On getting back in the swing of things.

I know, I know, I know. I’m a day late – AGAIN. I missed Writer Wednesday – AGAIN. But at least this week I have a valid excuse, or at least what I believe to be a valid excuse.

School started up again and full disclosure: it’s kicking my ass.

My building shut down for students on Friday, March 13, 2020; it was the last normal school day. Staff came in for a half day the following Monday. That means it’s been nearly six months since I was in a classroom with students. And while things are definitely not normal, they are definitely improving. I was absolutely E L A T E D to see about half of my students today! Even former students managed to stop by and say hello and it just felt so good. I had a smile – underneath my mask – that just never went away. And though I’m more exhausted than I thought I would be, I am also happier and more satisfied than I thought I would be. Adding to this simple joy is the fact that I was blessed to have relatively few technological issues, and the few I did have were user error (but I think I fixed my issue and tomorrow should be better). I just had a wonderful day because I was with people, connecting with people, and feeling like life really can and will continue. As bone-tired as I am (and I’m sure this very dreary weather isn’t helping), I’m also rejuvenated because I have hope, and I even feel like I have a purpose. This contentment just validates that I truly b e l o n g in a classroom.

And Bruce Springsteen – the Boss man himself! – announced another album with the E Street Band is due out next month! Could life get any better?

It’s weird how the universe works (or maybe not; maybe that’s the point) because I’ve been thinking about Bruce Springsteen a lot lately, particularly about his song “Human Touch.”

I have to interrupt myself: right now, a woman is walking down my street in the rain and she couldn’t be happier. She spread her arms wide and lifted her face to the sky and she smiled. The woman inside the house she just left opened the door and called to her, offering a ride. But the Walking Woman just shrugged and smiled wider, hopping joyfully onto the sidewalk and giving a final wave from over her shoulder. That’s awesome. That’s my tribe, man.

Anyway, back to Bruce Springsteen and his song, “Human Touch.” While it’s undoubtedly sultry and romantic in nature, I feel it still applies during this pandemic and resulting quarantine, and I will explain why via annotation (man; am I an English teacher or what?!)

You and me we were the pretenders
We let it all slip away
In the end what you don’t surrender
Well the world just strips away


Girl ain’t no kindness in the face of strangers
Ain’t gonna find no miracles here
Well you can wait on your blessings darlin’
But I got a deal for you right here

I ain’t lookin’ for prayers or pity
I ain’t comin’ ’round searchin’ for a crutch
I just want someone to talk to

And a little of that human touch
Just a little of that human touch

Ain’t no mercy on the streets of this town
Ain’t no bread from heavenly skies
Ain’t nobody drawin’ wine from this blood
It’s just you and me tonight

Tell me in a world without pity
Do you think what I’m askin’s too much ?
I just want something to hold on to
And a little of that human touch
Just a little of that human touch

Oh girl that feeling of safety you prize
Well it comes with a hard hard price
You can’t shut off the risk and pain
Without losin’ the love that remains
We’re all riders on this train

So you been broken and you been hurt
Show me somebody who ain’t

Yeah I know I ain’t nobody’s bargain
But hell a little touchup
And a little paint…

You might need somethin’ to hold on to
When all the answers they don’t amount to much
Somebody that you can just talk to

And a little of that human touch

Baby in a world without pity
Do you think what I’m askin’s too much?
I just want to feel you in my arms
And share a little of that human touch…

Ok … so the lines I made purple are the most important lines as they pertain to this post and the point I’m making. “In the end what you don’t surrender / Well the world just strips away” – the world is a touch place, and that is not a new nor revelatory idea. But it seems harder and colder in the midst of the current state of affairs, where we’re not allowed to gather and when we do, it seems to be for protests against social injustice more than reasons to celebrate. The sociopolitical climate is extremely divisive and the social and emotional distance between people is ever-widening. I know some of us are smiling and keeping our mouths shut just to get through the day. And I know some of us feel disillusioned and disheartened. And I know a lot of us are angry. Those extreme passions and emotions can strip important parts of our humanity away, like rationality and civility and humility and compassion and forgiveness. This world, even before the pandemic, could leave us wanting to be alone. Be careful what you wish for and all that, I guess.

“I ain’t lookin’ for prayers or pity / I ain’t comin’ ’round searchin’ for a crutch / I just want someone to talk to” For me, these lines eloquently express my new outlook on the challenges that lay ahead in my professional life, but I suppose it could apply just as easily to my personal life, too. I don’t want to complain and be pitied or pacified. I don’t want anyone to fix anything for me. I just want to communicate – to laugh and cry and wax philosophical about all sorts of topics, particularly ones that rock my soul. There’s that awesome saying that’s been circulating for a while now, about how people don’t listen to authentically respond, but just for their turn to speak. And I feel like this is especially true during this pandemic and quarantine because there’s so many filters and screens and barriers, and so much “communication” is done through social media, where the emphasis is more on media that authentic social congregation, where everyone is flouting their own propaganda. It’s harder to be dismissive and indifferent and inauthentic when it’s a real conversation, when it’s face-to-face.

“Oh girl that feeling of safety you prize / Well it comes with a hard hard price / You can’t shut off the risk and pain / Without losin’ the love that remains / We’re all riders on this train” Despite all the naysayers out there, there is a common human experience, which is why “we’re all riders on this train.” To isolate ourselves is to deny ourselves community and the chance at being loved and included. It seems easier to just give up on people and subscribe wholeheartedly to “do you,” but it’s an awful way to live, in my opinion. It’s all about balance; all relationships require us to balance our needs with the needs of our loved ones. Just as giving selflessly can lead to burn out, so can never giving at all.

“So you been broken and you been hurt / Show me somebody who ain’t” The best worst thing about heartbreak is that it is part of the universal human experience; we’ve all been there. And currently, we’re all dealing with different personal and professional issues brought on by these unprecedented times. That’s all the more reason to reach out and find “that human touch” where you can.

“You might need somethin’ to hold on to / When all the answers they don’t amount to much/ Somebody that you can just talk to” We’re fed conflicting information on a daily basis from a variety of different sources, and sometimes that information is not beneficial or pleasing or even useful. So yeah, sometimes the answers “don’t amount to much” and you need “someone to talk to.” I loved teaching today, every single second. I had a mask on and kept my distance from my students and didn’t see as many colleagues as I normally would, but I got to talk to people about their interests and their challenges and we got to connect.

