How Not to Suck at Writing

  •   Try Grammarly‘s plagiarism checker free of charge because your teacher definitely will.
  •  Think about what you are writing before you write it.  This seems obvious, doesn’t it?  But all the time I see students coming in for help with papers who have just sat down and started writing and then been mad that the ideas didn’t come.  Ideas are kind of like beautiful women- rare is the writer that can get one in bed without putting some thought into courting it.
  • Try something different.  Okay, I get it: writers can be superstitious.  You wrote an amazing poem in that red shirt, but today you have that red shirt on and it’s not working.  Try something different.  It isn’t that hard.  Sometimes ideas get stuck on things, and you have to tease them loose.  Take a walk, eat some chocolate, do jumping jacks, kiss someone, do a headstand, talk it out with a friend, take a shower… do something.  The longer you sit in frustration at the keyboard, the more reluctant your ideas will be to show their face.
  • Ask why.  Is it something you’re writing for personal reasons?  Ask why you’re writing it, that will motivate you to work through your frustration.  Is it something you’re writing for an assignment?  Ask why it was assigned, it will help you understand what is expected of you.  Without the “why”, any work of writing can end up seeming directionless and confused.  Don’t do that to your work.
  • Write anyway.  Write the worst, most pointless, most meaningless and painful drivel you can.  Write through the wall and then look at it and ask, “what can I do to make this better?”  No matter how bad it is, it’s better than nothing.  You will have gotten a start.
  • Use art.  Writing an essay about sharks?  Draw the outline as pictures of sharks.  Use a graphic organizer, like an idea cloud or a Venn diagram.  Find some way to visualize the ideas you want on the paper, and you’ll find the shape of the written work starting to form in your head.  For some people who are more visual than verbal, writing can feel like surgery without anesthesia.  Finding a way to bring the visual into the writing process can ease the way.
  • Tell yourself what you are doing.  “I’m sitting down at the computer.”  “I’m going to write a paragraph now.”  By verbalizing your goals you cement them in your head, and make it a little easier to follow through.
  • Set short, manageable goals and reward yourself.  A Fun-Size Snickers for each bullet point?  Awesome.  I’ll go ahead and make more bullet points.  (Yes, this really does work.)
  • Treat it like a game.  We get the idea from the Hemingways of the world that writing is a tragic thing full of pain and best managed drunk.  It doesn’t have to be so dire, it can be fun.  Find ways to play with what you’re writing.  Hide a little joke in there.  Don’t take it so seriously.  Even if it is a paper for a grade, your teacher can sense if you hated it, and that will color their opinion.  I know I can tell the difference between a paper where the writer was engaged and happy and one where the writer hated it ever having been assigned:  one is far more likely to garner an A than the other.
  • Realize it is a moment in time, and will pass.  You aren’t going to spend the rest of your life in front of the computer screen.  Do what you must to get through it, and then go out and realize the sun still shines and the birds still sing.  The longer you spend at the keyboard resenting your writing, the longer you remove yourself from the things that make you happy.
  • Just type.  Nonsense if you have to.  Get your fingers moving, and get it done.

(this blog post is totally sponsored.)

The Cost of Silence

(This is an essay for a class, but I really, really like it.  And it’s been so long since I posted a blog…)

What happens to a society where the artists, writers, and thinkers fall silent?  What changes when necessity and fear get in the way of civil engagement?  What if all of the greatest minds of this age are working two jobs to keep food on the table, falling asleep to reruns of last year’s sitcoms, and posting memes on Facebook instead of speaking out?  Could it be that society is slowly deprogramming the electorate’s ability to create and dissent, replacing it with social pressures, mindless entertainment, exhaustion and fear?  The grinding pressure of the current economy is undeniably closing the door to art houses and niche publishers, artists are hanging up their brushes and writers are putting down their pens to pick up extra hours at more traditional jobs, causing beauty and dissent to both end up marginalized as boutique businesses.  The necessity of surviving everyday life blinds us to the real cost of the changing landscape of our economy;  If America is to remain the bastion of thinkers, a melting pot brewing some of the greatest innovation and debate of our world, we will have to raise our voices.

“The act of writing is the act of making soul, alchemy,” Gloria Anzaldua writes in her essay Speaking in Tongues.  Anzaldua goes on to explain that without writing, women can lose sight of their inner self, their dark and poetic “other”, they can lose their soul.  By writing, a writer can keep the soul alive; the cost of silence is grave.  As Pulitzer Prize winning historian Leon Litwack said to a group of graduating students in 1987; “History teaches us that it is not the rebels or the dissidents who endanger society but rather the unthinking, the unquestioning, the obedient, the silent, and the indifferent…  The time to be alarmed about our students is not when they are exercising their freedom of expression but when they are quiet, when they despair of changing society, of even understanding it.”  These two great thinkers give two very different reasons for keeping our voices engaged:  the first reason is to feed our souls, and the second is to prevent the further decline of our society.  The stilling of our voices, from either perspective, leads to different but equally grave consequence.  In nature, there is never true stillness.  Everything in nature grows or dies, the saying goes.  What happens when the voices of a society are stilled?  As Martin Neimoeller said in his famous poem about not speaking out during Nazi rule, “then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew,” which culminates in the chilling final epitaph, “Then they came for me, and there was no one left, to speak out for me.”  Silence breeds death.  Words are necessary.  If we are not content to see society fall away, we shouldn’t be content to starve our own creativity.

