A Christmas Past, And My Christmas Present

FINALLY Christmas!

As a child, the week before Christmas seemed to drag on ‘forever’.  Each evening, I would torture myself by staring at all the pretty wrapped presents under the tree, scoping out the name tags to see which ones were mine.  Then, I would shake each box and try to guess what was inside.

When I was 11 or 12 (I can’t remember which rotten age I was at the time) there were identical large boxes under the tree – one for me, one for my brother.  I had already guessed the other boxes held a sweater with an encyclopedia (‘C’ was missing on the shelf), a shirt with some nuts and bolts, and a shoe-box sized box that I suspected held something small, like a necklace or earrings.

My parents liked to make the gift-guessing game challenging…they always added something to a box so shaking the box wouldn’t reveal the contents.  We loved the challenge of trying to figure out which of my dad’s tools gave weight to the boxes.  We rarely guessed what caused the rattles…could be nails, nuts, bolts, wall plates, outlet boxes, or a myriad of other goodies housed in his tool boxes in the garage.

After what seemed like months of staring at the big boxes, we finally got to open them on Christmas Eve.  I tore the paper away and saw a picture of a TV on the box.  Not trusting that’s what was in the box (they were also famous for reusing boxes), I yanked the flaps and busted the staples out – it really was a 13” black and white TV…for MY ROOM!  I squealed with excitement – it was the best gift EVER!

Next to a tablet PC, iPod, Kindle, or any of the current gaming systems, this gift seems like the punch line to a bad joke.  But back then, we didn’t have home computers; portable music was on a Walkman radio/cassette player; paperback and hard cover were the only book reading choices; and we played Breakout and Pong on our Atari console.

Of course, the TV was more than just a TV.  It meant security and hope for better times.  Even as a child, I knew my parents wouldn’t spend money they didn’t have.  I never asked if we were broke, but I got my answer with every “we can’t afford it” my parents said.  After several lean years, the TV seemed so lavish; I almost forgot we weren’t wealthy.

This year, Christmas is coming up like a jet touching down on a landing strip.  I want to clinch my eyes shut so Christmas doesn’t run right over me.  Instead, I stand my ground, wide-eyed and ready to take it like a mom (ha, ha).  I swear I went to sleep on December 17th and woke up to find it is December 22nd.  How the days in between passed so quickly, I don’t know.

This time of year is just an exaggeration of how time passes the rest of the year.  As I get older, the hands on the clock seem to move faster.  Sometimes I feel like I’m scrambling along on the treadmill and someone keeps turning the speed dial up.  My feet move as fast as I can make them, but I get further behind.  If it cranks up any more, I’ll surely drop my bowl of ice cream.

I have the perfect gift for myself this year:  time.  I can always use it, and there is no chance of returns, exchanges or do-overs.  Not just any time, though…no, this time is special.  It’s writing time.

Ever since I finally finished the story I posted last week (The Collector), I’ve been disturbed by the amount of time it took me to get to that point (over 3 months).  I’ve been discouraged about my lack of progress on my novel writing (um, none).  I know life still happens and I’ve a lot to do, but surely I can do a better job carving out writing time.

I’m going to start by using three hours the day after Christmas, with the goal of writing the backstory for the 3rd character in my novel.  With my hot beverage on my desk, to warm my fingers and my brain, I’ll see if I can lay out the first draft.  (If my brain functions well, I’ll stick to hot tea; if I need a little kick start, I’ll go for spiced cider…and if my brain and creativity abandon me, I’ll drown my sorrows in a mug of hot chocolate with extra whipped cream on top.)  One way or another, words will get on the page.

It may not be a black and white TV, but this gift will make my heart happy this Christmas.

What was your best Christmas gift ever?  What would you like that you have not received?  Are you doing anything for “you” this holiday season?

A Different Kind of Rebellion

I’m not getting a tattoo, running away from home, or telling my boss off Johnny Paycheck style (as in his 1977 Country song “Take This Job and Shove it”.)  I have no desire to ‘stick it to the man’ or break laws just to see if I can.  The only authority I challenge is my own.

I have been afflicted with writing rebellion; specifically, the disregard for written deadlines.

You might be skeptical, but I can explain.

I finished the character research for novel character #3 over a month ago and wrote down a goal to have her short story completed by August 31st.  It’s an emotional story and I want to get it right.  For several weeks, I’ve waffled about where to begin.  A part of me wondered if my procrastination was caused by avoidance (to delay feeling her pain).

Yeah, I hear what you’re saying:  “Oh, boo-hoo, quit sniveling.  Suck it up and write the stinkin’ story if you want to be writer.”

