How Long Should a Novel Be? (and other anxious doubts)

writing

This weekend marked an enormous milestone for me: I completed the first working draft of my novel.

I did not celebrate.

In fact, I cried.

Here’s why.

writing

Set up and digging in for a marathon weekend of writing my novel, “The Perfect Traveler”

I’ve been working on this story for a year now and finished the first structural draft last fall. It had a different working title then- “Where Do We Go From Here?” but a friend of mine has a happy musical number of that same name and it threw off the sound in my head. My story isn’t necessarily happy. It’s a psychological love story between two travelers and it spins off an idea I got from the recent Amazon Kindle ad campaign #haveKINDLEwillTRAVEL. It sometimes gets quite dark. So I changed the title. I also scrapped the back half of the draft last May.

My goal was to get a solid second draft of, “The Perfect Traveler” crafted by the end of September so that I could have a cleaned up third draft ready to show to a professional editor by the end of the year. I hadn’t yet decided if I wanted to try and pitch it to Amazon or not (because it’s fun throwing a pebble into a gianormous ocean to see the ripple effect, right?) or if I just want to self-publish and consider it measurable progress towards my lifetime goal of being a successful novelist.

I take goal setting seriously.

I also take my family, full-time employment, friends and a host of other projects (like #100runningdays and #storyswatch) seriously. The calendar was racing past. I ticked off the squares. I saw the holiday decor hit the stores. Someone threw out there were only 12 more Saturdays until Christmas. I broke into hives of anxiety. I was getting close to a full-on freak-out of failure. And then, miraculously, this weekend opened up.

My kids went to see their dad for the first visit in a long while. My husband went to visit his brothers for a football fest. Three whole days opened up. It was the parting of the Red Sea of Obligations for me to be home alone and write. This. Was. My. Chance.

As you can see in the photo above, I was well fortified. Twizzlers, a bottle of Pinot Grigio, a meatball pizza from my favorite brick oven place, Sour Patch Kids, and coffee. I cleaned the house first (can’t write with a dirty sink) and I shut off all the social media. I hid my phone. As they say, I decided to, “put my butt in the chair and write” until that draft was complete, story told, ready to print and mark up.

6 hours on Friday, 14 on Saturday, 10 on Sunday. I could feel the momentum build. Then, my butt went numb. The deeper I got into the story, the more I was loving it. This is meaningful to me because a few years ago I abandoned a manuscript at the 75% mark after coming to loathe it. This one has good juju. I love my characters. I love seeing the progress I’ve made in cutting unnecessary words. My husband came home as I was finishing the second-to-the-last chapter and I hollered, “Baby! You’d better be ready to celebrate because I’m going to make this deadline!”

Context clue: I get frothy about celebrating milestones. I make them up and I make a big deal out of achieving them. My birthday lasts a full month, my projects all get hashtags, and I rejoice over baby steps.

And then, there it was: the final word at the end of chapter 22. I’d told the story from start to finish. Can we say I’d looked forward to that moment for my entire cognizant life? Yes, we can. It was after dark on Sunday night, the pizza and wine were gone, and I’d hid the rest of the Twizzlers from the kids. Everyone came home. Out of time, I told Scrivener to compile and took a look at the word count.

25,000 words.

Nanowrimo lathers writers into 50,000 word drafts in a month. Standard novels have a suggested length of 80,000. There are notable exceptions like Harry Potter’s bloated lengths and Hemingway’s brevity for Old Man and the Sea. But, for average Jo March’s like me, we have to follow the standard rules of publishing.

I’m really short on words. It’s probably the first time in my life I can say that.

Cue the tears and self-doubt. I wrote harder than I’ve ever written in my life this weekend on something I want more than almost any other life accomplishment. Writing comes right after my kids. Maybe I just don’t have the chops to tell a story well at that length. I have other stories that are long; Nano-drafts that sit near 100k of pure crap. But this time I was sparse on purpose, trying to write clean. An editor will still need room to chop. Doubling my word count is essentially re-doing the entire previous year. It’s like telling the marathon runner, “now turn around and run back.” Most would probably walk away.

Today I’ve worked on processing. My daughter sagely suggested that rather than try to overwrite scenes I worked hard to tell sparsely but completely, I should simply try to add in 25 more scenes. My good friends suggested I take note on the devastation I’m feeling and remember that it’s useful. They threw out titles that are beautifully told in fewer words. A few suggested its a novella. Another said maybe Amazon would even prefer a novella so it can be pitched as a quick travel read on the plane. (One can hope.)

I sent it to print. I’ll be taking Stephen King’s advice later today. My draft, which I still feel so proud and protective of, that I love so very much, will be put into a drawer and set aside for a few weeks. I’m going to read, ruminate, work, keep up my projects, and let some insight steep.

I want my story to be whatever length it needs to be.

Underneath It All

Rows and rows and rows of heroes.

A friend on Facebook posted the following request.

