Tag Archives: writing

The imperfect power of lists

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It feels like an elephant is sitting on my chest and I can’t breathe.

No. It feels like a fist clenched around my heart, witch-claws digging into meat that struggles to beat.

No. It feels like an itch – a million separate itches in every cell inside my skin, too deep to scratch, although grinding my teeth helps.

No. It feels like no. It feels like urgent – hurry – too late. It feels like loss. It feels like quickquickrunaway! It feels like weep, bite, refuse, fail. It feels like hide, disappear, do not be.

Distressed woman

I am a maker of lists. On my phone, with a linked copy on my laptop, I have Evernote, and it is full of lists. There are several shopping lists, and a list of organic ways to deal with pests, and a list of natural cleaning products. Most important, though, are the to do lists. They are like gears – I engage them, and my day, and thus my life, moves forward.

  • There is my list of things to do every morning, and
  • another list of things to do every evening, and next to each item on both these lists are seven boxes so that during the week I can check things off as I do them, and see that they have been done. That gives me pleasure.
  • There is a list of chores I’m supposed to do every Monday/ Tuesday/ Wednesday/ Thursday/ Friday/ Saturday/ Sunday, and another for JFMAMJJASOND. They have check boxes as well.
  • I also have a list of things I want to do as soon as possible
  • condensed into a list of things I want to do this week (which I check off as I do them, to delete at the end of the week)
  • and backed up by a list of things that aren’t urgent but I want to do them someday, so I write them down in order not to forget them
  • and then there’s a list of improvements and projects I want to get done around our home and our farmlet
  • and a list of topics I want to blog about
  • and a list of characters in the book series I started writing just before I got stuck.

The lists stopped working about last November. First, I signed up for NaNo, and instead of starting something new I decided to have another whack at the novel I started writing the last time I tried to do NaNo, and for a while it was kind of like magic because suddenly the characters and the story line coalesced. Then it went from magical to miraculous, because I realized I didn’t have only one book; I had an entire series, something that would be fun to write, easy to sell – not great literature, but fuck that. I used to think I had a Great Novel inside of me, but now I just want to finish writing something that people will pay to read. So for a few joyous days I wrote and wrote, and it was wonderful and glorious and happy and enough.

But the gears locked up and I got stuck. Sometimes, looking back, it feels as though I’ve been halfway stuck for years. Scrolling back through this blog there are so many posts about new beginnings and fresh starts and shined-up resolutions – years of take a step, drag a leg, take another step, drag the damn leg again. And at some point around about November, I stopped. I began to sleep nine, ten, even twelve hours a night. It was never enough; I was always tired. I told myself to eat better, but I was too tired to cook. I told myself to take Argos for walks, to stretch in the crisp crunch of snow and oxygenate my blood with clean, cold air, but it was just too damn hard to get out of bed.

insomnia

Every morning I peer at my phone (scrunching my left eye shut and holding the phone a few inches from my stronger right eye, because to put in contact lenses I must get out of bed, and I don’t want to get out of bed, not ever – it always feels impossible to push the dogs and duvet aside until impelled to do so by the pressure in my bladder) and I look at my to-do-every-morning list, which I have pared down to the bare bones of home functionality. I pick three things to do. I tell myself that if I do those three things I can stop for a while, reward myself before deciding what to do next. I think about what I might use as a reward, to motivate myself to get out of bed and begin. And then I click on Cortana and read the news.

Sometimes it takes three or four hours just to get up, clenching against leakage as I hobblescurry to the toilet for the lovely relief of the first pee of the day.

depression-entropy-definition

How soon dishes pile up on kitchen counters and dirt coats floors and tables. Vegetables compost in the refrigerator, sheets turn gray, blankets smell of dog, piles of laundry consume all the socks and underwear. Some days a to do list yields a joule or two’s worth of energy, but it’s like pushing ectoplasm or blowing away a miasma. You can burn it off and, briefly, catch a glimmer of clarity and order, but the miasmic ectoplasm always oozes back. The only escape is via the secret garden of another book, and another, and just one more.

