…and bleed.

Several years ago I had this amazing professor who, beyond all other things he taught me, helped me accept my path to being a writer. I’ve always been the person to get distracted by ideas and the excitement of something new, and while that feeds the creative in me, and makes for some great fun, it really generated a map of winding roads of potential that made me dizzy.

I loved books and writing, but there’s that societal judgment I’ve referred to before about how useful or worthwhile people perceive writing as a career to be. I also love photography, showed a flair for marketing in a few jobs over the years, cooking held my eye, stomach, and attention all the way up to meeting with an advisor for a culinary arts degree before deciding the hours weren’t what I wanted. Teaching had held a residency in the possibilities section of my brain since I was in first grade, and after years of bouncing ideas about the future off myself, I finally thought I’d settled on a winner.

I had a plan, I had mapped out all the courses I’d need, and settled on a practical (gag) History Degree/Teaching Certificate. I love History, don’t get me wrong. Intricate stories, exotic settings, heroes and villains that switch roles depending on perspective? Hello! It was certainly up my alley. But the idea of settling for something “practical” irked me and made me fidget in my seat with discontent. Luckily, one of the required courses, when I started off, was Creative Writing. It was not lost on me that I was more excited about that class than any of my History courses.

Enter Professor Harmon, who confirmed every hope I had about writing to be true. I had never had a teacher so passionate about writing. His love for the craft poured out of him into his lectures, leaving my fellow classmates and me to wade through the water of creativity. We had no choice but to bathe in it. He expected no less than our best. He expected growth. He expected respect for writing and its power. He wasn’t loud, he wasn’t animated, but he spoke with such deliberate care and consideration for every word. I was giddy with joy. I went into every class with butterflies of anticipation and left every class riding a high of adrenaline.

Not long into my semester, I realized there was a voice in my head that was getting louder with each day. I could feel my journey down the path I had chosen starting to list to the left. My heartstrings were pulling and I could hear the call. THE call. You know, the one people talk about but seems too cliche to be real.

Along with this indisputable realization that I was going down the wrong road came this sickening feeling of shame and absolute dread at telling people that, yet again, I had changed my mind and was going to shift my trajectory. How, I asked myself, could anyone possibly take me seriously when I’d danced all over the map of life goals like a nomad of dreams, but no, no…THIS is the real one. This time I’ll put down roots. This time is for real.

When I did start talking, man, could I feel the invisible pat on the head and the subliminal, “That’s nice, dear.” I resented it and felt I utterly deserved it all at the same time. But let me tell you a little something about me. I know how to rise to a fucking challenge. Every patronizing smile, every word of masked exhaustion with my pattern of flitting from aspiration to aspiration, every infuriating dismissal drove me harder. Yeah, I had some setbacks, but, to my credit, this time they were valid ones. I moved across the planet, I got divorced, I worked hard to create a stable life for myself and my son, all the while, taking notes and holding tight to the “one day” on the horizon where I could pick my dream back up again in earnest.

When I made new friends, my writing was one of the first things they learned about me. The more I talked about it, the more my tribe gathered around me in support. I was gifted journals, books about writing, a beautiful vintage typewriter, and unwavering belief. All that time of not being taken seriously, it was the bed I’d made. But I tore the sheets off and traded the Bed of Maybe for a Writing Desk of Definitely.

There’s a quote from Hemingway that says, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” That intimacy of writing is everything to me. Good writing requires you to be authentic, to show up, and this quote follows and haunts me with every word I type. See, when faced with the truth of my future, I fell so deeply in love with it that I realized that I could never let it go. Not for anyone, any fear, any bit of doubt. The best relationships are built on a layered trust that holds us up during times of trouble, and I trust in writing. I trust myself when I’m with writing. And I know that no matter what happens in my life, writing will be there for me. Asking nothing of me, but myself.

So here’s to professors that don’t know they are changing a life, to friends who see the spark of true calling and won’t let you ignore it, to quotes that resonate in your soul at just the right time, and the guts to throw caution to the wind and chase a dream…a truth…with everything you’ve got.

