A Strive-ful Year

For the last couple of years, instead of making New Year's resolutions, I chose a word to guide me through the year. The only rule I made was that the word had to be an imperative. My word for 2013 was strive. I chose the word thinking of all the things I would be striving toward in 2013:

  • eating right
  • exercising 5 days a week
  • finishing revisions on my novel
  • finding a literary agent
  • building my savings account
  • updating this blog regularly throughout the year

The Universe, however, took my word as a personal challenge. "Strive, you say? I'll give you a reason to strive!" (Can you hear the cackle?)

So as much as I intended to spend 2013 striving toward my big goals, I actually spent most of my time striving against obstacles the Universe hurled in front of me:

  • a work slowdown in spring, which led to...
  • an income slowdown in summer, which was followed by...
  • a seriously ill dog
  • a series of broken household appliances
  • a car in desperate need of repair
  • a flooded laundry room
  • a lonely Thanksgiving

Because of those crises, most of the things I was going to strive toward remain out of reach. Revisions on The Novel are nowhere near finished, which means I haven't even started looking for a literary agent. My savings account balance shrank instead of grew. My eating, exercise, and blogging habits have been inconsistent at best. On the plus side, I survived every one of the crises (and so did the dog!), and I am proud and grateful about that.

I have learned something else from this experience, too. I will think carefully about the word I choose for 2014, lest the Universe be tempted once again.

A Few of My Favorite Things

I tried watching the live televised version of Sound of Music this past week, but couldn't see it through. (When you're rooting for the Captain to get together with Elsa instead of Maria, something's not quite right.)  Still, it seemed appropriate to list a few of my favorite things:

1. Raindrops on roses
2. Whiskers on kittens
3. Bright copper kettles
4. Warm woolen mittens
5. Brown paper packages tied up with string

Okay, so those are Maria's favorite things, but I do share her fondness for numbers one, four, and five.

Seriously, though, like Fraulein Maria,  I do have favorites that help me through long days and rough times. My list of current Internet favorites looks something like this:

I spend most of my workdays alone in my basement office. Twitter helps me feel like I'm not really alone when I'm working. I think of it as my office watercooler, but it has also proved to be an unexpected source of crisis counseling.

Another site that helps me feel less alone in the world.  I can't relate to many of the secrets posted on the site, but every once in a while I see one and think, "I could have written that!"

Dog Shaming
I visit this site regularly. It's always good for a giggle, a chuckle, or a belly-laugh-til-I-can't breathe.

Des Hommes et des Chatons
Another site I visit when I need a giggle. This one shows male models and cats in similar poses--in case anyone needs a reminder of how ridiculous modeling poses can be.

The Great Gatsby Game
An old-school video game inspired by one of my favorite pieces of literature? Yes, please! 

Not Just a Girl
Wonderful photographs of a five-year-old girl dressed up as five different legendary women. Not only is every woman an inspirational example, the young girl is a million kinds of cute. Emma for President!

Shrinking Women
This entry in a poetry slam wow'd me beyond words. There's so much that struck a cord, so many lines that resonated with my own experiences, so many ideas that sparked realizations and new perspectives. No pun intended, this poem provides much food for thought.

Of course, I'm always on the lookout for new favorites. What are your favorite places on the web?

The Kindness of Strangers--Part Deux

I had a bit of an emotional meltdown this past weekend. Perhaps you noticed.

It's always a nerve-wracking experience for me to share my feelings, but the Thanksgiving Tsunami was a particular doozy. I was--and still am--blown away by the response, especially from my Twitter followers.

I've always thought of Twitter as my water cooler. It's the place I go for small talk and chitchat during my workday. But essentially the people I interact with on Twitter are strangers. I could literally run into them on the street and not know who they are.

Yet these strangers were the first to swoop in and offer me comfort and commiseration. It was astonishing. Suffice it say, I'm not used to being the recipient of such outpourings. I don't have the words to express how much those words meant to me or how deeply touched I am that these strangers took the time to share their thoughts with me. (And not having those words is a frustrating experience for a writer, let me tell you!)

So, my Twitter peeps, THANK YOU. You are all invited to my house for Thanksgiving next year. :-)

Worst. Thanksgiving. Ever.

I debated whether I should write this post and then I debated whether I should publish it, but I've been lying awake the last few nights composing it and recomposing it in my head and that pretty much made the decision for me. Still, my hands will be shaking when I click the Publish button.

