Though it feels good to celebrate the end of a year that has constantly surprised us at how low it could go, I don’t think things are going to dramatically improve in 2021.
But one thing I have seen this year: good things don’t just happen in “good” years. They happen all the time. And if you look for them, you will see them. Even in a time of hard and painful things.
This year in California’s Bay Area, we’ve been in quarantine since the second week of March. We have celebrated my daughter’s 21st, my husband’s, and my birthdays at home. I’ve been teaching my high school English classes online since March. With the current travel quarantine, we had to cancel a Christmas getaway to Seattle, where our whole family would be together for the first time in a year and a half.
Also, this fall we lived through an unprecedented California wildfire season, with fires in the hills on either side of us. We breathed hazardous levels of smoke on a regular basis for about two months.
Add to this, a painful, contentious presidential election season that dragged on way past November 3.
As I read over this list, I realize how outrageously privileged I have been.
This year I didn’t lose a job. I didn’t lose a business. We didn’t lose our house to a fire. And even though I know people who did, I did not lose a friend or family member to COVID. My husband and I were both able to work from home (which was, on most days, not life threatening).
There were so many good things that happened this year. Some of these were deep things, perhaps more deeply felt and appreciated because they contrasted with the chaos, grief and destruction happening this year.
1. We and our kids stayed healthy.
2. We learned how to make toilet paper last a long time.
3. We got creative with our family times to stay connected – did lots of board games via Zoom as well as virtual Thanksgiving and Christmas.
4. I realized I actually like teaching online and have worked to make it more engaging for students with the use of community building and more audio/visual tools.
5. I wrote more this year than I ever have. A lot of support for this came from being in community – with my writers group Highway Writers and my awesome, local Sisters in Crime chapter, Coastal Cruisers.
6. I improved at my craft – and had a story chosen for a mystery anthology that will come out in 2021.
7. My daughter, who had been struggling with some serious issues, is doing much better.
8. I learned more about racial injustice–and about inequalities I never knew existed. We started supporting organizations that work to fix these. I took my daughter to her first protest.
9. I found out that many things I thought were important—weren’t.
10. The isolation made me see things I did not like about myself—attitudes and habits I’ve carried with me too long. With God’s help, I am determined to make changes.
One of this year’s themes—because, hey, I’m an English teacher—has been “joy and sorrow deeply mingled.” I can’t remember right now what hymn this is from, but the idea is you can’t separate the good from the bad. They come together. The bright seems brighter because of the darkness that surrounds it.
The new year won’t be a big level-up to peace, happiness and complete health for everyone. But I have grown up this year and many of my friends and family have, too.
Whatever comes in 2021, we will be better prepared for it.
And more able to appreciate the good that comes with it.
In the warmth of the resort office, PI Bee Bedrosian peeled off her damp, cold gloves and rubbed her hands together.
She prayed for a cabin with good wifi and a working heater.
A woman with leathery skin and a grey ponytail emerged from behind the small Christmas tree on the counter, which was topped by a star that read Jesus Is the Reason for the Season.
She printed Bee’s driver’s license and credit card information on the registration card. When she’d finished, Bee noticed the woman had copied the digits of her license wrong.
Numbers had always been her language. She zoomed in on the error and reflexively called it out.
“You switched the 7 and 9 at the end. The third number is 5.”
The woman gave her a sour look and rewrote the numbers.
The woman’s husband, a silver-haired man with the straight teeth of a denture ad, pulled out a map of the resort and circled the office and her cabin with a pen.
“I’ve got you down for two nights, hon. Checkout’s Christmas morning by 11 am. You’re the farthest cabin on the path. Turn left at the end. We don’t usually rent it, but we’re in peak season. The appliances are in good working order, and there’s a microwave. No phone.”
“That’s fine.” Bee checked her phone. She had four bars. “What’s your wifi password?”
The woman slid a photocopied slip of paper across the orange Formica counter then handed Bee a key attached to a piece of worn wood, DOUGLAS FIR burned into it like a cattle brand.
Bee liked that she’d be a distance from other cabins. No noise from late-night, post-ski parties. Out the front window, she saw snow accumulating on the branches of the fir trees surrounding the parking lot. Under the glowering clouds, the mountains were bright with fresh snow, as if reflecting light from some hidden source.
Bee would be on her own for the holiday. Fifteen-year old Armen was at his father’s for Christmas this year. Each of her neighbors in the fourplex were traveling to family get-togethers, instead of gathering as usual on Christmas Eve for games and dinner.