A positive only political post. No posting conspiracy theories or anything negative. What good has Trump done for the world? What good has Hillary Clinton done? No candidate bashing. I really want to know.

It seemed reasonable enough, right? It gave her friends a chance to respectfully state a positive action of one of the candidates. It didn’t even have to be their candidate— just say something good about one of these two people.  This sounded to me like the perfect opportunity for adults to engage in civil discourse with respect. It didn’t go as well as hoped. There were a few very good points about Hillary’s accomplishments. There was actually a lot more snide remarking. It seemed actually difficult for people to validate that a woman in her 60’s, who is as experienced as she is, has done anything good in her lifetime. It was sort of a final straw for me.

And then it came to me, what was better said here on my own blog than on someone else’s wall:

Hillary has a vagina. This makes her less likely to be a dick. 

While that may sound inflammatory, it’s also reinforced. The following statements will fall in to the “more or less likely” and will have the potential for a few notable exceptions.

  • Women are less likely to be narcissistic and abusive, especially if in leadership roles.
  • Women are less likely be bullies
  • Women are nurturing and intuitive and bring those skills to sensitive situations where diplomacy is needed
  • Women, having been in the underdog role for generations, are more interested in true equality than in role reversal

Donald Trump has really bad manners. He’s rude, crass, mean, insulting, humiliating, and spouts off at the worst times. Setting his opinions and platforms aside, I haven’t once seen him not behave like a total asshole—whether he’s firing someone on a TV show, addressing the grieving parents of a war hero, or speaking to a female reporter. Hillary isn’t perfect– if I could have another smart woman running, I would most likely choose a different one. But she reminds me a lot of why I changed doctors. 

I’d rather have a woman physician (and lawyer, therapist, dentist, etc) than a man. This is largely (not entirely) because she has a vagina and that makes her less likely to be a dick.

My female attorney and doctors speak to me with intelligence and expect intelligence in return. They look me in the eye and they listen. They take me seriously. They are able to relate to the struggles I’m encountering in life, many of which are specifically because I am a woman/mother/wife. They’ve had to work harder to get to the same places as their male counterparts and they are smarter and more experienced for it.

And I trust that.

So I have since changed my doctors, dentist, therapist, and now presidential candidate. I tried life the male-dominated, conservative republican, evangelical, top-down traditional way. The result has largely been displeasing. Male doctors have told me to, “get over it”. They’ve said, “you’re just depressed” and “you’re hysterical” and to, “calm down.” Male attorneys left massive gaps that didn’t protect either my or my children’s best interests because he felt, “single women are better off going home to live with their parents.” Male dentists forced their hands into my mouth without saying hello or explaining what they were about to do. Male government leaders have led us into wars I don’t want America’s children to fight and continue policies that keep half of the population from experiencing anything close to equal rights and equal pay. Under the status quo of male dominated leadership, there is more division, fear, weapons, sex-motivated scandal, and hate.

America needs a nap. America needs a mother. I think it needs a smart woman with a cool head on cranky day, someone who looks people in the eye and rolls up her sleeves and comes at these problems from a different angle. I want my boys to see the value of women in leadership, just as they have in the classroom, and to respect smart women who bring something to the table. However, I also teach them to respect all women, smart or not, because manners matter.

I fired my rude doctors and my insulting attorney because they weren’t doing a good job of protecting my interests or advocating on my behalf. Donald should be fired as well. He’s not doing a good job this very day of respecting others. He’s not doing a good job this very day of carrying the mantle of responsibility his convention gave to him.

He’s being a dick.

 

(And for those who are concerned that this is against equality, that some forms of feminism discount the unique value of men– I’m sorry that might be happening. We really are far away from any kind of woman dominated society, although that’s an idea whose time has come. Good men will find a way to contribute, just as smart women have had to fight to do for millennia. Perhaps good men can start by putting the negative examples and representatives they’ve allowed to rise to the top while behaving badly into check. Good men, fire Donald.)

Rows and rows and rows of heroes.

Rows and rows and rows of heroes. Let’s stop governing in a way that requires a blood sacrifice.

Day 3: Did It Anyway

100runningdays day 3

Starting off with a Runner’s Log:

Day 3  of #100runningdays and today was a tough one. Maybe they all will be. My body is feeling the soreness from having run; getting out bed was achy from the first movement. My routine was wonky. And then, after dropping off my son at work, I felt that familiar fatigue that makes my spine and blood feel like a lead weight fell and just let all the air out of my balloon.

Hashtag: Did it Anyway.

The Forest Circle Loop:

My route today was a drive-to since I was already in the car early. I’ve heard several recommendations for a riverfront neighborhood known as the “Forest Circle Loop”; shaded estates with oaks draped in moss, dog watering stops, and no traffic. That’s the destination. Since it’s at the end of a series of suburban neighborhoods, one has to park and go. The only parking I found was in a small strip mall at the end of the main road–the kind of place with such limited parking that the business owners probably don’t want non-customers using. Still, the pizzeria wasn’t open that early so I took the risk.

