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 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.

On playing tiny violins.

New year, new me.

That’s what everyone says. Now me, I’m not quiet as ambitious, but I am pleased (more than pleased, actually) to share that I am making good progress with one resolution: to write every day. What I have to share with you for this blog post isn’t another self-pity party or a list of attributes I wish I possess or anything like that. It’s … a short story!

Without further ado, I present for your reading pleasure: “BARBARA AND HER VIOLIN.”

Wooden violin on a sheet music.

Barbara sighed deeply. She was seated on a low, plush stool on a similarly plush rug in the center of her small, sparse living room. Her violin case was resting quietly beside her. Its golden clasps shone magnificently against the hard, matte black covering. It was beautiful to behold, had been a birthday gift from the first and last man she had ever loved, but at the current moment, it was not beautiful enough to hold her attention. Instead, Barbara was focused on her hands.

Her worst fears had been confirmed earlier that morning during a routine visit to her doctor. Barbara hadn’t told him about the pain in the mornings and she kept quiet about the way her finger and wrist joints would scream after a few hours of playing. Her mother had taught her that ignoring a problem made it go away, so Barbara never spoke about what was going on with her hands. And she made no mental notes whatsoever about how often she rubbed them to soothe the throbbing aches in her fingers and wrists. No one had to know because nothing was happening. Nothing to see here, folks. Just move it along, Barbara thought with a rueful smile.

But then Dr. Gabbison handed her a clipboard with some routine paperwork to sign. “Oh, Barbara,” he moaned. “Why didn’t you tell me about your hands?”

Barbara looked up with wide eyes. She had been struggling to grip the pen, wincing as she struggled to curl her fingers. She couldn’t bear the pity in the doctor’s eyes, so she averted her gaze to the appendages in question, the very things she was trying so hard to ignore. There were bony knobs on all of her fingers, and the skin around each was red and inflamed. They were awful and hideous to behold. Their ugliness viciously betrayed their former grace and dignity. Those hands could make wonderful music and remind people that humans were capable of more than just eating and shitting and dying. Now, they were discolored and gnarled and she hated them. When she looked back to Dr. Gabbison, she thought she might cry.

She left his office an hour later. Barbara left with a prescription for some super strength pain reliever and an impending sense of doom. Dr. Gabbison scheduled Barbara for another appointment in a week and tried to be optimistic, but he mentioned steroid injections and splints and even surgery, all of which scared Barbara half to death. All of that meant getting better was not an option. Dr. Gabbison talked about life0changing measures, alterations to her beloved and comfortable daily routine. Dr. Gabbison talked about not playing the violin anymore. She could never – and would never – understand how anyone could demand that someone else stop creating, stop making beautiful things for this grotesque world and its morally disfigured inhabitants. Barbara did not know how she would cope with the daily disappointments without the violin. She didn’t know how to keep from crying herself to sleep when the other side of the bed had been so cold for so long without the violin. Barbara didn’t know what she was going to do.

Daunted by the enormity of the tragedy she was facing, Barbara simply sat on her low, plush stool situated in the center of the plush carpet in the middle of her nearly empty living room. The blinds were drawn. The air was stale. Dust mites apathetically floated in the narrow streams of light that slipped in. Barbara sat with her hands curled about themselves in her lap. They seemed like they were not part of her, like she holding a weak and dying thing that she would be happy to see go as it meant the suffering was over, but mostly because she was disgusted by its continued existence. The hands she had cared for and admired for so long were useless to her now, and so she despised them. And the worst of it was that they were still part of her, and she couldn’t just ignore them until they were better. She couldn’t act like it was all okay because the hands riddled with arthritis had betrayed her and sat now as useless stumps, daily reminders of what she once had been and could never be again. As if growing older wasn’t enough of a travesty. She’d have to continue on alone, without the only companion she had known for nearly two decades. The music was gone, red and inflamed and silent, and now Barbara had nothing to help her temporarily forget that all there was left to do now was die.

She wondered if she should make herself a drink.

Barbara slowly got to her feet, thinking now that every single joint in her body was seizing up on her. She grabbed her lower back with a grimace and shuffled slowly, hunched over, into her small but tidy kitchen. It was a good thing she didn’t pass a single mirror on the way. She was moving like a woman twenty years older. It would have depressed the hell out of Barbara to see herself so frail, so weak, so near the end.

Barbara opened up the cabinet with glass inserts to find just the right glass to toast her final defeat with. What it was filled with would be inconsequential; anything with alcohol would suffice. Her eyes scanned the shelves to the bottom of the cabinet, and there they widened and filled with tears. Her breath caught in her throat.

