Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Resolution Resolution

Here I sit on December 31 with my hands on my keyboard. This is usually where I sigh pitifully and pound out an email to my friends begging them to please hold me accountable for one or more of my ridiculous resolutions for the coming year. 

Over the years, I've declared them all. Get healthier. Practice music more. Clean out the closets. Read more. Read less. Read better. Keep my car clean. Change the sheets every single Sunday. Don't be late so much. Stop being afraid of snakes so I can sit through a movie without living in fear one will slither across the screen and terrify me into cardiac arrest. Laugh more. Cry less. Write the great American novel and retire to a deserted island where I will write anyway. Go to the gym, on purpose. Recycle. Reduce debt. Increase giving. Call old friends. Find new homes for some of my books. Adopt new books.

The list continues. It isn't a bad list, not really. They're all good things I could stand to do, but the problem with resolutions is that they are January's version of a Christmas tree--they stick around until all your friends start hauling their dried up, brown-edged resolutions out to the trash can with the stale sugar cookies, and you start thinking maybe yours are starting to look a little dried up and brown-edged, too. They're not reasonable. They're not a big deal. They're just something everyone says out loud because they mean well, not because they expect to still be thinking about them in the middle of September.

That's why this year's New Year's resolution is just that: resolution itself.

This year I am not going to make a list of wonderful new things I should start. Instead, I'm going to focus on wonderful old things I should finish.

I have known myself all my life (except a brief period when I was three and had my tonsils out. Apparently the anesthesia they gave me was good stuff). That is almost long enough for me to get a grip on my fatal flaw. Well, one of them. I'm eaten up with flaws, and probably more than a few are fatal. Either way, one of them is this: I am a non-finisher. I am a self-sabotager. I am a focus-loser.

I lack resolution.

No, it really doesn't.
I can get a grip on this tendency where it counts for most people. I follow through in my job. I'm there for other people when they need me, and I do what I will say I will do when it affects any other person but myself--at least, I always try and most of the time I manage it. 

But when it's myself? Yeah...there we have a problem.

This year, I say I owe it to myself to pick up those lose threads and start weaving them back together. I am going to pick up where I left off on resolutions past, and I'm going to resolve them. I am going to do what I meant to do, what I know I can do, and I'm going to stop letting life get in the way of Life.

I will finish off those half-written novels and stories, draw my drawings, craft my crafts, blog my blog, learn my lessons, and go the distance. It has been a long, strange journey and it is finally time I arrived at my destination.

Happy 2014, everyone!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Inspiration Monday: Finding Your Voice

This past weekend, I attended the funeral of a good friend. He was a former Navy musician, and a professional french horn player most of his life. He was an accomplished vocalist, an old-school barber-shopper with just enough ham in him to steal the show even in a gigantic chorus. My friend loved music with the zeal of a missionary and evangelized it like it was a religion. It was his one true voice, and he shouted his joy for the world to hear his whole life long. I was honored to play trumpet in a brass ensemble for his funeral.

I hate funerals. Even the lovely ones mean that someone who mattered is gone even though they still
matter. Most of the time, I find myself sitting tense in a pew, picking at my fingernails and chewing on my cheek to distract me long enough to survive the service. This time, I sat in the pew and held on to my trumpet. I don't know what it was about it, but holding that piece of cold, familiar metal in my hands throughout the service comforted me like a security blanket. It held me together and reminded me of the joy it was to play music with my friend. Holding my instrument close to me, I didn't have to think whole thoughts in jagged, sad sentences. It was like my whole body was remembering. How many times did I sit that way, with my trumpet slung across my lap while he told me jokes with his french horn tight in his fingers? How many easy days were there when we shot the breeze and talked composers, hating on Sousa with his oom-pah horn parts and sadistic trumpet licks? So many times he ran up to me and pressed a CD into my hand. "You've got to hear this," he'd say, and he'd mean it. To him, music held all things worth knowing in the world, and what better way to tell your friends you love them than to share all the secrets of the world with them?

My trumpet belonged at that funeral because it was as much a friend of his as I was. It was how he heard me, how we understood each other. There was no better, more natural way to honor a man who was made of song than to stand in front of his loved ones with my instrument and play music for him. I got to say goodbye to him in his own native language.

It got me thinking about all the ways we communicate with one another. I'm a writer (well, a person who writes), and I do a lot of thinking about how to say things so that I can get what is in my head into another person's head with the least amount of interference. Then I usually throw that out and try to think of a prettier way to say it. When I'm writing fiction, I write myself in circles and turn myself inside out trying to figure out how to capture a character's voice and make them seem real. I am a trained therapist and work as a case manager with an oppressed population, so I am always going around saying things about speaking other people's languages, and listening between the words for what a person might be struggling to say.

But maybe it is easier than that. There are so many ways to raise a voice, and who says a person can only have one? Music is a language I speak, and it is a part of who I am, always. Is it any more or less so than writing? Why can't they touch? I draw, paint, and bind books. In every piece of art I make, I mean to say something, even if I can't always verbalize what it is. There's a piece of me in everything I create. (Sometimes literally--I am not so good with the X-Acto when I move fast. I am not above bleeding for my art!)

This was an EXCELLENT cheeseburger.
What is art, anyway? How did we ever come to the ridiculous notion that artistry can only exist in aesthetics? Could you not find your voice making really excellent cheeseburgers? I think so. I think you can find your voice in any number of places, doing whatever it is that connects you to the rest of us. Everyone has something to share, some quiet, some loud, all worthy.

Go out and find your voice. Chances are you already know what it is, or you think you do. Look closely. There will be places in your life where you feel stifled. Don't grumble--sing! Find a way to bring who you are to where you are and be whole. Share your true self with others in whatever language you have.

I love this quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music ... Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.” 

If you find yourself making cheeseburgers for a living, make them with love and build them like works of art. It doesn't matter what it is you do, you are who you are all the time. Bring your voice with you where it falls your lot to stand and you will never be alone. Someone, someday, will stand up and say, "I hear you."

Panda Express never lies. Ever.

