I will be published in Issue 74 and I could not be more delighted that Burn Baby found such a perfect home. Please look for it later this week. In the meantime, check out their “Meet the Contributors” section for more information.
An important note about Crack the Spine – my story will be published in their online journal but it is now eligible for inclusion in one of their print publications. They take into account feedback left on their website and social media sites. So, if you like my story, please tell them. I would love the opportunity to reach a wider audience and for my story to be published in one of their esteemed anthologies.
Last week, I had a crisis at work that diverted all my attention from creative pursuits. Needing a day job is an unfortunate reality for me. My fervent wish is that someday I won’t have to focus on technical writing but until that happens, the paying gig always has to take precedence. I really enjoy not living in a cave.
But even after things began to settle down a little, I realized I was trapped in a technical writing mind set. The fiction class I was in came to a close this week and we have a two week break before the next one starts up. Add into that mix IT issues and the eight rejections I’ve gotten in as many days and my inspiration and motivation levels have plummeted.
I was asked to participate in an interview with a fellow writer who wanted to pen an article on moving from fiction writing into technical writer. Her questions really made me think about the functionality of moving between two very different styles of writing.
Technical writing is forcibly succinct. No stage setting, no creativity and it tends to follow a very strict style guide. As a technical writer, you may or may not fully understand the subject matter at all times (which is why subject matter experts are essential). You need to know just enough to be dangerous.
Fiction writing is full of colorful word choice and syntax. No limit exists in the world of fiction. You can break all the rules and still be successful. There is something inherently satisfying about creating something with nothing but your own creativity.
Sitting in front of a computer and writing about technical things you don’t ever fully understand can be draining. It makes shifting gears over to fiction writing very difficult. So, I’m exploring ways to facilitate that shift.
Here is what I’ve come up with so far:
Go for a walk
Wherever you live, there has to be something beautiful to walk up to and admire. This is especially true for me because I happen to live in the middle of the boonies. We have deer living in our front yard. A hawk built her nest along our drive. I go visit the neighbor’s goats that live up the road. I really, really love goats. We live in a farming community so things are rustic and fresh and smell like grass. When I get really bogged down by work, I take a long walk. Art comes from beauty. Art, itself, is not always beautiful but the spirit that creates it is.
Discover something new
Recently, we drove up to Hanging Rock State Park and hiked the day away. We’d never been there before. I turned my cell phone off because my brain needed to recharge. I needed to live in the moment. We jumped in the car without planning anything – just started driving. It was the first sunny day in a long stretch of rain and it was like the lunatics were set loose from the hospital. It was a perfect day in the midst of a lot of stress. We got to the top and looked out for miles. On the way home, we stopped at a gas station that had two king sized candy bars for $2.22 and fountain soda. We ate 900 calories and laughed and sweated and told each other lies.
Try a mood altering substance
Ok, so if you have substance abuse problems, this won’t help you. We are all adults here – follow any advice I give you with care. But, if you are like me and you are wound super tight, you might need to relax. For instance, the other night, I had a glass (ok, ok, three. Jesus.) of wine and watched The Last Unicorn. While I did that, I wrote poetry.
Really bad poetry.
But, the point is, I was putting words together. My brain was loose. I was freestyling without fear of judgement. I came up with the following literary gems:
Something is breaking. Inside me, beside me.
I am on the cusp of something.
I dance alone, peeling potatoes, sweet potatoes
day after day, I can only be this.
Love is slowing you down,
You’ve turned inside out, a hung steeple
I picked you up on a doorstep
Every movement betrays you
(I don’t even know what some of that means. But, you know who does? Wine. Wine does.)
and (this one is my favorite)
I refuse to apologize
for the BLT I just ate
for following the bread crumbs
I was younger. I was younger once.
Wake up, she says to me. And, I chew on my pillow.
Mouth full of feathers.
Mouth full of sleep.
