Am I Going To Be a Writer or What?

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. Much like I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t read voraciously. Any class that required writing – Reading, English, any humanities class – I did well in. I can structure an argument, I can write a story, I used to think my poems were deep and meaningful (those junior high school poems, ouch!). I was taking a class in how retirement IRAs work and I joked that my earnings would be royalties from my books. I got a bachelor’s degree in English and swore I’d write the defining thesis of the 21st century. I’ve written book reviews for (very little) money. I’ve edited several (self-published) books. I’ve written some short stories and 12,000 words on a middle-grade novel I haven,t finished. I write (very irregularly) on this blog.

So when I quit my job and ran away, one of the things I meant to do was get on that whole writing thing. I’d have all that free time – I’d totally finish that novel, write up all those cool ideas for feminist magazines and pop-culture websites. At a minimum, I’d make hardly any money generating crappy content for the endless machine that is the internet. I bought a Writers Almanac and planned to pitch and write stories for various outlets until someone accepted one.

Maybe y’all didn’t notice, but… none of that happened. I wrote almost nothing on the novel. I wrote in my journal a lot, and a few blog posts, but not much else. I applied and tested for a few writing/editing jobs and got none of them. I didn’t pitch a single essay to a single website.

crows, portage bay seattle, bevy of books
Hello. These birds have nothing to do with any of these words, but we gotta break up the monotony.

I have a million reasons/ excuses for why that is – some more valid than others – but ultimately I just… didn’t.

So the real question is: Do I want to write, or do I just want to think of myself as a writer?

Well, I really can’t stand the idea that my whole life I’ve basically been a fraud, pretending to be someone who would be a writer “if only I had the time.” So I guess I better get on that shit.

After being called on my bullshit excuses by my best friend (whose job it is to do that for me), I’ve decided that what I have to do – if I want to make this fantasy of writing a reality – is hack my writing process. I follow dozens of writers and editors on Twitter and they are constantly talking about the processes that work for them, with lots of options for me to choose from. So the next step is PUTTING SOME OF THOSE IN PLACE! Trying them out, see what works. Recognize the excuses for what they are and not allowing them to stand unchallenged. My biggest (mental, self-imposed) hurdles are as follows.

Problem 1: I am lazy. Please don’t try to tell me I’m not. Y’all have no idea how much free time I spend doing stupid shit – in addition to all the free time I spend doing good things like reading and crocheting and stuff. I.AM. LAZY. Not up for discussion.

Rule to Solve Problem 1: Stare that bitch right in the face. Stop accepting my own lame excuses. Let my friends hold me accountable. I’m usually opposed to people hassling me about stuff, but I’m putting this out there for all of you (if you’re interested). Go ahead and ask me if I’ve done any writing lately. I’m officially committing to writing frequently and regularly, and I may need help sticking to it.

Problem 2: Focusing the brain on writing. Writing requires that I harness most/ all of the simultaneous trains of thought in my head to focus on this one thing with a minimum of tangents. I don’t know if everyone’s brain works like this, but there are at least four things happening in my head every minute I’m awake. This is why I insist on listening to music while at work, because it keeps one of them happy. Chatting with people while working is also good, so two tracks are occupied and work is likely to go well. In order for the serious writing to happen – and for me to stick to it – I can’t be distracted by looking up that book I wanted to reference, or thinking about how I first heard this song on vacation, or getting angry at the current state of the world.

Rule to Solve Problem 2: I made a playlist with mostly instrumentals and songs in languages I do not speak. Turn off the internet if I’m using my laptop. Make notes on research TO BE DONE LATER. Put phone out of reach with all social media notifications turned off. Stay off Twitter until after the writing is done.

Problem 3: I get lots of ideas (those fucking trains never stop running, people) but don’t do anything with them.

Rule to Solve Problem 3: WRITE THEM DOWN IMMEDIATELY. The kernel of a new idea is tough to hold onto, even if you aren’t past 40 and losing the sharpness of your memory. They won’t all be winners, but I’ll never know if I can’t remember any of them. Jot down those ideas when they come. Develop them – soon – instead of just thinking about them while watching TV.

