Monday, March 5, 2018

March 5, 2017

Dear Erica,

I know how you're feeling right now: exhausted, enormous, and above all, anxious.  You just want to know when you're going to have this baby.  You just want to know what's going to happen.  You'd feel so much better if someone could just adequately prepare you for everything to come.

It's impossible, of course, but if I could share anything with you-- if I could ease your anxiety in any way-- I'd tell you from the other side...

You're so close.  You're going to go into labor tonight, suddenly and without warning, and at 5:05 tomorrow morning, March 6, you're going to have a beautiful baby boy.  His umbilical cord is going to be wrapped around his neck and what is less than a minute in reality is going to feel like an eternity until you hear his first cry, and relief like you've never experienced is going to flood through you.  You'll think, "Thank God," followed almost immediately by, "He looks just like Michael."  Giving birth won't be nearly as bad as you think it will be.  You will survive the terrifying epidural.  It's going to go FAST.  Just keep breathing, and it will be fine.  It's the recovery that's going to get you.  It's going to be a difficult road, and you'll think you'll never look or feel like your old self again.  Unfortunately, it will take a short but painful procedure to finalize the physical healing process, but after that, I promise you, it will be okay.

You're going to go from the best moment of your life to the worst within a week's time.  That first week will feature the lowest lows you've ever experienced.  How I wish I could save you from the pain and fear of that first week when your son will refuse to nurse.  All the classes, reading, and preparation for this experience won't mean anything when your baby just will not play along.  His one week "birthday" will be the absolute hardest and worst day.  The guilt will feel all consuming, and it will take you months to forgive yourself, but try and be gentle with yourself.  I promise you, it will be okay.

You'll learn that no one, professionals included, knows your child like you do, and you have to be an advocate for him.  You'll dedicate yourself to pumping, and you'll trick your body into thinking that you're feeding twins, just to produce more to feed your son, because we both know how guilt works with you and how you'll do just about anything to assuage it.  You will feel like a zombie, like a milk machine, like you could never hate something so much and yet do it so often just to try and make up for your worst day as a mother, and you'll wonder how long you can keep this up.  When you finally quit, you'll think you didn't do it long enough.  But you did what you could, and I promise you, it will be okay.

Friends, family, and strangers will tell you all sorts of things.  Some of it will be amazing advice that you'll kick yourself for not figuring out on your own, but you'll be so grateful to know it now.  Some of it will be terrible, horrible, awful advice that you should avoid at all costs.  Some of it you will follow and learn your lesson the hard way, and some of it you will recognize for the bad advice that it is, and you'll steer clear.  (Probably well-meaning) people will tell you terrible things about your parenting, but I beg you not to take it to heart.  Your child's temperament and personality is not a reflection of your parenting.  He's a baby.  You're a new mom.  It will sting, but I promise you, it will be okay.

You'll bring your problems to friends and family-- and the occasional stranger-- and sometimes, they'll be able to help.  Sometimes, it will be enough just to rant and have them listen.  Most of the time, though, you'll have to hear over and over again that they didn't experience the same problems you did.  You'll dread hearing the same things: I had a really easy baby... All of my babies slept perfectly... none of my babies ever had trouble eating... what do you mean, your baby only naps thirty minutes at a time? ... I just had the world's happiest baby... mine never did that... how are you functioning?  ... I had an easy baby... I had an easy baby... I had such easy babies... So many people will tell you that they had easy babies that you'll wonder what's wrong with you.  Why do you feel like your baby is so hard?  Are you not cut out to be a mother?  Maybe your kid IS an easy baby and you're just that bad of a parent!  This fear will plague you incessantly.  People will tell you it all gets easier at two weeks.  It all gets easier at six weeks.  It gets easier at twelve weeks.  Again, you'll wonder what's wrong with you.  It will take you SIX MONTHS to feel like you've finally got the hang of it, until you feel like you can breathe.  But you will get there-- slowly, yes, but you'll get there.  I promise you, it will be okay.