Barbara was looking at two glass tumblers with a date from long ago etched elegantly around their middles. Henry had surprised her with them on the last night of their second honeymoon, a trip booked once Henry’s cancer proved indestructible against radiation and surgery and prayers and pleas and oils and creams and everything else, dear Lord, they had tried everything and nothing had worked. Barbara had broken down immediately, burying her face in her hands and letting the sobs wrack her body, sending shudders from her shoulders to her guts. Henry took the news with the same quiet dignity he always had. He shook the doctor’s hand, thanked him for his efforts. He helped Barbara to her feet, kissed the top of her head, and practically carried her to the car. He drove them home (for Christ’s sake, Barbara thought, I wasn’t even able to drive him home) and locked himself in the guestroom for two days.

When Henry emerged, he acted like nothing had happened. He kissed Barbara hard enough to make her knees tremble, made them a huge breakfast, and talked excitedly about what he was calling “his farewell tour.” He wanted to taste the air of great cities he’d never been to. He wanted to make love to Barbara in distant lands and wake up beside her with different sunlight on their faces. He wanted to live the way people are meant to; fearlessly and joyfully. He wanted what little time he had left to be so fucking good (the only time Barbara had ever heard him use such language) that he’d miss being alive.

They sat side by side and planned the whole thing – reservations and itineraries and accommodations galore – on Barbara’s laptop.

They ended the trip in Paris, Barbara’s absolute favorite city. Henry’s condition was rapidly deteriorating. He was always tired and though he put on a brace face, Barbara could tell he was relieved when she cancelled the remaining sightseeing tours. They stayed in the hotel room, making love and gorging themselves on French cuisine via room service. Barbara would play the violin at night. Henry would smile, crying as he watched her play. He told her he loved her over and over again. He told her he would miss her over and over again. Barbara didn’t trust herself to speak, so she only held him and kissed him and loved him the best she could.

The last night, Barbara awoke alone in the extravagant bed. They had made love and afterwards, she had fallen asleep, wrapped in Henry’s arms. When she woken and discovered he had left, she began to panic. He was too weak to go anywhere without assistance and he couldn’t speak a word of French. Barbara threw the covers off and frantically began getting dressed, wondering where he could have gone and debating calling the authorities. She had one leg in her pants when the door opened.

“Henry!” Barbara cried. She ran to him, half-dressed, and threw her arms around him. “I was so worried! You didn’t leave a note or anything an your cell phone was on the nightstand, so I didn’t know what happened to you!”

Henry stopped Barbara’s mouth with his, holding her almost as tightly as she was holding him, with a strength he hadn’t had in months. He backed her up to the bed. “Don’t bother getting dressed,” he said, winking.

Barbara fell back onto the bed and got a good look at Henry. He looked good, looked like he had when the trip started. She also noticed he was holding a brown paper shopping bag. Henry noted Barbara’s quizzical expression and set the bag on the bed. From it, he pulled an expensive looking bottle and two equally expensive looking tumblers. He handed the glasses to Barbara. “Look at the inscription,” he said. Barbara did as she was told. It said: BARBARA AND HENRY, AN EVERLASTING LOVE THAT BEGAN 02/18/1973.

Barbara blinked back tears. “Henry,” she said. She let his name hang on her lips and hang in the air because it was so sweet and so precious, and she wanted to savor it.

Henry held Barbara’s face in his hands. “I love you, Barbara. I love you more than I have ever loved anyone. You are the only thing about this life I’ll miss.” He paused to take a deep, shuddering breath. “So when I’m gone, you need to keep going. Do you understand me?”

Barbara shook her head, tears steadily pouring down her cheeks. “I can’t have this conversation with you, Henry.” Barbara thought that ignoring a problem really did make it go away, that acknowledging the problem was that start of all the trouble, so she shut her eyes and tried to be somewhere else.

Henry released her face and grabbed Barbara by her shoulders, shaking her. “Don’t do that. Don’t refuse anything life gives you. This is hard and this seems terribly unfair, but this is it, Babs. This is the hand we’ve been dealt so we’ve gotta play it.” He kissed her lips. “I know you don’t think you’re strong. I know you believe yourself incapable of facing any kind of adversity. And I know a lot of that is my fault because I’ve never let you. I’ve always fixed whatever was broken and I’ve always handled whatever needed to be handled, and I’ve always spared you the gory details. Barbara, honey, that was a mistake. I’m worried I might have set you up for failure.”

