Friday, November 24, 2017

Do You Want Fries With That?

This summer I was attending an academic conference and during one of the breaks, an outgoing young man sitting nearby struck up a conversation with me. He was 18 years old and excited about starting college in the fall. We talked at length about literature, writing, and related topics.  Then he paused and I could tell he was hesitating, weighing whether or not to proceed with what he was going to tell me.

"My mom is a biochemist and my father works with rocket propulsion, so I joke that my parents really are rocket scientists. (nervous laugh) I really want to major in English but they are against it. They don't think I can have a worthwhile career with that degree."

I was immediately fired up by this assertion - being someone with a Bachelor of Arts in English - and  so I launched into a passionate defense of the study. I told him of all the different industries I've worked in: non-profits, entertainment, tourism, an engineering firm, the hospitality industry, the automotive industry. I told him about all the different projects I'd worked on from writing reports to creating copy for marketing materials to managing social media and everything in between. More than anything, people will always need to communicate, and not everyone is good at doing it in writing, so they need help. The work may change forms but it's always there.

The boy's father returned to his seat and I clammed up, worried he'd get mad at me for contradicting him and filling his son's head with promises of a career he didn't believe existed.

Throughout my college experience, when asked what my major was and I replied "English," I would consistently get one of two responses. The most common one was, "Oh, so do you want fries with that? (Chuckle)," implying I wouldn't be able to get a job with that degree and would have a career in the fast food industry after all was said and done.  It was such a frequent joke I could set my watch by it.  The other response was, "Oh, so you want to be a teacher," with the assumption it was the only thing you could do with an English degree.  I received such negative or pigeonholed responses based on this question, I didn't even bother to tell them I was actually a dual major in English and Art. "Starving Artist," anyone?

Thinking about my conversation with the college-bound boy, and my own college experience, made me angry all over again.  Sure, you need to be practical and make money to take care of yourself and be a productive citizen.  But more than money, more than a successful career, there are greater reasons to choose a field of study. Thinking specifically of the arts, we should support these skills, these fields of study, because of their value in and of themselves, and encourage those gifted with those talents, instead of trying to cram students into a line of study that may be more sure or more lucrative but also be guaranteed to make them miserable and leave them unfulfilled.  Money and success aren't everything.  Thankfully, I had parents who recognized and supported my talents from a very young age and never pressured me to go into an area I wasn't interested in.  I'm so thankful for that.  (Although I do think my mother secretly wanted me to become a teacher.)

I hope the boy I spoke to at the conference finds the courage to pursue an English degree, and I hope his parents find the courage to support him and guide him without smothering him.

I hope this blog post finds its way to someone that needs the encouragement.

Friday, October 20, 2017


Why I write
because it’s what I’ve always done.
because I have to.
because I want to.
because I need to.

I write to communicate.
I write to keep people informed.
I write resumes to help people get jobs.
I write articles to pay the bills.
I write to help my friends and family with the business of life.

I write because it’s refreshing to receive a well-crafted, clearly worded email or letter or text message.  I write to be understood.

I write with my rebellion of words, in a small effort of rage against our culture and its slide towards using Instagram images and emoji hieroglyphs to express themselves.

I write because I can't sleep.
I write because it exorcises the demons in my head.

I write because my writers' group gives me deadlines, and holds me to them, which can be excruciating.

I write because the stories I want to read aren't on the bookshelves anymore.

I write because words are powerful and complex and you can weave them into something beautiful or horrible and create whole new worlds that never existed and it is like knowing how to do magic.

I write to see my characters be brave and do and say things that I never could.
I write to make you worry about what’s going to happen next to those characters.
I write to scare you.
I write to make you cry.
I write to make you laugh.
I write to move you, to make your heart hurt.
At least, I hope I do.

I write so that there will be something left of me when I’m gone, so I might not be totally forgotten.

But mostly, I write to connect with others.
It’s always about connection.

I write to not feel so alone.

I write.
I write.
I write.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

When a Worry-Wart Serves on a Jury

Let's have a good laugh at my expense, shall we? Especially for my fellow worriers out there - listen in!

In the last three years I have served Jury Duty twice - one criminal case and one civil case - and both of them were stressful experiences for various reasons. Now, don't get me wrong, I love our jury system and I'm not disparaging it in any way. We should joyfully serve and fulfill our civic duty as citizens of this great country. Seriously! However, I am probably just not wired right to be able to do that. I was a mess of nerves and emotion and stress both times.