“There is no need for words to fester in our mouths,” Anzaldua writes.  There is no reason to hold in our words, and every reason to let them loose.  When we allow ourselves to stagnate in indifference we lose so much more than just the things we may have otherwise said.  We lose ourselves, our sense of self, and our sense of purpose and truth.  Like Neimoeller, we lose our connection to the society we may one day depend on for our own salvation.  Even more, if we accept silence from ourselves we give away our ability to dissent.  When the Nazis came for Neimoeller how could he have protested for his own sake without being immediately confronted by the fact that he had defended no one else?  This is a truth that Anzaldua unflinchingly embraces, “What we do and what we say ultimately comes back to us, so let us own our own responsibility, place it in our own hands and carry it with dignity and strength.”  If it is true for what we say it is also true in the moments we are silent.  What we don’t do and what we don’t say ultimately comes back to us, as well.  We always have a choice; we can choose to speak.

If silence comes at such a grave cost, why do so many embrace it?  The reason seems obvious:  Fear.  The fear may be of violent repercussions.  In the wake of the September 11th attacks in the United States, many citizens silenced their disquiet about the Patriot Act out of a sense of duty paired with the intense fear that without sweeping legislation even worse attacks would occur.  Geraldine Perreault references this in an article about the need for dissent, saying, “How quickly people have been willing to give up many long-standing civil liberties and the right to know what their government is doing in their name. The aftermath demonstrates the ongoing necessity for thoughtful dissent as a civic responsibility of citizens in a democratic society.”  Fear may have also played a large role in the German citizenry’s silence during the Holocaust; if they spoke out to defend the Jews, what would happen?  But sometimes the fear is far more subtle. For instance, what happens when people disagree? When they laugh? When they simply ignore one’s words? Or perhaps the silence is motivated by one of the simplest, oldest terrors that anyone knows: the fear of change.  What do we change about ourselves by speaking, and what changes in other peoples perception of us? Such change may seem welcome, even exciting; or, it may seem far more dangerous than physical violence. Change can wound a soul in ways that cannot easily heal.

Silence often seems like the safest option, if not the noblest one.  Gloria Anzaldua states that writing is one of the most daring things she’s ever done, “and the most dangerous.”  Speaking up is indeed risky. Even if one is writing about nothing any more controversial than breakfast, there is a certain vulnerability present.  As Audre Lorde writes, “The transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger.”  But silence is also a treacherous choice; if we’re silent we stifle ourselves.  We cause the blooming tendrils of our soul to wither, wilt, and maybe even die.  We give free reign to the demons we wish to confront.  We kill the hope that we could bring more life and beauty to the world.  We strangle that part of ourselves that rails to be acknowledged.  We slowly start to die.  “For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition,” Audre Lorde writes, “and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”  But is it the silence that chokes us, or our choice to put the gag in our own mouths?

The only real option is to never accept silence, especially when we are at our most afraid.  “To write is to confront one’s demons, look them in the face and live to write about them.  Fear acts like a magnet; it draws the demons out of the closet and into the ink in our pens.”  We have to exorcise our demons.  There are times that it seems that our society is falling apart and losing itself.  Advertising, obesity, over-medication, falling literacy rates, wars, violence, pornography, media polarization, drugs and guns and sex; the list could go on forever.  And in all of this we still struggle with some very old woes.  Race, class, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, all of these things continue to divide people.  There is a sense of disquiet and injustice roiling beneath the surface of all national dialogue, ears still searching out the next strong voice to bring discontent to the forefront of our national consciousness and help us make sense of the pain people feel.  Who will be the next Martin Luther King Junior, Harvey Milk or Alice Paul?  We may never know, if citizens continue to accept silence from themselves.

The truth is that even if a person isn’t the next face of civil rights, they still have a story worth telling and an opinion that needs to be heard; if for no other reason than to release their own demons.  Writing and reading need to stop being seen as a hobby and start being viewed as a social necessity and obligation.  We live in a society that trades words like a commodity, where news is 24 hours and on demand, and only the most scintillating tales get real play.  Reading and writing are treated like luxuries, or as the hobbies of nerds and know-it-alls.  Even worse, only those words which people most want to hear ever seem to be spoken very loudly.  We shy away from truths we find discomfiting.  How can a society like that survive?

