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Karma Chameleon

March 9, 2019

Karma-karma-karma-karma-karma-chameleon….you come and go….you come and gooooOOooo….

Who used to love this song? Am I dating myself? It’s one of the earliest songs that I remember identifying as a favorite. My nine-year-old self would sing along passionately, probably dancing as well, because admit it, it’s just a catchy af kind of song. I also remember the song Mandolin Rain making a big impression, the line where the guy passes the homeless man and cruelly says, “get a job.” That line incensed me. I wanted to have a word with that guy. How dare you! I would say. Who do you think you are! Where is your compassion for people less fortunate than yourself! And then I would kick him in the kneecaps.

Perhaps this is when the social worker within me was born, with Bruce Hornsby as my midwife.

Anyway, this isn’t actually a blog about 80s hits, although that would be fun for another time maybe.

What I wanted to discuss is one thing I have noticed in working with my patients, which is not unique to oncology but is pretty pervasive in our culture, is this notion of “karma.” There is an expectation that if we are bad people and do bad things, bad things will (and should) happen to us. And if we are good people and do good things, good things will come our way. This is justice in our minds, at least in the Western world, is it not? I’ve grown up thinking of this as absolute fact; many of us have. In a way it’s reassuring if we can count on the world to deliver to us what we “deserve.” It seems fair, like we are part of a just, logical universe.

I recently started questioning this idea, or wondering if maybe we were missing something. It just seems that this belief causes so much suffering. If bad things happen to us, we wonder what we did to “deserve” them. We wonder why we are being “punished.” We blame ourselves, we feel guilty, we drown in regret over past wrongs that likely have nothing to do with the current circumstances. Suffering. Or conversely, we feel slighted and angry. We think of our donations to charitable organizations. We think of the good we do in the world. We think of all the people we have helped. And we are pissed off that this is how life repays us, by giving us cancer. Or taking our loved one away. Or whatever the case may be. Where is my ROI for all the good things I have done? Meanwhile, Joe Blow down the street who slashes old ladies’ tires and steals candy from children, he’s doing just fine! Where are his just desserts?! I know I have stewed over this more than once in my life (ok probably a thousand times), wishing and wanting some kind of “karma” to befall someone who had wronged me or someone I cared about, and feeling absolutely cheated and outraged that I did not see it happening. More suffering.

Recently a friend sent me an article written by a woman who went through a craniotomy to remove a meningioma from her brain, which is the same thing I went through in 2017. It was one line that really stuck out to me – she said that after her surgery, she sat around, processing everything, and waiting for some kind of “cosmic compensation.” I read this line over and over and for some reason I just enjoyed the heck out of it. I just had to smile at the real-life human truth of it. Many people do this. We think, I’ve been through this horrible thing, and I weathered it like a pro. Now, I “deserve” something good. And what happens if we don’t get it? Then we might be resentful, because we feel that justice has not been served. We have not gotten what we deserve. Which means the universe is not just. Or it’s just out to get us. It dumps all this crap on us all the time and never makes up for it! And it’s not fair! And we are miserable. We suffer, and we create this suffering ourselves, with our beliefs, and our expectations.

First of all, I’m not sure how the idea of karma got so closely intertwined with our idea of “justice,” which can basically be whittled down to an uncomplicated system of punishment and reward. The common cultural saying that “you reap what you sow” also seems to support this, that if you put bad into the world, bad will come to you, and the same with good. So I did some research into the true meaning of karma, to see where we’ve gone wrong. It just seemed that our understanding had to be a crude, dumbed-down version of what was intended. What I found is that many of the leaders of Hindu and Buddhist religions do consider the Western understanding of karma to be grossly oversimplified to the point of completely distorting the true intent of the message. I won’t pretend to be a scholar of Eastern philosophy, but after scouring numerous sources of information my general understanding is that karma is a Sanskrit word whose true meaning is “action” sometimes interpreted as “energy” or “intention.” It is not a divine promise that if we are good little boys and girls, we will get a gold star. Or that if our neighbor poisons our dog, that a meteor will fall through his roof (although we might want that). It simply means that the energy you put into the world is what you become. Not a reward that arrives on your doorstep. It arrives within you. This energy is created by your actions, but most importantly, your intentions. If you consistently create chaos in the world, inflict harm upon other living beings on purpose (with intent), this energy will become you. You are your own creator. And the energy you put into the world will reflect back to you like a mirror. Not as a punishment, but as a manifestation of your own actions. And it only stands to reason that if you intentionally create misery in the world, you become a miserable person inside, and some might argue that you were miserable to begin with or you wouldn’t have put that energy out in the first place. But honestly, meteor or not, to be a person that creates misery, and is misery, is its own “punishment.” Maybe it’s not the penalty we would have selected from the menu…but when you think about it, it is far worse than anything we could inflict from the outside. It is like living in hell and then realizing hell is inside you.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, one might say), it is not only those of us in Western society who have a warped sense of karma. I watched a video of Jay Lakhani, a theoretical physicist, speaker and educator of Hinduism who is head of the Hindu Academy in the UK. He spoke in the video about karma as a very misunderstood concept and expressed his disappointment at the tendency for some Hindus to use karma to dismiss the suffering of the less fortunate, or those from a lower “caste.” He used an example of a lavish party taking place in some town in India, while outside, a young girl sits on the ground, begging in hunger and desperation. When she is brought to the party host’s attention, he shrugs it off, saying that the girl is where she is because of some evil deed in a past life that got her there, so she is just paying back her karmic debt. Meanwhile, he and his other guests can pat themselves on the backs for their stellar karmas that landed them a place of privilege in this lifetime. The scholar was disturbed about this, saying that the idea of karma is not to be used to justify ignoring the suffering of others or to feel superior or to bolster a flawed system that causes misery and oppression. These folks, he said, are completely missing the point. Like us.

Lakhani also talked about consequences. Not about punishments, but consequences. The distinction is subtle but important. If I feel a lump in my body and I don’t get it checked out because of fear, or mistrust of the system, or whatever, and then by the time I see the doctor the disease has spread and become terminal, this is a consequence of my actions (or inaction). If I realize there’s a leak in my roof and I don’t do anything about it, and then my roof collapses, that event is a result of the choice I made. I’m not being punished for being fearful or stupid or negligent. It is not a judgment. It is a consequence, simple cause and effect, and that is a NEUTRAL PROCESS. Yes, our actions have consequences. Every action has a consequence. But that is not a punitive process. It is an objective fact of the universe. I truly don’t believe that anyone is being “punished,” not by life itself. There is no doubt that coming to terms the consequences of your actions can be an incredibly painful process, particularly if your actions have brought about something tragic and irreversible. In that case, we would need to talk about guilt and self-forgiveness (which admittedly is not my strongest area)…but it is still not a punishment.

So, what about people who have become miserable and inflict misery because of misery inflicted upon them? Maybe they can’t help what they are putting out there. They can’t help who they have become. Well, that may be true. Maybe they can’t help it. But if they wish to change, the onus is on them to do the work and change. Some will, some never will, that is reality. There’s a quote that says, “your wounds may not be your fault, but your healing is your responsibility.” This is another thing that seems to defy all notions of a fair and just universe. If someone makes a mess, shouldn’t they be expected to clean it up? Well, unfortunately if someone makes a mess all over your psyche, it’s not their job to clean it up, it’s yours. That may not be fair, and it may sound callous, but it’s true. How can anyone else take responsibility for reordering your life and your mental well-being? That has to be your own very personal task, and many times people don’t realize, or don’t want to accept that this responsibility falls on them. But it’s not fair. But this person victimized me. Yes, both of those things may be true, but to stay in a victim mentality is to handcuff yourself to a fate you don’t want and that someone else chose for you. Choosing to self-identify as a “victim” strips you of all power to do anything about it, and isn’t it wonderful that regardless of what any other person has done, YOU still have the power to choose how to move forward? You may not be able to do it alone, but you make the choice to begin.

I really don’t want to sound preachy. I am not telling anyone how to live their lives, nor do I have any judgment in my heart about this. It just pains me to see so much suffering in our society over an idea that has been completely warped from its original meaning. I’m hoping that by dissecting a couple common concepts that many of us have accepted without question, we may be able to reframe our beliefs about the world and ourselves, and toss out some ideas that are keeping us stuck or causing us unnecessary pain.