So let's flash forward to a few days ago, when my husband brought in the mail and sat it on the counter and I saw that oh-so-familiar black and white seal of our county on the top left corner, staring out at me from underneath the rest of the mail. "Oh no... jury duty AGAIN?!" I cried to myself.

I refused to touch it.

I left it sitting on the counter for days, as I proceeded to fret, worry, and royally stress out about having to go through that process again.

I worried about having someone's life (or financial situation) in my hands. I worried about if there would be a child involved again. I re-lived all the things I hated from the first two times. I dreaded our office being understaffed again and feeling guilty about being the reason for that stress on my co-workers. I worried about not being forceful enough in my argument to be able to convince my jurors if I thought they were ruling incorrectly. I fretted about being called to the same court that was on the opposite end of the county from me and having to make that hour and a half drive again. And on and on and on.

So yesterday I finally decided to suck it up and deal with it. Worrying about it wasn't going to get me off the hook, right?

I picked the envelope up off the counter and saw a bright blue "Tag Your Wag" icon on it. Huh? I looked at the address again: County ANIMAL CARE & CONTROL! It was the tag/license renewal paperwork for my dog.

God has a funny way of teaching us lessons, doesn't He?

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Emily Dickinson Is My Homegirl

No one really knows the reasons why 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson became a recluse, but we do know she went out less and less over the years, until she would only go out if it was absolutely necessary. She secluded herself at home to the point that she would only talk to people through the door instead of face-to-face, and spent much of her time in her room. However, she seemed to love others deeply and was very connected with friendships and family, communicating through countless letters.(1)

She was also extremely prolific, writing 40 collections of almost 800 poems, most of which no one had ever seen until after her death when they were published by her family.  No one really knows if she wanted to have her poetry published or not.(2)  While she was alive, she only had 10 poems and one letter published anonymously, and those were probably the result of others submitting them without her knowledge or approval.

Now, hear me, Gentle Readers, when I say this: I am in no way placing myself or my work anywhere within the same league, let alone the same ballpark, as this talented and creative genius. There's no comparison. But I do feel a kindred spirit with her, perhaps.

Lately, I find myself wanting to retreat, stay home, and distance myself from people. I love my tribe. I care deeply about people. But loving people is also messy and exhausting. It takes work. It takes time. And it's scary. You have to be vulnerable. You have to be honest. You risk getting hurt. I'm not a terribly good liar, but I'm very good at hiding.  Being both introverted and shy by disposition, combined with years of childhood teasing and bullying, all taught me that it was easier, and less painful, to be very quiet and keep to yourself. Avoid social situations and don't ever let anyone see how you really feel or think. It works, up to a point, but it's also very lonely. Especially if you also have a natural disposition to be very compassionate.  Text messages, emails, Facebook messages, and (I'm smiling as I type this) blog posts, only go so far in connecting you to others. It's all very artificial.

So, I have the reclusive tendencies. I also have a track record of writing and creating things that I never show anyone.  There are so few people who have read my fiction writing or poems, that I can count them on one hand. I have portfolios full of artwork that I have shown to hardly anyone. I suspect this also stems from a fear of rejection or of being misunderstood. I haven't really figured out the motivation behind it yet.

I recently joined a very small writing group. There's only three of us, including me, and one of the others is a good friend. Yet the whole process of showing them my work has been terrifying - and this has been in what I consider a very safe place.  Ugh!  We've also been discussing publication goals - which means not only showing my work to complete strangers but also those who are authorities within the industry which is all kinds of unsafe - and it has me quite torn.  Part of me wants to be like my homegirl, Emily Dickinson, and tuck away in my room, enjoy the process of writing a bunch of stuff, and letting someone else deal with it when I'm gone. Why face potential (and highly probable) rejection?

However, don't we write for some type of connection? To elicit some kind of emotion?  Can that be done in a vacuum?  Isn't that what writing or creating art is all about?  Furthermore, isn't connection and love what human relationships are all about?

So I keep pushing my comfort zones and trying to best navigate whatever time I have left here. Does that mean my short story will end up on your Kindle reader? Or will only a few key friends ever see it? I don't know. Does that mean I'll end up wearing nothing but white dresses and hanging out in my attic?(3) I hope not. I'll leave that legacy to Ms. Dickinson.

Black is more my color anyway.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Music to Write By

My life has always been filled with music, so it
should be no surprise that I listen to music while I write or paint.  I was thinking about this quirk of mine recently, as I queued up my iTunes playlist, and wondered if other writers found music distracting or helpful.