 

NaNoWriMo

Nanny-whaty? NanyReeMe? That November thing? Yeah, I know it’s a mouth-full. I’ve participated for four years now and some of my closest friends and family still need me to repeat it. Most of the participants even shorten it to NaNo in conversation. But WHAT IS IT??

When November rolls around, I have a lot to be excited about. The Texas humidity has started to retreat, and while not quite cold, there’s a certain bite to the air that wasn’t there a moment ago. The leaves are starting to think about commencing their colorful farewell, pumpkins are showing up in every doorway and coffee cup, Thanksgiving plans are being made, and I have hit that one-two punch on my computer that opens a portal into a brand new world: File – New.

See, November is National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo. Hundreds of thousands of people across the planet are almost simultaneously creating new files or deflowering a fresh piece of paper because the mad dash has begun. The goal? To write a minimum of 50,000 words of a new manuscript before 11:59 pm on November 30th.

NaNoWriMo first began in 1999 when twenty-one writers committed to the task. The next year a website was launched and almost a hundred and fifty people signed up – the next year, five-thousand. Year after year, the word continued to spread, and more and more writers dove headfirst into the challenge. There aren’t any strict rules, as the main purpose of the sprint is just to write, but the four biggest guidelines are:

  1. Start writing on November 1st and finish November 30th.
  2. To “win” you must write at least 50,000 words before the deadline.
  3. Planning and notes prior to the start date are allowed as long as the content of the manuscript is all original come November 1st.
  4. Any genre or form is permitted. “If you believe you’re writing a novel, we believe you’re writing a novel too.”

That’s it.

Okay, but why? Why would anyone want to do this? Why would anyone want the pressure of trying to write that much in such a short amount of time? Well, the simple answer is that writers tend to thrive under pressure. Speaking generally, writers are quite good at finding other things to do instead of write. There are several fabulous inner monologues featured in the film Adaptation that speak to this, but there’s one that had me laughing out loud with how smartly it hit the nail on the head. Charlie, a screenwriter, is sitting in front of his typewriter:

“To begin… To begin… How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. Okay, so I need to establish the themes… Maybe banana-nut. That’s a good muffin.”

You can watch the thirty-second clip here if you want a chuckle.

As you can see, writers suffer from, not a lack of desire to write, but a talent for finding an abundance of things we can distract ourselves with. Our inner critic can’t critique something we haven’t written, you see. Though we tell ourselves in repetition that the first draft can be truly grotesque it doesn’t mean the final will be, we doubt the truth in it. We doubt the truth of our talent.

NaNoWriMo, its deadline, and most importantly its community gives us the drive and fire to get the words out of our thick heads and onto paper. Quality is not even remotely a priority. Most people do not write these novels to be published, though several have gone on to be (Water For ElephantsThe Night Circus, Fan Girl), they write them to write something. Anything at all. Hopefully, something they like. Even better if it’s something they love.

My personal story with NaNo began in November of 2012. I was trudging through a time of rediscovery of self and had been met with a painful yearning to write again. I had long admired bloggers, had tried and failed to be one myself, but a couple of old friends from school and their sister had started a blog earlier in the year and I had fallen in love, anxiously awaiting each installment. One of the sisters had participated in NaNo for years, which I’d known and made note of somewhere in the back of my brain, but this year she made the brave decision to publish her novel as she was writing it. Every day she’d lightly skim for spelling and simple grammar errors, but it went live for the world to see without fail each day of November. I was floored. Not only was the story ridiculously charming and unique, but I was simply jaw-on-the-floor astounded that anyone could be so brave with their writing. I followed the story until its conclusion at the end of the month and then…I was left with a feeling of emptiness that truly surprised me. All that remained was this teeny tiny spark of…something.