Hubert Humphrey is quoted as saying, “Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent, and debate.”  Today’s society hardly leaves breathing room for discussion and dissent.  Adults work forty hours a week while children spend 30 hours a week at school not counting bus rides, or walking home, or even homework.  The New York Times reports that the average American spends 2 to 3 hours an evening on television.  That’s an addition 14-21 hours a week.  When, then, once household chores, meals, weekly shopping trips and social obligations are met is there any time left over for thinking?  Ghandi said, “In the attitude of silence, the soul finds the path in clear light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness.  Our life is a long arduous quest after Truth, and the Soul requires inward restfulness to attain its full height.”  Yet the demands of society leave little room for restfulness, and the jam-packed pace of the average American’s day doesn’t yield much time for silence and light.  The light that colors most American evenings is the blue glow of a widescreen, and solitude is often peppered with voices from the television and radio, not silence.  The dissent that America needs to function as a democracy is isolated into 150 characters or less on Twitter, or blasted out on Facebook status updates.  

Facebook, Twitter, and the widescreen TV are not to blame for the ills of society.  They are simply a reflection of our problem, not the cause.  John Taylor Gatto, in his emblematic essay about the problem with today’s children, writes, “Think of the things that are killing us as a nation – narcotic drugs, brainless competition, recreational sex, the pornography of violence, gambling, alcohol, and the worst pornography of all – lives devoted to buying things, accumulation as a philosophy – all of them are addictions of dependent personalities, and that is what our brand of schooling must inevitably produce.”  Why?  Because children, who are born learning actively through play, at some point must be taught to learn passively:  Sitting at a desk and repeating what they are told.  Gatto describes this construct as “absurd.”  It is.  The next great leader cannot be made by segmenting his or her life into 45 minute periods during which thought is turned on and off by command.  The next great leader won’t be encouraged by having his or her ability to think critically graded on a smaller scale than his or her ability to repeat what a teacher wants to hear.  A leader, such as what this country desperately needs, certainly isn’t going to be born out of demanding school- and work-days that end in evenings spent with TV and Twitter, and barely any time left for reflection.  What do such things produce?  Not thinkers:  Consumers.

To produce a nation of thinkers, a nation of dissenters and debaters, priorities need to shift.  Each individual needs to make the decision to turn off the TV, if need be.  And parents, knowing that schools cannot be depended on to encourage active thought, need to take their child’s future into their own hands.  How?  Treating reading and writing like another aspect of life instead of a luxury, for a start.  Kurt Vonnegut, the renowned author, said, “I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well.”  By fostering reading and writing skills we not only provide the solitude and silence necessary to spark thought, but also the fuel necessary to feed it.  In order to utilize space for reading and writing in our lives, we also need to give up the idea that such space doesn’t already exist.  Anzaldua confronts that idea that we need to make room for writing brashly, “Forget the room of one’s own- write in the kitchen, lock yourself up in the bathroom.  Write on the bus or the welfare line, on the job or during meals, between sleeping or waking.  I write while sitting on the john.”  Neither can we hold our breaths until the right time to read, write, and speak presents itself.  We have to make the best of the time we have right now.  This is the right moment to stop listening to fear, to stop accepting passivity, and to do what we can to exercise our minds and right to speak.  We can inform our society rather than be victims of it, if we lift the gags from our mouths.  We must.

Free Advice Friday: how not to suck at writing

Take my advice with a grain of salt, because I mostly learned it through sucking and then trying desperately not to.

