To You. From the Turkey

This Thanksgiving, stop. Halt the cooking, put your flour-dusted, pumpkin-splattered ear up to the knobby pink mountain of white meat and listen.

As you scoop your third helping of baked marshmallows with a dab of sweet potatoes, and your nether regions fuse to the chair, take note.

When your uncle walks in wearing a Make America Great Again hat and you’re tempted to rip it off his head and challenge him to a proper duel, pause.

When they’re late. Again. And the glory has congealed on the stove, and you’ve taken so many “test” bites you could be the one in the oven, and you wonder how come, if you can cook an entire dinner and be on time, why can’t they shower and show up on time? When you’re tempted to walk out on the whole thing, mark the headless guest of honor.

In the quiet moments of Thanksgiving Day 2017, hear what the turkey has to say:

No matter how pretty and right you think you are, time and circumstance will eventually catch up with you, and you will be shoved someplace where it’s very, very hot. – Brian Lageose

This is strait talk from the de-feathered guest of our tabletops. Want to read it elsewhere? Try Luke 16:19-31.

Admittedly, I lifted Brian’s quote quite out of context and used it for my own agenda. But Picasso has my back with his famous quote: Good artists copy; great artists steal. And honestly, Brian’s turkey has a Cassandra aura that begs to be repurposed. No matter how pretty, how polished, how published (for my writer-friends), how smart or powerful, how fat we or our wallets are—time and circumstance…

The good news is, we don’t have to be shoved someplace very, very hot, even upon being overtaken by time and circumstance. Thank you, Jesus and free will.  Every Thanksgiving I’m drawn again into the familiar glow of gratitude that God sent His only Son. And now, let’s end on a moment of laughter (or, depending on your tastes, disgust) I offer the following absurdity:

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How to be a Writer in November: Show up and Throw up

Want to be a writer? It’s as easy as show up and throw up. Write stream-of-consciousness. Write garbage. Write your dreams, your fears, somebody else’s fears… What often happens in the show-up-throw-up process is: something awesome makes its way onto the page. Inherent in the process is a throwing-off of the shackles of self-loathing and– usually at about a thousand words in– one manages to shut down the inside voice that says this is a ridiculous waste of time. Why don’t you just get a job at Aldi? They kill themselves too, but they get paid for it.

November. Writers know it as National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo for short. Two years ago I participated, thanks to my blogging friend Nthato. After several starts and forfeits, I finally wrote that crappy first draft all writers need to complete. Every day for a month I showed up and didn’t let myself off the keys until I’d vomited several thousand words onto the screen. If you think I’m being dramatic, try writing 3000 words in two hours. It’s slapdash, my friends. It’s Chinese manufacturing.

Can I confess how much I hate writing crappy drafts? I know it’s the way, the prescription, but it’s hard to keep dumping time into a project that can only be honestly appraised as: half-assed. Apologies to my young readers and sensitive souls for the coarse language– but it’s appropriate because in novel writing, half-assing only becomes satisfying when you’ve got a really big ass going. I’m talking tens of thousands of words. Once you’ve got the meat, you can show up at the very least, pleased with the sheer copiousness of your own derriere. This is your brain on paper. Ain’t it big? Ain’t she a beauty?

The reason writers have to write that crappy first draft is because loping off swaths of exposition we’ve labored over for hours is more wasteful (and painful) than amputating thousands of words puked onto the page… and one will never escape the process of novel-pruning. It must be done. The age of Tolstoy and his eternal rambling is over. But still. I have to love it a little in order to show up to the page every morning. Which means I’m often wasting loads of time on one crucial word in a page of words that will eventually get scrapped. This is writing. I thank God I love the process, that the search for that one perfect word I threw away with the rest was still pleasurable.

Showing up, even to a nearly-finished novel, is difficult. I come to the screen and wonder if I’ll have anything to write. I show up empty-handed and hope something materializes. It usually does. And once I get into my world, oh boy… it’s awfully hard to climb back out into reality to fold a load of laundry.

My novel I Trespass is at 76,664 words and is labeled in my folder as Trespass Millionth Draft. I consider every read-through like combing a knotty head of really, really, really long hair, like miles of it. Each time I take the comb through, a few more knots come out. Soon I’ll be looking for beta readers. Soon I’ll be able to say, I finished.

P is for Paul, Katae’s Paul

Eccentric at a formal dinner.