I found a little of that human touch, I guess.



On being happy and being beautiful.

I was unsure what to focus on for this week’s blog post, but I realize it would be remiss not to write about going back to school. Yesterday marked the first day of staff orientation, and it was definitely different. We were isolated and separated, spending the majority of the day alone in our classrooms attending and completing virtual professional development activities. It could have been frustrating an disappointing and overwhelming, and at times, it was all of those things.

But I’ve decided to make a more concerted effort in my professional – and personal – life to be happy. That doesn’t mean I can’t express sorrow or frustration or anger, but it does mean that when the option presents itself, I’m going to choose to be happy. I spent the day with good friends who happen to be colleagues, and celebrated a professional achievement with those same good friends. Most of us were happy to see each and be together, even if the circumstances were not ideal. But the smile and warm reunions and the genuine joy I was able to observe and participate in left me feeling better than I’d felt in months.

This morning, I walked the boardwalk near my home and when people smiled and wished me a “good morning,” I was instantly happier because I felt connected. With the sunlight streaming down and the smell of the sea salt in the air with the constant shushing of the waves, life was beautiful. I felt beautiful in a way I hadn’t in a long time. I thought of the good fortune I’ve had, and the good fortune I was honored to have family and friends and loved ones share with me, and it was all so beautiful.

I want to feel beautiful every day. And yes, shallow though it may seem, that involves makeup and clothing. If I like the reflection in the mirror, it’ll be easier to find other things I love about myself, the real things that matter. I want my insides to match my outsides because feeling beautiful inside and out makes me happy. I would also venture to hypothesize that being happy makes others want to be around me. I had all these admittedly somewhat obvious revelations this morning, and it truly inspired change.

I want to keep that change going when I see my students this year. Some will be coming into the building, and some will not, but the joy I offer should be the same. Love is the most important thing (in my opinion), and the connections that come from love – and there are so many different kinds! – should be preserved always, but especially during these strange times. I want to be a beacon of happiness for my colleagues and for my students. I want to enter the building and have people come and greet me, not shy away with anxiety. I always want to be surrounded my people because, as a quote I found on the internet so blatantly stated, “Love fiercely. Because this all ends.”

I guess I had a kind of a revelation yesterday when a friend whom I hadn’t seen or spoken to really since March was surprised to find I was happy. It made me question how I’d been presenting myself if the idea of me being happy (and grateful) would be so unbelievable, especially to someone who supposedly knows me very well. It’s so easy to give in and be negative, and times we should to give authentic vent to our frustrations and maintain a healthy, emotional balance. But given the choice, I’m going to be happy. I want my students and colleagues to leave my classroom smiling. That’s my goal for this school year. (It should be noted that I want to lose weight, get accepted into the University of Limerick’s Creative Writing MFA Program (again), and finish Moody Blue and find a publisher).

On writing a short story (part three).

I found living in self-isolation because of quarantine to be very, very difficult. As it’s seemingly coming to an end in the Garden State, I think I can finally articulate why: the lost time. Time continues to pass no matter the circumstances, so even though life was paused, time kept going and it’s lost forever. The more I think about it, the more upset I get and the more I focus on what I’ve been missing out on.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to use the last month to make up for lost time with my older sister, Missy. Our relationship was strained growing up, which is anything but unusual for sisters. The reasons why we treated each other with animosity while growing up are hard to discern. Three is always a bad number socially as someone is usually left out and growing up, that person was usually me. Despite being a twin, I have all the signs and symptoms of being a middle child. I felt left out and like I didn’t belong, especially when my twin and Missy seemed to be so close. Also, the 5-year age difference was just enough to keep us in different stages in life. She moved out of the family home when I was still in high school (and primarily self-involved) and in no time at all, she had a family of her own and moved out of the state.

But now, we’re closer than ever, and it makes me so happy.

And the proof is self-evident. The other night, we watched “Now and Then,” a favorite film of ours from our childhood. It’s kind of like “Sex and the City” for pre-teens. The four young female protagonists allow for audience members to relate to and identify with parts of each character. Sam, played by Gabby Hoffman as a kid and Demi Moore as an adult, is a brooding, emotionally damaged writer working to reconnect with others. She’s reminiscent of Carrie Bradshaw.

Tenny, played by Thora Birch as a kid and Melanie Griffith as an adult, is a neglect, imaginative, over-sexed kid who grows into a fabulous, gorgeous movie star. She’s reminiscent of Samantha Jones. Roberta, played by Christina Ricci as a kid and Rosie O’Donnell as an adult, is a tomboy denying her feminine side until her first love comes along (thank YOU, Devon Sawa) and grows into a nurturing, no-nonsense professional woman, obviously reminiscent of Miranda Hobbs. Finally there’s Chrissy, played by Ashleigh Aston Moore as a kid and Rita Wilson as an adult, who tries to be perfect and proper while dealing with being the “chubby one,” and grows to have a full live with a loving family, which is all she’s ever really wanted, and calls the childhood friends back together when she’s about to have her first child. She’s reminiscent of Charlotte York Goldenblatt.

The movie “Now and Then” was beloved by many girls growing up in the 1990s. Hell, I was so enamored with it, I wrote a play for me and my cousins to perform at my grandparents’ house that was essentially just a rip-off. And much like women did with “Sex and the City,” we all argued over which characters we were more like. I was told I was Chrissy because I was heavier and followed the rules, but I always felt more like Sam – a disconnected, disillusioned writer. The other night though, while watching “Now and Then” with my older sister some 25 years later, she told me I was Sam, and it was a beautiful moment, to be so well understood and simultaneously validated by a sister who I assumed didn’t care enough to try. Not only does she know me, but it turns out, she always has. I guess maybe I couldn’t see past my own bullshit for so long, but now I can in this super special season of growth.

So even though I didn’t work on my short story for this post, I did something even more important: reconnect with a loved one. And, for the record, I did decide to have the group kill Madeleine in a weird, satanic ritual. So there’s THAT to look forward to.

Cast of “Sex and the City”
Cast of “Now and Then”

On writing a short story (part two).

