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Archive for the ‘Personal essay’ Category

Christi Craig‘s post on Sunday Discoveries inspired my own post on things I found in my own house. Last week I had a yard sale, and in preparation for it I found some things. Lots of things, really. But I’ll mention three.

1.)    The long lost bleach pen. I have a pair of stained white pants in my closet waiting for the day I find my bleach pen. There are just a few spots and don’t want to bleach to whole thing and ruin the colored part of the pants. Bad news is why bother having wearable white pants after Labor Day? I mean, wasn’t it Kathleen Turner who played the role of a woman so upset by another woman wearing white after Labor Day that she killed her? Best not to chance it.  Worse is by the time Memorial Day rolls around, I will have lost the bleach pen again. Maybe then I’ll just suck it up and buy another one. Just like I do Scotch tape. I think I’m in possession of about 4000 rolls of tape due to my “sucking it up”.

2.)    My Autumn garden flag. Unlike the bleach pen, this find is quite timely. I lost this flag when I moved to my house about eight years ago. I’ve been pouting about it since and not sucking it up and buying a new one and just doing without. Now I’m very happy.

3.)    I found an old calendar. Sometimes I’ll buy a calendar of art or photographs that is too beautiful to throw out. Some I’ve cut my favorite months, framed and hung on the wall. The one I found is photographs of Provence, France. I had big plans for it—no wall space, but big plans, anyway—and shoved it away in a closet for the big plan day—otherwise known as the day of big plans, of which I have many.

Tree in lavender field. Provence, France. photo credit Brian Lawrence

Now if you’ve ever run across an old calendar it’s just as nostalgic as the scent of something from your past, a song from your childhood, or an old letter from your grandma. But this calendar isn’t that old. 2004. Seven years ago. Seven years ago didn’t seem like that long until I started flipping through the months.

February I had “off” written. Wow it seems so long ago that I used to work for a living. I feel like I’ve been writing my whole life. I almost forgot about that other life.

Flowerpot in window photo credit: Bruno Morandi

That same February I went to Hawaii. Ahh, pleasant memories. The following month we went to Disneyland and stayed at the Disneyland Hotel, and by April, the memories of income and what I did to spend it came rushing back. The happiness I felt moments before turned to envy—of my own dang self—and I wanted my old financial security back. I wanted trips again, to Provence, in particularly.

Oh, but look, at the end of April was preschool open house. Preschool? Now my envy turned to tears as that little preschooler just started middle school.

I took another vacation in June, and in July, I celebrated my 7th wedding anniversary. Also in July I had laser eye surgery—the first of three. Ahh, the things money can buy—the gift of sight.

In August I had another vacation, this time to Oregon. (I got three weeks a year but accumulated some years.) August my little one went to kindergarten and my oldest to 8th grade.

The excitement continued, but when I finished poring over the entire year, I remembered something else about my past life. The year 2004 was two years before my back surgery. I’ll call that B.S. In B.S. I wasn’t a broken old lady. I didn’t have to make accommodations like I do now after surgery (A.S). I would not plan a trip to Disneyland now as I can’t stand for longer than a half hour. I can’t ride rides. A.S. I can’t do many, many things. And tragically, I can’t medicate due to reactions to almost every kind of medicine there is.

I flipped back through the months and lived those days over again and again, thinking how unpredictable life is, how I never in a million years could have predicted that I would take on a new persona, a new career path, a life of plotting and planning, not just on how to have the least pain-free day, but in my writing, which in 2004 was the furthest thing from my mind.

Naturally I would love to live with no pain or physical limitations, but I can’t complain too much. These days I’m doing something I feel I was born to do. Plus life is slower not working outside the home. The days go by faster but life is slower without competing in the “rat race” and worrying about my performance. I’m there for my kids. I can spot bleach my pants—or not—and I can enjoy the fruits of my labor, even if all I did that day was hang my Autumn flag.

Have you ever found something you thought you lost?