Monday, November 25, 2013

From the Wilds of Creation

Blog! There you are! You stayed there, right where I left you and you kept my seat warm. I am grateful.

I am especially grateful BECAUSE there has been a reason I have not been blogging, and now I CAN.

I made myself a rule that I could not blog (or do anything else that is fun, basically) unless I was caught up for the day on my Nanowrimo word count. Then I proceeded to be behind the curve all stinkin' November long.

Except now. Except today. Because today I am ahead. I am caught up and since caught up is one whole step behind the preferable comforts of being ahead, I took that step. For right now, I am victorious. Later? Eh. We'll see.

Writing this month has been a challenge. Yes, Nanowrimo is a challenging experience in and of itself, but it has been extra challenging given all of the life-bits fate has seen fit to throw at me. Given the choice to sink or swim, I continue swimming. Sometimes I feel like I'm going with a half-drowned doggie paddle, but I'm not going under just yet.

It has been a full month and it is not over just yet. I am hoping that by the time December rolls around, the world will have one more unfinished mess of a novel in it, the guilt monkeys currently residing in my brain will be through with their feast and leave me a few neurons for my own personal use, and I will be able to use contractions properly again (why use one word when it can so easily be two?).

Until then, I have a new muse on the case, and there is still plenty of work to do!

There's yer problem: Muse asleep on the job. Amateur.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloweenie and All Nano Eve

Halloween is here, and it's a pretty important day for a few reasons.

For one--let's be honest here--it's an excuse for candy. LOTS.

Even on good years my neighborhood doesn't have very many trick-or-treaters, but we always stock up. Always. This year the weather wasn't great so we didn't have any. At least, I'm pretty sure it was the weather. I don't think there's anything about my house that gives us away as greedy candy-hoarders, even if it is true. I was a little sad not to have some trick-or-treaters come by and be adorable on my doorstep, but then I ate some candy and got over it.

For our dog Bella, Halloween is a most important day. She is the only extrovert in our little family, and every year she sits with wagging tail, just overflowing with excitement to bark at the doorbell and lick the sugar off tiny, costumed hands. This year, they didn't come. She waited and waited, but this year she had to settle for some heavy sighs and consolation petting. At least she got to wear her little wiener-dog Halloween kerchief for a while.

Husband and I cuddled up on the couch next to her to watch our once-a-year Halloween movies, several of which include Tim Curry. At least there was candy.

Probably the most important part of Halloween for me is that Halloween is actually TWO holidays. It is like a holiday in COSTUME.

To a great deal of writerly folks, Halloween is ACTUALLY Nanowrimo Eve.

If you don't know what Nanowrimo is, go here.

I have attempted and completed the Nano challenge every year since 2007. I might have written 50,000 words of various novels in each of those years, but it was not easy. Not at ALL.

Most years, I have some idea of what I'm going to write. It might change along the way--okay, it will PROBABLY change--but I have some kind of clue. This year, I planned to write my first sequel to a previous Nano novel. Unfortunately, my October was so full of busy, I never got a plan together. That's another thing I've learned--you can fly by the seat of your pants through a lot of things, including novels, but not middle books of a three-part series. Those require brain cells and good notes. I have a few of the latter and not nearly enough of the former.

So, once again, I find myself sitting on my couch listening to the "Time Warp" blare from my television, and the only tools I have at my disposal to turn a bunch of words into some kind of art is a notebook and a pen.
It is a very good notebook and an excellent pen. I hope there are a lot of good words hovering around in one or both of them. Come midnight, we shall see.

At least there is candy.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Inspiration Monday: Among the Porch Lights

Recently Husband and I took an unexpected detour through a rural part of the state. It was late at night and I was tired. My eyes were so itchy and heavy, I would have traded a nice chunk of my bank account for a contact lens case and a cool washcloth. When Husband turned off the interstate past that detour sign, all I could think about was how much longer it would take me to get to my nice soft bed where I could rest my poor back.

Since my only options were to go along with it or get out and walk, I stayed in the car and did what I do best: I stared out the window and daydreamed. (Well...technically it was night, but I was awake. You get the idea.)

We drove for miles down a faded two-lane that cut a scar through a patchwork of vast Tennessee fields. There was nothing but friendly, grass-covered blankness as far as the eye could see (a considerable distance, even with tired eyes in the nighttime). Well, except the cows. I could see plenty of those.

I've been a city-dweller for many years now, but I was raised in rural Tennessee, full of hills and grass and fences. The hills used to frustrate my wandering eyes. I used to wonder how far I could really see if they weren't in my way. I wondered how far I could go if they weren't blocking me in.

The grass is always greener, and the mountains are always in the way, but I wish I would have paid more attention to how pretty my side of the mountain was before I got so fired-up to climb it.

Eventually, we drove up on a stretch of houses. It was a good thing; I had begun to wonder if the cows had taken over the town. It amused me to picture them going about their daily business as civic-minded townscows, until I thought about what type of rump steak might be cooling in their little freezers.

The houses we passed were pure country, built like run-on sentences with rooms tacked on when they were needed and painted to match. They had porches. All of them. Real porches, for sitting and keeping an eye out for rebellious cows. They were spread out, each house on its own little piece of earth, but close enough that one could say it was a neighborhood. The porch lights were all on, beckoning us down their street like a string of runway lights. I liked them.

I thought about each of the houses we passed in turn. What would it be like to live in that one with the Coca-Cola sign hung by the front door--would I feel blasphemous for drinking a Pepsi? Would I have a little writing nook in the one with the extra room growing off the side like a blister? After a hard day at work, how would it feel to turn that corner and know that yellow door was my own? Would there be one room that is always cold? Does the refrigerator hum? Where would my cats find to hide from each other? Would there be a smooth floor so I could slide in my socks? It was quiet there and sparse--where would I buy my loaves of bread and reams of paper and dog toys? Would there be trick-or-treaters on Halloween? Does everyone have a cow?

I moved in and out of every one of those houses as we passed them by. I lived a quick lifetime in each one and added those memories to my own. (Extra memories are always a plus for a fiction writer.) I was still tired, but not in quite such a hurry to get to my own house. I already knew what it was like to live there.

