The sins of the fathers…

I think this is normal: I worry for my children.

I worry for the middle one, sixteen and practical who covers her tenderness in a hard shell and drives herself, flagging, toward perfection. May she learn balance.

I worry for the youngest one, fourteen and angry and artistic and beautiful. May she learn to be gentle with herself.

I worry for the eldest one, almost twenty and struggling “to adult” with her kind heart exposed to the world. May she learn to protect and love herself.

I suppose I worry for myself, too, almost forty-five and wanting to clutch the children to me and pin their wings in the hope they will never, ever fall.

The self-made MFA

There’s always that loud space of emptiness and silence when you start to write…There’s no way to guarantee a safe, easy journey into words on the page. –Barbara Abercrombie

Sometimes my own writing bores me. I’m writing along on some novel or another and I get tired of my sentence structure, my word choice, my thinking. This is not a good sign. Surely if I’m bored, my readers will be, too.

I wish my life were capable of supporting dropping out of the workforce and going back to school for an MFA. It’s not.

Short of that, I have concluded I must make my own MFA in Creative Writing. For years now I have told myself I’m doing a good job just to continue writing novel after novel–that my writing would organically improve in that fashion. It has, but not enough. I seem to have reached a plateau. My new resolution is to expand the time I write.

Not only must I continue working on my novels, I must also exercise my writing muscle in new and exciting ways.
I have been fighting doing this. “I don’t have time. I don’t know what to write. I don’t enjoy short stories…” It all comes down to the above quote. I’m afraid of the blank page.

Today I am going to take a paragraph or two each from three novels which are written in a way that knocks me back and makes me say, “I wish I could write like that,” and superimpose my plot and characters on the sentence structure of these admired writers. Here goes into the deep end.

For your enjoyment, my first attempt is below.

My Original
I stopped and looked at him more closely. It was an Earther, speaking Anglish, and he looked familiar. Just then he turned his head a little and his profile brought it all back. For a second I lay in my own vomit on a rocky ridge with women holding me down as I watched him shoot my father. I went cold and the men holding me clenched my arms when they felt my muscles constrict against the memory. I would kill him. I would. They shook me and I was grateful. I couldn’t kill this man now, as badly as I wanted to. It would mess up the ambush. Killing this man would have to wait.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
After a minute his camouflaged face resolved into recognizability, shredding the tatters of my sanity. A vat baby, cursed from the moment of his test tube conception, stood before me. The memory of my father’s death slammed home, vividly as maggots on a rotting corpse. Too much emotion in this horrid scene. Still. I felt the resolution of a plan begun, and I let my arms go limp. A holosculpt I once viewed, The Agony of a Modern Life, portrays a woman carried…

Clearly, Mitchell’s winding, self-reflective style is not well-suited to an action scene. But it does add depth to the situation and characterization which I didn’t have. Also, his sentence structure is richer than mine.

Mediocrity

Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. –Carl Jung

I have always believed I should be “the best” at what I do and, further, that I have the capacity or even the right to be so. Perhaps this is due to rearing or some natural predilection–perhaps that’s just a cop-out way of referring to nature versus nurture.

Whatever the case, as I near my 45th year I am coming around to the realization I am not super woman. I am simply another human being trying to do my best in a challenging environment. This has been a painful realization. I was attached to the idea of being superior, dammit!

My most basic spiritual precept is a commitment to truth. Theoretically, I should be rejoicing that a lie I have lived with my whole life is evaporating before me. I am looking inside. I am awakening. The subversive voice within asks: what is the point of awakening if one is awakening to mediocrity? Here my spiritual conviction of the primacy of truth must take over. Awakening to the truth can only be good for me. It just hurts. It’s just frightening. What will I be left with when my protective lies are all burned away?

A final question: As I searched for an image to go with this post, I found a lot of inspiring quotes about avoiding mediocrity. The question is, how does one go about this? How does one take a mediocre life and turn toward excellence?

When mediocrity becomes the accepted norm, excellence dies a painful death. –Rashida Rowe

Confessions of a part-time atheist

Image courtesy of US Geological Survey. This is the summit road about two miles from where I lived at the time of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

My relationship to the concept of God is as old as I am. Religion seeped through the walls of my mother’s abdomen and into the womb before I was born. Religion is my mother’s voice echoing through amniotic fluid as she stood in church and sang hymns. It is the voice of the preacher cast from the pulpit to fill the sanctuary.

Bit by bit, memories began to imprint themselves on my consciousness following my birth. Along with that time I burned my finger on the iron, I recall sitting on the couch with my mother for our daily devotions. A prayer, a Bible story, a hymn.

Upon second consideration, burning my finger on the iron also formed a religious feeling in me. My mother left her ironing in the living room, needing to run to another room. She looked me directly in the eye and said, “Don’t touch the iron.” As soon as her back disappeared down the hall, the urge to touch that iron became unbearably strong. With my first feeling of guilt even preceding the action, I stretched out a forefinger and pressed it to the bottom of the iron.

Predictable events followed my contact with that surface. Pain, shock, dismay, regret. Along with these came a sense of betrayal. Why hadn’t she told me it would burn me? Surely if she had told me that, I wouldn’t have touched it.
The primary lesson I learned from touching the iron is that I should obey my mother because the natural consequences of not doing so could be painful. In addition, it became clear as water that mom knew things I didn’t.

There is no doubt in a child’s mind, no opportunity to consider and weigh before believing. Just so, I sucked up a belief in God and Christian theology year by year throughout my childhood. The belief, natural as air, made anyone who didn’t believe as we did seem foreign and evil.

