Write scared. Write as if nobody will ever read your words. Write as if someone will. Write as if they all will.
Write the kind of story you want to read, one of those precious books you can’t put down because to stop would mean abandoning characters who feel like family; love or hate them, you can’t leave them.
There is no safe way to write a page-turner, a keep-you-up-till-4am-story. Books that play it safe feel safe as we read. The stakes aren't that high, the risks don't seem very risky, the character's problems aren't even as troublesome as those we face in our own lives. As a writer, I imagine that author at work, crafting the story safely, leaving this part out because it might be offensive, changing that character's decision because it's too controversial. Books that leave me with dark circles under my eyes the next day make me nervous as I read. Worried, anxious, elated and then stunned with outrage, thrilled at the small triumphs right on the heels of being dismayed at an unexpected outcome. Anticipation and recognition color the journey -- I know these characters; I've thought those thoughts; I absolutely must see this through.
It’s where readers live, that whole other world created inside the pages of a book, inviting you in, making you comfortable … and then yanking the rug out from under you, leaving you breathless and terrified, knowing you have no choice to keep reading, keeping living in that world, to find out what happens next. The pages are not paper but landscape; the words not narrative but voice, action, emotion. You’re right there with the main character; his stakes are your stakes; if he fails, you experience that agony just as he does, and if you close the book, it gets worse, spilling out of the created world and into your own.
It is the same with writing. A story left in the dark, never given voice, manifests as all sorts of things scarier than the monsters and clowns in a Stephen King book, things a writer knows well: self-doubt, anger, regret, depression, fear. Ah, the fear again. But we can use that fear. Fear is healthy when it forces progress. In the process of outrunning the fear, if we use it to begin writing what we’re really afraid to write, we banish all of those scary things. They are crushed under the weight of the story, the one we write scared, the one that is ultimately the truth in fancy clothes.
Nothing is scarier than that. That is what I want to read. That is what I strive to write.
(Full story can be found in One Hundred Voices, an anthology from Centum Publishing, 2016)
“Why is he here?” I peer across the hall into room 186 at my new patient.
Liz looks at me. “What do you mean, here?”
“Here. He’s from … I don’t know, the middle east? How did he wind up here?”
My coworker pulls her log from her scrub pocket. “I told you. He’s like, a captain or something in the army over there and he got blown up. They had to reconstruct his whole shoulder and right arm. Part of his jaw. His right leg was shattered. I guess he needed the specialists here.”
I don’t speak the words on my tongue: what earned him the use of our surgeons? Fighting in a war I don’t understand, one which has cost me so much?
“Sarah….” Liz matches my stride. “He’s pretty miserable with all the drains and hardware,” she motions around her right side, neck to fingertips. “Just … keep close, okay?”
I soften. “I will. Don’t worry.”
Liz doesn’t need to warn me. I am a good nurse.
I’m just not in a hurry to meet my new patient.
When I get to Safet’s room, he is sitting up in bed watching the doorway as I enter. He looks like an animal – a wild, cornered animal, eyes wide and black, mouth drawn down grotesquely on the right from the swelling and sutures that extend from his collar bone to his reconstructed jaw. He is thin and lanky, one boney knee drawn up under the sheet.
He cradles his bandaged right arm with his left hand, body rigid. I see, poking out from the gauze at his wrist, the external brace the surgeon created just for him: metal talons extending out over each finger, 5 small titanium pins securing each rod through the back of his hand to the bones.
My eyes meet his and I could cry. He hasn’t said a word, but I am not sure he can. “I’ll get your pain medicine.”
I inject the morphine through the port in his IV line, and watch, gratified, as I see his posture relax. His room is bare. No cards, no flowers. No family in this country.
The next day, I make Safet first on my rounds. The sight of him stops me in my tracks. His eyes are on the wall-mounted television, tears streaming down his face in silent sobs. I look to see what in the world he is watching.
It’s war footage. It’s a live feed on some news channel: chaos, screaming, women and children and buildings on fire, gunshots in the background. The streaming caption across the bottom declares a state of emergency, citing numbers: dead, wounded, civilian casualties, too many numbers.