My instinct is to NOT share experiences and feelings like these. I was taught to hide my "bad" feelings, taught that it was my job NOT to make waves, NOT to cause discomfort. But look where that's gotten me. I now eat and wear my feelings instead of sharing them, and that's the exact cycle I'm trying to break. So here goes....

I spent Thanksgiving alone this year. It wasn't by choice. No one around here invited me to share their Thanksgiving dinner. See, I live thousands of miles away from my family. Everyone I know here knows that. Yet not one of those people thought to say, "Ilene, would you like to join us for Thanksgiving?" Not one. I wasn't expecting invitations from everyone, but one invitation from one person would have been nice.

But that didn't happen. As a result, I felt--and still feel--lonely, unwanted, abandoned, excluded, invisible. At first, I hid my situation. I did the same thing last year when I got no Thanksgiving invitations. I pretended I was spending the holiday alone by choice. Why broadcast that I'm a loser and a social outcast? I learned that lesson in high school--keep your mouth shut and your head down and never let them see you cry. So when people asked in the days right before the holiday what I was doing for Thanksgiving, I again pretended I was fine and told them I would be volunteering with a local food pantry.

That wasn't a lie: I did decide to volunteer with the pantry on Thanksgiving morning. I decided to do that because I could not stand the thought of spending the entire holiday at home alone again. I just conveniently left that part out when I shared my plans.

I tried my best to focus on the bright side. I made a list of things I'm thankful for. I searched for heartwarming stories to cheer me up. I focused on my writing--hauling out some stories I've been meaning to revise and getting to work on them. I tried to accomplish a couple of things on my "I'll get to it someday" to-do list.  I wrote pages and pages and pages in my journal. But those were just superficial distractions. At the end of each day, I was still left with that hollow "nobody likes me, everybody hates me, I think I'll go eat worms" feeling and I was still left making turkey and stuffing and green beans for one on Thanksgiving day.

So I decided, "Screw it. I'm not going to pretend everything's okay when it's not." It took me a few nights of crying myself to sleep to summon that bravado, but I found it. From that point on, when people asked my plans, I told the entire truth. Not whiningly, not as an accusation, just a statement of facts: "I didn't get invited anywhere for the holiday and I didn't want to spend it alone, so I volunteered at a local food pantry."

That's when I got stabbed in the heart a second time. Of all the people I told that full statement, only one acknowledged the first part of the sentence. Everyone latched on to the end of the sentence and congratulated me on doing something so "awesome" and "fabulous." Most missed the part that I did it out of desperation. Only one person said something to the effect of, "I'm sorry you were in that situation." She's the only person who acknowledged that my situation was less than ideal. Everyone else was strangely silent.

I made it a point to speak matter-of-factly. I wasn't trolling for retroactive invitations. I wasn't pointing fingers. I was simply stating my situation. So why was it so hard for the people I told to acknowledge that situation? Is it too much to expect that people say "Oh, that's too bad" or "I'm sorry to hear that" in response? That lack of acknowledgement hurts more than the lack of holiday invitations. It feels like I'm being rejected all over again. Silence, after all, implies consent and approval: "Oh, you didn't get any invitations? Good. That's way it should be."

And that's where I am now--wondering if my friends here are really truly friends, wondering where I went wrong that I ended up like this, wondering how I will ever survive if next Thanksgiving promises to turn out like this one. Clearly, my therapist and I have a lot to talk about.

All that said, I don't have a witty ending for this post. I don't have a plea to make or a lesson to learn. I am still very much in the middle of this emotional chaos and don't have the clarity or perspective to wrap things up neatly. I just needed to get this off my chest, out of my head, and into the world.

I appreciate your taking the time to read the whole sad story. If you can find it in your heart to leave a small note of acknowledgement, I'd greatly appreciate that too. Thank you.

Thirteen Things I'm Thankful For

In honor of Thanksgiving 2013, a list of thirteen things I'm thankful for (in no particular order):
  • every single comment left on this blog. Those comments remind me that I'm not shouting into the wind, that people do in fact read what I write. I don't know if I'd still be blogging if I didn't have the acknowledgement, support, and conversation that happens in the comments.
  • being able to support myself as a freelancer for yet another year
  • my dog surviving--and even thriving--with kidney failure
  • my friendships with people near and far, online and in real life
  • the support, encouragement, and feedback of my writers' groups
  • my shade tree is still standing---and still has its full complement of (now-reddish) leaves this late in the season
  • my local library, where I've spent hours working on The Novel and without which I could not support my reading habit
  • my therapist, for helping me find my way down this new path
  • having a comfortable home in which I can live and work
  • having a gym where I can swim on even the coldest days
  • the blogs and websites where I find inspiration, motivation, and commiseration on my journey to health
  • the TV channel that plays reruns of M*A*S*H every weekday evening, which help me unwind at the end of my workday
  • the snuggly warmth of my bed on a cold winter day such as today  (No, I'm not there now, but oh, how I wish I could be!)

