Everything else, Writing

Spark of Recognition

 

I’ve always been a reader, and I’ve always been a misfit. The two don’t always go hand in hand, I know. My mother has often told the story of how, when I was three, I would sit at the table, holding the newspaper upside down, and sobbing because I couldn’t read it. Over the years – and especially since the advent of the internet (yes, I’m that old) – I’ve had the privilege of knowing and loving many other bibliophiles. In junior high, there was a group of us who were consistently devouring L.M. Montgomery books, reading them over and over and discussing them over lunch in the cafeteria. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve been a regular at the local libraries. Love of books and of reading is a beautiful magnet, drawing those of us who adore them together and holding us tight. I’m not usually a super social person; my true circle of friends is quite small and tends not to change much. But all of my close friends love to read. Few things are as enjoyable to me as listening to one of my friends excitedly telling me about a new book they’ve fallen in love with.

The misfit thing, that’s a little different. Though it doesn’t happen often anymore, given my current personal life, I don’t mind being alone. I don’t need groups of people. I don’t crave social interaction. I realized a long, long time ago my brain works differently and my interests don’t always line up with those of other people. And that’s fine, truly. I know what brings me joy, and I know what I like, and I don’t feel like I need to have the permission of anyone else to pursue my passions. As a kid and young teen, I often waffled on presenting my own truth, by turns fighting like hell to blend in to the landscape and being as outrageous as I could possibly be. The longer I stumble through life, the bolder I’ve become. I was quieter, before, in both spirit and truth. I’m not so quiet anymore. Where I once would feel guilty for making others uncomfortable with my interests, manner of dress, or my writing, now I simply look them in the eye and ask why they think I should have to change myself because they’re uncomfortable. Even amongst my friends and acquaintances that tend to buck the norm, I’m often the odd one out. It doesn’t so much bother me anymore, but now and again I do get weary of trying to explain myself. It’s the incessant why? Why? Why? regarding whatever it is I happen to be doing, or how I happen to be dressing, or what my hair looks like (why do people care so much about that, anyway? Isn’t that weird? And perfect strangers will approach me in public and touch my hair without even asking… bizarre. It’s currently half a wild curly mess and half dreadlocks, and I like it that way.) It has taken me some time, but eventually I realized that in much of life, I’m looking at something, and the person next to me is looking at something, and we’re each seeing something completely different. That’s okay, except when I mention what I see, and the person next to me tries to railroad me into their perspective. Why can’t they just accept that I see the world a little differently than they do? The desire to force conformity is so ingrained in most people. Step out of line and they feel compelled to reign you back in, regardless the topic.
I wouldn’t necessarily call it a ‘lonely’ feeling, being this way. I accept it as my version of normal. How others choose to receive me is neither my business nor my problem, unless they make it so. I have a distant relative who – every few years when she sees me at a family function – feels led to make a loud comment along the lines of, “My goodness, just look at you. And your… your clothes, and your (insert arcing motion with hands and distasteful facial expression) hair. Boy, you just don’t care what anyone thinks of you, do you?”
And I mean, she’s right, I don’t, though I know what she’s really saying is, “I don’t understand why you’re so committed to being an embarrassment.” Yeah. She’s always a delight.
But anyway, I guess, more to the point of this post, I’ve been listening to audiobooks quite a bit lately, and I’m currently listening (entirely out of order) to a long series of urban fantasy books. They’re beautifully written, and make my drive to work and back a bit more bearable each day. Throughout the series, there’s this one character I find I really identify with. A week or so ago, there was a passage where this particular character rebuffed a friend who’d been complaining about a band they’d just seen play live. She said, “But don’t you see it’s not about the way they sound? It’s the passion, the lyrics, the heart that’s in the music that I’m listening to.”
It hit me hard, because that’s exactly a sentence I would say. It’s exactly how I feel when I’m asked (again) some version of “why do you do this, why do you like this, why do view this thing the wrong way?” It’s because what *I* see, what *I* hear, what *I’m* focusing on is not the same thing everyone else is. But that doesn’t make it wrong. Truthfully, this one sentence in that entire enormous book struck me with such force, tears sprang to my eyes and I nearly pulled my car over, so momentous was that spark of recognition for me. Because while I don’t necessarily mind being a loner in much of my life, to hear someone – even a fictional someone – with a thought that so closely mimicked my own was a powerful thing. To know I’m not always alone, not the only one with this particular perspective.
See, this is the importance of fiction. At least, to me. There is inherent value in knowing someone, somewhere, is like you. Has felt the same things you’ve felt. Has thought the same things you’ve thought. And this is the importance in making true art, the kind that comes from a place deep inside, not the same superficial, commercially accepted clones that are made over and over. The connection that can be forged between artist and consumer – whether the two ever meet physically or not – is a magic all on its own, and strange though it may be, it holds the power to change a life. It matters.
It matters.

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Everything else, Grief, Writing

Prose, Pain, & Plans

 

There’s something about the change of seasons – especially the transition from summer to autumn – that ignites my  creativity. My brain slides from “yeah, on the weekends I work a bit on that next book” to “yeah, you need to stop sleeping for a few weeks because now we’re crocheting a couple of blankets and maybe a new shawl, sewing a coat, and writing three fiction novels. OH WAIT! NEW IDEA! Okay, now we’re also doing a non-fiction book about learning to live with grief.”