Seriously, some of those poems are literally taken straight from dialogue between Prince Lir and Amalthea (the unicorn’s name when she got magicked into a human by Schmendrick . If you haven’t watched or read it, you really should. That cartoon fueled my childhood). I’m not a poet by trade. Not even by desire. But, it does help me make word associations that I can use as inspiration or even to develop into unique sentence structure.
Ask the gods for luck
You pick the god. Meditate, if that helps you. Spend time with your congregation. Go eat a boat load of Dim Sum and then rub the luck dragon on the way to the car. Whatever gets you there.
Read for pleasure, read for trade
Nothing gets me as excited about writing as reading does. If I read a shitty book, I think, “I could have written this! I can write better than this!” If I read a brilliant book, it makes me excited enough to try it myself. Holy shit, sometimes I just need to read. Because reading is important.
Books on writing can help jump start a creative brain. I’ve read a lot of them. Here are some of my favorites:
Take a mysterious picture and write your way into it
Revisit Past Glories
Most of my problems with inspiration stem from confidence issues. Writers are a delicate breed. We are both narcissists and suffer from an inferiority complex. We are children capturing lightening bugs in a bottle, pretending they are flashes of lightening. So, sometimes, I’ll go back and remember that one time I got two acceptances in two days. I’ll think about how amazing that made me feel. I’ll re-read something I’ve written that felt strong and good.
Here is a fact: if I did it once, I can do it twice.
And, if I can do it twice, I am capable of doing it a hundred times.
When I first started sending my stories out for submission, I joined Duotrope. Absolutely, if you are an aspiring writer submitting your work, I recommend this site. I wouldn’t be able to track my submissions as well on my own. It is a searchable database where writers can list stories, search for places to submit and track sales. In addition, it offers interviews with editors that I find really useful when deciding what to send where. It is a subscription based site – $5 a month but I find it so useful, I don’t mind the cost. (Similar free sites exist, I just haven’t used them. So I can’t recommend any of them.)
And, it gives me sweet little messages to keep me going!
The first time I got rejected, I cried.
Like a big baby.
For multiple days.
It was devastating. I didn’t have a lot of perspective, at the time, to be honest. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen – that my first time out of the gate, I’d take home the Triple Crown? It was a really nice rejection, too. The editor took the time to tell me what wasn’t working and to offer me the opportunity to resubmit when I made some changes.
But that first rejection made me shaky. Writing is something I’ve always been good at doing. It was the secret wish in my heart. It was the gravy on my mashed potatoes. But, what if I only thought I was good at it? What if everyone else on the planet thought I was just another shitty wanna-be purple prose Franken-monster? When your whole identity is wrapped up into a need to create, and no one wants your creation, what does that mean?
Of course, I was being a drama queen. That story hadn’t matured yet and it was actually really good it wasn’t published as it was. I made some changes. I let it simmer for a while. Then, I resubmitted it and got rejected again. Ha! Life is a trick ho, some days. The second rejection actually hurt a little less because I was expecting it. And, I could look at my submission tracker and see that my story had 4 more chances at 4 different magazines.
I worked on my story. I resubmitted it. I told no one what I was doing save my writing soul sister, Molly and my husband. If I didn’t tell anyone and I failed, no one would know! (Which, incidentally, is how I worm my way out of most diets.) And, then, I wouldn’t have to look like a loser. Well…you know what I mean. In any case, it was eventually accepted and published. And that little win gave me the courage to keep trying.
Some days you have to be brave even when the wind is rattling your door. You take the wins you can get and you let them carry you over to the next. I watch my submission tracker like a nut. I get excited every time I get an email from an editor – even the ones saying “No thanks”. As soon as I get rejected, I immediately start looking for a new place to submit. The rejections still hurt but not nearly as bad as that first. Because, I know a win is on its way.
