On weathering uncertain times.

We’ve been quarantined for about two weeks. Just under 14 days. I think I handled the first week with aplomb, with grace, and with a resilient kind of optimism. I cut my hair, I ordered a wireless printer and other tools for my “home office;” To quote a very good friend, I was t h r i v i n g.

This week? Not so much.

I went to confession and it was bizarre. They had a portion in the far corner of the parking lot sectioned off by little orange cones. Father sat in one of those uncomfortable plastic chairs that always seem to be painted a shade that hasn’t been popular since the 1970s. I pulled up, rolled down my window, and shouted my sins across the distance, loud enough so he could hear me over the wind. Even Father said he was unsure about how this could possibly continue. And he told me mass was cancelled indefinitely, but he would live stream mass.

Driving home, I passed the bank and the line of cars for the drive-thru wrapped around the building.

The park by me has yellow police tape around the entrances so no one can get in.

All of that was disconcerting, but I think this overwhelming sense of being disconnected and kind of lost started when I watched “Blinded by the Light,” which is NO WAY a comment on the film. I loved it! I cried from my heart being so full that all the excess love and hope and faith and goodness had to spill out through my eyes. I know I’m late to the party, but if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s all about this Pakistani boy growing up in Lutton, England (which is about 200 miles from Manchester, just for perspective). He becomes OBSESSED with the Boss, which in turns helps him follow his dream of becoming a writer.

The kind could have been me. Hell, the kid was me. It made me wonder, where did that passion, that desire go? Is it too lost to be recovered, rediscovered? The kid sat up in his room and wrote poem after poem. He wanted to become an English major. He wanted to work as a writer and even got the job at the local paper.

That was ALL me! What happened?! I mean, I’d write e v e r y s i n g l e d a y. I’d constantly be scribbling something. My notebooks were filled with scenes I just had to get onto paper and covered in inspiring lyrics. I used to be focused, driven. WHAT HAPPENED???!!!?!

Then again, the REAL question is: can I get it back?

I tried to stay on this inspired kick, tried to desperately to start an irrepressible fire burning in my belly. I watched “Western Stars,” the Bruce Springsteen concert film. I loved it. He’s just so fucking smart and passionate. My favorite quote:

Are we moving forward? Mostly, we’re just moving.

Damn, Bruce. Just @ me.

I did work on Moody Blue; I recently discovered there’s a whole chapter that needs to be re-written, so at least that’s something to focus on. I have really been busy trying to stay on top of remote learning as the longer we’re out of the building means the more instruction my students need. I will say that being more creative about explaining key concepts and skills is definitely helping me become more passionate about reading and writing.

But I haven’t seen anyone in real life in over a week (my parents being the exception). On sunny days, I walk the boardwalk and offer strangers a friendly nod, but that’s it. I feel so isolated, and I know that’s the point and it’s important to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Not to be a total downer – I ordered some blue light glasses from Amazon, and I L O V E them. I’ve been spending SO MUCH time staring at screens, as we all have I’m sure, that my eyes were really starting to bug me. These glasses, while stylish, have also been a godsend.

I’m sharing an article about relieving eyestrain, just so we can take care of ourselves.

On adjusting to a new normal.

I absolutely love where I live. I just got back from walking the full length of the boardwalk, and it was obvious where maintenance had been done, where old boards had been ripped up and replaced by new boards. On the new boards, people had written encouraging messages for those walking the boards. There were messages like, “CONFIDENCE” and “MOVE IT!” and “Happy Day!” and “Have a BEER!” There were reminders that it takes “90 Days” to change a lifestyle and that “You can do it!” It made me smile and made me so glad I ventured outside today.

Not too many are venturing outside lately. Some of us can’t because it’s a serious risk to our health, and some of us are following recommendations and mandates about how to stop the spread of the Coronavirus. I’m not scared, and I’m not really worried about falling victim, but I have been creeped out by how fast my life has been knocked from its normal course. A week ago, there was an emergency faculty meeting at work. I leaned over to a colleague and whispered, “There’s no way we’re shutting down.” Within 48 hours, that’s exactly what we were preparing for.

