A Labor of Love

I recently finished reading John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, which is another excellent book from the author featuring eccentric, young characters facing a challenge that ultimately plays out over the course of the story. Green’s books are reliably good, and although I’m not the demographic he targets, I enjoy a well-told story. Green thoroughly develops his characters such that they come alive for the reader, and then, he surrounds them with an intriguing plot. There’s a lot to admire in his writing.

After I finished the book, I turned to the acknowledgments, as I always do when I finish a novel, and read through what the author had to say to those who helped him through the writing of this book. I was surprised to learn that he spent six years writing the book. While Green isn’t as prolific as Stephen King, he has released six books in the last 13 years starting with Looking for Alaska to this most recent book. He’s averaged about a book every three years since his first release. Given the time it takes to write a good book, every three years is about right.

But six years. That struck me as a long time for an established author who writes reliably good novels. I’d love to chat with him about why it took so long, not because I’m being critical, but because I want to understand the creative process he went through. Quite frankly, it’s comforting in some way that even big-name authors plod through their work. It’s proof that the creative process is not a nice walk down a breezy lane on a cool, spring day. Sometimes, it’s a slog through a rainstorm in knee-deep mud.

If anything I can sympathize. I’ve been working on my current novel for almost two years (it will be two years in July), and I don’t feel I’m close to finishing. I’m on my third full re-write. There have been moments where I’ve wanted to throw it in the virtual trash bin and work on something else. Some mornings, I look at my manuscript and just write a blog post or a short story instead. My motivation waxes and wanes like the phases of the moon. There are moments of pure inspiration that drive me to write two thousand words in a single sitting, and then there are moments, where I’m lucky if I can get two hundred coherent words to fit on the page. I’d change the title of the book to The Neverending Story if it didn’t sound like a flashback to the 1980s.

Nevertheless, I keep plodding along. This book may never go anywhere, but I’ll be damned if I don’t finish it. I have to see if it works. It may not, but I want to give it a chance even if it takes another two years. Then, I will work on something else.

Some Kind of Nothing

Sometime in the middle of the night on Saturday, I woke up. It took a moment for me to realize that it wasn’t near sunrise. The full moon outside shined impossibly bright giving the illusion, at least to the half asleep, that a dawn was imminent. It wasn’t. Even summer mornings in Seattle don’t begin that early. I closed my eyes, but my mind wouldn’t let me go back to sleep. Something festered in crawl of my brain, a half-finished dream of some sort that fizzled slowly like the mist on a spring morning. I tried to shake it loose, but once my mind latches onto something it doesn’t let go.

I normally sleep very well. I believe I do so because I follow a very regular routine. Sleep, like brushing your teeth is a habit. At least it is to me. I also immortalize anything that could potentially worry me by writing it down before I go to bed. It relaxes me to write the things down that I must do. The act itself gives my mind permission to forget, at least for the purpose of a good night’s rest. I have a pretty comprehensive to-do list that precludes me from worrying about things, so it’s very rare for me to lie awake worrying about what needs to get done.

Likewise, once my mind groks a story idea, it will run like a hamster on a wheel until every conceivable facet of the story is exhausted. On this particular morning, that’s why I found myself involuntarily awake. I’m not exactly sure where this story idea will go, but when I finally wiped the sleep from my eyes and listened to what my brain was telling me, I had a title and a general story concept floating in front of me. I’m not sure if this story idea came from a dream I was having or if it had been brewing in my mind based on something I had read or thought about earlier in the day or the week.

I think the idea requires some background to make any sense. Again, I’m not sure where this is going, but the title that reverberated in my head is Some Kind of Nothing. The story is a first-person narrative that follows a man through a series of strange events that leave him wondering what is happening to him. It’s a primordial tale of existentialism. It borders on the paranormal, which makes the whole concept odd for me since I don’t read or write in the fantasy genre.

The “Nothing” in the title refers to death. While I often explore mortality and the philosophical musings it engenders, most of my writing focuses on more uplifting topics. I like my characters to change for the better or at least impact the fictional world around them for the better. I don’t think this story will be any different should I choose to continue to develop it, especially since its base topic is morbid and there needs to be some counterbalance to make it palatable to readers.

