control issues and an obsession with mortality

I sat down at my desk with the mindset to do some character work. The plans were in place, and enough thoughts were bouncing around in my head that there was no question about the amount of material. I spent the whole weekend filling up my mental bucket. I had certainly lived life for a few days between all the hiking, gardening, family time, and mini-breakdowns. I put my fingers on the keys and wrote a generic, easily deletable first sentence then stared at a blinking cursor with a blank mind.

Instead of staying in the document and doing what needed to be done, I pulled up my browser and googled stomach issues and smoking cigarettes. I’ve been trying to quit smoking. I hit 13 days without one on Saturday. It was one of those long and trying days but the kind that’s completely on my shoulders and can’t be pointed in any other direction. I’ve been experiencing stomach issues (which seem to have gotten much better without dairy and excessive alcohol), and smoking isn’t helping.  But Saturday night after skipping lunch, freaking out about my inability to collect my plot-related thoughts, and throwing an adult-sized temper tantrum, I bought a pack of smokes and lit up. I’ve had four since.

I’m prone to anxiety, by prone I mean consumed by it a lot of the time. So smoking is a way I deal with that and have ever since I was twelve when my mother handed me a cigarette after the worst day of seventh grade ever. The monkey has been on my back ever since—one of the many things I can thank her for. I also hate not being allowed to do things. So telling myself, I can’t have one makes me want one even more. The kicker here is lately my anxiety has been focused around my health.

When it’s time to write or sleep or relax, my eyes fix on the mole on my arm or the gurgling in my stomach and think of all the horrible ailments I have. I’m not at my healthiest at the moment, my eating, sleeping, and drinking habits haven’t been great. I’m working on it. Smoking and panicking about health issues don’t go together. Yes, I could die at any minute. Some elements make the possibility of dying sooner and in more painful ways more likely, but this isn’t something I have control over.

I have no control over when I die. None of us do, and that scares the shit out of me. I think about it a lot. Death is a reoccurring theme in my writing. The loss of someone, the desire to live forever, how someone lives on if we come back, the afterlife. I read about it and write about it and am currently revising a world built on it. The fear of death isn’t my own. I know many share it, but it isn’t a fear I had for most of myself. I didn’t suddenly become terrified of dying the moment I got married of became a mother, or a mother of two. Almost two years ago I looked in the face of mortality as I watched life slowly leave one of my best friends. She was the kind of person that was so sweet and comforting that I could only feel like a bitter asshole because she was so naturally and genuinely sweet. Her smile was so bright. Lit up eyes in a sea of freckles, framed with red hair.

She was sick for roughly eight months with persistent pancreatitis and other aliments before we learned her cancer was back, everywhere, and untreatable. The moment she found out, she got to work on writing forty years of birthday cards to her children as well as other gifts for her loved ones, wrapped Christmas presents, and organized all her items and made labels for who they went to, so the grieving didn’t need to worry about it. I spent as much time as I could by her side in the last few months feeling humbled and broken. She’d call me her angel, and I only felt like a fraud, a useless cog in the wheel of life.
When she passed away, I wrapped a blindfold around my eyes, dove into one project after another and picked up drinking. Looking back at it I guess I could have handled it all better. I could have let myself really see my surroundings and how it felt. The writer part of my brain scolded me for running when I should have been inspecting. If I’m honest, I didn’t only grieve for the loss of one of my favorite people, I also mourned all the future deaths I couldn’t control, including my own.

Suddenly I was surrounded by the lack of control we all have in this big game. The rug can be pulled from us at any time and in an endless amount of ways. My death could be quick and unexpected, or it could be slow and painful and known. There is no way to know until we are there.

All the painful words and drugs and traumatic moments between my mother and I have helped me become the person I am today. Somedays I like that person better than others, but for the most part, I think I’m okay and know I’m lucky. I have my family, the one I built, and it’s beautiful.

I experienced a personal epiphany this weekend while I was hiding in the dark of my backyard behind the pine trees sneaking a cigarette like a troubled teenager. There were clues I had been ignoring but at that moment both disgusted and entranced by the act of smoking my first cigarette in thirteen days it hit me.