But what had sealed her decision to travel was the phone call from her father, a man with whom she had a difficult relationship. He and his new girlfriend wanted to drive up from Glendale and spend the week with her in San Jose. Within five minutes of hanging up, she’d booked the cabin in Stateline, on the shores of Lake Tahoe.
Cabin key in hand, Bee picked up her suitcase and hoisted the strap of her laptop bag over her shoulder. It was noon, and the darkened sky was casting shadows over the drifts of snow in the front of the cabins along the path. The cabins looked deserted at this hour, skiers at the slopes, except for a family bundled in puffy jackets and snow pants, toddling down the path with saucer sleds.
The smell of mold and burnt dust hit her as she opened the cabin door. Every cell in her damp, cold body called out its thanks for whoever had turned the heater on before her arrival. She’d put chains on her tires by herself today, rather than pay $50 dollars she couldn’t spare. Her backside was still wet.
The small cabin was laid out optimally, Bee noted appreciatively. To the right, a nook with a drop-leaf table and small kitchen. To the left, a queen-sized bed with a fluffy comforter, a nightstand, and a small desk, where she could write her report and do some research.
Straight back, there was a closet stocked with blankets she might need tonight, and a pocket door leading to a tiny bathroom.
Bee took off her soggy coat, pants and socks, and laid them near the heater, then changed into dry, warm clothes. She started the small coffeemaker on the kitchen counter and put her groceries away in the fridge.
She sank back on the bed’s fluffy comforter and breathed in the aroma of brewing coffee as she thawed out. She thought of her father and his new girlfriend and a more pleasant chill ran over her skin–the delicious feeling that she’d dodged a bullet.
She poured a mug of coffee, opened her laptop and started in on her report. By 4 pm, the cabin had darkened enough that she had to turn on the overhead light. Outside she heard the shouts and chatter of skiers returning from the slopes down the highway at Heavenly Valley.
At 6 pm, with a sense of satisfaction, she finished her spousal surveillance report and sent it off with an invoice to Mr. Drake Burgoine of Saratoga, California. He wouldn’t be pleased with the information. On the plus side, he’d certainly gotten his money’s worth.
As she looked out over the kitchen sink, windows glowed in the cabins beyond, squares of golden light in the blackness. She saw movement in them, and it filled her with loneliness. Armen didn’t talk much, but she missed having him around. She missed her single-mother neighbors and their quirky kids. The sounds of people and activity energized her. Being alone this Christmas had not been her first choice.
She rooted through the odd cassortment of pans in the kitchen cupboards and found a frying pan and a lid that fit. She would cook comfort food she’d made many times: rice pilaf with peppers, onions and chicken. It brought back memories of her mother, who’d taught her how to cook it while she was still in elementary school. She remembered the precise, steady rhythm of her mother cutting vegetables. The sad, ancient tune her mother hummed as she stirred the rice in butter.
She’d just sat down to eat when her cell phone rang. The manager in the resort office.
“A storm’s coming in at midnight. Foot of snow tonight, more tomorrow. There’s a good chance we’ll lose power. They’re closing 50, just so’s you know, hon. Through tomorrow, maybe Christmas.”
What had seemed like a refreshing getaway was turning claustrophobic. She wasn’t about to be stuck in the dark in a strange place in a blackout. After dinner, she put on her dry, warm coat and headed for her car to get a flashlight.
She pulled her snow hat down to cover her stinging ears as she trudged to the parking lot. She slipped the flashlight into her pocket, locked her car and headed back to the cabin. Her footprints from five minutes ago were filling in with snow.
In the howl of the wind, she heard a low rustling near the path. Then a sound that made her scalp prickle. A moan. Almost a yowl. Like the sound cats made in the alley next to the fourplex in San Jose. Mournful and vaguely human.
Cats roaming among the cabins. Nothing to worry about. Still, she found herself walking faster through the deepening snow till she came to the end of the path and her door. She shut the door against the wind and turned the lock and deadbolt.
Then she went to her suitcase and slid her hand inside the inner pocket. The Glock was still there.
At some point in the night, a load of snow must have fallen from the trees above. A loud klumpf above her head woke her up.
She realized the clock had stopped ticking.
* * *
Grey light filtering in from the kitchen window woke her.
The clock was ticking again, though by the hands on the clock, power had only come back on an hour ago. The room was freezing.
