Playing The Long Game

Dear You,

There’s a little known phenomenon that happens after finishing a draft of a novel. (I’d like to say it’s just me but I have confirmed it with several others so maybe it’s just us.) When you finish and have to put the work away for a time, a strange kind of sadness settles in.

For some, it’s the loss of the daily time spent with characters or a story that has become embedded in you. It’s like watching a good friend leave and not knowing when you’ll see them again. For me, it has more to do with the disruption to my routine and the sudden lack of what feels like forward momentum.

Every day when I sit at my computer and add another thousand words or answer a question that had me stuck, I can see clearly how I’m working toward something larger. I can rest in the remainder of my day and sleep better at night knowing that I have done good work toward a goal that makes me happy. But finish the work and I usually have one day of pure celebration before the darkness sets in. I go to my computer, antsy and unsure of how to proceed.

If I’m lucky, there’s a kernel of an idea for something I’ve wanted to work on. This time, I finished a long draft two days before the election so my mind was a little preoccupied the weeks following. The writing group that got me out of my funk in Texas sadly did not choose to relocate with me to Tennessee and I’m still trying to gather a new handful of writing friends here. Couple all this with the cruel fact that the sun sets in this town at 4:30 in the goddamn afternoon and we haven’t even reached winter solstice yet and you better believe I’m struggling to put words to page.

What’s that, you say? Take a break? Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s the healthy thing to do. I promise that I’m currently on one now (with the exception of this blog post and the fact that I have a half draft of a story that I really need to finish but, I guess, maybe, for sanity’s sake I can let it go until January.)

But see, the problem lies around that forward momentum I mentioned earlier.

I have never been a patient person. I run high on impulse and low on willpower. I have been described by many different people at many different stages of my life as passionate about the various causes and interests that cross my radar, passion I am thankful for as it has pushed me to do things I thought highly unlikely.

But my affinity for impulse sometimes far outweighs the level of passion I can claim for any one love. If it doesn’t stay interesting, if I don’t feel like I’m always on the brink of discovery, if I’m not winning whatever game I’ve concocted for myself– I lose interest pretty quickly. (Hence, the lack of willpower during hard times.)

And when I’m not writing, when I can’t put a gold star stamp on the day in the form of creation, the day can sometimes feel like a loss. And day after day of feeling like I’m losing sure does make you feel a little funny.

Yes, I know I sound obsessive. Yes, I have seen a therapist about it. I blame my grandmother, who had such a sense of routine (or possible obsessive-compulsive disorder) that she had a breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu based on the days of the week that never changed in the twenty years I knew her as a cook. (Seriously, biscuits for breakfast on Tuesday and Eggo waffles on Friday without fail.)

I’m learning to recognize the off days as gold star days too. I took a rest because I needed it = gold star. I chose to sit on the couch all morning and read this fabulous book by a wonderful new author that inspires me = gold star. I checked my Duotrope account to remind myself that, yes, I have in fact written a lot and put a lot out to submission this year = gold star. In fact, I may just take up Annie Neugebauer’s Joy Jar idea as if my life depended on it.

But mostly, I’m trying to focus on the long game. I took a writing break from 2012 to 2015 to focus on finishing my master’s degree, get married, and just generally take better care of myself. During those years, I hung my hat of all this, convinced I just wasn’t meant for writing (even though I kept writing poetry and essays and started a novel).

So the past two years, especially this year, have felt a lot like playing catch up. This definitely contributes to the “I must DO something every day” feeling I’ve been trapped in. But I’ve finally been able to recognize even those years as essential triple gold star years. Many of the poems I wrote are now the ones being plucked for publication. The essays incubated a novel that I’m still working on but that definitely has a lot to say and required (still requires) a ton of personal excavation.

The past month may have felt like it did not hold a lot for me in terms of creation — the two stories I’m working on feel dead in the water, I haven’t line edited any poems, and my novel is out for a beta read that leaves me both terrified and restless — but looking at the year, I can see clearly how much I have to celebrate. The novel draft is finished and I’m still excited to get back in come January and keep working at it. I threw may hat back into the submission ring this year and have enjoyed a fair amount of success. My husband and I did the scary thing and moved to a new city where I didn’t have a job, friends, or writing connections, and now I have a job, some cool, new friends, and a writing group that is small but mighty.