  1. Write Things Down.  I know, right?  Writers should write things.  But here’s the thing:  Sometimes you spend hours agonizing over a character’s motivation.  Or thinking about what season the story takes place in.  Or wondering what will end up happening to this or that guy.  Or thinking about where you want the story to go.  And you need to use the toilet, or make yourself a sandwich, or move on with the day.  You think, “oh, I’ll remember.”  NO YOU WON’T.  Write it down.  The best writers leave behind notebooks, sometimes banker’s boxes, sometimes MULTIPLE banker’s boxes full of their notes to themselves.  You wouldn’t believe how quickly even a monumental plot decision leaves your head when you stop writing and start living your daily life.
  2. Write Daily.  Do not write when the muse strikes you, because the muse is a fickle wench who will run you on a bender for weeks and then leave you high and dry twenty pages from finishing your novel.  Write daily.  Even if it’s just opening the document and tweaking a few words here and there and patting yourself on the back for not completely sucking, write daily.  If you don’t, you will grow away from your story.  Every day our lives change us, even our brain chemistry changes by fractions.  We continue to evolve.  If we don’t write, we evolve away from our own words.  Trust me, I know.  Shelve your writing for a few months, come back to it, and you won’t pick up where the last sentence left off.  You’ll stare at the horrid thing wondering what self-congratulating hatchet man wrote that inane drivel and then you’ll want to drink until you forget that it was you.  Trust me.  And it’s not just that- details like people’s eye color, what kind of sweater they were wearing, what they were going to say next, how you wanted the story to end, they will all leave you faster than the proverbial Hollywood film producer upgrading to a fresher model of trophy wife.  Write daily, or write crap.  BELIEVE ME.
  3. Read.  Read good things and read bad things, but read.  The best writers are also ferocious readers.  Why?  Because when we read we learn what we do and don’t love about writing.  We, as writers, can take that and improve our own writing by knowing what is good and what isn’t.  You know that one writer whose settings always draw you in?  That author whose quirky characters always steal your heart?  That wordsmith who smacks you down with the opening paragraph and drags you kicking and screaming to the gruesome climax every time?  Don’t you want to be that guy?  I know, I know, stealing other author’s ideas is plagiarism.  But stealing their methodology isn’t, and by reading you can start to internalize those things you love most and recognize writing that you hate.  You’ll start to think, “are my characters as endearing as Rowlings?  Are my settings as breathtaking as Dickens’s?  Is my pacing as nervewracking as King’s?”  Whether you realize it or don’t, you are learning to teach yourself to write by reading.
  4. Know your characters.  Have you ever read a book where the entire time you just couldn’t make yourself like the characters?  Where they felt hollow and unpredictable?  Where they read almost more like caricatures or stereotypes than three-dimensional people with wants and needs?  Yeah, don’t write crap like that, enough other writers already do.  Before you start writing, and as you write, ask yourself a lot of why questions.  Why would he say that?  Why would he wear that?  Why would he want that?  Why would he do that?  Also, ask yourself a lot of “hows” and “whens”.  And (point one) WRITE IT DOWN.  Don’t be afraid to go through, line by line, and ask yourself, “why?  how?  when?” realizing that as you get more familiar with the process of thinking about your characters, it will become more and more second nature.  There will come a point in writing when the words just leak out of you (in an overflowing pitcher sort of way, not an incontinent bowels sort of way) and you won’t have to think and think and think.  Although there will still be times, even several novels in, where you still do have to sit there and write pages and pages about your characters in a notebook somewhere just to say “hi” and get to know them.  Think of it as a shortcut to saving a lot of time later, when you’d have to spend months editing a manuscript just to fix problems that could’ve been avoided by asking yourself important questions before writing the story.
  5. Write about the human condition.  Whether you’re a farmer in the midwest or a banker on Wall Street or a hunter-gatherer in the bush of Southern Africa, you want the same basic things as the rest of us.  You want a safe place to sleep.  You want to be loved by someone.  You want a good meal.  You want to feel like the work you do with your hands pays off.  You want to leave a good inheritance for the next generation.  You want to experience beauty.  That is what makes you human.  If you want your story to instantly speak to anyone who would ever pick it up, write about those things.  The best stories are the stories where the protagonist just wants a decent cup of tea.  Or, just wants to curl up with her boyfriend but an apocalypse keeps happening.  Maybe he’s a servant who can’t seem to even wash the dishes right, but once the adventure starts you think, “maybe he’s going to save the world.”  Even if the plot line is nearly unbelievable, if your story has those elements people will put themselves in it.  They’ll commit.  And if the payoff is good enough, they’ll be loyal to you as a writer, because they’ll feel like in some small way you wrote about them.  And you did, because you wrote about all of us.
  6. Torment your audience, at least a little.  If your protagonist just wants a good cup of tea, make sure he doesn’t get one until the end of the story.  If she just wants to smooch with her honey make sure a really good apocalypse interrupts them.  If he just wants someone to appreciate him, make sure the person he wants that appreciation from the most doesn’t look twice at him and he has to prove himself over, and over, and over.  Believe me, no one wants to read the story that goes like this:  “Susy never had any good luck in her life ever.  But when she woke up that morning, she made the best pot of coffee.  Her bacon was just crispy enough without being burnt or soggy, and for once the pancakes didn’t have any lumps.  On her way to work she met the cutest guy and gave him her number.  Her boss didn’t yell at her once, and then as she was leaving the cute guy called and they met for drinks.  They hit it off and eloped and then made sweet, passionate, just-kinky-enough love.  The end.”  YAWN.  NO.  Make sure Susy burns her toast.  She is too shy to give the guy her number.  Her boss is a major suckwad.  She’s miserable.  She hopes to see the guy at the bar but she doesn’t, but THEN…  You get the point.  People want to see their characters tested because it gives them something to hope for.  Maybe, just maybe, things will work out for Susy.  (And if they work out for Susy, there’s hope for all of us.)  Ah, that’s better.
  7. Torment your audience maybe a lot.  People say things like, “don’t kill off your most sympathetic character or the audience will hate you.”  Then authors like JK Rowling and George RR Martin have a good laugh, because isn’t that how the game is played?  Sometimes there is nothing better than holding your breath while you’re reading, starting to feel that sense of dread, your pulse banging in your ears, thinking, “oh man oh man oh man…” and then, WHEW, the protagonist dodges a bullet.  You put the book down and you think, “woah.”  And then you fall in love with the author and read the rest.  Or, once in a blue moon, the character dies gruesomely, and you throw the book across the room and cuss and cry and swear you’ll never read another word by that author, and you start to pen them a horrid note and then change your mind and read the rest of the book and adore them.  (I’m not the only one who does this, right?)  Because you realize that they were writing about life, and sometimes life takes a turn.  Sometimes it’s brutal and short and mean and the good ones die.  Sometimes by dealing with death we see people to be who they truly are.  Imagine if Harry Potter’s parents had lived; or, if certain other characters had survived in other books.  Would it have been the same tale?  Would Harry have risen up to be the man he was by the turn of the final page?  What if a certain beheading didn’t happen in A Game of Thrones?  Doesn’t the torment the characters experience refine them like coal into diamonds?  So don’t be afraid to torment your audience, because each time a reader feels their pulse change and their throat catch they feel their whole body commit to a story, and that’s good for everyone.
  8. Picture the whole story in your head.  Some writers talk about being inspired by a few scenes, images, or quirks of characters.  (William Goldman and NK Jemisin come to mind.)  That has led to some amazing tales, but don’t think for a moment that when William Goldman first dreamed up the Princess Bride he didn’t sit down and write the sword fight and pirate tale that he first envisioned and then magically end up with that classic novel.  No, he had to work out the story to give those few scenes breadth and depth and meaning.  So if you have a conversation in your head, or one quirk about a character, or a few disconnected images, don’t imagine that by writing them down you will suddenly find your muse and become the next great novelist.  Work your story out.  Picture the whole thing.  If you have to, be like Kurt Vonnegut and get a roll of paper and map the entire thing from start to finish in crayon.  Think about things like pacing and how stories have rolled out as you’ve read them, and make deliberate choices about where you will take your reader and why.  You know this muse that writers long for?  You’ve got to woo her, and you’ve got to pay your dues.  To put the figurative ring on her finger and take her home, you’ve got to know her story.  Unlike the floozies you may find at the bar in the bottom of a bottle (you know the ones, the ones you would NEVER tell your parents about) she’s not going to give it up the first time you sit down at the keyboard.  Work for it.