Clipart taken from Openclipart.org. Leaves by nicubunu; Turkey by Pippi2011.

Falling Down the Research Rabbit Hole

A while back, I bemoaned the fact that I couldn't decide what course to take in revising The Novel. I did a little bit of research, read a really fantastic book called 1491 (which you should read. Really.), and decided the culture I created in my story bore some resemblance to the Hopewell civilization. I embarked on a quest to learn more about the Hopewell. If only I'd known what I was getting myself into...

The Hopewell, for those who don't know, were a Native North American civilization who lived in the Midwest between approximately 100 BCE and 400 CE. They left behind mounds of various shapes and a ton of artifacts that indicate they had extensive trade networks and mad pottery skills. I found all that information on the Internet. What I couldn't find on the Internet or in a library was information about Hopewell governance, social organization, gender roles--the kind of day-to-day information I needed for my story. Thus began my quest.

After quite a bit of searching, I found a book that had the information I needed. It was one of those niche textbooks that cause college students to take on a lifetime of debt. It took months to find a copy I could afford.

Behold the wonder:

And a side view, for the full effect:

Yes, it's huge. And then there's the text: small and dense and in a language I don't speak: archaeology.

I can't get through more than a few pages at a time. It makes my eyes and my head hurt. Much of what I read I don't understand (see above about not understanding the language). I have picked up a few tidbits that I might add to The Novel, but mostly I am acquiring Far More Information Than I Will Ever Need or Use.

Ah, the sacrifices we writers make for our craft!

Fall Cleaning

I have been possessed this past week by the urge to purge. I don't know if it's because of the energy I get from the cooler weather or because I'm feeling restless or because I'm no longer trying to juggle four work projects simultaneously or because of some other reason or because of a combination of all of the above. Whatever the cause, I have been clearing out cabinets and closets and bagging and boxing and reorganizing. Goodwill has become my best friend. Or is it the other way around?

Anyway, it's been years since I've sorted through my possessions, and I have realized that I have way more stuff than I need. Some of this stuff was used and useful at one time. The three suits in my closet, for example, were well-used six years ago when I was job-searching and interviewing. But I haven't worn them since and see no need for them in my near future. That is why they are now at Goodwill awaiting their new homes.  In my kitchen cabinets, I found a box of tea from 2010. It had been opened and used, but then got pushed to the back of the shelf and forgotten. That box is not at Goodwill. It's in the bag for trash pick up tomorrow.

I'm not done, either. I still have more cabinets, closets, and bookshelves (gasp!) to go through. But I've learned a couple of things about myself in this process so far:

1) I have changed. It's been four years since I hung out my shingle as a full-time freelancer, and I knew from the start that my lifestyle would change. What I didn't expect is how I would change. Granted, this is a superficial example but it demonstrates my point: I found some butt-ugly clothes in my closet. At the time I bought them, I'm sure I thought they were cute or stylish or looked good on me. But now, I don't see it. At. All. I don't even like the feel of the material. My taste in clothing is vastly different now from what it was whenever I bought those clothes. That tells me that I am a very different person from who I was when I bought them. (Needless to say, I hope, is that those clothes are also at Goodwill looking for loving homes.)

2) I use stuff the way I use food. That is, I shop for the same reason I eat: not out of need, but out of a million other emotions. I am an emotional eater, a habit I am trying oh, so hard to break. Basically, that means I eat to celebrate when I feel happy and I eat to numb myself when I feel sad or angry or frustrated or any other emotion I don't want to feel. In short, I gained my weight by eating my feelings. Apparently, I also shop my feelings. When I feel "less than," I buy "more than." When I feel less than happy or less than satisfied, I buy more than I need. This, too, is a habit I'm trying to break. When I feel empty or lonely, I try to fill myself with food or with shopping. When I want to avoid something (like writing this paragraph of the blog post), my instinct is to eat or shop.

Part of my journey to health is breaking these habits and replacing them with new, healthier ones. Did I mention this was hard? Amputating a limb with a dull serrated knife might be easier. I have tried and failed many times (the breaking-the-habits part, not the amputating-a-limb part). I am now trying again. I wish I could say this is like riding a bicycle or that practice makes perfect or that it gets easier with time. IT DOESN'T. Each time is just as hard as the time before, maybe even harder, because the old habit has become that much more ingrained.