I pick up the remote to turn it off and he stops me.
“No.” He looks at me, tortured, and then back at the screen, shaking his head. He’s mourning someone, maybe his whole family, and punishing himself for being here, safe.
I write because I can't not write. Double negative be damned.
Here's the thing about writing. It almost always starts out of necessity. I can't remember when I began writing, but I remember both times I've tried to quit. It doesn't work. It's not pretty. When I'm not writing, especially when I've decided that writing is too all consuming and I am officially in recovery, my mind does bad things. The irritability, the slide in confidence, the aimless melancholy leaks into my real life, my family life, in a very ugly-cry sort of way. And then the voices start.
Okay, I'm not crazy. The voices belong to the characters who take up residence in my head between manuscripts. When I'm immersed in a manuscript, it's like being in love - the kind of infatuated, passionate, can't get enough of him feeling from our very first loves. Nothing and no one else exists, and that's okay. It keeps other characters at bay; other characters who belong in other works yet to come and are waiting patiently to tell their story. But they know when the manuscript is finished, and they make sure I know they are there. They start quiet. It's a whisper as I'm falling asleep. A glimpse of a new protagonist, her form nearly sparkling with intriguing possibility. The voice of an exciting new book boyfriend, deep and resonating, sight unseen. My mind begins to fill in the blanks without my permission, sometimes in dreams, sometimes in quiet moments when I'm not paying attention, sometimes when I'm knee deep in momhood and laundry and dishes.
If I ignore these characters, their words and stories, they get loud. If I stubbornly refuse to acknowledge them, to enter into the agreement to tell their tale, this is when the ugliness starts. The only way back to normalcy, for me, is to begin.
Stephen King says that "stories are found things, like fossils in the ground… The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground as intact as possible.” I didn't understand this quote until a couple years ago. It's the idea that, as writers, we have only a certain amount of control over what and how and when we write. In the same way some words must be spoken, some songs must be sung, some stories just must be told, or they will wear a hole in us that can only be repaired by facing our fear and telling the truth. Because, as the man also says, "fiction is the truth inside the lie."
So I'm a little in love with Stephen King. So what. He's a smart guy. This is what I know: I am a better person when I'm writing. I'm not talking about writing for pay. That's an entirely different topic, with a whole different set of struggles. I'm talking about writing with the door closed. Writing what I want to write. Letting the people in my head out, letting them speak and listening well. Staying true to my characters and their story. This is my therapy, my release, my fun, my tears, my heart. Writing is my bliss, even when it's not. This is why I write.
Sarah slowly unfolded the pink note her assistant had just handed her. There was no warning, no indication or subtle clue, that her life was about to change. In the space of a few hours, Sarah would never see the world in quite the same way. Sitting down in the privacy of her own office, she read the words again, forcing deep breaths, trying to steady her hands. The pediatrician wanted to discuss Emma’s test results. She’d known the call was coming, but she wasn’t ready.
Sarah knew she must call the doctor back, but she couldn’t bring herself to pick up the phone. In her mind’s eye, she saw her daughter’s rainbow striped socks sticking out of the hulking MRI machine last Tuesday. The idea that there could be some darkness, something lying in wait to hurt her daughter, made Sarah nauseous. She would call the doctor, but not yet.
She had one task left this afternoon before she could switch from work mode to mom mode. She’d promised a client she’d bring documents over for signatures. Mrs. Shirley didn’t leave her house much anymore; it seemed too taxing a trip for her to come to the office. Worried and scattered as Sarah felt with the doctor’s news looming over her, she wished someone else could take her place today. She knew one of her peers would willingly do it, but then she’d have to explain why she wasn’t up to the long drive to see the client. Sarah wasn’t ready to call the pediatrician back; she certainly wasn’t ready to voice her fears to a co-worker. She grumbled her way out to the car with the paperwork, already certain traffic would be horrendous and wanting this day to end.