So I’m having trouble with this short story, as I often do with short stories. I really struggle conceiving a plot to fit the limited length. My pacing seems off; things happen to quickly or without any authentically developed context. And my characters seem wooden, without depth. I know there’s nothing wrong with lovingly crafting a story (I think John Irving takes years to finish his novels), but short stories serve a specific purpose: deliver powerful prose in a compact space. I should be flooding the market with my short stories the way aspiring musicians offer demos. I want to be quicker, but I’m finding the results to be unsatisfying if I rush through.

And, if I’m being honest (which I always strive to be), I’m in Florida with family and there are a million and one setbacks and interruptions and obligations to be met. It’s frustrating, but as I wrote last time, I need to celebrate the small victories. So though this draft does not advance the plot persay, it does contain enough revisions to develop and deepen the narrative. Changes are marked via underline and change in text color (I switched it from black to red; hopefully it shows up?).

The Story (needs a title…)

The TV was loud, loud enough that Madeleine felt sure it would only be a few more moments before the neighbor downstairs, the angry and entitled woman with the pixie cut gelled to perfection, would be banging on her ceiling, banging through to Madeleine’s floor. That night, Madeleine decided the bitch could bang all she wanted – the TV was going to stay loud because the Ghost Gurus were doing a live, nationally televised paranormal investigation of an abandoned lunatic asylum somewhere on the east coast and she wasn’t going to miss a single second of it. She’d been watching the Ghost Gurus for six years and more than just encourage her love of all things spooky and creepy and odd, it got her through the divorce, through the weight gain and loss, through the move into the shitty studio apartment she now called home; Ghost Gurus got her through the worst times in her life. And she was gonna make damn sure she was there for them on one of the biggest nights of their careers.

The can of light beer beside her reflected the soft blue light that emanated from her desktop. Madeleine chewed on the end of the ring on the inside of her bottom lip, an anxious habit. She was ready for the investigation to start, and she was also eagerly anticipating a response from Johnny99. On the official website for the Ghost Gurus, there was a live chat happening alongside the investigation and Madeleine, under the alias “Casperette44,” had logged on just to lurk. She’d never intended to send a message, but when someone wrote, “Any advice on the best digital recorder for EVP work,” she couldn’t help herself. She wrote a quick message back to recommend the Sony ICDUX560BLK Digital Voice Recorder 1’ Black because it’s extremely easy to use and set up, and catches voices clearly. She advised against voice-activated recorders because the device could start in the middle of an occurrence, and as many EVPs are typically only a word or two, no one would want a device that could miss potential evidence. She went to light a cigarette but when she focused back on the screen, there was a private message waiting for her from Johnny99. He thanked her profusely for the suggestion and asked her if Zane, the lead investigator, could be any more melodramatic.

In her empty, lonely studio apartment, the message actually made her laugh out loud. She covered her mouth to muffle the noise, careful not to smear her heavily painted lips in dark crimson, and reread the message with a pleasant surprise of a smile. She agreed that yes, Zane was indeed over-the-top, but she loved him all the same and that his passion, with Adam’s proclivity to stay in especially terrifying places by himself, made her keep coming back for more.

They talked until it was after three o’clock in the morning, after the investigation was over and she’d missed the whole thing, after a lot of obvious flirting. They decided to meet the next weekend during a group investigation for beginners at the Reginald Davies Estate on the other side of town. It had been purchased by Dr. Reginald Davies in 1880 and became an instant curiosity. The estate was recognizable for its oversized features, gigantic upside-down corbelled chimneys, hooded “jerkin-head” dormers, and huge stick-like brackets on the porch. And the estate was apparently just as weird inside as it was on the outside. Dr. Davies was into the occult, and forced his wife and his spinster sister to partake in his macabre hobbies. There were many wild and horrifying claims about the estate, most of which were unsubstantiated but nevertheless grew into the stuff of urban legends. The most oversimplified explanation for the estate’s general ominous atmosphere is that Dr. Reginald Davies was trying to build a portal to Hell.

The town didn’t want to encourage the rumors, afraid the estate would attract satanists and witches and all different kinds of unsavory types. The town elders preferred the estate to be a well-known local family-friendly attraction steeped in culture and history that satisfied respectable, desirable tourists. Time changed as it always does, and unfortunately, that particular clientele did not visit the estate enough to pay the bills of maintaining the historic and unusual Victorian mansion, so the owners had to expand their horizons and eventually opened the estate to paranormal investigators. It ushered in a younger crowd and piqued the interest of locals who had been living near the place for years and years. Residents were buying tickets for tours to see if they could hear ghostly footsteps, disembodied voices, or even see the torso of a woman in Victorian garb rushing around the home. The profitable decision convinced the owners to open the doors to private groups of paranormal investigators, so long as waivers were signed and a sizable fee was paid.

Madeleine researched as much as she could so she could be authoritatively impressive in conversation with Johnny99, and the Wikipedia article detailing the history of the estate still glowed on her monitor at the end of the week while she stood before her full-length mirror, twisting this way and that to see her full reflection. Her hair was dyed black, courtesy of a box from a local drugstore, and her hair was straightened meticulously, to the point where the apartment was filled with the smell of slightly burning hair. Her dark eyes were outlined in even darker, thick liner. Her ripped jeans and faded band tee-shirt almost made her look ten years younger. She decided this was as good as it was going to get and sat to lace up her Doc Martens.

Nearly an hour later, her small blue Toyota Corolla rolled to a stop in a huge parking lot. The sound of crunching gravel announced her arrival, and Madeleine watched the already arrived group of paranormal investigators turn in unison to observe her. Wishing for a cigarette, she released shaky breaths as she climbed from the vehicle to stand in the brisk evening air. Johnny99, real name Bryan, said he’d be wearing a denim jacket with a smiley face pin. She scanned the crowd but couldn’t see anyone matching the description from the message. There was a tall, gaunt, pale fellow with lanky black hair; obviously, this wasn’t his first rodeo. There was a heavy-set couple with matching tee-shirts that must have been from somewhere in the midwest, judging by their misplaced enthusiasm and general cuteness. There was an older gentleman in a baseball cap and untucked flannel shirt with deep creases across his forehead. He didn’t smile or greet Melanie in any way once she made her way over, and she shivered.