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Santa Cruz mountains

I had in my inbox 289 e-mails and more than that in my spam box when I returned from my five day adventure called 6th Grade Camp (aka boot camp). Not many schools have camp for the whole week, maybe this one is being punished—or I am. After we got back, my daughter and I both got sick—another week gone. Two weeks of no writing.

This is what I knew in advance: There would be hiking, lots of it. This was what I didn’t know: it would all be vertical, like in straight up, like in so steep the trails had railroad ties for steps, otherwise you’d need a rope.

Day one: We arrive in the Santa Cruz mountains at noon and freeze to death while climbing three flights of stairs multiple times (no less than ten) to unload luggage. The stairs alone would have me sore the next day, but I’m awarded an immediate hike afterwards that has me wheezing and gasping and clutching my chest, only to find out the camp counselors call that a walk and is, in fact, not a hike. The first hike is scheduled for after dinner—immediately after (every activity described in these passages is immediately after the last and just before the next. In boot camp, there are no breaks).

After dinner, we embark on what I call the Hell Hike. Also a night hike, meaning the sub zero day temperatures would now drop the after dark chill factor to a thousand below. Hell Hike is one mile straight up that due to the proximity of eating and violent strenuous exercise has some vomiting and me lagging so far behind I get separated from the rest and nearly get lost in the dark. Thanks to the horkers, I can listen my way back to the group.

Day two: Can’t walk. Every muscle is sore and my lungs collapsed but I’m under the gun. Chaperones can’t quit; there are no replacements, and only a tragic accident could free us of our obligations—which I’m searching for constantly. Every cliff beckons me to fall off it; every river invites to whisk me away. I turn logs for snakes to bite me; I run in the open during lightning strikes.

In the distance I hear the sounds of nature and a cry for help coming from all chaperones. The bark of howls triggers an echo-like pattern until we are all close enough to embrace and support, physically, each other. None of us had ever experienced such pain of this magnitude, this Hell Hike hangover. We commiserate among ourselves as to what we have gotten ourselves into. We make vows; we cry foul; we say “never” and we quit, and then right after our eight AM breakfast we separate into our groups. And Hell Hike begins. I lag behind and disrupt the pace and remain hopeful our Naturalist has a sense of humor.

After lunch and on my third Hell Hike, I lose my own sense of humor. There should be a balance; one should not have to endure three consecutive Hell Hikes. I’m not supposed to die this way, via heart explosion. My heart beats so fast that if you were looking at it, it would look still, faster than visual detection, then we stop at the top where it drops to levels between comatose and death.

After dinner we have another hike where the Naturalist thinks it will be cool to do a solo hike without flashlights under a zero moon. The good news is it’s so cold the air ices my sore muscles to numbness. We use our flashlights to get to our destination then she sends us off, one by one, alone, in the forest, in the dark, without flashlights. As a chaperone, and a parent, I feel some unease about the complete disappearance of those trusted under my care. I use my newly flared ulcer to keep me warm. Are we having fun yet? Why, yes, the kids are.

Day three: I scoot down the three flights of stairs. Good news is it’s easy to slide when the stairs are slick. From rain. After breakfast, we don our rain slickers for the first muddy hike of the day. My escape plans, at this point, move up to the next level. No longer am I thinking injuries of the self-inflicted nature but something more outward, like assault or homicide. My imminent arrest is just one of many possibilities I entertain.

The start of rain hike

 

After lunch we embark on what I call Hell Hike II. Not as non-stop, straight up as Hell Hike but longer. Much longer. And still heavy on the incline. And muddy. And slippery. And still raining.

After dinner they give us a break from night hikes. We have to dance instead. Barnyard dance, and yes, chaperones are needed for that too.  

Day four: I hurt from every joint in my body, but consider a deliberate fall down the stairs anyway. Crying causes my nose to run, which is already on a slow drip from the cold weather, so I refrain from public displays of self-pity. Besides, crying’s contagious to all the other comrades who clearly suffer as much, if not more, than I am.