About two weeks ago I was fingerchatting with my bestie, Twiglet, on Skype, and I started to cry. I wasn’t especially sad – in fact, chatting with her always lifts my spirits – so I wasn’t sobbing or even feeling a need to blow my nose, but after a while it occurred to me that the steady flow of tears down my face wasn’t entirely normal. And then I remembered times in my life that this had happened before, and what I had done that helped. So while I was waiting for Twiglet’s response to something or other I had said, I called my doctor’s office and made an appointment. “What is this for?” the appointment-making person asked. “I don’t think Prozac is working for me any more,” I said, as my voice wobbled unexpectedly like a finger-clutching toddler walking along a wall.

I saw the doctor on Friday, and now I’m weaning off Prozac and have started taking Wellbutrin, and the pharmacist said I should expect to feel worse before I feel better. Specifically, she asked: “Do you have someone to talk to if you have suicidal thoughts?” so I passed that along to the Hubbit. He’s not much of one to be talked to, being more a fix-it kinda guy and also deaf, but he knows which of my friends to phone.

And, you know, I guess it must be working, because I’m dressed, and instead of obsessively clicking round and round between Facebook, Lumosity and the latest piece of insanity spewed from the White House, I’ve written this blog post. It’s not about a topic from my list, but I wanted to write something, and then I did it.

It feels good.

 

 

 

Running ahead of the storm

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When I came home in mid-February, I was exhausted but optimistic. Marmeee was okay, for a couple years at least, probably. The Old Buzzard was losing his marbles but at a rate of only two or three a week, and his Alzheimer’s medication had transformed him into a happier, pleasanter person than he’d been in years. It was good to be back in Washington, and not too painful to be gone from my people in South Africa.

It didn’t matter that we were seven weeks into the year. I named 2016 My Year Of Reclamation, convinced that 10-and-a-bit months was all I needed to finally, at last, once and for all, turn my life around. This was the year I would have a productive vegetable garden, get serious about training Argos the Madcap Malinois, lose weight, start riding again, get our finances under control, and clean my house from top to bottom and end to end. I had a great idea for a series of fun, lightweight (but, of course, also thought-provoking) novels and I was going to start writing every day, and make money from it. And blogging. I promised myself I’d start blogging regularly every week about my fascinating life and amazing insights – you know.

collapsing like a house of cards

House of cards. (Source)

Yeah. That was the plan. I even signed up for Evernote and started a whole new super-efficient system of to do lists.

Plans are like card houses. You build them ever so carefully, handling each card with the most delicate touch as you add it to the structure. And then someone opens a window and a draft blows in and all your cards go flying.

So here it’s the end of July, and I’m looking back at the year to date and shaking my head and wondering what the fuck happened. I have been in such a horrible funk! I’ve been gobbling my way through books, most of them lightweight, easy reading or stuff I’ve read before – because even the most two-dimensional borrowed life has been more appealing than the one I’m living. I’ve been eating way too much crap, and suffering the usual consequences. All I’ve wanted to do is sleep, and when I do I wake up tired.

Depression? Well yes, but I’ve had reasons to feel sorry for myself, even without tripping over the Trump of Doom or Shillary every damn time I log onto my computer. (Seriously, America? I cannot believe that’s the best we can do!)

First, in February I accidentally overstayed my US passport’s welcome in South Africa by a whole 22 hours, and was declared an Undesirable Person and forbidden to return in under 12 months.

So then I tried to renew my South African passport, and learned that I had accidentally forfeited my South African citizenship by becoming an American citizen. I’m still trying to figure out why this was devastating, apart from the practical difficulty it caused. As someone who fears and distrusts the patriotic impulse, I should simply shrug it off with a casual “Whateverrr” … but in fact I feel robbed, and also homeless, and I’m sorry but the Land of the Free just can’t get my heart soaring the way it does under an African sky.