The holidays rolled by and with the new year, new you sentiment I began to write! For about twenty pages. Then I stalled, yet again bested by the dastardly inner critic (I really should name her…someone help me with that). The year continued and into the next. I lived my life, got re-acquainted with myself, met my husband, fell in love, got married, had my daughter…and then somewhere around October 29th of 2014, a certain sister posted about her excitement about the nearing NaNoWriMo. With two days to spare, I threw caution to the wind and said, “Screw it! I’m going to try.”

Just about everyone thought I was crazy. My daughter was four months old, my son had just turned five, the holidays were coming, but still, I couldn’t let another excuse stop me. Not even the good ones. I had to write. I told myself that I didn’t have to hit 50k, that I likely wouldn’t, but I was going to write every single day for one month. I was going to use the website and the community as a tool to just. keep. going.

The first Sunday of the month, Hubs kicked me out of the house and told me to go write. I was breastfeeding, so I knew it couldn’t be for long, but I don’t think he has ever fully realized the gift of that day. I went to my favorite bookstore, bought a cup of coffee, and had just set up my laptop when a woman walked up to me and asked,

“Are you here for the NaNoWriMo write-in?”

I had just happened to stumble on the location for a meeting place of fellow participants to sit in a pool of pushed-together tables and coffee cups and bump up their word counts. I scooped up my stuff, joining the quiet clacking of keyboards and scribbling pencils, was offered a cookie and a warm welcome, and wrote about a thousand words in an hour. When I got home, my smile was bigger than my face. I was lighter, my Word Doc heavier, and I could have run a lap around the world, riding the emotional high of those two hours.

I didn’t write 50,000 words that November. I wrote 16,602. But every single one of them was a catalyst in my life. If I hadn’t written those 16,602 words, I wouldn’t be writing these words today. I wouldn’t have tens of thousands of words in a variety of manuscripts. I wouldn’t be earnestly working to make writing my full-time job.

National Novel Writing Month doesn’t give out prizes, there is no physical evidence of your effort unless you print it out, but the amount of hope, friendship, wisdom, and growth it provides is worth so much more to me. I know I can write 16,602 words. And 17,627. And 32,476. And, and, and.

That is my truth now. No one can take it from me. And that crazy acronym gave me the even deeper knowledge that the growth I’m capable of in thirty-day increments is only the smallest measure of what I can achieve in my life as a writer.

A Story, Spoken: Chapter One

Today is the start of something special…I hope.

Each November, I participate in NaNoWriMo (more on that next time), and I attempt to draft a book before the end of the month. Yes, really. Last year, all my “good” ideas were super involved and would have required lots of research and time that I had wasted leading up to the start of the project. I had had an idea for a relationship, one you’ll be introduced to shortly, and thought, “Well, I’ll just start there and see what happens.”

I’ve never been one to outline whole stories or anything, but I approached this project as a writing exercise. I had a habit in previous manuscripts of rushing through to each designated plot point and missing out on the richness in between. That’s where this story began. I ended up with a bunch of little vignettes about these characters. It was choppy, the character building was erratic, so I saved one last time and didn’t open the file again until a month ago.

When I read what I’d written I was surprised by how much I really loved it. It needed a lot of work, and I still wasn’t sure where it would ultimately end up, but I wanted to do something with these snippets of a story. Of course, this was around the time I was first setting up this blog and planning what I wanted to do with it, and I had the idea to turn this story into a serial.

This post contains the first episode of what will be an ongoing story that I will add to each month. My goal is to bring this woebegone manuscript out of the shadows and have twelve volumes of a completed story by the end of the year. I hope you enjoy these people as much as I have. Truthfully, they’ve really stolen my heart.

Without further ado – A Story, Spoken: Chapter One

 

I was a child who believed. Magic, wishes, good luck, destiny – it was all real to me. Just as real as schoolwork, the friends that lived in the apartment two doors down, or the smell of bacon frying on Saturday mornings. I had such incredible faith in the power of belief that I had entirely convinced myself that fairies lived in the moderately landscaped scrap of grass behind the complex that we called the garden. Even if they didn’t at first, I thought that if I believed unwaveringly enough they would simply sparkle into existence. So I’d squint my eyes against sunlight and watch shadows flick in the trees as wind rattled their branches and I imagined with all my might a world of fairies.

