Why writing doesn’t have to be a lonely struggle

For some of us, writing is not a matter of being driven by [demons], but casting them out. Difficult family relationships? Sort them out on the page. Horrible love life? Write it again with a better ending. Feeling your age? Slip into the skin of a 20 year old and go off and have some fictional adventures. It’s not a horrible, exhausting struggle; it’s therapeutic.

Courtesy of The Guardian.

20 Things I Know at 40 I Wish I’d Known at 20

  1. There are very few things worth getting angry about. Casting for the next Spiderman movie is not one of them. Save your anger for things that deserve it.
  2. You need a plan. “Figuring things will just work out.” is not a plan.
  3. If you look for enemies you’ll find them.
  4. The most awesome sound in the world is a baby laughing.
  5. Don’t drink your own Kool-Aid.
  6. Life isn’t about checking off boxes.
  7. People who are constantly giving you unsolicited advice usually have their own agendas.
  8. Some people make different choices than you do. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong. It just means they’re different.
  9. Shopping for furniture sucks, but if you go with a three-year-old you can build a pillow fort and no one will stop you.
  10. There is an old Polish proverb that says, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” Those were some wise old Poles.
  11. You can give people a third or even a fourth chance, but not a thirty-fourth chance.
  12. Always doing what makes others happy never makes anyone happy.
  13. Being grateful is less exhausting than being bitter.
  14. You can’t force other people to fulfill your needs.
  15. Don’t argue with people on the Internet. Just don’t.
  16. The universe is a big, complicated place. Don’t believe people who tell you they have it figured out.
  17. Sometimes it’s okay not to have an opinion.
  18. Don’t ever be ashamed to admit that you sometimes still eat Froot Loops and watch cartoons on Saturday morning (even if it means you have to record them on the DVR).
  19. People who conform don’t change the world.
  20. If your life doesn’t scare you a little, you’re doing it wrong.

Wait, What?

Medieval illustration of a Christian scribe wr...
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Further empirical proof writers do not think like normal people. The following are actual excerpts (more or less) from conversations among my writer friends. Yeah, I know.

***

“I used a wooden pencil in a story I wrote to stake a vampire.”

“Did it work?”

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“Lately I’ve been doing a lot of research on hobos.”

***

“I made the mistake of reading The Strain right before trying to go to sleep. When the ice maker made a noise in the kitchen, I freaked out. So I jumped up and grabbed the Samurai sword next to the bed.”

***

“Sometimes I think I’d like a monkey tail.”

“Like, in a jar?”

“No, on my body. Then I could pick up things with it.”

“Oh, ’cause I could get you one in a jar by 3 p.m.”

Danger: Flailing Writer

Overall, it’s been a good year for me. My novel is finished. I’m poised to query agents. I’ve had three short stories published. I should be very satisfied with myself. So why do I feel so restless?

I know what I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to keep writing while I try to find an agent. I even know what I should write next, the novel I had always planned to write next. I have character sketches. I have a rough outline. What I don’t have is even an ounce of motivation to actually write it.

Other novels, other stories are in the forefront of my mind all day: characters, plot points, even snippets of dialogue. They won’t go away, no matter how hard I try. Sure, I’ll open up a Word file, jot down a name, maybe make a few notes, but I can’t seem to appease these stories screaming to be written.

So what do I do? Do I write the story that makes sense to write next? Or do I give in and write these other stories?

There’s Always a Story

I love the way Southerners talk, and by that I don’t mean accent or dialect; I mean the way we talk. It was one of the hardest things for me to get used to living in California. In conversation, Californians, even the laid-back surfer-dude types, are generally very direct. They like to get to the point. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but for me, having grown up in South Carolina, having internalized the inherent rhythms and inflections and other unwritten rules of Southern conversations, it sometimes comes across as abrasive or rude. I have to work at not being offended.

I became acutely aware of the issue when I worked as an attorney in California. When I started my first job, the firm was already involved in a large case. Our client, Big California Company (BCC), was being sued for breach of contract by a small company based in, of all places, South Carolina (Small South Carolina Company, or SSCC). BCC, a producer of consumer goods, had an agreement with SSCC to make components for one of their products, but at some point, the relationship soured, and BCC pulled out of the deal. In reading through the documentation, I pinpointed that exact moment. Representatives of BCC went to visit SSCC’s manufacturing facilities. They came in, guns blazing, ready to get down to business. The owner of SSCC perceived their behavior as obnoxious and arrogant. The meeting did not go well, and things quickly went downhill from there. It was all just a misunderstanding, a cultural mismatch. I tried to explain that to my colleagues, all California natives, but none of them got it, and in any event, everyone was so invested in the litigation at that point that no one wanted to be the first to blink.

At the next firm I worked at, one day I gave what I still believe to be a well-reasoned and accurate explanation of a legal issue to one of the senior partners, also a California native. After I was finished, he said, in front of others, “Matthew never answers a question with ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ There’s always a story.” What he meant disparagingly, though, I took as a point of pride. As Southerners, we can’t answer a question without rambling through the weather, Saturday’s football game, at least three decades of local history, someone else’s family tree, and what we had for lunch. There’s always a story.

I think the fact that storytelling is so ingrained in the way Southerners talk is part of what made me want to be a writer. I also think that it’s an enriching and fulfilling way to look at the world, to know that there’s always a story, and that sometimes, those Californians miss out in their race to get to the point.

