This is important to all who still feel the magic.
Well, friends, I see it’s been awhile since I’ve sat down to update ye olde blog. It’s been a very… intense few months, and I am just now able to see some daylight peeking through those ominous trees. Some hope. Some closure.
Back near the end of April, I took a pregnancy test (the latest of many), and it was positive. Yes, my husband and I had been “trying.” And yes, my first reaction (after a few months of tracking every period and every ovulation cycle and using those messy progesterone suppositories which I resented and yet clung to with their promise of making it through a full first trimester) was one of elation. We did it! But, as you can probably glean from the preceding sentence, that feeling was quickly followed by trepidation and stress. My husband and I had already been through two miscarriages several months prior, and the idea of it happening again made my heart heavy. I told myself this time I wouldn’t get too emotionally invested until we’d made it to the second trimester. This time, we would be cautious with our hearts, and with who we told.
In the mean time, I became very superstitious. As a pagan, I’ve got a strong streak of that anyway, but the delicate balancing act you play with your heart and head when you’ve gone through multiple miscarriages calls for a bit of “extra” in the superstition department. I took magic from wherever I could get it. My dear friend Terri Wallace, before I even conceived, and shortly after the last miscarriage (when I let her know I was still willing to try again), gave me her Saint Gerard medallion, which she wore with her first successful pregnancy after a miscarriage. She said, “don’t take it off, not ever, not even to shower.” I follow directions. And then my oldest friend, Sarah Franz-Wichlacz, who at the time was working at a metaphysical shop in Minneapolis, sent me not only strength and well-wishes, but also put her head and energy together with her boss and commissioned for me a couple of necklaces made with all the right stones and intentions for a healthy pregnancy. I donned them with deep thanks.
Through these delicate months, I stayed upbeat. I told a very small group of people about my pregnancy, not wanting a big public acknowledgement in case something went wrong, but refusing to “go it alone” because I know that too many women who go through miscarriage feel isolated; they feel they can’t talk about what they’re going through, with the failed pregnancies or the current one. I was going to be smart about this.
I told my three closest girlfriends, my husband told his mother, I told one couple – mutual friends of mine and my husband’s because they were going through the same thing – and I told my aunt. I didn’t tell my mom.
The thing you need to understand is that things between my mother and I have always been complicated. I will explain in a minute. But, suffice it to say, I told her sister, because things with my aunt have always been a lot less complicated, and I didn’t tell her. I mean, I meant to. I would get to it. I just hadn’t yet.
The next thing that happened, a few short weeks later, was a short series of phone calls between me and Aunt Chris, sparked by my aunt’s concern that perhaps mom was avoiding her. My aunt couldn’t get a hold of her by phone, and when my uncle had gone to mom’s apartment, she didn’t answer the door. But she didn’t have a car, so it was hard to tell if she was actually home at all. Aunt Chris asked me to call, since my mother had no reason to avoid her only daughter. I did. I got voicemail and left a short cheery message asking her to call me back. I then called my aunt back. My mother worked for Walmart. I told Chris to call mom’s job and see if she’d been at work lately. If not, I told her to call the local police and have them check in on her at home.
The next call after that, a few days later, was my aunt telling me I’d better sit down.
There is a certain practicality which takes over your mind when you find out your parent, with whom your relationship has been”complicated,” has died. There isn’t an appropriate straightforward emotion just waiting there to surface, because nothing about this relationship is straightforward. And so, to protect your mind from cracking under the confusion and disbelief and sorrow and regret and pain and even relief of it all, your mind goes into “take care of business” mode. Or, at least that’s what mine did. Even though I knew, on the surface and underneath, that what was really happening was the symbolic end of the single most traumatic, intense, connected, terrifying, and formative times of my life. This was the end of the era that defined me.
Not everyone grows up with a parent who is mentally ill. My mother was a paranoid schizophrenic, though I don’t believe she was formally diagnosed until after my time with her, when her own father finally admitted her to a mental hospital. I was around 16 or 17 years old and already living with my father by then.