Inspiration is all around. Everywhere you go, people are living their different-shaped lives: they are stocking their freezers with rump steak, they are driving home the long way, they are leaving the light on for someone they miss to come home to them.

Aren't you curious? Don't you wonder? What do you see under the welcoming glow of a friendly porch light?

Just watch out for those cows. I'm telling you.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Things I Learned on Blog Hiatus

1. Three animals are better than two. The animals do not necessarily agree.

2. Early episodes of The Simpsons never get old.

3. Gnocchi are delicious. This was news to me.

4. My friends are amazing and incredibly supportive. I already knew that, but it bears mentioning.

5. I lose my keys an average of four times per week.

6. I still love the Narnia books.

7. I also still love Stephen King books.

8. SweeTarts are addictive. Even the orange ones.

9. I am biased against orange candy.

10. A lapsed musician is still a musician. My copy of Arban's and I had a reunion party with the whole trumpet family.

John, Paul, George, and Ringo. (Not really)

11. I love to write. Anything. Always.

12. My body has staked a claim on 2pm as nap-time. There are no exceptions, whether I get to nap or not.

13. The number 13 is not particularly unlucky.

14. Cat hair sticks to everything. Every. Thing.

15. Fortune cookies from Panda Express never lie.

16. I am starting to like pink. The ghost of my teenage-self is very upset by this.

I prefer to think of it as "light mauve."

17. When I am nervous, I forget how to spell (among other things).

18. Watching my husband shop for clothes is adorable. He hates it, and that just makes it more adorable.

19. I still don't understand football.

20. According to my eye doctor, I have beautiful corneas. Well, thank you. I try.

21. I still have my lucky pencil. I got it nearly ten years ago when my college band director went around the jazz band docking grades for anyone who didn't have one. I found it on the floor just before my turn and it has lived in my Bb trumpet case ever since.


22. I had to add one more because I cannot in good conscience leave a list with an odd number.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

When Darkness Falls

My job takes me to some dark places. I see and hear things that stick with me long after the close of the day. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. There are tender moments that humble me straight down to my marrow, and hard decisions that chew my mind to bits but which always soften my heart. I'm grateful for the unique opportunities I have to meet people where they are and receive their impact on my life as I do my best to enrich the lives of those around me.

Sometimes I get reminders that what I do is not safe. As comfortable as I am, as easygoing as my personality is wont to be, I work on the front lines of an impoverished city with damaged, vulnerable, and severely ill people who inhabit dark places where it isn't safe for anyone. Not for them. Not for me, even if we are both armed to the teeth with the best intentions.

There are many kinds of fear, and most of them are messages trying to tell us something about ourselves and our relationship with the world around us. There is fear of the unknown vs. fear of the known, fear of failure vs. fear of success, fear for safety vs. fear of being too darn fearful. It doesn't matter what flavor it is, what matters is that we all have it, and it can serve a purpose (as long as you're not afraid to look it in the eye). 

My work is not safe, and I am not safe in doing it. I am okay with that. I am grateful for days that remind me of this and give me the opportunity to decide anew that I am okay with that, and that I am honored for the opportunity. No matter what comes in each of my days, no matter what goals I cross off my bucket list, no matter what kind of fear I may walk through, my deepest hope is that I will be able to keep marching through the darkness, keep staring down the fear, and stand up straight and strong when I'm called to.

When darkness comes calling, I hope I will always answer:

Let there be light.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Inspiration Monday: Connect the Dots

Oh, blog. I've missed you. I've been slacking, I know. It's life. It gets in the way: oil changes, doctors' visits, cat food shopping, Post-It note writing, lightbulb changing, hair cuts, and world changing. It can wear a person down.

Though I'm the first to admit that I get caught up in the everyday, lately I realize that it is the spaces between things that our life stories take shape. It's in the detours, the side streets, the unexpected dead ends that we find our surprises, think on our toes, and test our worth. If everything always went as planned, we'd never have anything to talk about. It would be a boring, soft-heeled world full of boring, soft-heeled people with no stories to tell and no lessons to learn.

Take a look at these two photos. They seem a world apart, but use your imagination. Think up a way that a person would visit them both in the same day. What does the road between look like? Which one are they coming from and which one are they going to? How will each place change the way the person thinks about the other? Will they return?

Connect the dots. You might be surprised how many pictures you can make with just a few, and it's really the only way to make sense of a world of endless shapes.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

It Is the Way It Is

We, people, walk around every day in a world where we assume everyone around us functions the same way we do.

We, people, assume that everyone around us knows right from wrong. Not just any right from any wrong, but my right from my wrong.

We, people, assume that those around us know what is real and what is not. We also assume that something not real to me means that something isn't real to someone else--or that whatever the not-real thing is, it is not scary, annoying, frustrating, familiar, or lovely.

We, people, assume we are safe. We assume we are civilized. We assume that safety and civility are not up for interpretation. Safety and civility are like right and wrong, real and not real.

I know a person who sees the way I park my car without checking around the corner to see if anyone is lurking there. He tells me the truth. "You are not safe," he says, this man who lives outside with no doors to lock and endless corners for looking around.

I know a person who looks at the people walking up and down the streets in business suits, in designer jeans, in any old thing that is clean and pressed. My friend smiles and tips his head, he tries to meet their eyes. Nobody looks back, not the business suit, not the designer jeans, not a single clean, pressed person. "I thought we were civilized people around here," he says, shaking his head, all by himself.

We, people, are living different-shaped lives on uncharted planets. If your planet looks like mine, cheers. We can compare our sameness and sit comfortable in our rights and our wrongs, our reals and not-reals, and opine the loss of the safety and civility our planets once knew.

If your planet doesn't look like mine, I want to meet your eyes. I want you to tell me what you see so that I can learn something I don't already know, maybe question something I thought I knew.

Live and let live, because we, people, do not know what the person next to us is going through.

Live and let live, because we, people, can't know what the person next to us is going through.

