Ulli

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My Higher Power is a trickster sort of god. While I’d much prefer a Mr. Rodgers sort, the kind of deity who is always thoughtful, considerate and sensitive, I’ve accepted the idea that mine is a laughing hyena that follows me around for amusement’s sake, and nips at my ass whenever I take myself too seriously, which is most of the time.

My Higher Power is his guise of Lazlo the dog.

My Higher Power is his guise of Lazlo the dog.

Last fall I was engaged in my very favorite activity, attending a writers’ retreat with a gang of writing buddies I’ve been hanging with for years. This occasion was bittersweet, as our mentor/guru/priestess/teacher Liz Engstrom had just informed us this would be her last time overseeing our mob of unruly storytellers. I’ve been attending Liz’s short story writing weekends for at least fifteen years, twice a year. Always energizing, inspiring, and most importantly for me, confidence building, the challenge to create a short story in 24 hours in the company of other writers has always been a source of great fun, and dare I say it, pride.

And here we were, facing the grand finale. I endeavored to write my best damn story yet.

Blame melancholy, life stresses, distractions of all sorts, but to my growing horror, I discovered after writing 3,000 words that my story sucked, that there was no end in sight, and that I couldn’t pull that mess out of the fire. I twisted with anxiety. How ironic (and embarrassing) would it be if I became the first person ever not to finish a story on this, the last hurrah?

I’ll admit greater things were weighing on my mind, but the focus of my growing despondency was my inability to concentrate and finish that best damn story yet.

Finally, around noon on Saturday (stories due at 7:00 that night) I went for a stroll. Sure, I’d pulled disaster from the ashes before, starting a new story late Saturday morning and ending up with something decent. But decent wasn’t good enough! I wanted to go out with a bang, leaving my fellow writers gasping in awe! (I can hear them snickering now).

I had to face the fact that I simply wasn’t able to focus. I’m infamous for finishing not only one, but two and once even three stories in 24 hours. Oh, the bitterness, the agony of defeat as I imagined my so-called friends laughing at my misery.

During my walk, I thankfully remembered that I have a program of recovery and I applied it to my writing dilemma. Here I was, in the gorgeous Oregon woods beside the McKenzie River, with my favorite people all around me, doing what I love best (even when I hate it), writing. I decided to relax, enjoy the moment, be in the “Now” and savor the day. I returned to the cabin, took a pinprick little idea and splattered it out across my laptop, typing furiously. Set in a fantasy world, I pulled a protagonist from the ether and dubbed him Ulli. At least I had something.

And secretly, I thought it was kind of good.

That night, we gathered to read the stories out loud. I read my little pinprick (although pretty good) story and breathed a sigh of relief. I was not a complete failure. And then… then our wise mentor/guru/priestess/teacher looked at me kindly, smiled her impish smile, and said, “I had a hard time paying attention, because Ulli in Hawaiian means “penis”.

You can of course imagine the laughter. Yes, I admit, it was funny.

As the night went on (and it went on pretty late) Ulli became the go-to joke, the punch line to every amusing comment and entertaining antidote. I smiled brightly, clenching my teeth. And as I sat there, surrounded by friends who’ve all been there, who’ve all suffered for their art, it dawned on me; Ulli was a little gift from my higher power. Remember the hyena trickster god? Well, if there was ever a lesson in not taking oneself so damn seriously, this was it. And I can honestly say I was proud to have provided my friends with such great comic fodder. And no, I haven’t changed the name of my protagonist in that story, because no matter how hard the process gets, no matter how many rejections roll in and how many stories wither on the vine,

I’ll always have Ulli.

The Power of Showing Up

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This is my nephew performing in his school’s production of Our Town.  He’s young, handsome, intelligent, funny and he has his whole life in front of him. Don’t you kind of hate him?

Watch out, Brad Pitt

Watch out, Brad Pitt

No, of course you don’t! I certainly never could because I adore him too much, but as I watched him on the stage and later hobnobbing with his exuberant drama club pals, I did feel a wee bit of envy.  I couldn’t help but wax remorseful about my own by-gone youth, the wasted years and the sad “winding down” of a life misspent.  If only is the refrain that haunts me in these maudlin moments.  If only I’d known.  Known what? That I’d get old and cranky? But I did know, and it didn’t help.  Despite knowing perfectly well that life is finite, for many years I chose to ignore my dream of being a writer and followed the path of least resistance.