As the year comes to a close, I am focusing on gratitude, both for the fact that I have been able to write and simply for allowing myself to do so. Stepping back and taking the long view to see the forest for the trees is essential, especially during the more barren weeks. I am working hard to give myself the space and the grace to see what I can’t when I’m nose down into the mud of the work. But right now, the time for work is done. Right now is a time for dancing.

Because all told — this has been a gold star year, and really, a gold star writing life.

 

That Which is Found in Your Own Heart

Dear you,

On the night of the election, I hid in a blanket and cried so hard in my husband’s arms that my usually ornery cat jumped up to our laps and straddled us both. Yesterday, I waffled between crying without cue and staring blankly off into space. I felt as if I had been punched in the gut. I am heartbroken.

Watching Hillary’s slow loss was to re-witness all the ways in which women have been picked over, spurned, ignored, silenced, and kept out of private rooms. It was a reminder of all the ways I have personally felt these insults in my lifetime. Regardless of how another may interpret her loss, that is simply how it felt to me.

And there’s a whole other side to how people are interpreting this loss — that this ushers in a new wave of racism, misogyny, and fear-mongering that we have not seen before. That it is our new American identity.

I refuse to believe this.

One — Racism and misogyny and fear of the “other” has always been in our identity. Nothing is renewed — it is just more visible to some for whom it was previously invisible.

Two — This vote was an act of desperation for many people. Whether a person voted for Hillary, the Donald, third party, or not at all, all of it was done in a way to make their voice heard. And this was particularly clear to those who supported Trump because they felt as if their voice was heard in him.

I’m not talking about the “build a wall” bullshit, or the muslim ban idiocy, Mexicans are rapists, or any other pussy-grabbing comment he made. Where he resonated for many was in the talk of bringing jobs back to middle America, of recalling a time when a person could live in the same community their whole life, work a blue collar job and send kids to school if they wanted to go.

Of course, there are bad apples in the basket. And there are signs already that this win has emboldened people to act in hurtful ways. That is the truth and one the Republican party must contend with as they move forward. But that does not mean Republican = racist any more than it means Democrat = open-minded. The majority are simply hanging their hopes on the fact that they now feel like someone is listening to them.

There’s a whole Cracked article on this that puts the issue perfectly in perspective. I won’t completely rehash it here.

I came from one of these communities. Most people had been living in the area for generations, farming, ranching, or working for a feed factory, a trucking line, an oil company. It’s a small area that worked like an ecosystem — one or two large industries fuels the basic catch-all for employment, this employment fuels the small businesses, these small businesses fuel the sense of community, and community fuels all else. It’s easy to see where a person fits, if they want to fit.

But remove one of these things — replace a local grocery store with a Wal-mart, let one large company move business elsewhere, lose one church, school, or community center — and the ecosystem collapses. And the ecosystems have been collapsing at a rapid rate for reasons too complex to lay the blame on any one cause.

The world has always changed without any of our consent.The profit of corporations and big-box stores have far outpaced the services any Mom and Pop can offer (according to who you ask) and people are all too willing to sacrifice convenience for community. In most of these small places, there is no longer any choice. The advance of automation technology eliminates the need for jobs that previously supplied income to whole families. The jobs available require a college degree mostly available in cities far away and the college degree has become so expensive it’s prohibitive even for families still lucky enough to have their original employers.

We are required to adapt to live. But the adaptation that is required is not small. You must rip yourself apart. Prosperity is occurring elsewhere;  all you have to do is leave all you love behind to get it. All you have to do is send your children away and hope they come back for you.

I am a child who left and did not come back. I go home as often as I can and I cherish it when I do. But I would be wrong if I said that all is the same when I come back. There is distance now. I don’t have the same priorities as I did when I left. I don’t think the same way, nor do I act the same way. Even the way I speak changes with the company I surround myself with. I am now the other. Not to all, but to some.

And herein lies the division. We both did what we felt had to be done; we either stayed to fight for our home or we left to seek opportunities for our future. The result is that one half feels abandoned and the other half feels betrayed. Try to guess which one you are; you likely identify with both.

Say what you want, but these communities are experiencing deep losses. There is no clear way to get it back and there is no urgency to help them. And of course, marginalized groups have always felt deep losses.We can talk all day about it and I will never disagree with you. It is felt every time a kid is shot on the street because of his color and every time a slur is heard about their religion.  But suffering on one side does not negate the suffering of the other. This is a painful world. Everyone in it hurts.