It’s been busy for me, which is probably a good thing, given I’m just about one month from the first anniversary of my brother’s death, and it seems every day assaults me with painful reminders. The last eleven months have probably been about the most agonizing ones of my life, and for a while there I wasn’t certain I was going to be able to get through it. I think I’ve been pretty open about all of that. Last year in August, before my brother was diagnosed, I would never have imagined the following months going the way that they would. So much changed in the blink of an eye. Last year in November, I wasn’t certain I would be able to function even minimally… like, ever again. At all.

Yet, here we are, nearly a year later. No denying it’s been rough. But there’s a lot of beauty, too. A lot of laughter. Much has changed, but change isn’t always terrible. During the crux of the worst of last winter – mentally, I mean – I went through sort of a manic phase where I couldn’t stop moving or creating. I feel as if maybe that was a way my brain was trying to protect itself, flooding every second with creativity. Ideas. Imagination. But it had gotten to a point where holding still, not creating every single second, physically hurt, and I don’t think that was a healthy extreme, either. I was productive, but exhausted.

I wrote and wrote and wrote. Released three books between November and May. And then, although I knew which books I wanted to focus on next, that frantic creative pace slowed way down over the summer, and I began to worry I would not be able to finish another book. Ever. To be honest, though, I generally go through some sort of phase like after writing furiously for a while. It just lasted longer this time, so it started to freak me out. But I’m in it again, now. Not quite the manic, frantic buzz of last winter when the bats had overtaken the belfry and were throwing nightly raves in it, but the typical creative rush I often fall into around the transition to autumn.

I was a little bit worried when I released The Knowing Child in May, because it turned out to be more angst-laden than the first two books. I wasn’t certain how it would be received, but as it happened, it appears to be a favorite amongst my Windy Springs readers. I had planned for the fourth Windy Springs book to be Knowing Rogan, a prequel of sorts featuring Rogan’s early life before he met Keisha. I knew how it would start and exactly how it’ll end, and what will probably happen in the middle, so I’ve been working along on that, though I wouldn’t say with much gusto until here lately. Then I took a break, moved on over to the aliens and turnips (yes) story I started a few years back and which is SO. CLOSE. to finishing, if I could just plow through these last few thousand words. However… a few weeks ago, Captain Dash started talking (as he is wont to do) and would NOT shut up. I thought, well, I’ll just scribble this down, as a jumpstart for later on when I start his book. But his words became a waterfall in my brain and I couldn’t make it stop. So I *might* have to switch the order of books four and five, and release Knowing His Madness first, though doing so will not alter any timelines at all. It’s just not what I expected to be doing.

and then –

And then I had a dream. I know that sounds wonky. But really, what even am I, if not wonky? Anyway. I dreamed the book I was writing was a collection of pieces I’d written on grief since my sister’s death a few years back. I’d asked in my FB group if there might be any interest in such a thing, and the response was surprisingly positive. I toyed around with the idea a bit, then just to sort of see, I started collecting bits and pieces of writings on the subject and lo and behold, I’ve already got about forty-thousand words. Tentative working title is Grief in my Pockets. I’d like to get it out around the holidays this year. We’ll just have to see how that plays out.

It’s awesome when the characters are “talking” as much as they are right now, and there’s so much I want to be writing. But the fact is, I work full time at the law firm, and I live with six other people (and three dogs. and several fish.) in a house that is not a  mansion. Even when I am at home and maybe have time to write, I have no office or really, any quiet space in which to do so which is not a complaint so much as a snippet of reality. So quite often I write sporadically in stolen moments – on my phone during my lunch break at work, or while waiting in the lobby of a doctor’s office, or standing in the kitchen while I’m making dinner. I’ve been aiming for a thousand words a day on any one of my current projects. Some days I hit it, some days I don’t, but that’s always my goal. When  I do finish, then it depends on my editor’s availability, and of course, my limited budget. Even if I finish all four books by the end of this year, there’ s no way I  can afford to publish them all at once. Still, though. I enjoy having all these stories living so vividly in my upstairs. It’s a curious sort of joy.

That’s where I’m at, for  the moment. I try to mention my plans now and again on all the different platforms, because I know a lot of folks follow me only in one spot on the vast web. I’m most consistently active in my FB group, which is a delightful mix of eclectic folks much like meself. That’s also where I do live videos and Q & A days, so if you’re interested in that sort of thing –

As always, I’m so thankful for the readers who share my blog posts, my book posts, my newsletters. Thank you for telling others about my work, and for reviewing (Yeah. I notice. Thanks.) Thank you for being excited about what I’m doing, and for sending me messages about how my writing has affected you. It means so much, and I absolutely could not do any of this without you. Onward.

 

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Everything else, Writing

Mistaken Perfection

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For the longest time, the first thing I’d notice about any finished piece of art I’d made, be it something crocheted, sewn, hot glued, or written, were the mistakes.

Sixty-thousand perfectly perfect words in a novel, and I’d fixate on the two errors I found after publishing. Never mind that I’d given six months to a year over to the story, laughing, crying, feeling all the emotions right along with my characters. Never mind how much I loved the cover, or how many times readers told me they loved it. All I could see were those two errors.

I’ve been sewing for years, since my daughters were just tiny. Little dresses, blankets, Halloween costumes, Ren Faire garb. Mostly passable outcomes, too. Yet when people would compliment me on my son’s Captain Jack Sparrow or Mad Hatter costume, I’d cringe and say thanks, but look right there, I made a mistake on that part. I don’t know why I could never seem to say thanks, and then stop my mouth from running on. Or just enjoy the fact that the costume was obviously recognizable, which meant I’d done a decent enough job on it.