Dear rule follower, you're going to want to do everything right so badly, but as you've been warned over and over again, there are no rules.  You'll cling to any guidelines you can find and believe you have to do it exactly that way, until you'll finally learn that it just doesn't work like that.  And for heaven's sake, STAY OFF THE GODFORSAKEN INTERNET.  That hellhole of horror stories will only drive you insane and make things worse.  Yes, there are some good resources there, but for the most part, it will only bring you down.  And remember, social media is mostly a highlight reel.  You'll be guilty of this, too, but try to avoid comparison.  You'll figure things out through trial and error.  You'll do things you swore you would never do as a parent, and you'll cry your eyes out over it all, but it's part of the learning process.  It's part of figuring out what does and doesn't work for you, which may or may not be the same thing as what works for others.  Go at your own pace.  Do what's best for you, your baby, and your family.  Because I promise you, it will be okay.

One of the hardest changes will be surrendering your need and love for scheduling.  I know you have this idea in your head of a rigid schedule that you'll keep your baby on, because babies love routine, and you were a very scheduled kid yourself, and you know it's effective, but this will not work out for you.  Your baby's downright toxic relationship with naps will mean that you're on his time, always.  This is still hard a year later.  It's humbling to ask friends to be flexible with their time for plans; it's stressful to be unable to commit to certain times and events; it's difficult to have to cancel plans because your kid's nap times didn't line up right (or your pump times, in the early days).  We're still working on this, but it's a lesson in giving up control and learning, however painfully, to be more flexible (not your strong point).  And this is as much a reminder and promise to future Erica as it is to past Erica-- it will be okay.

You'll learn so much.  You'll figure out how to go grocery shopping while baby-wearing, how to prepare bottles with one hand (and the left hand at that), how to pin down a wiggling, rolling baby on the changing table while removing a dirty diaper, how to juggle your work and home schedules while feeling such a strong pull from both.  You'll start receiving the Eucharist by tongue while holding your baby, something that's always intimidated you.  You'll have to remind yourself in the early days to talk to your baby, because you're not much for talking, but over time, you'll find that you talk to everyone more.  This includes talking to yourself in public, because you'll get so used to narrating everything to your baby to keep him happy.  There will be times when you feel (and look) like an absolute lunatic.  But again, I promise you, it will be okay.

Everything comes and goes as if in seasons.  Just when you think you will DIE if you go one more night without sleep, he'll sleep straight through to morning (and you'll panic at 5AM).  But on the flip side, just when you think you've finally conquered nighttime sleeping, he'll hit a sleep regression and will be up all hours yet again.  You will find breaking point after breaking point, but you will make it through it all.  It's all cyclical, seasonal.  Everything passes.  This is your saving grace for some challenges, but it's difficult to accept for others.  Yes, he will finally, eventually, stop fighting (most) naps tooth and nail, but you will stop having those quiet ten minutes of peaceful rocking when he finally falls asleep in your arms.  You'll have ample opportunity to consider the duality of emotions-- for example, how you can hate washing bottles but be so glad that you have bottles to wash, because it means your baby is eating.  You can loathe hearing your child scream in the night but be so grateful that you have a child to hear.  It's confusing, it's exhausting, but may I remind you again of my promise: it will all be okay.

Nothing you'll experience in the upcoming year will be new-- mothers have been doing this since the beginning of time-- but it will be new to you, and you'll make it through.  You're going to go through an unexpected identity crisis in the midst of it all, but you will come out on the other side all the better.  What a journey!  What a privilege and a blessing to have these experiences!

Tomorrow, we'll be celebrating this little boy's first birthday.  You may not make it through that first year with the grace and ease that you would hope for, but you will make it through.  As with everything you're involved with, you'll be a touch more dramatic about it than necessary (see this blog post), but such is life.  Remember to lean on your husband, who will prove to be the most incredible dad.  You always knew he'd be a good one, but getting to see him in action is truly and deeply special.  Remember to lean on your family and friends and accept the help that they so generously offer.