I'm hoping, though, that purging and cleaning out and rearranging my environment will help me purge and clean out and rearrange my habits, too. Only time will tell.

Ashes to Ashes, Mulch to Mulch

Yesterday, while working in the Deep Dark Corner of My Basement (aka my office), I heard the distinctive sounds of saws and a mulcher.


I had flashbacks to the demolition of my neighbor's shade tree. I ran (okay, stumbled over the dog) upstairs to make sure the tools of destruction were not being wielded against MY shade tree.

They weren't. *cue sigh of relief*

They were being used to euthanize my dying tree, the one that's been infected with an insidious fungus for years, the one the HOA had refused to do anything about...until now.

Watching the tree being turned into splinters conjured a mix of feelings: Relief that the tree was being dealt with. Sadness that the tree had died. Disappointment at the loss of the tree, which had served as nesting ground every spring for a family of robins. (Where will I get my baby bird fix now?)

Then disbelief as I watched the landscaper try to fill in this tree-less hole using a snow plow. Really? That big plow for that little hole? It was a disaster.

See that incline? The plow couldn't manage it. So the landscaper kept getting out of the cab to kick dirt into the plow and then getting back into the cab to try to maneuver the plow to dump the dirt...well, you get the idea. And no, it never quite worked.

Nonetheless, he kept trying the same thing over and over again, always with the same result. (What was that definition of insanity again?) I give him an A for perseverance.

After a while, I couldn't take it anymore. At the rate he was going, that guy was going to be there all night, running in a maze of his own making.

I offered him my shovel.

Presto! The right tool for the right job, and that hole was filled in and smoothed over in a matter of minutes.

Amazing how that works, isn't it?

The Kindness of a Stranger

Many, many years ago, in  my former life as a high school teacher, I attended a conference in the San Francisco Bay area. I stayed at a hotel near the airport, one that bordered the bay and, fortuitously, a bike trail. One day when I had some time on my hands, I went for a walk on the bike trail. Not long after I started, a woman jogged past me. As she did, she called out, "You go, girl!" I smiled at the encouragement.

Flash forward to earlier this week. It was one of those mornings when the hills felt steeper and the house felt farther away than usual. Every step was a struggle. I thought about cutting the walk short. Then I heard that woman's voice again.

"You go, girl."

So I did. I replayed that memory over and over. Those three words became my mantra.

"You go, girl."

"You go, girl."

"You go, girl."

They gave me what I needed to finish my walk--all of it. And when I went out for my walk again the next morning, the hills had returned to their normal incline and my house was its same old distance away.

I don't know who that stranger was all those years ago. Whoever you are, thank you. Your words have made all the difference.

Change of Plans

You know how I said in my last post that my goal was to finish revising The Novel in time to submit to the Baker's Dozen Contest at Miss Snark's First Victim at the end of October? Well, forget I ever said anything. It's not going to happen. Life has thrown me a few curveballs that, while not forcing me out of the revising game, are at least putting it on the bench for a few innings.

This past Wednesday, Benji (my dog, for those who don't know) was diagnosed with kidney failure. He's actually doing quite well--better than I am, in some ways--but treating his condition has upended my routine. For the next two weeks, he requires medication three times a day, and since he doesn't want the medication, it takes more than a couple of minutes. (This morning, it took 3 hours. His mid-day dose took 30 minutes.) He's also refusing to eat dog food of any kind, so I now have to prepare homemade food for him--not difficult, but it does cut into my time.

Then, because Fate has a twisted sense of humor, she piled on a few more crises, each one pushing me just a little closer to the edge:
  • On Friday, my computer became possessed. It thought someone was typing even when the keyboard was disconnected and without power.
  • On Saturday, my oven clock went on the fritz. Not a big deal. I could live without it, except that the thing is beeping constantly to let me know it's on the fritz. Ye gods! 
  • This morning, one of my televisions--the one that's been lulling me to sleep at night--decided its receiver didn't work anymore.

To say my nerves are frayed might be an understatement. I am seeking comfort and hope wherever I can find it. Hence, the new quilt background to this blog. There's also this:  
  • AAA has a prescription savings card for members, and it's good for pet prescriptions. I was able to get Benji's medication for 60% off its regular cost: I paid $26 for $68 dollars worth of meds. 
  • My computer seems to have repaired itself. As of this morning, there was no more phantom typing.  UPDATE: The phantom typing has returned. Visiting the Mac repair guy is back on my to-do list.
  • After some stumbling and more than a little cursing, I found I was able to fix my television by resetting the receiver.  
  • I discovered that by toggling the switch on the oven clock, it will temporarily stop beeping. That means I don't have to call the repair guy out over the holiday weekend, which saves me a few bucks.  