“Well, hello!” boomed a jovial voice from the front porch, shattering the silence into unsettling shards. Everyone gasped and turned. “I’m your leader for this excursion into the beyond, and my name is Zander.” His chest swelled and he looked around at everyone with shining eyes. He paused, as if for applause, and then continued. “I’m a psychic medium and I’ve been featured several times on WINK News Channel 5,” he said, his eyes closing in self-satisfaction. Madeleine bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. She chanced a glance at the group, and the only pair riveted in the way Zander expected were the completely vanilla couple. They were watching Zander’s every move and whispering excitedly to each other. Madeleine rolled her eyes back to the parking lot. No new cars had arrived and her face grew hot as she realized she’d likely been stood up.

Zander started talking about and gesturing towards the electronics on the folding table beside him. Madeleine had only been partially paying attention, so when the group formed a line, she parked herself at the end. They were allowed to use as much of the offered equipment as they’d like. It was a smaller group that anyone anticipated, apparently, and Madeleine sighed with an aching disappointment before loading up with a flashlight, a digital recorder, and an EMF reader. She signed the required waiver and was about to follow the group inside when Zander grabbed her arm with an unexpected amount of strength. “Don’t go in,” he whispered. “Honey, trust me. If you go inside, you’ll never come out.”

Madeleine tried to pull her arm free. She searched his face and found his features were set. He wasn’t looking at her, but at something in the distance, like he was watching her demise in real time. It was a convincing performance and Madeleine swallowed a scream. When she finally tore her arm free from Zander’s clutches, she rubbed where his fingerprints had probably left bruises. “Fuck you,” she yelled. The group halted in its tracks. “This isn’t a haunted attraction, man! I paid my money, signed the waiver, and I have as much right as everyone else to go in! What’s your problem?” 

The air was thick with anticipation, but Zander didn’t move. He didn’t speak. The group stayed frozen and Madeleine had a strange and sudden desire to run. But then Zander blinked and came back to himself. He smoothed the front of his shirt and cleared his throat. He looked at Madeleine and said, “I’m so sorry, sweetie. Did I offend? Did I say something untoward?”

Madeleine looked from Zander to the group and saw identical expressions of disbelief and apprehension. She slowly turned back to Zander. “You just told me if I go in the house, I’ll never come back out. You predicted my death.”

Zander’s face lost its shape and color. He looked just as appalled as everyone else. He recovered as gracefully as anyone would have been able to manage, given the circumstances, and pulled Madeleine close. “Just setting the mood, dear. Trying to get the heart rate going.” He was laughing, but it was a hollow and empty sound. When he pulled back from Madeleine, he shot her a meaningful look that vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Zander turned from her then, and urged the group inside, to continue on, with the familiar joviality of before. Madeleine didn’t know what to do.

Stupidly, she stood on the front porch, trembling. The last member of the group in line, the old man in the flannel shirt, was just stepping through the threshold and Zander was watching Madeleine with squinting eyes when a sudden rush of footsteps caused everyone to gasp and spin around. A gorgeous, breathless young man was pulling his long hair back from his face. “Sorry I’m late,” he said. The glow of the recessed porch lights danced off the shiny surface of the smiley face pin on his denim jacket, and Madeleine breathed a sigh of relief. “I got lost like four times driving up here.”

“No problem, no problem at all,” Zander said, smiling radiantly. He curtly yelled for the others to hold on, and then ushered Bryan, aka Johnny99, to the folding table. Zander was excited for another paying investigator and there was a hurried conversation of excited whispers and the sound of pen against paper. Madeleine stood still, smiling and watching Bryan situate his equipment about his person. When he finally felt her eyes upon him, he looked up, and the smile that broke across his face was like the dawn. “You must be Madeleine.” He extended his hand.

“And you must be Bryan,” she purred as they shook hands.

Comments? Questions? Suggestions?

I’m not sure where to go from here. I know I want it to end in mayhem and tragedy and chaos, but in an unexpected and engaging way. Do I …

  • have Bryan turn out to be a satanist and kill Madeleine to open the portal to hell in the estate?
  • have Madeleine kill Bryan in self-defense, or because she becomes possessed by entities in the estate?
  • have Zander kill them both in a satanic ritual the group members are in on?

All of these seem melodramatic and uninspired, but what do you think? I’d love, love, LOVE to hear from you. Let me know in a comment!

On writing a short story (part one).

If there’s anything I pride myself on, it’s being authentic while being kind. To that end, I must admit that I did not finish writing my short story. I didn’t post by 5 PM as planned. This is because I’m quarantining in Florida with my three nephews (all under 12 years old) and my niece (under two years old) and a house full of family. It’s been amazing and entertaining, but I am so tired. I’m also trying to finish the school year strong and it’s this kind of juggling that leaves me tired and uninspired. I know it’s critical, non-negotiable even, to make time for writing. Even though I didn’t finish the short story, I need to be proud of myself for what I did complete, which was nearly 1,000 words. And this is a typical part of my writing process, honestly. I’ll stop when I feel like I have to force it. This is where I ended up today:

The TV was loud, loud enough that Madeleine felt sure it would only be a few more moments before the neighbor downstairs, the angry and entitled woman with the pixie cut gelled to perfection, would be banging on her ceiling, through to Madeleine’s floor. That night, the bitch could bang all she wanted – the TV was going to stay loud because the Ghost Gurus were doing a live, nationally televised paranormal investigation of an abandoned lunatic asylum somewhere on the east coast and she wasn’t going to miss a single second of it. She’d been watching the Ghost Gurus for six years and more than just encourage her love of all things spooky and creepy and odd, it got her through the divorce, through the weight gain and loss, through the move into the shitty studio apartment she now called home; Ghost Gurus got her through the worst times in her life. And she was gonna make damn sure she was there for them on one of the biggest nights of their careers.