Live and let live, because we.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Book Review: The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski

The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski

Brief Synopsis: A mysterious storyteller regales a group of orphans and some adult birthday party-goers with the tale of an invisible sword that always finds its mark, but which reveals no wound until the victim reaches his or her fiftieth year of life. The back of the book gets to the point better than I can.

Published: Trick question! This book was first published in 2005 as a VERY limited edition of 1,000 copies. It was then published commercially in 2012.

Format Read: Hardcover

Comparison: It is rare that I can compare anyone to the inimitable Walter Moers at all, much less cross-genre, but if there was such a thing as a horror version of The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear, Mark Z. Danielewski would be the guy to write it. Both Danielewski and Moers have declared war on the plain page, attacking it from angles and avenues that must make their typesetters put extra bottles of Tums in their desks. Moers is darkly funny, while Danielewski is just dark, but they both employ a kind of artful whimsy that makes me gape at each new storytelling device like the kid from A Christmas Story staring down his Red Ryder bee-bee gun: "Whoa!" followed by a mind-clearing headshake and a solid nod of respect for these new kind of authors, these word-artists. Of course, in calling them a new breed, I've got to give a nod to a notable progenitor: e.e. cummings. His poetry pushed the envelope in a number of ways, but his unconventional use of word placement on the page to add dimension to his work changed the game.

Review: The next time you're sitting around and trying to decide if you should rewatch the last episode of Game of Thrones or flip through that last issue of Entertainment Weekly you forgot to cancel, just don't. Go to a bookstore (indies rule!) and get this book. You will be able to read it in the same amount of time as it takes your food to arrive at a nice restaurant, and it is so much better for you.

Before I dive into the story, I have to point out the beauty of the book itself. This book, maybe more than any other I can readily think of, makes use of its very form as a way to suck you into the narrative world. It manipulates the third dimension, of which you, reader, are a part, and does not allow you to be a passive consumer. Of course, you won't know that until you read the book, but it's still a darn nice package. The dust jacket is pricked with pinholes, a nod to the photographic stitched illustrations in the book and the "protagonist" (if there is one, besides the sword), Chintana the seamstress. Beneath the dust jacket, the book itself carries the theme with tangled blobs of red stitching enfolding it.

The total package, including the glossy pages and unusual illustrations, is as much art book as novella, and will have you staring at it with new eyes once you've read the final pages. If you want to know how blobs of thread pictured on a bookcover can be a spoiler, you need to experience Danielewski.

The book is narrated by five rotating narrators, identified only by different colored quotation marks. The story itself is told as if it is a children's tale, a simple hero's journey that grows in tension and terror with every page turn.

I studied the text at first, trying to discern which speaker might be which. I didn't want to miss anything hidden between the lines, and there's no DOUBT Mr. Danielewski hid stuff between these lines. Before long, I lost the point of the story by thinking too hard about it and trying to diagram the narrative like it was rocket science.

It isn't. Just read the book. Don't worry about the quotation marks, don't worry about anything. Just read the book and it will do its job.

And it is quite a job.

I love books like this. I love them. This book had me using every one of my five senses to experience a story with less actual words in it than some Facebook posts, and it impacted me. It made me PROUD of the author. He exercised such planning and restraint, creativity that seemed to simultaneously run wild and hold its margins to create a complete, concise story to sock you in your gut. It gives me prickles in my darkest creative parts, the places that need waking up sometimes to provide shadow and highlight to my work and ideas.

I love it.

In the end, this book is not for everyone. I had trouble even writing a decent synopsis for it because I don't know where to start. It's hard to review because I don't know how to describe it. Is it a short story? Novella? Poem? Art-piece? Who is the main character, really? Who is who in those blasted colored quotation marks?

I'm okay still having those questions left in me after having read the whole book. A lot of people aren't. I haven't read tons of other reviews on this book, but I know it was divisive among Danielewski's fans. Personally, I didn't feel gypped or dissatisfied, I felt challenged. Then I felt silly for feeling challenged by something so straightforward and simple at its core.

Then I just shut up and enjoyed it.

You enjoy it, too.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tools of the Trade: Ink Review - Noodler's Old Manhattan Blackest Black

When I started writing long fiction seriously, I bought myself a Moleskine pocket notebook and filled every page with black ink. When every line on every page was full, I flipped back through that book and admired it. I admired it for not getting lost in the washing machine, not getting chewed up by my dog, and for holding all my words in tight (even the misfits). I admired it most of all for the work of art I saw in every filled page of steady black handwriting. I loved that book like a painting, and even though I chase after fun, interesting inks, I will always love best the romantic steadfastness of a good black ink.

I guess that's why I'm so picky.

I have more bottles of black ink than any other color, and I can tell them all apart on the page. (Yes, I know that's weird, but when you look at as many pages of your own handwriting as I do, you develop useless superpowers such as these. I am also impervious to papercuts.) I've been on a quest for years to find the blackest blackety black ink on the planet. I'm talking about an ink so dark that it would strike fear in the heart of this guy:

Pennywise the Clown from It
Noodler's Old Manhattan Blackest Black is the closest I've found so far. It's not particularly warm or cool hued and doesn't run much to gray even in thin spots. That's an ink I can get behind.

Not only is this ink the good, soul-shattering black I love, it also has some other special properties that bump it high on my list of favorites. This is one of Noodler's "bulletproof" series of inks, which means that it is waterproof, UV-proof, bleach-proof, and some other "proofs" (probably even evil-clown-proof). This means that if my inky black cat drools on my inky black ink (this has happened!), my writing will stay right where I put it. I guess that means it is cat-proof, too.

Noodler's has quite a few inks with these special properties, including several other blacks. I have tried most of them, but Old Manhattan Blackest Black has been the best combination of color, behavior, and properties out of the ones I've sampled so far. It even behaves extremely well on cheap paper, which is a plus for using at work.