Mrs. Shirley greeted Sarah at the door an hour later and Sarah nodded at a scrub-clad girl on her way out. She caught a portion of the name tag: Visiting Nurse. She glanced warily at her client as she took the chair opposite her at the little kitchen table. The narrow mobile home left much to be desired in the way of space, but it was clean and cheerful, and something smelled wonderful. Jane Shirley navigated around her long snaking oxygen tubing and transferred holiday cookies from a pan to a cooling rack.
She set a plate of warm cookies in front of Sarah. “Good timing, I wasn’t sure I’d be done with my nurse before you arrived.” She told Sarah in a matter of fact tone that her heart condition was worsening and the nurse came twice weekly now.
Sarah had no words. She’d known the woman wasn’t in good health but what could she say? She took a deep breath to speak but nothing came out. Mrs. Shirley must have read her expression. She pushed the plate of cookies a little closer.
“They’re white chocolate cranberry and chocolate butterscotch. And this,” she moved slowly but steadily to the counter again, “is going home with you for your family.” Another larger foil wrapped plate with a red bow joined the smaller one on the table.
As Sarah began sorting through the documents, Jane Shirley kept a running monologue.
“My daughter is coming to pick me up tonight, it’s my grandson’s birthday—he’s in that picture up there. Isn’t he a handsome one? He’s an all A student and such a good boy.
“I can’t wait for our first bit of snow, you know? They say we might get flurries later. The first dusting is always the best. Makes everything sparkly and new. I’ll be glad to be out in it this evening.
“These cookies were so easy. I try to make a fair assortment of sweets every year. My family loves the cranberry ones. Remind me to give you the recipe before you leave.”
Sarah realized halfway through the stack of papers that the woman was happy. Excited about her plans for the evening. Proud of her grandson. Eager to spend time with her well-loved family. She spent the remainder of her time in the modest little home watching Mrs. Shirley’s face. Her smile when she talked, the warmth she exuded when she asked how Sarah’s daughter was, the genuine appreciation in her tone when she thanked Sarah for coming all this way.
Thirty minutes later in her car, the waning afternoon sun throwing shards of light and shadow across her field of vision, she knew what Mrs. Shirley had neglected to mention. There wasn’t a word about her heart condition—not after that initial explanation of the nurse’s presence. Was it ignorance? Blind faith in her doctors? How could the woman seem so at peace, emanate such a positive attitude, knowing her health might fail?
Sarah was only ten minutes from home when she pulled over to make the call. She couldn’t put it off any longer, the office was closing. While she waited for the pediatrician to come on the line, she thought of Mrs. Shirley. It wasn’t the possibility of defeat that ruled the woman’s attitude, she mused. It was the possibility of bliss. Of accepting the joy we are given, the small portions there in front of us all the time. The trick was in seeing these gifts.
Dr. Ross came on the line and Sarah closed her eyes. She sat that way for a long time after the call had ended, hands still on the steering wheel. Emma would be fine. The MRI was clear. Sarah could breathe again. She opened her eyes to find it was nearly dark. She was bathed in relief, and all she wanted at this moment was to see her family. To hug her daughter and to give Mark the news Dr. Ross had given her. Their little girl was fine.
As her tires hummed over the last stretch of road to her family, Sarah gazed through the windshield into the night and was suddenly stricken with the weight of life’s precarious balance. This morning she’d been aggravated with work, traffic, clients, overwhelmed with a too-long to-do list, and bracing herself for bad news from the doctor. None of it mattered. She was fortunate enough to have a healthy daughter and a new perspective. Nothing could dull the elation she felt … that she’d begun to feel in Mrs. Shirley’s small, hope-ridden home. She was never so happy to pull into her own driveway.
Sarah was out of her car and in the house in seconds. Mark turned from the stove and she wrapped her arms around him tightly, realizing she hadn’t hugged him like this in far too long. She rested her head on his chest, ignoring his surprise. She would explain this to him, later, if she could. She had to try. She wanted him to feel what she had today, and she was determined to hold onto it. Emma wandered into the kitchen and stopped short at the intimate scene between her parents. She shoved her hands into her pockets and mumbled a quiet greeting, turning to shuffle out, and Sarah nabbed an elbow, reeling her in for a three way hug.