Each day will get a little easier.  You will learn to trust yourself.  Remember that comparison is the thief of joy-- and you will want to keep every ounce of joy that comes from being a mother.

You will be amazed at how much this gorgeous little boy can make you laugh.  That's the best thing I can tell you from where I am now.  There is so much laughter ahead.  Hang in there.  You're so close.

It will all be okay.

With love and a whole lot more perspective,
March 5, 2018

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Scary Things

There's an expression you're probably familiar with-- "do something every day that scares you."

Me, I'm a creature of habit, routine, comfort, and introversion.  I do not want to be scared in any way, especially not by my own doing.  And yet, if you've so much as glanced at the title of this blog post, you probably know by now that I did something scary.  On purpose.

I work very well with goals, but I don't necessarily like to reduce them down to annual resolution sort of things.  I usually pick a certain number of books that I want to read during the calendar year, but as for any other goals, I set them for myself as the need or challenge arises.  2017 was different in that I specifically an actual goal for myself to meet by year's end.  

A strange thing for me, making a New Year's resolution-- a real life, actual goal for which I gave myself a deadline and wrote it down (which makes it official, you know) and everything: finish editing my novel and send it to an agent by December 31.

I figured with three months of maternity leave, I'd have plenty of downtime while the baby was napping to edit here and there, and that 12 months was actually more than enough time to do that and whip up a query letter or two and send it out to multiple agents.  

Yeah, no.  Classic first time mother trap.  I was blessed with a child who hated the mere thought of sleep and considered "nap" to be the dirtiest of curse words.  I feel like I spent 85% of my leave rocking him and begging him to go to sleep, and the other 75% of the time hooked up to the pump.  (I know that's more than 100%.  That's what being a mother feels like.)  If I had any downtime, I couldn't even sleep myself (wonder where my sleep-hating child gets it from...).  I was too exhausted to do anything more than place the ticking time bomb of a lightly sleeping baby in his bed, drag myself to the couch, hook myself up to the pump, and stare into space for the 15 minutes my kiddo decided was long enough for his nap, repeat ad nauseum.

By the time October rolled around (10 months into the year), I realized that I had barely left myself any time to complete my goal.  There were several scenes I needed to fully rewrite to solve a couple of bigger issues, not to mention the smaller problems scattered throughout the novel and my own nitpicky need to revise, revise, revise.  I had to commit myself to letting a lot of things go and accepting that a lot of my revising was futile-- I could revise for the rest of my life.  Sometimes it can be just as scary to finish something as it is to start.

And so I dedicated portions of each evening after the baby was in bed and the dishes were done to editing a chapter per night, no more (as to not burn myself out), no less (as to not fall behind schedule).  I couldn't believe that I was somehow caring for a completely dependent human being (and doing sleep training on top of that), working part time at the office and a few hours at home, caring for my marriage, helping to run our household and all the errands and tasks that come with it, keeping up with my usual reading goal, trying to maintain some semblance of a social life and family commitments, occasionally indulging in some of my other hobbies, and seriously tackling this lifelong passion of mine-- novel writing-- all at the same time.  It felt like madness.  It felt like I should drop it and rededicate that energy back to the other things that all mattered more.  I knew that other people have life laundry lists waaay longer, more serious, and more complicated than mine, and I felt like a loser for my sense of drowning.

Finishing editing and saying that I was DONE was simultaneously amazing, gratifying, and terrifying.  I gave myself a short break before diving into agent research, actively studying and practicing how to write a query letter and a synopsis, and polishing the format of my first few pages for release.  I constantly tried to remind myself that people do this all the time; it was no big deal; just do it, Erica.  Nike this thing.

I finally picked an agent, filled out the query form, and submitted my request.  That sentence looks so simple.  Bing, bang, boom.  And thus, my goal was completed.