Yes, I have a novel published now, but, no, I’m not making a living writing yet. How can I call myself a writer when I still have to schlep off to the day job?  I’m not a writer. I’m a bookkeeper. Ugh.  If only I hadn’t wasted all those years. If only I’d launched straight from the stage of high school into unrestrained, fearless pursuit of the dream. I might be there now instead of resentfully watching the next generation queuing up for their turn on the big slip and slide called life.

Fast forward two weeks; I’m a presenter at a writer’s conference.  Someone asks me “So how do you get to be a presenter?”  I inform her that I’ve taken classes from the president of the board of directors for over fifteen years, so she kind of knows me. The person replies, “Well, I took a class from her fifteen years ago too!”

Notice the slight difference there.  Taking one class over a decade ago is slightly different from “taking classes for fifteen years”.  Call me obsessed, but I’ve chosen to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to learn, communicate, laugh and commiserate with my fellow writers every chance I get.  So not only have I conned a few people into trusting that I can do a presentation worth offering at a conference, but I’ve made a lot of friends in this business while dragging my introverted self out of the house and out to conferences, retreats, workshops, classes, readings, critique groups and so on.

If only I was always smart enough to appreciate that.  At the conference, I spent a blissful three days reveling in the craft of fiction with a group of the best people in the world, other writers who’ve suffered right along beside me, who understand the struggle, who’ve laughed in the right places and supported my work while I supported theirs. There is nothing quite like it.  I began to suspect that I’d achieved a new level of accomplishment, not because I sold some books or survived another public speaking engagement, but because instead of hiding in a corner I was out there, talking, laughing, dancing and enjoying myself with my peers.  In a surreal shift of attitude, I felt a kinship with my nephew standing in the hallway after the production, laughing with his friends and basking in the glow of risks shared and challenges met.  Do those kids skulk around thinking they can’t be happy until they’re called up the red carpet to receive their Oscar? Ah, no.

We’ve all heard that hoary old saying “It’s the journey, not the destination that counts.” After the conference, I had an epiphany and experienced the truth of that saying for the first time.  My reward for suiting up and showing up turns out not to be the golden three-book, six figure contract at the end of a shining path of blood and toil, but friends, here and now.  Friends who love and support me as I love and support them. How did this happen? We barely see each other, maybe once or twice a year, but when we do, we’re putting it all the line. We’re offering up our heart, our art, our soul, and in turn we’ve earned each other’s trust.

Notice how I lovingly caress My Book.  (giving presentation with Lisa Alber, novelist and buddy)

Notice how I lovingly caress My Book. (giving presentation with Lisa Alber, novelist and buddy)

Show up.  Over and over. The dream is the journey. As we say in recovery, make sure your body and your mind are in the same place, and don’t forget to bring your heart along. Show up at the keyboard, and when opportunity knocks, show up for your life. The reward at the bottom of the slide might not be what you expect, but it will be grand.

Weekend Writing Warriors #1

I’m participating in a blog hop hosted by Weekend Writing Warriors.  This is my first hop.  You too can hop, if you like. Just visit the site and sign up.  On Sunday, post eight lines from your work in progress on your blog, then go visit the other hoppers and revel in snippets of fiction!  Fun, eh? And who doesn’t love to share their beloved WIP with the world?

Doomtown ~ 2087

One person’s disaster is another’s golden opportunity. That’s how Angelique decided to look at the destruction of her home town, as well as the death of her lover, the death of most everyone she knew, and the miscalculation that had left her stranded on the side of a blistering hot highway 700 miles short of her goal.

She folded up the map in her hands and glared at the dead Cadillac hissing quietly beside her.  She’d run out of power a few miles east of Amarillo.  700 miles from Doomtown.

Doomtown.  Only a month ago the idea sounded ludicrous.  The city sat in the middle of a huge exclusion zone. Nobody went there on purpose.