Then my precious Marmeee went into a downward spiral. Just before I left South Africa the oncologist told her she probably had a couple years to live … but apparently without me there to keep reminding her of this and force-feeding her chocolate milkshakes, she just … got tired, I guess. And then she died. And because of the bloody bullshit with my passport, I couldn’t be there to hold her hand. I know this was a “God thing” – I’ll explain why in another post (probably) – but it still aches.

I did manage to get through the border in time to help with her memorial and to figure out What To Do With Increasingly Dotty Dad, but while there I got sick with a deathwish-inducing flu that I didn’t shake for nearly a month. It made the 25 hour trip back a lot of fun.

Before I left we got the Old Buzzard into a home – a pleasant, homey sort of place – but instead of continuing to dole out his marbles one or two at a time he started throwing them away by the fistful. In a matter of months he went from affectionate, forgetful and occasionally grumpy, to aggressively uncooperative, to unwilling to walk and unable to speak coherently. He died a couple weeks ago. I’m not going back for the memorial, which is this coming Saturday … there’s no point, really. Today I have to write a tribute to go into the order of service, and I have no idea what to say.

I haven’t been able to grieve either of them. And mixed up in all that unexpressed grief is another deep sadness over the loss of my brother. He’s still walking around, breathing, saying things to people … but somewhere in the middle of everything else that’s been going on I learned that he hated me, has hated me for more than 30 years, has badmouthed me to people I care about – and they believed him. His claims about the way I treated him, his perceptions of who I am, have been woven into the fabric of our family dynamic – and until a few months ago I had no idea of it because the one person he never spoke to about it was me. I learned that the man I thought he was didn’t exist, the relationship I thought we had was a figment of my imagination. He has morphed from the sibling I loved most deeply and missed most painfully (even while he made my eyes roll) into The Stranger. Even if the latest nastiness “blows over”, the kind of confidence borne within mutual affection is gone. Trust is broken, and the loss feels like a death.

Sailboat in front of a tsunami

Fleeing the tsunami. (Source)

So grieving has become complicated, and I’m trying to stay ahead of it for now. Every now and then I feel tears starting to well up, but … I’m so busy, you know? If I could run away for a few days, just me and my dog, maybe then … but right now my to do list is simply too long. I don’t have the time – I don’t have the capacity – for a tsunami.

Oh – and I nearly forgot: earlier this month the Hubbit broke his arm. He tripped over his own feet, but of course he blamed my dog. Then he insisted he didn’t need xrays, didn’t need to see a doctor – so of course he ended up needing surgery. And bad tempered? Let me tell you, my guy is a generous fellow. When he’s in pain, he shares it. We all get some. So even though I got to say “I TOLD YOU SO” on several satisfying occasions, life would have been better if he’d managed to stay vertical.

Oy … this post has turned into quite the pity party. I’m sorry about that. I’ve been gone for a while, and I thought some sort of explanation was in order.

Also, here’s the thing – and I need to write this down so that I can come back as often as necessary and read it: I know that tsunami is coming. I know I can’t escape it. But I am reclaiming my faith in God – not that I lost it, but I’ve been angry, confused and resistant. I lost myself for a while. That book series I mentioned? It still looks promising, and every day I see my heroine more clearly. I like her a lot and hope you will too, when I set her loose upon the world. And the weeds didn’t completely win in my veggie garden this year. I’ve found tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower and onions lurking out there.

As for right now this minute … I’m here, right? I’m blogging, aka writing. I’m not sure why that matters, but it does. It gives me hope.

In other words, to hell with the funk – this is still My Year of Reclamation.

So … how’s your summer going?

 

Skin-deep storytelling

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I was just off visiting one of my favorite bloggers and her latest post got me thinking … and my thinking has got me all upset and bothered and pondering uncomfortable questions.

She wants to know, where are the kids’ books with non-white heroes? And she makes the point that, while there are books about black kids, in almost every case the fact that they’re black adds a whole chunk of extra Stuff to the story. Usually, it’s not just a story the way “James and the Giant Peach” is the story of a boy who has an adventure. The kid’s color almost always matters.