You didn’t say that?  Ah, must be my inner voice of encouragement again.

I was ready to go with the avoidance of pain theory, until I realized that my progress came to an abrupt halt as soon as I wrote a “deadline” for completion of this story, as well as the remaining three character stories.  A more disturbing explanation came to mind:  perhaps I’m subconsciously sabotaging myself by rebelling against my self-imposed deadline.

If that’s the case, it’s a puzzling personality development because I’ve spent my life avoiding rebellion.  I turned down party invites because I knew my awkwardness had no place at rowdy gatherings.  I sensed that just being in a “cool” place would not make me “cool,” unless it was air conditioned.  Oh, and I knew my parents would ask too many questions for me to get away with anything.

To eliminate any doubts of the uncool aura that surrounded (and still surrounds) me, I should fess up that I only got three invitations, and I decided to go to the last one – at the age of twenty.  I shouldn’t tell you that I stayed at the party for fifteen minutes before beating a hasty exit, but I just did.

When I arrived at the party, my olfactory nerves were assaulted by a wretched smell.  A haze hung in the room, worse than Phoenix smog during a High Pollution Advisory.  And I couldn’t figure out what the funky plastic things on the tables were.  Finally, the fog of naivety cleared:  my co-workers were potheads.  And this fish was out of water.

Like a poker player hides any reaction to a dealt hand, I attempted to play calm.  At the same time, I imagined my brain cells suffocating.   I had a big Abnormal Psychology test on Monday and a 3.75 GPA.  I didn’t want to blow either one, so I took in as little air as possible.

I’m not sure if my dizziness resulted from the weed-filled air in the room, or lack of air.  My ultra-geek mind imagined the police busting the party at any moment.  I knew they would single me out of the group of sixty or so people and take me to jail and then I would have to call my parents to bail me out…and that was enough – I left the party.

It wasn’t a “cool” exit.  There were no excuses, no thanks for the invite – nothing.  I literally ran out like someone set my skirt on fire.  When I got  far enough away, I sucked in gulps of weed-free air, thankful to be on the right side of the law again.

Freedom (Golden Gate Bridge)

My brush with youthful rebellion ended up being the uprising that wasn’t.  Now, I have a chance to redeem myself.  This is why I must rebel against writing rebellion and finish that story by August 31st.

This is why, if I had the dexterity, I’d give myself a swift kick in the rear.

What’s your biggest roadblock to accomplishing your writing goals?  How did you do youthful rebellion?  How are you rebellious today? 

Little Miss Know-It-All

I think we’ve all met at least one Miss (or Mister) Know-It-All in our lifetime.  This person can readily inform you of the proper way to juice a pomegranate; suggest better yielding stocks in your retirement portfolio; and recite a dissertation about the incompetence of today’s parents – no research needed.

If that’s not annoying enough, the Know-It-All lays claim to all the best ideas.  Even if the original thought was not their own, they build on the foundation, convince themselves the idea was their baby – and then, they can even get you to believe it too.  The Know-It-All is slicker than a used car sales person dipped in margarine.

Perhaps you can see why it disturbs me to realize that I’m a fiction Miss Know-It-All.  In nearly every book I’ve read over the last couple months, I’ve had thoughts like:

  • “That character would’ve been so much more believable if he hadn’t been a cliché.”
  • “The story would’ve been richer if the nemesis hadn’t been so obviously messed up.  They should’ve thrown in some endearing qualities to make me feel sorry for her.”
  • “The main character got off too easy.  She should’ve faced more struggles before getting what she wanted.”

These authors just need to tell me: “If you think you can do better, go write a book yourself.”

Yeah, that’d shut me up.  (Because I’m making soooo much progress on that endeavor ;))

I used to read just to read.  The only opinions I had at the end of a novel were: “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.”  Once upon a time, I didn’t re-dream characters or remodel an author’s concept.  Because I wrote (but didn’t publish a novel) and penned a few short stories, now I think I can improve on a published author’s story?

I confess I’m really a Miss Knows-Nothing-About-Everything dressing as Miss Know-It-All.  Though I looked darn good in those pumps, I’m going to return them to Miss Know-It-All.  And then I’m going to get to the business of writing my own novel.  There’s only one way to know for sure if I can write a better story:  prove it!

Tell me, what kind of reader are you?  Do you find yourself critiquing your leisure reading?  Can you push the analysis out of your mind and just enjoy the read?


The Problem With “Blah” Days

Dust painting the sky brown

“Blah” days are wonderful for writing morbid, depressing stories riddled with misery and misfortune.  On those days, it’s easy to dream up bad things to happen to unlucky characters.  Rather than assume this is because I’m a cruel person, I prefer to rationalize it as me being an artist breathing authentic sorrow into the lungs of my characters.