So all that's left to deal with is fixing that @*#$ oven clock and my computer permanently and feeding and medicating the dog. Oh, and sleeping, because I haven't done much of that either this last week.

Setting Deadlines

I've been struggling the last month or so, trying to find time to work on Draft 3 of The Novel. It's far too easy to avoid working on it. There are always dishes to wash, a dog to walk, day job work that needs doing, laundry that won't wash itself, errands that need running.

Lately,  I reach the end of my work day with brain cells drained. Some jobs feed my creative energy; others sap it. My current projects exhaust it. That was a large reason why I had hoped to make my vacation a writer's retreat, at least in part. But my exhaustion was deeper than I'd realized.

My goal was to have the revisions done in time to start sending out queries this fall. At the rate I'm going, that's not going to happen.

I have also learned, during the last few years of self-employment, that my chances for success improve dramatically when I have an external deadline to meet. I tend to let my own deadlines slip by.  (I'm sure any mental-health professional would say that indicates volumes about my own sense of self-worth, but that's another post for another night.)

So, to motivate myself, I've found an external deadline to meet: Authoress' Baker's Dozen Contest in October/November. Authoress runs a blog called Miss Snark's First Victim, and she is a champion for aspiring authors. Her contests bring writers together, with each other and with literary agents. The Baker's Dozen Contest is the largest contest she runs, and this year I want to be part of it. (For more details about the contest, visit her blog here.) For that to happen, I have to get cookin' --I have to finish my revisions and write a logline within the next two months. (A logline is, basically, a 1-2 sentence summary of the novel. Believe me when I say the logline scares me more than the revisions.)

Of course, that contest wasn't enough. I had to sign up for another contest, as well: the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. I participated in the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge earlier this year and earned an honorable mention in the first round. The contest was indeed a challenge, and for a while I swore I would not repeat the experience. But the challenge spurred me to write a story that I really like. I'm ready to write another one. Left to my own devices, however, it would likely be months before I started anything new. With this challenge, I'll be forced to write at least two new stories: one in each of the first two rounds.

So if you don't hear from me in September and October, it's probably because I'm up to my eyeballs writing, and revising, and creating, and panicking. The usual writer stuff. And should I advance or (dare I say it?) win any of these contests, you won't need my blog or an e-mail to tell you. You should be able to hear my whoop of joy through your open window.

Not What I Expected, But Exactly What I Needed

A few days ago, I returned from a week-long vacation in Boston. 

Before I left, back when the trip was still in its planning stages, I envisioned myself sitting on the waterfront, perhaps in a cafe, laptop open, writing away. Don't all writers have that fantasy? Vacation as writing retreat.

Alas, that didn't happen. I didn't open the folders (paper or electronic) that hold The Novel, nor did I open a Word doc to write anything new. The only writing I did was in the airport, on the day I left, while waiting to board my plane, when I scribbled a couple of scenes for a new novel in my writer's notebook.

A view of the Charles River from the Harborwalk in Boston's North End
The lake in Boston's Public Garden
Now that I'm home, I can see that a week without writing was exactly what I needed. I was far more burned out than I realized. Instead, I needed to walk (which I did to exhaustion), and visit with old friends, and sit in a park, and watch the water. I did all of the above, and I feel better for it.

I didn't get what I expected, but I definitely got what I needed.

The Great Shade Tree Tragedy

When I moved into this townhouse nine years ago, the street was lined with giant shade trees. Since then, wind and lightning have thinned or taken down most of them. There were only two big ones left: mine and one across the street.

My shade tree. It's a little thinner on the left because of a lightning strike a few years ago, but it's still a beauty.

Our subdivision also has another type of tree in front of each building. (Don't ask me what kind. I don't know. All I can tell you is that it's not a birch, maple, or oak.) These other trees became infected with a tree disease a few years back. (I want to say it's a type of algae, but that's only in water, right?) Anyway, the point is, the infected trees are dying. A few are already dead. The Homeowner's Association and Management Company are aware of this. They're the ones who made the decision to let the trees die instead of trying to do anything about it--one of many decisions on which we disagree, but that's a diatribe for another time.