One important thing to note: if you ever buy a Noodler's ink, ESPECIALLY one with "bulletproof" properties, do NOT open it on your favorite imported rug or while wearing your favorite imported pajamas or your fancy party gloves. The bottles are FULL. I mean to the very utmost there-is-a-meniscus-on-there-oh-crap-my-fancy-pajamas-are-ruined tippy-top. If you order a 3 oz. bottle of ink, you will GET a 3 oz. bottle of ink, even if the bottle itself is around 2.9 oz. That's a good amount of ink and should last a good while...unless you spill it, that is.

This ink is exclusive to the Fountain Pen Hospital, so if you're interested, you can purchase it there.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Inspiration Monday: Blast From the Past

I have a guilty pleasure. Okay, truth be told, I have several, but the one I'm speaking of is my addiction to classic TV.

I'm not talking about catching up on the early seasons of Breaking Bad (which I seriously need to do). I'm talking about the really old stuff: black and white, cars with fins, laugh tracks, twin beds, talking horses, and kids named after beavers.

All through the 1990's, I lulled myself to sleep in front of the parent-approved, comforting glow of Nick-at-Nite. I remember every single one of these promos, and even now they make me smile. (I guess that's how nostalgia works, huh.)

Who doesn't want a friend like Ethel?
Sadly, Nick-at-Nite is a shadow of its former self, but I still love these old shows and have DVDs of them crammed in any nooks and crannies not already taken up by books. I've done some thinking about what makes them stick to the inside of my brain so well. They were made decades before I was born. Lord knows that they're not exactly the most complex storylines ever conceived. I've seen them a billion times, enough to quote them. The context is getting farther away from my personal experience and culture every single day.

And yet I can't get enough of them. I continue to enjoy them, I continue to belly-laugh at the same old jokes, cringe along with the protagonists when their schemes go sour, and get my heart warmed over and over again.

The Dick Van Dyke Show NEVER gets old.
I don't just like the comedies. I learned early on that I had a penchant for twist endings when I got hooked on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. Watching Dragnet and The White Shadow I figured out that times were tough all over...and they probably always had been. Of course, I usually followed those shows up with a chaser of Get Smart or Green Acres and that evened things out. Sort of.

I think the key to re-watchability, and what I'm trying to cram into my writing process, is in these shows' simplicity. It keeps them fresh and relatable. I don't actually think that life was, is, or ever will be as simple as it is portrayed on those old shows, but I think we all wish it could be, and that is something I can build on in my work. These shows, whether comedy or drama, were designed to be accessible to their audiences, which is an important point some authors seem to overlook. The formula for these old shows repeatedly demonstrates the absurdity in life, both the silly and the sinister, and how easy it is to flip a plot if you drop the right breadcrumbs along the way. It doesn't matter what you write, those elements can strengthen almost any project.

Here are some links to a few of my favorite shows. If you can carve out a few minutes, give them a look and see what works about them. Yes, most of them have silly, simple plots, but so do most things if you carve all the meat off and take only the bones. In the end, everything, even the most complex plot, has to have its bones. We recognize them, we see them holding up the stories as we see them holding up ourselves. Borrow a few, see how they fit in a different time and a different place. Put the meat back on them and shape them up. You might find that the good old days still have a lot of good to give.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Miles (of Ink) to Go Before I Rest

Having a goal to work toward in life is not optional. It is SO not optional that it is a requirement of every person experiencing homelessness that goes through the program where I work. We don't tell them what their goals have to be--it could be a goal to become a rock star or to own a vineyard in France or to go grocery shopping all alone--but they have to think up a goal of some sort. It isn't my place, even as a most eager and helpful helper, to tell them whether I think their goal is achievable or not. I'm no judge, and I'm no psychic. It's my job to dig at the meat of why they set their goals, find out and remind them of how much their goals mean to them, and help uncover avenues to achieve them.

Bella the Pseudo-Intellectual Puppy keeps me on my toes.
Everyone should have some kind of goal to work toward, and they should have support to help uncover those pesky achievement-avenues. I am a writer...or a person who writes...or whatever...so I have set my most beloved, juicy yearly goals around how many words I'm going to crank out and shove out my door. I'm lucky enough to have my husband and some fellow writers to kick me in the pants as needed to keep my eyes turned the right way.

Without boring you with the details (i.e. I'm too chicken to type out my goals and be held accountable by my own loud and pointy blog-words if I fail), I have managed to achieve one goal.

Okay, fine. I submitted a short story. My goal is to submit two before my (dread, fast-approaching) birthday. And I may or may not also have a goal of finishing at least one novel manuscript by the end of the year.

There. I said it. It is a true thing and it exists and now you know.

I can already hear the sound of one-third victory, like the tone in the episode of Bewitched that plays when they get a guy to do three ridiculous things to break a curse.  (1:04 in video)  One down, two to go.

I'm happy to have reached one goal, but if I'm being honest, it was a small goal, something that was simple and reachable and shouldn't have been nearly as difficult as it was. Ray Bradbury, one of my literary heroes, probably wrote two or three stories every day while waiting for his toast to pop up.

I can't blame time. I don't have a lot of extra, but what time I do have, I usually spend with a pen in hand. Who needs that much sleep, anyway?

I can't blame ideas. I have way too many of those, and I have more half-finished short stories spread out in my notebooks than there are marshmallows in Lucky Charms.

I can't blame lack of support. I have an army of writer-reader types who have been so helpful with shaping and editing the work I do crank out. Then there is Husband. They just don't come any better or more supportive. They just don't. I have the best one and you do not, so HA.

I can't blame the muses. Boo and Bella still do a mighty musing job and now I've added a third furry muse to my collection. (Of course, Boo and New Kitty still can't really be in the same room at the same time, but we're working on it.)

I guess I can just blame the pens. It has to be them. One pen or another is always there when I'm trying to write. Darn pens. Look how smug this one is, just laying there on a blank page, taunting me. That pen has been there that way for hours, and that page still doesn't have any words on it. I am never going to meet my goals at that rate! How lazy can you get?

It has to be the pen. If that isn't it, I'm out of options. If it isn't the pen, or the ink, or the paper, or the table, who or what is keeping me from reaching my goals?

It surely can't be me. I want this so much! I set the goals. I made the rules. I gritted my teeth and I wrote them down for you, just today, just now. It has to be that horrible, rude, lazy pen, and if I am ever going to reach my very important goals, I'm going to have to take matters into my own hands.