Problem 4: Editing brain and writing brain are very different. Editing is much easier, it actually benefits from all those tracks in my head. And it’s basically just reading and getting to feel like I’m smart because I can see the mistakes and fix them, so that’s two things that make me happy. But I can’t edit a blank page (that is one of those things writers and editors are always saying). So as soon as I do have something written, I’m quite happy to jump to the editing process, which derails the writing process. The idea that all writing needs to be published/ posted goes right along with this, and so I prioritize editing the words instead of making the words.  But I know I can edit and post blogs, that is not a skill I need to work on or a process I need to improve.

Rule to Solve Problem 4: FOCUS ON THE WRITING. Don’t fix the typos. Ignore the editing and posting – at least for now. Of course as I write this current thing here – clearly intended to be posted on my blog – I realize I have to ignore it in order for anyone to read this. The world is full of contradictions.

cormorants, Elliott Bay, Seattle Ferry dock, bevy of books
Look, more birds. I take lots of photos of birds.

Last weekend I tried all of these rules.  I made a writing playlist. I stopped getting on Twitter at breakfast. I re-read books that inspired me. And I wrote more than 2000 words, made three or four notes on other ideas I wanted to explore, even dictated notes into my phone while I was out walking. It’s clear that I can do this. Whether or not anyone but my friends wants to read any of it IS NOT THE POINT OF WRITING IT. That is publishing.

But first, the writing must happen.

On Forgiveness

Hungry Horse resevoir, Flathead river, Montana, Rocky MountainsI’ve forgiven a lot of people for a lot of things. I’ve forgiven shitty ex-boyfriends for how they treated me, and myself for putting up with it. I’ve forgiven my parents for letting me down in really important ways. Mean comments, big and small lies, money borrowed and never paid back, unkindness galore. I thought I was pretty good at it, here in these later years of my life. But there’s this one friend I used to have.

In a life of mostly good things and happiness, this is probably the most hurtful thing I experienced – which I acknowledge makes me a pretty lucky bitch, no question. But pain is not measured on a relative scale. Pain is pain, and this one was/is the worst one I can remember. Or at least the one that has refused to go away, while others have faded to something else – regret or remorse or just sadness.

I used to have this friend. One of my closest, in a life where I have a lot of true friends, but not that many people I am so open with. A life where I keep friends for a long time and am still friends with most of my ex-boyfriends.

I’m not sure what made this one worse then everything else. I have experienced outright rejection before, but never from someone so close and so trusted. I’ve had people lie about me before, but not so painfully or for such an unnecessary and ineffectual reason. I’ve had people break trust with me before, but never so cavalierly and without provocation. I’ve lost people before, but never so unexpectedly or deliberately.

I don’t know why this one has stuck with me for so long. Well, that’s not really true. I know why, but I don’t know why it took me so long to do something about it.

It’s still here because I could not forgive them.

Could not stop wanting the situation to be something other than what it was. I probably spent a year in absolute denial – just could not believe the facts. Then I spent quite a few years in hurt anger, which moved into just plain anger and stayed there for a long, long time. I finally got to sadness, but I couldn’t let it go.

Because I used to have this really good friend, and I have not been able forgive them. I was waiting for an apology or an explanation or an alternate reality to show up and wipe it all away.

I can’t even say that I stopped caring about them in all this time, because I never did. I can only assume that this whole episode is firmly in the past for them, while it shows up in my dreams as if it just happened a few months ago.

It showed up again just a few days ago. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the whole situation. Not what happened more than 10 years ago, but what is happening right now. How I’m still wishing the situation was different. And finally, finally, I think I’m ready to do the one thing I actual CAN and MUST do, if I want this situation to be different.

I have to forgive them.

I’ve spent decades looking hard at the ugliness and anger and pain and stupidity within myself, trying to live on the outside like I feel on the inside. Trying to lead with kindness and understanding and clear-eyed intention. To be aware of the consequences of my actions and the example I set for my son and the rest of the human race that has to interact with me. But there’s this one thing that’s been around for way too long that I have not been able to root out.

I used to have this friend.

I think I’m ready.

Forgiveness.

Thoughts on my father

From Dad, I learned that everyone is worthy of respect. No one is less-than.

I learned that violence is never the answer, and never to be tolerated.

I learned the joys of wandering road trips. Any road/trail is worth exploring at least once, and in the meantime you are building a map of your surroundings. You’ll always be able to find your way home.