My mother played the perfect audience to my lengthy retellings of the fairy adventures that took place just steps outside the back door. The queen and king’s arguments about what kind of flowers they should magic into blossoming first come springtime were quite the kitchen gossip for us. She would ask how the princess was managing with her willful dragonfly steed and I would tumble into a tale about how she had taken a horrendous fall. Her dragonfly had turned too quickly to avoid the back fence and she fell, breaking one of her delicate silver wings. I told how they had called for a special fairy healer from a distant garden across the street and how he had bound her with thread from the finest spider’s silk and spoke ancient magic words over her tattered wing. It had taken many weeks, but miraculously, the princess had a full recovery and soon married the healer who had traveled so far and worked so tirelessly to save her. And so it went for years, the neverending fairy saga of the Cedar Creek Apartment flowerbeds.

She was beautiful, my mother. Her smile was genuine even on her worst days and her eyes shimmered with a love of life. She found wonder in small things and cherished them for their fleeting weight. Her hair was a soft curl around my tired finger; her arms an elegant length just the right height to help me twirl. Secretly, I imagined the fairy princess with her face.

She indulged me, as her mother had indulged her. Where my mother was naive and shone with a delicate beauty of fairy tales, my nan was gregarious, loud, and handsome in a blunt way that mimicked her nature. Nan had showered her daughter with love, almost pushing it onto her, dropping her affection in my mother’s lap and then retreating before my mother had time to choose whether or not she would accept it. Love, for Nan, was abundant and all-encompassing. She had a way of making you feel like the center of the universe when she bestowed her love on you, but in a way, not unlike the Eye of Sauron, it was intense. You had no choice but to accept the love, the compliment, the gift she wanted you to have. For my mother, that kind of love had a much stronger hand in her development of character than either of them cared to admit. There’s was a symbiotic relationship. They fed off of each other in subtle ways that I wasn’t really aware of until I matured enough to see the nuance of how they interacted. Once I’d seen it, I couldn’t unsee it and I found it truly fascinating. I had a front-row seat to most of it because we were almost always all together. Nan lived in a small house a few blocks away from our apartment, but I could have sworn there was a divot in the sidewalk that marked the path we had worn between our homes.

Most days, I would come home from school, Nan would arrive within an hour to sit at the kitchen table leaning towards the small open window with cafe curtains my mom had sewn, blowing the smoke from her Capri Slims out into the garden. Even as an adult, I still pictured the garden fairies hiding in their homes every afternoon from the smog that drifted into their kingdom when Nan arrived. It used to upset her when I would try to explain why the fairies I spent so much time pointing out to my mother never appeared when she was there.

I would start to put dinner together, dicing vegetables, simmering sauces, until my mom stumbled in after her shift at the kitschy boutique a few blocks away. As much as I was sure her feet hurt, she would join me in the kitchen, helping me finish up the meal, swaying back and forth to the beat of whatever oldie had caught her ear on the radio. Nan would pipe up for a verse or two, but mostly she would just watch us like we were a play. She’d sip on her cigarette and smile at us with a secret kind of pride only mothers, and then grandmothers can achieve or even understand.

After a meal, either laughing around the table or silently in front of an old musical dancing across our small television, we would quietly clean up and retreat to our chairs and read. Nan favored a floral printed wingback with a crocheted doily draped over the back. Mom usually put her feet up on the chaise, a garage sale find that Nan had gifted her for Christmas one year. I would flop onto the couch with the kind of slouchy positioning that is only comfortable when you are young and your muscles are more forgiving. And there we would stay, completely engrossed in whatever invented land, adventure, or situation we were reading about in complete silence aside from the small gasp or chuckle brought forth by those special nuggets of story that hit your humanity. It wasn’t uncommon for me to wake up in the middle of the night with a blanket thrown over me, left behind to dream undisturbed.