My parents divorced when I was 10 years old, when my father moved to Oklahoma for a job, and it was just her and me for the next five years. Whatever small hints my father may have had that his wife had some issues which weren’t strictly normal, they all reared their terrifying heads and spiraled out of control after he left. I was the only witness. No one knew then, and no one knows still how bad it really got when it was just me and her, except maybe two or three very close friends. Mom and I were like Thelma and Louise, if Thelma had been schizophrenic and only thought the authorities were after them and there was no way out, and Louise had had to keep them from committing double suicide by distracting Thelma with constant road music and a sunny outlook. “On second thought, Thelma, let’s not keep going, mmmmkay?”
As intense as those five years were, I haven’t let myself write about them much, at least not where the public can see. I will admit, it has been a bit stifling, creatively. You are supposed to “write what you know,” they say. Even Anne Lamott said, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
But it sometimes isn’t as easy as that.
My mother did some terrifying things, and placed us in some horribly precarious situations. But, in the end, I know that she was doing nearly all of it for me. Her visions were nightmarish, and all of the moving and sneaking and disappearing off the face of the earth, like living in a dark espionage film and your characters are on the run from the shady government officials who aren’t quite “official,” was done to protect me from ‘Them.’ When I can remove myself from the trauma of it all, I know it can definitely make for great story fodder. But my silence up to this point has been to protect her. To keep my mom from stumbling onto something I wrote, putting two and two together, and feeling pain or guilt or embarrassment. She wasn’t a cruel mother, and I wasn’t a victim. She was a woman with a mental illness, battling relentless invisible demons and unfathomable fears, and I… was collateral damage.
I had written a piece, actually, which touched upon these things. It was for a Chicken Soup for the Soul edition focusing on volunteering, and I’d submitted it earlier this year. The story I sent them hearkened back to a time when mom and I were staying in battered women’s shelters and the power of a good volunteer who reached out to me via literature, soothing my little bookworm heart. I wrote this piece under my pen name here. After it was accepted*, the Chicken Soup people asked if I would be interested in working with their publicity people, since I’d written under a pseudonym. Was I okay with my true identity being revealed? I received that email just weeks after my mother passed. I thought about it, and that’s when I realized my reason for anonymity with that particular topic had essentially vanished. And now, as the dust settles and I come to accept that my mother is, in fact, gone, I know that my gag order has been recalled. Now it is time to “own everything that happened to me.” It came sooner than I wished or expected, but here it is. My life post-mom.
So, before I embark on essays and tales on the experiences of a teenage girl living with a schizophrenic single parent, I need to put this out into the universe:
Mom, I love you. I know it wasn’t your fault. I know you didn’t know any better. It was scary for me at times, more terrifying than any young lady in her most formative years should ever experience, but I know that whatever fear I felt, yours was exponentially worse. I know that you did everything you did, not to scare me, but to protect me. And I know that you would have done it all differently, if you could have seen any other way.
And now, my friends, I’m going to go before I get my laptop wet and turn into a blubbering mess here at the office. Lunch breaks are bad times for deep confession.
Thanks for being there. We’ll talk again soon.
Oh, one last thing. I am now 18 weeks along, we’re having a boy, and the doctor says everything looks fine.
*My story, “A Sort of Shelter,” will be published in the collection, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering Giving Back, and will be available for sale in stores August 18, 2015.
May I never write another dust mote.
Guest post by Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine managing editor Nathaniel Tower
An editor of a literary magazine has to put up with a fair amount. Among the struggles we must face on our daily quest for literary greatness is repetition. I’m not simply talking about the monotony of reading submissions. Rather, I’m referring to the fact that, at times, it feels like every submission is exactly the same.