Her newly teenaged daughter squirmed, protesting, and finally gave in, laughing. Sarah told them both the good news. Her daughter smiled and shrugged, but relief was apparent in her expression. Sarah looked up at Mark and saw the sheen to his eyes, saw him swallow hard as he nodded, telling her silently how lucky they were. It had taken nearly losing everything to see how truly rich we really are, Sarah thought. Today was the beginning.
She planted a kiss on her husband and then on her beautiful daughter. “Today has been the most perfect day,” she told them both, smiling.
Sarah didn’t know the secret to seeing the world through these new eyes she’d been gifted. She knew it didn’t come on a recipe card along with a neatly wrapped plate of gratitude. But she also knew she had an obligation now, to herself and to her family, to learn. To appreciate. To fully experience the moments she was given: to recognize them when they appeared, and to seek them out when they were hidden. This life was hers, and she was determined to enjoy the ride.
Remember a few weeks ago when Miss America contender Kelley Johnson delivered a monologue about being a nurse on national television? And the country applauded her for choosing to display her Registered Nurse skills for her "talent?" And then the medical community rallied in the form of millions of nurses all over the country to support Kelley's message and just exactly what it means to be a nurse? If you remember any of that, or even if you don't, you probably remember the coverage on popular morning show The View, the snarky comments (in which Ms. Behar wondered why on earth Miss Colorado was wearing a Doctor's Stethoscope) followed by intense back-peddling and fence-mending when major advertisers began pulling sponsorship. The widespread support of nurses and a surge of unity among medical workers from all areas was a direct result of the misguided comments from the ladies of the View. A blessing in disguise, as Kelley Johnson puts it. Like it or not, America received an education and, hopefully, a new "view" of the nursing profession. I thought I'd take the opportunity to let the nurse in me speak for a change, since the writer gets her own fair share of screen time.
I've spent 22 years as a Registered Nurse and 18 of those in home health care. I've been asked if I ever wanted to be more than #JustANurse and if, as a visiting nurse, I would ever like to become a *Real Nurse.* My stethoscope and I have been responsible for keeping patients out of the hospital, and for sending them there when they need to go. I am often the lens through which the doctor can see a patient who is too ill to leave home. I've walked in on (without back-up) strokes, heart attacks, respiratory distress, falls, family altercations, drug deals and much more than I care to share. I've caught clots before they could become pulmonary embolisms, fluid retention before it could become heart failure, infection before it could become sepsis. I am happy to be just a nurse. Because I am not "just" anything. I am not a nurse aspiring to be a nurse practitioner or a doctor. I am a nurse because this is my niche, this is what I'm good at, and I make a difference.
One year ago today I celebrated the release of The Fall of Our Secrets (E-Lit Books). More friends and family came than I ever could have hoped for, showing up to support me, pitching in to make the event awesome, even a surprise arrival from out of state whom I hadn't seen in years ... what an amazing evening. The wonderful Howell Opera House coordinator who helped with the party remarked later that she couldn't recall ever seeing such a large turn-out for a book release. Best. Night. Ever.
I'm going for short and sweet and I'm not great at that, but I'll give it a shot. To each person who read my book, or told someone about it, or bought it for someone else; to each one of you who somehow helped me get to the point where I had a book to publish, whether it was babysitting, telling me I don't suck, or just being a great source of support; to the readers who have made my day by letting me know what part of the story touched them, which character they identified with; to every single one of you who has been any part of this journey, I hope you know how grateful I am. I truly could not have done it without you. I'm hard at work on the next one and the next one, and I feel so lucky to be afforded the opportunity to fulfill such a wild dream. Thank you!
I'm just going to say it. Black Widow needs her own movie.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron release this weekend was the 2nd highest grossing U.S. debut ever. I'm not surprised. We bought our tickets in advance, and showed up a half hour before show time thinking we were ahead of the game. Nope. The theater had maybe 5 single seats scattered throughout--even the very front row was filled, and we all know how awesome it is watching a movie on the big screen from 2 feet away.