So, a little over a week ago, when I heard the buzz of chainsaws, I thought the HOA and Management Company had hired landscapers to start removing the dead trees. Instead, I was shocked, disappointed, and angered when I looked out my window and saw the landscapers taking down the shade tree across the street. All of it. Not a few branches. The whole darn thing.

What's left of the shade tree across the street

 The dead tree a few feet away--that was left alone and left standing:

What the heck?

I became concerned that my shade tree was in danger, too. Such fear is not unfounded in my years in this community. When I moved in, I had tall shrubs in front of my porch that afforded me a measure of privacy. The shrubs were healthy--no insect infestations or other affliction. I came home from work one day to find them all ripped out and replaced by brand new shrubs--of the exact same kind. For some unknown reason, the HOA and Management Company had decided to rip out the mature plants and replace them with fragile new ones.

Were they doing that now with the shade trees? Taking down the two surviving mature trees to replace them with saplings to match the rest of the trees on the street? The HOA is obsessed enough with conformity that such a decision is not out of the question.

I began to brainstorm: what could I do? How could I save my shade tree from the fate of its sibling across the street? I thought about chaining myself to the tree--except that I have no chains in my possession. I do have a long canvas dog leash. It's easy to cut through, but it might be enough to get my point across. I made a mental list of what I'd do if the chainsaw wielding landscapers came anywhere near my tree: call the Management Company, tie myself to the tree, make a scene.

Every morning for the next few days, I rehearsed in my head my to-do list and what I would say and to whom. But the tree-killers didn't come back. My tree is safe. For now, at least.

However, if one day you read or see a news report about a crazy woman who tied herself to a tree, look carefully. That crazy woman just might be me!

A Tenth Anniversary

As of today, I have been an Illinois resident for ten years. In some ways, it feels like ten days. In others, it feels like I've lived here my whole life.

I moved here ten years ago not knowing anyone and not having a job lined up. It was a total leap of faith. I've been told since that my move was brave, but honestly, it felt more desperate than brave. My live in California was careening down a dead-end alley. I had to find another path. I'd had a couple of phone interviews with companies in Chicagoland. They hadn't gone anywhere, but they were the only nibbles I'd gotten. That was enough to give me hope. I sold my condo and headed East.

I crossed the border into Illinois on the morning of July 7, 2003. My clearest memory of that morning was crossing the Mississippi. I remember the color of the water, the length of the bridge, and the feeling like I was coming home.

The Fred Schwengel Memorial Bridge, spanning the Mississippi River from Iowa to Illinois (Photo by Cjtf83)

That feeling didn't last long. I went back and read my journal from my first few weeks here. I was not a happy camper. I was living in a rented townhouse without any furniture, with a phone that kept shorting out, without knowing a single person or where to find what I needed. My neck and back ached from sleeping on a flimsy mattress on the floor. My dog literally scared a bird to death on my front doorstep. I did a lot of complaining.

Slowly, things started to turn around:
  • The movers arrived 11 days after I did.
  • Nine days after that, I wrote the first words of what eventually became The Novel (the one I freaked out about in my last blog post). 
  • I finally admitted to myself that I wanted to write. I joined a writer's group (long live the Schaumburg Barnes & Noble Writers' Support Group!) and made my first friends in my new home.

That first year was bumpy. I certainly don't ever want to do anything like it again, but I'm glad that I did do it. Those were the first steps toward the life I have now:
  • I sent my resume to the educational publishing company that eventually hired me (two years later).  Because that door opened, I gained the contacts and experience I needed to work as a full-time freelance writer and editor.
  • I began writing regularly. It took years, but my writing eventually became good enough to be published. Now I'm wrestling with revisions on my first completed novel, and I have scribbled starts to at least two more. (Should I ever finish the first, that is.)
  • I made friends through that first writer's group, which led me to another larger, writer's group, which gained me more friends and led me to my current writer's group: a small group that calls itself Scribblers.

 Most of all, I found something I hadn't realized I'd lost: myself.  And that's something worth celebrating.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

In the grand scheme of things, I had hoped, planned, and expected to be deep into Draft 3 of The Novel by this time of the year. I’ve had the manuscript back from my critique partners since early May.  I figured that by now, I’d be well on my way to addressing and incorporating their feedback.

Instead, I am paralyzed. I am, as the title says, stuck between a rock and a hard place, and I have no idea which way to go. The problem is, in a way, one of my own making.

See, in my novel, I created my own culture for my characters instead of using a real-world one.*** I did this for one specific reason: creating my own culture gave me the freedom to create a society that fit the needs of the story. If I used an existing culture, it would have put constraints on the story. I would have to change certain elements of the story to fit the culture. To me, the story was the most important factor. Now that decision is biting me in the behind.