The can of light beer beside her reflected the soft blue light that emanated from her desktop. Madeleine chewed on the end of her lip ring on the inside of her bottom lip, an anxious habit. She was ready for the investigation to start, and she was also eagerly anticipating a response from Johnny99. There was a live chat happening alongside the investigation and Madeleine, under the alias “Casperette44,” had logged on just to lurk. She’d never intended to send a message, but when someone wrote, “Any advice on the best digital recorder for EVP work,” she couldn’t help herself. She wrote a quick message back to recommend the Sony ICDUX560BLK Digital Voice Recorder 1’ Black because it’s extremely easy to use and set up, and catches voices clearly. She advised against voice-activated recorders because the device could start in the middle of an occurrence, and as many EVPs are typically only a word or two, you don’t want a device that could miss potential evidence. She went to light a cigarette but when she focused back on the screen, there was a private message waiting for her from Johnny 99. He thanked her profusely for the suggestion and asked her if Zane, the lead investigator, could be any more melodramatic.

In her empty, lonely studio apartment, the message actually made her laugh out loud. She covered her mouth to muffle the noise, careful not to smear her heavily painted lips in dark crimson, and reread the message with a pleasant surprise of a smile. She agreed that yes, Zane was indeed over-the-top, but she loved him all the same and that his passion, with Adam’s proclivity to stay in especially terrifying places by himself, made her keep coming back for more.

They talked until it was after three o’clock in the morning, after the investigation was over and she’d missed the whole thing, after a lot of obvious flirting. They decided to meet the next weekend during a group investigation for beginners at an abandoned lunatic asylum on the other side of town. So in a week, she stood before her full-length mirror, twisting this way and that to see her full reflection. Her hair was dyed black, courtesy of a box from a local drugstore, and straightened meticulously, to the point where the apartment was filled with the smell of slightly burning hair. Her dark eyes were outlined in even darker, thicker liner. Her ripped jeans and faded band tee-shirt almost made her look ten years younger. She decided this was as good as it was going to get and sat to lace up her Doc Martens.

Nearly an hour later, her small blue Toyota Corolla rolled to a stop in a huge parking lot. The sound of crunching gravel announced her arrival, and the anxious group of paranormal investigators moved closer together and turned in unison to observe her. She released shaky breaths as she climbed from the vehicle to stand in the brisk evening air. Johnny99, real name Bryan, was wearing a denim jacket with a smiley face pin. She scanned the crowd but couldn’t see anyone matching the description from the message. Zander, the self-proclaimed psychic medium leading the investigation, started talking and gesturing towards the electronics on the folding table beside him. Madeleine was only half-listening. She was scanning, always scanning, for Bryan. She didn’t see him and loaded up with a digital recorder and an EMF reader. She followed the group inside.

As the group moved through the first floor, a sudden rush of footsteps caused everyone to gasp and spin around. A gorgeous, breathless young man was pulling his long hair back from his face. “Sorry, I’m late,” he said. The fluorescent lights danced off the shiny surface of the smiley face pin on his denim jacket, and Madeleine breathed a sigh of relief. “I got lost like four times driving up here.” Everyone nodded, offered a quick, sympathetic smile, and then went back about their business, which at the moment, was following Zander deeper and deeper inside the abandoned lunatic asylum. Madeleine stood still, smiling and watching Bryan situate his equipment about his person. When he finally felt her eyes upon him, he looked up, and the smile that broke across his face was like the dawn. “You must be Madeleine.” She extended her hand.

“And you must be Bryan,” she purred as they shook hands.

On planning a short story.

Now that I’ve finished a 21-day creativity challenge (courtesy of Grammarly), it’s time to keep the confidence and creativity going! I thought it’d be a good idea to walk you through how I write a short story step-by-step.

Step 1: Get inspired

For me, inspiration comes from my surroundings. I feel lucky that I’m able to pull from my daily environment and my day-to-day doings. For the past three weeks, I’ve been quarantining in Cape Coral, Florida with my sister, her husband, and FOUR kids (all under the age of 12). It’s been entertaining as hell and while I may be short on sleep, I am definitely not short on inspiration or love or laughter. Surrounded by palm trees, heat and humidity, and unpredictable and fast-moving storms, I had an idea to set a story in the Sunshine State. There’s been an idea I’ve been kicking around for a long time about a guy murdering his wife and getting rid of the body at an alligator farm, the kind where they give tourists airboat rides, and the local sheriff works with a beautiful but broken bartender from a honky tonk bar to solve the case. That feels like more of a novel, because it would absolutely take time and space unavailable in the short story format to explain everything concerning the plot, so I hunted for another idea.

My nephew Jonathan LOVES scary movies. It’s all he ever wants to watch and I know I’m mostly responsible. I’ve been forcing them on him since he was about four years old. The other night, he joined me in watching old episodes of “Ghost Adventures.” The episodes in question featured Mark and Debby Constantino, paranormal investigators and EVP experts who died tragically. After several incidents of domestic violence, Mark killed Debby and himself after a standoff with police. You can read more about the tragedy here.

Paranormal investigating, coupled with personal tragedy, makes for engrossing material. It’s been storming a lot here too, so an atmosphere formed in my mind before an actual story did, but everything I needed was there.

Step 2: Create a bare bones outline

Scenes don’t formulate for me until there’s a tangible kind of plan. I love making lists and outlines for this very purpose.

  • Two paranormal investigators meet online during a televised, live investigation
  • They bond over corny, melodramatic personality and technology used (looking at you, Zak Bagans … sorry)
  • They plan to meet in real life for a real ghost hunt
    • Stanley Hotel (and use my real life experience)?
    • Research abandoned lunatic asylums?
  • During the investigation: he kills her? she kills him? they find real ghosts? SO MANY POSSIBILITIES!

Step 3: Character sketches

I honestly believe the best stories are character-driven rather than plot-driven. It could be the most exciting series of events in the history of literature, but if the characters are flat and do not elicit some kind of visceral response, none of it matters.

My character sketches aren’t too detailed, which is frowned upon, but it works for me. My main character is named Madeleine. Madeleine chewed on the end of her lip ring on the inside of her bottom lip, an anxious habit —> heavily painted lips, a dark crimson; thick, black eyeliner; pitch black hair (dye from the box, drugstore); listening to Screamo(?), heavy metal(?); studio apartment, light beet can beside her at desktop computer?

The above sketch is very visual; I believe imagery is ESSENTIAL to storytelling. The reader NEEDS to have a picture painted in their minds in order to connect to the characters and the story. So as a picture forms, there are more questions to answer: should I set the story ten years earlier? twenty years? And as the picture becomes clearer, it brings me to step 4.