To be continued . . .

PS Okay I cheated a little, because of one of my sentences is only one word, so there’s nine sentences from the opening.  Doomtown is a future fantasy with SF flavorings, about 90K words, and is almost finished!  I mean finished finished, too, as in I really hope this is the last major rewrite.

wewriwa

The Horror- Otherwise Known As Speaking In Public.

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I’m here today to tell you that miracles do happen.  The specific miracle of which I speak is that I, poster-child for social ineptitude and esteem-crippling self-consciousness, have been able to speak to rooms crammed with over a hundred people, without throwing up.

This miracle did not happen over night.  My ability to survive the horror is due to a lot of mental tricks I’ve learned over the years that convince my body I am not about to die. For you see, I’ve been cursed with a physiological response that is out of my control.  My body appears to equate speaking in public with being stripped naked, slathered with barbeque sauce and tossed into a cave of ravenous wolves.

Typical audience member waiting to feast upon my bones

Typical audience member waiting to feast upon my bones

For most of my life, when faced with reading something I’d written out loud to more than one person, my heart would start to pound, I mean, really pound, like I was about to have a heart attack.  Then the dreaded quavering of the voice kicked in, because I’d forget to breathe.  Then, if any speaking off the text was involved, my brain froze and I couldn’t remember the title of my book if my life depended on it.  So this is the challenge I’ve faced.  Common sense would dictate that I Just Don’t Do It. Simple, right?

Not when you’re in a business where getting up and reading in front of a crowd is part of Marketing 101, where you’ve got to talk to agents and editors face to face like a grown up, where being on panels and leading workshops is a key way to promote your work and sometimes even make a living. I’m not in that category yet, but I could be, and so from that horrid day when I first met with New York editors at a conference to this year as I prepare to tell my recovery story to a room full of strangers, yet again, I’ve knuckled down and faced my fear.  So I thought I’d pass along the things that have helped me do this.

The first trick seems to be the key to just about everything. Check out any new age self help blog and you’ll see this simple advice: Breathe.  It’s so ridiculously simple and yet we do forget, don’t we? Try to remember, if you suffocate and die, your larger goals will forever elude you.

The next trick is harder, and that is to Get Over Myself.  I’m the center of no one’s universe but my own.  While my stumbling over words on the podium might live forever in my memory in hideously florid detail, the audience will forget it in two seconds, if they happened to notice in the first place.  This trick can be summed up as Don’t Take Yourself So Damn Seriously.  People don’t expect perfection, and can relate to you better if you’re not perfect. Flubs and stumbles are to be expected and most folks will root for you if you seem nervous. Extroverts think it’s cute. So, if you can’t channel your inner Ricardo Montablan and be all smooth and sophisticated, go for the pity angle.  The last time I talked in front of a large group, I actually told them about my brain freeze issue when I started so they wouldn’t panic if it happened.  It did.  A few moments of silence is okay. Really. It’s okay to think, and if you can manage to appear thoughtful and not terror-stricken during those moments, all the better.

The third trick might not work for everyone. It requires belief in a higher power. This need not be a god, but maybe a totem, a spiritual guide, The Force, Tao, The Beneficent Flow of the Universe, or whatever. Basically you’ve got this all-powerful best buddy who’s looking out for you, right? So, when preparing to speak or meet with Important Peoples, hand over the entire experience to your higher power of choice.  Call upon this sympathetic being and invite them to take the opportunity to channel their wisdom through you.  This is called Passing The Buck, because whatever disaster strikes up there, you can now blame it entirely on your higher power, who is big and benevolent and can handle it much better than you can.

Okay, so it’s all mind games. Mind games and breathing.  Here’s a checklist if you find yourself agonizing or panicking or packing your bags for Patagonia.

* Breathe

* Focus on how happy you’ll be when it’s over

* Believe that people are rooting for you

* Know that you will be happier and stronger for having faced your fear and that it does get easier.

*  Understand that you will not die up there (unless a meteor crashes through the roof and kills you, which you might actually be wishing for, but let’s keep it real, shall we?)