The Rock

The first path is the one I’m on. Keep the culture I’ve created and build it out per the feedback I’ve gotten. It sounds like the easiest path, but as I started to tread it, it proved to be rocky, steep, and in some places, blocked by fallen trees. Some suggestions are easy to incorporate.  Other feedback takes more thought and effort and shuffling of scenes. Then there’s the feedback that I know makes sense and would vastly improve the story but have absolutely no idea how to fit it in.  I’ve spent hours reading and rereading these type of comments and the scenes they address and have come up with whatever is worse than a blank.

The Hard Place

The gate to path two opened when I was working on Draft 2. At that time, I slammed it shut. That was not a path I wanted to go down. Now the gate is swinging open again.  Path Two—the Hard Place—is to re-research and then completely restructure and rewrite the entire novel to use a real-world culture. This is the path that a couple of my critique partners are pressuring me to take, and pressured is exactly how I feel. I see their point: a real-world culture would provide concrete details easily accessible by the reader. Should the reader want to know more about said culture, the information would be a Google search away.

But I’m resistant to this path for two reasons. The first is my original reason: using a real-world culture would put handcuffs on my story. If not handcuffs, than at least require radical changes. I’ve done some preliminary research into two likely real-world cultures and to adapt my story to fit them, I’d have to change some important elements. I can see how it would work, but it would be a very different story.  I LOVE my story. It’s the story I wanted (and still want) to tell. I want to make the story better, improve the context of it, not change it to something else. 

The second reason is far more practical. Researching from the ground up takes time. LOTS of time. And resources. The preliminary research I’ve done has shown me that to get all the information I need would require a research effort that equals, if not exceeds, what I put in to my Master’s thesis. Then there’s the time it would take to rewrite the novel.  And it get the new version critiqued again. Which means instead of being ready to shop around this novel in a few months, I’ll be spending another year or more (likely more) starting over from basically scratch.

The Paralysis

Both options—the Rock and the Hard Place—are overwhelming. I’m so overwhelmed that I’m doing the one thing a writer is not supposed to do: I’ve stopped writing.**** I started The New Novel, thinking it would help me break through, but the paralysis from The Novel seems to have paralyzed me there, too. I can’t get past page 5. 

And all this is messing with my head and my confidence as a writer. I know writers who churn out thousands of words a day on their novels. (I hate them.) I know others who produce hundreds of words a day. I used to be one of them.  But now that I’m not writing, how can I call myself a writer?  

And getting sucked into that whirlpool only makes the paralysis worse. 

Where’s Sidney Freedman when I need him? *****

***Which isn’t to say I made up the culture out of whole cloth or that I’m against research or using elements of real-world cultures. I’ve done both in The Novel. I cherry-picked elements of different cultures to create the one I wanted, and I can tell anyone exactly which bit came from where.  I also made up elements when I couldn’t find a satisfactory alternative in my research.  

****By “stopped writing,” I mean “stopped working on The Novel.” I still write every day. I write in my journal and I write what my clients hired me to write. But that’s not the same, or as satisfying, as working on The Novel.

*****If you don’t know who Sidney Freedman is, we may need to reconsider our friendship. He’s only the coolest shrink ever created:  

A Pain in the ...

I’ve lost and gained and gained and lost weight enough times to know that I never lose or gain weight the same way twice. In other ways, I have no way to predict how the weight loss/weight gain will change my body shape.  The only certainty is that weight loss shows in my face first. After that, it’s anybody’s guess.

This time around, weight loss seems to be affecting my backside first. I know this because nearly every pair of pants and shorts I own are now too big in the behind. As I walk forward, they slide downward—often dragging my underwear with them. As a result, I have to occasionally stop walking to pull up the back of my pants.

So, you say, just buy pants and shorts in a smaller size!

I wish. The problem with that suggestion is that my front and my thighs aren’t ready for a smaller size…yet.

Well then, what about a belt?

Yes, indeed. What about a belt? Well, wearing a belt makes me look like a balloon animal: round and puffy on top; squeezed really tight in the middle; round and puffy on the bottom. Not a flattering look. While I’m not a fan of my body shape as it is, I find it much more palatable and attractive when my mid-section isn’t being cinched within an inch of its life.

How about suspenders?

I love suspenders but not on me. My chest provides a rather significant obstacle to wearing them. (Also, I’m not really sure where to buy them. Stores within my budget don’t seem to carry them.)