She heard a ping from her phone and picked it up from the nightstand to see the text:
HAPPY CHRISTMAS EVE, MOM! Btw dad got me a new game console He gave it to me early so I have more time to play it here
Bee smiled at the greeting, then just as quickly felt a flash of anger at David, her software programmer ex-husband. Armen did not need another device on which to play games.
She huddled under the warm covers, looking up Caltrans road conditions. They confirmed what the resort manager told her. Hwy 50 would be closed through Christmas.
At 7:15, after heating coffee up in the microwave, she bundled up, laced up her snow boots, and headed outside to explore.
There was a lull in the storm. She stepped off the small front porch and immediately plunged knee high into a drift of snow. Stepping out of it carefully, she made her way to the side of the cabin. She wanted to see if she could spot anything on the roof, an explanation for the noise last night. All she could see was snow on the back side of the roof, through which a vent poked its hatted head.
The cabins and resort grounds were still. With the weather report, everyone had decided to sleep in. The air smelled of wood smoke, and somewhere nearby, bacon. White covered everything, pristine and new. Noiseless. The thick blanket seemed to deaden all sound.
Then, as she made her way toward the office, a volley of gunshots shattered it all.
Bee froze in place, then lurched through the snow as fast as she could toward the front of the resort. She peered into the window of the office. All lights off. She tried the door. Locked.
As she made her way back to her cabin, she saw a lanky man in his late 40s, calmly securing skis to the rack on his Jeep. He looked in her direction and nodded.
“Sounds just like gunshots, doesn’t it? They’re clearing the slopes. They set off charges to reduce the risk of avalanche. I thought the same thing when I first heard it. Scared the shit out of me.”
Anxiety drained from her limbs.
“Thanks for the tip. I’m not a skier.” She watched him load suitcases into the back of the vehicle and thought it seemed like a lot of luggage for one person. “You leaving today? I thought 50 was closed.”
“There’s a chance 80 will open up. I’m heading North to try and catch the window. I travel through here on business. I get used to being flexible.” The man nodded and began scraping ice off his windshield. “Good luck.”
Bee walked the grounds, keeping near the trees where the snow was less deep. When the office opened, she’d ask about a place for breakfast. Someplace off this stretch of Hwy 50 that she could walk to. A place that served bacon.
By the time she’d completed the path that wound through the cabins, the office was open. The place was warm and cozy, with the beginnings of a fire in the grate. Christmas carols from a radio station played in the background. Straight Teeth was on the phone taking a reservation. He winked, a gesture Bee never understood the meaning of but always found suspect. He held up a hand to show he’d be off the phone soon.
Through the large window, Bee watched the Jeep roar out of the parking lot and turn onto the highway.
“What can I do for you, Miss Be—Bedderson?” People mangled her Armenian name every day. She was used to it.
“Can you recommend any breakfast places I can walk to?” She gave him a friendly smile, an apology for pouncing on his wife’s mistake yesterday. “It’s Bedrosian.”
He pulled out a map and marked some nearby spots along 50.
“The wife usually makes the recommendations. She’s out getting groceries before the storm starts up again. There’s a coffee place down on the corner—they serve pastries. And a nice sit-down restaurant with full breakfasts across the street.”
Bee thanked him and walked out into the cold.
After eggs and bacon at the sit-down place, Bee walked back on the path next to highway, just as flakes began to fall. By the time she reached her cabin, the flurries had begun. She opened the door, eager for warmth.
As she closed the door behind her, she felt it. Someone had been in her cabin.
She scanned the room, looking for anything missing or disturbed. Her heart pounding, she slid her hand into the suitcase. Stupid of her to have left it. She relaxed as her fingers wrapped around the Glock. She transferred it to her pants pocket. She checked the desk drawer. Her laptop was still there.
She went through the kitchen, scanned every surface, and looked through any personal items she’d brought. All accounted for.
The bathroom pocket door was slid halfway closed. It looked crooked. This was something she dealt with regularly in her apartment. She lifted it up with both hands till it realigned on its track, and she was able to slide it open.
She felt a rush of frozen air. The bathroom window was wide open.
As she went to shut it, she looked down and saw grey hair splayed across the snow below. A pair of open eyes, lashes clumped with snowflakes, looked back at her.
* * *
It took Bee several tries to get through. She had one bar.