Like most of my other stories, there is something personal in the idea. I don’t subscribe to any religious beliefs. I believe death is simply a step into the dark abyss where nothing exists. It’s the end of all ends. That doesn’t cause me so much consternation or discomfort that I seek another explanation. Some things we can never know, and I’m okay with that. Instead, I focus on living the life I have to the fullest. Life is a gift, something to be cherished and fulfilled in the way that I feel satisfies me. Living life in misery, real or imagined, is pointless. Quite frankly, were that my primary disposition, I would gladly step into the abyss voluntarily. My comfort in my own skin doesn’t prevent me from exploring other ideas. I’m confident enough to disagree with myself, to challenge myself and my thoughts in ways that I hope make me grow and, I hope, help my readers grow, too. That’s what this story is about. Nothing isn’t one thing. It could be many things, some we choose to see and some we don’t. What would happen if some core belief you hold isn’t true? That’s the engine that drives this concept.

Episode 1: Donna Quixote

The refrigerator purred to life startling Donna Scott as she padded across the cheap linoleum floor in her kitchen. She took a deep breath to settle her frayed nerves and placed her hand above her heart feeling for anything that seemed abnormal. Her heart thumped and stuttered and her chest tightened. This was it. The end she feared had come and caught her off guard in the late morning in her kitchen. She grabbed the edge of the counter to steady herself, to wait for the inevitable wilting to floor. Her knees wobbled and her breath hitched.

The kitchen brightened in her widened eyes. Her pulse shot fireworks in her field of vision, which blurred at the periphery. She glanced at her blood pressure cup folded upon itself on the counter next to the row of medicines, vitamins, and assorted herbal remedies she had yet to consume for the day. None of it had helped. Nothing she had done had really mattered in the end, and this was the end.

The refrigerator clicked off returning the room, the whole floor of her tiny house, to the silence she craved. Her heart still thumped wildly in her chest, but she felt a surge of meek determination that pushed her across the small kitchen to the counter near her neat line of vials. She grabbed a bottle and shook two pills into her palm. She popped them in her mouth and swallowed. She did the same for each bottle in the line, pausing briefly to ensure she had swallowed each pill.

After she had finished taking all of her medications and supplements, she feared that some of them had become lodged in her throat. Suddenly, she couldn’t swallow. This was it. She would die from a clogged esophagus. She hadn’t considered that possibility. She stumbled to the refrigerator and grabbed a bottle of water. She checked the date she had written on its side before she opened it and drank half the contents. She thought the water had dislodged the blockage in her throat, but she wasn’t sure. She considered calling the doctor or perhaps 9-1-1, but then she relented as the air hissed from her inflated fear.

Satisfied that she wasn’t under immediate threat, Donna grabbed the blood pressure cup from the counter and snaked her arm through the loop. She pulled it snug around her bicep and pushed the button on its electronic panel. It inflated and cramped her arm before it slowly deflated. She could feel her pulse cranking in her arm. The tiny screen on the panel blinked and beeped until it displayed 117/78. She swallowed hard as she wrote the reading onto her notepad she kept on her counter. She compared the current reading to the four readings she took yesterday, and her worst fears had come to fruition. Her blood pressure was dropping. Her high blood pressure medication had overcompensated and forced her into a state of hypotension. She’d have to call her doctor as soon as possible.

Before she could do that, she needed to shower or at least clean up. She couldn’t remember the last time she had showered. She tugged the sleeve of her night gown and inhaled. The sour smell of sweat and body odor greeted her. She needed to sit down because the gush of thoughts in her mind made her dizzy. She shuffled over to the old recliner near the edge of her living room and dropped herself onto its tired cushions. She could feel the grit of food crumbs at her seat beneath her thin night gown. She caught a whiff of something she couldn’t name, something tangy and sweet but unpleasant nonetheless. She pushed back into the recliner and closed her eyes.