* Let your Higher Power know that whatever happens is all their fault.

* Seize the day.  You’re doing this to yourself because you want something, right? You want the world to know you’ve written a book? Concentrate on that.

* Laugh at yourself. Not in a derisive way, but in an Isn’t This a Grand Adventure way.  Life is whacky.  Embrace the whack.

* Read articles about drooling goobers like myself who have overcome and know that there’s no way you’re more messed up than the rest of us.  We are strong. We are powerful. We are the nerds!  Get snooty about being an introvert.

As you might have guessed, I was inspired to write this because I have a speaking engagement looming on the near horizon.  The creeping dread has started to poke at the corners of my mind, but now I am able to counteract it with the undeniable miracle of my survival, and dare I say, growth, through many of these Horrors.  Here’s hoping we can all face our challenges, if not exactly with confidence, than at least with humor and zest for this adventure called life.

Writing Recovery 101

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There is a lot of wisdom to be found in 12 Step Recovery programs that can carry over quite nicely into the realm of writing or any other artistic endeavor.  As you may know, a central theme in recovery is how to obtain and keep your serenity.  Let me tell you, when it comes to writing, I tend to have little to none of that magical quality, that sense of balance, peace and general OKness.  That is, except when I’m actually writing. Go figure.

My hours, days and hence life, tend to go like this:

7 AM -OMG, this is the funniest, best Space Opera ever written. I will now pause to compose my Nebula acceptance speech.

7:15 AM – OMG, this is the worst piece of crap ever committed to paper. What was I thinking?

8:30 AM – I like this idea, but there’s no market for it. Should I even bother with it? Start over? Go eat all the stale candy canes off the wreath on the neighbor’s front door?

8:40 AM- How will I spend my millions? Will I be benevolent or evil?

9:00 AM- OMG, got a rejection from that agent I met last year.  Might as well quit writing entirely. I’m wasting my time here.

And so on and so forth.  Occasionally, a rejection or rough writing day hits at just the wrong time, like right after I find out my cat has herpes or the washing machine freezes solid, and I crumble beneath the weight of it all.  It is so hard to keep the faith at times like these.  It seems impossible to be at peace with perceived failure, to be OK with the constant denial of the dream. I can go down the rabbit hole of despair quicker than The White Rabbit himself and often do.  Luckily, I’ve learned a few essential truths that get me out of the hole, and I don’t waste much time down there anymore.

When I’m caught in a spiral of despair and hopelessness, recovery slogans come to my rescue.  Short, simple and profound, they stop the spiral and snap me back to reality.  In regards to writing my current favorite is “Do the next right thing.”

What’s the next right thing, you might well ask?  Well, I’ve got a recovery quote taped above my computer from a little book called Courage to Change. It says, “Today, when faced with choices, I will opt for the path that enhances my self-esteem.”  What enhances my self-esteem? Getting words on the page. Even bad words feed me like nothing else. Better than a mani-pedi, better than yoga, better than a raise, a new puppy or yes, even chocolate.  So the next right thing means stop moping, sit my ass down in front of the computer and start typing.  Pick up that broken scene and keep going.  Start a new one. My characters will lead the way out of the hole if I let them.

Here’s another slogan that helps in dark times; “Let go and let God.”  When it comes to writing, this means letting go of the book deal, the agent, the reviews, the marketability, the genius or lack thereof, all of those outcomes that have nothing to do with telling the story.  I can only write effectively if I let go of all expectation and just let the words flow and trust that I’m compelled to do this for a reason, that God, The Universe, Santa, Rudolph and/or the Winter Warlock, are crazy jokesters who’ve got my back, no matter what the front looks like at the moment.  All that other stuff will be waiting for me when I leave the safety zone of the desk.

The Buddha Abides

The Buddha Contemplates Plot Points

I could go on and on, but here’s a final one for you; “First Things First”. First write the novel, story or poem, then worry about its marketability, its state of perfection, whatever reactions it might incur, whether it’s any good or not, later. Much, much later.  The First Thing for every writer should be to write, painters to paint, sculptors to sculpt.  And if you find yourself losing your serenity, chances are it’s because you’ve drifted away from your center, your story.