I'm going to pick UP the pen and WRITE with it.

Take THAT, stubborn pen.

Now nothing can stop me.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Tools of the Trade: Ink Review - Diamine Ancient Copper

My quest for interesting writing tools to keep me putting one word after the other winds on, and along the way I snapped up this cool ink.

I first loved the idea of it. My mother is a notorious copper collector, and I really liked the idea of having an ink that could approximate that metallic pink-orange that I so associate with her. Then Diamine had to take it a step cooler by making this particular copper ancient. They must have known that I cannot resist ancient things. Ever. At all.

This is a great multi-tasking ink. I have used it for writing text, editing, and drawing. I tend to appreciate inks that are able to pull double-duty as a writer's ink and an artist's ink. This ink shades great and can be diluted and brushed to a very cool effect. Plus, it's ancient. As noted in the review, it is more on the orange side and misses an element of pinkness that is in real copper.

I really like how this ink looks in a fine nib. Usually the finer a nib you use on your pen, the less an ink's color and shading will be evident, but I like the way the fine letters look in this ink, sharp and dark. When my bottle is empty, I think I'll definitely be going back to the Diamine well for another. Besides, this is a color you'd NEVER find in a ballpoint or rollerball pen, and that alone is enough to keep me writing.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Inspiration Monday: Glass Half Full

I consider myself an optimist.

Some days test my limits to their last little optimistic droplets, but on the whole I can usually convince myself that in some small way or another, the glass is still half full.

Of course, that doesn't mean that I don't get horribly greedy with my half-full glass, hugging it tight to my chest and giving angry eyes to anyone who dares try to suck it dry.

Today was one of those days.

It was one of those, "I was put in traction and it was the best part of my day," days.

I'm not kidding, and the traction didn't even go right, so you know I mean it.

In case you didn't know (like I didn't before today), a traction setup is comprised of a weird table that reminds me of something a magician might use for easy disposal of person-chunks after the sawing-in-half trick, two thick belt thingies that look halfway between my dog's seatbelt harness and a medieval torture device, and a machine with a sole purpose to pull a person's lower portions away from their upper portions.

I'm generally fond of my lower portions being attached to my upper portions, so I was EXTREMELY NERVOUS when my physical therapist strapped me into the thing. She pulled and pulled on the straps with her whole body weight. "Can you breathe?" she asked. I said yes, and that gave her the cue to pull even tighter. "If you can breathe, it isn't tight enough!" she said with a perky smile and gave them another good tug. Then, just in case, she got Husband to give them a few more tugs for good measure.

Satisfied that even a superhero couldn't have pulled those straps any tighter, she turned on the rack...er...traction machine.

Let's just say that I know what the pair of jeans in the Levi's logo felt.


Until I slipped out of the straps, that is.

It was my fault. I was breathing all along and I liked doing it so much, I didn't tell her.

Instead of squeezing the marrow out of my rib cage, the upper straps went slipping right on up and over my torso, catching on my arms and slipping up and up until I had to raise my arms over my head and the strap ended up over my mouth.

It was ridiculous. And hilarious. Despite how absolutely stupid I felt, it was still stretching my spine like it was supposed to, so I stayed the course. My PT, who is actually extremely competent and so nice I don't even threaten to kill her off in a novel when she pokes at all my hurt places, stood by the door to keep anyone from seeing how ridiculous I must have looked. She made sure everything was stretching me correctly (and safely) and asked me over and over if I was comfortable, which just made me laugh.

It is hard to laugh in traction, but it is possible, even with a strap covering half your face. "Yes, I'm fine," I tried to say, though it probably came out a little more like, "Yssmmffnnnn," roughly translated.

"I'm glad you have a good attitude," she said, finally allowing herself a laugh. It spread around the room until all the tension left was in my spine where it belonged.

Until she said that, I hadn't actually thought I did. Until then, I probably hadn't, truthfully. I realized then that a good attitude is a choice, and that I had chosen to laugh when I could have complained, chosen to be easy when I could have been hard. I still got my back stretched out (I'm probably taller now, and skinnier I hope), I can now write very accurately about characters tortured on the rack, and I learned something about purposeful optimism I can save in my pocket for later.

Optimism and pessimism are not polar opposites, they're points on a continuum called Reality. It doesn't matter who you are or where your set-point is on that continuum, it is your Reality. We are all "Realists" from where we sit. Sometimes all it takes to see the good in things is making up your mind that you can and you will. It will surprise you how readily good can appear if you just let go of the reasons not to see it.

If you're a writer, take this to the page, inside and outside. Give your characters a point of view and a purpose--if their glasses are half full, figure out why and test their limits. If their glasses are half empty, figure out why and test their limits. Then, take a look at yourself. See how your own glass is filled, then....figure out why and test your limits.

In the end, maybe it doesn't have to be about half-full and half-empty glasses anyway. Maybe we can withdraw from that debate and change the whole glass system. Take what's left in your glass, whether it be half full or half empty, and pour it into another, smaller glass. Then it is full and there are no two ways about it.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Play Nice and Keep It Above the Belt

I do not like most of my work while I'm working on it. I pick on it, I sneer at it, I hurt its feelings. I tell it that it is ugly and that I do not like the way it is shaping up, no siree, and that it better straighten up and fly right or I am going to be forced to give up writing altogether and take up basket weaving. The world has enough crappy novels, but not near enough artful baskets. Or so I tell myself and my poor, beaten-down writing.

I've learned that when I get like this, it means two things:

1. I'm a normal writer. Apparently this happens to everyone, and you'll never know how happy I was when I realized that Margaret Mitchell was probably ready to throw Scarlett over a banister a time or two, that J.K. Rowling probably has a few napkins covered in scribbles about Harry Potter getting a broomstick up the nose, and for a fact Stephenie Meyer wrote a faux version of Breaking Dawn for a friend called Breaking Down in which all her main characters died hilariously.

