To a Year of Living Selfishly

I’ve been feeling reflective for the last week or so. No, not the kind of reflective that makes you all shiny and highly visible so you won’t get hit by a car while you’re out doing questionable things in the dark. The kind where you look back on the past several years and realize how many significant events you’ve experienced in that time. I was going to say “endured,” but that implies they were all bad and they certainly were not. But neither were they all good.

When I say they were significant, I mean they were significantly distracting or required significant amounts of time and energy from me. Many of them I haven’t talked about over here, or anywhere else, because, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, I am a very private person. There are things I’m just never going to talk about in public spaces. Or even in semi-private ones.

But holy guacamole, it’s been one hell of a few years. Sometimes to the point where I wanted to yell, “STOP IT. I CAN’T EVEN THINK ANYMORE WITH ALL THIS. JUST. FUCKING. STOP.” It all has taken a toll, that’s for sure.

And now, suddenly, there’s nothing significant on the horizon. Not that there won’t be, because of course there will. Life happens. “It’s never nothing,” as my dad used to say. But there’s nothing scheduled or looming and I’m feeling gloriously free for the first time in a very long time. And determined.

I don’t make resolutions at the New Year, never have. So it’s sort of a weird coincidence that I’m feeling all resolute here in early January.

I was talking to my daughter about this when she and her husband were here visiting during the last week of December and it was difficult to articulate without sounding like I didn’t enjoy the hell out of many of those events. Because I did. Especially my children’s weddings, which were wonderful. But at the same time, I’m glad they’re done.

I’m delighted beyond words that my calendar is clear. The sheer relief of having no upcoming obligations is staggering.

I really hope I’m not jinxing myself by saying this, but I feel like I’ve done my time. For a while, anyway. I’ve given so much of myself to others — sometimes eagerly and with great joy and pleasure, sometimes not — but now it’s my turn.

I anticipate– no, I am determined that this year is going to be epically, gleefully selfish. I am resolved to focusing on what I want, and what I want is to write fiction. I’m going to concentrate on that pretty much to the exclusion of all else.

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So don’t anyone plan on having any dramas or crises or grand celebrations, okay? At least, not any that require my participation or attention. I’m gonna be busy over here, learning how to say “no” more often and taking care of my own needs for a change.

Who knows, maybe a few of you will conclude that’s of benefit to you as well. It’s a new year, anything’s possible.

 

Oh, by the way, if any of you want to be notified when I’ve completed said works of fiction and they’re available for purchase, you might want to sign up for my mailing list, which you can do HERE.

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On gifts and giving

My sisters and I have pretty much stopped sending each other gifts for birthdays and Christmas. There have been some notable exceptions, but this has been the mutual agreement for many years. So when my youngest sister mentioned she’d sent me something for my birthday, which was a week or so ago, I assumed she meant a card.

I was surprised when I received a package that was somewhat larger than a card, and far heavier and thicker. Of course, there was a birthday card enclosed. It was funny and made me laugh. Here’s a picture of it [from baldguygreetings.com] which is not good quality because I’m propping this stuff up on my laptop screen:

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And the inside:

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If you can’t see it, that last item says:

“THEY HAND WRITE YOU A LETTER ON COLLEGE RULED BINDER PAPER:
This would be the most caring person in the world — if you were in the 4th grade. But since you’re not, this is weird and to be honest, a little creepy. This person has the potential to be a stalker. Be careful. Seriously.”

So it totally cracked me up when she did indeed enclose a hand written letter on college ruled binder paper, written as if she were in 4th grade (yes, I deleted my [real] name).

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She also sent photocopies of two different things I had written and sent to her, although not when I was in 4th grade (which might have been a plausible excuse).

One of them was a photocopy of a letter I’d written (in cursive, no less, demonstrating I was once capable of legible penmanship) when I was living in Atlanta and she had just moved, or was about to move, to Chicago. I referenced sending two “silly gifts” but don’t say what they were. I don’t remember writing it and neither of us can remember what I sent. It’s pretty sappy. You don’t need to see that.

The other paper is a copy of a poem I apparently wrote for her when she turned 13 and I was a month shy of being 17. It’s too ridiculous not to share:

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Can you read it? Probably just as well if you can’t. I have no memory of writing this either, although I do remember that I used to write “poetry” [ahem] ALL THE TIME when I was younger. Some of it I put in writing, but most of it was just in my head, usually composed while in the shower (I was hell on my parents’ water bills). But there you have it, proof that I’ve always been more than just a little weird. It must have been pure torment to have me as an older sister. Or a younger sister. Or daughter, for that matter.