Pro’s: running path style sidewalk, watering stop, dappled shade, nice length.

Con’s: the majority of it is dangerously close to fast traffic, the sun sections are HOT, and it’s morale-busting to have to start and finish with the con-sections after enjoying the pro-middle bit of the actual shady loop.

Interesting lesson learned: Being unfamiliar with the route required continual curiosity and an organic stretch of my distance covered. Without milestones to psych myself up with (or talk myself out of) and only one way back to the car, I had to press on. 

My dog is a champion. 

Savannah loves every second of this. She runs better and longer than I can. She’s incredibly obedient– even ignoring other dogs while running that she’d whimper over if we were walking. True, she’s pooped out by the time we get home but this has meant less chewing on naughties later in the day. I’m wondering about her nutrition. If I’m paying attention to higher protein for me, maybe I also should for her. And shade or early/late hours are just going to be a must. That hot pavement just seems painful on her pink pads, even though she refuses to choose the grass.

100runningdays day 3

Up by a mile today.

It’s Already Hard to Get Up and Run on the Second Day

I was staring at the ceiling but with my eyes closed– have you ever done that? I was seriously debating not getting up to run on DAY TWO under the reasoning that we are planning the beach tonight after work and I could run then.

Which, often gets cancelled if our work runs late. The chances are pretty high that if I put it of in the morning that it’s not going to happen. Day 1 would have be Day Only. And then my phone blitty-blipped with a Map My Run notification reminding me to get up and go.

Sigh. I don’t like running. I do like sprinting but not when it’s hot. End of June in Florida is HOT, even at 7 am. As soon as the sun is up in Florida the cicadas are scratching in the pines and the birds are getting their whole day accomplished before 9. Once it’s full on morning even the animals know to keep in the shade. The cat will lay aimlessly under the bushes and flick the tip of her tail and watch a squirrel walk on by. Neither of them will bother to play chase.  Why? Because running takes too much work!

And yet, there am I, running dangerously close to 8 in the morning with a deliriously happy post-heartworm treatment pup who thinks this is a great new game we’re playing. True, I’m not alone. While the real runners were up before daylight and are probably chugging back peanut butter protein kale and raisin smoothies by the time the sun is up, I’m out with the elderly folks walking their powder puff purse dogs.

Day 2 discovery of something pretty.

Day 2 discovery of something pretty.

I need to remember my “why”.  I’m doing this to lose weight because I’m on the threshold of “fat in my forties” or “toned in my prime” and I’m chased at the ankles by two diagnoses that are maintained through lifestyle. Gaining has been consistent, hormonal, and hard to control for the last 4 years no matter my best efforts at gluten-free, paleo, sprinting, fruit water, Fitness Pal discipline and only part of that is because there were also lots of birthday cake and red wine french fry appetizer pizza and beer days in between. The other part is that because I don’t like real “exercise”: I like playing outside. Playing is fun. Working out is not. Working out is work.

So why run? The first time I gave consistent running a try, I was 19. French fries and fruit punch pounds slid off my body faster than cold butter on Florida pavement in July. The results made an impact on my mind and convinced me that when it really matters, start running. It’s possible that had more to do with being 19 than in the mile I put in each night.

We’ll see. Day 2 of #100runningdays is in the books. We even found a pretty side trail right here in our suburban boredom. Also, #runwriterepeat.

Day 2

A run/walk pace that allows time for sniffing.

Oh, the Tales that Trees Could Tell

Day 6 progress

I don’t have many indoor memories from the summer of my 9th year; it’s all fireflies and long days, strawberry jam sandwiches on homemade bread and only needing shoes on Sunday.

My birthday party was near the rose garden; I remember pink streamers and getting Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. My mother’s rose garden was home to pink and yellow roses, meandering pathways, and gliding lawn furniture my dad had made. Someone had a wedding in it once. The house was to the right of it; a shaded grove of trees we called, “the park” to the left. Acres of squared pastures surrounded us; forested woods surrounded the fields. Between the yard and the front pasture ran a line of tall northern pines and our driveway; those enormous pines would have snow laden boughs in winter. We called this indelible homeplace, “The Farm” even though we rarely had more than cats, dogs, a batch of bunnies, or someone’s boarded horse.

I marked my favorite places by the trees. The Park had a locust tree at the entrance, tall with brown papery pods, where we hung the hammock my parents brought back from an Amway trip to Mexico. At the first bend of the driveway were orange tiger lilies and birch trees, the bark of which I did try peeling and writing on.  Halfway down the half-mile long gravel driveway (quarter mile? Mile? As a kid I had no scope for distance; I measured the way in memorized bends and potholes) stood a scrappy old apple tree, not good for climbing high but a favorite milestone nonetheless. In our neighbor’s back fields there stood a magic circle of birches that turned gold in September. I wasn’t supposed to venture that far out but I pretty much did, just so I could stand in the center and look for God and probably faeries.  I can still view it from Google Earth. And, the windbreaks were all evergreen, so every pasture line and the front of our drive held a guarantee: excellent climbers, with branches spaced so evenly they almost seemed like ladders. I could get the highest up one of those and often did.