Things I’m Giving Up for Lent

It’s Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season leading up to Easter. I grew up in a Baptist household, and the idea of giving something up for Lent was never really emphasized, though I had Catholic and Episcopalian friends who did it. As I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed that it has become a more ecumenical practice, and I have a lot of friends, Catholic, Protestant, and otherwise, who give something up.

Because Lent is meant to be a time of reflection and preparation, one of the reasons that people give up things is to free themselves from distractions that would get in the way of becoming closer to God. It is with this goal in mind that I’ve decided to give up a few things this year:

  1. Trying to make people happy who are determined to be unhappy.
  2. Feeling bad about offending people who are looking for ways to be offended.
  3. Apologizing for not making the decisions other people think I’m supposed to make.

We’ll see if I can last until April 4. If so, I may go longer. Wish me luck.

Idiot-proof?

Things have been a little slow around here because we’re currently in the middle of a massive cross-country move.  We’re leaving Southern California and moving to North Carolina.  This has been a long time in coming.  While we don’t regret moving to California ten years ago, we realized a few years ago that California can’t give us the life that we want.  So we started taking steps to leave.  Last week, one of the last pieces of the puzzle finally fell into place when we sold our house.  Immediately, we were confronted with a reminder of why we’re leaving.

But first, a short (I promise.) lesson in property law.  Way back in Ye Olde England, the rule used to be strict caveat emptor when it came to buying real estate.  The seller didn’t have to tell the buyer anything about the property.  It was the buyer’s job to find out if anything was wrong.  The English imported that rule to the colonies, and up until the turn of the twentieth century, it was pretty much the rule in every state.  Today, most states require the seller to disclose major problems, but California goes farther.

We had to disclose that we lived in a condo.

Really?  I’d love to see the lawsuit that resulted in this particular disclosure being included.  “Plaintiff began to realize something was amiss when he noticed doors to which he did not have keys.  He became even more suspicious when he saw other people using these doors to enter and exit the building.  These observances led Plaintiff to believe that there were large areas of the building to which he did not have access, but others did, and that in fact, he was not living in a single-family dwelling, but a condominium.”  I’m sure it’s the same guy who’s responsible for the “Warning: may contain nuts” label on packages of peanuts and the “Warning: may cause drowsiness” label on sleeping pills.

And what does your cigar mean, Dr. Freud?

I’ve been having a recurring dream for several years, now.  Well, it’s not exactly a recurring dream, because it’s not the same dream every time, but the theme is the same, so I guess it’s more of a recurring dream motif.  Anyway, in this dream, I’m back in either high school or college, and it’s the beginning of the term, which means new classes and a new schedule.

For the most part, everything is perfectly normal.  I don’t fly.  I’m not in a compromising state of undress in a public place.  Nothing like that.  The problem is that I keep forgetting to go to one of my classes.  It’s like I have a mental block.  I have trouble even remembering that I’m taking the class, let alone remembering to attend or to do any assignments for it.  The funny thing is that the subject of the class isn’t always the same from dream to dream.  I’d say that more than half the time, it’s a math-related class like Calculus or physics (a subject in which I have never taken a class in real life).  Sometimes though, it’s a language class like Russian or German.  Other times, it’s been a psychology class (!) or an English literature class.

Since I have this kind of dream on a regular basis, it must mean something, but I’m not sure what….  Wait, should I be doing something else right now?

It’s Not “Sunny” California

I know it’s the Christmas season and all, but my thoughts today for some reason have been about summer, in particular, this summer, which I feel I have been cheated out of.

Today is overcast, cold, and rainy.  It’s one of those days that the weatherpersons on the news here call “rare.”  These weatherpersons have an odd definition of “rare.”

You see, all of those television shows and movies that show beautiful sunny beach scenes with clear blue skies and sparking water and Frankie and Annette frolicking and showing off their perfect tans, maybe playing some beach volleyball or rollerblading?  They’re not real.

Southern California is prone to this little weather phenomenon called a marine layer. Now, while I’m not familiar with the technical aspects, I do know that most days, the beach is socked in with fog so thick you’d expect Sherlock Holmes to wander out and proclaim, “Elementary, my dear Watson. The surfer was actually killed by a shark masquerading as a dolphin.”

For the past several years, the marine layer has occurred every day during the months of May and June.  It actually has special names during those months: “May Gray” and “June Gloom.” Where I grew up, May and June were summer months.  Not here.  Here, it’s all about the hoodies and gloves, because as you would expect, the lack of life-giving sun means that the temperature is about the same as a good day along the shores of Loch Ness.

The problem is that the marine layer is not limited to the months of May and June.  It creeps into July and August as well.  Generally, you need a blanket in order not to shiver while you’re watching the fireworks on the Fourth of July.

But that’s not the worst of it. When the temperature in the summer does hit 80 degrees, meaning that it’s actually pleasant to be outside, people have the audacity to complain. “It’s so hot,” they say. “I like it when it’s cooler.” String a couple of 80-degree days together, and the local weatherpersons go apoplectic and proclaim a “heat wave,” complete with dramatic music and graphics.

Pansies. Go spend a summer in the South with 105-degree days and 98% humidity, then we’ll talk, ‘kay?