I can spend months crocheting an enormous blanket, and when it’s finished I can zero right in on the place I made one teeny error. One missed stitch. One half-double stitch where there should’ve been a double. Then every time I look at it, that’s all I can see. Literally thousands of perfect stitches, but all I can see is the one I messed up on.

I’ve really been working on not making self-deprecating remarks about myself or my work over the last year. Breaking that habit is hard. Being funny comes easily to me, and making fun of myself is even easier. I can find all sorts of things about myself to laugh at. Part of this is pointing out to others all the ways I am not good enough, and that includes my art. I don’t know where this knee-jerk reaction ever came from to begin with, but sometimes I don’t even realize I’m doing it until someone else points it out. Whether I’m throwing shade at my clothes, hair, or size; my books, shawls or blankets I’ve crocheted, clothes or costumes I’ve sewn, or what have you, I realized a while ago that every time I do this, I’m laughing on the outside but it cements the idea in my own head that I’ll never measure up to other people’s expectations. As a person who struggles with anxiety and depression, it’s just not a healthy thing to do to myself.

The first thing I worked at doing was learning to accept a compliment, which is for some idiotic reason really difficult for me. Sometimes now I say thanks and then actually have to bite my tongue in order to refrain from making some smart ass comment about myself. But at least I’ve made some improvement in that arena.

It’s even harder for me to be proud of my books. I’ve really been trying to accept compliments at face value. Sometimes I screenshot them so I can re-read them later when I feel like I lack any writing talent at all. It makes a difference. Recently, I’ve been trying a new tactic, and have been re-reading my own book series and instead of searching for any errors that might be in them, I’ve been making a point to focus on everything I got right. Those words that came together to make a beautiful, poignant mental picture. The emotions. I feel like I’ve been making some progress in this area, because I’ve actually been enjoying them. Like… really enjoying them.

This week, I tore apart some old peasant skirts and repurposed them into a frock-style coat of different colors and patterns. It’s funky, but it suits me, I think. I’ve got some events I’m planning to wear it to, and if nobody else likes it, that’s fine. Becauseam happy with how it turned out. I made it – no pattern. I made it, by myself, from an idea I had one day. I made it, I like it, and because of that, it has value, even if there are a couple of mistakes in it.

Mistakes happen. That’s part of life. It doesn’t mean the attempt is worthless. It means I did something I enjoyed, something I wanted to try, something that brought me a bit of sunshine as I worked on it.

There’s only one way to consistently avoid mistakes, and that’s to never try.

What a waste that would be.

What a loss of joy, of creativity, of education, of community, of art, of new beginnings.

What a waste of possibility. We’ve gotten it all backwards, I think.

It’s not perfection we should strive for. It’s the journey we take when we make something new. That’s the thing that matters most.

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Unpatterned

It seems sometimes as if my brain is hardwired to do the opposite of what it’s told. Though I’ve never been one for conformity, I admit to occasionally wishing I could just make the easier choice. The path more often taken, I suppose.

But I can’t.

This holds true in the art I create, as well. There is a part of me that inherently resists following the pattern. Working inside the box, or whatever you want to call it. I’m more of an outside the box person, I guess. Some days I’m so far outside the box, I can’t see it anymore, not even if I squint real hard. It isn’t that I don’t recognize the value of following where others have trod before. I do. I think I was just born contrary. There’s something in my genetics that pushes me to look at what others are doing and say, “I’ll just figure it out my own damn self,” and that’s generally that. The path more often taken is cleared by thousands of footsteps, wide and easy to walk. I get right to the cusp of it, turn, and force myself through the brush, getting scrapes and knocking my knees on rocks all the way down. It might make a more difficult journey, but I feel more satisfied about what I’ve done, when it gets right down to it.

When I first learned to sew, I was taught how to carefully trim the flimsy pattern, iron it, and pin it to the fabric. It seemed like such a frustrating waste of time. Once I learned the basics, I taught myself to draw patterns on the backs of paper sacks. Of course, mistakes were made. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that I was doing it myself, learning, growing, figuring it out.

Although I am capable of following crochet patterns, I generally do not use them, and am so much more satisfied with the results when  I create a blanket, shawl, or other piece freeform.

I think I’m much the same way with writing.

Over Labor Day weekend, we took a trip to northern  Michigan, squeezing in some of my son’s senior picture shoots along the way. We stopped at my sister-in-law’s place one day for a visit and to snap some photos, as my brother’s family lives in a cabin that once belonged to my parents, and there was some sentimental value in posing him there. As I stood there with my friend who is the photographer, my mind slipped back in time for a few seconds, and I remembered watching my dad build the large wraparound porch that surrounds the cabin. “He did this with no instructions,” I blurt to my friend. “My dad, I mean. Did you know he built this porch? Bought the wood and did the entire thing himself, with no pattern.”

It really is a beautiful porch. He’d started the work after having both knees replaced. I can easily conjure memories of him kneeling – very slowly – measuring, figuring out his next move.  He probably shouldn’t have spent so much time working on his knees, given the surgeries. But he was nothing if not stubborn.

I might get that from him.

My son leans with his elbows on the porch rail and smiles for the camera. “He built my swingsets that way, too,” I say.