On Sunday, I went to church with my parents like I always do. Usually, the church is packed from wall to wall and if you don’t arrive at least ten minutes before the scheduled start time, there’s no guarantee you’ll find a seat. I was running late and was worried I’d have to sit away from Mom, but when I arrived, the parking lot was empty. There were only about 100 people in the church, and during his homily, Father recommended we spread out even more. He assured us mass and confession would not be cancelled, but all other church functions basically were. Try as I might, I don’t ever remember a time when churches were closed or masses were cancelled. That really made me think of the post-apocalyptic novels I used to devour (shout out to my homeboy Stephen King) and for just a moment or two, I was scared.

But in times like these, I think it’s really, really important to maintain a healthy amount of perspective. I’m not classified as “high risk,” so the odds of me contracting the Coronavirus are really in my favor. Remote teaching is a new and exciting challenge; I’m blessed to be employed as I am. And if I’m to be indoors for the majority of the upcoming days, that just means I have plenty of time to read and write.

So stay safe, readers. Let’s all be especially kind to each other as we adjust to a new normal. With that in mind, I thought I’d take this opportunity to share a great article (linked here) I read about how to stave off cabin fever while self-isolating – or “social distancing” – during this pandemic. To sum up, here are some ways to beat cabin fever, thanks to Eerie Insurance (the full article is linked here).

  • Break out a good book.
    • May I recommend Her Beautiful Monster, which you can order here. Also, follow me on Goodreads! Currently, I’m TOTALLY ENJOYING Broken Harbor by Tana French. I also check out Belletrist on Instagram for great recommendations. I even signed up for their newsletter. 
  • Start a new hobby.
    • I’m revising my novel and plotting a new one, but I’m also planning a garden, using The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch. As soon as the weather is more consistently conducive, I’m going to get out there and get my hands and knees dirty.
  • Do a puzzle.
    • I have an Elvis jigsaw puzzle I’ve had for years (there’s dust all over the plastic wrapping). I think my dad got it for me for Christmas, so it’s about time to dust it off and put it together. I have another Elvis puzzle that I put together and my dad actually framed for me. It’s hanging in my basement… pretty cool.
  • Engage in some pre-spring cleaning.
    • I could probably just say Spring cleaning because Spring officially arrives on Friday. This is actually at the top of my list. I want to rent out my house while I plan to study abroad in Ireland (a trip that’s been delayed a year). I want to paint and update appliances and purge whatever clutter is keeping my home from feeling cozy and bright.
  • Have a movie and popcorn night.
    • I’m doing this tonight A N D tomorrow night. Tonight, I’m sticking with a St. Patrick’s Day theme. I’ll be eating fish and chips and watching either “The Boondock Saints,” “Angela’s Ashes,” or “The Departed” (which seems like a s t r e t c h, but DAMN do I love Leonardo DiCaprio). Tomorrow will likely be a beloved romantic comedy and food terrible for my figure.
  • Write a letter to touch base with an old friend or family member.
    • I cannot stress enough how important this tip is. Loneliness can have serious, damaging effects on the psyche and the body. I’ve been texting with friends regularly and plan on catching up on emails tonight. I gave up social media for Lent (what timing, eh?), but that doesn’t mean I can’t reach out and keep those vital connections alive and well.
  • Go for a walk.
    • It’s fitting I’d end with this tip since I started this post talking about how I went for a walk. It was nearly 60 degrees by me today, so I made sure to walk along the shore. It helps stave off depression and cabin fever,

Stay healthy, be smart, and I’ll catch ya on the other side, friends.

On not really knowing life at all.

In support of my last post, and proof that I do sometimes keep my word, here is a short story I wrote because I AM A FUCKING WRITER. Hear me roar. And read my stuff. Please and thank you.