In reality, it was terrifying.  Five years of this thing, and it was released into the world.  A stranger was going to see it (or, at least, the first ten pages of it).  I was willingly sending something very, very personal, something that existed solely in my head for so long, to someone who was probably going to tell me it-- I-- wasn't good enough.

Fast forward to six weeks later, and there in my email inbox was a response.

My first novel rejection.

I was 99% prepared for and expecting a form rejection, the remaining percent hopeful for some sort of miraculous good luck-- the feel-good story of an unpublished author getting her very first request magically accepted, winner, winner, chicken dinner.  I knew it was going to get rejected.  But it's funny how much 1% of hope can hurt with smarting disappointment.  Such is life.

In fairness, it's ridiculous to send out a single query-- I should be querying multiple agents at once and aim to send 50 queries.  But sending this one query out was an enormous step for me (and part of what made the goal attainable).  I'll type out my sentence again-- I finally picked an agent, filled out the query form, and submitted my request.  I DID IT!

Someone I didn't know had done to (the first ten pages of) my novel exactly what it was meant for-- SOMEONE READ IT!

For 2018, I will continue querying agents, and I have a secret little deal with myself for November of next year.  Stay tuned, folks!  There is so much more yet to do, but I achieved my goal, and did something that scared me, and the best is yet to come.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

How Revelation 21:5 Made Me Feel Like a Mother

Only 7 hours.  Just 7 short hours, starting with my water breaking.  We calmly collected our things and got in the car, and as we sat at a red light, the only ones at the intersection at 10PM, I stared straight ahead and said determinedly, "We're not coming home without a baby."  7 hours, and the uncertainty was over, and I became a mom.

No one warned me about the baby blues, and I spent the first two weeks of motherhood crying my eyes out-- not just crying, but sobbing hysterically as the sun went down, crying so hard I was unable to speak, clutching my new baby in anxiety and panic and helplessness and emotions I had never experienced before.  I watched as his weight dropped-- and dropped some more-- and concern gave way to true fear, and I was so certain that no one in the history of motherhood had ever made more mistakes or gotten more wrong than I already had.

And even after the worst was over and everything leveled out and I finally found that I could breathe again, I still felt wrong.  Instead of feeling like I had gained something incredible, I felt like I had lost something invaluable: my sense of self.  I hadn't felt like myself for the majority of my pregnancy-- constantly sick, barely able to eat, exhausted, etc.-- and towards the end of my pregnancy, I journaled: "I don't look or feel like myself.  Too-short hair, too-big stomach, angry red stretch marks, filled-out face, no rings... I look in the mirror, and I don't see myself.  I wake up, and I don't feel like Erica."

It took a while to understand that I was fighting against something that could not be regained.  That old self could not exist separately from the new self that had been born with my son.  I could not have two separate identities.  I had to let go of what my life used to be and embrace the newness with all its challenges and difficulties-- and joys-- instead of trying to hold onto my old self.  It took me a long time to realize that, and then a while to accept it, but it was a pivotal moment in my understanding of motherhood.  I had to learn that it wasn't a bad thing.  It was a paradigm shift, and it was difficult, but it wasn't bad.

It was a line from a song that we sing on TEC retreats that really turned everything around for me.  The song lyric comes from a Bible verse, Revelation 21:5:  "And the one who was seated on the throne said, 'See, I am making all things new.'"

 I had been singing that song over and over to Benjamin for days, and that line just stuck.  And it finally clicked.  My God was making me brand new in motherhood.  I could not be the same as I was.  Fighting it-- even if I hadn't realized that's what I'd been doing-- was only hurting me.

I understand now that the difference was phenomenal, on an entirely different level than anything I had ever experienced.  Of course it took me some time to get used to it.  I have been transformed in love.  Motherhood had completely broken me, but the miracle is that it has reassembled me in a brand new and better way.  Every so often I feel a sense of mourning for my old life or the way things were, but I wouldn't trade this for that even if I could.  Not a chance.  I never knew I had this immense capacity for love.  I never knew I was capable of this much quiet patience.  I am, I think, an overall better version of myself, even on the hardest days.