When I was very young, I had a standard swingset, green and yellow striped. Metal poles dug into the ground. Two swings with hard plastic seats. A plastic slide on one end. I cried when I woke up one morning and realized it had been taken out of the ground and loaded on my dad’s trailer. He explained that he was taking my swingset to his brother’s house, so my cousin could have it. I cried again. He promised he would build me an even better swingset.

He did. He started with two giant logs he cemented vertically in the ground. They were painted red. The swings were flat wood, wide, with long chains that took me so high in the air when I really got going that I sometimes worried I might flip right over the top. Instead of a slide, he built a sturdy wooden teeter-totter on one end and on the opposite end, a bar that hung from long chains, with springs at the top of each, so if I took off running from across the yard and grabbed the bar, it would bounce, bounce, bounce.

Years later, he built  another swingset. It  was behind the old cabin  up north, and he built  it for the grandkids. This time, he attached a twirly pool slide to  one end, and the kids had a blast with it. He even built a  little playhouse with its own metal roof. No instructions. I stood there, thinking about the bench swings he had built – I still have one in my front yard – the pole barn. All created from the blueprints he came up with on his own.

My grandmother, my dad’s mom, baked, sewed, and crocheted. I asked her once for her pie crust recipe, so I could try my hand at it. She gave me the oddest look and told me she didn’t use a recipe. Ever. I’ve thought and thought, and I can never recall her using a pattern for her crocheted blankets or quilts, either. But they were beautiful.

So this inherent stubborn streak, this bullheaded resistance to following the pattern, maybe I come by that naturally.

It might take me the longer way ’round. I might get a few more scrapes, make a few more mistakes. But the truth is, I enjoy doing it my own way. Over four decades through life, and I can’t see myself changing now. If anything, I’m more set in my contrariness. More determined to forge my way through the woods, while everyone else takes the smooth trail.

It might make for more of a struggle, but the view is so much better.

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Growth. Joy. Writing.

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I feel like I’ve been fairly transparent – especially recently – about my writing journey. My goals, my hopes, my truth. While my mindset may not be shared by many, I find the longer I stay over here on my own little quiet dirt road, the happier I am with my writing and where it is going.

As I’ve said, a while back I made the decision to write for myself. I removed myself from the idea of competition, of writing toward any “trends”, and of doing things other people tell me I “must” do in order to succeed at this art. I will not stick to writing one genre. I will not change my vision for my books to fit whatever is popular in the moment.

This decision was made, in part, by the losses of my siblings. Losing beloved family members at such young ages really drives home the notion of mortality. Life is so extraordinarily brief. Why would I take the thing that brings me such joy – writing books – and make myself miserable with it, just because that’s what I feel pressured to do?

So I quit. Quit attempting to meet anyone else’s expectations. I have to say, it’s turning out pretty well for me so far.

In the last fifteen months, I’ve put out four books – three novels, one collection of short stories. I’ve an e-book releasing shortly and two new books in the works, one very close to completion. I’ve sought and received my author rights regarding Slither and my super chick short stories that were in an anthology. Slither has been re-released as my own indie book, and the super chick stories will be re-released on their own soon enough.

I’ve been hawking my books at Ren Faire for five years now. This year was by far the best season, ever. Honestly, I sold so many books I had to emergency-order another box of them for the last weekend. I met so many new readers! It was amazing. One young woman even came up from Ohio just to meet me (ME!) and have her copy of Consumption signed.

I’ve spoken recently with someone who has interest in turning one of my short horror stories into an indie film. Opportunities have been turning up around every corner, it seems like. One of the things I’ve been doing over the last year is writing down my nightmares, just to sort of get them out of my head. After a particularly odd one a couple of months ago, I posted it on Facebook as a weird little story. The publisher of the Halloween Machine magazine noticed it and asked if I would be interested in publishing it in the summer edition of their magazine, which is pretty damn cool. It released this week. You can find my creepy nightmare under Auntie Val’s Story Time.

Learning to manage my anxiety has been a struggle since my brother died, and I’ve really been focusing on ways to remove extra stressors from my life. One of the things I decided to change is how many book events I’m going to do each year. I’m invited to several, and even though I have fun with them, they are exhausting and sometimes stressful. I intended this year to only do April Ghoul’s Day and then Ren Faire; however, I’ve decided to do one more this fall. I’ll be at the Flint Film Fright Fest in Flint, MI on October 27th. It really does look fun, and it’s only one day. I think I can handle it. I’ve ordered new business cards – I actually ran out of them at Ren Faire! – and a new banner for the occasion.

I guess what I wanted to convey with this post is this: it isn’t wrong to do things your own way. We don’t all need to fit into the prescribed size and shape of what others perceive as “successful.”

Figure out what success means to you, and adjust accordingly.

Life is too brief to live it for anyone else. Follow your own arrow, wherever it points.

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Everything else, Grief

When the Wind Comes.

girl swing

 

There are days it just sneaks up on me. It doesn’t seem as if anything in particular sets it off. Sometimes it’s a cumulative effect; an anniversary date has passed, or I’ve read or seen something that reminds me of one of them and over the course of several days it all builds up. June is always a busy month for me, because weekends in June I work at the Ren Faire, but it’s also a difficult one, because there are so many of those painful anniversary dates to get through.