The 911 dispatcher told her the police would be delayed, due to a multi-car accident on Lake Parkway and the difficulty of getting through town until the plows came through.
Bee took a photo on her phone of a muddy partial footprint on the window frame. Then went outside, around the back of the cabin to the woman lying in the snow. Bee could see the holes in the woman’s puffy jacket. Blood poured out, still warm enough to melt the snow. She hadn’t been dead long.
Bee sat back on her heels and looked around her. The snow-covered stretch behind the cabin looked like the dumping grounds for everything the resort wanted to hide: rusted bikes, a ladder, flattened cardboard Costco toilet paper boxes, and a metal filing cabinet, one of its drawers jutting open like a jaw.
And of course, the body of the manager’s wife.
When Bee heard the crunch of footsteps in the snow, she pulled out the Glock.
“I should have known you were law enforcement or security.” The voice was familiar. There was a smile in it, but not a friendly one. “You had the look.”
The tall man with the Jeep stood to her right, and she heard him cocking his gun. He had a foot and a good 50 pounds on her.
“Give me the gun. You’re going help me get something off the roof.” He angled his head. His breath freezing in the air looked like smoke. “If you help me, I’ll shoot you in the leg and not the chest.”
Bee tossed the Glock and watched it sink into the snow next to him. She listened for the sound of police sirens. Nothing.
With his gun turned on her, Bee pulled the ladder out of the pile of debris, her fingers stinging with the cold. With great effort and no help from him, she pulled at the rusty ladder till it wrenched open with a creak. She set it down in the snow on the side of the cabin and waited for him to climb it.
“You shitting me? You’re the one going up.” He spat the words out, then handed her a rake. “You’re gonna need this.”
“I have no idea what I’m looking for.” Her gloveless fingers ached from the cold.
“There’s a package in the snow. Near the vent.”
She climbed, one hand gripping the side of the ladder, one holding the rake. She stood on the last rung and felt the ladder sway beneath her. She laid her forearm over the edge of the roof to steady herself, then slowly extended the end of rake toward the vent and pulled back. Her leverage was not good. She brushed the top of the clump and the rake flopped to one side.
“Why is this so hard for you?” His speech sounded slurred and unnaturally fast, like someone on amphetamines. “Hurry up.”
Bee gripped the rake harder and laid it next to the vent, feeling the weight of something substantial as she pulled it back. A bundle. Wrapped in cloth and sealed in a large zip lock bag.
She turned to hand it down to him. Once it left her hands, she felt a jolt beneath her feet. The ladder fell away and she toppled into the fresh snow, which wrapped around her like a fluffy comforter. So soft, it flooded her with relief.
Until the ladder hit her.
In the daze of that moment, she punched 911 into her phone. His California license plate was displayed in her head, captured like a screen shot. She recited the number for the dispatcher.
Then she sank back into the comforter and everything went dark.
* * *
Three days later, with a hospital pamphlet on concussion care, Bee drove back to San Jose. David had just dropped off Armen, who agreed to leave his game system in the box while he spent the evening with his mom watching Elf.
“The guy kicked the ladder.” Armen stuck a straw into a bottle of Dr. Pepper, his drink of choice. “At least he didn’t shoot you. Who was he anyway?”
“I found out his name is Logan Warner. He distributed fentanyl – a very bad drug you should never take – through Nevada and the Sacramento area. Since the resort didn’t usually rent my cabin, he had been storing shipments there before he delivered them. Apparently he hid them in the closet under the extra blankets.”
“Why did he shoot the manager’s wife?”
“She caught him going through the bathroom window of my cabin. The Stateline police told me they were able to catch him in Reno about an hour after he left.”
“If he shot her, why didn’t he shoot you, mayrig?” He used the Armenian word for mom, which made her tear up a little.
“Maybe grandma was watching over me.”
Armen looked at her in awe. To this point, no aspect of her PI work had ever seemed to penetrate his impassive teenaged exterior to get a response.
Now he stared at her, his brown eyes shiny with a combination of fear and respect.
In the first few weeks of quarantine, I was one of those people who couldn’t get anything done.
I did what I had to do for the classes I teach, then I turned on my comfort TV, The Great British Baking Show, and numbed out to polite, adorable British bakers trying to perfect their tarts and puddings.
My other fallback was the news, though obviously not for escapist reasons. I had to know everything that was happening with COVID and quarantine. But after gorging on the news kept me awake at night, I learned to set limits on my consumption.