Step 4: Specific scenes

Again with my list-making: I make lists of specific scenes I want to include. So far, I have a scene with walkie talkies and EVPs (a demonic voice coming through, something neither investigator is prepared for), a scene referencing ITC and “white noise” (to build mood and atmosphere), and a Van der Graaff generator (featured on an episode of “Ghost Hunters,” but to be believable and specific, I need to do more research).

Step 5: Research

I’m going to be looking up any technical details I’m not familiar with to give my voice authenticity (an element emphasized in Chuck Palahniuk’s latest book, a brilliant memoir on writing). After that, I’ll write a rough draft and post it here.

On an unrelated note… in the past six or seventh months, I’ve become a better woman. I’ve been moving ever closer to the woman I always dreamed I’d be, and that is thanks in part to two very special women. I promised I’d write an entire blog post about them, but they’d be embarrassed and truth be told, I don’t think I’d ever be able to put into words how amazing these women are, at least not to my own satisfaction. So the short story will be dedicated to Casey and Kathleen.

On ending a 21-day challenge and maybe calling it a 21-day fix

I’m really glad I stumbled on this 21-day creativity challenge when I did, because life has been very weird for longer than anticipated. For me, it’s not so much a lack of inspiration as there is P L E N T Y to pull from if one only observes the world for a moment. For me, the trouble is sticking to a writing schedule, to get those plentiful ideas down on paper. The awesome thing about attempting this 21-day creativity challenge is that it has forced me to carve out time each and every day to be creative. It has forced me to create and stick to a schedule where I am writing (or developing inspiration for writing) everyday, and that in and of itself, has been i n v a l u a b l e.

So let’s review my third – and final 😦 – week of my 21-day creativity challenge.

Day 15: Perform a mundane task.

The idea behind this “challenge” reminds me of the “Eureka theory.” The “Eureka theory” proposes that formerly impossible becomes solvable when one “thinks outside the box,” which happens when the mind is allowed to wander from the problem and, in some instances, think about something else entirely. This (apparently) comes from ancient Greece when Archimedes was asked by a local king to prove the king’s crown was pure gold. Archimedes had no idea how to do that, and puzzled over the problem. The solution suddenly came to him when he was doing something entirely different and unrelated; taking a bath. When at the public bath, Archimedes “noted that water was displaced when his body sank into the bath, and particularly that the volume of water displaced equaled the volume of his body immersed in the water” (Wikipedia). Thus, Archimedes discovered how to find the volume of an irregular object, which solved his problem concerning the king’s crown, and legend has it that Archimedes was so excited that he jumped from the bath, yelled “Eureka (meaning “I have found it!”)!” and ran naked all the way home.

This method has definitely worked for me many, many times. When I let my mind wander and do its own thing, nine times out of ten it brings me to where I need to be. I even recommend this to my students; if they’re stuck, leave whatever it is behind and go do something they love for half-an-hour. The mind is more relaxed, more open to possibility, and the solution often appears.

I tell the students to do something they love instead of a mundane task because it offers more of a buy-in, or an incentive. For the older (and sometimes wiser), mundane works because there’s always something that needs to be done but can simultaneously prove fruitful for the creative life. Just the other day, I was folding what appeared to be a never ending pile of laundry and BAM! The plot hole I’d been puzzling over resolved itself! If only dealing with fitted sheets were so easy.

Day 16: Knit or crochet.

When I saw this challenge, every muscle in my body tensed. For years – literally years – I’ve been teasing a colleague who knits and crochets. It’s gentle teasing and truly comes from a place of love, but really? Seriously?

I had to stop judging and climb down off my high horse and give it a whirl. After all, I realized this “challenge” wasn’t so far off from doing something mundane. Knitting or crocheting could be like painting or coloring; the repetitive muscle movements and hyperfocus on the tactile challenge could indeed open up a world of possibilities. BUT – I also knew I couldn’t do this without my poor colleague I’d teased mercilessly. So I’m going to set up a time with her where she can show me the ropes (of yarn! … get it?) and I’ll post the finished product here.

Day 17: Make a list.

OMG, ALL I DO IS MAKE LISTS! In my daily planner, in my journal, on Post-it notes stuck all over my desk and monitor, there are lists and lists and lists! Again, the idea here is that considering a wealth of possibilities to whatever creative endeavor is challenging you, you open up your mind and find the right one.

Day 18: Have a conversation.

OMG, ALL I DO IS CONVERSATE! But really, direct quotes from conversations I have had with friends in real life end up in my writing A L L T H E T I M E. According to the late, great Professor Dumbledore, “Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” For example, I can remember all the details of when my second grade teacher told me years and years later that she remembered my handwriting and what a wonderful writer I was. And with equal clarity, I can remember when someone pointed out all the flawed editing in my first novel. I recorded the exchanges and have filed them away because 1) writing through real-life situations is an effective coping mechanism for me and 2) inspiration could be hiding within.

My hero Stephen King wrote:

Writers remember everything… especially the hurts. … A little talent is a nice thing to have if you want to be a writer, but the only real requirement is the ability to remember the story of every scar. Art consists of the persistence of memory.”

So having conversations, good and bad, and remembering them is important to helping stimulate creativity.

Day 19: Keep an idea file.

Done and done; been doing this for years. In my Google Drive, there are two folders: Novels and Short Stories. Inside each of those folders is another folder, simply labeled “Ideas.” And the best thing about those folders is that I’m constantly adding to them.

Day 20: Try a topic generator.

Topics/ideas aren’t really my issue, but these are fun to play with anyway. And the point of this 21-day “challenge” is to try new things and think outside the box.

Having trouble starting a deep, interesting conversation sure to be filled with nuggets of creative gold? Try this random conversation starter generator.

Having trouble thinking of something to write about? Try this topic generator specifically for blogs.

Or try this fun one!

Day 21: Light a vanilla cinnamon candle.

In life, it really is the little things. Sitting at my desk in my front room with the window open on a nice day, watching the sheer curtains ripple from the gentle breeze blowing through with a vanilla cinnamon candle flickering is a perfect way to start my writing day. Specifically, the vanilla cinnamon candle is good because in the aromatherapy realm, those two scents really seem to boost creativity.

So how did your 21 days go? Comment and let me know!

On week #2 of my 21-day creativity challenge.