I told some of those trees my secrets. Today, when told to “imagine a peaceful, happy place” there’s the branch three quarters of the way up a pine dividing two of our back fields, from where I could see the whole spread and beyond and felt tall, where I go. I could feel the wind and see forever from a perch no one else knew. The farm was, and in some ways still is, my heaven.

A year later we moved to a hot place full of asphalt and poinky transplanted palms. There’s a breach in my outdoorsy spirit at that point; I didn’t acclimate well. Years passed. I kept my feet on the ground. And then one day I had my children and they started to grow. I boosted my little son to the lowest branch of a Sycamore tree and watched him fall in love.

It didn’t really occur to me, as an adult raising a family, to try climbing up into a tree. Somewhere in there my outdoorsy-ness had returned in bursts but only through ground based, perfectly adult-geared activities like hiking, biking, gardening, and running (for clocked distance, not headlong joy). I’d become supervisor, event planner, nurse for skinned knees, cautionary life guard reminding my littles to, “be careful!”.

During those years I had a neighbor once whose ambition it was to pave her front yard. “I hate trees,” she said. I stared at her, I’m sure mouth agape, unable to comprehend what she said. I’m not exaggerating. I could understand hating to rake up tiny little oak leaves or deal with hazardous limbs. But to hate trees? All trees? Shade that reduces your power bill? Wasn’t that a very grown-up reason to nurture a healthy population of trees? I don’t get it.

I still mark my favorite places by trees. When we travel, its the trees I want to see; I bring pinecones and leaves home with me from Aspens, Cedars, Poplars. It’s the massive Live Oaks that caused me to finally love this southern city as home. I believe an old tree will challenge a transient, commercialized attitude.  An old tree knows things that came Before You. I know trees to be good listeners, to be generous and servant hearted and I trust in the integrity of a place more if it has a good tree. A strong tree says something about the people who tend it, and these days, the ones who allow it to continue growing un-razed.

When I think about getting old, I think about who I always was, that barefoot girl with freckles from the sun who grew up in the woods. I think about which parts of her I get to keep, which parts of her want to wake up, come back, come out to play. I’m 42 June 24, a reflection.

I’ve started trying to find her and the first place I looked was up.

Relearning to climb

Re-learning is going to be a process. This is Day 3. Weak arms and hand grips need practice and strength.

It was humbling, but not halting, to realize I could hardly pull myself up anymore. I need to work on arm strength and hand grip.

Using the monkey bars as practice.

Using the monkey bars as practice.

I was happy to find a playground without kids one early morning. I wasn’t interested in being the weirdo adult who’s playing on the swings and monkey bars without a kid in sight. I might need to borrow a kid soon.

Day 6 progress

Day 6: Made it to the first notch in our oak tree; about 6 feet off the ground.

I still don’t like heights, which is going to make this goal interesting. But maybe, if I get good at it again, and make it back to Michigan someday, I’ll have the chance to climb up and say hi to an old friend.

Tomatoes and Raindrops and Curtains of Blue

Lake Michigan

All of these things are true.

In between working and driving, within the last seven days I…

Saw my oldest son graduate in dress blues and white cap from Navy boot camp. I cried during the Star Spangled Banner and The Navy Hymn.

Stood on the shore of Lake Michigan with my husband, ex-husband, son, and his girl. I gathered 5 stones of remembrance. We all went to dinner, having our first amiable conversation in 9 years.

Took an elevator 103 stories up and glimpsed panoramic views of Chicago’s skyline on a clear day that really did feel like forever. I didn’t look down.

Hiked with a friend through an Illinois prairie and through a wooded ridge. We talked about women and God while dodging spring mud.

Received a paper bag holding two perfectly ripe homegrown tomatoes from my son’s girl. After slicing, I sprinkled them with coarse salt and marveled at her kindred heart.

Tomatoes and salt.

Tomatoes and salt.

Purchased a hard cover novel from the used bookstore and a second one as well, for the quote inscribed in the flyleaf. I ran my hand over the ink and imagined.

Rearranged the notes pasted on my office wall to make room for a laminated year-at-a-glance calendar. I filled in campaigns through the year for work, writing, and family with color-coded markers. This year is abundant.

Tried climbing a tree by reaching for the lowest limb on our shiny Magnolia. I held on suspended for 1.5 seconds three times. I felt the girl-trapped-inside-an-old-body writhe to be released.

Danced barefoot around a fire with my friends in rhythm with drums. We talked about the men we love and how they love us in return.

Drums, fire, and barefooted dancing.