So my first thought, on reading this, was to wonder how much of the issue was inherent in the way these stories are written, and how much had to do with Stuff already floating around in the reader’s head. Could it be that when the main character is white, you don’t think about their whiteness because that’s the norm in Bookworld, so you simply identify with them, and focus on the action? Seems to me that might be part of what happens. Whether the reader was white or black (or whatever), the very fact that a hero or heroine was Not-White would make them unusual. You would notice. You would wonder whether there was another layer of meaning hidden in the Other-colored skin. You would be alert to cultural signals, speech patterns, other indicators of Not-Whiteness, and if the author got them wrong you wouldn’t like it.

When does the hero's skin start to matter?

When does the hero’s skin start to matter? (Source)

This got me to wondering when it starts to matter. White kids obviously don’t notice the whiteness of characters. Do they notice not-whiteness? And what do black kids think when they read book after book about white kids? If nobody points it out, do they care that Snow White is an unusually attractive shade of pinkish beige, while they are not?

I find myself remembering an incident that shocked me when the Girl Child was at preschool. It was a Montessori preschool – in other words, featuring parents with liberal opinions about matters such as educational philosophy – in an upscale neighborhood (the Girl Child fit right in, but my battered little no-name-brand car looked pretty silly when I pulled up between the Mercs and Beemers to pick her up). Maybe 10% of the kids were black, and they all played together just fine. And then one day when I picked her up, the sweet man who tended the grounds waved goodbye to her, and she stuck her nose in the air and refused to wave back. Because he was black.

It was a long time ago and I have forgotten just how I reacted, but I remember feeling nauseated, wondering where in Hell she’d picked up that ugly piece of nasty. I remember saying, “But some of your friends are black!” and how she just rolled her eyes and told me that was “different”. They were kids. He was black. The end.

So much for the real world. What do kids see when they read story books? Could we make Jack the Giant Killer black, and not change the essence of the story? Would the result be a politically correct version of an old European fairy story? Or would it be blackface?

Anyway, this got me wondering whether I could write an ordinary adventure story or fantasy in which the hero or heroine is black, and get it right. Because a kid is just a kid, right? That’s what I want to believe … and yet … we are all so much a part of our families, our neighborhoods, our culture. From our earliest days we are immersed and soaked and pickled in the worldview, assumptions, expectations, fears, beliefs of our family and community. Even if we consciously reject everything we are taught, I don’t know that it’s possible to climb into an Other-colored skin and know how to wear it.

I lived for two years as a teacher in a poor rural South African community, where the only white people were my daughter, another woman who lived separately from us, and I. We were fully part of the community. We shared an outside toilet with our neighbors, ate the same sort of food as they did, went in and out of each other’s homes, prayed, argued, worried, grieved and celebrated together. I remain in contact with several of my former pupils. Their children call me Granny, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call on them if I needed help.

Yet I really don’t know that I could write a convincing story from inside the head of a black African kid. And I don’t understand this failure of imagination and empathy. Can I imagine being a desperately poor, or fabulously wealthy, or superpower-endowed white kid? You bet! Can I give that white kid black friends who are also fully-developed characters each with a unique voice? No problem – in fact that’s an integral part of the book I’m working on at present. Can I imagine being a black kid growing up in an ordinary black home with the spoken and unspoken everything that generations of racism means to my family, my future, who I am, how I think – can I get out of my white head and into theirs? I don’t know, but I suspect – I fear – that I could not. And I don’t know whether that is because I am lacking, or because it really isn’t possible.

And even if I did – if I were to try – what would readers think of my story? Would they assess it simply as a work of fiction – well written or not, believable or not, enjoyable or not? Or would I face the hostility due to an ignorant trespasser on sacred ground?

And, you know, thinking about all this just makes me so. Damn. Sad.

It shouldn’t matter.

It shouldn’t matter.

It shouldn’t matter.

But God help us, it does.