As I settled into my SIP rhythm, I entered a new quarantine phase:self examination.
I started to see things about myself that I didn’t like.
It’s one thing to become tired of the people you live with. You can go for a hike, suit up for a daunting trip to the grocery store, or go sit out in the backyard. But when you’re frustrated with yourself, you’re pretty much stuck.
My nagging question was, why aren’t you writing?
If writing is your dream—and it makes you feel good to do it—why is your go-to activity watching people make tarts?
I decided that if writing and publishing were important to me, I couldn’t let SIP keep me from doing them. My goal is to publish a novel. I left my second novel hanging—a completed first draft waiting for revision—and hadn’t gone back to it since before quarantine.
I also felt distanced from that good feeling that comes from writing. My novel hung over my head like a threat. Writing felt like an obligation, not a happy place to go to.
After some thought on how I tend to work and think, I decided to do the following things. So far they seem to be working.
1. I started a short-term project, to experience the fun of writing again. I started a short story, something I could finish quickly. I wrote a locked room Shelter in Place mystery, with a completely new protagonist: a single-mother private detective. I had a blast writing it.
2. I now set a timer and sit down to write every day, even if it’s a short increment of time. A sneaky trick I play on myself! I set a timer for maybe 30 minutes. But then I get really into what I’m writing and end up going past the timer.
3. I meet with my writers groups. I am privileged to be a member of three awesome writing groups. Many of the writers have been dealing with similar issues. It’s helped to see how they’re handling this time. Even if it’s meeting on Zoom, it’s life-giving to connect with other creative people.
4. I do online write-ins. Accountability for the win! Whether it’s on Zoom or FaceTime, it helps to sit down with other people who are writing. You’re doing this together and your butts stay in the seats. After the timer beeps, you can check in and get encouragement from each others’ breakthroughs.
5. I faced the big project I was avoiding. I’ve gone back to the overwhelmingness of my big project—revising my novel. I have my list of big revisions and the research I want to fold in. It will be a big undertaking that will probably continue to be overwhelming, but now I remember what I loved about my novel concept. And how much I love my characters.
I’m back in the game! Still quarantined and not going anywhere.
Someone who enjoys discovering the book as I write it. A pantser.
But a few months ago, I wrote myself into a cul-de-sac. I was stuck, so I avoided sitting down to write. And this is a book I love and have invested a lot of time and research in.
Based on feedback from my writers’ groups, I tried something very different. I decided to pick up from right before where I’d gotten stuck and plot the rest of the book in detail.
Cool story:After plotting the rest of the book, I finished my first draft within a month.
So I guess that makes me…a plantser.
When I first started writing, I read all I could about the writing process. My favorite mystery and suspense writers had inspired me to write in the first place, so I read everything I could about their writing processes. One of my faves, Elizabeth George, is a committed plotter, so I tried to do the same. I wrote up detailed outlines of each scene and plotted character arcs.
Then once I started writing, I completely disregarded them.
My story started telling itself. My characters came to life and wanted to make their own choices. It was so much fun, I just went with it.
That was my first book. On my second book, things have developed differently. I started with a compelling concept: a saintly old man is killed in a deliberate hit and run, and gradually you find out he was not the model human being he seemed to be (hint: Nazis may or may not be involved).
The last act of the novel then dealt with the consequences of the truth being revealed. This is where I got lost. There were too many directions to go in, and the one I wanted didn’t seem to fit. So I sat down and plotted my path to the final scene and denouement.
I found that when I finished plotting, I could easily pick up where I left off writing the next day. Hence, I didn’t procrastinate about sitting down to write.
I didn’t have to refresh my memory as to where I was in the story. Also, a benefit for my ADD self—I could break the writing up into doable chunks. I assigned myself a chunk for each session. Though as a pantser at heart, I sometimes kept writing because I got into the story and couldn’t stop myself.
Plotting in advance didn’t mean I couldn’t change things up once I got going. The climactic scene changed as I wrote it, and it wasn’t a big deal to go with that in the moment. I could throw in some interesting detours, since I knew where I was going to end up.
Whether you make it up as you go along or you plot your story in detail, it’s not a bad idea to shake things up. A YA writer in my writing group, a very detailed plotter, is now writing a sci fi romance with no plan at all. She’s loving it.
Part of learning the craft of writing is to try new things, to consider yourself a learner. And as someone only on her second book, I am not an expert at this. It’s possible over time I will settle into a completely different routine of sussing out a novel.