And then I got to the gift-wrapped item in the package, which turned out to be a book. It made me cry.

It’s an old book, slightly water damaged and musty smelling and perhaps even a bit moldy around the edges. A book my sister “rescued” from the basement library in our parents’ house several years after the epic flooding back in . . . whenever it was. Mid-80s? It’s one of the books deemed to be “not too badly damaged,” therefore escaping the heartbreaking dumpster fate of so many other tomes. This book:

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You might think this is a really weird gift. I mean, it’s pretty much just an ordinary school textbook. You might wonder why seeing it made me cry and why I will always treasure it. Here’s why:

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This is one of my dad’s books. My dad the high school English teacher/debate coach who died way too young almost 20 years ago. That’s his distinctive writing in the margins, his characteristic underlining of words and phrases. That’s the look of every student paper he graded for his own classes over the years, every book he read, every thought-provoking article in some publication or other. It’s the look of every single paper I ever wrote, after it had been turned in to and graded by some other teacher and then grudgingly, at his insistence, handed over to him for the red (or blue) pen treatment.

And damn, I’ve missed seeing that. Of all the hundreds of books in my house, this is the only one (now) in my possession that was his. It’s an amazing gift, one I never would have thought to ask for. A gift I didn’t even know I wanted. My sister knew. It holds the same value and memories for her, after all, and I was moved by her thoughtful generosity in parting with it.

Since this is a traditional time for giving, and not solely because of MY birthday, it seems to be a good time to say I hope the gifts you receive — and the ones you give — this holiday season will be similarly meaningful and worth treasuring.

And apart from material things, or perhaps more accurately, in addition to tangible forms of generosity . . . in the coming year, I hope more of us will give the gift of attention and understanding and compassion to those who suffer and struggle. I hope more of us will grant that precious gift not only to those we know and love, but especially to those we don’t, who live in nearby and far off places we’ve never seen, whose hardships we might recognize or will never know, whose humanity is exactly like our own.

Thoughtful generosity.

If I could give each of you a gift to share, it would be that.

 

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Celebrating the day . . . on a different day

I’m trying to distract myself from the fact that I think I’m coming down with a cold. And also from the memory of what I was doing one year ago today (rest in peace, Mitty).

I’m feeling thankful for so many things, but today I’m especially thankful that I’m not the one in charge of making a huge Thanksgiving Day feast. After a couple decades of doing that, it’s been a relief these past few years to have an extended break from it. And it’s highly entertaining to “watch” as my daughter in Boston does it instead.

Here’s a series of text messages she sent me last night:

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I’m exhausted just reading it. She told me today that she’s planning to not only make turkey soup with leftovers, but also turkey and Andouille sausage gumbo, which is what her in-laws in New Orleans do with their leftovers. “They eat maybe two turkey sandwiches and then use the rest to make gumbo.”

All of this is truly hilarious given that this is the child who would eat only six things when she was young, while her brother ate everything. Really, she was impossible.

Her husband the MD and a couple of his also-MD friends are working a series of night shifts at the moment, so they all are having their feast bright and early on Friday morning (hence the inclusion of breakfast food on her menu). My son and his wife are spending today with her family and we’ll have our “Thanksgiving” dinner Friday as well, though not in the morning. We’ve all adjusted our concept of holiday to fit the circumstances. You figure out pretty quickly that celebrations are more about the spirit of the thing and happiness is not constrained by a date on the calendar.

But I won’t be making turkey, thankyouverymuch. I’m planning slow-cooked BBQ pork tenderloin and scalloped potatoes and asparagus and . . . whatever else comes to mind. Maybe that marinated tomato/cucumber thing I haven’t made for a while. Maybe even some Brussels sprouts (my daughter sent me a great recipe) (who knew they could be delicious?).

I think I have some ice cream, if anyone has room for dessert. Highly unlikely, in my experience. But I suppose it’s not really Thanksgiving without some kind of pie, so here, enjoy the apple pie my daughter made. Doesn’t it smell good?

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I hope you all are finding things for which to give thanks, whether you celebrate this particular holiday or not. If you’re reading this, please know that I’m thankful for your presence in my life. On all the days.

 

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Stepping back to move forward

I’ve heard people say that when you have a big job to do, it helps to break it down into smaller parts or steps. This makes it feel less overwhelming and also gives you a more immediate sense of accomplishment as you complete each step. It’s good advice. I’ve utilized this reasoning myself, more than once.