Drums, a perfect fire, and barefooted dancing. We burned a bowlful of notes, all the bad juju we no longer needed.

Ran on a grass bank during a heavy spring rain, smelled wet honeysuckle, combed my fingers over the dripping branches of an oak. I felt its life.

Touched the clear light of raindrops from leaf to my finger, watched the trickle on my palm to my forearm, felt it drip from my raised and bent elbow. The tree and I felt cleansed.

Listened to rain showers on pond water, heard thunder a few miles away. I unexpectedly napped on white sheets before dinner.

I guess I was tired. I also, on increasing occasion over these past 7 days, sat staring unseeing at my screen and the void opened up. I don’t battle depression anymore; I acknowledge it.  I call this feeling the Dark Sads. The artist’s temperament brings with it a melancholy; it might even depend on it. Still, this was a significant week that begs processing time. Perhaps I’m only blue because I’ve resisted this need too many days in a row. Of truth and worth noting: melancholy always drives me to create. I see in bright color. The air sizzles and light shimmers. I am most likely to craft work I like keeping on days like this.

Today, I write. I eat a warm cookie.  I sit in the sun and stretch my toes. I listen.

Lake Michigan

The shoreline of Lake Michigan, contributing its own brand of magic.

Of Bullies and the Lasting Impact of Words: Why Trying EVER Skincare Seemed Like a Hard Thing To Do

“Self-conscious” means to have undue awareness of one’s self, one’s appearance, or one’s actions.

I remember the day self-consciousness replaced self-confidence.

In 4th grade I was a rough and tumble woods girl, living in the upper peninsula of Michigan. That April we moved to Florida, land of incessant heat, burning sun, and a life indoors. I finished the school year as the new kid and the outlier position held through the end of 5th.

My parents chose a private school for 6th, a small Christian academy, with the hopes it would be a better fit. The idea was that small classes would mean more attention around kids from better families who were being raised “right”. Despite having had a much rockier time trying to fit into Sunday School cliques full of girls who’d grown up together in the south than I had in public school, I was looking forward to the new school too. It would be a fresh start.

In anticipation for The First Day, I was given a perm, which I tried to brush straight and instead created a burning bush of redheaded frizz. I then pasted it back on the sides with two gold toned barrettes. My curly bangs refused to lay down flat and fluffed up, poodle style. One of my front teeth had not fully come in, having been damaged after a balcony fall I’d taken as a toddler. The other front tooth had a small brown cavity. Besides a smattering of freckles, my pale skin was punctuated with a few bright red spots: my first zits.

I walked into the brown paneled and brown carpeted classroom and sat down at a brown desk in the second row, in the second seat from the back. I put my teal binder squarely on the top and set my red pencil case next to it. I looked ahead to the green chalkboard and the cursive name of our teacher written in white chalk. Nervous butterflies fluttered in my stomach. Tension buzzed in the air.

The seats in front of me filled with kids, most of whom were welcoming each other with high fives and laughs of recognition, a clan of kids who’d been here together for 5 grades before. I pushed away fears of being, ‘the new kid’. Today we all had the first day of junior high. I sat up straight, determined to be a good sport, to get good grades, and to make this a very good year.

A shiny tan girl near the front of the class in the row to my right turned back and smiled. She had on a peach top and jeans and peach socks to match her top. I thought she was smiling at me so I smiled back, wide and pleased. She covered her mouth with her hands and giggled and looked at the boy to my left.

“You’re right! She’s hideous!”

My body froze even as my blood rose high with hot shame. I tried to swallow the embarrassment watering in my mouth. The teacher stood in front of the class and began her welcome to the new year speech. I don’t remember hearing a word she said but I did understand something loud and clear:

Kelly H. and her Many-Colors-of-Benetton snottiness had just christened me with the nickname I’d have at that school every day for the two years I went there:

Hideous.

Paul added a noun: Hideous Iguana.

As in, “Hey Hideous, pass me the scissors.”

And, “You can’t sit there. This is a Hideous Iguana-free zone.”

Daily stomachaches, school absences, mounting shyness, and interior self-loathing took over. I saw what they saw: an ugly reptile who didn’t tan, who had a weird name, who wasn’t worth getting to know. I don’t remember smiling there again.

It took a few years but I eventually learned first not to brush out perms and then to stop getting them. I learned how to put on make up, at least the basic, “natural look”. My teeth were repaired. I got glasses and then contacts and then grew my hair long. Everybody left Junior High. Kelly and Paul and their friends probably changed too. They are probably kind hearted adults with families who don’t even remember me or what they said.

It’s just interesting how some things stick to a recipient like crazy glue. I think 20 years had to pass before I didn’t feel hideous. It was maybe 10 more until I’d be writer enough to Tell This Truth. There’s been lots of living in between and that brings us to Now.