There’s more advice, of course, but this is the basic stuff.  The big stuff.  The game changing stuff.  The stuff I banged my head against for years and years.  It all boils down to the same thing- don’t expect the writing process to be magic.  It’s called a process for a reason.  It takes a journey to get to a good story, even a short one.  Even a good paragraph means thought, planning, and work.

So work it.


Shifting Perspectives

Editing Honest Conversation is like going to a high school reunion.  Everyone is older, and just different enough that it takes a moment to recognize them.  “Hey, didn’t you used to…?”  But then the night wears on and like flipping a switch suddenly you realize that under the extra twenty pounds and new career somewhere in there is the same person, the same likes and fears, the same old problems.  It’s amazing how much time changes, and how much never seems to change with time.

I’ve decided to shift perspectives.  Not in the sense that I’m changing the purpose of the story or why I wrote it, but in that I’m trying to dig way deeper and write a story that is less linear in it’s execution.  Less, shall we say, pointed.  As I was editing the hard copy I kept writing in the margins “What is John thinking?  Why isn’t he ever really allowed to TALK?”

And then I realized something; you see, when I first wrote the story I was Zoe.  I didn’t really care what anyone else had to say because I was furious and disappointed that no one was really listening to me.  I wrote the story from first person to really go into what Zoe was thinking and feeling, and at the same time that choice blocked out all other voices.  John and Zoe would be having a conversation and it was almost completely one sided.  If I’d cared to, I could have shown Zoe wanting to understand her friend and pastor more, but at the time I was on a tear.  I only had one thing, one goal, that I was reaching towards.

This time around I really want to showcase all points of view.  The television show Law and Order, every so many seasons, has an episode where you see everyone’s perspectives but the truth behind the story can be almost impossible to understand, and when the credits roll you as a viewer have to decide how you feel about the final verdict.  This time around I want Honest Conversation to be like that.  I want people to identify with all of the characters, even the ones I happen to disagree with.  I want people to feel safe putting themselves in the story and asking, “in this tale, who would I be?”  It’s less about getting people into my head, this time, and more about getting into theirs.

So, after already having done a tremendous amount of editing, I changed my mind about some things.  I started over, going line by line.  Shifting the perspective from first to third person.  Filling in the other side of the conversation, showing the other characters, their little tics and foibles, their thoughts and fears.  Letting the reader decide who they identify with, and why.

It’s a process that has literally exploded the story, sometimes adding five pages to one page of original text.  But it is oh so worth it.  Let me show you with this section from the original:

John walked in and smiled at me.  I smiled back and motioned to the empty and sat down, immediately opening his briefcase and smacking his Bible down on the table between us.  “You didn’t bring yours?”

“I know well enough to bring a gun to a gunfight,” I replied.  “It’s in my purse.”

Compare that to this passage, from the revision:

Something caught the corner of Zoe’s eye, and she saw John walking around the corner with a leather satchel over his hunched shoulders.  A bright yellow umbrella contrasted with his dark blue trench coat. His hair was mussed and there was a distracted look on his face. If Abigail had been there she would have sent him to the bathroom to straighten up with a single glance. The door jingled as John walked in and he glanced around, looking past Zoe twice before he saw her. Zoe smiled weakly, gesturing at the empty seat in front of her. She was sitting at one of the larger tables, her pen and notebook already open to a page full of grim doodles. John walked over and left his satchel on the seat, shrugging his way out of his coat and propping the yellow umbrella precariously up against a table leg. “Let me go order something,” he said.

“Sure,” Zoe replied, her mouth already halfway buried in another long sip. A moment later John returned to the table, rummaging around to lay out his own notebook as well as his Bible.