Barbara emphatically shook her head “no.” “Henry, you never ever did anything wrong. I -”

Henry interrupted her. “Barbara, stop. Listen to me, okay? Don’t argue or anything, just listen to me. Life is going to happen to you after I’m gone and you’re going to have to keep living no matter what. If that means finding love with someone else, or if that means moving somewhere else, whatever that means, I need you to do it.”

Barbara threw her arms around Henry again. She was sobbing, smearing snot and mascara all over his shoulder. “I love you, Henry. I don’t want to do this without you.”

“You have to,” Henry said. His voice was thick and he swallowed all that emotion down before speaking again. “You have to and you will. You’ll be an old, beautiful woman with long, gray hair, captivating men and women of all ages and types with that violin of yours. The sky will be the limit without me holding you back,” he said. He laughed softly and kissed her again. “Promise me you’ll never stop.”

Barbara looked Henry in the eye. The only man she had ever loved, the man who would be dead and buried in less than a month. Henry had saved her from countless dangers, both real and imagined, both big and small. He’d always kissed it and made it better. He was her lover and cheerleader, her biggest fan. There was absolutely no conceivable way Barbara could go on without him. It wasn’t a promise she could make as it certainly wasn’t a promise she could keep. But Barbara also couldn’t deny a dying man his last wish. So she kissed him like she’d never be able to kiss him again, like this really was the very last goodbye, and then she said, “I promise.”

Henry kissed her open mouth. “I’ll drink to that,” he said, smiling though there were tears gathering in his dark eyes. He filled both glasses with the bourbon he liked, and they toasted to Barbara’s promise.

Now, over ten years later, Barbara stood in her small but neat kitchen, holding one of the glasses from that tragically perfect evening in a Paris hotel room with a gnarled, grotesque hand. Next to Henry, the violin was her only source of companionship. To lost it would be like losing Henry all over again, would be a fate worse than death. That violin had brought her to Henry. After she had played with a small orchestra at the local community college, Henry had been waiting for her outside. He told her that he just had to tell her she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen or heard. He said it would be his life’s biggest regret if he didn’t ask her out. And so their courtship had begun.

Henry was at every single performance, even when his failing health didn’t really allow it.

At their wedding, Barbara played an original composition she had written for Henry.

When they had their first bad fight, Barbara played her violin until Henry finally started talking to her again. This same tactic was successfully employed time and time again over the years, as the music was a cue for Henry to come and have a conversation or, at the very least, to tell her to knock it off because he wasn’t angry anymore and just wanted some quiet. Barbara didn’t think she could abandon those memories or do such a disservice to the instrument that had helped her keep the promise she made to her dying husband.

Slowly, painfully, Barbara filled the glass with the bourbon Henry had loved. She drank it down quickly and then returned to the living room. Slowly, painfully, she removed the beautiful instrument from its elegant case, and she began to play.

In a couple of hours, she didn’t even feel the pain.

the-sad-violin

On battling back against disappointment.

disappointment1

Please forgive my prolonged absence. As soon as I left work on December 20th, I headed to Florida to spend the holidays with my family. But now I’m back, baby! And I’m fully embracing the second coming of the Roaring 20s!

Well, sort of.

In case the title of this blog post wasn’t enough of an indication, things aren’t going as well as I had hoped. I should be used to this. I mean, when does life ever really go as planned? It still sucks to be disappointed, though. Next to loneliness, I think disappointment is my least favorite emotion.

I’m disappointed because it looks like I’m going to have to postpone my Ireland plans for a year. My FAFSA was denied because I defaulted on a loan I mistakenly thought was a grant. I’m an idiot, I know. And my credit’s not quite good enough for a loan (personal, student, or otherwise). I’m terribly ashamed to admit this because I feel like a failure and I worry people will think I’m a loser. And then I REALLY start to spiral and convince myself I am a loser and that I was never good enough to be a writer anyway and now the universe is just confirming it.

But that’s not true. And that’s flawed thinking. It’s unhelpful, negative thinking. None of that is conducive to battling back against disappointment.

It’s crucial to be both positive and reasonable when dealing with disappointment. I applied to the University of Limerick on a whim, with no solid plans for what I’d do if I was accepted. I already shared my concerns about living abroad for a year in an earlier post, but the more I consider those concerns, the more I realize how foolish I was in thinking I could prepare to live in another country for a year in less than a year. Finances aside, my house is nowhere near ready to be rented out (at least not at the price I’d be asking). My heat needs to be fixed and my appliances need updating. I need to clean out my basement to maximize space.