How many people right now are drowning in hopelessness, thinking that they’ve done so many “bad” things that they will never be redeemed? That their “karma” is permanently stained and no matter what they do, they have so much karmic debt to pay off, they’ll never be able to enjoy this lifetime or, if they believe in reincarnation, even five lifetimes from now. What does this line of thinking create? Hopelessness, despair, guilt, more hopelessness, more suffering. People have no doubt taken their lives over it. Does that serve us? The idea of “karma” has morphed into a kind of soulless monetary system, whereby you make withdrawals (bad deeds) and deposits (good deeds) into the Bank of Krishna and the gods (or whomever you believe in) keep track of everything and you either wait for your big lump sum reimbursement or you’re stuck paying back the debt you’ve created through your actions for all of eternity. And if at some point your debt becomes a bottomless black hole that no matter how many deposits (good deeds) you put in you’ll never make a dent, what happens, hench-gods Shiva and Kali are going to hover over you so you never enjoy one moment of your life because you’re enslaved to this karmic debt you’ve created?

It’s really ridiculous when you break it down like that, isn’t it? There is no Bank of Krishna and the Black Goddess is not lording over your house making sure you are eternally miserable as payback for the things you have done. This is a bunch of hogwash. Seriously, if you want to change your karma, you are one action away from being able to do so. A genuine kindness, a token of goodness put into the world, and it starts to change. You are in control of this. Only you. But if we do good deeds with the expectation that they will bring us rewards or “good karma,” that is actually the opposite of what you are seeking. It is a different energy you are putting out there when you do good deeds with expectation. And when we wish misery upon another person because we believe that is what the person “deserves,” we are not putting the best energy or intention into the world either. It seems to me there is a fundamental flaw in the belief that if someone does wrong, or what we perceive as wrong, that something negative should befall them. Isn’t this just more negativity generated in a world already overwhelmed by it? I read one time about an indigenous tribe somewhere in the world, and in that community when one of the members commits some transgression, the entire village forms a circle around him and they take turns telling stories of all the good things he has done, and naming all the wonderful qualities he has. The idea being that when someone does something to harm another, this is an action based in disconnection and hurt within the perpetrator, and what they need is not punishment, which further alienates and creates more inner strife (leading to more acting out), but love, healing and a reminder of the good that is within them. What an incredibly foreign approach to us, no? And I thought it was one of the most beautiful and evolved concepts I had ever heard.

There are some wrongdoings for which I couldn’t possibly endorse that approach, at least not in our culture at this point in time, but I think there is a lot of wisdom in that way of thinking and there is something to be learned from it. Like I said, I’m nowhere near an expert, I’m no spiritual guru and I certainly don’t consider myself an especially enlightened being. I am a very imperfect human who struggles with the same unhelpful beliefs and the same fears and I’m not immune to sometimes finding myself wanting a quid pro quo from life. But I do try my best to add good into the world without expecting anything in return, and to take accountability for my life and my choices rather than disempowering myself by feeling like a victim, of the universe or anyone else. This also means not blaming myself for the unfortunate things that happen by saying, “what did I do to deserve this?!” which is tempting because we are inoculated with this belief system from the time we are born. So I was thinking, rather than asking in any given situation, “What do I deserve?” maybe it would be more helpful to ask, “Who do I want to be?”

When we do good without expectation of return, we are giving the world a gift. When we do good while watching for the “karma” boomerang to come back our way, we are treating our goodness as a loan. I believe that if we all “give,” rather than “loan out,” our love and talents to the world, this will create more good energy, or “karma,” for ourselves and everyone else. In the meantime, I’m dropping the whole karma song and dance, at least in the self-flagellating way that we commonly use it. It’s a beautiful concept, and a true one. Unfortunately, it is not safe in the hands of us mortals with our tendency to want to reduce everything to its most primitive, simplistic form. It has been bastardized into a belief that creates anger, suffering, pride, elitism, disappointment, guilt, hopelessness, misery, arrogance, and frustration. Let’s do away with it, shall we? It is not serving us.

Sorry, Boy George. You can take your chameleon and…well, you can bring him to me, because I like chameleons. Just don’t tell me I earned him with my good karma.

Bottom line, none of us understands the meaning of all this. We are all doing best we can. We are all a work in progress. Personal growth is a home-improvement project that never ends, and I think that’s how it was designed to be. There is no endgame; we are never “finished.” What we can do is check our intentions, as who we are is a result of what we do. And vice versa. Karma is not outside of you, or something earned or imposed upon you. It is you. It is a never-ending, dynamic interaction between you and the world around you. And that means it is constantly changing, and subject to change. And you hold the reins on that chameleon.

Lead him well.

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Dancing with the Crab

November 4, 2018

bead photo

“Who cares if one more light goes out, in a sky of a million stars? It flickers, flickers… Who cares when someone’s time runs out, if a moment is all we are? We’re quicker, quicker… Who cares if one more light goes out? Well I do…” ~Linkin Park

When I was the social worker for the bone marrow transplant team, I found an outlet from all the grief and loss in my collection of beads and a strand of wire. Every time one of my beloved patients died, I would sift through my many beads, select one I felt suited that person for one reason or another, and add it to the strand. As you would imagine working on a unit with high-risk and treatment-resistant cancers, my strand of beads grew like a weed on a riverbank. I would gaze at it from time to time, all those beads standing in for precious lives lost, glittering in the sun. I remember at the beginning, every time I added a new bead, I started at the bottom by touching each bead and whispering the patients’ names to myself to ensure they weren’t forgotten. Over time, I began to lose track and lose count, and the names didn’t come to mind as easily. I began to forget which bead belonged to whom, and why, but I was still reassured by the fact that each person’s memory was preserved there on my sacred strand. This ritual was a comfort to me for a long time, but I remember at one point lifting up this long strand now heavy with the weight of all the lives it held and thinking, how much longer can I do this? I wasn’t sure working in cancer was a sustainable career. It just seemed too emotional, too heart-wrenching, too predictably unpredictable and too intense to endure long-term. I think that’s when I stopped adding new beads to the strand. Instead of stopping to process each loss, I was watching them whoosh past me one after the other with so much momentum that it spun me this way, then that way, and it was hard to find my footing and re-center myself before the next one screamed past. I remembered that being toward the end of my time there, just after my third year.

I found my precious strand of beads recently while clearing out boxes in the garage. I was overcome with emotion when I opened the little jewelry box and saw it there, a cord of memories and emotions connecting me to the past. I held it up several times over the next few days, blown away by how many losses the team had seen in my short time there. Then, I found the list of names, which I had forgotten I kept. And I was confused. A patient we lost about halfway through my time there was represented by a bead near the top, and then the strand ended. After that, the list held almost 30 more names…30 more deaths…all without beads. So the point at which the loss began to feel bottomless and overwhelming was much, much earlier than I thought…and the strand I now thought was so long only actually represented about half of the deaths. Half. The strand in the photo should be doubled to accurately reflect how many lives I saw blink out in the just over three years I was there.

The names brought them all back in lucid detail. There was Katie*, a young woman barely past adolescence who was committed to a psychiatric facility when she developed uncontrollable itching all over her body and doctors couldn’t find the cause, so they assumed she was mentally unstable. She checked herself out as soon as the hold was up and continued pursuing answers until she was finally diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma (uncontrollable itching is a common symptom of this illness, acutally). By that point it was so advanced that traditional treatments were not effective and this very survivable illness became unsurvivable for her. I stood in the room with her family while she took her last rasping breath, bloated, unresponsive, with a tampon shoved horrifyingly up each nostril to staunch the bleeding. Katie loved Japanese Cherry Blossom lotion. She left behind a four-year-old daughter.

There was Gracie, also in her early 20s, who sometimes brought me thoughtful little gifts and was in the habit of proudly letting me know that if any other social worker tried to talk to her, she rejected them immediately and made it known she would only speak to me. She wanted a family more than anything.

Angel, a young gay man with such a kind, gentle presence, and so much sadness. He wondered who would ever love him now that he had had cancer and was (he believed) so broken after everything he had been through. I could never find the words, acting as I was in a professional capacity, to express how deeply he touched me and what a bright light I saw in him. I wish I had tried harder. His death, occurring unexpectedly only a couple months before I left, was excruciating. It still brings tears to my eyes.

Anna, very close to my age, who maintained a tough exterior that was hard to penetrate. She kept me at arm’s length most of the time, but she had a softness underneath that endeared me to her over time. For whatever reason, her death pierced me at my core. It was the first patient death that rattled me so intensely that I sobbed at home and felt distracted and depressed for days. I was haunted. I caught glimpses of her in public places. I saw her in strangers’ faces. And when I attended a writer’s conference several months later and met a like-minded writer who had been assigned as my roommate, I saw Anna in her face as clear as day when she laughed, and it felt like a message. This person was sent to you for a reason, she said. And she was right.