There are two calls right now. One, to reach across the table and try to understand each other. Another, to reject bigotry and fight for what is right. These are not mutually exclusive. It is absolutely possible to do both. But it requires a level of compassion many of us struggle for on a good day. Now is the time to dig deep.

I have never lived in an echo chamber and I will not start now. Echo chambers and sorting ourselves into like communities is what made (and continues to make) both sides unable to see each other’s reason. I value my conservative friends and the discussions we have had together because it proves to me over and over again that keeping our friendship is far more important to both of us than is winning any argument.

But I also will not hesitate to call out an injustice when I see it. Just because I can have compassion for both sides does not mean I allow racism and misogyny to go unchecked. You can absolutely fight for what you believe is right and still keep peace at the top of your goals. After all, that’s all we want. Peace.

Let us all check our words and actions. Let us not assume anything about anyone. Do not speak out of anger, fear, or hurt. If you need to do so (and that’s a perfectly valid need), do so in a safe space. Then pull yourself up and go back out there practicing skillful speech based firmly in love and compassion. Practice every day and forgive yourself when you fail, especially when someone else is speaking to you out of their own pain.

Reject hate, anger, and fear — even that which is found in your own heart. Do not give in. The world is too fragile a place without your strength.

When The Buffalo Come

 

Dear You,

I grew up on acres of open country, split three ways between the pastures of my parent’s house, the utopic gardens of my grandparent’s land, and the river bottom twenty miles west where we set the cattle to graze. When I think about my childhood, the image that comes up first is that of grass, tall and yellow, waving above my head. There was something about being on the ground enveloped by the grass that made me feel safe. I would crawl along my belly, my hands clutching at the ground, as I pretended that the grass was a roof over my head and that it held me the way it held any other animal.

I remember believing that I spoke the language of the nature around me. I was more comfortable in a tree than at the dinner table. I could approach any animal like an old friend. If I asked kindly, it almost seemed the wind would blow on my request.

My grandparents were cattle ranchers and the operation was small and family-worked. A doctor in the city owned the animals; we did the day-to-day work and shared profits. Outside of that, my grandmother operated a small pecan-selling business. We would nose our feet around the crunchy leaves and test the weight of the pecans in our hands. Heavy was good, light was bugs. We would collect as many as we could carry and scatter them over a table laid out in Granny’s garage where we would pack bags and weigh them to scale. I could eat however much I wanted if I could crack them open, which I couldn’t. Granny could crack two pecans open just by squeezing them in her palm. I remember bruising myself trying to do the same.

I mentioned the garden as being utopic; it was, at least by my memory of it. There were beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelon, tall rows of corn stalks that begged to be run through with hands out, and fruit trees at the end. An herb garden lined the far fence. Every morning, I would take out scraps for the compost and crunch each egg shell half at a time under my foot.

It seemed everything could be found out in that garden. Every Wednesday, Granny made a stew out of the beef and vegetables raised, tossing the clean, thick vertebra of T bone to whatever lucky dog got to it first outside the kitchen door. It stuck with me, how anything a person needed could be got from the earth so long as they took the time and the care and only what was needed.

The grown me takes stock of herself often and the things in which she places her priorities. I would like to be a priority of mine to live as my childhood self believed all people lived — within means and with gratitude and joy. But I have spent the past two months upending my life and breaking it apart and putting it together one little piece at a time. Before we left for Tennessee, I knew so much of myself. I was exercising. I was meditating. I was staying present with my friends and family and taking steps to minimize my impact on this world. I was feeling whole, or at least approaching whole.

Moving has obviously put a flux on our lives. It has upended me in a way that I feel at times has set me back years on my work on myself.On the harder days, I try to make it a priority just to be present and fail often at that. Lately, I have to squint just to recognize the smallest slice of myself. Worst of all, in my discomfort and in an attempt to assuage the low-level anxiety throbbing just underneath the surface, I have lowered my guard on what I will and will not do for this world. Impact? What impact? I’m lonely.

Last week, I came across a video from the protests in Standing Rock. A young man was being interviewed at the front lines. He kept his eyes on the police standing in front of him and he spoke with a pleading voice that broke your heart and an exhausted tone that was recognizable in more ways than one. “They’ll never understand,” he said. He braced himself on the barbed wire fence. “This land means everything.”

I remember thinking the same thing — they’ll never understand — when our little town’s fracking ban was overturned by the state. But then his eyes lit up and the people around him began screaming in joy — just over the hill, a herd of buffalo were stampeding their way.