Pantser, plotter or plantser. We’ll see which way I go with book #3!
Writer friends, which one of the three Ps are you?
I started running again recently, after a long stretch of being sedentary.
I’m not saying it was an easy thing. I went through a few weeks of pushing my reluctant body out the door in the early morning, making sure I wasn’t awake enough to resist.
Then it began to feel amazing.
Four years ago, I tore my meniscus and was hobbling around, at work and at home, my knee swollen and feeling pretty awful. Since I’d torn it running a race, I thought maybe my time was up. I’m too old. My body can’t take the impact any more.
I had knee surgery, did the physical therapy to get back on my feet and resigned myself to remaining safe. To prevent it from happening again, I would stick to gym equipment and the occasional hike.
Except that I didn’t do those things.
I wrote, sitting or curled up on the couch with my coffee, before my family got up in the morning, or as my husband played video games in the evening. Most of my day, with the exception of going to work and teaching or getting groceries, I sat.
Writing and running are similar in some ways. There is that way-famous quote by Dorothy Parker or George R.R. Martin, whichever you choose:I hate writing but I love having written.
I love having run.
In return for the energy I’m expending, I get energy back for the rest of the day.
When you start out, running feels like a job. You have to get yourself psyched up—or guilted—to get out there and move. But once you hit your stride, you’re good. It’s like your body thanks you for using muscles that were aching to get back to work.
A few months ago, I got nostalgic for that feeling of motion. For how good it felt in the cool morning to put one foot in front of the other. The rhythm. The flood of endorphins. So I downloaded the Couch to 5K app on my phone and ventured out to find dirt, grass and padded areas to try running again.
I ran in the park behind our house, then I moved to the padded track at the local high school.
And….no problems with my knees.
When I’m running, my thoughts fly giddy and free, like kids on a road trip hanging their heads out the car window. They’re having fun, along for the ride. New ideas pop into my head. Several times after running, I’ve gotten new insights into my characters. Yesterday I thought up a plot twist for a story I’d about given up on.
When I was growing up in Iowa, May Day was the best.
You made up little baskets filled with candy and goodies, then sneaked them over to your friends’ houses. You left them on the porch or hung them on the door knob. Back then, in the Midwest, everyone did it. Judging by what I see on Pinterest and parenting blogs, I’m excited to see this tradition is coming back.
I thought it was the coolest thing in the world: surprising someone with a goodie. I practically giggled to myself as I imagined my friends finding the treats.
I loved the element of stealth. So did my mom.
This holiday was absolutely my mom’s thing. She loved surprising people with something fun, just because it would make them happy. To imagine the look on a friend’s face. One day, before my mom’s dementia got really bad, she was sitting at the kitchen table with a mysterious look on her face. I asked her what she was thinking about. She told me she wanted to sew a toaster cover for Lori, her neighbor, because “she really needed one.”She was figuring out how she’d make it and how she’d get it to fit without Lori knowing.
Today I celebrate May Day. And my mom, and her love of sneak attacking people with fun little things.
Let’s keep bringing it back.
Margaret “Sue” Vierk April 8, 1935 – April 22, 2019
There is a famous quote about writing:Write drunk, edit sober.
Though it’s been attributed to Hemingway (whose name lends gravitas to quite a few things), Hemingway never said it. We probably attribute it to him because of his tough, whiskey swilling image. Those who have researched this say that the quote actually came from humorist Peter de Vries.
The career of writing tends to pick up more “image” language than most other profession. Writers are hard drinking and mentally unstable. Out there living life brazenly and defiantly, like Jack Kerouac, drinking, driving and womanizing alongside Neal Cassady.
The fact is, most writers I know are hardworking rather than hard drinking. They work day jobs, persevere through MFA programs and take care of young children. They squeeze their writing into precise, regular pockets of time. While carefully curating their social media platforms in their spare time.
They persist through rejection, sickness and financial pressures like a protagonist fighting her way through the rising action of a novel.
You can’t do this drunk. Let alone edit with a hangover the next day.
Here’s my take on it. This quote lives because there is some truth in it. As writers, we wear many hats. When you write a first draft, you need to ditch the inhibitions. Let the words flow. Follow the dark, twisting paths of your imagination, and don’t stop to censor or rewrite. Then when you do go back to edit, look at what you’ve written as a critic.