There was the older woman with no family who asked me to stay with her while her husband was dying in his hospital room. When the time was close, she climbed into bed with him and cried into his neck that they would have more adventures again someday, to wait for her and she’ll meet him there. Pam, a single mom who fought so hard because she didn’t want to leave her 8-year-old son parentless. She died in the ICU with the friend who would become her son’s new guardian by her side. Tim, the disabled young man whose mother had spent his entire life caring for him, and now wondered what she would do with herself. Barbara, the young woman who died after a lengthy ICU stay, leaving her young daughter to be raised by her addict husband, who disappeared with the child before the patient even passed away. Priscilla, who loved to color and affectionately called me “guera,” usually in a loud, enthusiastic voice from across the room.  Billy, mid-20s, whose transplant was successful in treating his cancer but who then contracted a rare brain infection. He was dying in the ICU while I made phone calls to family in the middle of the night because his parents were too distraught to speak. Ricky, the young man studying to be a veterinarian, whose large family tacked up positive statements and affirmations all over his room, and shook the foundations of my belief system when he died in spite of all the support and positivity that surrounded him. And the stories go on and on.

Sometimes I feel silly saying that I grieved for these people, because obviously their spouses, their children, their parents, their siblings, their families and close friends, truly felt and will always feel deep grief for each of these lives lost. Mine was a much smaller grief in comparison, but still real. As for boundaries, that is a whole other blog post. Healthy boundaries are essential, yes, and I am very conscious of and comfortable with mine. But I am a human being before I am a social worker. I will always be human first. 

Seven years. That is how long I have worked in oncology. Seven years of tiny changes to the landscape of my heart and soul that have ultimately shifted things around like a scene in a Picasso painting. My beliefs have been upended, shaken onto the floor and picked back up again selectively, carefully, some just left on the floor and eyed uncertainly. My confidence and competence have been challenged, reevaluated, and remodeled. My perspective, my outlook, is forever altered, mostly in positive ways, some not.

So why? Why am I still in this line of work, after all the deaths, the heartache, the intensity, the burnout, the exhaustion, the hopelessness, the emotional roller coaster of it all? Wouldn’t I like to do a nice, quiet job where there is no chance that anyone will walk into my office in crisis when I’m getting ready to leave for lunch, where I am not expected to sit with a stunned young mother who was just given a very poor prognosis and somehow come up with the right words to say? Where no one will die at my place of employment that day, after which I will return to my desk, head spinning, stomach sick, and try to focus on the needs of the next person?

Maybe the answer lies in a quote that I love, and keep at my desk. Persian poet Rumi said, The wound is where the light enters you. I now see that through all of these tiny wounds my soul has inhaled light: the light of each soul that allowed me to walk beside them through hell. The light of the beautiful parts of this life, that are seen so much more clearly after you’ve nearly drowned in the darkness. The light of human connection, that is somehow so much deeper when the person before you has had the word “cancer” blow down their house of cards, peeling back all layers of themselves and revealing the shaky, vulnerable core where we are all the same.

I realize the tone of this blog entry is much different from what I used to write. Maybe no one wants to read about this heavy subject matter, and that’s ok. But for me, this work has become a spiritual journey, and I feel I need to write about it. If not for anyone else, then for myself. I still have a lot to process after the changes of the past several years of my life completely destabilized my world and my sense of self, and the more I do this work, the more I find that the lessons and the truths that find their way to me through my patients are intertwining with my own personal journey, and helping it all make sense, somehow.

When people find out what I do, they generally say something to the effect of, “Wow, that must be so… [hard/depressing/sad/heartbreaking/frustrating/insert other negative emotion here].” The truth is, it can be all of those things, but that is not all it is, by a long shot. It is also enriching, uplifting, sometimes joyful. It is interesting, and challenging, and stretches my mind and my understanding and my abilities to new limits every day. It is hopeful, encouraging, inspiring. But there is no way to express all of this during a quick exchange, so I usually just shrug and say, “Well, it is intense.” And that is the truest statement of all. Good, bad or either extreme, it is intense. And then I add, “But I love it.” And I do, for the most part. To me, there is nothing more meaningful than channeling all the love and kindness and empathy I have and using it to alleviate the emotional suffering of another person, even for a moment, and seeing it happen, right before my eyes.

I wondered at one time whether I could stay in this line of work. Now, I can hardly imagine doing anything else. That may change some day, but for now, this is my meaning. I will take the wounds, the grief, the heartache, the turmoil, the intensity, because these wounds are where the light enters me. I become stronger. I become better. I learn. I change. I grow. As I connect with those who are dancing with the crab, I dance too, and then I can hear the music, and it is the sound of life, of love.

And it is so beautiful.

 

*All names have been changed.

 

Back in Black (hey, it’s slenderizing…)

February 3, 2012

Blogosphere, how I’ve missed you! Truly. Although I know that’s an empty sentiment seeing as I haven’t even had the cajones to stop by and say hello for…oh, over a year now, I think.

It’s like this: you know how when you don’t call someone in a long time, and you don’t know how to explain yourself and you feel like a heel, so a long time becomes a long, long time, and then you really don’t know what to say for yourself, and so you don’t talk to them for like, ever, and the more time that passes the harder it is to show your sheepish, unworthy face? Well, it’s like that. As a recluse and an introvert by nature, I have plenty of experience with that, so I’m sort of an authority on the topic. Any friends who have lasted this long (and a few who haven’t) can attest to that.

So, let’s get the awkward reunion over with, shall we? My book is still not done. My well-intentioned self-imposed deadlines slipped past one by one and I have nothing to say for myself except that since my last post I became pregnant, made an interstate move, started a new job, gave birth to the most gorgeous baby ever, and then left the new job in order to focus on being a mom to Avalon and, well, maybe finally, a writer. In all my spare time, that is. Well, no book was getting done with a full-time job in the home and out of it, that’s for sure. But, more importantly, my daughter needed me, so for now, that has to be enough. The book will get done…in time. These are all mostly excuses to cover my massive self-discipline fail. But at least they sound legit. And they are true. There’s that.

Ok, can we move on now and just assume that I’m forgiven?

Avalon and I went for a walk today in an open field near our house. Our wanderings led us to a parting in the trees where the road continued through, but when I reached the trees I was accosted by a spattering of unwelcoming signs: Keep Out! Private Property! In the fraction of a second before I took a sharp left onto another path (Oregonians like their firearms), I caught a glimpse of a run-down property with a dilapidated old school bus slumped in the yard. Of course, I thought. Dilapidated school bus. Private Property. Right.

When I was a safe distance away, it occurred to me that I’ve only ever seen run-down school buses on “Private Property! Keep Out!” types of lots, normally paired with a run-down trailer partially obscured by the trees and looking as if someone might step outside with a rifle at any moment. Unibomber-style housing. Right? That’s where old school buses go to die, apparently. It’s one of those things we don’t really see as strange simply because it’s so cliche, but when you stop to think about it, isn’t there an irony here that is worth a mention? I mean, what would a reclusive, antisocial, rifle-toting woodsman want with a run down school bus, or a working school bus, for that matter? It’s not like he’d be inclined to assemble a herd of friends and neighbors to take them on a joyride through town, or on a field trip. When would such a large horde amass at his “Private Property!” that the seating room in a regular sedan wouldn’t suffice?

I guess we’ll never know. Unless anyone wants to rock up at his house and ask.

I know this post has nothing to do with writing or even my life, but that’s what you’ve come to expect here, isn’t it? Tangential musings that really have nothing to do with…anything, really. Count your blessings, ok? I could be assailing you with tales of breastfeeding misadventures, baby weight that’s a little too loyal, and hormone shifts that would make our gun-toting, bus-driving woodsman look like a nun.

Maybe later, if you’re lucky. In the meantime, I have to figure out how to be who I am now, and still be who I was. Is there life after the new mom identity crisis (that I never hear anyone mention but surely has befallen others before me)? I guess I’ll find out. Getting back to my writing feels like the first logical step. Even if I have to lose precious sleep to do it.

Welcome back, me. I’ve missed you.

Making It Count

June 25, 2010

I haven’t been getting much done on the book this week. I’ve been much more inclined to nap on the couch or upload photos or watch something mindless when I get home from work. Hopefully soon I’ll find the energy and focus I need to forge on, because the novel is more than 75% done now. It’s the final push to the finish line, and I’m so tired. And I know the journey has barely even begun.

On Tuesday I sat with a woman who was just told she probably has less than 3 months to live. We talked for almost 2 hours as she processed the news and tried to work through her confusion, disbelief, and devastation. We talked about what she might want to do with her remaining time. We talked about how scary it is to face death with no sure answers as to what lies on the other side. We talked about the difference between “giving up,” and letting go of the need to battle on to the bitter end, compromising the quality of your last days. Somehow we are conditioned to think that letting go and accepting death is for cowards and quitters, or that we must continue to “fight” in order to spare our families the pain of loss. I have never faced a terminal illness myself, but the past 2 ½ years has taught me that there are worse things than death. Both for the dying person, and for the family who watches them go.