I’ve been struggling just recently. Nothing too serious, nothing completely debilitating. Just a lack of inspiration. I write about water a lot and I think it is because writing is a very elemental thing for me. Inspiration typically comes from a word or a phrase associated with the four elements. It will get me going, get trapped in my head like a horrible song verse. I won’t be able to put it down. I’ll start with a place and write my way in. But recently, nothing has been jumping out at me.
So, I tried the normal go-to’s:
And, when none of those helped, I decided to go find some inspiration swimming around in the thick humid Carolina air. Sometimes writing is an active sport – the more I practice, the better I get. And, some days, I just don’t got the goods. But, I have to show up everyday and try.
We have a little park near our house (or, kind of near. Nothing is really near us) called the Chatham Northwest District Park. A far off thunder storm was calling but we decided to risk it – packed a lunch, grabbed our trusty frisbee and headed out.
When we first discovered this park, it was unnamed. So, we named it the Creepy Church Camp. I don’t know the exact history and I don’t really care to know it – the mystery is a lot more seductive than the truth. It was clearly an old camp ground with a lot of religious markers but it was falling apart. And, like most things that decay, in the right light, it is really kind of beautiful.
The county is fixing it up which is a complete shame, in my opinion. Safer, probably. The low hanging electrical wires and hobo filled cabins are, most likely, not great for children. The first time we hiked out the old trail, we imagined all the campy (pun intended) horror movies we could create. Old falling down cabins with raccoon families bunking down. Picnic tables destroyed by huge fallen trees. The Creepy Church Camp is what I’d imagine a camp would be like after the apocalypse.
I’m surprised every time I see another living soul scouting about in the Creepy Church Camp. I’m not ashamed to admit my first thought is usually: zombies. Worse yet, scary 70s church camp zombies. Those are…like…the worst kind!
But, it really is spectacular. If you walk along the trail, you’ll find little wooden markers pointing out smaller paths straight out into green moss and Oak. The first path we found was the “Prayer Area”. We walked out and found a mess of wooden benches situated in a circle. I’m not a religious person, but if you are, I can’t imagine a better place than in the middle of thick woods with the sun streaming through the canopy to worship. Just, please excuse the super creepy blood stained cross. I’m not joking.
I looked everywhere for my misplaced inspiration. It wasn’t in the cabins. It wasn’t in the lichen growing on the north side of the trees. It definitely wasn’t in the amphitheater – and I looked there twice. I fed the sweet little fish the remnants of my sandwich but they hadn’t seen my inspiration anywhere.
We listened for the thunder, watched the clouds roll in black like a charcoal painting against a milky blue palette. We walked and walked, the air sweltering and sweat dripping down our backs. We watched tiny toads jump across the trail, seeking out the shade. Every once in a while, we would find little pockets of cool ozone, the harbinger of nasty weather to come. It smelled like bark and dirt. The clouds began to spark. Still, no inspiration.
It doesn’t matter. I’ll find it somewhere. In a wine glass. In a playlist. In the Gillian Flynn novel I am reading (Dark Places – book review pending). It never really leaves me for very long. But, when it is missing, I feel anxious. Class on Tuesday means I better come up with something. It will come, it will come. Deep breath, it will come.
Clouds were spun like sugar at a carnival, pure white puffs set against a brilliant blue sky. In those days, all the mysteries of the universe were quiet, a whisper lost in the wind. Grainy stalks of corn reached up from the loamy soil. A gravel driveway, shrouded by forest that lasted a mile in a farming country, was full of anxious monsters. Monsters that were sprouted from vines on trees and sagging shadows. Monsters that were always hushed when I walked to the school bus, granting me passage. I needed them to be kind. But, how I wished one of my cousins would fall prey.
Grass grew waist high in a field left fallow to tend itself back into usefulness. Our Summer was – and is, still – marked by hay season and the grinding of tractor gears. The big red barn sat nestled against a hill, sheltering the animals like a long-suffering mother waiting each night for her children to come home. Step by step, hoof to hoof, they’d come in a long line, cows walking nose to tail. I would fall asleep each night listening to the nicker of the horses, the mewling cows, the pule of the crickets. The whole farm chorused.