I have control issues, and it’s because I’m terrified of fucking up my life through a dormant chain of events I set in motion the way my parents did. I can flicker through my memories and see my house around age six, and everything seemed together. Maybe it never was Okay, but there was a point early on I thought it was. Every year things got worse. Disorangzation and house cleanliness were the first to go. It was addiction and misunderstood mental illness the moved the storm through my family, through the cookie-cutter house I grew up in that stood in line and looked like all the others. On the surface, we just looked messy, but no one really knew how bad things were on the inside. So between watching how things can fall apart so tremendously and how disfunction can pass as function messes with my head. I have trouble just living and going with the flow. I’ve been under this misconception that if I make enough lists and check off enough items that I’m in control, that I am not like them and my kids will let me be apart of their lives when they are grown up.

I do think there is some validity to that. Business needs to be tended to. Bills have to be paid, and meals must come together but being so wound up and terrified of losing it all isn’t a way to live. I don’t have to run and hide to avoid a verbal attack when a door slams but there is still a part of me that feels that need to squirrel away and protect myself.

Self-management and care are important. I think part of me is scared and the other part wants to chill and enjoy. So, maybe there is the halfway mark where I can build a tiny house and find some peace and balance.

That’s a good note to leave on. I’m going to eat some lunch and get back to character work instead of googling all the ways I could be dying. I have to remember the lesson that was so fresh in my mind while I was losing my friend to cancer or while my mother destroyed all my father was trying to hold up on his own. Life needs to be lived. There is no giving up. We will all die at some point and all the moments we missed worrying about all we can’t control will seem silly and a complete waste of time.

 

characters and their insides

Character, something we can have and what we are as individuals. Some more than others. The quirky, witty sidekick softens the hard front-runner. The insecure and flawed villain makes us do more than simply hate them. The smiling stranger somehow soothes the rush of grocery store anger. Creating a character that thinks and feels and bleeds and grows, is an exercise in sleepless obsession.

And so the frenetic spiral of passion and creating begins. The hero. The villain. The conflict. The quest. These early stages of story building are some of my most favorite aspects of the whole deal and the first for me to become familiar with on my writing journey. The spark of a personality, the lines of the face. Knowing what ideas to take further isn’t always clear, and if it becomes so, it is usually after sitting down and writing it at least once. Every word written is a lot like a pebble tossed into a pond. Ripples form, they glide into others and create something brand new. Words help find ideas. Anything can slip out if you just write.

This is hard for me. My brain likes to collect every possibility and burden and task item and try to think about it all it once. My chest tightens, and I am far from a creative place. I’m learning to get into a rhythm and when to listen to the change needed. Writing and living life as a writer is in itself a living organization. Something that changes and morphs and grows. Knowing this and accepting, helps everything.

Writing full-time isn’t how I imagined when I was a kid and proclaimed to be a great author someday. Some moments are dull and frustrating; some even feel pointless.

Scene:

Dogs huddle near my side asking for their walk. Laundry piles build walls, locking us into my home office. My fingers idle above the keys. Notebooks are open. Ideas aren’t coming, and I question all my life decisions up to that point.

A similar scene:

A great, long walk with the dogs. Laundry all folded and where it belongs. Ideas are flowing, slow and steady. I’m having fun.

The main difference between the two here is perspective. Perspective is powerful. It alters the story, the taste, the sheen.

Is anyone going to figure out what’s wrong with a character arc if all they are doing is telling themselves that they can’t? (Yes, I’m talking about myself last week.)

The answer is no.

I made a lot of missteps on this draft, and once they are pointed out, they scream. It took a minute for me to digest the issues, find them, and now I’m piecing together how to fix it. Word by word, I’m mending and tightening and all the good stuff.

There is no reason why this shouldn’t be fun. The fine-tuning of fantasy world can be like ripping your hair out with hot tweezers, or it can be like riding bareback on a unicorn through a forest of talking trees. Fun and wonder can be found everywhere. That’s why I love reading and writing.

I get caught up in cycles where I fret and worry too much about the outcome and clean floors and forget how to enjoy. I think focusing on the good is something we can all do more. Not just writers or artists, but people, us humans. Having our backs isn’t us fooling ourselves.

There is so much upheaval and reaction. Slowing down and take a whiff of our surroundings helps. I’m talking to myself and to you and possibly to the angry dude with the ignorant sign by the baseball stadium. Self-awareness is an important tool. We should all use it.

Perhaps I went off the path a bit, but I don’t think so. The character’s path isn’t a clear, straight shot. Remember that as a writer and as a human. I have to. Complexity and twists out of our control. Emotions and logic. These are natural occurrences and ones that generate conflict. A sum up of that I am saying?