My dad had two birthdays. All his life, he celebrated on June 21st. The first day of summer. The day before my parents’ wedding anniversary. When my eldest daughter was about a year old, my parents decided to go on a cruise. When Dad went to see about his passport, he needed a copy of his birth certificate. After procuring such, he was startled to see his date of birth listed as June 12. He went to his mother’s house to question this discrepancy. My grandmother, a no nonsense farm wife who raised eight children (all born at home) while also maintaining a job at a restaurant, responded, (paraphrasing here) “Listen, Dale, you were one of eight kids. I was busy. I was tired. I don’t remember which day you were born.”

My sister’s birthday was June 15th. And then of course there was Father’s Day, which always kind of bites when you no longer have a father to visit. It was also my brother’s wife and son’s first Father’s Day without him.

While I got through these dates actually pretty well, doing my best to keep busy and generally filling my mind up with enough caffeine and yarn and extra tasks at work, and Ren Faire fun, etc., repeat, to keep me from over-focusing on my losses, there came a reckoning day. I was blindsided by the intensity of it. Like a powerful wind that’s been gaining speed for hours before plowing into a rickety barn, the grief struck me down in the middle of a work day. I was fine, working along, typing and filing and laughing with my coworker, and all at once I was NOT fine, not fine at all. Tears poured forth, furious and salty. The terrible weight that had suddenly taken up residence in my chest made it nearly impossible to breathe. I turned my head, grabbed my purse, mumbled something about taking my lunch early, and staggered out to my car. I dropped the driver’s side seat back as far as it would go, so nobody could see me sobbing, and called my husband. He talked soothingly to me for several minutes, and then reminded me to do some breathing exercises or try to meditate until I had a hold of myself. By the time we’d hung up, what had started as another wave of grief had morphed into a full-on anxiety attack. When it was time to go back in, I’d cried off all my make-up and my face was red and puffy. I’m fortunate to have kindhearted coworkers who are caring and understanding. But I was “off” for the rest of the day, and when I came home, I was so exhausted I curled up on the couch and stayed there until bedtime. My limbs all felt like lead.

I hate to use the word “trigger,” because I feel like it implies I want or need other people to censor their speech and that’s not the case. But I’ve found that one of the things that amp up the anxiety is when I see or hear about siblings coming together during a crisis. My family and I were always so close; the sort of family who would rush to be with one another during a hardship. The night my brother died, I remember walking into the hallway on the way to his room. My aunt Carol was standing there, crying and shaking her head at me. “He’s already gone,” she choked out. I’d missed his death by eight minutes.

As I stumbled into his hospital room, there was my Uncle Russ, mom’s brother, and his wife. None of them lived near the hospital, but they’d dropped what they were doing when they got the call from my mother and sped to the hospital to be with her. To help hold her up. They huddled around her, stroking her back, murmuring words of comfort, getting water, tissues, whatever they could. My mom’s other sister lived out of state, but by the next day had already booked a flight back to Michigan.

Now and again it hits me that I will never again have that. In times of trouble, I will never have my siblings to help hold me up. I will never be able to call them to talk through a struggle I’m having.  It’s a precious thing to have, and one that’s probably taken for granted by many. It’s one of those things you expect to have. Until all at once, you don’t.

I’ve heard it said that after something awful happens, you “get bitter or get better.” I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. Maybe you “get bitter or get empathetic.” Or perhaps you “get bitter or become more compassionate.”

Am I “better?” In some respects. I’m certainly better than I was six months ago, in the sense that I can think straight most of the time. I have the energy to take showers, and I remember to wash the shampoo and conditioner out of my hair now. I remember the steps I need to take to wash the dishes or the laundry. I can go to Walmart most of the time without having a panic attack from the crowds of people.

But there are holes in me that will never again be filled. There is pain that will never lessen. I’ve just learned to carry them inside, next to love for my remaining family, and joy at my kids’ laughter, and snuggles with my puppies, and the memories of extraordinary sunsets. I try not to focus on the unfairness of it, because indeed this situation is unfair. No way around that. But if I only focus on that, I miss out on the pure delight of holding my sister’s grandchildren in my arms. I miss out on beautiful days with my family. I miss out on friendships and art and all the simple parts of life that are not really simple at all. The pain and the joy just have to exist together.

My losses have changed me irreparably and that’s a truth I’ve had to accept. I will never be the person I was before. Part of that change is this excess of empathy and compassion. I have known the pain that has knocked me down and nearly kept me there, so when I meet someone with a similar struggle, my soul recognizes that hurt and I’m compelled to reach out. I listen more. I’m slower to come to conclusions about others. Constantly in the forefront of my thoughts is the knowledge that I have no idea what anyone else has been through, just as they have no idea what I’ve been through. Kindness makes a difference. A smile, a thoughtful word – they make a difference. The gifts of time, of acceptance, of unconditional love – they make a difference. I try to just meet people where they are at in life and love them right there.

There are other changes that aren’t so positive. I feel deeper, in every respect. Sometimes that is difficult to handle. I still struggle with what feel like stupid changes: I still cannot watch television. I haven’t read a book in months. My attention span is a problem, much more so than before, I think. I spend a lot of time lost in my own head. Quite often, I feel like I’ve slowed way down, though that might just be my own interpretation. I catch on to new tasks slower, it seems like I move slowly and though my brain is as crowded as ever before, it feels like the gears are turning at an impossibly slow pace.

On one hand, it seems impossible that all of this has even happened, and on the other, it feels like it keeps happening, day after day, minute after minute.