Pastures led to fences, led to forests that surrounded our home and sheltered us in a strongbox of our own making. How arrogant one can become when barbed wire and Buckeyes stand hale against the world.
My Father, the strongest man I ever met, sat tiredly beside the yellow Formica dinner table with the metal rings along the edge. With a resigned smile for a daughter begging to play; wrestling in the living room with chocolate ice cream rimmed around my lips. Or, with a tear and strangled voice, “Baby, Grandma is dead.” Again, I am sitting on the yellow padded kitchen chair, pulling at the cracked vinyl and blanched foam.
My Mother, a mausoleum to her own sainted mother, soothed tears brought about by the vulgarity of being the youngest of three, always chasing the others and never quite catching up. She taught me how to knit, simple stockinette stitches, the night I accidentally killed my white kitten, Snowball. I cried as I wove, tears soaking the yarn at my finger tips. She ran a hand over the crown of my head, knitting her fingers through my hair until the tears stopped.
Autumn passed make-shift memories of leaf piles and down filled jackets into my mind. The smell of leaves burning still carries visions of smoke drifting through an electric night sky. Countless times we gathered around the fire like pagan worshipers thankful for the hunt, for the close of the harvest. Nothing could have been more benign that those moments, entranced by the dancing flame, we celebrated the simplicity of our life.
Clearing the drive of snow in the first dawn of winter brought forts compacted like huge snowballs. Our throats full of laughter, I would bump against my brother as we cleared new paths, our cheeks bright red against freckled pale skin. He thought he was Superman in his crystal cave. I thought he was stupid. When the gauntlet was thrown and war battled between the snowmen we’d become, the first ball of ice was usually mine.
My sister found a beagle our last winter on the farm, stranded along a country road. Its ribs stuck cruel against skin thinned by starvation. She brought it home and begged for its life and sure enough, it ended up in a straw filled dog box behind the house. She had no way of knowing that with its belly full of loving dinner scraps, it would growl and bite in her direction. My father named her Bitch but we christened her Lady.
When Spring found its way back to us and winter was swept from our front porch, confusion hollowed out the house. Piece by piece, our furniture, our things, were stuck like livestock on a truck and moved far away. In the empty rooms, our laughter would echo of times past but eventually, the orange shag carpet of the living room absorbed the noise and left the house eery in its silence. But, these memories of my first home smile at me as new puffy white clouds grow daily and I will wear that grin forever.
Note: All photograph credits belong to Katherine Wallick, my awesome sister.
“I didn’t ask for much,” he said in a voice of crushed rock. “I never asked for too much.”
“You say that, man. You say that all the time, Ed. Problem is, ain’t no one left to care,” Detective Waters replied.
Ed smiled over at the detective, a drowsy close-mouthed tightening of pink chapped lips. He couldn’t stop himself from licking them every time the cold wind blew through the trees. Detective Waters kept both eyes on Ed, his right hand seemed to be resting comfortably on the service revolver holstered at his hip.
“Yeah, well, maybe I could make you care.” He tipped his head back, took a deep, slow breath. He felt a chuckle, barely more than a bubble of trapped air in his barrel chest.
“I wasn’t askin’ for earth and water, man,” he continued, his eyes blinked once, slow, as if he was awakening from a long lazy dream. He shifted to lean against the tree at his back, his orange jumpsuit a glaring contrast to the muted browns and greens of the shadowy forest. His fingers flexed as he tried to draw the blood back into his cuffed hands. It felt like pins and needles against his skin. “That’s what the Persians used to say: Earth and water,” Ed’s voice was a whisper against the steady shhnnk of the shovels, the grunts of the men digging. “Absolute submission.”
“What the hell are you talking about? We didn’t bring you here to listen to your garbage.” The detective took two steps away from him and drew in a deep, weary breath. Ed lifted his manacled hands to scratch his cheek. His fingernail scraped over the stubble and left an angry red mark against his pale skin.
