Planting Seeds

 

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This has been a week of planting seeds.

Not real seeds, like in dirt. Because all the dirt in Colorado is frozen.

So are the trees.

And everything else, including me.

It’s snowing outside. Did you know that? I woke up half an hour early this morning because my house was freezing and the lovely warm blankets I was sleeping under didn’t cover my nose and my ears. So I had to build a fire to keep myself from getting frostbite.

No, the real seeds are going to have to wait for Colorado to thaw a little. Instead, I’ve been planting seeds for the year ahead, starting new practices and new adventures that—hopefully—will start to grow in the next few months and blossom into something more than a simple dream.

I bought a microphone, for one thing. I’m going to be recording podcasts in the next few weeks for my Mental Health for Writers posts. It’s very exciting.

I’ve been playing with it.

I have discovered three things.

(1) When recording, the soundbar should stay green or yellow. It should not be red. I have a terrible habit of sending it into the red.

(2) I do not love the sound of my voice when it’s on a recording. However, if I want to continue doing this, I have to grin and bear it. I have spent a lot of time gritting my teeth.

And (3) I stumble over my words A LOT more than I originally thought. Come to find out, I am not as articulate as I was hoping.

That must be why I’m a writer.

In other words, I am going to have to practice a lot with my new toy. Several people have also suggested that I make audiobooks of my two books.

I told them I’ll think about it. After I practice some more.

Another exciting activity for this week has been setting up my newsletter for this site. I’m very excited about this and completely overawed by the complicated service I’m using. It may be a few days before anything pops up.

However, when it does, I’d be very excited if you’d sign up for it! There will be all kinds of special goodies and tidbits for the people on my list, plus we’ll get to keep in touch and grow as a community! Which, of course, is the whole point.

Anyway, that’s my week! I’ve been rushing around, pushing myself out of my comfort zone and learning all kinds of new and very exciting things, which, for a stick-in-the-mud introvert, is very exhausting.

I’m a little proud of myself.

What about you? What new and exciting things are happening in your corners of the world? Tell me about them in the comments!

Ash and Smoke

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I buy the kerosene at the shop around the corner. The woman selling it smiles at me, and we talk about the fresh spring weather, the crocuses popping up in her flower beds, and the barges coming down the river from the cities inland. It’ll be a rich year, she tells me. A blessed year.

I laugh and agree with her. This is a blessed year. She doesn’t know how blessed.

I pay for the kerosene with his silver, and she asks me where I’m going. I tell her I’m going to the old mill, the one up by Silverstone stream. She clicks her tongue disapprovingly, as if a girl like me shouldn’t have anything to do with such a bad-tempered curmudgeon. But she doesn’t warn me away, only tells me—a little frostily—to say hello to the miller for her.

I smile and promise I will. The bell over the door rings pleasantly as I leave, and the jug of kerosene bumps against my legs as I cross the cobbled road and begin the long, long walk back to the mill. I can smell the sea from the here, hear the raucous squabbling of the gulls over the bay. I never realized what a busy little town this was, how the port was constantly bustling with sailors and merchants. He never let me come here, not even once. A woman should look after her home first, he said, not bustle about gossiping and poking her nose into the business of others.

Maybe when I’ve brought the kerosene home, I’ll come back and sit on the seawall. Just to watch the world go by, to smell the salt and hear the gulls. I’d like that.

It’s quieter when I leave the town behind me. I kick up dust on the lane, passing through the birch trees that line the road. The mill sits in the clearing, all alone, the old wheel creaking as the creek splashes over the paddles and into the pond. Moss carpets the path up the door, and the lilac bushes on either side are blooming. I pause and set the kerosene down, burying my face in the rich blossoms and breathing deeply. I want to remember that scent. Everything else, I intend to forget, but that fragrance is worth remembering.

The mill smells of death, and the floor is cold. The bedroom door is closed, and I leave it that way. I left his body on the bed, wrapped in the sheet, and it’s as good a burial as he deserves. If he’d really lived alone, as most people thought, his body would have rotted in that bed after the consumption took his soul. Instead, his darling wife—the one he locked away for so many years—will burn his body.

I uncork the jug of kerosene and pour a trail from the kitchen to the living room. I use the whole jug, and several cans of oil as well. And the last of the baking grease. When it’s all soaked into the wood, I light a match and leave it burning on the floor.