The Curse of NaNo

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I swore I wasn’t I wasn’t going to participate in NaNoWriMo this year.  I mean, I’m hip deep in a rewrite of two previous NaNo novels that I’ve mashed together to form one big Frankenscript of a dystopian future fantasy. It’s pretty much taking up all my time.  And after that, the queue is full.  There’s that awesomely crappy first draft of another past NaNo that I’m still in love with. There’s both the sequel and prequel to that last Epic Fantasy that I finished.  Then there’s life, job, marketing the novel that’s already published (miracles do happen), five cats, a dog, a yard that was genetically altered by aliens to never stop growing no matter how cold it gets, and all that other non-writing stuff that is nevertheless important, like this blog, which I’ve been shamefully neglecting.

Oh, NaNo, you lovable, insane quest for words you.

My friend Pam talked me into it because she’s doing it and well, I hate to be left out.  So fifteen days in and this completely unnecessary Space Opera has taken over my life.  Screw the rewrite, my mind is on Mars, fighting many-tentacled aliens and giggling maniacally over the sheer silliness of it all.  But I love it.

But is NaNo satisfied with this, with being way ahead of the game at 32,094 words?  Apparently, no.  While out walking in a boggy field taking pictures of fog the other night, I was possessed by the spirit of some unrequited story somewhere who’s author never discovered the joys of reckless abandon.

The Bog of  Untold Stories

The Bog of Untold Stories

Upon returning from the bog outing, an unasked for storyline crept into my head.  Two characters began talking, interacting, and conflict happened. Suddenly, when I’m supposed to be sleeping, I’m diving into a completely new and different novel! Well, I’ll just jot down a few notes, says I.   1,500 words later I come up for air, blinking at the vision of a whole new world unfolding at my fingertips.

Why, NaNo, why?  And get this. The new story is a romance.  I don’t do romance. This story doesn’t have a single alien, ghost, wizard or vampire in it.  But the characters, ordinary people in an ordinary town, won’t shut up.  They’re bossy and insistent. Their lives are spinning out in detailed, fully choreographed scenes. I defy any writer to ignore that sort of gift from the bog.

Honestly though I know this story has been fermenting deep within my psyche, out of sight, just under the judgmental radar of my critical mind.  Romance?  These characters seemed determined to care more about their personal relationships than saving the world. Go figure. Probably it will be boring and trite and unmarketable, but the beauty of NaNo is that I don’t care.  Once the spigots of creativity have been opened, there is no stemming the flow.  I feel it is my sacred duty to listen to the voices and provide them with an entry into the world outside of my head.  Whether anyone sees them or not is an entirely other matter.  It is the love affair with story that is the heart of NaNo, a romance that makes all stories possible.

But seriously NaNo, romance?

Alas, Pepperoni, I knew thee well

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Okay, you asked for it. Well, not you personally, dear reader, but there’s no shortage of those who question.  I’m always befuddled when folks ask me why I decided to become a vegetarian right when we’re about to start eating.   Is this really the moment they want to hear about the disgusting conditions in slaughter houses?  The artery and brain clogging effects of red meat?  The horror of their meat animal’s life spent in a cage, immobile, sick and most likely insane? My personal belief that the misery of a factory-raised animal carries over into the psyche of those who eat them?  Being the overly-polite person that I am, I usually stick to generalities.  I tell them it’s a matter of health, spiritual, and environmental concerns.  I’ve noticed that these people are usually more interested in seeing if they can upset me by noisily enjoying their flesh eating than in hearing my reasons.  But, having been a carnivore for forty years, I really can’t condemn anyone for eating meat. I don’t even believe vegetarianism is for everyone. I mean, even the Dalai Lama eats meat due to a blood condition.

I didn’t come to this choice easily.  Though I’ve always leaned (far) in the direction of compassion toward animals, I could never quite bear the thought of giving up all meat, especially . . . pepperoni.  To never eat a pepperoni pizza again seemed like too cruel a fate to self-inflict.  And pepperoni’s close cousins in deliciousness, salami, pancetta, prosciutto, and God help me, bacon.  How could I live a full life without them? Would life even be worth living?