When lit mag editors are asked what frustrates them the most about submissions, the responses are typically the same: submissions that don’t follow guidelines, submissions riddled with typos, submissions with a blatant disregard for the aesthetic (whatever the hell that means) of the lit mag in question.
As a lit mag editor, these aren’t the things that bother me the most. Writers who don’t follow guidelines are the easiest to reject. They waste the least amount of my time. What, you didn’t use the…
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“As his alter ego, Sikh Captain America, Singh debunks people’s definition of an American and specifically, an American superhero.”
About. Damn. Time.
Is America ready for a Sikh Captain America — a superhero fighting hate crimes and intolerance? In the wake of 9/11, the massacre of Sikh Americans in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and America post-Ferguson, my answer is a resounding yes! If superheroes can battle aliens, cyborgs, and fellow villainous superheroes, why can’t there be one that fights for social and racial justice?
In 2013, cartoonist Vishavjit Singh wore a Captain America costume for the first time with a royal blue turban to match his ensemble. The short documentary Red, White, and Beard is a quirky, lighthearted glance into Sikh Captain America and the man behind this growing phenomenon.
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A fantastically well-written post by my dear friend and talented writer, Terri Wallace, about good-geeking vs. objectification, and what happens when the room full of fangirls (or boys) essentially becomes a mob. A proud geek myself, this made me want to stand up and cheer.
Fandoms rock. You know what rocks even more? Respectful fandoms. Fandoms that don’t have a sense of entitlement. Fandoms that don’t objectify. Fandoms that aren’t snide and snarky.
I am a proud fan-girl. I binge watch The Walking Dead. I eagerly try to convert others into Sherlockians. Somewhere there is a belt with a notch for every friend I have turned into a Whovian. I will talk Outlander all day long (and often do talk about it all day–to anyone who will listen, and many who don’t). So, when I find others who are equally obsessive, it’s like finding a kindred soul…except when it isn’t.
There is a dark underbelly to the fandoms. One which I didn’t really see until it stared back at me from my Facebook feed. Eager Outlander that I am, I recently joined several groups on Facebook: Other people who have read the books and loved…
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I have an issue to discuss with you. I have come to the realization that a lot of writers don’t seem to trust their readers. This is a travesty; this breaks my heart.
We writers sit at our laptops, typing feverishly (or scribbling feverishly in notebooks; whichever you prefer), trying desperately to get our messages across–to impart the big beautiful, terrifying, poignant stories which have taken over our brains to the brains of others via mere words (and sometimes pictures). And most of the time, if we are very into our story, and we have a decent command of the language in which we’re communicating, it works. It works because those who read our tales have imaginations, too. Because they know how to follow a story. Because this isn’t their first literary rodeo. Because they are readers. And yet, sometimes, the capacity of the readers brain–their cleverness, their willingness to learn and accept new things, their sheer intelligence–is forgotten.
As much as I am a writer, I am also an avid reader (as all writers should be). For our purposes here, I am putting on my reader’s hat. I enjoy a good story. I want to get lost in the settings and characters. When I open the cover and my eyes light on the first page, I want to feel inexorably pulled in and hungry to know more. However, when the author of a good yarn suddenly decides (to put it bluntly) that he or she thinks I, the reader, am stupid (or makes me suspect that possibly they are), it blows the whole thing. It’s like a theatrical record scratch, and everything in my head goes silent, and I am instantly thrown back out into reality and away from the story. A mood-killer, for sure.
This, unfortunately, tends to happen most often with indie authors, much like yours truly. Don’t get me wrong, there are many, many fantastic indie authors who can run circles around some traditionally published writers. Being “independent” is no indication of whether or not one is a good writer. I think I only run into issues more in this world because there seems to be a lot of people who self-pub without getting a wide swath of opinion on the writing first. Why is that important? Because you need to hear it from more than just your friends whether or not the writing flows, and whether the readers are enjoying themselves. Because that’s what all this writing (especially fiction writing) is about: communicating with and immersing your readers.