My rule for myself back in November was that I just had to get up and put on clothes every day. I knew if I allowed myself to stay in bed for one day, it would all be over for me and I’d never get back out. Here were are in July, and I can honestly say my life is far fuller than just climbing out of bed and pulling on leggings. I’ve put out three books since November, I’ve made new friends, I’ve laughed, I’ve gotten a new job, I’ve learned new skills, I’ve been through therapy, I’ve learned a lot about myself, about resilience, about grief, depression, and anxiety.

I’ve changed a lot for both the good and the not so good. But the important thing is that I’m here. Every day, I wake up. I interact. I seek out art and joy and beauty. Life will never be what it once was. I will never be the person I was before.

But that doesn’t mean life isn’t worthwhile.

Maybe it isn’t always beautiful. But there will always be beauty in the pain. There will always be a spot of sun in the darkness.

And even when the harsh wind comes out of nowhere to knock me down, I will always, always get back up.

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Everything else, Writing

Rebellious Creativity

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When I was about ten years old, my paternal grandmother started teaching me to crochet. Really all I learned was how to chain and single stitch, and I never learned how to stop, so for a while I made blankets for my Barbie dolls but I couldn’t figure out what to do at the end and eventually I gave it up. About eight years ago, I picked it back up again. Other than that little bit of instruction I received when I was a kid, I’m entirely self-taught.

A while back, I learned about something called freeform crochet. In freeform, you basically do whatever the heck you feel like doing. This idea appealed to me on so many levels. (Hold tight. I’m going to make writing parallels. Be patient.) I started small, making tiny freeform pieces. Then I connected them. And got braver and braver with the things I was willing to try. Now I’ve got this gigantic freeform shawl I wear all the time, and people stop me everywhere I go to ask where I bought it. It delights me to know I made it and it can’t be duplicated.

Here’s the thing, though: I wouldn’t be able to do freeform if I hadn’t learned basic stitches first. I’m not a huge fan of patterns, but I am capable of following them when needed. I wouldn’t be able to do freeform if I hadn’t learned how to do increases and decreases already. Or how to connect granny squares. Or many of the other basic things crochet entails. I’ve been crocheting steadily now for about eight years. At first, my efforts were plain silly-looking. Patterns didn’t make sense. But as with any new skill, you learn. It takes time, but soon enough, it’s second nature. Now I crochet so fast I rarely have to even look down at my fingers while I work. Over the last year, most of what I’ve been crocheting has been freeform. Spirals, mandalas, shawls, random pieces that grow and grow until I figure out what it wants to be. I love the whole idea of not trying to match colors, or stitches, or adhere to a pattern fifty-million other people have made. The point, I suppose, is that in order to break the rules, first you have to learn the rules. I know how to DC2TOG (double crochet 2 together) when I’m crocheting. Since I’ve mastered that, now I can deliberately DC2TOG and then add a bullion stitch to it. Or pull a second color in to it. Or stick it in the middle of six trebles. Or whatever strikes my fancy. In freeform, it doesn’t need to match, or turn out even, or turn into anything at all. I just enjoy what I’m doing in that moment, and see where it goes. No pressure. No need to be certain edges line up. Freeform celebrates crooked art. I like that about it. It’s very… well, freeing.

(The parallel, as promised.)

There’s a lot of writing advice bandied about that goes something like this, “Good writers break the rules.” I believe that to be so. I certainly don’t want to create books that sound exactly like anyone else’s, and I get bored really quickly reading an author that has the same form for every book. By page ten, I’ve figured out the villain, the plot twist, and the ending. No fun. In fact, when I was writing Heckled, I wrote it backward to begin with. Even once I went to chapter one and started writing, I had decided I was going to write that story exactly as I saw it in my head, without consideration for who might read it or who might take issue with it or what the backlash  might be. And there are lots of people who don’t like that book. Of my novels, Heckled is the one I receive the most private messages IN ALL CAPS about what I wrote. That’s okay with me, though. I’m pleased with how that story turned out. It’s real. It’s raw. And more honest than most people probably realize. But I definitely broke some rules during the writing of it.

Breaking the rules is where imagination gets wild. Where creativity and voice really show. Breaking the rules is exciting. But here’s the thing: you can’t deliberately break the rules until you understand the rules. It’s important to study the craft of writing. It’s important to get a handle on how a story should go. (Not how it “must” go.) While I absolutely do not believe there’s only one great way to write a book, there are elements that should probably be present in some form. It’s important to read lots and lots of books of different styles and genres. Older writers. Dead writers. New writers. Read, read, read. When you stumble on something that really strikes you, pay attention to how the writer accomplished that task. Stick that knowledge away for later.

Any writer worth her salt has learned you shouldn’t use adverbs. Adverbs are devil’s spawn. Putting adverbs in a story is like putting rotted apples out for your fancy luncheon. It’s never okay. Really. Pick up any book about How to Write Things and this advice will always, always be included. So learn to write powerfully without adverbs. Stretch your skills. Use your imagination. Get a solid handle on doing it. It’s important.

Once you’ve got it down pat, break the rule. Because it’s ridiculous to never, ever, ever use an adverb in writing. It’s dumb advice, really. It’s a rule meant to be broken. But only after you know how to write without adverbs should you attempt it. You’ll learn something writing with and without them. Once you’ve learned to slash them completely from your own writing, you’ll notice how many adverbs are too many when you’re reading. You’ll get a feel for how many you can sprinkle in and still pack a punch.