This conversation left me with a bittersweet kind of ache, a cocktail of gratitude and heartbreak and hope and humility. Gratitude for her willingness to share these thoughts with me, her deepest fears, her most intimate questions about life, death, and the spirit; sadness for her agony and for her young life ending; hope that that my presence and my words helped her, and that her last days are full of love and joy. But the humility I felt might better be described as a feeling of awe, like you’d feel in the presence of greatness. I was talking to someone who will soon pass through a door that only allows travel in one direction. A trip so many have taken but none have returned to describe to us. I was humbled, I guess, because this woman is about to have the knowledge that we all want, and can’t have. In that sense, (and at risk of sounding ‘religious’), doesn’t it almost seem that the ones who are given a pass through that door are somehow chosen to be let in on the secret before the rest of us?

This morning I wondered what I would do with my last days if I knew I only had a few weeks left. Would I take a whirlwind trip overseas, visit and meet my relatives in Iceland, tour some exotic land? Would I go to the beach, lounge in the sun and the sand, and reflect on life as I listened to the waves? Or would I stay put and spend the remainder of my time with my family and closest friends, throwing a huge get-together so I could see everyone one last time? And if I did, what would it be like to say goodbye to all my guests at the end of the night, knowing we’d never see each other again? How would I enjoy that time with all my heart and soul, setting aside the anguish of leaving the ones I love forever? Would I grieve so desperately that I couldn’t enjoy that precious time, and then feel guilty for not letting myself experience joy to the fullest?

The prospect is so overwhelming it makes me wonder whether I’d want that time, with so much joy but also so much agony, or if I’d just like to go suddenly, without having to anticipate leaving. It also makes me want to experience every day, every minute I have with the people I love, as an incredible gift, a finite experience that could end at any second. Even though living like that seems like the “best” way to live, sometimes I wonder if the tendency to take life for granted is a privilege in itself. Not that we should spurn what we have and crap all over the people who love us, but to me, living as if every moment is your last can be incredibly painful. Over and over I’ve seen patients who say that a cancer diagnosis allowed them to see life in a different way, to value every moment as so precious and temporary. I feel my role in their lives has granted me that “benefit” without the cost, like I’ve cheated somehow. I have learned the lessons without having to experience the tragedy. But seeing my life and my family as if they could be taken away at any second has also caused me a great deal of pain. When I say goodbye to someone I love, I can’t help but wonder if I’ll have to remember it as the last time I ever saw them. When Christian is later than usual coming home from work, I wonder if I’ll ever put my arms around him again. So the paradox is, the acute awareness of how precious everything is comes with the terrifying awareness that it could all be taken away, at any time. Who wants that hanging over their head every second? Isn’t that kind of intensity so emotionally exhausting that it would become unsustainable over time?

I suppose there are people who can “live each day like it’s your last” without feeling so much angst, particularly when they know they haven’t fully appreciated someone they love, or have a bad day and “waste” that time that will never come again. Obviously, living with this kind of guilt and fear and anxiety totally defeats the purpose of valuing every day. Maybe some people can experience one side of the coin without the other. Maybe my inability to do so is just a personal shortcoming that I’ll flog myself for later, if I’m ever faced with the same situation as my patient. I don’t know. I just wonder sometimes if maybe what we have to be thankful for are the moments when we are blindly involved in our lives without the focus on the finite, without the fear of loss, without seeing every beautiful thing as a mirage that might vanish at any second. And when a life ends, instead of kicking ourselves for not making every second precious, mightn’t we think how fortunate we were to blissfully enjoy our time with that person without so much fear? To thank the universe for the luxury of living as if life were endless, instead of kicking ourselves for not “making it count”? Doesn’t it count simply because we were there, and we lived it?

Sometimes I’m afraid that I’ll die before my book is finished, and not only will what I see as my life’s main purpose never be fulfilled, but the hours upon hours upon hours I worked on it will have been for nothing. A huge chunk of my life, “wasted,” because it wasn’t spent smelling the flowers and helping old ladies across the street and delighting in the company of my loved ones. But that’s the point. If I truly believed my days were numbered, I probably wouldn’t be writing a book at all, because I wouldn’t see the use in long-term projects that will never come to fruition, and I would never commit myself to anything. The human condition universally involves “taking for granted” the time and the precious things we have. Everyone does it to varying degrees, and some more than others, but no one can say they have perfected the art of appreciating every second. Because the alternative is too intense to be sustained for the long-term. And maybe that element of our humanness is not a fault, but a strange sort of gift. Maybe our cultural notions of what it means to “take life for granted” have demonized something that simply allows us to survive. Maybe the small glimpses of the terminable nature of life are all we’re meant to have.

In my head it’s all like a putty made from cornstarch and water, firm when you grasp it, then you look down and see it all seeping through your fingers. I know I’ll ever get my mind around all of this, life and death and what it all means in the context of our tiny, yet enormous, human lives. But maybe the bottom line is that beating ourselves up about this, that, or the other thing is the most colossal waste of time of all, and that we do the best we can, and we live, and we’re not perfect, and the time we spend with people we love, no matter how much we value it, or how much we “make it count,” will never seem like enough once they’re gone. And within our humanness, we are everything we were destined to be, and nothing less.

Piloerection and Other Sadistic Instincts

June 8, 2010

Sweet lord of thunder, is it hot out there. It’s one of those days when the scorching breath of the wind makes you wonder if you’ve wandered into the eye of a wildfire. When you feel your eyeballs sizzling in their sockets. When you get in your car, which has been sitting in the sun all day long, and actually get goosebumps, as if it’s a chilly winter’s eve.

Let me just say, the goose bump thing happens to me all the time, and I’ve never been able to figure it out. Why goose bumps when going from 110 degrees in the parking lot, to 130 degrees in the car? I considered the idea that maybe these spectacularly inhuman temperatures just gross me out to the point that they make my skin crawl, but I’d like to have a more physiological explanation. Maybe the heat is so intense my body thinks it’s misjudged the temperature, and overcorrects. Like when you accidentally drift into the wrong lane on the freeway and then swerve back through 3 lanes, killing five people. I can almost hear the five-alarm calamity happening in my skin cells.

“HOLY MOTHER OF…whoa, back it UP!  The mercury just went off the charts! That’s not a temperature that can sustain human life, this thing must be broken! How can we regulate this chick’s body temperature with a broken gauge?? And if it’s broken, how do we know it’s not freezing outside?? If this bitch dies on our watch, it’s our ass, you know what I’m saying? Better safe than sorry! Heave ho! Erect the pilorum hairs!”

If that sounds implausible to you, then fine. But since goose bumps are the body’s attempt at trapping in heat, there are only two conclusions to be drawn, neither of which I find reassuring. Either the cells still haven’t gotten the memo that humans are no longer covered in fur, in which case they’re complete imbeciles…or they’re trying to kill me. That’s right. My skin is trying to kill me. Death by piloerection. No murder weapon. No fingerprints. It’s like the perfect murder.

I’d like to think my skin cells aren’t sadistic minions of hell, but when it’s 200 degrees out and you’re dragging yourself across the desert with your scorched and bloodied elbows, you can’t afford to let your guard down.

So, violent killers, or consummate fools. That’s who’s in charge of my internal temperature regulating system. Either way, I’m not impressed.

Sometimes (like now) I wonder if I might be getting brain damage from countless years enduring this heat. A person can sustain brain damage if their body temperature exceeds 107 degrees, and yet every day, for five months straight, at least twice a day, I get in my car that has been sitting in the sun for 8 hours and has morphed into a tandoor oven. Who’s to say I won’t have a stroke from this? Or a cerebral hemorrhage?? You know that old anti-drug commercial we all know and love: this is your brain on drugs *egg sizzling in frying pan*  How about, this is your brain…in Tucson? I know it’s not as catchy, but it’s a point worth making.

Alright, know-it-alls, I know the skin produces sweat to (SUPPOSEDLY) cool you down and keep you from overheating, etc. But we’ve already examined the possible pathologies at work here. And you know what, if I can’t trust my skin cells to know the difference between a blizzard and an inferno, or to be malicious enough to confuse them ON PURPOSE, I’m a little apprehensive about my life being in their hands. And I think that’s fair.

Ok, ok! I’m writing, I’m writing!!

In my own defense, I would like to point out that this is actually highly relevant to the novel, and I’ll tell you why. Because the chapter I’m writing at the moment takes place in Phoenix. So, I can share the main character’s experience (and abhorrence) of the heat with a fine-tuned kind of passion. And when I’m dragging myself around on those bloodied elbows, I can pretend I’m her, experiencing this unique kind of hell for the first time. I have to admit I’m getting a sick sort of satisfaction tormenting her with it. Making HER get into a car that broils her pancreas in .3 seconds. Making HER wear oven mitts so she doesn’t have to drive with the tips of her fingernails digging little crescents into the vinyl of the steering wheel. Making HER feel like she’s walking through lava when she goes to get the mail.