But sometimes it backfires. Or maybe that’s just me. Probably just me.

I read a post the other day over on Bob Mayer’s blog that talked about wanting things. As I was reading along I thought, Yeah, I want to finish this damn book already. And then I read this part and it made me stop and really think:

“Studies have shown that wanting something produces one set of chemical reactions in the brain, while actually getting it, produces a different one. In fact, once you get it, you can’t want it any more. That takes a second for me to wrap my brain around. That means you actually feel differently between the wanting and the having. It’s chemical. I think we often forget that chemistry is science and it does rule, affecting how we literally feel and think.”

Took me more than a second. This was daunting when I applied it to myself. Once I get what I want — to finish writing this book — then what? I’ll have a finished book and no more desire? My motivation will just . . . disappear? There was a brief moment of something that felt like panic until I realized, no, silly, of course not. Because what I want is more than just that one thing.

Pretty sure this wasn’t the intention of the post, but credit where it’s due. It made me realize I was so focused on one part, one small frustrating step, I’d lost track of the big picture. Since I couldn’t see past the current roadblock, everything seemed impossible. It was as if I’d gotten stuck on Hayakawa’s Ladder of Abstraction, clinging myopically to a lower rung, right alongside good ol’ Bessie the cow.

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I still think that ladder is missing a step and should’ve included something smaller than a cow. Like maybe a meatball or veal chop or something.

Anyway.

A comparison that seems more apt for my situation is that of creating a mosaic. I’ve been so focused recently on one little tile, trying to make sure all the edges were beveled and the surface was polished, positioning it just so, worrying that the colour perhaps wasn’t quite the same exact hue as the others. No longer seeing it as just a small piece of the whole.

More important, I’d forgotten that not only are imperfections inevitable, they are what give character to a piece of art and make the whole more interesting.

And I had to ask myself– am I really going to let this one small piece stop me from achieving the whole? Seriously? This tiny little piece that isn’t even the hard part of what I want?

Hell no, I’m not.

So I took a step back. A big step back. Yes, I want to finish this damn book. After that I want to finish the third book in this series. And then I want to write more books, more series, under this pen name and another. Books I’ve already started and some I haven’t, books in different genres, with possibly different audiences. My head is full of stories, waiting to escape.

The whole of what I want is a career as a writer.

It’s the kind of “wanting” that will never quite be realized, as defined in the quote above. That motivating chemical reaction will always be there, never fully satisfied, because a writing career lasts as long as the writer is willing and able to write. And can avoid getting bogged down in minutiae.

Slowly, reluctantly, I’ve come to realize that in order to accomplish the whole, I need to accept that some of the individual pieces will be imperfect. I don’t like that feeling. It’s so . . . vulnerable. But it’s true. There will be flawed tiles, whether those are not-quite-right words, awkward sentences, clumsy scenes, or books that don’t quite fit a series. At first, up close, some of those pieces might look a little weird or scrawny or pitiful.

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But eventually they’ll all fit, in their own way, and be pieces of the whole. Some people won’t notice the flaws. Other people won’t be able to see anything but, and will be dismayed (sometimes — okay, a lot of the time — that will be me). With any luck, there will also be a few people who not only see the flaws but decide those are what make the whole interesting and unique and give it character.

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So I’ve expanded my focus, renewed my perspective and determination– for what seems like the millionth time. But I guess that’s my struggle, balancing self-doubt and confidence. Probably always will be. Oh, and that pesky little tile, er, scene that was giving me so much trouble? I deleted it. And wrote something else, something better. Sometimes I forget I can do that, can magically make things NOT happen. Another symptom of getting too close.

I’m back at work, quietly making my own mistakes, polishing my flaws as best I can and then letting go, setting pieces in place, moving on to the next. Envisioning a larger composite only I can see, that only I can create. Wanting what I want.

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Reassessment. Recalibration.

Ahhhh, yes, we’ve finally turned the corner into fall. Autumn, for you purists out there. I love this time of year, when the temperatures drop along with the humidity and the leaves. The heat of summer in the south never fails to sap my patience and energy. It seems like a feat of endurance just to let the days go by. But we’ve made it to October and, now that our epic bout of rain and gloom has moved out, life in general will be more pleasant. Cooler, anyway. We’ve had clear skies for two whole entire days and I’m giddy with it.

Our leaves haven’t started to change yet, so I’m sharing a picture my daughter took in Boston last week. I suspect she’s trying to stave off winter by documenting the landscape sans snow. Can’t say I blame her, after last winter.