Reading is always a good thing. If you have $5, spend it on a book.

Being alone is okay. Good, even.

Never admit to being vulnerable.

Never show weakness.

If you tell a lie enough times, you’ll start to believe it.

So much I learned in opposition to what he (and my mother) did.

Let your children be children.

Talk to them.

Hug them & tell them you love them until they are sick of hearing it and then tell them some more.

Let them make their own choices (in a SAFE environment) and let them learn from their mistakes.

Tell the truth.

Take care of yourself and do not expect others to take care of you (because they might not, and then where will you be?).

Don’t count on anyone.

I don’t wish I had different parents. I don’t know how to do that. They were my PARENTS. I wish they had been better parents – better people, really. Better in the sense that they wanted to be good people and/or good parents and worked at it, or even thought about it more. Well, I think maybe Dad thought about it, but thinking is not doing – and who got that tendency in spades? Mom was not a doer, and I don’t have evidence that she was much of a thinker, either.

But wishing they were someone else is like wishing to sweep away MY ENTIRE EXISTENCE. How could I be happy now and then wish for that?

I watch Facebook as people I know talk about their dads, change their profile pics, gush about how wonderful they are, say how much they miss them. I watch those who have complicated relationships with their fathers try to be honest while still honoring them. I respect that. Certainly more than the ‘perfection is my dad’ idea. Tara has a fantastic blog post about how lucky she is and what she learned from her dad (which is what sent me to writing this) and, without pretending he’s perfect, she talks about how lucky she was in the Dad lottery – a big winner, indeed.

I am not a winner. If it’s a contest, I guess I’m a loser. My dad chose distance over connection, again and again. And now he’s really gone, and my life is hardly different than it was when he was alive. I lost him long before he died.

Because of my dad’s choices (and my mother’s acquiescence), I have almost no connection with an extended family that could have helped me (and the rest of my family) weather the windstorm that started as gusts and ended as something like a hurricane – blowing Susan far, far away and slowly scattering the rest of us like debris, with no relation to its origin. I now feel like I actually know some of those aunts and uncles and cousins – but it’s much too late to be rescued by them.

What bonds my siblings and I have now are almost entirely of our own making – other than the early encouragement to be kind to one another. We were (or at least, I was) rarely told to ‘be more like your sister’ or allowed to exclude each other from our activities. But my parents did nothing to try to keep this family together once we started leaving. No. Thing.

Susan has worked to make sure that Mom stays connected, and I have worked to make sure that Laurie stays connected. I think Susan and I have not had to work very hard to stay connected, once I visited her in Montana that first time (what would have happened if she’d been in Texas or something? I shudder to think). We both wanted it, we both just took it as normal – because, hello, it is pretty normal to want to know what the fuck’s going on in your sister’s life. That’s pretty much what our family is built on right now – Susie & I staying close. If I stopped talking to her (which I cannot currently envision) then I would lose all touch with Mom. And she would likely lose touch with Laurie (or not, I’m hardly a psychic). Such a small thing. Such a powerful thing.

Most people just don’t understand – and I’m happy for them. Some people do, and I am incredibly grateful for them.

There are fathers and families much worse than mine out there, and I wish their children peace and the courage to move beyond them. It can be done. It’s being done every day by far more people than we like to imagine. Love is the only house big enough for all the pain.

Melven Family 1970s

This is what happens when you run out of new Jane Austen to read

I’ve been dipping back into Jane Austen the last week or so. I stumbled on a ‘sequel’ to Sense & Sensibility by Joan Aiken — a favorite author from my childhood — so I jumped on it. And of course, reading Eliza’s Daughter, made me question my memory of events in S&S, so I had to re-read that. Then I was deep in, so I wanted to read Persuasion (mostly because it’s the one I don’t own of the Austen books I like best — those being Emma, S&S, P&P and Persuasion. Northanger Abbey is okay but lighter, and Mansfield Park I don’t like much at all).

So anyway, I went to pick up Persuasion at the library (no need to put this on hold, every location has multiple copies of all things Austen, and Persuasion being less popular, it was indeed there on the shelf waiting for me). And… right next to it was something called A Visit to Highbury, a ‘different perspective’ of the events in Emma by the great great grand-niece of Ms. Austen. There’s another one after it, Later Days at Highbury.