Writing Prompt: A former child star has an existential crisis as he watches reruns of his show on TV Land.

David wasn’t sure what time it was, but judging by the way the sun burned fiercely through his westward facing windows so that his entire kitchen glowed orange, it was nearly evening, way later than he wanted it to be. He’d wasted another day. He blinked hard in an effort to come back to himself. All that came into focus was a half-empty bottle of vodka and a couple of roaches perched precariously in the ashtray; just more evidence he could never finish what he started.

David rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms, hard enough to hurt. That actually helped him see clearer and he reached for his cell phone.

There were no new messages.

There were no missed calls.

He considered checking his email, but decided against it as there was obviously no point. No one was trying to reach him. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone had tried, and that realization depressed him, so he reached for one of the remaining roaches and the remote.

He turned the television on and suddenly found himself staring at the eleven-year-old version of himself, immortalized in off-network syndication of “Mary’s Boys,” a terribly corny yet endearing family sitcom from the late 1980s. He played the precocious middle child of three boys sent to live with their free-spirited but ill-prepared Aunt Mary after their parents die in a car accident. It’s five-season run ended abruptly when the youngest of the three child stars died of an accidental overdose. His character’s name was Dylan, but his real name was a mystery. Maybe if David watched the episode through to the credits, a scrolling name would jog his memory and he wouldn’t feel like such a piece of shit.

The laugh track sounded tinny and irritating. They’d filmed in front a live studio audience, but not every joke landed, so the laugh track was an insurance policy.

Some scholars estimate that Jesus of Nazareth was eleven-years-old when he found out he’d be crucified to save mankind. When David was eleven, he traveled separately from his parents and demanded an infinite number of chilled glasses of chocolate milk be made available for him whenever he was on set, no matter which set it was. He’d nearly blown an interview on late-night TV over his fucking chocolate milk. And he’d been old enough to know better at that point.

God, how could anyone stand him? Watching himself flitter across the television screen, David didn’t think he was all that cute or charming. He couldn’t see anything special, so what exactly had it been that qualified him as one of America’s sweethearts for five years? Five years that could have been a hundred years ago.

Whatever it had been, it was long gone now.

Christ, what was that kid’s name? He had been nice and funny, like really funny. He was a good kid, a sweet kid, a good, sweet kid. And then he ingested God knows what at some night club he never ever would have gotten into if not for his privilege. He wandered in adored but alone, terribly alone, because no one kept count of the lines of powder he snorted, the pills he swallowed, the booze he swilled. No one cared enough to follow him into the bathroom and keep him breathing. David could have been there. The more he thought about it, the more David knew he should have been there. What had he even been doing that night? Admiring himself in a mirror? He wasn’t doing anything important, he was sure of that, and a better kid than him had died. Just a kid.

And David was such a pile of putrid garbage. What did he have to show for being famous when he was eleven? He lived alone in a crumbling apartment. No wife, no kids. He couldn’t remember the last time he talked to his parents. The residuals were eventually going to run out, and he’d have to venture out into a world he turned his back on because he thought he was too good, too special for it.

David stood and walked to the start of the short hallway that led to the bathroom. He hated who he was, hated where he was, so he pulled his fist back and launched it at the wall. It hurt, but at least David felt something, so he did it again. He thought about threatening emancipation from his parents and cutting them off when all anyone was doing was the best they could. He punched the wall and cracked the plaster.

He thought about the women he slept with, the starry-eyed girls stumbling about but never stopping and staying. He never saw sunlight shimmer in someone’s hair strewn across a pillow in the morning. He punched the wall and made a hole. It hurt, but not enough.

He thought about the screenplays he started and abandoned, coming with up with bullshit excuse after bullshit excuse. He thought about the auditions he’d ruined or ignored because he had such an inflated idea of himself. He punched the wall, leaving his knuckles read and throbbing.