Breakfast was like a book club meeting. We had diverse tastes, but honest respect and admiration for any book we encountered. Sure there were some genres we generally steered away from, but as true lovers of books and stories, we had such incredible regard for anyone who had successfully written and published a book. No matter how awful the content or quality might be, they had created something out of nothing. That was the magic we all saw and believed in long after my fairies went away to slumber in the hibernation of childhood memories. Our world was small, yet infinitely vast, only limited to the size of the library or the dusty boxes of paperbacks we collected from garage sales.

I graduated high school with honors, enrolled at the junior college and worked alongside my mother at the boutique until I was able to transfer to the four-year college where I earned my Bachelor’s in English. I split my time between the campus, home, and the random shifts I was able to pick up anywhere that would take me. I was grateful for the scholarships my writing and grades had earned me, but school wasn’t cheap. Mom and Nan chipped in as much as they could, so proud of me for pursuing my dream on a road paved with words. When I earned my degree, they coerced half the neighborhood into throwing me a massive block party to celebrate. As I waded through the faces that had made up my childhood, the question echoing from each of them was, “What’s next, Annie?”

And I would smile and not knowing what else to say would reply simply with, “Words.”

As the party was winding down, and the guests were trickling back to their houses, my matriarchs linked their arms with mine and walked me back to the apartment. They asked me if I’d enjoyed the party and if I’d said goodbye to so and so, but I could feel them glancing back and forth to each other with smiles of conspiracy. I knew there was one more surprise coming, but I wasn’t at all expecting what I found when I walked through our front door. A polished, black Underwood typewriter was sitting prettily on the Formica kitchen table. The glossy paint reflected the fluorescent light in a way that made it look like the whole thing was drenched in ink. And I felt like I would drown in it.

It was beautiful, and the most thoughtful and perfect gift I had ever received, but all I could do was pray that my smile was convincing these ladies that knew me better than the mirror in the bathroom. I had always known I would be a writer, but when suddenly faced with the gift of an empty vessel aching to be filled and no reason not to begin, the blank pages stacked beside the typewriter looked like a mountain I could never hope to summit. At some point along the way of infinite security and confidence in my abilities, not without validation either, a small seed of doubt had somehow found its way into my mind and confronted with the possibility of finally fulfilling my dream, I realized that this weed of a thought had somehow managed to worm it’s way around my soul, strangling and constricting me into a web of uncertainty that was debilitating.

And then my mother died.
I was twenty-two, newly graduated, the world at my feet, with a newly discovered fear of success. Nan and my beautiful mother were driving to the store to pick up some essentials for the week and coast by a few garage sales they had seen advertised. They had turned onto the main road after leaving the grocery store, and a kid with a newly minted driver’s license rammed into the driver’s side of my mom’s hatchback. Nan, never one to wear a seatbelt, had been tossed so violently that when she hit her head on the passenger door, she was knocked unconscious and her eyes went black forever. When she woke up in the hospital that evening, she had her first panic attack when she realized the world had disappeared. She had her second a few hours later when I gripped her hand and watched the horror contort her face as the doctor told her that her daughter, my angelic, vibrant mother, had been killed.

I don’t think she cared that she couldn’t see anymore – a small death had been dwarfed and swallowed in one swift and brutal wave. I watched my own agony mirrored in her and flinched with every sob. She clung to me like a lifeline, cracking the bones in my hand, reaching, dragging me into a hard embrace. I felt like she was trying to claw her way out of her own mind, out of a horror she couldn’t comprehend, to chase a dissolving thread of hope.

From the corner of my eye, I watched the doctor retreat from the room, heard the click of the door closing behind, and the rest of the world disappeared with him. Nan and I hovered, alone and drowning, in a sea of uncertainty about what life meant now. We didn’t speak. For the first time in either of our lives, words had failed us.