I have always been a magical thinker. I’m not ashamed of it. I would rather believe that the universe passes along messages like folded notes in the form of signs and symbols, or that the whole fabric of our life force is knit together firmly in love, than believe that anything one human does is irrelevant to the rest of the world. I believe in science, of course. But I also find value in that which is just beyond science’s reach.

Seeing that herd of buffalo running full force toward the protest site — it felt as if the universe reached a hand back and popped me upside the head. Remember now, it insisted. The world wants to care for us, cradle us.

I said a quick prayer for the water protectors and acknowledged my presence on the earth with gratitude. I took a few actions of support for the #NoDAPL movement. I cried for all the ways I am continually reminded that we are no more and no less than the breath in all of our lungs. That weekend, my husband and I travelled hours to be at the wedding of two dear friends. And I danced and laughed and cried with as much joy as my heart could take.

Weakness comes and goes and brings darkness with it. It likes to slither in when it knows it will not be met with much resistance and can find an easy home. It likes to tempt when it knows you’ll give in. Just lay here for a moment, it says. Just go to sleep and pay no mind.

But this week, I am just that much closer to peace. I can find it in the small moments of my day. I imagine it as a small light, tucked in between my heart and stomach, that glows when noticed. Darkness will always have a home here, but so will this light. I imagine myself sitting by its fire, warming my hands, as I wait again for the buffalo to come.

To learn more about the #NoDAPL movement and stand with Standing Rock, visit StandingRock.org. 

 

 

Allowing the Subconscious to Speak

Dear you,

I have spent the last two weeks writing as if it was National Novel Writing Month. For those who are not aware, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is where writers commit to putting 55,000 words of a novel to a page in just one month’s time. A complete novel for an adult audience usually reaches 80,000 to 100,000 words total but the goal is to just write fast without second-guessing and to prove to those second-guessers that yes, you do have time to write your story so just go do it, damnit.

I have never participated in it before and have really never had the desire to. All power to people who can finish whole drafts of novels in just a few months time. But I have always been a slow writer. I like to take my time with things and let the story unfold naturally, even in a first draft. I have found that when I write too fast, I leave intuition behind and shove myself into a corner that then has to be dug out with a buck knife.

Outlining a first draft has always been anathema to me. It’s a paradox I can never shake out. What happens to a character in a story is based on who the character is and who the character is is based on what happens to the character in the story. How else could I discover who these people are unless I just let them loose on the page for a bit? It takes sketching; your subconscious has to be allowed to speak.

But I am gleefully on a second draft. The subconscious has had literally two years to speak at length and I am now at the let’s do this, git-r-done stage of I just need to finish this fucking thing. 

So when I reached 50k last month and felt appropriately overwhelmed and then read Writer’s Digest’s latest article on the benefits of Nano-ing, the thread found its hole, the bullet its target and I thought: This time, I will good god damn do it. I have my outline. I know where the story needs to go. I just need to cut out the procrastination and just get it there. Advanced blessings to the people who have agreed to read this harried mess.

So I have spent the last two weeks writing at what I consider an unsustainably speedy pace. I get up two hours before I go to work, and because I am still a slow writer by nature, I usually have to finish up the word quota when I come home. I have neglected to wash my clothing. I have neglected to wash my hair, which has actually been a positive side effect (thank you curls.) I walk through rooms of my house in circles because I can’t ever seem to remember what brought me to the room in the first place. I have cried. I have argued with my poor husband who’s just trying to keep up.

All of this combined with the fact that I am doing this alone right now. NaNoWriMo takes place on a single month so that writers across the nation can make the pact together, check in with other, cheer each other on. And official NaNoWriMo is actually next month. Being the true stubborn person I am, it’s no surprise that I chose to take on this kind of word count without the benefit of thousands of other people who can appreciate the sheer torment of this goal.

Torment aside, there have been some big positives. I am moving through the story without doubting the intuition that gave me my outline in the first place. Every time I pass a monumental word count, I remember that I will finish this draft just like I finished the draft before it and the stories before that. I remember that if I just trust the process and stay the course, I will get to my own personal promised land. And sooner rather than later, thanks to this nutty goal.

But my subconscious is screaming. If I want to stay this course and stick with this discomfort, then it’s time to make some necessary adjustments.

Self-care during drafting is easily lost in the rubble of trashed pages and tears. We want to push forward, to get it all out, to finish it finish it finish it damnit, just finish the damned thing. It’s hard to concentrate on anything else. And maybe we don’t want to think about anything else. But mid-way through this month, I feel as if I have reached the end of my words. Each day they get harder and harder to come by.

