” button, I dreamed about windows…small windows that I needed to close and larger windows that I ultimately crawled through and was whisked out of a bad situation.  Whether this is symbolic in some way, I have no idea.*  I just know that I don’t normally dream about windows, and two separate window dreams in one night is definitely unusual for me.

So…I did it.

If nothing else, this whole thing will give me some feedback and the chance to “thicken my skin.”  So, if you want to read my submission and offer feedback, I would be pleased and honored to hear your first impressions. 

My submission is #3 and can be found at Miss Snark’s First Victim.  They should all be posted on May 8th!

As an aside, May 8th was my Great-Grandmother’s birthday.  God rest her soul.  Maybe this is another sign…or maybe I just need to take a deep breath and keep the puke bowl handy. 

* NOTE:  According to one of the websites I checked, dreaming of windows means this:  To dream that you are entering or exiting through a window suggests that you are involved in some secretive or underhanded activity.  Alternatively, the dream means that you are creating your own opportunities.  You make things happen instead of waiting for them to happen. So, depending who you believe, either I am a thief or an opportunist.  When I informed my dear friend of this, she reassured me:  No, it’s the alternate.  That makes the most sense for your life right now.  You’re making things happen.  Definitely.  (and I am so, so proud of you!)”  So, obviously, no matter what happens with this contest, I am a lucky, lucky writer, because I have amazing friends and followers to cheer me on!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Birthing a Character

Sometimes characters bore their way into your brain like termites into wood.  You find yourself picking up their speech patterns and inflection.  Their mannerisms become your own.  You might find yourself tugging on an extra paid of socks when you write their scenes, "because Emma's feet get ever so cold."  And then you realize that you don't talk like that, and where did that even come from?

Some characters are pieced together.  They are carefully constructed to reflect who you need them to be for that particular story.  Other characters are born, with all the screaming and cursing and gore that that entails.  The characters who are born do not need life breathed into them before they come alive on the page, they just are.

I birthed a character this week.  Until a few weeks ago, she was known to me simply as "The Widow Marx."  Sure, I knew that I would meet up with her eventually.  I did NOT know what an impact she would make on me. 

The Widow Marx decided to reveal herself to me yesterday morning when I was in the shower.  (Characters quite often have no respect for privacy!)  I could see her quite distinctly.  To be clear, this is not a bit lifted from my story (although you will find out some of these bits in the story).  Rather, this is how she emerged in my brain as I hurried to wash the conditioner out of my hair so I could grab a pen and paper to capture the essence of her:
The Widow Marx must have been born long before those who still live in the valley, because she tended to the birth of nearly all of them.  No one remembers when she first moved into the tiny rock cottage, she seems to have always been the sun and the stars.  
No one remembers her husband, either; he must have long since passed away.  For some reason, her loss seems to have defined her in such a way that she never managed to shake the label, although no one recalls just who gave it to her: The Widow Marx.  Somehow, though, it seems to fit her better than her given name:  Wilhelmina.  Only a few people dare to call her that--and even then, only in private.

She even refers to herself as The Widow.  She says it in her deep, guttural voice that somehow makes one think of Poland, or Germany, or Austria.  Her voice is gruff and familiar.  To the untrained ear, it might sound a bit like a growl, but to those of us in the valley, it is the sound of relief.

The Widow Marx is a healer.  No on in the valley can afford a doctor but, even if we could, no one here trusts them.  Here, we learn to just trust our own.  We trust The Widow Marx to patch us up, to keep our secrets, and to keep us safe...and she always has.  I don't know how she does it, but she does.

"The Widow, she knows things," she often tells me, even though I have learned not to question how she knows the things she knows.  No one questions The Widow Marx.  It is known.
Witch Hazel*

The first time I met her, she stood in her front yard.  She was surrounded by a tangle of witch hazel trees that were in full flower--a riot of yellow against the dull brown of late fall.  The witch hazel had taken over her yard, as had the feral cats that chased the scuttling leaves and lurked in the branches.  The wind was rattling the leaves--blowing those autumnal victims around her feet and then swirling them around her skirts.  Her wiry gray hair whipped around her face and floated around her shoulders.  She wore a deep plum colored cloak that she had worn every winter of my life.  It was patched in several places, but she assured everyone that there was "plenty of wear left." 

When I emerged from the woods, she stood amidst the witch hazel with her arms held slightly out to her sides.  Her eyes were closed, and her face was tilted toward the sky.  She swayed in the breeze...falling in rhythm with the graceful rocking of the tree branches high overhead.  It was as if the wind was caressing her, claiming her. 

I felt like I was intruding on a moment of intimacy.
Yet, this is how she came to me.  This is how she was born...strange, and quirky, and manipulative, and half-mad, and infinitely wise. 

So I thought I would share her with you, just a bit...

* Plant Guide wisely informs us:  A witch in old days was a person who did or said things not conventional. Our witch hazel has defied the ancient laws of the calendar-a very dreadful thing! So it comes honestly by its name; and one is inclined to ignore the accepted etymology that the word "witch," or "wych," in Old English, means "weak," and refers to the sprawling habit of the tree. Surely the observer cannot miss seeing little weazen witch faces grinning at him from all possible angles of the tree, their yellow cap strings flying in the wind, as if in defiance of the rumour that the days of witchcraft are past.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Painful Side Effects of Writing

Let me preface this by saying that I do not mean to Method Write.  For those not familiar with the term, it is taken from the idea of "method acting."  Basically, the writer uses various techniques to create in themselves in themself the thoughts and emotions of their characters in order to write more lifelike scenes.  Again, I did not mean to do this...

But I realized recently that, while my character was coping with rationed food, I had unintentionally dropped ten pounds.  What the heck?!  Ten pounds in two weeks.  Seriously.

Then last night, after writing some serious abandonment scenes for a character of mine, I ended up having a series of increasingly disturbing dreams centered around abandonment.  Go figure.  I recently read someone-or-other said something-or-other about Make it worse for your characters because it will show the reader what they are made of.  So, I have been busy making it worse. 

I guess that my subconscious picked up on that and decided to make my dreams get worse and worse all night long. Thank goodness for my cat, who woke me up with an awkward poke as if to say, "There, there, can shut up now."

Imagine this without the creepy horse head, and with the dreamer having short red hair,
and a big black cat on my chest instead of an incubus...well, you get the idea.

Maybe it is "Character Karma."  (I don't think so, since I just made it up.)  But what if all the bad things I do to my characters will be revisited on me...?  Okay, I am not going there.  Even the thought of that freaks me out.

Ahem, where was I?

Oh,, I am ten pounds lighter, I am sleep deprived, and my cat thinks I am a nut case.  I do, however, have nearly 50,000 words to show for my efforts, and I am pushing 300 pages!  I am in the home stretch.  (Knocking on wood.)

I have two beta readers reading now, and another beta reader in the wings waiting for me to finish before she starts reading (this will allow me to have staggered feedback and, hopefully, keep the progress moving).  In case I have not mentioned it lately, I love my beta readers and I can't wait to get more feedback.

In the meantime, I might stock up on Ambien...and vegan chocolate...and really good help counter these painful side effects of writing.