A beam of sunlight shot across the room from an opening in the tightly closed blinds. Dust particles floated through the beam as if someone had beaten a path down a dusty road. Donna watched the dust float in the sunlight as her eyes adjusted to the brightness. She had fallen asleep in the recliner and most of her day had passed her by. The sun was already in her backyard, which faced the western sky.

She kicked at the footrest trying to push it down, but her weak legs couldn’t move it. She pushed herself up with her arms and leaned all of her weight onto the footrest until it folded beneath her. She sat up and her neck and back ached. A pain shot through her arm as she reached up to massage her stiff neck. She needed to get an x-ray of her neck and spine. She had too much pain there for it to be nothing other than cancer or some sort of early onset of paralysis. One of her medications had warned of potential paralysis or was that an article she had read in some magazine? She couldn’t be sure, but her doctor had to know. He wouldn’t dismiss her concerns this time. The evidence was clear.

The clock on her wall read 5:30. The doctor’s office was already closed. She’d have to call tomorrow. Hopefully, he’d be able to fit her in this week like he did most weeks. She put her hands on her knees and pushed herself up into a standing position slowly. She felt all 62 years of her existence on her shoulders as she stood up. She grunted as she straightened herself as much as she could nowadays. Her night gown stuck to her shoulders and her torso dampened by sweat.

She glanced at the digital thermometer on her wall, which displayed 76 degrees. The evening sun usually raised the temperature in her house during the spring and summer, but she couldn’t open any windows. She didn’t want to give any thieves or rapists an opening to get her into her home. Instead, she turned on an oscillating fan that sat on a table behind her sofa. The fan cut the thick air with its small blades giving her a temporary respite from the heat, which dissipated as she walked away from the limited radius of the fan. She sighed and wished she had AC, but then, she remembered that AC makes people sick because it recirculates stale air that has become saturated with germs. She couldn’t afford to get sick at her age.

She left the living room and ventured into the darkened foyer leading to her front door. There were no lights on in her house at the moment. She didn’t use lights during the day because she wanted to keep her electric bill under control. She also suspected that the electric company was over-billing her, so she kept her usage to a minimum. She unplugged all of her appliances when they weren’t in use except for that loud refrigerator, which, unfortunately, had to be plugged in all day. She had considered replacing it with a cooler, but that would require her to leave the house to buy ice every day. She only left her house to go to the doctor or to buy groceries from Old Man Smith’s store down the road.

At the window beside her front door, she stuck her fingers in between the slats of the blind and peered out into the street in front of her house. In that instant she recoiled and pulled her face back. Her neighbors across the street were in their driveway. She feared they had seen her looking at them. Curiosity got the best of her and she looked through the blinds again. The wife pulled bags of groceries from the trunk of her car and carried them into her house. One of her kids helped her. Donna watched as they made the trip back and forth until the trunk was empty. The wife slammed the trunk shut and paused a moment. She looked Donna’s way and seemed to stare directly at her. Donna jumped back from the blinds and gasped. Her ears burned as if she had been caught doing something embarrassing. She checked that the blinds were firmly closed and she walked back to her kitchen.

When she had grown up in this house, when her parents were still alive, there had been no black people in her neighborhood. Now, there were black people across the street from her and elsewhere in the neighborhood. She had seen them walk or drive by on occasion. The couple across the street had moved into the neighborhood over 15 years ago. They had been the first black people she had really seen in her life. Over the intervening years, she had said very little to them and they to her. Of course, nowadays, she rarely ventured outside for them to say anything to her.

A sick feeling settled into her stomach. Stomach cancer? She wasn’t hungry. What else could it be? Her doctor had not taken her earlier concerns seriously. Yes, he had done x-rays, but he claimed there was nothing to see. He had even shown her the x-rays, but she couldn’t make sense of the cloudy images.

Before she could return to her recliner, someone knocked on her door. The reverberating sound took her breath away and she almost gasped before she stopped herself. She stood very still as if the intruder could see through her front door. She finally willed herself to turn back to the door and crept up to the window next to it. She poked a finger at one of the slats on the blind and lifted it just enough to see the woman from across the street at her door. She let the slat down slowly and stood back from the blind. She didn’t know what to do.