At 41 I am still part woods girl who likes a clean face. I like washing with cool water and skin that can breathe. It took my lifetime but I now like my pale skin and salted caramel freckles. I’d go around like that all the time except another part of me likes a little dress-up now and then. I’m not very skilled at putting it on but there are occasions that benefit from a little tint and enhancement. For the most part, my two halves make their peace.

There’s just one sticky wicket with which to contend: I still feel shame when I shop for make up. I still feel like I’m posing. I resist spending money on myself. I struggle to see the expense as “worth it”. The drugstore is full of marketed chemicals and the department stores are full of Girls Who Know What They’re Doing. My planned response has worked for the past 5 or so years:

avoid it as much as possible.

Fair skin wrinkles the least. Red hair grays the slowest. My acne is finally gone. I use cocoa butter to moisturize at night and the lightest, cleanest sunblock I can find for the day; light makeup when necessary and act like a desire to do anything different is irrelevant. Play it cool, hippie girl.

When did that stop?

Last year I realized I’d aged more in the past 2 years than I had in the previous decade all together. I can usually drum up enough existential intelligence to brush off any fear of aging. I can welcome “wisdom streaks” and “laugh lines” and look forward to becoming a tough old bird with long white hair. Well, I thought I could…until stress pushed the fast forward button and just like the sudden transition from woods girl to bullied pubescent, I was changing from young mom to peri-menopausal hag with nitro speed.

I looked in the mirror and felt, “hideous”.

Around this same time my daughter-in-law got involved with a skin care company called EVER. She’s fair and redheaded like me and since having babies, her skin is the most sensitive of anyone I’ve met. Chemicals aren’t safe. EVER’s top line is expensive, at least from the perspective of water-and-cocoa-butter, and I listened from a distance, cheering her on but knowing I’d never sign up.

Your face isn’t worth spending money on.

Melanie started posting before-and-after photos. EVER isn’t a cosmetic company; they sell chemical free skin care products that are botanically derived and not tested on animals. These are products that claim to clear complexions, remove age spots, improve tone and wrinkles…you get the idea. I wanted to remain skeptical.

None of that stuff really works.”

Photo after photo showed bare, clean faces in natural lighting with younger looking skin. There was a visible and noteworthy difference. The dark circles of mommy-fatigue had faded. Conditions like eczema and rosacea healed. Make up became unnecessary; these women’s faces glowed, dewy and healthy. I’m talking Anne of Green Gables kind of purity here. I refused to be impressed.

Photos can be edited. Don’t be the idiot who believes everything she sees.”

Melanie and I met for lunch. It’s really hard to argue with what you see in person. She wasn’t wearing make up and it was a work day. Despite having two very active and intense little boys who I know to be early risers and who sometimes get up at night, Melanie looked like she’d just had 6 months of great sleep. If photos could be doctored up, there was no way she could fake looking that fabulous.

Even if it works, you don’t deserve it.”

She showed me the prices and sales structure. Wine parties and home demonstrations, social media sales, contests, glossy marketing graphics and sample kits. I’d artfully dodged selling any kind of multi-level product through the years: scrapbooks, jewelry, vitamins, shakes… I’m a former Amway brat. That’s not my style. I have a full time job and a novel underway and four teenagers and a dog. I’m not a “hair girl”. I don’t like “high maintenance.” I’m afraid of being considered “vain”.

You selling beauty is not a line anyone would buy.”

It was in the midst of a personal inventory exercise that I changed my mind. A meme in my social feed reminded me to, “be the person you needed when you were younger.” I gave that one some serious thought.

Back then, I needed to hear good things about myself, the way I was changing, and who I was becoming. That girl had pretty green eyes. She could draw really well. She loved reading and talking about books. She ran like the wind (and needed a good sunscreen). She needed to hear that everybody gets acne at some point and that some day, it all goes away.

So I actually stood in the mirror and told my 41 year old self these very same things. I made a list and stuck them to the mirror. I like her. I like her curves and her face and her mind. I like her curiosity. I like her long red hair and her green eyes. I like how she can raise one eyebrow without moving the other. I like that reads the newspaper and books and is trying to write them too. I like that she still runs fast. I like that she chose great friends. I like that when she feels challenged by something, she figures it out and knows how to dig in and learn something new.

I am not hideous and never was.

And then I said, maybe in a whisper, a few other things as well. I said I wasn’t ready yet to have white hair. I don’t want to look this tired. I’m not ready for wrinkled skin. I need to use more sunscreen. Cocoa butter isn’t enough at night. It isn’t the natural process of age that has changed me: its stress and a lack of proper care.

A difficult divorce from an abusive marriage. Single parenting. Auto-immune disease. A remarriage and modern family. Job changes. Anxiety.

Old voices.