Sequels done by someone other than the original author are always iffy. And sequels written 200 years after the original, even iffier. Sequels of fantastically popular, iconic, still-in-print works — well, that’s taking a risk of a whole other magnitude. Purists will despise you, fans might mock you, and haters will crush you. These two novels took very different attitudes toward their source material, and the results are very different indeed.

Joan Aiken is a pretty popular author. She wrote Nightbirds on Nantucket, Black Hearts in Battersea, and dozens of other children’s books. I own those two plus The Wolves of Willoughby Chase — three related books (and there are many more, apparently, that were not in my local library as a child). She wrote more than 100 books in her 79 years on the planet.  This is no upstart trying to get a bump from the Austen obsessions of the rest of us. I was excited to read this one.

sense and sensibility eliza's daughter jane austen joan aikenAiken’s book is a first-person novel from the perspective of Eliza’s daughter, Eliza’s daughter, also named Eliza. That would be Eliza — first love of Colonel Brandon — her daughter, Eliza — child of the unknown father who seduced Eliza in her marital misery – and her daughter, Eliza — daughter of scapegrace Willoughby, first love of Marianne.  Got that? It was a bit of a struggle, I kept losing track of which generation we were on. For instance, when this Eliza (and we never see the others) says she’d never seen Colonel Brandon, I had to go to S&S and check the story, because I was sure he said he’d seen her often — but that was her mother, not her.

Aiken has no qualms writing a very different future for the principal characters of S&S — we see Elinor, Edward Ferrars, Marianne, and Mrs. Dashwood, as well as brief glimpses of Lucy Steele Ferrars and her husband, Robert. Edward is bitter and stoic, Marianne is unfeeling and selfish, Mrs. Dashwood has lost her mind, and only Elinor comes off as a decent person — but she’s miserable. This is NOT the future we wished for them! And the Interwebs is quite full of people telling Austen fans to avoid this book at all costs. I saw none of that chatter before I picked it up, and I was sorry to see Aiken’s complete lack of faith in these characters’ futures. I wonder why she even wrote a book that dealt with them, since she seemed to dislike them excessively? Maybe she wanted us all to know how she felt about them.

Eliza’s story is compellingly readable and rings true as a real person and a real life in almost every instance. Actually, it all rings true (because who actually reveals everything about themselves?), but a few choices made by the author rendered the whole book less satisfying.

First the good: Eliza is scrappy and no-nonsense, kind and generous to a fault. She rescues a baby from her wet nurse’s neglect, refuses to gossip to make her school life easier, overcomes the negligence of her guardian (Brandon does not come off well, and the blame is placed on Marianne), escapes from would-be rapists, and rescues Elinor from starvation and fever. The plot is one damned thing after another for this poor girl from the wrong side of the sheets. But she never gives up, and rarely complains.

The bad: this ‘never complains’ part is part of the problem. Her sexual abuse as a child (by her tutor) isn’t even mentioned until she’s an adult — not even hinted at properly. And the book ends (seriously, the last paragraph) with her revealing that she’s PREGNANT, when there has been no hint of any kind of sexual encounter occurring in the previous decade or more. WHAT?! This is what sent me to the internet, wondering if there was a sequel/interview/close reading somewhere that could tell me what the heck was going on here. I found nothing but vitriol aimed at Aiken for her treatment of beloved Austen heroines and heroes.

This is not to say that the book is poorly written, exactly. If that sentence had been left out, I would have closed it happy — even with the character assassination. I can ignore Aiken’s opinion of the future Dashwoods, et. al., this book would have been a fine book unaffiliated with any Austen characters at all. But why make a poor attempt to dress up the ending by 1) revealing a pregnancy we have no investment in, and 2) making every reader doubt their reading of the whole book? Seems a poor choice for an otherwise accomplished text.

joan austen-leigh Emma A visit to highbury Mrs. Goddard
The original title was Mrs. Goddard, Mistress of a School. I bet they changed it for us American Austen noobs.