Maybe I don’t want to be alone in my misery. Maybe I want to shout my abhorrence of the Arizona summers to the world. Or maybe that kind of sadism just runs in my…uh…cells.

Then there’s the brain damage theory. Cerebral Heat Necrosis, a phenomenon in which the cerebral matter melts, then hardens into charred, deadened tissue. If I ever do anything crazy, you can be sure I’ll be using it as my defense. I wonder if it also works as an excuse for not finishing a novel by its deadline.

Alright, I’m going! Jeeeez…

Saving the World, Latex-Style *snap!*

May 29, 2010

It’s an ordinary night at Border’s café: I’m writing furiously, listening to good-natured chatter, and sipping a chamomile tea. As my eyes wander absentmindedly over the usual cast of characters – the book club ladies; the potential mafia guys who play cards, gesticulate wildly and bellow at each other in Italian; the business man who is irritated because he can’t get the internet to work and takes it out on the barista (I briefly consider offering a hand, then decide against it); and the café employees themselves, an interesting crowd which includes one cheerful, flamboyant character who is distractingly entertaining – my eyes fall upon a new addition. A stranger to these parts.  *saloon doors burst open* sound effects

He’s a rather unkempt and unshaven young man with red-rimmed eyes, blinking guardedly behind decidedly unfashionable lenses that magnify his eyes in a most alarming fashion. His hair is thick: a black, matted carpet. It’s oddly fuller in the front, as if he leaned forward too long at some point and gravity started to notice. It’s also quite wily in the back, one would imagine from sleeping on it and then neglecting to brush it before venturing out in public. His tight, black, skinny jeans are about 3 inches too short and with zippers filleted open along the bottoms. But here’s the clincher: he’s hunched over his laptop, typing furtively with… mismatched latex gloves. Yes, on his hands. One white and one green, and one longer than the other, just so you can get the visual. And they don’t look fresh out of the box, if you know what I mean.

Every once in a while, he steals a glance at me. I’m not sure if it’s because my eyes are burning through his pasty skin (although I am quite stealth, I must say), or because he’s involved in something…untoward, and wonders if I might be watching. To further compound the riddle, every once in a while, he accesses a small, tattered canvas pouch, usually glancing around surreptitiously before opening it. His appearance wouldn’t have been nearly as strange had he been holding a scalpel rather than a pouch, and hunched over a cadaver on a silver table rather than a laptop. But that clearly was not the case.

Considering my vivid imagination, I have surprisingly few theories as to why one might snap on mismatched (or even matching) latex gloves to use one’s own computer, in public, while sipping a beverage. The first…and only, actually, is that perhaps an unscrupulous roommate borrowed said computer to engage in activities that left it unsuitable for bare-handed use thereafter. In which case, one might simply have the thing steam-cleaned, or maybe invest in a new one.

I am usually quite imaginative when it comes to these things, but damned if I couldn’t come up with any further theories. Either my creativity was lulled to sleep by the chamomile tea, or I was simply too stupefied to think of anything.

My speculation could have ventured into infinitely more interesting realms had he been using a public computer (in which case I might have summoned security), but alas, it was his own. Too bad. It would have been so much more exciting otherwise. You fail me, mismatched latex glove man.

Actually, doesn’t that sound like kind of an intriguing name? Like, if you announce it a deep voice, as if you’re…well, announcing something. And maybe flexing your muscles at the same time. It’s sort of superhero-esque, in a freaky…disturbing sort of way. But even creepy fellows in latex need a champion, right? So maybe it was some sort of superhero…incognito type… persona…thing. But…I have no idea how. Or why. So maybe not.

Anyway, he eventually got up, closed his computer, and with a final sullen glance in my direction, skulked away. To the bathroom. Where he remained for quite some time before emerging, laptop still in hand, gloves still intact. He disappeared amongst the shelves, and I can only hope no one was molested or otherwise violated amidst the new releases.

I bring this up because…well, actually I have no point whatsoever. But it was bizarre, and I thought you all should know this guy is on the loose.

Also, it was a good excuse to stall.

In the spirit of stalling, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Borders Café on Oracle for its hospitality on many a night when my laptop and I inhabit a table for several hours, usually compensating them nothing more than a miserly $1.50 for a cup of tea. I am a most unprofitable tenant. However, they can expect an honorable mention in the credits section of my book, which, if you’ve read my previous blog (Picoult Prowess), you know will be quite robust. Perhaps one day, as a result, the Border’s café will be rewarded by rising to the status of the Caffe Trieste in San Francisco, where thousands of Kerouac fans flock each month to sip (admittedly quite good) espresso at maybe the same table Jack did! Well, to save all of you the speculation, my favorite table is the one at the farthest end from the door, near the calendars. And if there’s a strange, out-of-place sort of character in close proximity to that table, you’ve probably got the right one, because somehow, they always sit near me.

I promised Christian I would do some actual writing today and not just pitter away on my blog. Anyone know any tricks for getting oneself motivated?

Wait, here’s another theory! Do you think the latex gloves somehow trap all the creative energy in your fingertips so it doesn’t seep out and escape, thereby keeping you inspired and productive? Maybe he’s onto something. Those things are pretty impenetrable. They don’t let anything in or out, not even air. I can vouch for that, having had many a sweltering conversation in a patient’s room wearing latex gloves and a yellow gown, making chipper small talk while listening to the faint sizzling of my internal organs. And creativity probably does reside in the fingertips. Do you think it’s a coincidence that painters and writers and musicians and sculptors all extrude genius through their hands?  Mmmhmm. Coincidence, indeed.

Maybe he is a superhero after all! I nominate mismatched latex glove man as the patron saint of writers and artists everywhere.

(For the record, I do realize patron saints and superheroes aren’t exactly the same, but you can’t really nominate someone as a superhero. Unless there’s some kind of superhero Vatican I’m not aware of.  To be quite frank, I don’t really know how to nominate a saint, either, but anyway…)

I think I have a purple latex glove (yes, one) under the kitchen sink, along with a tall yellow rubber dishwashing glove. I probably have two of those, but that just wouldn’t do, as we know. It’s not latex though, so it might not qualify as an acceptable creativity-trapping substitute. If only mismatched latex glove man were here to advise me.

Allllright. Now that I’ve sufficiently wasted a fat block of time (mine and your own) with nonsense, back to business.

*snap!*

(can’t hurt to try.)

Burning the Golden Scroll

May 27, 2010

Disclaimer: this blog relates to the writing process and may induce a coma-like state for non-writers. The author is hereby released from liability for any direct, indirect, real, imaginary, physical, mental or emotional damage incurred as a result.

“I never found in books any formula for writing poetry and I, in turn do not intend to leave in print a word of advice, a method, or a style that will allow young poets to receive from me some supposed wisdom.”  -Pablo Neruda

I love this quote. I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve heard something about “how to write” that either conflicted with the way I do things, or just downright pissed me off. How can you tell someone how to paint? How can you tell someone how to see? Likewise, how can you tell someone to write? It’s art. It comes from the most innermost soul of a person. There’s no way to create a formula for that and still allow the person to speak from the most genuine part of themselves. This is probably why I’ve never taken a writing class, and being in the “how to write” section of the bookstore makes my stomach literally twist and gnaw on itself in anxious dread.

[I do, however, have a couple of books I’ve found helpful, including “Creating Characters Kids Will Love,” and “The Constant Art of Being a Writer,” and maybe a couple others, but for the most part, I don’t like to be told what to do.]

So, let’s play a fun game: Fact/Myth for writers.

Myth “No one’s first novel is publishable.”

I’m sure I don’t have to make a list here of all the people who did indeed publish the first novel they ever wrote. And it’s a good thing I don’t have to, because I have no idea.  But! I am certain that people HAVE done it. When I read this statement, years ago, made by a writer who writes “how to” books for writers but has never really gotten her own writing career off the ground, I was embarrassed. Embarrassed at her efforts to assuage her feelings of inadequacy from her failure to publish HER first novel. I’m sure many first novels deservedly languish away on shelves or computer files, never to see the light of day, as may my own. But making a global statement like this is like saying people will proceed through the stages of grief in appropriate order after a loss, then find inner peace after one year. I’m sorry, but life doesn’t play by our rules.