After you’ve had your coffee: Does that awesome metaphor you wrote about relationships even make sense to you this morning?
In a way, this quote is a metaphor. Write without inhibition. Edit with common sense.
Today I did something I’ve always wanted to do: I saw this year’s reel of Oscar-nominated shorts.
I love animation. It brings out the kid in me, the one who used to get up way before my parents to watch Saturday morning cartoons like Scooby Doo, in pre-cable days. Animation is the medium of whimsy, wonder and the joy of the impossible. The narrative is limited only by your ability to draw/digitize it.
When I teach creative writing to kids, I use Pixar shorts. These tiny stories have a beginning, middle and end. And they’re especially good at something that every writer honing their craft needs to learn: showing and not telling.
This year’s nominated shorts included Pixar’s “Bao,” the story of a traditional Chinese mother whose “dumpling” grows up and finds his own way in the world, to her dismay. She takes the disturbing step of devouring him before he can run off with his blonde girlfriend. It’s a startling image.
You see the despair of this mother, desperate to keep her child “safe” from his own (non-traditional) choices at all costs. No words here, only the fears of a empty nest mother and her son’s fierce desire for independence.
“Late Afternoon,” from Irish animator Louise Bagnall, starts off with an old woman named Emily drinking her tea, helped by someone who looks like her caregiver. When her biscuit falls into the tea, she follows it, transformed into the little girl at the beach with her dad. She falls into other wells of memory when the caregiver (who we learn is her daughter) brings her some old books and pictures. Scenes from her life are shown amid bursts of bright colors that fade as she grows older.
At one point, Emily returns from an old memory and stares at her wrinkled hands, shocked that she could be so old now. I remember my mother, who has dementia, doing the same thing. It’s a beautiful, seamless way to tie the sea of memories back to Emily’s present self.
Watching these reminded me that words are flexible and wonderful tools to tell stories. You can use them to simply tell what happens or you can invite the reader in deeper. I’ll show you something – What do you think is going on?
You’re crediting the reader with intelligence. The reader’s takeaway is greater. They will be more invested in the story, since they were part of the revelation.
I’m inspired now to revisit what I’ve written on this current book, to see how I can envision and write my scenes as an animator or filmmaker would.
2019 Oscar Nominated Shorts is playing for at least the next two weeks (up to Oscar Sunday).
What happened when I decided to read a book by my mother’s literary love
My mother was the source of all stories for me. She told me stories. She read me books. When she got bored of reading me my favorites, she’d add silly details, mix the story up, and get me to laugh hysterically.
I love stories because of her. Reading them and writing them.
At 83, my mother still hangs on, three years after she was first put on hospice and given ten days to live. In the last stages of vascular dementia, she is confined to a hospital bed in the family room. She sometimes smiles, but usually I barely see her eyes behind her eyelids. She speaks only a few words, which have all the right sounds and inflections, but make no sense.
I reach for her hand, because then she turns her head to me. I tell her about my students and what we’re reading. I am a high school English teacher now, like she used to be years ago. I want to share these things with her. I don’t know if she hears or understands anything I say.
This month I made it my mission to read a book by her favorite author, William Faulkner. Maybe it’s because I can’t know what’s in her head now. I want to understand what she thought about, what used to be important to her.
Years ago, with a look in her eyes of distant remembrance, she told me: Nobody writes like Faulkner.
This month I got my hands on a copy of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom.A book that has been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses, for its complexity and the way it breaks the rules. Not an easy read. Some sentences are just strings of adjectives. The narrative often switches abruptly to a part of the story mentioned earlier.
To understand everything, I had to read chapter summaries in Spark Notes. And look up the meanings of words I’d never heard before. Suppuration, anybody? (It means the fluid produced by an inflammation.)
I’m a quick reader, but it took me a week to forge my way through the muddy wilds of Absalom Absalom.
My mom is not a southerner like Faulkner, but she loved the way he told a story.Absalom is told in an unconventional way:by multiple narrators, most of whom can’t be trusted. Like an impressionist painter, Faulkner paints layer upon layer, filling in the outlines of events again and again, making the picture deeper and sadder each time.
The book reads like a mystery, even though the first chapter tells the novel’s entire plot. Thomas Sutpen—a man who grew up poor in Virginia—comes back to the south from Haiti in the 1840s to build a mansion on a hundred acres of mud in Mississippi. He gets rid of his Haitian wife, along with his first son, when he finds out she is part African. He marries the daughter of a local merchant, to get some instant middle class respectability. It’s all part of The Design, the plan he set in motion when he left rural Virginia.