You see, there is an unspoken contract between a writer and her readers. The reader agrees to suspend their disbelief, to look up a word occasionally if they run into something outside their immediate vocabulary, and to open their hearts and minds to what they are about to receive–to be ready and willing to love the imaginary world you set before them. Make it good, make us believe it, and we will go along with just about anything. The writer, on the other hand, agrees to trust their readers. This is very important. People who choose to pick up written words and use their imagination as a means of entertaining themselves (as opposed to, say, rollerblading or playing beer pong–not that I’m judging) are not stupid. Don’t treat them like they are. Want to turn a reader off? Assume that they are morons who can’t possibly hold onto important plot points for more than three pages, or that they won’t notice that your favorite word to describe blue eyes is “ocean” after you’ve used it five times in the same chapter. Give your readers a little credit. We are paying attention.
Now, before you accuse me of being preachy, believe me, I understand, we’re all human. We have all been guilty of over-explaining and latching onto pretty descriptions–exhaustively–a time or two. But, I am sending out a call to all fellow writers now to please, before you publish that next novel or short story, as you’re going over your final draft, think like a reader. Here are some tips which might help.
1. Stop Repeating Yourself
Okay, I understand, sometimes you need to reiterate a plot point to make sure your reader gets it, but don’t beat us over the head with it. This is the issue which spurred me to bring up this whole topic. I recently read a story (which shall remain nameless) which started off promising, had a ton of great writing and a fantastic story, but had a few… hiccups. The first of which happened early on, immediately after the main character had a conversation with a spooky old woman. Post-convo, as the MC is walking away from said spooky woman, the writer apparently deemed it necessary for the said MC to repeat the entire conversation in his head, point by point. Stop it. We just read this scene. Reiterating the whole thing is not going to do anything but make your reader exhausted and annoyed. I get it. You think it’s an important conversation for us to recall later in the book. But, I’m telling you, you’re doing it wrong. If we need to remember it, we can flip back to it later, when it comes up again. It’s good for us to have to work to retain this information. It feels more real, more challenging, and a challenge is not a bad thing. Suspense is not created by beating your readers over the heads with “this is a clue, this is important, this will come up later, don’t forget it!” Trust us. We will “get it” when we’re supposed to get it. Putting together those subtle (emphasis on the word subtle) clues at various ah-ha moments is part of the joy of reading. If you hold our hands too long, we’ll just want to break away. Just lay out the breadcrumbs without all the neon signs. We will follow, and we will feel so much cleverer if we believe we came to it on our own.
This may sound a lot like the first point, but what I am referring to here is language redundancy, not so much story redundancy. Redundancy in language–using the same descriptive word for something over and over again–is one of my greatest pet peeves. Anyone who knows me will tell you it’s true. I look for it in my own writing like a niffler looking for treasure (with nods to J. K. Rowling and my fellow Potter fans); I will leave no paragraph unplundered in my search for the overused adjective or adverb. There is no excuse for it, and I will not have it. Why? Because I don’t want to put my readers through that, no matter how in love I am with the word cerulean or how thrilled I am to have utilized the phrase, ‘like a niffler looking for treasure.’
Be creative, writers. And don’t assume your readers can’t see it when you use the same turns of phrase repeatedly. This is lazy writing. So, your character likes to kiss rough. Fine. But, seriously, how many times do we need to read how he “crushed her mouth” in one story? Once, that’s how many, and not a single instance more. If he “crushed his mouth against hers” in one scene, then that is all the mouth-crushing which needs to exist in the entire story.
You see, this is one of those novelty descriptions which sounds cool and makes the reader understand exactly what kind of kiss this is, but if you use it more than once, you’re going to annoy everyone in the room. It stands out. It grabs the reader’s attention because it is unique. But, when you overuse it, the uniqueness wears off. Once we get to the second mouth-crush, the first one pales. Now it’s trite, and we don’t care anymore. It really does happen that fast.