There are so many rules like this that practically beg to be busted into “freeform.” But… but it’s imperative to remember that even the wildest, most rebellious writer on the planet must still adhere to some rules. You can play with grammar. You can’t entirely disregard every grammar rule ever written. Punctuation serves a vital purpose. There are ways to mess with some of it. Some of it, sorry, you really can’t. There are occasions you need to splice a comma. Other times, the words are more powerful as sentence fragments. (Yes, you can write sentence fragments in a book. YES. Absolutely you can. Fight me, bruh.)

Freeform crochet is a beautiful thing. Truly. Look it up on Instagram or Pinterest. It’s just stunning, the art people come up with working freeform.

However.

Even with freeform, there are elements that must be included. You can’t pick up a spool of thread, a block of cheese, and a squeaky dog toy and announce you’re about to make some freeform crochet because there aren’t any rules about it. Well, I guess you could announce it. But it wouldn’t mean anything, because you don’t have the correct tools.

You’re smart. You can draw your own parallels here.

And if you think crochet lessons have nothing to do with storytelling, then explain why long, rambling stories are often referred to as “yarns.”

No, seriously. Explain it.

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Art By the Numbers

 

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The important thing, when considering your artistic path, is to figure out how many Facebook likes your page is probably going to get.

I mean, you can’t be an artist without at least five thousand Facebook page likes.

Everyone knows that.

And any artist that was creating art before the advent of social media, well –

I guess they weren’t really artists.

The amount of people who validate your art by commenting on a post is what determines the worth of the piece.

… right?

Maybe take that idea a little deeper. Exactly how many people need to like your art before it becomes “real art?” Ten? A hundred? A thousand? How much profit must be made off an art piece before it becomes “real art?”

Which leads me to another question. How many people need to lay eyes on the art in question before it’s real?

Let’s say two people make the exact same quilt. They spend the same amount of time and money to create it. When finished, the quilts are identical. One sells hers for two thousand dollars. The other keeps his on his bed and enjoys it for the next thirty years, but nobody else ever sees it.

Which one is an artist?

Now, if one is attempting to make a living off creating art, then of course, numbers become the driving force. There’s nothing wrong with that – rent needs to be paid, groceries bought, kids clothed. But the amount of revenue isn’t what decides whether or not a piece of art is real, or if the artist is truly, well, an artist.

If there is a talent, a drive, time spent over making the piece just right – man, that’s creating art. If ideas slam around in your head at night and you’re getting excited over picking up your paintbrush or crochet hook or laptop or musical instrument – that’s art. If the doing of the thing is what makes your soul light up and makes you smile without realizing it – that’s making art.

Life is so extraordinarily brief. If the desire to make art is burning inside you, MAKE IT. Enjoy it. Learn how to do it better. Immerse yourself in the joy that comes when you succumb to creativity. It doesn’t require a certain amount of Facebook likes or comments; it doesn’t require a certain amount of Twitter followers; it doesn’t require a certain amount of cash to exchange hands before your art is real.

Your art is real when you create it. The quality may change over time. Your abilities will stretch and grow. You’ll try new things. You’ll look back in ten years and groan over your first efforts.

But you will have done it. It will be yours. It isn’t art anyone else can make.

Exactly how many people need to like your art before it becomes “real art?” Ten? A hundred? A thousand?

What if only one person loves it, but they love it so much, they connect with it on such a deep level, your art changes their life?

Is it still worth it for just one person?

And what if that one person is you? If you’re the only one satisfied by the piece you’ve created, is it still real art? Is it still worth doing?

Absolutely.

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Feast or Famine

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Writing is weird. Sometimes difficult. Often joyous.

But always weird.

My brain seems to function on a feast or famine basis when it comes to writing. Right now, I’m writing and writing and even when I’m not writing… I’m still writing. The story is moving along in my mind, I’m hearing the characters, I know exactly where it’s going and where it’s been and where it will be in another five years.

When I’m in this mode, it feels more like I’m a vessel for the characters in my head and I’m more or less transcribing their story. I’m less the puppet master and more the marionette. I love it. Regardless what time of day I’m able to sit down and write, it’s there, right at my fingertips, ready to roll. But it isn’t always this way. Some days, my brain is dry as a desert. Some days, I spend three hours moving a comma. Some days, I can’t stand to even look at my laptop.

And that’s okay.

Social media can be cool, in the sense that it feels as though it brings us closer to those we admire. I mean, twenty years ago I would never have known what Stephen King thought about the president or that he has a dog he calls the Thing of Evil. I would never have known when Diana Gabaldon had a new grandbaby. But as I pull back more and more on social media, as I unfollow and unfriend more and more writers, I find I’m enjoying the act of writing more and more.

I wondered why that was.

Presumably, following and friending other writers should make me feel surrounded by a community of like-minded artists. Supported. Encouraged.

I haven’t found that to be the case.

As much as I love art, as much as I love words and books and writing, as much as I love seeing the creativity of my friends’ minds coming to life, the more I watch their journeys taking shape –

the more I realize other writers stress me out.

Not all of them, of course. I’ve made some wonderful friends over the last few years. But the ones who post obsessively about writing – I find that stressful.

The ones who constantly post how stressed out writing makes them – I find that stressful.

The ones who constantly want something from me – stressful.