“Where’s yours?” John asked, his fingers stroking the battered blue cover of his own Bible, so used to wear that the once silver lettering had faded to a shadow. 

“It’s in my purse,” Zoe replied. “I know well enough to always bring a gun to a gunfight.”

The difference ends up being not only in other characters having a voice, but also in showing Zoe in more of a fair light.  You get to see her confusion, her distraction, and even her pain more wholly.  I hope that at the end of the day that change makes her a more sympathetic character for the readers who thought she was close to unhinged the first time around.  Hopefully it makes the story more engaging as well, since the reader can get more of a feeling for the setting by experiencing it through more than one biased voice.

In any case, I’m loving the process, but also having to accept the fact that it may take far longer than I’d once envisioned.  My month of revisions may end up being six months or more.

But it will be oh so worth it!

Honest Conversations: Revised, Expanded, and being GIVEN AWAY!

“There is a love that is so deep it surpasses understanding. It is so enormous and boundless it could utterly destroy you with its force. It is a love like the ocean. In the shallows it looks harmless, but caught in the undertow it will drag you away from everything you know and enjoy and bury you in a world you’d never imagined.”

“This is God.”

Honest Conversation.  As I wrote yesterday, revising it has been a strange journey for me.  I came across the above passage this morning and it was one of those moments where I forgot having written something that still grips at my chest now.  Passages like that remind me of the importance of this book just as much as the passages about being a gay Christian do.  Why?  Because there’s a side of God that many people in the Church too easily overlook, the violently affectionate God who longs for all of his children, even the ones we’d rather not have be a part of the family.  This is why I wrote that book, and it’s why I still believe in it and want it to be successful.  I want to share a taste of the God who changed my heart and my life and brought me back alive when I was dead in my life, the God who dragged me out to sea like the undertow and brought me back to shore a wholly new person.  The God whose love in me has allowed me to see and experience things I would have never been able to in my own power.

So I’m going to be doing a giveaway of Honest Conversation.  The giveaway will be twofold:  first, I’ll randomly give away copies to two people who review becoming. on Amazon or Goodreads before January 10th (the prospective release date for Honest Conversation).  People who review it on both sites (copy and paste, y’all) will get entered twice.  People who also paste a link of it being reviewed on their blog to my author fan page on Facebook will get entered THREE times.  I’ll also be giving free copies of Honest Conversation to trustworthy reviewers.  So if you know someone who book-blogs and would be interested in reading Honest Conversation, please send them the link to this post.

One of the additional blessings of my Kickstarter campaign having gone so well is that I’ve got enough money to be able to afford this giveaway- so a big THANK YOU to everyone who contributed.

Plus as an additional happy part of the giveaway, I’ll be adding in some as of now unnamed goodies, so stay tuned!

***(Anyone who already has Honest Conversation coming to them as a part of the Kickstarter campaign can request another book of their choice.)

Bloggy Potpourri

So today is my birthday.  Today is also the start of my first full week sans classes until January, which means my brain is actually functional in terms of personal thoughts instead of just school, kids, dinner, school like it seems to be during classes.  I have so many things I want to write about and can’t seem to keep a thought straight, so I’m just going to put it all out there, potpourri style.
* * *

I’ve changed my major.  I’m going to be entering into a teaching certification program next fall, where I’ll be studying English, Literature, and Language Arts with a focus on High School/Secondary education.  I’m going to… teach.  It’s a long way away from social work in some ways and only a short hop in others.  I had this realization that without language we really have nothing.  Without language people can’t grow, can’t succeed, can’t understand.  So I want to give people language.  That’s all I want to do.
* * *

On TV shows people always seem to see turning 30 as some sort of tragic event that has to be denied.  I’m turning 30.  My first reaction?  Thank God.  I’ve learned a lot.  I earned another year under my belt.
* * *

Newtown.  It’s this immense tragedy that I don’t have words for.  People react in anger, they react in demands, they react in grief.  People also react in love, and I think that gets overlooked.  So many people shared words and prayers, tried to find ways to send support.  I saw far more of that then I saw people talking about guns or prayer in school or God’s judgment on an unholy nation.  The love is so strong, the grief so sincere, the prayers so honest.  If you remember anything from this tragedy, remember that.  Please.

* * *

I want to write a poem.
* * *

I’m going to get back on the horse with regards to Ravens.  Really.  I’ve already started writing it again, and I made a promise to myself not to just abandon it.  One of my personal goals for the next year of my life is to be more intentional with the goals I set for myself and plan ahead for how I’m going to meet them.  I’ve always been good at that in SOME areas of my life, but other areas have really suffered, and blogging always seems like the first to go.  That’s a real tragedy because blogging has given me some really incredible gifts, and I don’t want to take that for granted.
* * *

Wreck It Ralph was a great movie.  I want to see it again.
* * *

Not so sure about the Hobbit.  I haven’t seen it yet.  I’ve seen mixed reviews though, and that book was my first love.  You know how sometimes you see a crush all grown up and you hate it, and want to forget that they got chubby and their hair was different and they’d suddenly become an obscene jerk?  I don’t want that to happen to the Hobbit.  No, no, no…

* * *

I could compare you to a winter’s night/

you are colder and far more treacherous.