Use these great impactful phrases, these perfect descriptions, like rare and precious fruit. We get to taste it once, and savor it because we know just how perfect it is. And then we move on to something else, so as not to spoil the experience. How do you know if you’ve just used one of those phrases? If it dazzles you, if you’re proud of yourself, it is one of those rare-fruit phrases. Don’t go throwing it around like prolific blueberries, tucking it into everything, or nobody will respect it anymore.
In order to avoid this particular pitfall, challenge yourself. Not all kisses are the same. Your characters should kiss in all sorts of ways: softly, passionately, brushing her lips against his, kissing her fully on the mouth, a lingering kiss, a wet kiss, a forceful kiss, a kiss that stayed with him for days after, etc. There are a million ways to describe a kiss, and you really need to look into them. If you can’t be bothered to get creative with your writing–to try to keep things fresh and varied–then why are you writing in the first place?
3. Expand Your (and Our) Vocabulary
Now, this does not mean you need to salt your entire manuscript with 50 cent words. The language you use should reflect the style of your story. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using simple language. There is even call for using bad grammar and slang dialogue, if that’s the voice of your character. But, you should have a larger vocabulary yourself, and you shouldn’t be afraid to use it. You see, your readers may not have Webster’s Dictionary in their heads, but they should be willing to pick one up on occasion, and if necessary.
There is a misconception among some writers that using a big or uncommon word for something is somehow showing off, or that readers ‘these days’ can’t be bothered to look something up, but that’s not always (or even usually) true. You see, the English language is a big, varied, fascinating tongue with a lot more descriptive potential than many of us give it credit. For the writer, his language is his palette. These are all the colors you have to choose from to paint your picture. Why limit it? Getting friendly with a good thesaurus, online or otherwise, will enrich your writing so much. It will help kill the redundancy, and can give more depth and meaning to your story. And your readers, if they are good readers, will come along with you, happy to soak up new bits of language they didn’t know before. Many of us have entire vocabularies built on what we read every day. It keeps us sharp. We’re counting on you to keep the language alive.
You, my writer friends, have been entrusted with something great. They are these fantastic alternate realities we call stories. They feel real inside the writer’s head; they need to feel real to the reader who absorbs them in word form. Trick us. Pull us in and make us forget we’re deciphering inked symbols on a page. Don’t bog us down; immerse us. Let our minds get stuck occasionally so that we have to run back a few pages to see what we missed. Challenge us. Delight us. Respect us. We will love and respect your writing all the more for it.
Halloween is my favorite holiday. It has been since I was a wee thing begging for candy in my gypsy-child costume, or Holly Hobby, or whoever I was that year. And even as I grew too old for trick or treating (like, you know, in my twenties), I have always dressed up, dutifully taking my own youngster out for ghostly fun or seeking out the nearest costume party. This is the day of the year that I live for. It overshadows Yule and Thanksgiving and even my birthday. But then, a few years back, it got even better. One of my favorite author’s, the inimitable Neil Gaiman, started this thing he calls All Hallow’s Read. The idea behind this thing was to encourage reading, and how it would work is that people would give scary books to people in celebration of the day. In my very humble opinion, this idea is and was BRILLIANT. Books, fictions stories, even better SCARY fiction stories, being given away willy nilly on the coolest, spookiest night of the year? Too cool. Well, fiends and ghouls, this fine tradition exists still today. And this year I have two special gifts to give away to all of you!
In honor of All Hallow’s Read, I have decided to make both of my spooky short stories, Midway and The House on H Street, FREE for all you e-book readers, starting tomorrow (that’s tonight at midnight) through Midnight on Halloween night. We indies can do stuff like that. Like my dear friend Terri Wallace. She’s giving away her story, The Collector, for free, too. It’s our way of celebrating this fantastic tradition with you wonderful readers of the dark and macabre. And, hey, pass it on! The joy is in the giving.