2. Normal writers need breaks. This is true of everyone and everything, and as much as I want to sit and poke my novel sore, it won't get written any faster or any better than if I walk away for a while and come back another day when it is more old friend than pushy house-guest. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, after all. If not fonder, at least tolerant.

If I'm hating on my work, then I can't pour any love into it. Good work needs to have the creator's enthusiasm weaved into every fiber. It deserves it. I deserve it. If no one in the world ever reads a word I write, the least I can do is love having written it. I can love it for existing, for the time we spent together. If I can do that, I'll always be proud of my work, lumps and all.

Today, that's what I'm working on. I'm trying to stop punching my work (and myself) in the face long enough to enjoy the fact that I am an artist and I am creating art. Anything much past that takes away from its simple truth, and it is in simple truths that we find the most happiness.

Write on, writers. Create and be fruitful in your art. It is what we were made for.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Inspiration Monday: Rainy Days and Mondays

It is raining. Actually, there is a creepy storm system overhead that looks like something from a made-for-TV-movie with lots of worried folks glaring at the sky and making grave statements about their various and sundry plot points before the inevitable bad CGI storm comes and wreaks havoc with all their well laid plans. (But never their hair or makeup. Never.)

There's always something about a good thunderstorm that wakes up something electric inside of me, maybe my own little jar of lightning, and makes me want to sink my teeth into a good book, a fierce nap, or to write like a mad-person. Maybe it's my introversion. During a thunderstorm, I don't have to look for excuses to stay quiet and be at home. Nobody asks where I am or what I'm doing--I'm at home of course, being quiet. There's a thunderstorm, for crying out loud. I'm where I belong, where everyone belongs.

Having a storm going on somehow removes the variables of life. You can't really go for a jog, not unless you want the neighbors staring out their windows and clicking their tongues at you. "Not enough sense to come out of the rain," they'd say, with a solemn headshake. "Poor, sad thing." The same goes for dog walking, bike riding, speed walking, and any other rain-sense requiring activity. But reading and writing? They're famous rainy day/night activities. It makes for a good setting, too. After all, where would the canon of literature be without the good old stand-by, "It was a dark and stormy night"?

It is an ever-fertile scenario, having a set of characters run inside by a storm. Some of them are probably like me, they head straight for a blanket and a bookshelf. Some of them are frustrated joggers, dog-walkers, bike-riders, and speed-walkers. A ruined outdoor barbecue, some streaked mascara, a leaky roof, a creepy drawing room with a raven tapping at the chamber door--one of these scenarios has got to get the creative juices flowing, and what better to do when it is raining both inside and outside your head?

Give a little thought to what a dark and stormy night means to you. Is it an opportunity to slow down, or is it a prison sentence? Would a little thunder and lightning spruce up your story and add a little color? Maybe you just want to be a rebel and walk your dog anyway, literally or figuratively. Either way, take your very own midnight dreary and let it turn you inside out.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Life Marches On and So Do I

After a really fun couple of weeks with a seriously aching back (read: not fun at all), I am on the mend. Kinda.

Even though I'm on desk duty at work, my doctor advised me that I could stave off a relapse by lying on my back with my legs propped up on a chair. Let's just say that I've ended up a few times lately with this as my view:

This end up.
At one point, my boss plopped down in the floor beside me, held up a stack of reports over both our faces, and we managed to have a meeting down there. Don't knock it. I'll bet her back felt better, too.

I have been going to physical therapy for a week now, and it has been an interesting experience. By interesting, I mean painful, mostly, but also rewarding.

One day while I was working on my "sit-stands" (which is exactly what you think it is, 10 reps, 2 sets, and yes, you can do it wrong--trust me), I scanned the room desperately, starving for anything to look at that would tear my mind away from the images of dull steak knives sawing me in half with every sit and every stand. I finally lit on one of the stretching tables where a therapist was working diligently with a determined-looking older man and his new artificial leg.

Suddenly, my sit-stands were a little less tedious. A bit. My PT, way too sweet for all my grumpy growliness, ushered me through my own paces and stretched me out like a stubborn piece of stale taffy. Eventually, she tucked me into a room with a heating pad, strung me up to an electrical thingy (yes, that's a technical term...or a brand name...or it should be) that basically electrocutes you a tiny, tingly bit, and then flipped off the lights so I could relax.

But I didn't. Not really. I thought about the man with the missing leg. I thought about him being my age, when he had two good legs. I wondered if he had appreciated them. I wondered if he wanted to go back in time to when he was four, when he scraped that knee and it bled real blood and pain. Would he tell himself to look close at that knee and that blood and cherish it because he might not always have the privilege? Would he go back to when he was a young man, in his twenties maybe, when he spent all his time on those legs, walking, running, dancing, kicking off the covers in the middle of the night? Did he ever think that there would come a time when he couldn't? Maybe he had played football, a kicker with a golden toe. Maybe he didn't and wished he did, cursing his own leg, which might have had a birthmark just like his father's, and never knowing that he would regret it with all his heart while he lay on a table to stretch a brand new leg that couldn't even bleed.

We were the last ones to leave in the evening, my husband, the nice PT, and me. I was stiff and sore when I hauled up off the table and waddled my way to the door. Just when I felt a self-pitying grumble well up in me, I glanced back to the table where the man had been. He was gone, finished for the day, probably eating his dinner and living his life, laughing to his loved ones about the ignorant people he caught pitying him, he who had two perfectly good legs as far as he and anyone who counted was concerned.

So I didn't pity him. Instead I respected him.

It's a funny thing about respect. It earns you so much more than pity. I did feel sorry for the man who didn't have what I have, what I got for free and didn't earn or especially deserve, but if I stopped there on that thought, it would have been pity. So I didn't.

I thought about what he did in the short time I watched him that I could do, too. He worked hard. He took advantage of opportunity. He went about the business of living his different-shaped life, and he made it look easy.