I used to think I was open-minded. Then I had teenagers. And they were… let’s just say their tastes veered into the eccentric. My kids, my first two, simply would not play by the rules. And by rules I meant wearing dresses and liking it, using utensils at formal dinners, begging to sing in the church choir or at least running the soundboard…

I believed with all my heart I was completely nonjudgmental. Book covers meant nothing. It was the inside that counted. I was so avant-garde and educated and free thinking–

Enter my daughter’s boyfriend, Paul.

Paul was a walking Picasso painting: you weren’t exactly sure how to take him. The first time I met him was homeschool theater class. Paul was ten years old and a holy terror with a ton of talent– that’s what I remember.

In his teens Paul dressed in loosely fitting black clothing that hung off him like his many silver chains. He was funny, flamboyant, sassy, rebellious, creepy… That’s him in the middle.

… and he came to church at 7AM on Sundays to make enough coffee to fill the Boston Harbor. (That’s what it took to slake the thirst of Grace Churchgoers every Sunday.) So here’s the grim reaper barista and he’s in love with my firstborn daughter. Turns out I wasn’t as open-minded as I thought.

One day I was trundling around my homeschool book sale, chatting with moms and feeling all righteous and Rocky Balboa about my calling to educate my children… like I had holy dust scattered in my hair, so homschool-proud. I was talking to an ultra-conservative friend whose tastes (I thought) ran Amish, when who should sally up to us? Jack Sparrow/my son-in-law.

Love those moments when a freight train full of my own self-righteousness runs me down. Jack’s scream there, that’s how I felt upon seeing Paul, dressed for Halloween in June, at my homeschool book sale. My “Amish” friend thought Paul’s theatrics fun and creative and, hadn’t I better loosen up?

Those who know me, know I have.

Katae and Paul live in a lovely house they make lovelier by the day. Paul’s a visionary and super-handy, and Katae has an artful sense of style. They’re living happy-ever-after with their five cats, two dogs, one lovebird, and lots of love.

Paul

This goes out to Justin Smith, by request. “P” is not for PERFECTIOSIS. P is for Paul.

Posts about my other children: Katae, Tory, Luke, Gabe.

Cinderella, a Twister #writingexercise

I gave this assignment to my 5000 Words students.

Take a fairy tale and either:

  1. Re-tell the whole thing in a modern adaptation or
  2. Choose a scene from the middle and use it to begin a story of your own that diverges from the original.

Sometimes as my students write, I do too. Here’s my twisted Cinderella story:

Cinderella lived with her father, stepmother, and step-sisters in a beautiful, flat country. One day a tornado touched down. As Cinderella’s father ushered the panicked horses into the barn, Cinderella waited dutifully in the storm cellar.

From outside came a terrible crash and a scream. Cinderella knew something happened to her father.

Against his command, she cracked open the storm door. Instantly a gale wind whipped it from her hands, slammed the oak door to the earth and snapped off the hinges, throwing the iron hardware into her face. She was knocked unconscious and slumped down the cement stairs.

For the duration of the storm Cinderella lay, the rainwater soaking her socks, her petticoat, her dress. Only her face was dry, still under the basement ceiling where the rain couldn’t reach. Blood flowed from the spade-shaped gash on her face.

Once Cinderella was beautiful, but the storm changed all that. It took her father too. The cry she heard was his last, as the barn supports fell on him. Cinderella’s stepmother and her two step-sisters were away at the market when the tornado hit. Upon their return they made the gruesome discoveries. Carelessly, Cinderella’s stepmother sewed the stitches on Cinderella’s face, and the resulting scar was grotesquely jagged. It pulled her lip on one side into a perpetual frown, and though her eyes remained beautiful, no man would look past the scarred lips to her kind and lonely eyes.

Worse, Cinderella’s step-sisters made fun of her, taunted her, called her Cinder-hella. Because she was so ugly, Cinderella kept to herself. The small farm animals were the only ones who saw past her damaged form. Especially the mice; they were dear friends. It was the mice who helped her with her chores and made beautiful music with her. Dancing and singing with her animal friends, Cinderella almost forgot her ugliness.

A ball was to be held, a masquerade ball. There would be music and dancing, and most wonderful: there would be masks. Cinderella could feel gloriously beautiful for one enchanted evening. All she needed was a dress and a mask. The mice heard her muttering about it as she scraped the dinner plates.