I feel like kintsugi: the Japanese practice of repairing broken pottery with gold so that it's more beautiful because it has been broken.  I didn't even believe that it was a thing at first.  I thought it was just a pretty photoshopped picture that Facebook liked to pass around, poetic but fake.  But it's real.  Things really can become more beautiful for their brokenness and change.  I, who fear change so desperately, have finally found it beautiful.  Difficult, but beautiful.

It's been like walking slowly in total darkness, sliding one foot in front of the other, scared to bump into something and fall.  At first, I was all but blind.  Then there was a dimness, and I could start to make out blurry edges, and with each passing week, my surroundings grow every brighter.  My sight grows ever clearer.  I keep walking forward in faith that the light will soon illuminate everything fully, and I will finally be able to see again.

Even during the longest nights, when "sleep when the baby sleeps" becomes "cry when the baby cries," I move forward in love.  This is the motherhood that I longed for, even though I didn't know what it really was when I dreamt of it.  How could I?  This new kind of love is outstanding.  I'm amazed by my child's very existence and the blessing and lesson he is in my life.  This is what I waited for and what I will do for the rest of my life, this kind of love.

Friday, July 8, 2016

On Everything

Everyone's written something at this point.  I wasn't going to.

I started a post, with no particular prompting other than just wanting to reiterate one of my favorite points (wanting to add more love into the world), and didn't finish it.  The next day, the horrifying massacre in Orlando shook the country.  I wanted to write; I wanted to finish my post, but I couldn't.  As I got my wits together and tried again, Taylor Friloux was killed in a fast food restaurant not five minutes from my house.  I was stunned.  I couldn't write.  I tried again, wondering what I even wanted to say, and then Alton Sterling was shot and killed.  And then Dallas happened.  And tensions continued to rise.

I watch Facebook, people arguing passionately, hot-headed, angry, and afraid.  I wanted to say something, but I didn't want to get lost in the mix.  And what is there to say when you don't know what to think?  It occurred to me that my great fear in all of this was saying something decisively.  But again and again I saw the Desmond Tutu quote pop up: "If you are neutral in situations on injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."

I don't want to be on the side of the oppressor-- but I don't know what to think.  There is so much confusion and fear, and that clouds judgement and blinds even the best of us.  I can't find facts, which are my sources of comfort, and I can't find solid footing on which to say anything that hasn't been said before.

What I do know is this: I get to go to bed every night and not have to worry about my immediate safety.  I don't have to worry about my close friends or family.  I may be worried about the state of the world in general, but I don't have to wake up every day and actually fear for my life.  I get to wake up and worry in general, but for the most part, I get to go about my day as usual.

This fear belongs to both people of color (and, I should think, most or all minorities) and the police.  And it's hard to think straight when you live with such fear.  And it's easy to point fingers and assign blame.

There is a crazy imbalance of power.  There is an absolute irrationality of revenge.  There is justice to be demanded, and there is change to be made.  As to what the logistics of this justice and change are, I don't know.  I just know that the more I stay silent, the more comfortable I feel for myself, and we are not supposed to be comfortable.  We are supposed to be challenged.  We are supposed to bring change for a better world for the future.  I don't know what else to do besides write, but writing is better than sitting silently and watching the world go by with fearful eyes.

So many people point out things as (God help me) black or white, when everything is so many shades of grey.  It's what makes this world so intricate and interesting, so deeply nuanced.  And yet in all these varied distinctions, we still have more alike than we have in differences.

Sometimes I wish I could sit down every single person in the world and remind them all, gently but firmly, that we're all just human.  That's it.  That's it.  There is not a single thing that makes one human more or less worthy of dignity and respect than another.  We are all humans who have to depend on each other to survive, and the best way to do that is to be kind and keep in mind that we are the same.