(No, not YOU.)

If you want the whole poem, buy this book.

* * *

Oh, I, uh, wrote a book.

* * *

I’m currently editing and expanding Honest Conversations and plan to re-release it later this month, a sort of Christmas Present to myself.  It’s like moving back home, or like…  I don’t know, eating apple pie.  Comforting, but also a little strange.  Like chatting with an old friend but knowing that there are all of these years in between you, even if their voice still sounds the same.  I would say like falling back in love, except it’s not that sentimental.  It just is.

* * *

How is it that EVERY TIME I make cookies I’m wearing a black t-shirt and flour myself?  Every.  Single.  Time.

* * *

Sex and bacon.  (God wants us to be happy, folks.  He really, really does.)

* * *

God also wants us to learn self-control.  Those two things always seem to go hand and hand.

* * *

We’ll call it a day.  I miss you all.  I promise to write at least once a month.


(written for a class.  Liked it, wanted to share it.)

The ultrasound photo didn’t look like a baby to me. It either looked like a mutated kidney bean or a tiny alien, depending on the angle I held it at. When people said “wow the baby looks just like Mommy!” I had to wonder how absolutely unattractive I was. Did I have bug eyes and a tiny mouth and a caveman forehead? I knew I was supposed to blush and say, “oh thank you” or “nope this one looks like daddy!” or “I’ll take that as a compliment!” so that is what I did. When I was alone I’d put my hand on my growing belly and feel the baby moving, and I’d wonder. What was this creature? Who was this creature? Over countless hours in waiting rooms I’d hear other soon-to-be-mothers talk about imagining what their child was going to be like. What color of hair would he have, what disposition, how irrepressibly cute might she be? I didn’t wonder that. I wondered, “will I like this child? Will I want to take care of it? Will it resent me?” The times when my husband and I stopped fighting long enough to sit together in silence I’d stare at him and think, “my God, what have we done?” I’d fantasize about a world in which I’d been brave enough to break off the marriage before we’d gotten so far. A world in which I was still skinny and attractive and being wooed by someone successful and independently wealthy. It was an imaginary life in which having children was still far away somewhere in the future, and I was certain that when I got around to it I’d be a perfect mother. Then the baby would stir inside me and anchor me hard to reality. Regardless of if I wanted it, if I was ready, or even if I was able, I was this child’s mother.

The closer the due date loomed the more excitement and fear I felt. I wanted my child desperately, but partially just because I was sick and tired of being pregnant. My stomach ached, which I expected. My joints hurt, which I heard was normal. I retained water like the Hoover Dam every time I ate anything salty, which was apparently dangerous but also perfectly normal. My breasts felt like they were on fire and my head was constantly pounding out a twangy riff like the bass in a bad jazz trio. I felt like my body was completely out of my control and I wanted it back. I never talked about my feelings with anyone, even my midwife, because I felt so completely ashamed. Where was my glow? My joy? The heart rending poetry of longing for my child to be in my arms? I would write epic journal entries about my fears and then trash them, mortified at the things that were running through my head. I still remember the words I wrote, despite their having long ago turned into compost. I remember writing that I would have no idea how to raise a bubblegum and pompoms princess. I wrote, “I’ve heard the stories about what my husband was like as a child, and I’m fairly sure that raising anyone even remotely like him would kill me. I can’t do this. Please, God.”

The due date passed, and then another date, and then another; with every hour and minute that ticked away I felt the inevitable gathering nearer like thunderclouds. I had contractions every twenty minutes for a week. I was sleep deprived, sore, cranky, and completely emotionally wrecked. My midwife sent me to the hospital and I was buoyed in an ocean of relief and panic. My husband held my hands, he said something really romantic about finally having our baby. I honestly can’t remember what it was. What I do remember is the feeling I clung to, of wanting to be happy, pretending to be happy, hoping it overwhelmed my mortification. I prayed, and prayed, and prayed that once I had my baby in my arms I would be magically transformed into a mother worthy of her child.

It would be 38 hours before I finally saw my baby. I went into the hospital late on a Friday evening and they induced labor overnight. My body fought it the whole way. I was left staring at a room that looked a little like my grandmother’s parlor. The walls were a tan color, the kind of color that is somehow even more colorless than white. There were stenciled vines with grape clusters on the wall, and the nurses and midwife and my mother took turns sitting in a rocking chair by the bed and working on needlepoint and knitting. I can remember at one point thinking, “am I giving birth in a sewing circle?” But the delivery room didn’t exactly feel like a comfortable room. Not with the braid of plastic tubing sticking out of my wrist and the crisscross of elastics holding monitoring devices on my belly. The IV regulator beeped regularly, telling me information I couldn’t really understand. The readout from the monitors showed my heartbeat and the baby’s. A nurse pointed to a needle scratching on a paper roll that reminded me of lie detector tests on spy shows and said, “see that little hill? That’s a contraction. We want it to look more like a mountain.” Later, my husband would incredulously ask if it was normal for the needle to not go down in between peaks. I’d look at the paper printout and see that my contractions looked like the Rockies. The nurse would sympathetically say that in a natural labor there were breaks for the mom to rest, but every time they dialed back the meds to give me a break my labor stalled.