I know that in his book titled On Writing, Stephen King says he writes while listening to Metallica, AC/DC, and Guns 'n Roses.  I smile just thinking about that.  When I did a quick Google search of famous authors and what kind of music they like to listen to while they write, there were three answers I saw repeated over and over again: 1.) nothing, 2.) classical such as Bach and Mozart, or 3.) the Beatles.  I suppose genius inspires genius?

When I'm painting, I usually listen to whatever fits the mood I'm in, and the music isn't really related to the subject matter of my painting.  When I'm working on a brand new piece of writing, I gravitate towards listening to classical works.  In both cases, the music is there to simply drown out the rest of the world and it helps me to focus somehow.

However, there are times when I'm writing, when the music I listen to is purposefully selected and intricately connected to what I'm working on.  For example, I recently wrote a short story that utilized some of my experiences from college.  Thanks to the power of iTunes, music from that period of my life pulsed in the background as I plucked away on the keyboard.

Then there are those certain characters, the ones that live and breathe outside of me, the ones that I feel like I'm taking dictation from instead of creating myself; they practically demand a soundtrack. I have a playlist for one angry character, Jeremy, that is full of rock music that I just know he listens to whenever he is in his car, with the volume turned up as loud as he can stand it.  Every time I go to write a sequence featuring him, I turn on his music and once I hear it, I can settle into his skin.  Not only does the style and tone fit who he is, but most of the lyrics in some way reference him, his personality, or what has happened to him.

There are also certain locations within my stories that demand a soundtrack.  I will hear a song and think, "The feeling this song evokes is how I feel when I'm visiting 'the forest', or 'the mansion', or 'the high rise', etc."  So I have several location-based playlists as well.

The music is a type of mental shorthand, a way to clear out the noise of my day and to tap back into that character, or that environment.

How about you? Do you find music a distraction or a helpful tool when you sit down to write (or paint, or craft or create)?  Just for fun, if you would like to listen to Jeremy's angry playlist, I've replicated most of it for you on Spotify.  (Although it looks like the band, Tool, isn't on Spotify.) Just click below, hit shuffle, and enjoy - but be sure to turn it up to 11!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

How To Stop Being A Writer in 5 Easy Steps

Ever since I was old enough to hold a pencil to paper, I knew I wanted to "write and draw" for the rest of my life.  It was always my answer when people asked me, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"  I'd reply, "I want to write and illustrate books."  It's been the one constant truth I've known about myself for as long as I can remember.

Then life happened, and here I am, wondering how I got here.  Not a writer.  Not an artist.

So, in case you're a writer or creative person, and you'd like to learn all my secrets of how I stomped that dream right out, I thought I'd share with you my easy five-step process to stop being a writer, or being creative at all, for that matter.  (The following is written with tongue firmly in cheek.)  

STEP 1.  Don't Prioritize or Schedule Your Time.
Let the pressures and demands of everyday life get in the way of making time to create or write.  Convince yourself that "you'll have time later".  And for heaven's sake, don't set any schedules; why would you want to confine yourself?  Tell yourself to just wait until creativity hits and you'll sit down and write then.

Pixies by Brian Froud
STEP 2.  Don't Listen to Your Muse.  Listen to the Pixie Instead.
In Greek mythology, there was a Muse for each type of art, and these Muses would inspire, encourage, and aid creative people in making their art. Thus our phrase about "listening to your Muse" when creating.  Well, don't listen to your Muse.  Instead, listen to your Pixie.  Now I'm not talking about a darling little Disney fairy with glittering wings, sprinkling fairy dust everywhere.  I'm talking about the dangerous Pixies from folklore; the ones that enjoy leading travelers astray, leaving them lost and disoriented in the woods. The Pixies that like to trick and confound and whisper lies.  I'm pretty sure if we all have a Muse, then we must also have a Pixie. Believe your Pixie when she whispers in your ear, "You're not good enough.  No one will want to read that.  Why are you even trying? Do you really think you can write? You'd better just quit."  Sure, Pixies have a bad reputation, but you should trust yours. The more you listen to her, the harder it will be to hear your Muse.  Listen long enough, the Muse will stop talking to you altogether.