Have fun writing characters and the world that they live in—both in the fictional world and the real one.

maybe try this…

I like to think of writing as a ‘gut’ business. Books are personal at the core, so emotional inspiration or interest is part of it—just a level, but still important. One slice of cheddar cheese makes all the difference in a ham sandwich. Following my gut is how I solve problems in the arcs, know when ideas or worth something, and on and on.

The problem is, the inner-critic sometimes gets in the way of gut listening. Something I am working on. I had some dancing with my demons while I reread my current work in progress and wrote a reverse outline to track plot lines and beats all while keeping other feedback in mind. I had multiple unhelpful voices coming in and telling me any shred of an idea I had was no good. I’m not sure if this is just the way it has to be. I have to feel desperate in order to have ideas. I don’t know, nor do I know where today went. It’s been a sea of notes and ideas and outlining and panic since around 9 am.

I am feeling confident that I’m on the right track. These issues are being solved just as they should be, one at a time. Putting a story together in a new world is a puzzle. Every piece adds up, but in this case, some of the pieces are never seen.

Sometimes it’s daunting to think of all the pieces at once. It isn’t helpful to try and swallow all of it—a dance that happens in steps. That speaks to a lot of phases in the process. I am still figuring all this out as I go and still trying to achieve my goals so I wouldn’t take this writing advice and theories to heart because I am just trying to figure it out. One thing I am damn certain of is words shake other words free. So I am dumping some thoughts out to find the words I need, and maybe my words will poke at some words or hope you need. Who knows?

It is all too easy to get caught up in the desperate need to create and share and publish when the focus at the moment should be the experience of creating. It really is an amazing thing, especially when it flows. The act of forming a spell or a creature is a thrill.

I guess I will end this rant by concluding with, savor the small moments and enjoy the ride.

blindfolded in a sea of notebooks

It’s been weird by me. To say I’m in a mood, or a weird phase sums it up mostly. Nothing really terrible is happening. My life is good. I’m lucky. I’ve been in a writing funk, that’s all.  Actually, a lot of good things are in the works. Maybe it’s waiting. I’m not sure. Being humbled is part of the writing gig. I’ve been humbled, but I’m on the trail while being humbled. The not thinking of something really gets under my skin.

Ideas are everything.

It has been eight days without a cigarette, and I’m knee-deep in revisions. Something I have trouble with is the “not writing’ part of the process. Dumping random thoughts into journals helps to discover clues and details. Not knowing how to fix issues gnaws at my feet. Slowly but surely I’m finding answers.

I’ve realized I’ve been reacting lately—the past year or two really. It’s almost the end of my youngest’s first-grade year. When he started kindergarten, I started writing full time without having a clue as to what to expect even though I thought I did. It is very different than part-time writing. Writing as the main gig is hard. I love it. I can’t imagine myself doing anything else if I’m being honest. Sure, there are moments where I imagine opening a bakery or being a dog trainer. But I always come to my words and my goals in the literary world. It’s a slow game, one that requires thick skin, obsession, and passion. Being stubborn helps too.

The same month we entered that different phase in our family, both kids in school and my full-time writing, my best friend died, and I plummeted myself into an emotional YA contemporary until I was done which happened 95,000 words or so later. This still sits in a drawer. Fantasy is more my bag, and that was a pile of mess and emotions and processing thoughts, that maybe one day I’ll dig up. Then my small publisher closed and my published book and my schedule to release one disappeared like vapor for a hot second. I’ve been hacking away since then, making minor successes and learning as I stumble and make mistakes. I am learning a whole heck of a lot and good news for me I’m stubborn as hell. I couldn’t do this without it. At some point I stopped bouncing from project to project and became obsessed with world building and this big huge concept. That is where I still am. I can’t blink my eyes and be onto the next step. This is where I am. Listening, hunting, finding, and fixing.

So that’s a long way of saying my current status is eight days without smokes and wandering the jungle path of revisions, tracking and solving problem by problem while I do my best to have fun with it all and remember I’m lucky. It’s too easy to get caught up in the harsher notes. Listening to the softer sound is a neater rhythm. I’m learning to deal with things as they arise, so they don’t build panic like wet sneakers grow mold in the back of my coat closet.

Today was one of my most productive writing days in over a month. I got a lot figured out and down on paper. Looking at all angles is hard but necessary.
Some days are chipping away at an iceberg with a fork, and others are like setting your fingers of fire, but instead of flame, it’s words.
Can’t have one without the other.