The step-sisters, already gangly and towering, seemed to be going through a growth spurt. Several of their best silk dresses were obscenely above their ankles and had to be thrown out.

“Oh, may I have them?” Cinderella asked.

“Are you kidding?” They answered, “What on earth could you possibly do with such beautiful cloth? Burn them. And burn yourself while you’re at it, Cinder-hella.” They were off to town for new dresses.

Cinderella couldn’t bring herself to immediately burn the sparkling silk. She put it to her face and luxuriated in the kind fabric. She wore the gowns, danced with imaginary partners, and pretended to be at the ball. The mice knew her well. They waited in their holes until she was done. As Cinderella gathered sticks for the fire, the mice stole pieces of the gowns, working in pairs with scissors, enlisting the help of the cat, the dog (his canine teeth), and even the crows. It was a miracle of animal cooperation and all unknown to Cinderella, who gathered wood as slowly as she could because she hated to see the gorgeous gowns wasted.

Tears blurred Cinderella’s vision as she picked up the bundles. She didn’t even know the dresses had been ransacked. This cheered the mice, because they knew a surprise would be the best present.

On the day of the great ball, Cinderella felt as if her heart would break, watching her step-sisters and her stepmother pile into the carriage in their finery and sweet-smelling perfumes. Their faces were painted to perfection; jewels glittered from every appendage. With masks, the sisters were almost glamorous. How Cinderella wished she could wear one, always.

As the carriage dust settled and they were alone, the mice emerged from the basement, the same basement in which Cinderella had lain and bled, the one place she refused to go. In their little mouths and draped over the dog’s back, the mice carried a silk gown more beautiful than any other. Behind them trotted the cat holding a magnificent mask, carefully clenched in his teeth. It was iridescent; the mice had used duck neck as their base color and copied it perfectly onto the stolen cloth. They’d unraveled the threads, one by one, and re-sewed them together into green and purple perfection.

“Oh!” Cinderella fell back a few steps. Her hands fluttered to her mouth.

One of the great horses took her to the ball on his strong back. She arrived just as they were beginning her favorite dance. Vibrantly clad figures flitted and flirted and clanged their golden goblets together, sloshing punch as they twirled.

One night.

Cinderella had one night to live a whole life of wonders. To be thought beautiful, to engage in conversation like anyone else. To dance and sing and be carefree and merry. To feel real, strong hands hold hers and lead her around the dance floor. For one night Cinderella’s dream could come true.

 

 

Dante’s Barn: A Short Story About the Gauntlet of Adolescence

Publication. That great Other reads your writing and deems it worthy to print. I’m pumped to share with you my short story is out today on Fiction on the Web, the oldest internet short story platform in existence (since 1996). They have a feedback field for readers. No sign-up necessary. I hope you’ll read my story (3 minutes) and click a reaction (3 seconds). Please! I’d be so grateful. To read it, click here.

The story originally came out on my blog, but I reworked it extensively and had my beautiful writer’s group give it a make-over. “Dante’s Barn” explores a pivotal evening in a young man’s life when a snow storm and a flat tire become more than just annoyances. They are prisms through which he sees his world afresh. I’ve always been interested in coming-of-age stories because they teem with metamorphosis moments, the cocoon magic we all hope will play upon us and make us better people.

But I also like ambiguity. Jude, my protagonist, my son of humiliation– it’s unclear whether or not he learned the lesson. Even I don’t know if he learned it, and I wrote him. Jude has become real to me, and like real people you can never tell just what they’ll do with information.

Some other flash pieces: horror, metafiction, and a piece I dusted off.

 

Writing Conference Memoirette

I just attended the Lorain County  Library’s (awesome!) writer’s conference led by Chuck Sambuchino. The most interesting moment of the conference was when Chuck read manuscripts and murdered them in front of us. Until that moment, I’d never actually experienced group tension in the flesh. It was like an invisible spider web stretched across the room and we all vibrated in sympathetic agony when one of our own was being devoured. I have several friends whose work I recognized, and my heart went out to them. It got so bad I started passing notes like a manic teenager.

 

I took preemptive action, telling myself things like: what does he know? and maybe he won’t get to mine. And if he didn’t… hallelujah. Amen.

He did get to mine, and I had a wonderful moment of peace as the librarian read my manuscript aloud. To hear a stranger read, with the inflection I meant it to have was a gift. Then she stopped reading. I braced myself. Stopped breathing. My face flushed.