I should have felt comforted by the nurses in their cardigans with prayer shawls pinned to their buns. The nurses who, in my memory, all look like distant relatives of mine. But comfort was unreachable. Everything about that day felt so surreal. My eyes tracing the stenciled vines like a labyrinth, the gnawing hunger that ice chips couldn’t sate, the beeping and whirring and scratching machines, my husband’s voice so distant and muffled like he was holding a pillow to his face, the pinch of two black combs I held in my hands and squeezed until they drew blood, the sterile smell of the room which looked to me like it should have smelled of cinnamon, the pounding pressure of wave after wave of contractions that crashed into my body without ever drawing back to sea, the inescapable tide of the thing, all of it worked together to carry me to a place that I remember only in scraps and flashes like a drug induced nightmare. Other women recall the day of their child’s birth with bright smiles on their face. I start to tell the story, and the back of my neck clenches so tight there’s an instantaneous headache.

There were two insane hours of pushing to bring my first child into the light of late morning. There were tears and blood and sweat and things that are what a good friend called “too unladylike to discuss”. No matter now, because I got through it. I didn’t give up, and eventually managed to bear my baby kicking and screaming into this world. When the midwife held her up my first thought was, “ew.” She was covered in ooze and had just pooped all over herself. The nurses laid her on my stomach to towel her off and one miniscule hand clutched at my finger. Her grip was so disproportionally strong. I wondered at those tiny fingers, the feet that curled like a ballerina en pointe when she cried, the greasy wrinkles in her neck and the feathery blonde hair sticking up in bloody clumps. I thought, “she came from me.”

Then I was lost, in an ocean of panic. I didn’t know this baby, she came from me but she was a complete stranger. Was she like me? Was she like my husband? Who would she grow up to be? Would we have anything in common? Was I even capable of being the kind of mother she needed? The past nine months I’d feared and resented her, and now here she was, screaming, and I had no idea what to do. “You need to nurse her,” my mother whispered, and I blushed. I should’ve known that. I struggled with how to hold her, what to do, what went where. Wasn’t this sort of thing supposed to be instinctual? Easy? One of the nurses corrected me, telling me the baby wasn’t latching on. I cursed under my breath and tried again, and again. My husband’s calloused hand was on my shoulder. Despite all of our differences, he was the one who said that he was proud of me. “She’s perfect,” he said, “she’s just like you.” Over the next few days I’d end up chafed and sore and constantly worried that I still wasn’t doing it right. My daughter would cry and it would take me just a split second to recognize her voice, to respond. Guilt, guilt, and more guilt. I’d see other mothers for whom nurturing was second nature and I would secretly hate them.

It wasn’t until months later, after seemingly countless setbacks and struggles and nights spent awake with the baby clutched to my chest and me crying through my pain and frustration and wishing I knew what I was doing wrong, that reality would start to creep in. I remember one dim twilight, another three o’clock feeding, after I’d given in and my daughter was curled close in bed beside me. She started fussing, not really crying but the sort of sad whimpering that leads to cries if you don’t react in time. I half woke up and took her to my breast without even completely opening my eyes. She reached one hand up and laced her fingers through my hair, holding the tangled lock to her cheek. I woke up just enough to see that she was smiling. That was when I finally knew it. I knew that she belonged to me, and I belonged to her. Whoever she became, whoever I became, whatever we ended up meaning to each other as she grew didn’t matter. We were designed to fit together, by nature or by God or by love or whatever force our lives are led by. I’d like to say that I basked in the glow of that moment, that I was awash with emotion, and it changed my life forever. However, I couldn’t say that and tell the truth. It was three in the morning, the baby had been fussing half the night, and I was tired. I fell asleep. That moment was lost in the ups and downs of many moments to come, and it’s only in looking back that I realize now what it meant.

When I was a child I took for granted that my parents had no choice in whether or not they loved me, and it took me a long time to grow out of that belief. I once thought naively that love is something that happens to people. I imagined that if men and women are meant to make babies together they would be drowned in an ocean of love and pulled together by an unstoppable tide. I believed that mothers loved their babies from the moment life is first sparked inside of them. I believed in love as only a child could, and believed in its transforming power as if it were magic. It isn’t. It’s hard work. Here’s the truth: Pregnancy sucks. The women who do glow don’t glow because of the fact that they are pregnant, they glow in spite of it. The love that a mother and father feel for each other isn’t an unstoppable magical force, either. It’s built off of a million decisions made over time, in which the old identity is bricked over like a foundation and they are re-created, as a person whose innermost being is inseparable from the new role that they’ve taken. It isn’t pushing a child into this world that makes a woman a mother. The sight of that crying baby doesn’t change you forever. What changes you is a myriad of moments in which you make a choice; those moments are mostly lost to memory. Yet somewhere inside of you, your soul reaches out like an infant’s hand and grasps on to each one, with disproportionate strength, holding them to your heart like a tangled lock of hair to a milk stained cheek.