He punched the wall. His knuckles were bleeding and the pain became sharper, more intense. Something was broken but that was nothing new. David started to sob, cradling his broken hand against his chest and dropping to his knees. If he didn’t quiet down, someone would call the cops.

Joshua, he suddenly remembered, his eyes going wide. His name had been Joshua.

On Chuck Palahniuk, with love.

This blog post is going to serve as nothing more than a thinly veiled love letter to Chuck Palahniuk.

This week, I devoured his book on writing titled Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different. Simply put, this book was amazing. You know I’m always looking for signs from the universe, and I firmly believe that the cosmos put this book into my hands at the right time for the right reasons. One of my favorite passages reads:

Was it Kierkegaard? Was it Heidegger? Some egghead pointed out how people decide the nature of their world at a very young age. And they craft a way of behaving that will lead to success. You’re praised for being a strong little kid so you invest in your strength. Or you become the smart girl. Or the funny boy. Or the pretty girl. And this works until you’re about thirty years old.

(64).

Damn, Chuck. Just @ me next time. I think a lot of the uncertainty in my writing life comes from uncertainty in life in general. Last year was tumultuous; I lost friends I thought I’d have forever and essentially had to find my new identity. It was never a good idea to allow myself to be defined by other people, but I did it and here I am, reconstructing myself one piece at a time. I’ve finally come to accept that people will enter and exit my life at various times for all different reasons, and every entrance and exit does not necessarily have anything to do with me. “Through our lives, our relationships are based on proximity. We attend the same school. We work at the same company or live in the same neighborhood. And when those circumstances change, our friendships dissolve” (146).  Those changes and dissolutions do not have to be earth-shattering. They do not have to be moments after which everything is different. But when they are, I think it’s more than important to stop and take note. Losing my friends and thereby upending the woman I thought I was led me to the dream of Ireland.

I want Ireland to be a part of my rebuilding, maybe even the foundation upon which I can build my writing life, and though that journey has been delayed, the desire is there and it is as strong as it ever was. Palahniuk writes, “Perhaps this is why people dream of traveling a lot at retirement. Seeing the world and recognizing one’s own insignificance makes it okay to come home and to die” (117). That’s depressing as hell, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. To be comfortable with myself, and that includes being comfortable with my mortality, I think I have to be uncomfortable first. I’m happy to admit I’ve been uncomfortable as hell for nearly four years. So something’s gotta give soon, and I think this book by Chuck Palahniuk has prepared me for the moment I’ve been waiting for: the moment after which everything is different.

So much more than some bestselling author pontificating about craft, Palahniuk’s book is entertaining as hell. He includes entertaining anecdotes from his writing life that validate a writer’s many insecurities and intuitions, balancing humiliations with small victories. For example, Palahniuk recalls when he was a participant in Tom Spanbauer’s writing workshop and Tom gave him a book to read after his “…work had been rejected by some magazine or ten magazines or yet another agent had written to say he only represented ‘likeable’ fiction” (57). Tom chose the book and told Palahniuk it would help his work “enormously” (57). Palahniuk writes:

The following week I read and reread it. An easy job because it hardly topped a hundred pages, but a tough read because the characters were hard-pressed and put-upon cornpone hound-dog types just scraping by in the burnt-over backwoods hills of wherever. They lived on a farm, eating the same grits for breakfast every morning. They did nothing exceptional, and nothing happened to them. Each time I finished it I felt angry about wasting more time for so little return. I hated the author for wasting my time. But mostly I hated myself for being too backward to appreciate this work of art documenting the lives of folks interchangeable with the folks I’d been raised next door to

(58).

