Jayme, an anxious freelance writer with young kids, is still trying to carve out a space for herself in the industry.
Autumn and impending holidays are nearing. She’s getting back into the writing work flow. Of course, it isn’t going as fast and smooth as she’d like it too, but she’s realigning her ducks after putting a major project down due to lack of sight. She wrestles with some confidence and focus issues but is dedicated to finding flow.
One morning she is partaking in some free-writing and stumbles onto an idea for a short story. Her inner-not-so-helpful critic immediately snaps at the loose, fragile concept. Jayme goes for a walk and listens to Weezer. Her dogs sniff away at the bushes and mailboxes. Whispered voices pass between neighbors standing by a blue pickup truck with spray painted windows. Anxiety and story telling muscles drum up a heist, then fleeing citizens. Thoughts of the government ordering neighbors to be walled in cycled through her head as she transitions from walking to writing.
Jayme is nothing if not stubborn, so she sits and writes and thinks and works through the scenes and ideas. Not all ideas should be accepted at face value. They are only stepping stones to the true intention. Her upbringing conditioned her not to trust herself or her environment, so it is challenging to let go. Thoughts of the drawered manuscripts skulk on the corner of her idea and oncoming epiphany. She changes the music and gets a glass of water. “It’s a grind,” she tells herself as she combs through the previous paragraph. “I know there is an idea in there somewhere. I’m the right path.”
A small creature pops its violet-furred head in a fluid string of dialogue. Its beady red eyes studied her looking as surprised as she feels.
Without a better idea of what to do next, she spit out a simple but appropriate greeting, “Hi.”
The weasel-like animal waved its narrow-toed paw. “No pictures please.”
“What are you?”
“I should ask you the same question.”
“I think this may be too weird.”
“How can you judge me without understanding what my purpose is? I’m here. Just, as you are.”
Jayme followed the animal, which calls itself Top, into its warren. It isn’t a cozy, twig filled animal home but a string of potions and stolen goods on aged shelves. There is a smell of magic between the mud-filled walls she had never smelled before. Jayme stood between the script of spells reaching deep into the earth and the door to leave before too much heart and time. She danced with the decision as if she had a choice.
“Well, are you going to follow me?” Top crinkles its snout, giving his whiskers the look of brushes for dirty floors.
“Are you what I’ve been looking for?”
“Maybe. It’s hard to say right now.”
Top grew impatient and wandered over to the pebbled path that led to a small pool of pink water. Jayme watched the turquoise birds flutter about feeling over whelmed. She sighed and wandered over to Top.
Top pointed a claw at the rose bubbles swirling in the center. “There are secrets deep in there.”
Jayme offered Top a flat hand.
He sniffed it, unsure.
“Let’s do this together.”
Top bobbed its furry head and scurried up her arm. He perched on her shoulder with his mouth near her ear.
“Jump,” he whispered.
Tunnels twists into stairs that fold into waterfalls. Hand in hand the two new friends explore a world one knows wells, and the other knows only what their willing to see.
Fall is approaching. The kids are back in school. My house is quiet. Cinnamon is suddenly more appealing. Our planet seems to be crumbling down around us. I spent the summer writing scenes that never needed to exist for the story I was telling because I thought I was writing another one. I discovered the amazing world of paleo-style cooking in a nobel attempt to be healthier and have a hobby outside of words. I’m currently sitting at my desk ready to crank out some smaller pieces in hopes of earning modest piles of cash. It’s been too long since the last blog post, nerves were starting to climb my legs, so I popped over here to write this. The moment my fingers hit the keys my mind started jumping all over like a confused frog with no tongue.
I’ve learned so much in the last eight or so months. I did it with crash-course grace, and my head is still spinning on its side. I made so many mistakes with my latest project—the one that I’ve been obsessing over and nothing else. (Part of the problem, btw.) I know what you are thinking. “It’s all part of it.” “Probably not as bad as you think.” “That’s what editing is for.”
No, really. I broke it. For now. I wasn’t listening to the character’s true voice and allowed my goals to distract me. The first moment I started the project till right before I finally listened to myself, was a continuous and reactionary series of events. I walked away for its own good. This was a hard thing to swallow. Really hard. Making mistakes is sometimes the best way to learn. My husband always says to the kids, “If you aren’t making mistakes you aren’t growing.” So, I guess I grew up a lot over the last year.
As a parent I watch my kids slip in and out of these developmental phases. There is nothing like children to remind you of how temporary life is. Oh so humbling. I so seldom pay attention to my cycles of learning and moods. If you are only a little familiar with me, you know my love for Alice in Wonderland. The story is so much more than children’s fantasy. It’s a story about growing up and how our environment messes with us as we go. We have choices, and they have consequences. It’s a metaphor for life, for writing a story, and periods of time that have more of an impact than others. Lost innocence is the place we all visit at some point. Wonderland can symbolize many things, but sometimes I think of it as a representation of a phase. The thing about life? ‘Our now’ feels forever. For me, it’s those milestone birthdays or the realization of how old Moe the cat is that really shows me all that’s changed. This summer that just soared by was on the other side of a door in a hole. I’ve been chasing this project for the last eight months (or more) that didn’t want to be chased. There is a story there, one I have to tell, but my mind is on other projects that are ready for me now. Sometimes a story has to wait. It hurts, and it always sucks. I trust that my path with lead back to it.
As disappointed as I am that my WIP and I need some time apart, I am equally excited about all the short fiction I have in the works, essays of thoughts, working with Rebecca Clark on The Shadow Bearers again, and another wave of Too Many Words Episodes. (More info on all that soon.) The words will find me, as they will find you.
I wrap this up with:
Keep the critic in your pocket, listen to your gut, and have fun tormenting your characters that all want something.
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.
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.
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.
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.