Proper care can come in a variety of forms. I made another list for the mirror: a list of things that I want to do for Tia before she turns 42. This decade is still young. It’s a decade of children leaving the nest, of new opportunities, of full nights of sleep and of creative ideas. It’s a transition time, similar to ones known in the past, and this time I’m going to be the person to myself that I need. I’m going to recognize the changes my human body, my animal, is going through and I’m going to do some things that help ease it through the adjustment. I’m going to do this because I like this soul and I like this body and it has served me well for 42 strong years. It deserves to be loved and cared for and also to be stood up for, protected.

At Christmas, Melanie gave me a tube of the EVER Daylight Radiance moisturizer with SPF. Sunblock has to be a part of my life. I live in Florida with fair skin and burn in minutes. Finding one that doesn’t lead to a break out has been hard. This is actually the first one I’ve ever (ha!) used that isn’t the least bit greasy. It doesn’t smell like sunblock. Chemical free and citrus smelling, it feels good to use. When I put it on in the morning I feel a small boost of gratification that I’m putting something special on a special person. I’m taking care of my animal and I’m glad.

Because I use it every day, I’m going to soon need more. And because my water-and-cocoa-butter regimen is anemic and needs an overhaul, I’m going to give this chemical free, plant-based program a try. I’m going to have a home party with wine and a demonstration and the social media party of month long sales. I can’t make this a business, which would probably get me my stuff for free, because I definitively don’t have time. But if I do earn enough to start the regimen, I’ll take the before-and-after’s. I’ll see if I can get my outside to match my insides, the parts that feel strong and healthy, rested and young. If not, I’ll know that I tried but I’ll know more than that too:

  • Someone else’s valuation of who you are does not determine your worth.
  • Painful experiences can become material later.
  • Mean people suck.
  • People also change.
  • Tell the truth.
  • Sixth grade was over a long time ago. You’re an adult now. Get the heck whatever you want for your face.
Hiking at Mt. Ranier last year, healthy, happy, and strong.

Hiking at Mt. Ranier last year, healthy, happy, and strong.

 

  • Update: We did have that party. My friends and I danced barefoot around a fire ring and threw scraps of paper into the flames. On the papers were all the baggage-y hangups we’d carried that weren’t useful to us anymore. Melanie did an outstanding demo, the wine was great, and my favorite EVER products are in my make up drawer. Hint- SMELL THE GOSH DARN LAVISH!! :swoon: Want to try or buy EVER?

 

 

 

“Like Foxhounds and other true Christians….”

The New York Times Book Review interviewed Wendell Berry for their By the Book feature.  The entire thing is great but the last quote grasped the breath in my lungs and held it clutched in time:

Q: What you plan to read next?

A: I am 81 years old. By now, I know better than to make plans. Like the foxhounds and other true Christians, I’ll follow my nose.

I have a foxhound. She’s loyal, true, grateful, empathetic, and full of vivid life energy that is nondiscriminatory: all people are her friends. She just assumes this and greets everyone we meet with the same curious love. She also, true to breed, keeps her nose to the ground. Everything is about what is right in front of her. She will miss sounds and sights and all distractions if something smells fascinating.

My sweet Savannah, a foxhound rescued from a kill shelter after being dumped by off season hunters. They are perpetual problem in our area; they breed the dogs and then discard them.

My sweet Savannah, a foxhound rescued from a kill shelter after being dumped by off season hunters. They are perpetual problem in our area; they breed the dogs and then discard them.

 

As for, “other true Christians”…I now understand why many dog owners prefer dogs to people. My personal faith is caught at the moment in a suspended state triggered largely by modern Christianity and the caustic reaction I’m having in regards to women’s issues, discrimination, and hate driven politics. It bugs me there are so few women in the biblical narrative (and I don’t believe for a second that 12 guys went traveling for that length of time and range without girls around) and I hit a major as-of-yet-unscalable wall when it comes to being able to contemplate anything related to the cross. Focusing on how a group of maniacal degenerates diabolically tortured and murdered another human being in front of his own mother has become intolerable for me. Her utter agony of watching that happen to her child isn’t something my system can handle imagining. Any celebration of the reason behind it or the so-called justification of it makes me recoil. I understand from the advice commonly given to those who grieve that focusing on the life they lived, rather than the way they died, is healthier. I lean into that.

I still stand in church and participate and follow the lifestyle of my people but I do so from a place of confusion and unrest, particular when it comes to identifying within a loaded label that means so many different things in 2016’s America. All my love and respect to my fellow parishioners, who are truly some of the very best people I know; it seems more manageable to me to live in community and think about the way Jesus lived than any other spiritual tenant told.

I tend to think that Mr. Berry is onto something (as he often is). Keep my nose to the ground. Try to disregard distractions. Approach life with a trust that first, all people are friends. Animals often gets things right.

Story World: Why I Heard My Characters Using the Trans-Atlantic Vocal Accent

My new WIP (Work in Progress) features characters that sprang to life after I saw a travel ad in the Sunday New York Times. They told me their old world names and I wrote their story in a flurry of energy. It’s one of my favorite stories that I’ve written but the questions started as soon as I was finished.