So we did what any self-respecting superhero loving family would do: we waited until the next show. The line stretched all the way from one end of the long hallway to the other a good 40 minutes before that one started. It was worth it. If you've already seen the movie, you know that. If not, take my word for it. My $10 ticket provided 2+ hours of action, drama, romance, snarky sarcastic comedy, explosions, world-in-jeopardy kind of stuff. No spoilers here, and that's not where I'm going anyway.
Here's my point. Black Widow is not a female superhero. She's a superhero. In the same way Thor is not a male superhero. He's a superhero. Black Widow holds her own in this movie, as in the first Avengers, both Captain Americas, Iron Man 2, and all the comics, TV shows and series before Scarlett Johansson's portrayal. Joss Whedon and ScarJo herself brought this character to dazzling, awesome life and I can't imagine a more perfect version of Black Widow (and yes I'm with the camp who still believes Whedon is a true feminist; take a look at the man's long history of strong female characters, people). Black Widow fights alongside her peers, kicking ass and, might I mention, relying on zip for special enhancements, unlike the rest of her team.
Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff, is a Russian spy who defected and now works for S.H.I.E.L.D., a secret law enforcement and counter-terrorism agency. She has no enemy honing personal hammer like Thor. No impenetrable space age suit like Iron Man. No laboratory induced superhuman strength or dangerous boomeranging shield like Captain America. She doesn't morph into a destructive green machine every time she gets angry. She can't fly, she can't use telepathy to alter perceptions, she's vulnerable to injury. And it doesn't matter.
Black Widow gets the job done. She's smart, calculating, compassionate, strong, resilient. She's the Avengers moral compass and protector, as is each member of the team at times. Black Widow is every bit as watchable as Thor, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Hulk ... and, speaking as a girl, she sparks interest on a whole new level. Because suddenly this group of superheroes isn't a boys club anymore. Black Widow doesn't fit in by becoming like the boys, by playing the game their way. She rocks her skin tight black leather and red lipstick, she uses smarts and strategy to boost her physical power. She maximizes every asset in her arsenal, not the least of which is some pretty badass skill in crushing the bad guy. If I met her on the street, I'd love to make her my friend. If I was a man, I'd want to date her. If I was head of an assassin's ring, I'd recruit her. If I was a bad guy, I'd run screaming the other way.
So I'm joining the ranks of many who want the world to know we are ready for Black Widow's movie. We want to see an abundance of Black Widow action figures hit the shelves, only to sell out. We want to see Black Widow get the credit she deserves, along with other too-oft-ignored superheroes who just happen to be women (a post for another day). I'm in good company in my outcry. In the four days since Avengers: Age of Ultron opened, there are several petitions already in place, a SNL skit, and costars speaking out on Black Widow's behalf. It's 2015. Black Widow has earned her place on the big screen. How about it, Marvel?
Last year I would have sworn writer’s block was just a crutch. Not a real thing. Something writers use to explain extended non-writing periods. I’d never had much trouble coming up with new ideas or following the highways that will lead to the ending I've planned. That’s not the problem, and not my version of writer’s block.
I've recently discovered that writer's block is real, and it's a pain in the butt. I’m great at denial, so I consistently told myself I did NOT have writer’s block, I just did not have the time needed to write. I am such a liar.
I think, if I believed it at all, writer’s block always sounded like a condition in which the writer can’t figure out what the character should do next, or what should happen next in the story. I always know what will happen next. Thing is, I’ve never had so much trouble making it happen. Today I figured out why.
Our characters are our babies. They’re our children, our creations, and we want the best for them. We want to see them happy, even if they have to go through some trials to get there. Here’s what I forgot: like our children, we can’t protect them. Not always. We can’t shield them from everything, keep them safe, make all the right decisions for them so that nothing bad ever happens. Not only is it impossible, but in a fictional world, it’s also super boring.