I won’t repeat myself unnecessarily, so all I’ll do to open up this post is reiterate how difficult it can be to be creative during a pandemic. Life is not as it was, and information about returning to the way things were changes every day, and the amount of information is overwhelming and varied. The only real consensus is that there is no real consensus, and all of those circumstances can make it quite difficult to keep to a writing schedule and all of those circumstances can make it near impossible to start and stick to a *new* creative schedule. But at times like these, the best we can do is try. So please, join me on my second week of Grammarly’s 21-Day Creativity Challenge (featured here).

Day 8: Carry an idea notebook.

One of my favorite aspects of this challenge is that most of the tips are tips I already implement daily, let alone weekly. One of those tips is to carry an idea notebook. I’ve actually been teased for always having a journal and a pen in my purse or bag. Here’s photographic evidence of my idea journal:

Mostly, I write down things my friends say and dreams I remember. Occasionally, I’ll be especially inspired and able to write a scene, or a couple of scenes, or even a whole chapter! I write down the homily during mass too, and daily schedules, and let it all flow together. My writing life should and will forever be entwined with my general life.

Day 9: Freewrite.

A former co-worker RAVED about freewriting. We would have our students participate in that activity to help deepen their understanding of a concept, or help them begin to develop analysis. There’s excellent and extensive information about freewriting at this link. And other teachers, writing for Psychology Today, agree with our premise as its benefits go beyond the realm of creativity, as explained here.

So how does one freewrite? Luckily, The Book Designer walks you through it:

Here are some freewriting guidelines, although in the spirit of freewriting freedom, feel free to not follow any that don’t feel right.

1. Use a prompt.
2. Set a timer.
3. Keep your pen moving.
4. Write quickly.
5. Use the first word.
6. Write crap.
7. Go for it.

Find more information here.

Day 10: Join a social writing site.

I began to explore this last week when the tip was to join a group of creatives. Physically doing this is not a current option, but joining an online group through a social writing site is entirely plausible. According to Grammarly, the goal is to do more than just connect, however. Grammarly says, “If your muse gets lonely, online social sites for writers, such as Wattpad or Amazon Kindle’s Write On, may help. (Just be aware that getting noticed and earning feedback on these sites can require a significant time commitment.)” The goal should always be inspiration first, but there is the opportunity for developing a readership. I haven’t truly tackled this step yet, but I will and I will report back.

Day 11: Go somewhere busy.

This particular tip was difficult to try during this pandemic, so to talk about this tip, I have to rely on past experience. The benefits are almost endless. You can overhear real dialogue to make your own more authentic.I remember sitting at a crowded bar and watching two guys across the way rehash the fight one of them had with his girlfriend. I made note not only of the dialogue, but of the way they moved. Going to crowded places can also inspire settings which can develop plot.

Day 12: Go someplace quiet.

This tip, conversely, was extremely easy to accomplish. It seems like everywhere is someplace quiet. I’ve done my best writing alone in my room. What works best for me is gathering and generating ideas in busy places and then developing them into prose in quiet places. Quiet places help with concentration and can be relaxing and soothing. Also, the perfect blend of someplace busy and someplace quiet is one of my favorite places to write: a bookstore or coffee shop.

Day 13: Do something brave.

This one confused me when I first read it. Grammarly explains, “Shy? Join an improv group. Clumsy? Take a beginner’s dance class. Do something that pushes your limits and then use your experiences for inspiration.” Again, this becomes an issue when most places are closed and new experiences are severely limited. However, I did something brave as best as I could; I traveled to Florida during this quarantine to see my sister and her beautiful, precious family. I was worried about checkpoints at state lines, about rest areas and service stations being closed, and taking the trip in these scary times.

Day 14: Attend a creative event.

This is not possible currently, but I cannot stress enough how much attending writing conferences has helped me. I know I talked about this in last week’s post, but I’ll happily repeat myself if it convinces even just one person to put him or herself out there and attend a conference. The benefits vary depending on the conference, but no matter the conference, there are always undeniable benefits. I got into more details in the following posts:

Tune in next week for my third and final week of the 21-Day Creativity Challenge!

On a 21-day Creativity Challenge!

Last week, I happily posted about how I had a breakthrough while writing. I was pleasantly surprised by that burst of creative inspiration as it seemingly came from absolutely nowhere, seeing as how we’re STILL in the midst of a pandemic, which means we’re still social distancing and quarantining. As random as it appeared, I was afraid that after that initial spark, there’d be n o t h i n g. For once in my writing life, I decided to be proactive and challenge myself to be creative no matter the circumstance! I did some research and stumbled upon a Grammarly post about 21 Ways to Inspire Creativity When You’re Out of Ideas.

I saw the number 21 and figured it was a sign from the universe; if you do something consistently for 21 days, it becomes a habit. The 21 ways could easily become 21 days as long as I vowed to try a way a day (oh, how I love rhyme!). For the next three blog posts, including this one, I’ll be writing all about my 21-day creativity challenge! I’ll share what worked, what didn’t work, and what I learned!

Day 1: Listen to music.

I listen to music C O N S T A N T L Y. Hell, I even listen to music when I sleep! Naturally, I listen to music when I write. On my Instagram, I post a #tuesdaytune , which is a song that’s been especially inspiring that week. For a song to inspire me, it has to inspire great emotion, which for me, usually comes from the lyrics. If lyrics are especially poignant, I’ll stop in the middle of my writing and jot them down. I’ve been doing this since college:

This is one of my notebooks from college.
I spy lyrics from My Chemical Romance, Boxcar Racer, and Snow Patrol.
I spy lyrics from MGMT, Bayside, and Billy Joel.

For day one, I set myself up in my bedroom. I’d recently watched “Twilight,” inspired by Stephenie Meyer’s announcement she’s finally going to release Midnight Sun, Call me a snob, but I really didn’t care for the books. The writing was too juvenile to really pique my interest, but I will gladly admit I LOVED the movies. It’s always a treat to watch Robert Pattinson do anything, and those movies were delightfully hollow. I didn’t have to think or analyze, I could just imagine laying in a meadow with an immortal Robert Pattinson who was so in love with me, he’d get us both caught up in adventures riddled with poor character development and gaping plot holes.

But I digress. I wrote about 750 words in one hour, even with pausing to copy lyrics I loved. I think that’s sufficient evidence to prove listening to music really does inspire creativity.