Not to mention, these are the words of a giver-upper!  It is said that J.K. Rowling (now richer than the Queen of England) was rejected 12 times before finally having Harry Potter accepted by a publisher. (Nanny nanny boo boo to all those other guys who missed out on a goldmine.) How many great books out there are abandoned after the 11th rejection, when the next one would have been it? Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” (or one of his other literary legends) was rejected so vehemently that one editor who sent back the manuscript said something like “this is worthless drivel, and I hate to break it to you, but no one will ever publish this.” Moron. Bet he feels like an ass.

Maybe you fail. But you have to give it a damn good try, and not just be like, *Neanderthal voice* “oh well,  so-and-so said the first one isn’t publishable anyway,” or, “so-and-so said it’s worthless drivel.” Stand tall! You have to love your craft more than you love your pride.
Myth: A novel should go thru at least 8 drafts before it is considered “done.”

Open mouth, insert finger. This tip was delivered by an agent at a conference I was attending, and when I heard it, I was confused (and dismayed at my confusion, because surely she knows something I don’t). The fact was, I had no idea what she meant by “drafts.” I soon came to realize that my writing process is different than many other writers’.  Most (apparently) write in a linear fashion, start to finish, without doing much editing of previous chapters along the way (the result being the first “draft”). Over and over I’ve been told this is the “right” way to do it. And I tried, for a brief time believing I was somehow doing it wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Writing should be done linearly, and edits are to be reserved for after the whole thing is finished. So, I tried; but alas, I was miserable. I was a feather boa in a biker bar. I just didn’t fit in there. I finally realized that the simple fact is, my process is circular. It moves forward, but in a very circular way. A literary slinky, so to speak. I can’t, and never could, write beginning to end, leaving well enough alone until I finish, at which point I can go back and “polish” everything precisely eight times. I am compelled by the very forces of nature to comb through previous chapters an infinite number of times to change, add, subtract or rewrite (a section, a line, or the entire thing), depending in how the story is evolving as I go forward. I have to move as the inspiration strikes, writing the scenes that are most prominent in my mind for whatever reason at any given time . If a character suddenly opens up about something that happens at the end, while I’m only halfway through, am I going to be like, Ch! Chhhh! Zip! Don’t bother me with that right now, I’m writing the correct and linear way! No, I will take it as it comes; it’s the character’s story after all, not mine. As a result, I already have a few chapters written that will be at the end of the book, and I will plug them in when I get to that point in the story. Of course they will change like all the others based on what new stuff developed along the way, but the framework is there. And countless times I go back to these chapters (or even just swatches) and I’m surprised at how good they are. Not in a sense of, Holy Moses, I’m headed for the Pulitzer Prize, but in the sense of how I captured the spirit of the scene exactly as I intended. Had I written that scene in the “correct” order, it wouldn’t be as good, because I wouldn’t have been tapped into that muse.

It’s the same with previous chapters. If I’m writing chapter 10 and I have an epiphany about chapter 4, I’m going to go back and work on it before the inspiration passes. There are times when I can just write myself a note, ‘go back and change/add such and such,’ but I know the difference. I must say, I have a wonderful writer friend who is good about reminding me, when my circular style forms a cyclone and starts whipping me around in an unproductive frenzy, that sometimes I just have to move on and get the gears cranking again to release myself from the cycle. Then I get back to a steady hum and I can continue with whatever is flowing.

So, when an editor/agent asks me how many “drafts” I went through before submitting, I might just vomit on her feet. How many drafts? Depends on the chapter? Some 10, some 200? Is changing one word considered another draft? Pfft! Draft this!

The point is to honor the process. There’s no right, or wrong, or better, or worse. Get there however you get there. Just show up.

In social work we have a saying, start where the client is. I think that goes for writing, too. I start where the muse, the character is, and follow that thread to wherever it leads. I trust the wisdom of the muse, and it is usually right. I start writing at whatever part in the story that is speaking at the moment. It’s a good way to get out of writers block, too, because you’re not forcing a scene that’s not yet ready for its big debut.

Speaking of which, I did receive an invaluable piece of advice at the same conference from Andrea Brown, the owner of a literary agency. She said there’s no such thing as writers block. If you’re blocked, you’re writing the wrong thing. This was a revolutionary idea, to me. What do you mean, no writer’s block? Malarkey! I’ve been blocked so hard I needed ex-lax. Then my chest puffed up and I was indignant, thinking she was proposing a change in genre, or tossing out the whole book. But, when I let myself take in the message and applied the principle on a smaller scale, I realized she was spot on. It has gotten me out of a jam so many times when I’m getting my chonies all in a wad because a scene is just not flowing and I’m fighting it every step of the way. If I open myself to the possibility that maybe this scene doesn’t happen here, or this way, or at all, then I can let it go, and hit it from a different angle. If it’s not coming naturally, I’m trying too hard to make it fit. Of course there are days when nothing is flowing, in which case it’s usually time for a break. Which leads me to my next annoying myth…

Myth: “A writer is someone who wrote today.”

Whoever wrote these vile, cursed words can burn in the depths of hell for causing me years of pain and suffering and inner torment. These words have haunted me since I read them years ago, when I was young and tender and impressionable (not cynical and bitter and belligerent, like now). So many times over the years I lamented, Oh god! I didn’t write today! In fact, I haven’t written in days, or weeks, or maybe even a year! I’m not a real writer! And then I’m left to grieve my shattered identity and lost dreams.

Well. A wise friend once told me, as I gazed (or sulked) over the Badlands in South Dakota bemoaning my recent lack of productivity, that just like anything else, the creative process is a balance, a system of input and output. When you’re not writing, you’re soaking up life. How else will you have anything inside you to spit back out? This was a wise tidbit indeed (thanks, Matt). Life truly is the First Draft.

This doesn’t mean I don’t regularly kick myself in the backside, feeling like a total slouch for not writing (and sometimes it’s warranted). And I definitely recognize the value of discipline (working on it). But too many times it’s happened that I’m stuck, stuck like a sonofab&%$* at some part in the story, and I simply cannot resolve the dilemma that has arisen. Then, if I get distracted from the story for whatever reason (sometimes despite my stubbornness at wanting to stay in the ring and fight), when I come back days/weeks/months later, it’s clear as day. Why didn’t you think of that before, you cretin? It’s so obvious! Well, apparently it had to bake a while in my bulheaded brain before it was ready to be served. And if I’d just accepted that from the get go, I could have saved several patches of hair and a number of personal items, broken against the wall in blind, unadulterated fury.

Myth: “Write only what you know.”

Alrighty then. Every book I write will be about cancer patients, bone marrow transplants, and cats. Oh, and sometimes I’ll write about air travel phobia, and cooking with quinoa. Thanks for the tip!

I know it wasn’t meant in such literal terms, but it’s so annoying I can’t help but wax sarcastic about it. The way I see it is that every story, at its core, is just human emotions and dilemmas. They are universal themes, repeated over and over and over, in different scenarios. So no matter what kind of situation you’re working with, you — presumably a human who lives in the world — have the basic building blocks to develop it. Of course, if my character is a prostitute, I’ll want to talk with some prostitutes to get a sense of what life is like for them, and how it all works (aside from the obvious), but I am already human, and that’s the important part. The rest is details.

I would be careful with this in certain contexts. For example, I wouldn’t be comfortable writing from the perspective of an individual from a culture that is very different from my own, because while the emotions may be the same, the way of thinking and seeing the world is probably not, and I wouldn’t be able to capture this these nuances the way someone from that culture could. I can learn the basics about a culture, but unless I’m immersed in it, living within it, I won’t be able to become it, and to assume I could would be arrogant and probably somewhat insulting.

Now, I say that with a hint of hypocrisy, because my first story ever published, in Cricket Magazine for Kids, was a story written from the perspective of a young girl who has immigrated to the U.S. from India. It helped that I’m very familiar with Indian culture due to my family background, but I still don’t know what it’s like to be Indian and move to a foreign country and try to integrate into a different culture. But, what I could do was tap into the basic emotions of not belonging, feeling lonely, grieving a previous life as you adapt to change, grappling with where you fit in an overwhelming world. I was told that an Indian friend of my step-dad’s said he was very touched by the story because it captured exactly how he’d felt when he immigrated, and that was the greatest compliment I ever could have received. Had I stuck with what I “knew,” that story never would have been written.

Oh, give the guy the benefit of the doubt, you say. Maybe that’s what he meant all along. Well, if he meant “what you know” to be the human condition, knowledge that is therefore applicable and relevant to pretty much every situation on Earth, then he wouldn’t have had to say anything at all. His quote would simply have read: “Write.” Which is actually more helpful that the original.

Let me say that there is some incredibly valuable, inspirational advice out there. What I find most useful is advice that inspires, nudges you along, and seeks to expand your possibilities rather than limiting them. I’m not so superior as to think I’m above advice, and that successful writers don’t have something to offer. But the greatest advice-givers know what is essential and allows you to develop what is already inside you, and what is just… micromanagement.

W. Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

It’s a good thing no one knows the rules, because I wouldn’t want to know them anyway.

Oh, but many think they know. Like in religion, some believe they hold the golden scroll of truth and want to pass it on to everyone else, even if they have to crumple it up and shove it in people’s mouths. To the supposed truth-holders, I say, take your golden scroll and make use of it in your own orifices.

Thank you for playing!

In Pursuit of the Picoult Prowess and a Decent Scone

May 26, 2010

One thing I’ve wrangled with over the years, and even more so now, is the term “writer.” Everyone’s a writer nowadays, hammering away on a laptop at some beat-writer coffee shop with a cinnamon-dusted cappuccino and a scone, looking oh-so intellectual and unconventional and brooding, because you know, we writers, we’re pretty intense and angst-ridden.  Then there’s the day job wannabe, leaning casually on the microwave, dropping off-hand remarks about being a “writer” and telling everyone in the break room that when he gets his novel published, he’ll leave this crappy joint and all the rest of you behind along with it. (It’s one thing to have these conversations in your head; quite another to brag about it over a frozen Lean Cuisine). Then there’s – oh god – the faux-published writer. This is the stole that looked like mink but turned out to be polyester. Snob alert! If you are ultra-sensitive to snobbery, please turn back now.

“I’m a published author. My book comes out in two months.”

“Wow, that’s awesome! What’s it about?”

“Oh, it’s a 300,000-word tome about drag queens on Mars.”

“Mmmhm. Okay, well, I’ll look for that on the shelves.”

“Well, it won’t exactly be sold at bookstores, I’m publishing it myself. I’ll only have a few copies.”

“Ohhh, you paid to have it published.”

“My family says it’s the next great American novel. Could you pass the cinnamon?”

I don’t mean to imply that self-published writers can’t become successful, it just doesn’t happen often. I heard a story about someone who couldn’t get his book accepted anywhere, so he printed up like 10,000 copies himself and sold them out of the back of a van. Once it was out there, people loved it and he became big and famous and lived happily ever after. It’s too bad I can’t actually tell you the story because I don’t remember who it was or what book it was or actually anything else. But it was impressive, I assure you.

Like I said, maybe I’m a snob. I just think people throw the title around way too loosely. I knew someone in school who casually wrote pretty bad poetry, in rhyme, no less (which usually turns me off from the get go, unless it’s done extremely well, but believe me, this wasn’t). It was the typical stuff about some girl’s shining eyes or flowing hair or lips like a rose, or whatever. Very cliché, you know the type. Don’t get me wrong, everyone has a right to write their own poetry, regardless of the quality, because it’s the internal process of writing it that counts. But one day he called himself a poet, and I cringed so hard it felt like my insides physically recoiled.

I guess I just don’t like to look like a poser. I know I’m a writer, I feel like a writer, I just don’t feel like I’ve truly earned the right to shout it from the rafters until I’ve done something tangible, like publishing a novel (with an actual publishing house). Magazine stories don’t count. Well, they do, but with that, I’m a writer for a month or two after it comes out, then I just feel pathetic clinging onto the title, like a washed-up child star. Like, what have you done lately, loser?

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is because my neurosis about telling people I’m a writer is creating a significant obstacle in my novel. I can’t call myself a writer until I’ve published a novel, but I can’t publish the novel because I’m too shy to call myself a writer and get information that would allow me to finish the novel. Makes so much sense, don’t you think?

Here’s an example. A year or so ago I had a question about genealogy, because at one point my character goes to the public library to see if she can find information about her family. I actually went to the library, played around on the computers, looked longingly over at the librarians, stalled around the young adult section, skimmed distractedly over a few books, gazed over at the librarians again, and then left. Then I got in my car and cried. I could not bring myself to be like, “Hi, I’m a writer, can you tell me what the options would be if my character wanted to research genealogy at a library?” It sounds like a simple enough endeavor, but somehow for me, it was an impossible hurdle.

Seriously, though. Once you stop throwing tomatoes at me because of how much I suck, you might understand where this could be a problem. I was working on a scene where a dead body is found washed up on the rocks near a beach. I wanted the body to be so decomposed that it was unidentifiable as to gender. I needed to know how long it would take for a body in the ocean to decompose to that degree, because I had to make sure the finding of the body jibed with the time the death occurred. I’m very picky about details like this because I hate when I read a book and notice something incongruent. I have a conversation with the writer in my head that goes something like this: “Wait a minute, what the…Oh, girrrrl, no you di’nt. It would SO not happen like that. How do you expect me to have any faith in your credibility after this? How can I suspend my disbelief that your characters are REAL and not just a figment of your imagination??? The trust is irrevocably broken between us. No, I don’t want to hear excuses! Our relationship can never be like it was before. Ever!”

Just so you know, I take my book reading very seriously.

Anyway, my point is, can you imagine me calling the police station with this question?

“Good afternoon, Homicide Detective Fastcuff. I’m a WRITER, and I’m writing a NOVEL…no, you’ve never heard of me, I’m actually just getting started…anyway, I was wondering, how long after a dead body was thrown in the ocean would it decompose to the point that no one could identify it?”

Most likely the first thing I’d hear on the other end was the snapping of his fingers, summoning the other officers to start tracing the call.

If only I were Jodi Picoult, the amazing Jodi Picoult. Then I wouldn’t have this problem. She has so many credits at the beginnings of her books, an endless number of people who have granted her a backstage pass to whatever profession (or lifestyle) they happen to be a part of.

“Thanks to Dr. So-and-So, who was gracious enough to let me deliver several of her patients’ children…thanks to Medical Examiner So-and-So, for allowing me the honor of helping remove the organs during that person’s autopsy…thanks to the Zulu tribe of Toga Toga for granting me access to the sacred and never-before opened tomb of their ancestors…”

That’s not a real excerpt, but believe me, it’s close.

I’m convinced this woman could call anyone on earth and they would know who she is and twist themselves into a knot trying to help her out.

“Hello, Pope Benedict speaking…why yes, Mrs. Picoult! How can I help you, my child…you’d like to borrow the papal robes? Why, of course! I’ll have them dry cleaned for you this afternoon…”

But the thing is, Jodi Picoult was not always Jodi Picoult. Well I mean, she was, except if maybe she had a maiden name, but you know what I mean. She wasn’t always a famous writer and she had to start somewhere, so how did she do it? How did she have the credibility (and the guts!) to ask these kinds of questions and seek out these kinds of sources without them shooing her away like a mangy, flea-bitten dog? Or worse, sending the CIA to her door?

All I can say is, thank god I’m not writing about terrorists, air travel, and explosive devices. (Hi, is this Homeland Security? I’m a writer and I’m wondering where someone might conceal an explosive so that it wouldn’t be detected by security at LAX….)

As I pondered all of this the other day, Christian piped up. “I know, why don’t you write Jodi Picoult and ask her how she did it?”

I shot him a wry look. “Have you not heard a WORD I’ve said here…”

Well, I didn’t really say that, but it sounds better than admitting I covered my face and shook my head wildly, wailing “Noooo, I can’t!!”

I realize this kind of incapacitating social anxiety is a serious shortcoming for an aspiring novelist, so please resist the urge to tsk and wag your finger at me. I know that if I’m paralyzed by the thought of doing research, I’m never going to be able to self-promote, which is a necessary part of the business. And if I can’t self-promote, I’ll never lay claim to that title I’ve coveted my entire life.

Oh god! It’s all over for me!

Ahem.

I know, I know. I’ll need to overcome this at some point, I’m just not sure how. I think the very nature of being a writer predisposes one to being somewhat introverted, which is usually a precursor to being painfully shy, and yet, many have managed to get themselves out there. So, there’s still hope. Maybe one day I’ll find within me the guts and prowess of Jodi Picoult.

In the meantime, back to the eight-year alien and the decomposing body. Hey, at least it’s not a decomposing alien body. Because that would be gross. And weird. And then I might have to consider self-publishing, after all.

Now, if I can just get a cappuccino and a decent scone…

Alien Gestation and the 8-Year Itch

May 25, 2010

August 3, 2010. My 36th birthday. That is the deadline I have set for myself to finish this novel. And since I’m home from work, staring at the wall, for reasons out of my control, I might as well make myself useful.

In the folder on my computer for the book, I have numerous document files containing various scraps: whole chapters, partial chapters, outlines, brainstorming, character profiles, etc. I opened one the other day that I knew was created around the time the story was first conceived, and checked the date. It was created in 2002. Yes, that’s right. I have been working on this godforsaken novel for over EIGHT YEARS.

In my defense (and to assure you I’m not writing a novel with 200,000 pages), I have only worked on the book sporadically throughout those eight years. I’m sure that’s no big surprise, given the procrastinating and excuse-making I’ve demonstrated in only a handful of blog entries.