And what about my car? My cat? It’s overwhelming to fully think studying abroad through, but that’s what must be done to do it right. I’d rather do something right than just do something spontaneously. I also firmly believe everything happens for a reason, so let me slow down and take a breath and plan.

Deferring my place has its disadvantages. I worry I say “I’ll go next year,” but then never go. I wonder if I can survive another year of the same old, same old. What if my writing suffers because I’m stuck in a rut, only tired and uninspired, making only obvious and safe choices? I know this is mostly psychological and partially the result of being rejected by A N O T H E R agent and losing A N O T H E R writing contest.

But I have to remember to stay positive. Maybe this year, I can really focus on building a writing resume and a productive writing routine.

And I’d still be me in Ireland. A change of scenery doesn’t guarantee anything. I need to be happy and comfortable before I go somewhere as far as Ireland or I’m just running away. Or worse, only delaying dealing with my insecurities as a writer (and honestly, as a woman).

And it’s critical to stay positive. I have to consider the possibility that deferring my place is a blessing in disguise.

Because everything happens for a reason.

disappointment2

On adventures, especially the small ones.

ulfrankmccourt

I didn’t write a single entry for the month of June. I had drafts, but I never published a single entry. June was a rough, tough month for me; the end of the school year is always a hectic time, and there were financial and personal woes that kept me distracted, but the adventure – albeit a small one – I was psyching myself up for at the end of the month was a real blessing and a real game changer. Essentially, I’m saying that I’m glad I held off so I could post a love letter to The University of Limerick/Frank McCourt Creative Writing Summer School. It’s been about a year since I left a writing conference brimming with such admiration and inspiration and affection, and I’m excited to tell you all about it.

I attended the conference with a colleague who was my former English teacher and is now a very good friend. We headed into New York City during the later hours of Thursday morning. We checked into our hotel and spruced ourselves up before heading to an exclusive, invitation only reception at the Irish Consulate. I can’t remember feeling as privileged and elegant as I did that night. On the seventeenth floor of an intimidating building on Park Avenue, we were treated to passed hors d’oeuvres and wine and the wonderful joviality that seems to be exclusive to the Irish. Ellen and Malachy McCourt were present, relations of the Irish writer Frank McCourt, in whose honor the Summer School was started. Frank McCourt and his book Angela’s Ashes hold very special places in my heart because his book was the very first, and perhaps the only book, I remember my entire family reading. I’m talking my grandparents, my parents, my siblings, my aunts, and my uncles, and maybe even some cousins. Discussing that book with my extended family is one of my most cherished literary and familial memories, so to be in that elegant room with windows overlooking Park Avenue and rubbing elbows with the Irish literary scene was surreal.

The school really kicked off on Friday afternoon, where all attending gathered at the Glucksman Ireland House for registration and orientation. We were split up into three seminar groups (A, B, and C) and each group took each Core Workshop. My colleague and I had the good fortune of being in the same group, group C. But before we split up, we all remained in the main lecture room for an introduction that outlined the aims of the weekend, and for a lecture by Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald that included writing exercises and covered self-motivation, plot, structure, and story.

sarah-moore-fitzgerald-407653063 Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald was an incredibly warm, energetic and passionate woman. She was an absolute joy to learn from. She told us all that “There really is no expertise … everyone comes to the blank page” and that blank page is a “real leveler.” The inclusive atmosphere she created was crucial to establishing the camaraderie that gradually built over the weekend between the attendees and the faculty. Her knowledge and encouragement will stay with me for a long time. Her author profile is here, on her publisher’s website.

After Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s lecture, my group and I traveled down a short, creaky staircase for our first Core Workshop: All We Shall Know: Short Stories to Novels, led by Professor Donal Ryan.

donalryan Professor Donal Ryan was just … cool. He put us all at ease with his humor but simultaneously managed to keep us all on our toes with his wit and insight into the creative process. He was honest and open and completely generous. He really drove home the point that the best kind of stories are character driven and beautiful in their simplicity, meaning just tell the story you want to tell. He played songs that captured this idea and pointed out how they did it in just a couple of verses and a chorus. He said, “Infinity is there for us as writers” because anyone can write about absolutely anything, and that can be overwhelming. So the key is to keep it simple: read and write to hone your craft, and to be almost mathematical about plot, pacing, and structure to sort of rein yourself in and not succumb to “the oppression of infinity.” Professor Donal Ryan’s author profile can be found here, on his publisher’s website. And this is a link to a wonderful article about Donal Ryan, which really captures the spirit of his approach to writing.