So I am renewing my commitment to self-care. Nothing demanding; let’s not walk into that trap. But simple things. I will stretch. I will make my bed. Eat some vegetables and decline the donuts that some demon from hell keeps putting in the work breakroom. Even a simple morning meditation has the power to recharge the most exhausted minds.

So future fellow Nano-ers: Make your outlines but don’t underestimate your need for rest. Check in with yourself. Feel the ground under your feet. Live with love in every breath. Allow your subconscious to speak. And when it speaks, listen closely.

 

The Much That Comes From The Little

Dear You,

I have entered the phase when the wonder of our new city fades and is replaced by the need to get down to business. This week, I settled accounts with a new bank, re-allocated our budget, and my car informed me (thank you, Prius) that it needed an oil change. Oh, the fun of finding a new mechanic. I now have benefits at my new job which means I can put off finding a new doctor no longer. And just in time because I have come down with an illness I suspect has everything to do with the allergens being blown around that my sinuses are not used to.

Apologies to my friend, Travis — I will now probably never find out what the inside of the Nashville Parthenon looks like because I am back to business as usual. Time only for work, writing, and the books to be read and beer to be drunk when the working and writing is done. I’d like to say I’ll keep exploring, but let’s be reasonable. I am already tired.

Coincidentally, the re-write of my manuscript reached firmly past 50,000 words this weekend. It’s always exciting to get to that point because it feels as if the book is real, it really will be written and finished, it really will exist in the world. But with that 50,000 word marker comes the issue I am now facing in my city — it’s time for business. Gone is the excitement and wonder over a fresh start on a project. Now there are loose ends to tie up, second acts to muddle through, middles that sag like a belly dragging on the ground. For me, it becomes a slog after 50K.

This is not unlike how I envision the rest of this first year in Nashville to go.

Finding the mechanic and settling the bank accounts and feeling myself become more and more ill as I contemplate how it might look to have to call in sick on week three of my new job got me just a little overwhelmed this week. At one point, I realized my gas tank was on E and I had no convenient gas stop I could summon up in my head because I’ve only filled up once since being here (really, once!) and that was at the Kroger miles from our house in the other direction, which is convenient when buying groceries but not at all convenient when late for work.

All these small things — knowing where to find the cheap gas, knowing a reliable mechanic, knowing what restaurant or pub won’t be full to the ceiling on a Saturday afternoon — they add up to require a vast amount of brain power every day. Every day that we stay here, I have to figure out another thing I didn’t already know. And for someone like me who thrives on routine and stability, the unfamiliarity of every moment doubles the exhaustion.

And so it is in 50K territory. Where the beginning of the book is an adventure, the middle is a struggle. You know your players, know what you need to do, know where the story should end up, but shit if you know how to to accomplish any of it. There is a gap in nearly every decision you need to make. Each scene becomes a struggle because at this point, you are conducting business — not running around marveling at how wonderful all of this is. You can see the imperfect bits of your story so clearly, just as you come to discover the issues in your new city — what streets are safe to walk down, which roads will have gridlock when you leave work, and where the two for ones are on any given day.

They have to be discovered, usually through trial and error. You write some and you cut some. You follow the outline until you reach a dead end and you re-outline. You do the hard work of re-building your life and making yourself at home in it.

Every day, I am a little savvier about my new home. Every day, I have to think less about how to get to and from wherever I am going. Every day, I add more to the story and push myself through the sagging middle until I can find a plot point to hang on, a character I recognize, a beautiful sentence in a sea of ugly ones. And none of this works without a little trust in the process.

I imagine myself a year from now, the handful of friends I have here multiplied to a handful of groups. I imagine the shortcuts I will take to escape traffic. I imagine strolling down the various streets and running into acquaintance after acquaintance, waving at everyone, smiling in return, and basking in the joy of feeling at home. I imagine this story completed, edited, and submitted, while I rack my brains on a new, frustrating excursion.

Because if I look back two months ago on the day we moved here wide-eyed in wonder and then two years ago when I drove home from work with my heart in my throat and just the tiniest glow of the story flickering in my mind, I can easily see how much has come from so little.

It takes time to get from Point A to Point B. And taking that time requires trust that it will all be worth it. But I have always been a hopeful person. Writing, such as living, is an exercise in faith.