Another knock. She jumped at the sound.

“Ms. Scott, it’s Jamie Anderson from across the street,” the woman said through the door.

Silence.

A shadow moved across the blind on the window by the door and Donna froze as if the woman could see right through it. She shadow paused, and then, Donna heard another voice, a young boy’s voice, before the shadow moved away. Donna let out a breath and her chest heaved in relief. She hadn’t realized that she had been holding her breath.

After a moment passed, Donna stepped back toward the blind and slowly lifted one of the slats to peer onto her front porch. She jumped back as someone walked away from her door right in front of the window. Her heart raced in her throat. She stumbled backward and caught herself against the wall next to the door. Someone was trying to break in. She tried to calm herself so that she could hear what was happening, but the thumping of her heart drowned out everything around her. She was too dizzy to move.

She held onto the wall, her palms braced against it ready for the impact of the intruder as he came through her door, but after a while nothing happened. Her terror subsided, and nothing but the humming of her refrigerator shushed away the silence. The light of the day had receded further behind her house and cast the usual shadows through her living room. The dust carried on as if nothing mattered. She stepped back toward the blind and lifted a slat with her shaking hand. No one was on her porch nor was anyone visible on the street in front of her house. A car passed by, a red smear of metal as it rolled down the hill. She panned left and right as far as she could see. Nothing.

She pulled on the cord of the blind and flipped the slats downward so that she could see the floor of her porch. That’s when she noticed something sitting at her door. She held her breath again. The woman had left something there. Curiosity burned her thoughts, but so did fear. She didn’t know this woman. She had only spoken to her reluctantly a few times in the early years after they had invaded her neighborhood. A frown creased her face. Now, she had something else to worry about.

Certainty

Human beings love certainty. That’s why we have comfort zones (a controlled space where we can more or less predict what will happen) and why we put an out-sized value on the past (it already happened, so it can’t change). Uncertainty is nerve-wracking, a darkened path into the unknown that could or could not end well. What is to come is scary because anything could happen and we can’t control it.

Sometimes, certainty is not comfortable or enlightening. This past weekend I ran a wonderful little marathon in Northern Virginia that started and finished at a local suburban high school. The course was a double loop half marathon meaning that I had to run the course twice to complete the full marathon distance. Normally, I like these courses because it helps to know what the second half of the course looks like when I enter the inevitable battle with the mental demons that descend on me around mile 18. Those bastards love pointing out the uncertainty of the course and how it will imminently lead to my failure. With a double loop, they lose some of their ammunition.

The course started like many others – a rush of adrenaline on a luxuriously wide asphalt surface just outside the school. A couple of miles of gently rolling roadway begat more of the same until we entered a wooded trail just before the four-mile marker. This mile-long trek along a peaceful trail through the woods is normally a runner’s dream – no traffic or associated noise and pollution, but this trail had as many twists and turns as a Stephen King novel and meandered through the trees as if some drunken explorer had founded it back in the day. If the twists weren’t bad enough, the amplitude of the undulating hills seemed to accelerate. My legs groaned and the pace displayed on my watch slowed.

After a mile in the wooded path, I plopped back onto pavement, which, although undulating and unforgiving, felt like a relief from the twisting trail I had just left behind. Another mile-long section of trail followed that before I ended up on pavement again. The race course marshal obviously had a sense of humor and a mean sadistic streak, but I hadn’t seen anything truly sadistic yet. Until I did. What followed the short respite of relatively straight roadway was three miles of rolling, twisting trail. I felt like one of those sad, inevitable victims in a slasher film running an aimless path among the trees in hopes that the determined mass murderer wouldn’t be able to keep up with me.