STEP 3.  Forget How to Play.
Don't just sit down and play with words, or write whatever comes into your head.  Don't write simply for the pure joy of stringing words together. You should have a fully-realized three-act storyboarded plot with clearly developed characters all figured out in your mind along with a clear publication goal, marketing strategy, and an agent on speed dial before you ever sit down to the keyboard. Writing prompts and exercises are also a waste of time.  And while we're at it, don't ever doodle either.

STEP 4.  Ignore Your Biggest Fans.
There will be well-meaning cheerleaders in your life.  They are the ones who always ask what you're working on and can they read it.  They will encourage you to keep writing.  They will talk about how gifted you are and give you countless reasons why you shouldn't give up.  They're biased because they love you.  Smile and nod at them, because they mean well, but don't listen to them.

STEP 5.  Don't Read or Write.
This seems like a ridiculously simple and obvious step, but it must be said.  The way to stop being a writer is to avoid the written word.  Don't read books; they might inspire something creative in you or spark an idea and you'll feel the urge to write it down.  Best not to open the cover of a book and be potentially tempted. And of course, don't write. Whenever you feel the urge to write, just settle down in front of the TV for some Netflix and chill instead.  The urge will pass.

Follow these steps for a day or two, and they will start to add up and compound upon one another, days will turn into weeks, which will turn into years and, voila, you will stop being a writer.

(Removing tongue from cheek.)

Let my life be a terrible warning.  Don't do what I have done.  Learn from my mistakes.

I now find myself fighting to crawl out of the creative pit I'm in because of committing these very missteps.  Whenever I sit down to write, the rusty gears grind so bad I can almost audibly hear them.  I don't believe creative folks like myself intentionally set out to stop creating, but that internal drive, motivation, desire - whatever it is - has to scream louder than the rest of the world. It has to demand your attention.  And sometimes that voice can get quiet.  But take heart, Gentle Readers.  Hold out a little hope for me yet.  I'm still trying.

I wrote this, didn't I?  ;-)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

It Doesn't Remind Me of Anything

Chris Cornell, 2016 -
My husband woke me up this morning with the news.  Lead singer of Soundgarden and Audioslave, Chris Cornell, is dead.  Still fuzzy-headed from sleep, I whimpered "noooo" and cried into his shoulder.

I spent the day listening to Soundgarden, Audioslave, and his solo music, and memories came flooding back.  I randomly posted the following thoughts to social media as they came to me.  I'm collecting them here, mostly for myself, but to also connect with those who find that his music was part of the soundtrack to their lives.

My house didn't have cable growing up. I was able to see MTV sometimes at a friend's house, but most of my friends' families couldn't afford cable either. When I got to college, basic cable was provided in the dorm rooms and, believe it or not, MTV actually played music videos back then. Looking back now, it's amazing I passed my freshman year of classes with all the MTV and Comedy Central being piped into my room. Whenever the video for the song "Outshined" came on, I would stop whatever I was doing to listen/watch.
That music.
That voice.
To this day, whenever I hear this song, I'm immediately nineteen years old again, watching MTV with my roommates.

Chris Cornell, 1991 - 
The very first time I ever met my (now) husband, we started our conversation over a shared interest in the band Queensr├┐che and then proceeded to bounce all over the wide-ranging and eclectic genres of music that we both loved. It was crazy unusual for me to find someone who shared such varied tastes in music. We were so absorbed in our conversation and talked for so long that everyone else who was with us left and went home. Consequently, I needed a ride, so he offered to give me a lift back to my dorm room and one of us suggested a CD exchange. I had the new Tori Amos CD, Under the Pink (told you our tastes are eclectic) and he had the new Soundgarden CD, Superunknown.

As I ran up the seven floors to my dorm room to grab the CD and run it all the way back down to him while he waited curbside in his truck, I remember thinking I could hardly stand the wait to hear the new Soundgarden. Pretty sure I listened to it that night.
The new album didn't disappoint.
And it gave me an excuse to talk to my husband again.

Whenever I hear a song off the Superunknown album, or even see the cover art, I remember that night and how giddy I was about the connection I'd just made with a fellow music-lover.  Little did I know at the time he'd end up being my boyfriend, and later, my husband. The two of us always joke that we have Queensr├┐che to thank for our getting together, but in retrospect, Soundgarden had a part to play too.

I'm thankful for the music and, more importantly, for the memories they conjure up.  Rest in peace, Mr. Cornell.  Thank you for leaving behind your artistry, your lyrics, your voice, and your dark beauty.

I will leave you, Gentle Readers, with my favorite song by Chris Cornell, written about my favorite novel, Great Expectations.  It's perfection.