[UPDATE: I posted the link to this video of a white police officer sitting on a bikini-clad teenage girl to restrain her, while cursing and waving a gun at other teens. Apparently a party “got out of control” when a large group of black teens showed up in a predominantly white, upscale neighborhood. The video, taken by an observer, is out there somewhere but not where I could find it during a short search. I’m sure you get the idea, however … We’re talking about kids here, not hefty 18 and 19-year-olds, and a cop who thinks the best way to calm them down is to wave a gun. Not okay. I don’t care who did what, that’s simply poor policing.]

So now it’s your turn. What do you think? I really want to know.

April top reads

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I really meant not to read any fiction this month, and not doing so forced my imagination to find other ways to occupy itself, giving rise to a new novel that I’m now working on. But about three weeks into the month my addiction to other people’s words overwhelmed me and sent me trawling through my bookshelves, where I found three old favorites and, to my delight, one that’s been there so long that I was sure I must have read it, only when I opened it up it turned out to be a brand new treasure! 

Everything I read and watched is, as always, reviewed here. (For last year’s reviews, go here.) I have only two recommendations this month – but each is bigger than one book.

  • The Discworld Series, by Terry Pratchett – fantasy, humor trending toward satire. From 1983 to his recent death, Pratchett wrote 40 novels in this series, and they are all wonderful. His fans have different opinions regarding the order in which to read them, but I favor reading them in the order they were written. Start with The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic, which are considerably simpler and more lightweight than the subsequent books but provide a good introduction to the Discworld.
  • Regency romances by Georgette Heyer – not for feminists who take themselves too seriously, or for romance readers who require heaving bosoms and throbbing thighs, but if you enjoy well-crafted characters, clever dialogue, consistent and carefully-researched insight into the period, and unpredictable story-lines, you’ll probably love Heyer. (She also wrote mysteries, which I enjoy less; they haven’t worn as well, in my opinion.)

The best of the month’s movies were…

  • The Imitation Game – based on historical facts, a heartbreaking story in the context of a tense thriller
  • Chef – clever and poignant, it falls short of being a great movie but is nonetheless well worth watching 

I definitely am more creatively productive if I’m not drowning out my own stories with those told by other people, so will continue to limit my reading at least until my book gains more traction. But not reading at all? Nah, that’s not gonna fly!

Good things happen when you unclog your brain

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A wonderful, amazing, heart-lifting thing just happened!

On April Fools Day I gave up reading fiction books for a month, because I recognized that I was treating other people’s imaginings as a drug to avoid thinking too deeply about my own stuff.

This was hard! My ever-ingenious brain has been frantically finding alternatives – Sudoku, anyone? How about we just spend hours scanning through the blogiverse? Hey – look – here’s a pile of seed packets I haven’t fully comprehended!

But sooner or later I still had to go to bed, and getting into bed and not opening a book … well, frankly, it felt unnatural, even a little obscene. What was I supposed to do – just turn out my light and GO TO SLEEP???

Apparently yes.

Well, four days in, my brain went nuts. Starved of fantasy from outside sources, it created one of its own.

I have a whole new book sitting inside my head. All I have to do is write it down.

It’s been years since I wrote anything I felt really good about … years since I managed even a simple short story. This blog has been something of an outlet – an unclogging aid, an opportunity to play with words and memories without getting too hung up on perfection. After all, no one else gets to decide whether or not it’s good enough to publish, right? And although I don’t have many subscribers, there are several of you whose virtual company I really enjoy. In fact I’m writing this post specifically for you – you know who you are – because we’ve visited at your place and mine, within Blogland. I know you know (most of you – some of you are young enough that these miseries are still ahead of you) what it means to be blocked, and to wonder if you’ve fallen prey to “use it or lose it”, and to be scared that you may never write anything you truly like ever again, and to be frustrated to the point of screaming because you have a great character whose story you’re dying to tell – only there is no plot.

Anyway. I’m about to undock my laptop and head over to the library, or maybe a coffee shop, and write down the entire story before I lose it. No, I’m not planning to write a novel in a day, but I have the full story – the characters, the plot, conflict and resolution and all the wonderful rest of it – even whole chunks of dialogue. This has never happened to me before … I’ve always started with an idea and some characters, and let the story unfold.

I am very happy.