Day 2: Journal every day.

Again, this is another way to inspire creativity that I’ve been using for years. I’ve been journaling every day since middle school. Here’s photographic evidence:

That middle shelf is all the journals I’ve filled over the years.
This is the journal I’m currently using.
And here’s proof I’m using it for this 21-day challenge!

Day 3: Join a group of creatives.

Considering the current global state, this one proved especially difficult. There are TONS of online writing groups, but that’s actually a challenge for a later date. Though I can’t join a new group, I can absolutely attest to the power of joining a group of creatives. I’ve been blessed to attend three writer’s conferences in just as many years: the Algonkian Writer’s Conference, the Writer’s Hotel, and the Frank McCourt Summer School for Creative Writing. In each setting, I was awed and inspired by the creativity and tenacity of other writers. I still keep in touch with the groups I was in from each conference and I still seek their advice. I am honored to still be a part of their writing lives.

Day 4: Take a walk.

This is another activity I do regularly. I don’t always take my journal as I tend to focus on the walk for its exercise benefits, but when I adopt a more leisurely pace and allow myself the opportunity to stop and write, I’m never disappointed. If the inherent beauty of nature doesn’t inspire me (and I’m fortunate enough to live near the water), then being out and about among others definitely will. Even during this pandemic, I’ve found opportunities to “people watch,” to steal glimpses into the lives of others and formulate a plot with my imagination. I’ve copied overheard conversations into my journal to help me make my created dialogue more authentic and because, sometimes, people say wonderfully interesting things that I want to remember forever.

Day 5: Turn off (or cover) your monitor.

According to Grammarly, the point of this way to inspire creativity is to prevent focusing on what’s already been written:

Interesting things happen when you can’t edit—you have to move ahead rather than worry about what’s behind you. Sure, you’ll make tons of typos, but you can fix those. Later.

Written by Karen Hertzberg for Grammarly.

I thought it was an interesting concept. I’ve been using a typewriter now and again, and it’s a similar concept. The typewriter I use is old school; manual. And I didn’t buy any correcting ribbon. But, to do the thing properly, I will now try to write a part of my short story without looking at the monitor. Here we go:

The office was loud and overcrowded, as it usually was. Bernadette couldn’t work in that kind of environment and actually did her best work in the late afternoon when everyone else started to fdrift home. On nice days, she’d take her laptop up to the roof and work in the rays of the setting sun and letting the sounds of the evening commute serve as relaxing white noise. It was a good thing that Greg, her boss/editor, kept a similar schedule. It would end up being just the two of them in the office and he always seemed more prone to greenlighting her story ideas. The mini-fridge kept fully stocked with beer under his desk may have helped greatly, but Bernadette also liked to believe her talent and charm played an equally important role.

I’m impressed I didn’t make more mistakes. I mean, this is still rough – very rough – but thank you, Mavis Beacon (haha).

I like the idea behind this challenge, but in the end, it’d probably be more frustrating than inspiring. I’d keep this in the “Break in Case of Emergency” file, when I’m completely stuck and desperate for any kind of inspiration.

Day 6: Reward yourself for writing with a kitten.

If you go to this website, it allows you to choose between a kitten, puppy or bunny to pop up on the screen after so many words (you’re allowed to select that as well). I left the defaults chosen, so for every 100 words, a fresh kitten popped up. I recorded the experience for your viewing pleasure:

Adorable! But a message does pop up suggesting that users copy and paste the writing because the website could lose it. It’s not very practical, so I rank it with covering the monitor: only use in desperation.

Day 7: Mind Map.

I am NOT artistic at all. You don’t really need to be for a Mind Map, though. The idea is to creatively think about your big ideas and present them in a way so you can see your ideas in ways you never did before. To make sure I was doing it right, I looked up tutorials on YouTube (since the class linked from the Grammarly blog cost $47) and found this helpful (and quick!) clip.

I totally traced the big rig in the center. I’m really not artistic.

I really liked Mind Mapping, and I definitely will do it again in the future. It forced me to think about my short story idea in a different way, and the coloring aspect was soothing. It combined the best parts of being creative.

So tune in next week for another week of creative challenges! Let me know if you tried any of these in the comments! Let’s start our own group of creatives ❤ 🙂

On breaking through while staying in.

The pandemic continues. And so does the quarantine, the social distancing, and this overwhelming desire to return to normal. NJ public schools are closed for the remainder of the academic year, but state parks are open, though I think they’re limited to operating at ha;f their capacity and can be immediately shut down if people are not maintaining a social distance. I had a panic attack yesterday because I think it f i n a l l y hit me that I don’t recognize this world I’m now living in, and that is a terrifying realization.

So I escape; I escape into reading and into writing. Right now, I’m reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I realize this is long overdue; the novel was originally published in 1940 and became a sensation. It was McCullers first novel, and she was only twenty-three years old, so I thought it was high time I finally read it. I remember reading an excerpt or two in middle school and writing down the title so I could read the whole thing later. It’s much later now, and I’m wondering why this title isn’t as referenced as often as others from the time period, especially when Amazon.com reports the novel is “Wonderfully attuned to the spiritual isolation that underlies the human condition.” And according to Wikipedia (a dubious source at best), “The Modern Library ranked the novel seventeenth on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time included it in ‘TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005’. In 2004 the novel was selected for Oprah’s Book Club.” So I guess it’s time for me to see what all the fuss is about.

As for my writing, I am S T I L L revising my manuscript for my second novel, Moody Blue. But I am THRILLED to report I’ve had something of a breakthrough! Without going into too much detail, I’ve been grappling with components of my plot that were too extreme. I couldn’t close those plot holes or justify character decisions in regards to them. But I think I’ve thought my way through and the writing’s been coming easier now. I remember when I was writing Her Beautiful Monster, I saw every single scene like a movie in my head. I always knew exactly where the plot and characters were headed. Moody Blue is a different animal altogether; I could only ever see parts. There were scenes I definitely wanted to include, but I never saw just how each piece fit. Happily, I really believe I’m on to something now.

So please, share with me: what are you reading during this quarantine? Is there a book you’ve always wanted to read but never got around to? Are there any projects you’ve started or accomplished? Let’s talk creativity 🙂