On October 17, 1989, Redwood Estates, California–I was 16 years old–I lay in bed with severe chest pain wondering if it would kill me. I hid in the recesses of my mind, curled against the pain, reality receding before the sharp stabs radiating through my chest. Without further warning, something struck my bedroom like Godzilla sweeping his claws through a high-rise. A fractional moment of disorientation cleared when my bedroom kept shaking. An earthquake, I understood. Survival instinct took over. I dodged my flying dresser and ran for the exit.

The house survived the quake mostly intact–unlike many in our mountain community. Physically, I was also fine. But as I stood in the street outside our house and braced against the frequent aftershocks, I knew the quake had changed something elemental in my personality. I longed to be able to fly. In those days I often dreamed I could fly. Now in surreal but waking life, I wanted to be in a dream where I could fly. I couldn’t tolerate the feeling of standing on ground I couldn’t trust.

There are elements of “reality” we humans depend upon so completely we aren’t even aware we are dependent. One is the stability of the ground. Another is inhaling and having air available. A third is the pull of gravity.
The existence of God and the correctness of Christianity were like earth and air for me–unquestioned to the point of not understanding there might be a question.

My later teenage years consisted of earth-shattering events which fractured my beliefs–creating landslides of uncertainty, periods where I would doubt every element of reality.

Fifteen years later…


I wrote my first short story at eight years old. We had a small flock of Muscovy ducks– remarkably ugly and graceless animals. The drakes engaged in an odd behavior where they gathered in a circle, heads facing in, and hissed and bobbed their heads at each other. In my short story, these drakes were members of a secret cabal which absorbed all the news of the world every morning and ruled the world with their combined knowledge.

Enchanted with my idea but disappointed with its poor execution, I laid writing aside until thirteen years old. At that point, I realized no profession drew me like becoming an author. I drafted novel plots galore but could not figure out, again, how to satisfyingly execute my visions. Through my twenties I continued to dream of being an author. Life kept intervening–distracting me with incidentals like college, marriage, children, drama, poverty…

On the occasion of my twenty-eighth birthday, two things happened to change my perspective on writing. The first was that I turned twenty-eight. “Two years until I’m thirty,” I thought, “and I haven’t written a thing.” In concert with that realization, my brother gave me a birthday present. Stephen King’s book On Writing inspired me as no other writing guide before or since has. His gentle, wise, direct advice showed me the way into producing a novel.

Two of the things he said stay with me to this day. “Writers write,” he wrote. “If you write, you’re a writer.” And to paraphrase his corollary: Don’t set out to write the Great American Novel. Set out to write a certain number of bad words every day.

At twenty-eight years old, armed with the knowledge of my impending thirties and Stephen King’s kind advice, I wrote my first novel.

Fifteen years later, I’ve published Sage Courage, available on Amazon as we speak. Give it a browse and let me know what you think.

Marketing for the terrified

Last month I wrote a post about my paralyzing fear of marketing. Since that post, two things have happened. First, my novel Sage Courage was published and second, I began spending up to an hour a day on marketing.

Confronting a dire fear of marketing proved invaluable and liberating. But how did I do it? This meditation (blog) is an attempt to share what I’ve learned in the last few weeks about overcoming unreasonable fear as I suspect I’m not the only person who is faced with it.

A lot of fear is focused on the future. We imagine a negative outcome and then we obsess about it until it feels real. It isn’t real.

When I recognized this, I decided to employ my creativity in a playful way in the present and to avoid thinking about or hoping for a particular outcome. After all, this is something writers excel at. Writing a novel is an extended exercise in being creative without any promise of all that work/play paying off.

Love has also become an important tool for fighting off my fear of marketing. What wouldn’t we do for what we love? And, as a famous quote in the New Testament tells us, “Perfect love casts out fear.” I have chosen to dwell in my love of life, my love of writing, my love of my subject matter. Selling this novel is not a commercial enterprise but rather a labor of love–a gift intended for the world of readers.

Just now I am sitting in a coffee shop with a stack of novels and a sign announcing their availability. It is still a little nerve-wracking, but I’m out here in a spirit of playful love with a gift for the world.

The haunted house – Part III

For reasons I still don’t fully comprehend, I never spoke of these things to anyone else. The battle remained with me and me alone.My siblings and I were born into a very religious family. Throughout our childhood we memorized long passages of the Bible in exchange for gifts.

One night, in the midst of my terror, I began reciting Psalms to myself as I lay there sweating. I focused my mind on their meaning, on my nascent connection with the Divine. I filled my mind with their beauty and praise with iron determination to think of nothing else.

The fear eased. I lay in bliss and freedom, able to rest by turning away from darkness and focusing only on light.

The evil in my bedroom never left. But from that night forward I had a powerful weapon to use against it. Even in my dreams I could call up favorite verses and shield myself with them. When I awoke I glared into the darkness and told it: Every time you come for me, I will praise God.

Eventually we moved away from the farm house. My nightmares evaporated with the change in location. Years later, my family and I got to talking about times we had felt afraid. I shared for the first time my experiences in the attic and said I even knew where the foulness was centered.

“Stop,” Steve told me. Without speaking further, he drew a floor plan of the attic and circled a small area beyond the western curtain wall. Every hair on my body stood up and I couldn’t warm up for a long time that evening.

My novel Sage Courage is an absorbing bit of writing inspired by my early experiences and is available in print and ebook at Amazon.