When I finally emerged from the last section of the wooded path on the first loop, my legs and my time had suffered. The slight downhill run on the longest straightaway of the course led me back to where I had started. As I ran by the halfway point, the thought of running through those trail sections again left me with an unsettled feeling. The grind was already wearing on me at the 13-mile point. Normally, I don’t start to feel it until around mile 15 or beyond. In this case, certainty, as in I most certainly had to run the trail sections again, didn’t help me in the least. In fact, it made me very uncomfortable.

The marathon is an exercise in determination, more mental than physical. Certainty helps relieve some of the mental stress in most cases. That’s why many marathoners have specific routines they follow that border on OCD. In this case, certainty didn’t help. Despite the sense of dread that hung over me as I dropped off the roadway onto the first section of trail for the second time, I kept going. The paths were just as grueling as the first time except my legs were lingering near the edge of exhaustion. My pace slowed markedly, but I kept moving forward. I did experience some euphoria when I emerged from the final section of trail and hurled myself down the home stretch. Because I had experienced that about two hours earlier, I knew the worst was over. Finally, certainty worked in my favor.

 

The Lull in the Storm

One of the most salient bits of advice that often gets passed around is to “do what you love.” In general, that advice is solid unless what you love is sleeping or some other activity incapable of providing you with fulfillment and a means to make a living, but even if you’re doing the thing you love most, there will be inevitable ups and downs just like everything else in life. This is especially true for creative endeavors.

I always find it interesting to read or listen to interviews with other authors to hear about their creative process. The paths to a good book are as varied as the people who write them, but one common thread among all of these people is the sense that there’s some magic in the process, a black box of sorts. This box emits great ideas most of the time, but sometimes, it doesn’t. The creative storm that pushes a work forward comes and goes like the ebb and flow of the tides, and no one really knows how or why.

I’m not prone to believing in fairies and such, but my inability to describe or control the creative process in a logical paradigm leaves me little choice but to put it in the context similar to moods, an undulating wave of varying amplitude and frequency that pulses through the universe in a non-repeating pattern. I never know when a creative storm will form and dash out a hailstorm of ideas. I do know that ideas often strike at the most inopportune times like in the middle of a run, on an airplane, or in the shower – moments where I may not have the means to capture them quickly.

In the middle of all of this is my usual routine, which helps to some degree corral the forces at work here. I’m at my best in the morning, so I get up before everyone else to write. It helps if I’m comfortable, so I have my favorite (and most comfortable) chair at the ready in my office. Coffee helps, too. All of these environmental elements combine forces to coax the creative fairies out of hiding (hopefully). On some mornings, my fingers can barely keep up on the keyboard as words flow like music from my fingertips. On other mornings, the blinking cursor mocks me as if the well were dry, but I know it will rain another day. Despite this seemingly feast or famine nature, I love to write.

Sometimes I get asked if I plan to make writing my full-time gig. My answer invariably is no, which seems contradictory to the “do what you love” advice. I do love to write, but I don’t want to add the pressure of having to make a living to the mystical blend that is the creative process. I think it would ruin it for me. I can walk away from writing for a day or a week and rejuvenate because I know I don’t depend on it to make a living. If it were my day job, I’d feel compelled to push and push until all of the joy were gone from it. I like things the way they are just fine. I’m writing for the joy of it, even when it’s not so joyful. I can wait out the lull in the storm.

Wow!

deadly

A few years ago, I came across the graphic above, and suddenly I understood something about women that I had failed to understand in my forty plus years on the planet. I had been misinterpreting their words all along. I had understood simple words like “fine” and “nothing” in a literal sense and had failed to realize that they had broader, unspoken meanings that could impact my quality of life.

With this newfound knowledge, I felt empowered to listen and ascertain the enormity of any given situation that required my attention. Admittedly, I am generally oblivious and assume that spoken words are to be taken in a literal sense. This works when talking to my male friends, but it’s a minefield of angst when dealing with the opposite sex.

Given the numerical notation, I assumed this was a hierarchy of sorts, like a progressive chart that indicates the level of anxiety I should feel. The thermometer in my car is similar in that it goes from cold to hot, and as it gets closer to hot, the little arm of the gauge crosses into the red. That’s when you really know you’re in for some trouble. Likewise, the bonus word “Wow” in the chart above represents the red area in this gauge of female-to-male communication.