Today is more of the same: Three hikes, including nighttime Hell Hike—which still isn’t any easier and is still inducing some vomiting.

This is the closest I got to the last person. I took a picture as proof.

Day five: Last day and the warmest. We leave the mountains and go to the beach where I’m finally in my element—ass in sand.

Summary: five days of extreme, intense exercise that ranged from six to eight hours of hiking—except last day, which consisted of multiple trips up and down the stairs to haul luggage—bad food, no computer, no phone, no nothing, not even protection from the elements.

So guess how much weight I lost.

Wait. Before you guess, just in case you are new to my blog, here’s the low-down: I write. I sit all day, and I write. I get a twenty-minute zero-incline walk a day before my butt is planted in the chair for the duration. Since I don’t buy food I don’t like, there is a tendency to eat more at home than, say, fat camp.

So here again. Camp=six to eight hours of advanced hiking and fewer intake of calories. Home=twenty minutes of entry-level walking and calories galore.

Now guess how much weight I lost. How much would you lose in the same situation?

Leave your guesses in the comments and I’ll reveal the answer in the next post.

 

 

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When good intentions backfire, sometimes it leaves you a smidge paranoid the next time around.

During my first marriage a long time ago in another chapter of another book of my life, I lived in a triplex. A couple and their baby moved in the apartment above us, and they befriended us instantly.

The husband was well spoken; his posture and mannerisms screamed “Prep School Grad”. She was … well … not. She was clearly born on the opposite side of the tracks from him, and she didn’t even possess all of her teeth. She had a tendency to misspeak, and to dress and behave inappropriately—like wear revealing clothing and brushing up against my husband.

This couple was so mismatched, we speculated that perhaps he married her because he got her pregnant. We later learned we were right. But that part didn’t matter. Their history was irrelevant in the here and now. They were friendly and personable and liked us. Since I assume no one will like me before they even meet me, when they do show fondness towards me, it comes as a surprise and shock and they’d have to do something terrible for me not to reciprocate.   

Soon, however, we began to sense something amiss. The four of us were slowly evolving to just the three of us. We were seeing less of the husband. I felt as if he were in the role of someone hired to find a home for a stray and her litter. His job was done.

Her neediness made us pause. She didn’t work and would latch onto anyone who was home during the day. My husband had weekends off; I had Sunday and Monday. Her husband was gone every day. What he did every day remains a mystery. So she unwittingly became ours, invaded our lives. Every time I turned around, she was there. She was always asking for something, and we were always giving it to her. Either that or she’d help herself to whatever we weren’t offering.

She’d call my husband and ask for assistance in moving furniture around or for minor repairs. She’d flirt a little or a lot, he’d tell me later. Later we would find out she was only sixteen and a high school dropout. Her husband, twenty-three and a university graduate. We would also find out later they were both con artists. Her job title was Statutory Rape Blackmail. His was Lawsuits.

They didn’t just wait for opportunity to knock, either. They made it happen. And we learned of it before they had a chance to strike. We were their next target; our only crime was in our good intentions. And they weren’t happy to know we were on to them. They made out lives miserable for a while.

Even while all this was happening, I was writing the story in my head, filling in the blanks. My novel (the one I haven’t written yet) will someday reveal the mystery of their pairing, his and her upbringings, and all the whys of it, the wheres, and the what happened next.

Then I made a mental movie of it. I can’t put you into my head so let’s use Pacific Heights‘ yuppie horror film tagline: “It seemed like the perfect house. He seemed like the perfect tenant. Until they asked him to leave.”

Mine will be like this: “She likes anyone who likes her. He will help anyone who asks. They meet the couple. They seemed like perfect friends. Until they weren’t.”