The man’s sins and his broken children come back to destroy his family. In the same way slavery and racism came back to destroy the pre-Civil War way of life and made the south an apartheid for the next century and a half. Absalom turns into a pretty depressing story for all involved (And I read it the week before Christmas!)
The mystery that drives the story is, we find out years later that there’s something hidden in Thomas Sutpen’s house. It’s evil, it’s scary. But what is it?
Several years ago I was in a class with a writer who grew up in the south. I remember teasing him that he had an advantage over the rest of us. “You have all the eccentric relatives and complicated history.”
I’ll need to read more of him to judge, but I don’t think Faulkner’s work was good just because he had rich material on his home turf. He dug into why all human beings make the choices they do, how people living through the same events interpret them so differently.
And how a person’s actions inevitably ripple down the generations. Like a father passing racism down to his son. Or my mom giving me her love for stories and good writing.
Almost a week later, the poetic cadences of Faulkner’s writing are still echoing in my head. As a writer, I want to capture some of his style (though maybe not the long sentences).
Many images from the book stick with me, especially one in particular. Faulkner describes the women of the south as “ghosts” after the civil war. I picture southern belles and tough old matriarchs, wandering the dusty streets of Jefferson, Mississippi, in their faded ball gowns, powerless and poor ghosts, far from what they used to be.
As I sit with my mom, whose eyes flicker almost imperceptibly between open and closed, it’s hard not to think of her as one of those. ♥
I have ventured into the mall to get “just one more thing.”
Everyone seems to be here, cycling up and down the aisles in an endless search, Roomba vacuums narrowly avoiding hitting shelves or each other.
I am grouchy. Lines are long. Cars move slowly through the Moebius-strip like parking lot circuit.I want to tap on the horn to speed them up, but I know it wouldn’t do any good. I wonder about the legal trouble I’d get into if I drove directly over the grass berm to the street.
Why did I come here? I had most of my gifts purchased early and conveniently delivered via Amazon. But last night I had a haunting vision of that one, poor family member, sitting amid the colorful litter of everyone’s unwrapped gifts, lower lip trembling. Does my family even love me?
Target is a sad and desolate place today, its employees tired and its shelves and racks depleted. Except for an odd selection of things:weirdly abbreviated women’s sweaters, manly flasks, and…..bath bombs. There are lots of bath bombs. If they actually exploded, that would make for an interesting gift. Alas, they do not.
I continue searching for something, anything, for a present. My thoughts go toward condemning our country’s consumerism, embedded in us so deeply that we don’t feel good unless we’re buying things. I think of how Jesus himself would see this. Would he, who was born in the poorest of circumstances, approve of this scene? Would he replay the biblical scene in the temple in Jerusalem, by kicking over the Santa and Rudolph plushies, mad that they were an affront to the seriousness of his birth? Would he overthrow the displays of green and red bath bombs?
I believe God is able to be sad about the need-to-buy desperation, while deeply loving the people caught up in it.
Jesus would be looking at the people pushing the carts. The ones who are here because it’s the first day they could drop their kids off with a relative so they could go buy them gifts. Jesus would be looking at the employees, working one of the three jobs they need to work in order to afford to rent a room in Silicon Valley. Jesus would look at my grouchy heart, sad that I am making unnecessary stress for myself this morning (Finally nailed that gift for Aunt Flo—and it was on sale!) when sitting down and listening to Aunt Flo would be less tangible but a more memorable gift.
When my freshman English class read Fahrenheit 451 this year, we learned that a dystopia starts with a good intention. One that is thoughtful and fair. Then it gets twisted out of proportion. In the Christmas shopping scenario, our desire is to show our family and friends that we value them. We want to see their faces light up when they open a gift. We have family friends who excel at giving joy-inducing gifts to one another, and it’s a beautiful thing. But I don’t feel great when I buy something just to give somebody something to unwrap with my name on it. I want to think differently next year.
As I hang out with my family today, the grouch in me is receding. Rain has started here, just enough to give us some seasonal ambiance here in California. From the kitchen, there’s the smell of freshly baked bread. In the other room, I hear sounds of bumping, crinkling and giggling that accompanies gift wrapping. I am happy. I don’t need much else.
To all of you, your family and friends–best wishes for a Merry Christmas and/or happy holiday!