So when Palahniuk brings the book back, he’s hesitant to admit he hated it because he’s afraid that makes him dumb, too stupid to appreciate a book praised by anyone and everyone who knows anything about literature. Palahniuk lies “to fit in with the smart people” (59), which is a pressure I completely understand and have barely survived. I usually do the same thing Palahniuk did. “If all else fails among the literati, always claim the language is beautiful” (59). Throughout the course of the evening, however, Palahniuk finally cracks and admits he hated the book and that he’s probably stupid. But Tom smiles and reveals his true intentions. “This book is awful…. I wanted you to see how terrible a book could be and still get published” (59-60). I give Palahniuk credit for not naming the book and shaming anyone (“If you don’t have anything nice to say…” and all that) and for being honest. He’s acknowledging that being published and successful can have very little to do with talent. And I think it’s important to note that Palahniuk found his writing tribe, a suggestion stressed by all different kinds of authors time and time again. Writing is a lonely job, so it is crucial to find people who share your writing philosophy and tastes and work ethic. It’s crucial to have a community, and I think Palahniuk is starting one with the publication of this book. In a cosmic coincidence, I am in desperate need of a tribe, so let this book be my calling card/open invitation.

I wrote a somewhat scathing review of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction because it wasn’t accessible. It was condescending. It didn’t inspire me. Palahniuk echoes these sentiments and goes on to explain, “I’ve found that most writers fall into one of two camps. The first rise from academia and write gorgeous stuff with very little plot momentum or drive. The second camp of writers emerge from journalism and use simple, clear language to tell stories rich in action and tension” (192). I think, organically, I come from the first camp. I was an English major, am now an English teacher, and will earn either my Master’s or MFA in the near future. But I’m drawn to the second camp. A perfect paragraph or scintillating sentence is great, but I’m afraid that’s not what sells. Readers want stories rich in action and tension that are also accessible because they use simple, clear language. That’s why Her Beautiful Monster was a joy to write and earned positive reviews, I think – because I enjoyed writing it. I think I need to get back to basics and not overthink my creative process.

Palahniuk does not spend valuable space romanticizing the writing life or going on and on about some abstract, academic approach. He gives real, practical advice. For example, he writes, “Once you’re published and trying to scratch out a living you’ll find these regional bookseller associations are a great ally” (1). First paragraph of the first page, and I’m learning something new. I was so disappointed when my first novel didn’t go flying off the shelves, but in hindsight, I realize I was doing nothing to help. To be fair, I didn’t know where to start. Thanks to Palahniuk, now I do.

He does discuss the act of writing itself and gives great tips and tricks without singing his own praises. For example, he suggests that “Instead of writing about a character, write from within the character” (47). He recommends avoiding common units of measurement and instead, using units of measurement unique to a character, like “a man too tall to kiss” or “a man her dad’s size when he’s kneeling in church” (47). This idea may not seem revolutionary, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. This is a wonderful and unique way to give a story texture and to really develop my writer’s voice.

Palahniuk attributes some of his most followed advice to other writers, and it lends him a great deal of authenticity. That was my favorite aspect of the book, how real Palahniuk is. It reminds me of a sentiment expressed by Stephen King, that all writers come to drink from the same pool, so it’s only natural that all writers beg and borrow and steal from one another. Hence why I salivated over this book from one of my most favorite writers.

Palahniuk writes, “If you’re dedicated to becoming an author, nothing I can say here will stop you. But if you’re not, nothing I can say will make you one” (xv). Palahniuk shares advice he received from Bob Maull, founder of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. Maull told him, “If you want to make a career out of this you’ll need to bring out a new book every year. Never go longer than sixteen months without something new because after sixteen months people quit coming in that door and asking me if you have another book yet.” Fuck. Shit. Balls. My book came out nine years ago. Is it too late for me? Do I not have enough time to write because I’m a full-time teacher? Palahniuk doesn’t think so. He describes, in detail, how one writing approach solves the struggle for time. For all the dark human truths he exposes or touches upon, he is not a fatalist. He writes, “But if you hold a full-time job, have a family, and have to juggle every other duty in life, this scene-by-scene experimentation will keep you sane” (135).

So where do I go from here? I become a fucking writer. I carve out time for writing. I truly and fully believe I am one. I get to work.