I can't do that.  So what can I do?  I can continue sitting behind my little window to the world, my blog and the immensity of the Internet, and continue to encourage people to be kind.  Smile at each other.  Sincerely compliment those who need it.  Take the extra minute or two out of your day to help someone.  Do something you don't want to do.  Radiate love to all who cross your path.  Practice active kindness.

Until I can figure out something better to do, this is the best I have.  It's not going to change the world, but my efforts will be one less hateful presence in the world, and I hope you join me.

This became much longer than I expected.  I am sure I have said something wrong, or worded something poorly, or miscommunicated, or not covered everything that I meant to, and I fear I will upset someone or draw judgement for not seeming to side one way or another.  I side with love, and that crosses all sides, all boundaries, all imaginary lines drawn by this world.  That doesn't mean the lines aren't perceived to be there, or that injustice will suddenly disappear, or that the imbalance of power will magically level out, but I hope that we can all reach the agreement, one day soon, that we are all human, and that we are all inherently the same.  Imagine what we could accomplish when we come to this ideology.  Is it far-fetched?  You tell me.  I pray that God has mercy on us all and leads this world to the metanoia that will bring us together as brothers and sisters, as children of God.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Lent When You're Sad: Psalm 51:15-17

My usual approach to Lent is to stride confidently forward, full of determination and certainty.  The sacrifices that I spent the last days of Mardi Gras season picking out have all been selected due to my assurance that they are reasonably difficult but nothing that I will fail at.  I face Lent head-on and plow through with the goal of Easter and the end of my temporary sacrifices waiting for me at the end, like a finish line of a race.  Lent is easy when you're confident and sure.

This is the year first year that Lent has actually seemed hard.  This year, I didn't stride into Lent with head held high.  This year, I limped into Lent, broken and sad, physically and emotionally.

Going into a day of fasting and abstaining the day after our brutal drunk driving accident was difficult, to say the least.  I casually made the remark that we were down one major physical possession and that this year's sacrifices, the things we'd go without, were definitely going to be different.  And it's been true.  I entered Lent with a lot of anger, a lot of sadness, a lot of physical pain, and a lot of emotional pain.  And that was just because of the accident.

For the past several months, before any of this happened, I've been carrying a few different crosses, and this was the first time I ever carried (dragged) my crosses into Lent with me.  It has been difficult and it has been emotional.  There's been a lot of late night crying, complaining, Bible reading, hope, let downs, and frustration.  Lent seemed like the perfect time to examine why I have these crosses on my back and how to let them go and hand them over to God.

But we're halfway through, and I'm still carrying them.

Why is it so difficult to give up our crosses?  These heavy burdens, these crass and base issues and feelings, full of shame, guilt, fear, anger, jealousy, and pain.  Who doesn't want to let go of their pain and misery and put it in the hands of the only person who can lighten the load and take it on entirely?

Do I actually like carrying my crosses?  Do I seek out this self-suffering martyrdom on purpose?  While I do think I have the tendency to "act the martyr," I don't think that's the case this time.  I think this time, it's just hard to find that perfect faith and trust.  Letting go of the familiar, even when the familiar is heavy and heartbreaking, is tough.  It's an act of faith.

It's been a strange and different Lent, and it's probably the "realest" Lent I've ever journeyed through.  It's not fun, to say the least.  But hopefully I'm learning.

Although the other crosses existed prior to all of this, I do think the car accident was the catalyst that sparked this need for self-reflection and cross-examination (sorry; I couldn't resist).  Nothing evil comes from God; I do not believe the accident was his doing, but everything good that happened as a result has been from his guiding hand.  And even though this journey has been painful, he is leading me through it.

And if I can't give up my crosses, it is not for lack of trying.  I will pray and offer and offer and pray until I finally let go.  One at a time.

O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.  For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.  The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:15-17)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Writer Reads: 22 Books in 2015

I started off January of 2015 fresh-faced and brimming full of optimistic hope at the prospect of the shiny, beautiful new goal I had set for myself: reading 36 books in 12 months.  3 books per month.  Piece of cake!