I could do those things, even with a messed up back. Maybe even better because of it. Anything, even pain, can be a gift if you sit still and get over yourself long enough to unwrap it.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Book Review: A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson

A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty by Joshilyn Jackson

Brief Synopsis: The Slocumb family is no stranger to a vengeful God. Ginny "Big" Slocumb fetched up pregnant with her headstrong daughter, "Little" Liza, at the age of fifteen and was promptly booted out of her Southern Baptist home to fend for herself. Another fifteen years later, Liza showed up pregnant herself and left home shortly after the baby's birth, only to show back up on her mother's doorstep two hard-lived years later. Now her daughter, Mosey, is fifteen, and the Slocumbs are dead in the middle of another "trouble year." Liza, at a too-close-to-home thirty years old, has suffered a stroke that they chalk up to her rough past and methamphetamine use. Mosey is shrugging around in her skin, trying to figure out if she's sharing it with a sex-maniac who could take over any minute and repeat Slocumb history. When Big has Liza's favorite willow tree pulled up by the roots to make room for a therapeutic swimming pool, a box of tiny bones rips out what seams are left holding all of their lives together.

Published: 2012

Format read: Hardcover, until Husband caught me reading my signed first edition and made me buy the e-book to finish. Meanie.

Comparison: It is hard to compare this book directly to any other book because I haven't read anything else quite like it. Joshilyn Jackson's writing is whip-smart and tangy a la Haven Kimmel, but there's depth there, too. In this book, especially with Liza, she yet again shows off her unique skill in capturing the tangled-up complexity of the human spirit held in bondage that I've only seen done half as well in A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick. In this work and all her others, she writes about poverty with a truthful, almost journalistic eye which reminds me of John Steinbeck. Her voice is so very different, but the heart is the same. She tells the worst of it like it is without pointing a single, judgmental fingernail. It is just how Steinbeck used the hard-luck Joads not only to break our hearts in The Grapes of Wrath, but to underline the tenacity of the human spirit, the universal worth of mankind, and hope which keeps right on springing up, even from nothing but salted earth. She does that so well that it squeezes my heart to pieces and I can taste sweat and dirt on my tongue.

Review: I have been a devoted fan of Joshilyn Jackson's work since I first read gods in Alabama as an ARC (Advance Readers Copy) when I was a wide-eyed, story-starved bookseller. I got the book off the freebie shelf in the back room of the store where it was mixed in with a pile of this and that. I picked it for the simple reason that it was the only book on that particular shelf that didn't have a black and white spine. Dumb way to pick a book, I know, but it worked out for me. I read that book in one voracious setting and have been an advocate for Ms. Jackson's books ever since. I've read everything she has put out to the public, including her wonderful blog, Faster Than Kudzu, and so should you.

If Joshilyn Jackson has a mid-life crisis and gives up fiction writing to spend the rest of her life writing the backs of cereal boxes, I will throw out all my Honey Nut Cheerios and read on.

So should you.

What I'm saying is that her books are good. Very.

A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty does not disappoint. It has the same salty southern women running down its spine, this time three generations deep. The POV shifts between the characters, with Big and Mosey in first person (a feat in itself given the gap in their ages and personalities), and third person limited for Liza. In all of them, Jackson manages to keep in her signature playful style without sacrificing the individual voices of the characters. I have yet to figure out how she does it, turning nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns and basically batting around syntax like a cat with a ball of yarn, and somehow it makes things more clear. Maybe that's why her work feels so heartfelt. She says things the way we mean them, not the way we're told to say them.

I will admit that I had some trouble with this one when I started reading it. It was Liza. Right off the bat, we're told that she was a hellion from the womb, yet when we first meet her, she is a raisin-soft shadow of her former self. I had trouble picturing her young. My age. It was too wrong, too wasteful and unfair. Reading her chapters was hard going. I couldn't be in her head like I could be in Big's and Mosey's. I had to work my way in from a distance. Like Mosey and Big interpreting her "Mosey-baby" noise, or her "yes" and "no" signals, there was a tendency for me to throw my hands up and say it was too hard, too sad to look at her with her scrambled eggs trailing down the bad side of her face. I was feeling what Big and Mosey must have felt, and the frustration was almost unbearable.

Having read all of Ms. Jackson's work, I should have known better.

She does not write weak characters.


Even when they're broken. Even when they think they're used up and spent. Even when they're captive in their own bodies. Even when she lets you pity them, it will only be for a flash, because she does not write weak characters.


Eventually, Liza's chapters became my favorites. There was so much complexity to her character, this woman who did all the things we're told makes someone "bad" but she is so very, very good, so truly herself even when she is lost inside of her own broken body. A firecracker forced underwater is no less a firecracker at its core.

The book weaves in and out of their three lives, and eventually you come to see that there is far less truthful communication between the characters who can talk to each other than there is with poor damaged Liza. Big is tormented by loss and responsibility, and bursting with love for her family--and for what her family should be. Mosey is such an engaging character, wise for her years, but not so much that she's not a believable fifteen-year-old. She and her best friend Roger have a great, three-dimensional relationship that earns Roger his place as the Encyclopedia Brown clue-finder to assist with furthering the plot. There is enough mystery and puzzle-solving to keep the pages turning, but as I went, I realized that I wasn't just reading for the answers like the back of a crossword puzzle book (as I'm apt to do with many mysteries/thrillers. I'm looking at you, Dan Brown). I cared about the answers because I cared about the characters and all their jagged pieces. I wanted them to fit together, somehow, so that they could finally be whole.

That's the mark of a good literary fiction novel--you don't just want to know what happens/happened, you just want to know. Anything. Everything.

I would also throw in a mention that I wish more men would pick up books like this one. Yes, the cover is feminine, it has "pretty" in the title, and it doesn't just have a woman protagonist, it has THREE of them. However, I think if more men read books like this one, they would understand women so much more--what maternal instinct looks like from the inside, how fiercely we can love, how fiercely we can fight, and not to count us out, not even in what looks like the end of days. Strong women are not to be feared or reviled or ignored, but should be seen for their truth. We are allies, and when necessary, warriors.

"You have to hold these things and strive, always, for one more word and one more step. You push forward and you fight, for as long as ever you can, until the black world spins and the moon pulls the tide and the water rises up and takes you." --A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, by Joshilyn Jackson.