Being the imaginative person that I am, I, coincidently, use the same actors. The con husband sort of looked like Michael Keaton, and my husband sort of looked like Matthew Modine. Melanie Griffith looked more like the slut in my story, so I assigned her that role. Angelina Jolie will play me of course. (stop laughing.) I might have a hard time erasing years off their looks enough to play sixteen to twenty-three-year-olds—details I’m still working out..

That was one of my more vivid memories of good-deed-gone-bad. There have been other times my good intentions backfired. But each time now that I perform a neighborly service, do a good deed, or befriend a new person, my suspicious mind triggers a story, an outcome with tragic consequences. I can’t help it; it just happens.

A few years ago, I found myself watering an Australian tree fern at a vacant, foreclosed house in my neighborhood. I was paranoid each time I crossed the grass and turned on the hose that somehow the house became occupied overnight and I would be arrested for trespassing or shot. My mind works that way. And I wrote a story about it titled Tree Hugger, published at The Earth Comes First.

Do you have any tales of good deeds gone wrong?

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Last post I spoke of a trip to the snow to escape the cold of Fresno. Here is a picture of my daughters with sun in their face. They are sad we have to return to fog.

Below is my typical look for winter. Four layers of clothing, a cat for good measure, and a sad face to complete the ensemble.

As the flowering trees are beginning to bud, I’ve noticed some haven’t yet lost their fall leaves.

Speaking of trees, these last two shots were taken at my daughter’s elementary school. What is odd about them?

Below is a closer look. They are all leaning in one direction except the last one. I’ve never noticed it before and she’s been a student here since kindergarten (she’s in 6th grade). When they built this school forty/fifty years ago, I imagine they planted a row of trees. Maybe the unstaked trees leaned from wind damage or who knows, other than it makes me scratch my head.

Poor thing reminds me a little of me. I always seemed to be a stand out kind of kid, and never in a good way. I’m still the odd man/woman out but this tree helped me in ways no self-help book could ever achieve. In today’s publishing market, you must stand out to get noticed. Yet, here I was, still trying to be a conformist, trying to blend in out of fear of being called out, exposed. No more. Expose me.

So here’s to looking at the glass half full; here’s to embracing my inner weirdness and harnessing its super powers of noticeability. Here’s to … oh heck. Please nobody listen to me until the fog clears. This happens every winter.  

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Today’s post is sponsored by Duke, who on “suggestion box” day suggested “Be Careful What You Wish For”. Since I’m a self-professed expert on the subject, I thought I’d begin my Topic Tuesday with this one (btw, there is no Topic Tuesday unless it looks like I happen to have a new topic on Tuesdays in a regular pattern, which everybody knows won’t happen). Problem is where do I start?  I have so many tales of woeful wishing gone bad, I just don’t know which to choose.

I previously addressed the perils of wishes in one of my published stories, The Bionic Cat, right in the very first sentence: Someone who must’ve experienced a similar cat developed the phrase, “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.” The story—true but with some fantastical embellishments—reminisces the time I finally got the cat I yearned for all of my nine years. The cat, as it turned out to be, was the screaming, heaving cat from hell. But since I already told that story (link is inside my publication page above if you haven’t read it yet), today’s wish-gone-bad goes to, “I wish I could stay in one place and never have to move again”.

I wished that when moving was a recurring nightmare. I moved so often as a child that I trained myself to avoid friendships or anything else I’d later have to say goodbye to. At eighteen I moved out but couldn’t shake the curse of transitory living. If I could just stay in one place.  Well, long story short I later moved to a place I DO NOT LIKE and stayed. The minute it became too much—five minutes after arriving—I began planning my exit.

EIGHTEEN YEARS LATER AND I’M STILL HERE.

Did you hear that folks? (you should have, I screamed it) Eighteen years in a place that is completely incompatible with every thread of my being.