It was hard for me to place them in a particular setting. Their voices sounded old but their resources were more modern than the era when they were first popular names for children. And, the tension in their sunroom was punctuated with habits and manners that seemed older than the furnishings. Why were these old sounding people in this new sounding environment? I’m not very experienced with this kind of writing flow; I generally sit and predetermine the details and then write. This time, instead of ruminating on what might be a good idea, I found myself in a listening position.

Who are these people? Where do they live? Why do they feel this way? How did they get here?

Those are the questions I asked the air…and then I went to walk the dog, wash the dishes, reboot the laundry, drive carpool…. and listened for the answers. I knew I’d feel it somewhere in the middle of my gut and my brain. This is how I discovered their home city, the kinds of vacations they take, and the clothes they wear.

Unfortunately, (unless I come across some kind of blessed travel budget money) they live in a place where I’ve never been. Here’s another unfamiliar territory: I have always written in a setting I know inside and out. I’m not an experienced fantasy writer and I haven’t created a story world that I didn’t actually have life experience living in since I was a kid playing make believe.

I asked my not-blood-brother for advice because he has lived there. He offered a great insight to a region only the locals would really know, which set me off on a Saturday of fun research and then to the next question: when do these people live?

I texted M: What’s more interesting? Historical fiction in an actual time period or a future time period obsessed with that time in the past?

He texted back: Future. Definitely. Less work for you.

M’s an actor and a major movie buff. He gets the magnitude of research it takes to create an accurately layered story setting and the attention to detail I’d have to give it. He also knows me really, really well and probably responded to some extent on the instinct that I’m much better at big picture visions than tiny image details. I trust him.

A future obsessed with a certain time period in the past, like a rabid trend, a safe place, a goes-around-comes-around cycle…that explains every dilemma my short story presented. I got three more subchapter scenes in from the excitement of that answer alone.

These characters sound the way they do because it’s the sound of their generation. They dress the way they do because it’s the fashion of the time. They have access to what they have because they live in a modern city; not an antiquated past. Their world will contain remnant threads of every generation in between, an amalgamation of elements that are okay to include in my story and allows me to keep the focus on the tension and drama between them. That feels appropriate. The story world is only the back drop. It’s not the point.

Weathered old style beach house on Fernandina Beach, Florida. This is the kind of house I imagine when I read Madeleine L'Engles The Other Side of the Sun.

Weathered old style beach house on Fernandina Beach, Florida. This is the kind of house I imagine when I read Madeleine L’Engle’s The Other Side of the Sun.

Tag and Bag It: Giving Up on a Novel

 

Two years ago I started work on a novel that I thought would be easy to write. I’d dreamed the entire plot and cast of characters. It seemed the only work would be in getting it onto the page.

In reality, it revealed my deficits in understanding plot structure. So, I spent time learning and applying the lessons and continued to write on. It revealed I needed software. So, I purchased Scrivener and learned how to use it and continued to write on. It revealed I didn’t know if I was a “pantser” or an “outliner” so, I spent time as both and crafted an extensive outline. I wrote on.

Halfway through the second draft I got stuck. The image that came to mind was of my manuscript as a boat, churning in the Bermuda Triangle. My momentum disappeared. I gazed back at the pages and grew to hate them. Despite the outline, I couldn’t drive the sentences forward.

Just before Christmas I saw an ad for Jerry Jenkin’s writing guild, with the teaser, “do you want to finish your novel?” I signed up, plunged in, and eventually asked the question, “how do I know if it’s doomed and I should move on.”

The answer was optimistic. Unless I was certain that extensive rewrites and hard editing would still result in a manuscript that remained flat, keep going. I wasn’t sure of that at all. I hadn’t spent any amount of time editing yet.

In February I printed out the 50k words I had so far. It felt nice to hold in my hand and see the chapters. I read them on the plane during a 4 hour flight. On the return trip, I read it again, this time red pen in hand.

I still hated it. For some reason I still don’t understand, working on that story brings me down. It doesn’t flow. It’s not creative. The characters are caricatures. It’s possible it reads better as a screen play. There is some dialog in there I love. But, as a novel, it’s nothing I’d want to read.

That ended up being my decision point. I don’t want to write what I wouldn’t read. I want to write the book I long to read.

The Replacements is tagged, bagged, and catalogued away. I’ve set it aside next to my screenplay books. Maybe it will resurface at some later date.

Our writer’s guild had a short story contest last month and I participated with an entry inspired by a snip of a travel ad in the New York Times. It poured out of me, the satisfying follow-the-muse story flow that feeds the writer’s addiction to words. It felt good to write and the feedback was encouraging. I hadn’t thought of making it a novel project until a week or so after it was finished when the story world dawned on me.

I’m going to write it by the seat of my pants. I’m going to follow the mystery of not knowing what happens next.

I don't play the piano. But when I write, I feel music.