If it were only that simple. Much to my dismay, I soon learned that this is not a progressive chart and that there may be no warning whatsoever when communication crosses “into the red.” It’s the equivalent of cranking the car and having the thermometer gauge go straight to red and the car overheating in that very instant with no time to react.

The randomness of the scale makes it difficult to apply any sort of mathematical formula to predict the probability that any actions or careless words could lead to an overheated situation. Being a simple guy, I instantly decided to reduce the scale to a game since it couldn’t be conquered mathematically. I conducted unauthorized experiments with my wife to see what actions or words elicited which reactions. This soon led me toward an imminent demise, so I stopped the game. I can say, somewhat with pride and maybe a little fear, that I am able to get to “Wow!” pretty fast. It’s a skill I never knew I had.

I wish I could say I had some sage advice for those men out there just now realizing the implications of the chart above, but I have difficulty retaining knowledge gained from experience, even that gained from near-death experiences. All I can say is that it’s not a game and the logic and progression cannot be discerned. Consider yourself warned.

When Ideas Strike Again

I admit that I’m a deliberate person. It’s both good and bad – good in the sense that I usually think things out and bad in the sense that I often over-think things. Whether or not something is a positive attribute is a matter of perspective, but nevertheless, it is likely a double-edge sword as are most things in life. I try to be self-aware, but habit is a comfortable chair with a nice warm blanket on a chilly day. It’s hard to resist.

Nowhere is my deliberateness more evident than in how I approach my story ideas. Oftentimes, an idea will strike and I’ll jot down the necessary details and walk away. I like for the idea to marinate a while to see if it has any merit. Occasionally, I’ll hastily write the first chapter just to see how the idea presents itself on paper (some ideas sound great in my head but flounder on the page), but for the most part, the idea sits in my notebook for a while, begging for attention like a pup that just wants a scratch on its head.

Besides the fact that it is my habit to be deliberate, I find this approach allows my mind to run around with the idea for a while. When it comes back to me, it often has new elements that make the idea even better. Sometimes, I let the idea sit so long that my mind will devise whole new concepts around the story while I’m not paying attention. Such is the case this past weekend.

A few years ago (yes, years), I came up with a story idea entitled My Father’s Daughter, which centers around a young woman who is estranged from her father because he left her mother for another woman years ago and subsequently had another daughter, her step-sister, whom she barely knows and dislikes from afar. Her father’s impending death as a result of a heart attack brings her back to him, if only for a few fleeting days, where she faces her inevitable loss and fiery resentment.

While this story has many intriguing elements, as do most family dramas, I hadn’t written anything more than a first chapter, which I posted here a couple of years ago. It simply died on the vine, or at least withered while it waited for me to consider it again. This weekend, while I was on a plane waiting to take off, the story suddenly came back to me, and it had changed. Whether the change is for the better, I don’t know, but it’s certainly interesting.

Now the story is about a young woman who discovers that her father has a daughter by another woman who is not her mother in the wake of her mother’s death. This discovery starts a whole chain of events that unfold dramatically over the course of the novel as the woman comes to grips with the realization that her father is not who she thought he was. The story, told from the first-person perspective of the daughter (same as the original idea) explores the depths of the daughter’s relationship with her father and the family that surrounds them.

I find these new elements add more nuance to the story and make it more gripping in the sense that the daughter doesn’t know what is true in the beginning of the story. The revelation sends her reeling as she seeks to find out the truth and what it means to her. I think this approach has more appeal and promise as a novel. Of course, only time will tell if this is the route I take or if this story ever makes it onto the page as a full-blown novel.

I like having a lot of ideas in the hopper, and I certainly have plenty. Most will likely never make it past the concept phase, but when ideas strike, I put them in my notebook, and when they strike again, I add more notes and story angles to see which ones will ultimately win out. It seems my mind is always working on story ideas even though I’m not fully aware of it. It just takes something to trigger it, like sitting on an airplane waiting to take off.