I never experienced SAD (seasonal depression) until I moved here. And every winter it worsens. It attacks me physically as well as mentally. On my tenth year here, I had seventeen colds from October to April. It was at the tail end of my three-year treatment of allergy shots—a prerequisite for living here. My allergist had just moved here from Barbados when I began treatment. When I finished he was on his way out, back to Barbados where he doesn’t “feel sick all the time,” he said. Lucky him, to be able to just pick up and leave. Why can’t I? What is my anchor? Presently, I have more to anchor me than I did then or eighteen years ago. I should’ve escaped when I had the chance.

Fresno isn’t that bad, really. We two are just not compatible that’s all. I feel like a tropical bird removed from its habitat—my husband calls me a reptile, whatever—I can’t take the cold, the frigid, frigid cold. The three months of fog. The grey, cold wet blanket of fog, impenetrable of sun rays and warmth. I joke that to escape the cold, we go to the snow. Only I’m serious. We get in the car and drive an hour straight up until we are deep in the snow and the sunshine and we soak it up and head back down again. From the mountain, looking down on the valley, it looks like an ocean or vast lake. You would never know that underneath that ominous cloud blanket lies a city of half million bathed in sepia tone.

The lively conversation in the car winds down along with our descent, and when we enter the curtain of darkness, the darkness that will last long enough to drive a sane person mad, we stop talking altogether. We just entered something akin to the Twilight Zone.

Suddenly my worries return to me: my fears, insecurities, self-doubt. Then comes the pain. My back hurts; I have a headache; my energy wanes.

I grow weary. I want to claw myself out.

I don’t write much in these months because I’m too cold. Our heat vents are located above doorways. Once I placed a space heater near the computer and it blew a circuit breaker. I overdress—picture the kid Randy from Christmas Story—bundled and uncomfortably so. But my hands and face are so cold I keep moving to keep from freezing to death. Yes, I’m cold blooded, I’m a tropical species, remember? (a parrot or a toucan, not a reptile, dagnabbit.)

I know what you northerners are thinking: Well cry me a river. But a visiting relative from Minnesota validated my chronic complaint by claiming she “feels” colder here than there where thermometer readings drop below zero.   

I long to be where I was before moving here. The place calls to me, a calling from otherworld, and I’m powerless to answer. It calls to me now, eighteen years and counting, and I wish it away but worry it’ll stop.

Have you been burned by a wish? Has something turned its tables on you in ways you had not fathomed? A relationship? A dream job? A cat, maybe? :-) All once a dream and now a nightmare?

P.S. To keep my spirits up, I replaced my theme picture to the Hawaiian beach we visited last summer.

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I would like to introduce my special guest today, Sybil Baker. I’m her last stop on the WOW blog tour. You can catch all the previous tours by visiting  Wow-Women on Writing.

Sybil will be giving away a copy of her book here, so be sure to drop in and say hello and ask her any questions you might have.

About the Author:
 
Sybil has always had wandering feet. First, she left her hometown in northern Virginia for Boulder where she completed her Master’s in English at the University of Colorado. She eventually moved back to Virginia but soon the wandering bug bit her again. This time she spent twelve years teaching English in South Korea and traveling the world. So far she has checked off over 30 countries, many in Asia. Her path did lead back to the United States where she received her MFA at The Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2005 and began teaching creative writing at the University of Tennessee in 2007. These days she satisfies her wanderlust by writing about exotic locales from the Chattanooga home she shares with her husband.
Just Thought You Should Know:
Sybil is also the author of a novel The Life Plan. You can learn more about The Life Plan and its WOW Blog Tour at http://muffin.wow-womenonwriting.com/2009/03/sybil-baker-author-of-life-plan.html
 Author’s Websites:                                                  

Sybil Baker’s website: http://sybilbaker.com/home.html
Sybil Baker’s Blogs:  http://sybilbaker.blogspot.com/
 

Novels vs. Short Stories

 

                When you start a new project, do you know if it will be a novel, short story or essay? Do you start out with a specific genre in mind for your piece, or do you start writing and see where the piece will take you?