I got stuck. I knew what had to happen next in my current manuscript, I knew the choices my main character had to make, but by the time I reached that point, none of it fit. Her next move no longer fit with the previous series of events. Could I have forced it? Could I make her do the things I know are plotted out on her road to continue the story, even knowing it wouldn’t have the right flow? Knowing the reader would think, ‘What? Why would she do that?’ Sure! Absolutely. But when I’m reading, that’s where the author loses me: when a character makes a decision that isn’t based on her past experience or necessity, when that character seems to be acting simply out of the need to further the plot. Readers see through that and it ruins suspension of disbelief, pulls us right out of the story.
So instead of pushing the story along, building my word count, I threw the whole thing in reverse. I went back and looked at what I’d done to screw things up. How I originally knew what Tommie would do but now, in chapter twelve, it just didn’t seem like she would. It’s so clear to me now why, I’m surprised I didn’t catch it earlier.
I’d done everything I could to protect her. After all, she is my baby, my creation. I don’t want her to suffer, do I? So I sheltered her. I let her boyfriend go above and beyond to help make sure she’d come to no harm, even when there was no reason for him to do so. I allowed her to be sweet when she should have been angry, I let her be weak and worried when she should have been strong and stubborn. I kept her in such a bubble that the Tommie in chapter twelve had no reason to make any detrimental decisions at all. By the time Tommie and I got to chapter twelve together, I was a little bored by her myself.
Now this is the fun part. I went back through the manuscript and painted white-out all over that son of a bitch. Okay, not really. The great thing about 2015 is we don’t need white out. But I reworked and revised the heck out of some crucial parts, and then some other parts, way before chapter twelve. I allowed Tommie’s boyfriend to act like a boyfriend instead of some perfect flawless drone. I let Tommie’s stubborn nature dictate some rather stupid choices (sorry, Tommie, it is what it is) that help shape her path much better toward the Tommie she must be by chapter twelve. Man, I missed this Tommie, the one I began the story with and then somehow lost under too much goodwill!
And just like that, my writer’s block is cured. Now I have real people, characters I feel like I know, can relate to, and can’t protect. Now there’s no forcing anything. Tommie will make the choices I always knew she’d make, for better or worse, and I can’t stop her. Now the words pour from my fingertips onto the screen effortlessly, the story already written and just waiting to be excavated (one more thing Stephen King is right about). Next time I say “Oh, I just haven’t had time to write lately,” somebody please smack me out of denial and tell me to quit sheltering my characters. Love these lightbulb moments, wish I had more of them!
Music is my happy place.
Music is a place for me. Much more than a harmonic collection of notes, music is an escape. It’s an oasis of sound with invisible, impenetrable walls made of melody.
In everyday life, music is a perk, a reward, an additive, an enhancement. In my writing life, music serves as my silencer. One of the toughest things to do when writing is to step into the story, become part of the landscape, absorb and release the emotions of the characters. Music allows me to do that.
I was asked once about process and if I have certain routines that I use when writing. I need music to write. I have different playlists with varying songs based on what’s going on in the manuscript, different genres for certain types of scenes, from hip hop to hardcore and everything in between. Writing in actual silence is nearly impossible. I started thinking about why.
The answer is easy. We all have so much noise in our heads every moment of every day. Grocery lists, laundry waiting, drop off and pick up times for children, bills to be paid, leaky faucets to be fixed, doctor appointments we keep forgetting to schedule, calls to return … infinite to-do lists even in our quietest moments, even as we try to drift off to sleep. It could just be me, but I doubt it.
All of that is so LOUD in my head that, when I sit down to write, I’m paralyzed by the weight of it. It’s distracting and if I do manage to squeak out a few paragraphs, the noise worms its way into my story. And that’s not good for anyone.
So I turn to my music. I’m not a purist, I don’t stay within the confines of a specific genre, I just know what works. What hits me where it counts, what will work as my silencer and help me bring out the best in my characters and story.
Back to everyday life, I know I’m not the only one who’s realized that music makes everything easier; it makes chores go faster, makes paying bills a little more pleasant, cements memories by adding another layer to our senses, adds an undercurrent of soothing sound to nearly any task. I think if we each added a little music to our hours here, we’d all find that happy place. Even if only for 3 ½ minutes. Nothing wrong with feeding our souls 3 ½ minutes at a time.