Yeah, that’s a load of baloney.  The fact is, if I’m not happy, my characters cannot be happy either.

This causes a problem when I’m working on a story that’s supposed to have a touching twist.  On my “blah” day, it becomes a twisted ending instead.

Here’s what I mean.  Monday was my “blah” day and it was also a day where I had a couple hours to write.  My character was supposed to realize he misjudged someone before any harm was done.  God had been watching over him.

My “blah” day would let me have none of that.  My fingers typed out a scenario where my character killed the man.  There was no contemplation or restraint – one blow and he was dead.  Instead of God watching over him, Satan sat in the corner laughing his head off.  That’s just not nice.

I deemed that writing a hope-filled story was hopeless that day, so instead, I wrote a blog post about my damaged washing machine.  (Sorry about that, everyone.  You’ll be pleased to know that my “blahs” have gone away.  However, my washing machine noise hasn’t.)

Interestingly, I’ve found that if I am in a cheery mood, I can channel memories of anger, frustration, sadness, and basically any emotion that brings me down, to write a story.  Why can’t it work the other way around?

Here’s a poem I wrote on Monday morning, before I knew the frustrations of the day:

Tears For No Reason

I woke in a mood –

A dark shade of gray;

Much sadder than blue,

Why did it find me today?

Songs of grace and glory,

Hope, love and redemption

Should be of comfort to me –

But tears fell for no reason.

Is your writing affected by your moods?  Or are you able to overcome your mood and “become” your characters?

Novel Writing Is Like…

My younger son tends to be clingy.  He hangs onto things.  He had a stuffed tiger named Kitty who traveled with us on every trip for two years, until she ran away (okay, disappeared somewhere in our house, we think.)  He had a favorite blanket that he slept with, and chewed on every night, until we talked him into throwing it away on New Year’s Eve 2010 (following the advice of his dentist.)  Last weekend, after several months of being a five-year-old, we took the training wheels off his bike, despite his protests.

We went to an empty parking lot and my husband taught him the basics on “big boy bike riding.”  My older son strapped elbow and knee pads on his brother.  It was a rare moment of compassion that touched me because most of their interactions are not tender at all.  My younger son screamed when the bike started moving.  He cried that he couldn’t do it.  My husband promised he was right there (but neglected to mention that he was not touching the bike at all.) 

My younger son would ride for several seconds, but as soon as he realized he was riding unassisted, he would panic, lose his balance and fall.  We rode circles around that parking lot to get him comfortable with the bike and he did well at navigating the turns.  After several solo laps without a tumble, we thought he was ready to take it to the streets.

As soon as we left the parking lot and rode on the sidewalk by the street, he panicked – falling off the bike and into the street.  After several attempts, we decided he wasn’t ready yet, so we went back to the parking lot and he rode four more laps around the lot without him wrecking the bike. 

We exited the parking lot, and as soon as we got to the street, my son quit pedaling and his bike fell over, dumping him into the street once again.  He screamed and cried angry tears.  He begged for the training wheels.  That day, riding within the confines of the sidewalk or the paved street was too much for him, so he walked his bike home.  Fear had grabbed hold of him and wouldn’t let go.  I still believe he had the skills to do it, but his brain wasn’t ready. 

I can relate to him.  I feel the same way when it comes to writing my second novel.  No, I haven’t sat in the street and cried (yet) but I know how it feels when fear won’t let go.  I wrote one novel, so I know I have the capacity to do it, but for some reason my brain isn’t cooperating.  I can’t imagine what I might be afraid of. 

Maybe it’s something else.  I’m only guessing that fear is the culprit behind my lack of progress (aided and abetted by procrastination and life) because that’s usually the cause of my stagnation.  Fear is unlike mutual funds:  past performance is a good indicator of future results.  In the past, fear has surrounded me in a cocoon of sameness, protected from the dangers of the world.  It pushed air through my lungs and controlled my heart.  Fear suspended my dreams in this coma while I went through the motions of living.

Several years ago, I awakened when I began writing that first novel.  I’ve got a few novel ideas that I want to plot out and a growing list of short story topics.  I’m not willing to close my notebooks, shut down the computer and hand them over to fear, so I continue to fight off this unknown enemy, while searching for its identity.

I’ve ruled out fear of success.  Traumatic as it would be to sell my work and get to the point where writing could be my day job, I think I could manage.

It can’t be fear of failure, either.  My first novel is gathering dust on a bookshelf; it can only improve from there, right? 🙂