I was on cloud nine leaving the building after the first day, and things were only made better by having a delicious dinner at “Eataly.” The writer’s life is definitely the life for me, and I am forever indebted to my colleague for bringing this experience to my attention. I feel like a different person, and I feel like a better writer.

Saturday was a full day: we started earlier and ended later. We began again as a large group with Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald discussing plot, the importance of conflict in the plot, and she shared intimate details of her process as a writer of books for young adults. Again, she was passionate and vibrant and full of knowledge. I filled pages and pages of my notebook with notes; amazing.

After the main lecture, my group shuffled over to the second Core Workshop in the seminar room just inside the front door of the house. The workshop was titled Poetry in the House of Prose, and it was led by Dr. Martin Dyar.

M-Dyar-by-Fran-Marshall-1-960x675 Learning from Dr. Martin Dyar was an incredible experience, so much so that I find it difficult to put into words the transformative magic that occurred within the room as he spoke. Before the workshop, we were to read “The Swimmer” by John Cheever and a collection of poems curated by Dr. Dyar. He explored the connection between narrative writing and poetry with examples, and spoke so eloquently about the importance of both and how using them in tandem makes the beauty of the written word and of abstract thought more accessible to the reader. Like Professor Dolan Ryan, he talked about compression and how with writing, and especially with poetry, less is often more. I annotated all over the poem we focused on and was inspired not only as a writer, but as a teacher. His workshop was so important on so many different levels, and it’s always wonderful to talk with brilliant people, and he is absolutely brilliant. Dr. Martin Dyar’s profile and brief biography are featured on the Poetry Foundation’s website.

We broke for a quick lunch. I had ice cream. What an amazing, incredible day! And I was only halfway through it.

After lunch, my group had our final Core Workshop with Dr. Kerry Neville, titled Writing Memoir and Longer Fiction.

kerryneville Dr. Kerry Neville was beautiful and honest and brave and vulnerable, and just an artist in full. She had us write a story about ourselves to introduce ourselves and really demonstrated the magic in a good story and what it can do to create an understanding and a sense of community between people, specifically between an author and her readers. She really emphasized the point that no matter what you write, it’s your job to get it right, to give the story the dignity it deserves. Dr. Kerry Neville also had us bring in important photographs and write a sentence or two about why there were so important to us. I had a picture of my maternal grandparents celebrating St. Patrick’s Day some years ago, and I wrote about the connection between them and Frank McCourt and sharing literary aspirations with my grandfather. I was honored and blessed to have the moment to give credit to Grandpa, who left us far too soon and was always so supportive. I like to think that he would be proud and we would have been incredibly close as I got older. And I owe Dr. Kerry Neville for sharing her knowledge and passion, and for allowing me a platform to do the same. She is a wonderful woman. Dr. Kerry Neville’s website is here.

We ended the day at the Swift Hibernian Lounge, where we were treated to an intimate concert with Pierce Turner.

Pierce-on-puck-fair-counter WOW. What a performance. What an experience. Pierce Turner’s lyrics were poignantly beautiful and incredibly intelligent. As I sat beside an Irish filmmaker, across from a woman who had studied at the University of Limerick for a year, and next to my colleague, I was perfectly in love with my life. It was amazing and wonderful, and I – again! – am struggling to find the right combinations of words to do the magic of the evening any sort of justice. It was actually as close to perfect as I think an evening can get. Pierce Turner’s official website is here. And this is my favorite song that he played that evening.

Sunday was our last day, and it was bittersweet. New York City always exhausts me and while I was excited to unwind at home, I knew I had been a part of something truly great and I would miss it dearly. I miss it right now.

Our last day started with an awesome lecture by Professor Eoin Devereux, called Waltzing Back: The Cranberries’ “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?”

eoindevereux The lecture was awesome. Professor Eoin Devereux was passionate and knowledgeable, but managed to make everything so accessible. Professor Joseph O’Connor kept calling him a Renaissance Man, and it’s true; he was a treat to listen to and my only regret is that his lecture wasn’t longer. Professor Eoin Devereux’s impressive faculty page is here.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of The Cranberries in my life. When I was a miserable teenager hell bent upon making my mother’s life more miserable than it needed to be, when her and I were at our worst, we could somehow manage to sit together and still share a love of music, particularly that of The Cranberries. My mother introduced me to Dolores O’Riordan’s haunting voice and stunning lyrics, and she played for me her favorite songs.  There’d been several signs from the universe indicating I was right where I was supposed to be, and Professor Eoin Devereux’s informative and entertaining lecture was definitely one of them.