“This life has a way of making a man want to go back to the earth,” Ed said, as he watched the men digging around him. Watched as they turned that black earth. When the first white bone popped up from the dirt, he looked away. When things are buried, they should stay buried, he thought. When something goes to the ground, it becomes sacred. “Problem with you men is you got no respect for the work a man dedicates his life to.”
In high school, I was on the school newspaper. I was a writer, and later an editor, of The Camel Tracks at Campbell County High School in Gillette, Wyoming. We later changed the name to The Humphrey Herald, and as far as I know, its still called that to this day. I was a hard hitting journalist – publishing such awe inspiring pieces as Valentine’s Day: The Darker Meaning and The Great Simpson Debate Continues. Oh, 1995, I miss you in a lot of weird ways.
I’ve always loved writing fiction. In ninth grade, I spent an entire year in math class writing a romance novel in a black and white composition book. It was pretty slutty for a ninth grade girl afraid of boys. It was full of supernatural elements, damsel-in-distress-like situations, an impossibly sexy overbearing man and the one woman that could change him. Every month, I would go to the book store and buy those monthly Harlequin serial romances. I would devour them. It really sort of messed me up on a very basic fundamental level. My husband would agree.
I wrote a story in my tenth grade English class called ‘Cancer of the Soul’. I was very proud of this piece – so proud that I pushed for it to be published in my journalism class, despite the fact that it was:
Here is the basic breakdown of the story: Narrator, told in the first person, is sexually abused by her father. Narrator is terrified, believes nothing could be worse than the nightly visits of her deviant father. Until that one fateful night when her father bypasses her door and moves down the hall. To her little sister’s bedroom. EPIC REVEAL! So heartbreaking! And poignant!
Good stuff, right? A little dark for a tenth grade English class, maybe. A little dark for a school newspaper. But, I was good. I was ready. It was published. We spent the requisite time developing the layouts of the pages on our old Macintosh desktops in Journalism class – white space was a real problem back then. We sent it off to the printers. It came back and was distributed to the student body. Not one single person ever said anything to me about my story. In hindsight, I see that we neglected to tell the reader that it was fiction. I certainly hope that was obvious. My father probably hoped that, as well.
I brought an issue home and gave it to my parents, completely oblivious to how it might make them feel. My father is a quiet Midwestern Guy – spends a lot of time in his garage. I remember him calling me out to that garage to talk after he read my story. I didn’t recognize that he was confused. I didn’t see that he could be hurt.
Let me clarify: my father is wonderful. He was a little scary when I was younger – in that way that all great fathers are. He was good and kind and always thought the best of us. Even when we didn’t deserve it. So, for him to read this story must have come as a real shock. Also, I don’t have a little sister. (My mom does have a brand new puppy that she treats like a child, but that is the closest I’ve gotten.)
As he worked at his bench in the garage, he asked me about my story.
“Where did you come up with that?” he asked me, never once looking up at me.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “What do you think?”
“Things are ok with you?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I responded. Why wasn’t he telling me how great he thought my story was?
“Ok, go help your Mom with dishes.”
It happens in quiet ways – writers start to pull from real life experiences and oftentimes, our loved ones are the victims. And, sometimes, fiction is just fiction. It gets messy though. People get hurt. But, as a writer, no one in your life is safe. I didn’t learn that until I was older, when I could look back and see what my writing could do to my loved ones. Its a lesson I still violate to this day. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I will probably never stop doing it. I don’t know how else to do this.
People read fiction and they want to read into it – if I write a story about a woman killing her husband, I’m dissatisfied with my marriage. If I write a story about an alcoholic, I have a drinking problem. Not true. Look for the smaller moments. The quiet moments. That’s where I am. You might be there, too.
How innapropriate was the comic beneath my story!? I had nothing to do with that one!
The picture of Bailey, my mother’s favored daughter-dog, was taken by my mother: Nancy J. Downing