Don’t get me wrong. In the grand scheme of things, this is a good problem to have. And it’s a problem I know is temporary. At some point, my front and my thighs will catch up (catch down?) with my backside and I’ll have the pleasure of shopping for smaller clothes.

In the meantime, if you see a woman walking through Chicago hiking up her pants every few feet, there’s a good chance it’s me.

Lucky Dog

I thought it was time for a gratuitous Benji picture. This is how he spends his time while I work. Once in a (frequent) while, he takes a break to bark at a passing fly--or have a conniption when the neighbor's Chow Chow goes for its walk.

What Season Is It?

Welcome to the latest edition of "What Season Is It?" Our last installment explored Spring in Winter. Today, we discuss "Summer in Spring," or "Why is it so damn hot?"

Yesterday, we reached a high of 85 degrees Fahrenheit. I was completely unprepared. It's the next day, and I am still unprepared. I'm just not ready for summer yet.

The west-facing walls of my house are nearly all windows, which means my house cooks like an oven on summer afternoons--even with the blinds drawn. Yesterday was no exception. I watched the thermostat climb, hoping it would stop at a reasonable temperature. I did not want to turn on the air conditioning in April--even if it was April 30th.

By 5:30 pm, even with all my windows open,  a strong, steady breeze blowing, and my blinds mostly closed, my living room was 82 degrees and still getting hotter. My bedroom upstairs, had I checked, would have been even warmer--probably about 85 degrees. And the sun had another 2 1/2 hours to beat down on my west-facing windows. It wasn't going to get any cooler any time soon.

I caved.

I turned on my A/C. By 10:30 pm, my house felt comfortable again--comfortable enough that I thought I'd be able to sleep.  I turned off the A/C, thinking that the house would continue to cool off overnight.

I was wrong.

I tossed and turned all night. When I "woke up" this morning (if it's possible to wake up after not sleeping), the thermostat was two degrees warmer than when I'd gone to bed.

It's supposed to be in the 80s again today. Right now, I have the windows open and a comfortable breeze is blowing. But you can bet your bottom dollar that I'll be turning on the A/C this afternoon and this time, I'll be leaving it on all night.

P.S. -- Yes, I'm a wimp. I have no tolerance for the heat.

I'm Honorable!

Two days ago, I got the results of a short story contest I entered back in February and I'm still in a state of happy surprise.

The NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge is indeed a challenge. Unlike other contests, it's a timed writing with an assigned prompt, and there are three rounds--with the alloted writing time decreasing in each round. The judges also give every writer feedback on his or her story.

Round 1 was in February. I had a week to write a fantasy story about an astronaut and a fishing trip. Having read very little fantasy and having never before written a fantasy story, I spent the first 24-48  hours of my writing week in a panic. By the end of the week, I had a story that was really more science fiction than fantasy. Only the writers of the top five stories in each category move on to Round 2, and I doubted I would be one of them--simply because I didn't nail the genre.

I was right--I didn't finish in the top 5 of my group of 32--but I did better than I expected. My story got an Honorable Mention! (That means I finished 6th, 7th, or 8th--numbers weren't assigned after 5th place.)

I do like the story a lot, so I'm not putting this one away. I'm going to revise based on the feedback I got and see if I can get it published in a sci-fi magazine somewhere. Stay tuned!

Home, Sweet Home

It's 11:30 on Thursday morning. I should be working. But this niggly little voice in my head keeps whispering, "You haven't blogged in a while. You need to blog. It's been almost a month. Blog, already." So here I am, blogging already. (Shhh...don't tell my clients.)

It's been a weird and wild almost-month since my last post.
During that time, I changed my Internet Service Provider. Sounds easy, right? Just six words arranged in a simple sentence. If only it were that simple. See, my old ISP wouldn't play nice with my new ISP, and as a result, I ended up without internet service at my house for a week.

Because I need internet service to do my job, I spent that week hopping from public wi-fi hotspot to public wi-fi hotspot. I felt homeless. I spent hours each day at my local library, my local Panera Bread, my local Barnes & Noble. I spent so much time at Panera that I earned three free meals on my Panera rewards card and used all of them.

Spending all that time in public places challenged my immune system. I haven't been exposed to so many people and their germs in one day since I gave up my job downtown. As a result, I got sick. I spent much of my week of wi-fi surfing with a monster cold. Even now, two weeks later, I still have some lingering sniffles.

Thankfully, now that I have my new internet service installed, I can suffer comfortably at home--and procrastinate working by writing blog posts.