“Pretty good,” were his first words. “I actually wrote ‘good’ in three places on this.” Then he went on to say that the language carried him through the first page, but I better have something happen on page two, by god. I wrote in the top margin: SURVIVED.

My friends were more optimistic. They clapped me on the back as if I’d had a victory. One called me “Miss Good Good Good,” which is almost as gratifying as “Oh captain, my captain” or “the queen,” but that’s taken (Kathleen!).

Our writer’s group would describe themselves as pulling no punches, maybe even cutthroat. But I think they give the medicine with a spoon full of sugar, as Mary Poppins would say. They’re gentle when they cut you.

Not so, Chuck-the-ripper.

Yet we are thankful. We all know, we collectively agree even if we singularly squirm in humiliation and shame: your medicine is good for us, and we’ll come out the other side better writers. I’m humbled and awed by the spirit of grit and determination I see in my friends. I get a front row seat on seriously amazing journeys, watching flesh and blood people take their licks at our meeting, apply the lessons and grow. I look at them and I say, if they can grow, so can I. We look at each other and say, if she can gracefully take the hit and come back swinging, so can we.

 

The Things I Carry

“What’s it like, being dead?”

“…I don’t know, I guess it’s like being inside a book that nobody’s reading.” – From Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. This quote bowled me over. Not just because it’s a fresh look at death, but because it captures my feelings. While I’m writing I Trespass, I’m “inside a book nobody’s reading.”

Which is to say, sometimes I feel dead.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad dead. Let’s pretend there’s good dead and bad dead, and this is more of the with-my-fellow-dead, dead. My characters and I are someplace everybody else isn’t.

In the Bible, the word death is never defined by lexicographers as annihilation or extinction or even unconsciousness, but as separation. And that distinction helps me wrap my mind around death. I hope it helps you too. So while I’m writing my book nobody’s reading, I feel a separation– like I have a secret or a double life. This is the thing I carry: my story. The one for which I presently labor, and the ones waiting in the queue of my imagination.

Yesterday I finished a short story based on a family member. I began writing with real names and only at the end did I do a find/replace. (Well look at that, some members of my family are paying attention.) Keeping as much truth as possible for as long as possible helps me in the initial slog-through of the story. Once I get momentum, truth and fiction blur. I mash together an uncle and a nephew into a new little boy of my own creation. The truth is, I had a feeling I wanted to convey. I can’t even name it, but it’s the way you feel when you’re unprotected and it begins to rain and home is a long way off. It’s one to which I keep returning– children and the forces that play upon them. I have an uncle who committed suicide, and I’ve often wondered how that went down the day they were told. Rather than ask (what fun is that?), I made up how it went down that day, the day they were told.

Anyway, I wanted so badly to share this story with somebody, anybody who could say yes, I get it! or no, you’re unclear, etc. I often draft my children into literary service. Gabe is a precocious twelve year old and has often shown me plot holes or character flaws, but this story is rather sordid. I spared him. Tory, my mature and insightful writing critic is overwhelmed with school and work, and only a selfish brute would put a manuscript under her nose (for the second time this week), so I didn’t. I thought of putting a call out to my friends on Facebook or WordPress along the lines of Ahoy! Anybody sitting around wishing for a beta read? The deadline is October 1st, and I need immediate assistance… But also a part of me wanted to just ship it off, which I did.

Writing is also like war time communication, pamphlets dropped by the thousands on an uncaring population. Even in Hiroshima and Nagasaki no one bothered to read the warnings dropped from American planes that said something along the lines of: Evacuate or die. And my missives are not nearly that important. You can imagine how few people read them. Well, maybe you can’t, but I can. You’d think the inverse relationship between labor output and actual reads would send me running to another, more impactful activity. On the contrary, If I can’t write something wonderful I know no one will read, I’ll write about the process of writing something I think is wonderful I know no one will read… Exhibit A: this post.

I meant to write about a harvest, which was my prompt from Carrot Ranch. Unfortunately, I got side-tracked. When I think harvest, the first thing that comes to mind is the harvest of souls talked about in Matthew 9:37. Jesus compares proselytizing to harvesting. Actually, harvesting is one of God’s favorite metaphors. At the end of all things, He says, there will be a great harvest where the wheat and the weeds will be gathered and sorted and– woe to you weeds out there. That’s the gist. Don’t be a weed.

Because separation doesn’t feel so cozy as a book nobody’s reading.