A Visit to Highbury is a VERY DIFFERENT voyage into the world of Austen. Joan Austen-Leigh (hey, both authors are named Joan… just noticed that) makes a point of saying in the introduction that she puts not a single word in the mouths of Austen’s speaking characters in Emma, adheres strictly to the timeline and details of that novel, and only makes up things about the silent characters in Emma (notably Mrs. Goddard, mistress of the school where Harriet Smith lives). The story is told in a series of letters between Mrs. Goddard and her sister in London. Mrs. Pinkney is newly widowed, remarried and lonely for people, so her sister sends her gossipy letters (almost wrote ‘emails’ right there) about the fine folks in Highbury. Mrs. Goddard’s opinions and descriptions of Emma and her friends and family mirror exactly what Austen wrote in Emma, so purists can read it with no qualms.

The book is thoroughly enjoyable. I read it in one go, not putting it down until it was done (it is only 180 small pages). The events taking place in letters written and then received and responded to create a kind of constant cliffhanger situation as we wait for the other to respond, answer questions and clear up confusion. Of course, there is more going on in their lives than what happens in Emma — will Mrs. Pinkney ever be happy with her husband. Are those poor girls at the school in London really being mistreated? Lots of new plot that in no way alters what we know and love about Highbury and its residents, but it adds some background and a new list of events and characters to love (some quite similar to other Austen creations, including the obligatory visit to Bath, Naval officers, illegitimate children and apothecaries for everyone). I look forward to the sequel.

I think there is room for some middle ground between the two approaches to (what amounts to) Austen fan fiction.  Aiken makes you despair of every picking up another one, and Austen-Leigh treats the characters as demigods not be to besmirched by her unworthy hands.

jane austen P D James Death comes to pemberely Pride and prejudice
BBC is making a mini-series out of this right now.

I think the best Austen fan-fic I read was Death Comes to Pemberley, what could properly be called a sequel to Pride and Prejudice by P.D. James, a popular author of crime fiction.* The events take place a few years after the end of P&P, when Lizzie’s wild sister, Lydia and her ne’er-do-well husband, Wickham, arrive at Pemberley. The book is a murder mystery totally in keeping with the characters of P&P, and a great read. James clearly loved those characters, but wasn’t afraid to shake things up a bit.

I can’t imagine taking on the challenge of writing in Austen’s world — I’d be more likely to take the ‘inspired by but no way I’m actually calling my character Elizabeth Bennet’ route, done by tons of writers (my most recent favorite, the speculative fiction books of Mary Robinette Kowal). You get points for bravery, but be prepared for the firing squad.

*I also read a collection of short fiction ‘inspired’ by Austen’s work (Jane Austen Made Me Do It), an uneven collection that none-the-less contained some real gems.

Random Thoughts, not by Jack Handy

I am feeling love. I’m receiving this love from art. Art=love, I think. And art & love are connection. And eating is connection. With the earth, with people, with the other living things on the earth.

And yoga is connecting with your self, connecting your whole self. Loving your whole self. And that is an art. It feels like art. Because the connection is creation. and creation is art/love.

So many words to express a different, tiny permutation of the same huge THING. Some call it God. I’m going to call it Love.

When you Love something (love, the verb) you feel connected to it. It’s when you feel you’ve lost connection that you feel unloved.

Whoever grew your food gave of themselves to the plant, which produced that food. So that person, that farmer, is loving you, connected to you.

And whoever wrote that song and sang it (or only sang it) – painted, sculpted, drew, glued, knitted, sewed, ad glorious infinitum – is reaching out for connection, looking for love. And you hearing that song and loving it, feeling connected to it, are accepting that love.

“In My Mind” Music Video from Amanda Palmer on Vimeo.

Money is a poor medium for the transmission of love. Hard to see the love (though it is often there) in the greenback, or the numbers on the screen. Not much love felt while shopping at WalMart, but New Seasons is full of people with love to share.

This is why the crayon-drawn card from the 4-year-old, with horrific spelling and a dog that looks like a circle, is more prized than the pretty Hallmark w/the singing frog. The love is the only thing clear in the hand-made card, unobscured by glossy paper and microchips.

Twitter seems a strange place to be collecting such love, but it has increased the love I’m receiving by leaps and bounds.

It becomes art when a stranger can recognize the love in a song or painting or poem or quilt.

I want to turn my money into love. That’s what I’ve been doing lately without being conscious of it. Lots of donations at Christmas. And after. And buying Art & supporting artists that have been spraying love all around them.