By the end of February, I was fully aware of how ridiculous my goal was for me.  Voracity does not necessarily equate speed.  Loving to read and wanting to read and reading in all of one's free time does not make one a fast reader.  I study the text, reread passages, and am overall a fairly slow reader.  The year's activities also came into play, filling up my calendar and sucking away my free time.  Books particularly tend to fall by the wayside when one is trying to write one's own novel.  I read whenever I could, but it just wasn't enough to allow for three books a month.

I amended my goal to 30 books in a year... and then 24... and finally, 20.  Each time I lowered the number meant pain and shame, but that's what happens when reality sets in and you have to be honest with yourself.  It was either fail or be open to change (both terrible choices for me).  20 turned out to be the most realistic number.  My mom advised me that instead of tweaking my goal, I should consider selecting shorter books to read-- advice I tried to heed towards the end.

I also had some specifications for my books: I wanted to read an equal amount of nonfiction, classics, and "other" books ("other" meaning young adult or just for fun).  This portion of the goal was meant to help me diversify my taste in literature and authors.  Now this, I did accomplish: 7 nonfiction, 7 classics, and 8 young adult/just for fun.  22 in total.

If I were smart about it, I would have written a short review AFTER reading each book, but alas, my foresight was limited.  There's no way I would be able to write a worthy review for each book now, so far after the fact, so without further ado, here, simply, is my list:

22 books: Nonfiction, YA or for fun, and a classic.

1.     Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
2.     The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson
3.     This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
4.     Choose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris
5.     Stardust by Neil Gaiman
6.     Story of a Soul by St. Thérèse Martin
7.     Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
8.     Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
9.     The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
10. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
11. Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh
12. A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
13. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
14. The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch
15. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
16. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
17. The Stranger by Albert Camus
18. The Indigo Children: The New Kids Have Arrived by Lee Carroll & Jan Tober
19. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards
20. Binge by Tyler Oakley
21. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
22. William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope by Ian Doescher

Of those, I would have to say my top three favorites were Lolita; This Side of Paradise; and The Stranger.  My least favorite were The Night Circus; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; and The Indigo Children.  (As a note, I only read that last book as diligent but agonizing research for my NaNoWriMo project, "Indigo."  See a theme?)

I'm not setting a reading goal for 2016, nor will I even hold out hope for reading more than this year.  No more forcing myself to churn through book after book or picking a book over one I really want to read simply for the sake of the genre.  I'm happy to go back to reading for the joy of reading.  After all, writers read, and readers write.  May you all have a blessed and happy new year, full of the power of words, the peace of quiet, the excitement of adventure, and the knowledge of self.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Writing About Writing: NaNoWriMo, Yarn, & Dirty Dishes

Unintentionally, my last blog post was about NaNoWriMo (the 2012 edition!).  While I was writing it, I was mulling, contemplating committing to NaNoWriMo 2015.  And here I am on the other side of it.

To set up the purpose of this post, please enjoy this snippet about NaNo 2012 from the last post in September: "I went in without a plot, without a plan, and threw myself in wholeheartedly just for the fun of it, and emerged at the other end with the beginning of a book."

I planned for this round, this month of writing diligently and religiously.  I came up with a thorough and detailed plot.  I plotted said plot on notecards and numbered and ordered them.  I wrote a five-page long outline that would serve as my road map while writing the actual novel.  I figured out how many words I needed to write per day to be safe when I took my trip to New York over Thanksgiving, ensuring I would be a couple of days ahead of schedule so that I could enjoy my vacation.  I was prepared.  I was ready, and more importantly, I was excited.

About five days in, I was near tears and downright miserable.  It was agony to write this dredge of a story that my pathetic brain had at one point considered a good idea.  The first day went well enough, but it was all downhill from there.  I was not having fun.  And I knew how fun it was supposed to be.  I knew how much fun I had last time.  Why should I keep going if I wasn't having fun?  Wasn't that the point?