                When I have an idea or an image for a new piece, I usually know if it’s going to be a short story, novel, or an essay. Essays spring from some experience that I believe works better as nonfiction—they explicitly explore ideas and events that I don’t want to fictionalize. Short stories usually come from a character or conflict that I see as focusing on one event or issue—what Poe calls the unity of effect or impression. When I have a character whose journey will be layered and long, then I have a novel.

I recently finished the draft of a novel about two sisters and the secrets they discover about their family. The multiple plot lines and complexity of their relationship could not be covered in a short story. On the other hand, I recently finished a story about a young woman in a bar with her new boyfriend—that event and her conflict was much more focused and worked best as a short story.

                The exception for me was Talismans, which is a linked short story collection and reads more like a novel through stories. When I wrote the first story (“Fur Elise”) many years ago, I thought the main character Elise would exist only in that story. But then a few years later I wrote a story about a woman who in Korea and falls in love with a Korean man. When I finished that story, I realized that the woman was Elise. I wanted to learn more about Elise—how did she get to Korea, and what else happened with her relationships with her mother and father? I wrote more stories to discover those answers. After a few years, , I had a collection of  ten stories that followed Elise’s physical and emotional journey across many years. At that point, I could have taken the stories and rewritten them as a novel, but for some reason Elise’s life as seen through the stories worked better for me. I think the linked stories—connected yet separate, work best because Elise also felt so disconnected and fragmented. The linked story form best reflects Elise’s world.

                Linked short story collections must work as stand-alone pieces and must also work as part of a larger narrative arc. This is not easy. I spent a lot of time revising the stories so that the images and conflicts in the first story would echo and build through the collection. I also made sure that the last story resolved in some matter the conflicts in the first story.

                When you’re writing a short story or a novel or an essay, occasionally step back and ask yourself if you’re working in the right form for your piece. Maybe the novel needs to be compressed or distilled, or maybe a short story has too many elements and needs to open up. Maybe your fiction piece is best served as a creative nonfiction piece. Be aware of the constraints and possibilities of the genre you’re working in, and allow your piece to become what it needs to be.

Leave a comment for your chance to win a copy of Sybil Baker’s book Talismans

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The memoir that grew into a novel that shrunk into a short story collection. Almost. I still haven’t decided on that last part: the short story collection. And I wouldn’t say the memoir “grew” into a novel exactly. More like I changed lanes. The word out there is memoirs won’t sell, unless you’re famous. Unfortunately, I had already written it at this point.

I started out with the idea of humorous Family Stories told in short stories like that of David Sedaris. But word out there is short stories won’t sell, either, unless you’re famous.

I like my story better as a memoir, because to make it a novel I must actually follow rules, a formula complete with a beginning, middle and end and with plot points, character arcs, resolutions, and, omg, a likeable character.

So rules, I followed. And I rewrote and rewrote and read and read, not for pleasure, but for scene structure and pace and all the while I was impatient to be done … again. So I took bits of my book and reworked some of them into short stories and submitted to lit journals and some actually got published. But I’m not ready to submit the remaining thirty shorts from my book all over kingdom come. My dream is to be read (nice if I was paid too). My dream isn’t for this one big story to be read in bits and pieces. It’s like a series of one-night stands without any true bonding with the standee/characters. For any of you who have read my published excerpts—and admits to it—I want to yell, “But wait, There’s More.”

Then came the idea that I should publish all the stories to lit journals, then compile them all into a short story collection.

My indecisiveness is what keeps me from moving ahead. I need to decide its fate before I read my novel once more for plot holes. Should I choose to move ahead with a short story collection, I’ve got a little dismantling work ahead of me. If I choose to keep it a novel, I’ve got more rewrites—you mean there needs to be a plot? Easier would be to know the direction before taking the journey. 

Do you like reading short story collections or do you prefer a long-term relationship with your character? Come back on Friday to meet a special guest who managed to do both by compiling a short story collection and by linking the stories to create a thread through one character’s life. She will be discussing short stories vs. novels (she’s written both).

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