I feel somewhat guilty that I haven’t posted for a while, but I’ve been busy. Sometimes I’m quiet over here because I don’t really have anything to say, other times because there’s too much. It’s been the latter, these past couple months. Frankly, I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with things that are not particularly blog-appropriate. Nothing earth shattering, just the normal stuff we all have to deal with and tend not to discuss in public. Proliferation of cat hairballs, neighbours vs. trees, family drama, ongoing physical therapy. The return of the goddamn raccoons to the attic. You know, the usual.

I also seem to have been in a state of re-evaluation. Thinking deep thoughts about how I spend my time and looking seriously at the things that suck up not just time, but also my attention and energy. Deciding whether they’re worth it. Some are, some are not. Debating changes in my life and how to be more productive.

And of course, there’s the writing. That’s been a big part of my deliberation and I’ve been struggling with it. Writing, deleting, writing some more and not liking that either. There have been days, weeks lately when I wonder why I’m doing this and whether I should just stop. But the prospect of not writing is more terrifying than the struggle to write is frustrating. So quitting isn’t really an option, even though I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, and am doing it poorly. Feeling like a giant fraud.

Yeah, I know, supposedly this is normal and all writers feel this way, from time to time. Or always. So I guess that’s comforting. But it’s not really much help when you’re the one feeling it.

My brain keeps replaying a conversation with my older sister after she read the novella I published. There was a note of surprise in her voice when she said, “It was really pretty good. There were parts when I forgot you were the one who wrote it.”

“You mean like it was written by someone who knew what they were doing?”

“YES. EXACTLY.”

So, clearly, not me.

*sigh*

That has got to be the most backhanded compliment I’ve ever received. Well, about writing anyway. She didn’t mean it that way. My older sister has been nothing but supportive of my writing efforts. One might even say she’s been bossy about it. But I can’t help remembering her saying that — even though it’s not the only thing or even the biggest thing chipping away at my confidence lately, not by a long shot — and it reinforces this feeling that I really don’t know what I’m doing most of the time. And after all these years of effort, of learning and practicing, that’s disheartening.

So I was hesitant, to say the least, when an unpublished writer friend asked me to give her feedback on a manuscript. Although . . . now that I stop and think about it, she didn’t ask. I pretty much insisted she let me read it once she was done editing.

Geez. Talk about bossy. This was back at the start of summer and probably I was high on prescription pain meds at the time. That’s my excuse anyway.

But by the time she sent it to me a couple weeks ago, all that hubris had disappeared and I was in the midst of feeling worthless and fraudulent and talentless. And pitiful, let’s not forget pitiful. [cue tiny violin] I doubted whether I’d have anything remotely useful or insightful to say. It took me almost an entire week to even open the document.

Then I started reading. And let me tell you, while she might be at the early stage of writing where you inevitably make a few minor rookie mistakes, this friend of mine can write. Honestly, that was a small part of my reluctance, the concern that maybe she wasn’t very good after all and I wouldn’t know what to say. A very small part, because I’ve known this woman for years and, even though she only recently admitted she was writing fiction, I could tell she was a writer. A terrific writer with a voice that’s perfect for historical romance, which is what she’s writing.

But I also realized something else, while reading her manuscript. I DO know something about writing fiction. I know quite a lot about writing fiction. I was able to tell her what was working and what wasn’t, and specifically why. I think I gave her some coherent feedback that will help make a good story stronger. She might not agree with me, and that’s fine. It’s her story.

So I’m relieved by that realization, but also frustrated. Why does it have to be so fucking impossible to have this kind of clarity about my own writing? Why does it take reading someone else’s manuscript to see my own mistakes and strengths, to be reminded of what I know and realize that I might not be totally screwing things up in my own writing? Does this ever get easier?

Probably not.

There’s a huge difference between reading for pleasure and reading with the intent of giving feedback. If you’re a writer, I suggest you give it a try, if you haven’t. Provided you can find a willing victim. You’ll pretty quickly figure out what you know and don’t know, based on the type of feedback you’re able to offer. You might even realize you know more than you thought you did.

But there’s also a difference between being able to see what is or isn’t working in a story and being able to put that into practice. A difference between being a good reader and a good writer. It’s all about the execution.

So, I’m struggling, with all sorts of things, and I imagine I’ll continue to do so. But I will try to get back to blogging more regularly. Now that fall is here and I’m feeling more human. Perhaps The White Ninja will cooperate and do something blog-worthy.

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Or perhaps not. Don’t anyone hold your breath.

 

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