But I toiled on, some days barely making my word count, some days tossing my outline aside and just throwing the characters into random situations and seeing what they did, letting these nonsensical scenes carry my word count over.  The more fun I had, the more I wrote, as it should be.

When I explain how I write (specifically fiction, and extra specifically, lengthy fiction), I typically describe one of two images to indicate how my brain is working.  The first is yarn.  The story's already there-- it's just a big, tangled, ball of yarn.  I have one end, and the goal is to unravel everything and make the yarn into one nice, neat line, free of knots.  I hold onto that end and move forward slowly and carefully, picking through the problems and untangling the ugly mess until everything makes sense and the yarn is no longer knotted.

The second image is what I like to call my "why maze."  I go into the maze, and there's only way through, but it's deeply complicated and I see so many possibilities in the paths before me.  So I just start walking and asking why.  Sometimes I walk down what I think is truly the right path, but then I hit a dead end.  I have to either back up all the way to the beginning, or back up to my last turn, and choose the other path to a different corridor.  Sometimes that last turn wasn't the problem, and I have to go back further, but not as far as the beginning.  It's tricky to figure out the right path, but it's definitely there, and I just have to "why" my way through it.

Why, why, why?  Why does Character A do that?  Why can't Character B and Character C be present in this scene?  Why is Character A being stupid right now?  I walk and why and work it out.

Just over two weeks in to NaNo 2015, I couldn't answer any of my whys, even though I thought I had worked it all out beforehand.  Crazy to think that I, the meticulous planner, the one who needs to know all the details, Madame Type A herself, can't plan when it comes to writing.  I just need to sit down and write and not worry about having a road map.

As terrifying as it was, I completely left my outline behind and essentially started the story over.  Only the most basic details stayed, like the names and locations and the one key element that had been my original idea.  The antagonist turned neutral; the older brother became a twin.  I threw in a hitchhiking Elvis and a soap making business, and suddenly, everything started making sense.  I could answer all of my own questions.  I could ask why and turn confidently down the right path in the maze.  Before, I had been making the knots even worse in the yarn, but now, I was untying them.  And it turned fun again.

And so I was able to pull through and hit my 50,000 words by November 30.  Barely.  But I did it.

You can see where I started struggling around Day 4, where I started throwing my characters into random situations between Days 8-13, where I considered quitting around Days 13-14, and where I gave up on the original plan and forged ahead, plotless and planless, around Day 16.

I actually don't have a nice, neat way to wrap this post up, except to say that I'm pleased to have finished another NaNoWriMo, and I'm looking forward to actually finishing the story and starting the editing process again.  Hopefully it won't take me 3 years like last time, but if it does, it does.  I just want to keep having fun because it's what I love to do.

And I do need to take a moment to thank the greatest and most patient husband, Mmmmichael Tran, for putting up with me for the full 30 days (and every other day, tbh).  He did a really wonderful job of picking up the slack in housework while I was slumped over my laptop bemoaning my own stupidity and frustrations.  He never once complained about the amount of time I spent writing and rewriting (perhaps this was because Fallout 4 was also released in November?).  He made me so many grilled cheeses when I chose writing over cooking and constantly encouraged me when I was on par for word count and had no fear of telling me to get back to work when I was far under count for the day.

Now, on December 1st, it is true that my grace period was over, and I found a disturbingly large pile of dirty dishes in the sink, edging beyond its confines and to the surrounding counter, which I continued to let sit for a couple more days just to see if maybe they would wash themselves.  They did not.  So I spent over two hours just washing dirty dishes and putting them away, in gratitude for the full month of extra cleaning and extra support that Michael had just given me.  Was it payback?  Enh, I owed him.  That break was over.

But I'm still enjoying my break from the thirty solid days of intense writing, and that means that I don't have to rack my brain for that nice, neat blog post ending.  I'm relishing in the pleasure of not needing to make word count.  I have the luxury of just ending this, and so it shall be.