But, here’s the irony: I recently came to the conclusion that in not writing, I actually did the story (and myself) a favor. The book I’m writing today bears very little resemblance to the one I started writing all those years ago, and thank god. Back then, I was writing fairly decent short stories suitable for magazines, but I wasn’t ready to take any risks when it came to a novel. I didn’t realize it, but I was too concerned with the beautiful rhythm of the words to focus on creating realistic, complex characters. How sad and deluded I was, lured by the siren call of beautiful words. And oh, I babied that novel as if it were a delicate flower under a glass case. No one said any swear words in my book, because I didn’t want to pollute my lily-white prose with vulgarities. I didn’t want any of that silly love stuff, either. I wanted to keep it pure and timeless, so I also avoided things that would tie the book to a particular era, like slang (or cell phones).

That’s right; I thought I was going to write a novel for teenagers using the Queen’s English, no modern technology, and no romance.  (pause for heckling and hoots of laughter)

Fortunately, that didn’t last long before I wised up and started actually writing.

This is not to say that rhythm and metaphor aren’t important. They are. But they are the trellis, not the vine. I still think it’s important to use language very intentionally. And, there is something to be said for not anchoring your story so heavily in a certain era that after 10 years it’s the literary equivalent of plaid polyester bellbottoms and no one can relate to it anymore. But, the story…the characters…they have to be real. It’s a balance.

So, the point is, while I busied myself with my lacy metaphors, what I was really cranking out was a G-rated yawner full of lovely prose, suitable for a third grade audience but not even interesting enough for one. (Ok, I’m being a bit dramatic; it wasn’t that bad. It was just…undercooked.)

It’s tempting to ruminate and flog myself for the time I’ve wasted and how long it’s taking me to finish, but I’ve come to the realization that time and life experience were important players in the evolution of this story. As I walked (ok, stumbled) through various stages of my life, the story was there — on a shelf, yes (and at one point lost) — but aging like a fine Gouda. And the interesting thing is, when I returned to the book after a few years, what I found surprised me: the characters had aged right along with me, like fruit ripening on a vine.

To explain what I mean I may have to get a little “crazy artist” on you. Maybe some fellow writers out there can back me up. Tell me, do your characters sort of…talk to you?

Wait, don’t go. I can explain! The voices don’t tell me to skin people and eat their organs or anything. And I am appropriately medicated, I assure you.

Come on, I know other writers must have had this experience, so fess up. I’m not some prodigy with a rare gift, channeling my masterpieces from beyond. But they talk, they do!  My main character chatters in my head, and sometimes I have to hurry and write down the words she says so I don’t forget exactly how she phrased them. I hear them having conversations with each other, and if I listen in quietly without reaching in with my big, clumsy hands and trying to push them around, the conversations evolve on their own and take the story places I hadn’t imagined it would go. It’s a magical process, really. But that’s not to say it isn’t a lot of work.

Really, it’s like giving birth. It’s like having something large and cumbersome stuck inside you, and you have to figure out how to get it out without it ripping your intestines open. Sometimes I can’t picture what my characters are doing at a particular time, or how they got from one point to another, or what they said to each other in an important conversation. I run into dilemmas all the time where my two most perfect chapters ever…don’t make any sense together, or I absolutely cannot figure out how to resolve a particular conflict that has come up. It is like having an alien inside my body. I literally pace and squirm and feel like ripping my skin off until I figure it out. If you’ve ever been around someone who has an alien inside their body, you can attest: it’s not pretty. For them, or for you. That poor, tormented soul is likely to sprout fangs and tear a hunk of flesh out of your leg if you get too close or say the wrong thing. Whoever said blood, sweat and tears wasn’t kidding: this writing thing? It’s agony at times. So, it’s not that I’m not in control. It’s not that I’m channeling. But I am…listening. That’s the only way I know how to explain it.

Now, remind me where I was going with that? Oh, right. Characters ripening on a vine. So, over time, the voices I heard in my head seemed to mature. While they sounded around 12 or 13 in the beginning, when I returned to the story after a couple of years, I noticed they sounded around 14 or 15. It wasn’t until the writer’s conference last year in Monterey that I had an epiphany: my characters were 12-13 when they started talking…but the subject matter of my story has always been closer to 16-17. It was a young adult (YA) novel at heart, stubbornly parading around as a midgrade novel like a child refusing to give up diapers. Yes, my story had an identity crisis. My characters simply didn’t fit in those shoes I was creating for them; the shoes were too big. So, the incongruity between the characters and the subject matter left the story always feeling somewhat ‘off.’ It wasn’t until the voices in my head matured to the proper age last year that the story really began to click, and fit into its YA shoes.

The interesting thing was, as the story progressed, I realized that in the beginning I wouldn’t have had the ‘tools’ to fully explore all the areas I wanted to cover with the life experience I had at that time. I wasn’t the wise, wrinkled sage (read: bitter, jaded hag) I am now. So, the Hallmark message is, I had to live and grow, and so did the characters, in order for the story to ripen properly. A gestation time, so to speak. You can have all the proper genes and chromosomes to make a baby, but without that nine months, no dice. I’ve finally accepted that time is just as active a component of the story as everything else. It’s the invisible character, but just as important as all the others. Without time, there’d be no cheese, and no wine, and no babies…and no novels.

On a more alarming note, my character evolution theory may also mean that if I don’t finish this damn thing soon, it could end up as an audio book for seniors. Fingers crossed that fictional characters aren’t bound to the same rules of physics and biology as the rest of us.

So, after yet another dry spell, I’m finally back at it. Which is helping my state of mind a bit, because to be honest I’ve been a bit discouraged. I just finished saying that time is an important factor, but when dinner is sitting in the fridge marinating for eight years, you start to get a little hungry, if you know what I mean. The great chasm between where I am now and where I want to be has been yawning derisively before me, as if bored with my prolific lack of progress. And it has very bad breath, I must say.

There are countless writers out there who’ve struggled with the same thing, I’m sure: trying to balance the real world and all its obligations with the inside-your-head world, and somehow make it all work in the end. I mean, published authors weren’t always published authors, and they had to eat. But this last bit, trying to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground while periodically drifting in and out of the fantasy world, that’s the hard part for me. When I’m in the story, I’m in it. Adios! I’ve disappeared into the wardrobe. I don’t see anyone, hear anything, or participate in the outer realm unless survival necessitates it. I will sit here until my stomach is devouring itself from starvation before I grudgingly get up and find something I can drag back to the couch and gnaw on with one hand as I type with the other. (I retract my previous statement suggesting I might need the services of Richard Simmons by the time the book is written; it may be more likely that one will find my emaciated frame fossilized on the couch, still clutching my laptop.) I will take a shower, particularly for the comfort of those around me, but I resent the chunk it takes out of my writing time. I also sleep very little at times, because my mind buzzes and whirls crazily like I’ve had too much caffeine. Which of course I haven’t, because that would require going to the kitchen and preparing a beverage.

I think the word we’re looking for here is “obsessive.” But regardless, that’s how it works for me. Or doesn’t work, I should say. So, I can’t help but wonder how they all did it, and whether I’ll be able to in the end, as well.

Anyway, my deadline looms; the time has come to induce labor. Enough of the gestation already! None of us are getting any younger around here.

a heartfelt dedication…

March 27, 2010

I haven’t written in a while, for various reasons which I will discuss forthwith (or when I get around to it). But in the meantime, something I heard on the radio this morning moved me so deeply I was inspired to write a dedication to my favorite succubus, in honor of her resignation. Without further ado, I offer this farewell song:

“Sometimes we get angry, but we must not condemn
Let the good Lord do His job and you just pray for them…
I pray your brakes go out runnin’ down a hill
I pray a flowerpot falls from a window sill and knocks you in the head like I’d like to
I pray your birthday comes and nobody calls
I pray you’re flyin’ high when your engine stalls
I pray all your dreams never come true
Just know where ever you are honey, I pray for you…”

I’m not normally a very prayerful person, but I must say, these words really resonate with me. Congratulations to Sucky for inspiring malice and homicidal ideation in an otherwise completely nonviolent, peace-loving, bleeding heart pacifist. She truly has the magic touch.

Don’t worry, everyone. Christian has hidden all sharp objects and my outings in society are closely monitored. I assure you, the threat to public safety is minimal.

Alright, alright, I don’t wish her DEAD, if you have to get all technical about it. I just wish her FAR, FAR AWAY. Since her vile wings will be carrying her off to the east coast, it appears my prayers have already been answered and there is no need for violent country song lyrics. Still, I found them touching.

Happy trails, Empress…may the intense misery you have inflicted upon so many others come back to bite you in the ass, nice and hard!