The conference ended at McSorley’s Old Alehouse with a simple brunch. Each of the faculty members read a little something they had prepared and after some merriment muted by the knowledge it was the end, we parted ways. McSorley’s was the perfect establishment for the send off; rich in history and with stories of its own. One of my closest friends in college (whom I named one of my characters after in my novel) worked there for a long time, and her family still owns and operates it. I reached out to her and we reconnected briefly and everything just felt right.

It’d be a horrible, terrible mistake if I didn’t acknowledge Professor Joseph O’Connor, the man who led the way and endeavored to put the whole conference together.

profoconnor His humor and warmth and knowledge set the tone for the whole weekend. He was incredibly gracious and kind, and remarkably talented, and inspiring. Professor Joseph O’Connor’s author website is here.

He spoke about the possibility of studying at the University of Limerick, and encouraged us to reach out to him if we were interested. So I did.

I guess what this whole post has been leading up to is the revelation I came to: I want to study for a year in Ireland. I want to live and write there for a year. And I’ve begun planning to do so.

I’ll keep you updated, as always.

On interpretations and story lines.

The other night, I had a dream that I was in the shower and all my nail polish washed off in the water. I was pissed because in real life, I had just had a manicure and a pedicure and it totally stressed me out. When I woke up, I had forgotten the dream until I saw the red polish still on my fingernails as I reached for my phone (a terrible habit I need to break – summer objective #1!). I Googled “dream symbols nail polish” and as you can imagine, an overwhelming amount of information popped up. Some of the interpretations claimed to see nail polish in a dream meant the dreamer was focused on beauty and attention to detail. Other interpretations took it a step further and said that if the polish was a unique color (like blue or green or purple) then it showed the dreamer’s free spirit. But the interpretation I found that made sense to me was about how seeing nail polish in a dream meant the dreamer was dealing with rumors and “dirty words.” In my personal life, I’ve lost a close friend recently because this person told others that I hated them and said horrible things. I’ve been bitter and angry as a result, so the dream makes sense in that context.

But does that make the interpretation accurate? Does it have any merit, or am I just choosing what applies to me because I can only really look for what I am already seeing?

More recently, I had a dream where mice were running all over my feet and I was beside myself. I took to Google once again and was met with many different interpretations … again. But the website I settled on readily admitted that there are many unique interpretations for seeing mice in a dream, but that seeing mice in a dream was more often than not a bad sign. It mentioned mice representing feelings of inadequacy and of not being good enough, and the fear of being used, all of which are currently extremely relevant to me and what’s been going on in my personal life.

Are these really signs, or do people really only see what they look for?

I don’t know. Personally, I’m always looking for signs and I do believe there are miracles. But as I grow older, I find I have more and more trouble trusting myself. It is an incredibly frustrating sensation. And when it happens, I like to imagine I’m someone else to rectify the situation. I’ll ask myself, “What would Carrie Bradshaw do?” or “What would Harry Potter do?” or “What advice would Jane Eyre have?” I think of characters I admire and go from there. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing because maybe, just maybe, ink and pen and paper are stronger materials than blood and bone.

I bring up characters to ask about story lines. My prompt for this week is to: “Ask for fans’ favorite story lines and see if they have ideas or suggestions regarding what should happen next.” So for the next post, I’ll share more of my current project and ask for thoughts on what should happen next. But for this week, just tell me some of your favorite story lines. One of mine is from the SyFy network’s show “Haven” (based on The Colorado Kid by Stephen King … no surprise there, right?). The show was filled with “troubled” people, whose anxieties and fears and desires manifested into supernatural abilities. I thought it was a clever spin on the whole “sheriff in a small town” trope. And I fell in love with the character of Duke Crocker, played by Eric Balfour. (I should mention that I’ve always been attracted to men, both real and imagined, that have dark hair and dark eyes, and who are mostly assholes (from Michael Scott in “The Office” to Duke Crocker on “Haven,” and despite both shows being on Netflix, they couldn’t be any more different in plot and theme and genre. I hope that illustrates the depth of my issue)).

So let’s get talking! Please comment about your favorite story line from books and/or movies and/or television, and maybe it’ll be inspiring for all those aspiring writers out there (myself included!).