Then came the day I went to a Zen Buddhist retreat to hone my meditation skills. Well, this is plain asking for it, obviously.  I’d already cut back on my meat eating ways, slowly working vegetarian meals into the rotation more and more, though I lived with and cooked for a devoted Iowan carnivore who grew up on pot roasts every Sunday and steaks the size of doormats.  I found out that if I put in enough cheese, he’d survive the night long enough to reach his roast beef sandwich at lunch the next day.

But I digress.  The clincher was that during this Buddhist retreat, everything was done as a meditation, including eating.  We were served a vegan lunch and were instructed to visualize and give thanks for every step in the process required for this food to reach our plate.  The cook, the grocer, the delivery driver who brought the groceries to the store, the farmer, the earth, the seed, the rain.  Lovely thought, isn’t it? Then try inserting the sacrificial animal who gives its savory life into this chain of gratitude.  Visualize the butcher in the slaughter house who pole axes said savory animal.  Visualize the life of the factory animal, treated as a crop instead of a living being, with no life outside of a cage or a stockade.  Yummy.

Later, during a walking meditation, I pondered this conundrum.  It seemed so clear to me that I finally needed to follow my natural instincts and give up meat for real.  But . . . the pepperoni pizza!  The bacon!  How could I stand it?

Then a very clear thought came to me.  This is such a small sacrifice to make in the large scheme of things.  An animal gives its life, not just at the end of its brief time on this planet, but its entire life, from birth to death. It has no life, so that we may eat it.  I don’t need meat to survive.  I don’t need meat to be happy.  I don’t need to condemn one more animal to a miserable existence.  There’s no going back after a realization like that.

That was about six or seven years ago. I’ve lost track.  It doesn’t really matter to me, as I’m not counting the days.  It turns out it was easy after all.  Yes, the first year or so I’d get hit with cravings.  I still yearn for a pepperoni pizza every once in a while. And yes, I had a slip here and there.  I bought a pepperoni stick for my dog and ate half of it myself.  I snitched bacon off a serving tray.  But the desire faded rather quickly, especially as I found my taste buds getting more sensitive as the memory of salty, greasy flesh faded from my tongue.  I signed up for a community farm service from which I picked up a bag of locally grown veggies and fruit twice a month, and had tons of fun learning how to cook new and exciting vegetables like beets, parsnips, burdock root, all sorts of fun weird things.  My carnivore partner adapted just fine, and cooked himself a steak whenever I was out for the evening.

Over the rainbow chard

Over the rainbow chard

And now for the gruesome details: Why am I veggie head, you ask?

  1. Health. Everyone knows it’s healthier.  Everyone knows Americans eat too much meat.  As long as I’m careful about getting the proper amount of protein, minerals, vitamins etc., not eating meat is just about one of the healthiest choices I can make for myself.  Proof is that my good cholesterol levels are so high the bad cholesterol doesn’t have a chance.  This is without getting into the whole hormone issue, and the Mad Cow issue, and steroid issue, and on and on.
  2. Environmental.  The cattle industry is one of the most destructive forces out there, destroying wild lands, encroaching on rain forests, polluting the water, justifying the elimination of endangered predators like wolves, destroying the forage of other wild animals, etc.  And then there’s the slaughter house effluvium. Ew.
  3. Spiritual.  I happen to be the sort that believes in the sacredness of all living beings.  I don’t want to feed on the enforced misery of the beings at our mercy.  We are stewards of the earth, not parasites and marauders.  Yes, I carry spiders outside.  No, I do not deploy slug bait or put out little boxes of toxins whenever I see an ant.  If I found out that like the Dalai Lama, I had to eat red meat to stay healthy, I would make damn sure my meat wasn’t raised by agribusiness but by a local farmer who allows their animals a regular life cycle, out in a field with grass and sunshine, raised by its own mother, allowed to run.  That’s a bare minimum.

That said, I don’t expect everyone to give up meat.  The only thing I would ask is, be mindful and grateful for it when you do.