The ones who talk about missing out on milestones in their children’s lives, or their wedding anniversary, or their eighty-year-old mother’s birthday party because they were writing or trying to make a deadline or just couldn’t stop editing –

Man, just the thought of these things stresses me out.

Don’t get me wrong. I love writing. I mean, I love writing. When I’m in that zone, when I’m planning twists, when I’m cracking up at a funny scene I’ve written, it’s the best feeling. It makes me feel whole. It’s my passion, one of my greatest joys.

I don’t want it to become one of my stressors. I’ve done the whole writing full-time gig before. I didn’t enjoy it. I felt like I was supposed to. I began to dread writing. I felt anxious that my bills being paid depended on my ability to write enough words in a day.

I see this in other writers as well. When they talk about writing being so stressful they cry over it. When they are so panicked over a deadline or a cover reveal or getting enough reviews they can’t sleep. They are missing out on life because of the stress writing brings to their life. They’ve lost the joy, the passion, the pure wonder of creating a world and people and events in their brain. I don’t want that. I get asked if I hope to make the NYT bestseller list –

the answer is no.

I get asked if I hope to  be able to live on what I make from writing books –

the answer is no.

I get asked if writing is the most important thing in my life –

the answer is no.

Last week, I attended a funeral visitation for a three-year-old child and her twenty-seven-year-old father.

A three-year-old child.

Listen:

I love to write. I’m sad when I can’t. It hurts – physically hurts me when I can’t.

But there is so much more to life than writing.

This year marks twenty-five years since I married my husband. My marriage is more important than writing.

My youngest baby is about to celebrate his sixteenth birthday. A blink of time ago, he was a chubby-cheeked, toothless baby. My oldest child is nearing the end of her Bachelor’s degree program. My middle two children are finding their balance in life as young adults.

I love to read. I love to write. I love to hold the books I’ve created in my hands.

But I don’t love any of that more than I love my kids.

When other writers say things like, “Nothing is more important to me than writing” –

that stresses me out.

Lately I’ve unfollowed or unfriended the bulk of writers I used to interact with. Not the ones I have developed actual friendships with.

And I mean… not Stephen King. Because, obviously.

There is a lot of pressure on writers and artists in general, I think – a notion that says if you don’t want to be the best, be at the top of the list, have bajillions of reviews and followers, then you just don’t want to succeed hard enough.

Maybe. Maybe not.

I guess that depends on what your personal idea of success happens to be.

I accepted a long, long time ago that my brain works differently than other people’s brains do. What I cannot accept is the idea that if I’m not out to make a million, it’s worthless. If I’m not ignoring my family and making writing my number one priority, it’s worthless. If I’m not stressing myself to the breaking point or making my livelihood reliant on it, it’s worthless.

I’m content with my writing at this point. I have a little band of readers who love what I’m doing, who are invested in my characters and have all my books on their shelves. I love not freelancing anymore. I enjoy not being so constantly stressed over deadlines. I am happier writing this way. I’m not making a million dollars. That’s fine – I never intended to.

My vision of success is to continue to write my weird books to the best of my ability for the foreseeable future. I will do what marketing and promo I’m able to do, and let it rest. I trust that the people who need my books will find them.

What I won’t do is be a martyr for my art. I won’t give up everything else in my life for the sake of writing.

I love to read. I love to write. I love making books.

I also love my family. I love to walk barefoot in the grass, and look up at the stars. I love  to sit still and ferret out the meaning behind song lyrics. I love to listen to the rain. I love to hear my children laugh. I love to crochet. I love to try new things. I love to hear my husband tell me about his hopes and dreams. I love to look back at how far we’ve come and think about how far we’re going to go. I love to daydream.

I love to write, and while some days, it feels like my ideas and ability to write is feast or famine –

I don’t believe my dedication to the craft always needs to be one or the other.

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Making Strange Art

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One of the coolest things about indie art is the variety. The art I tend to love best is the kind that doesn’t fit into any neat category. It’s the work that colors outside the lines, the brave ideas that forge a new path that catches my eye.

Maybe those artists don’t have a huge following, but that doesn’t mean their style of art isn’t worth making. Creating art for public viewing is scary enough as it is, even when you make it “to market”, when it’s the trendiest and likely the most accepted sort. Creating art for public consumption that is weird and likely to be scoffed at…

Man, that’s pretty terrifying.

When you pour your heart and soul into a piece of work, shine it up the best you can, and let it fly – it’s like sharing a piece of what makes you tick inside. It’s sharing a bit of the part that makes you, well, you. 

And regardless what sort of art you make, there will always be people to tear it down. Always.

But there will also be the people who have just been waiting for the sort of art you create, and when they find it, it will speak to their soul in a way that connects you to them. They’ll recognize it as something they’ve always needed. They’ll love it. They’ll share it. They’ll tell people about it.

I read a comment about my work where a person who has never met me stated, “She just hasn’t found her voice yet, that’s all.”

Oh, honey. I’ve found my voice.

My voice is multi genre. My voice is weird. My voice may be different, but it’s mine, and I intend to continue writing my strange books to the best of my ability for the foreseeable future.

People will like them. Or they won’t. That’s not my problem.

My burden lies in writing my books as well as I can, and putting them out for other fringe souls to find.

Make your weird art, and know the people who need it will find it. Don’t conform for the sake of an audience. There is a crowd out there waiting for the art only you can create.

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