Outside, the birch trees are shivering in the wind, as if they know what’s happening. Maybe some of them will burn too. I wouldn’t mind that.

In less than ten minutes, fire is leaping from the roof. I lean against a big oak, listening to it burn. I can almost hear him screaming at me amid the roar of the flames, the way he did all those nights when the liquor was in his blood. He used to weep when the rage left him, telling me how sorry he was, and how I shouldn’t provoke him like that. I would lick the blood from my chin and say I forgave him, and he would go back to drinking.

I smile, watching it all go up in smoke and take my pain with it. The mill, his desk, our bedroom. Everything. All that was left of his stupid life and my imprisonment. I didn’t take anything with me, not even the clothes he liked me to wear. Only his silver, and the memory of the lilacs.

Everything else can burn.

For The Writer Who Needs Encouragement

Writing Encouragement

Writers need encouragement.

Can I get an amen?

Writing is hard, it’s lonely, and above all, it’s slow. Slow to finish, slow to see progress, and slow to get any kind of notice. Writers do a lot of work behind closed doors, we spend a lot of time alone, immersed in our worlds and puzzling over plot holes, sentences we may or may not like, and characters who sometimes really don’t like to do as they’re told.

On days when we’ve stared a little too hard at the blank screen, argued one too many times with a stubborn character, or—sometimes hardest of all—had to swallow a nasty comment or negative review, discouragement seems inevitable. And, if we depend on other people for our encouragement our moods will go up and down and all around.

And believe me, you will notice the negative comments much more than the positive ones.

It might seem a little backward to tell you not to depend on other people for your encouragement, right? After all, encouragement comes from other people, doesn’t it?

Actually, it doesn’t.

Yes, positive comments are encouraging. People who come to stand alongside you and help you along are incredibly helpful, even necessary.

But, if your journey depends on other people’s opinions, you will end up discouraged, empty, and too frustrated to continue.

Writer, you are the master of your journey and your mind. At the end of the day, it is you who will keep discouragement at bay. So, today, here are five tips to staying encouraged on your journey as a writer.

1) Find your balance.

Writers spend a lot of time writing, yes? Or, more specifically, staring out the window, scrolling through Twitter and Facebook, researching obscure facts, and doodling on scraps of paper while we wait for the words to come.

We’re all guilty of it. In fact, I like to think of those moments not so much as procrastinating, but more as giving our unconscious brains time to mull over the problem. In fact, I think a writer does their best work while they’re looking out the window.

Still, our entire lives cannot be spent writing. Balance is the key to everything, dearest writer, so go outside, go to a movie, make dinner for a few of your friends, read a new book, or go to the zoo. Live your life outside of your writing, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll come back to that blank page with a little extra perspective.

2) Celebrate yourself.

It took me years to realize that I could buy flowers for myself.

Isn’t that ridiculous? I love flowers. I love having flowers in my home. The very presence of them lift my spirits. And yet—I never bought them. Because people don’t buy flowers for themselves.

Or, at least, I didn’t think they did.

Now, I buy myself flowers. I celebrate the small things. When something exciting happens, I make the most of it. Milestones are important, dearest writer, and they do not have to be huge, once-in-a-lifetime events for you to celebrate them. Did you finish a chapter that’s been bugging you for ages? Did you finish a draft of your novel? Did someone read your work and love it?

Celebrate. Buy yourself flowers, or your favorite snack or drink, or even just pause for a moment to be still and think I did that. Be proud of yourself, and celebrate the small moments.

In the end, they’ll be the ones that mattered.

3) Don’t talk trash about your work.

I’ll be going into this subject in more depth later, but I want to put it here, because I see so many writers knocking themselves down and talking trash about their work.

Don’t.

Just don’t.

Could you write every single day with someone standing at your shoulder, making snide comments and telling you that you’re never going to make it because you can’t write?

NO.

Stop doing it to yourself. You are learning. You are doing what so many other people wish they could ‘find the time’ to do. You may not be perfect, but you are trying, so don’t laugh off your efforts or bad mouth your own work.

It’s not cool. It’s not humble. It’s toxic, and it will discourage you faster than anything else possibly could.

4) Look at how far you’ve come.

Every page you’ve written, deleted or not, is progress. You’ve learned, you’ve grown, and you’re developing in your craft. Take pride in that and be encouraged. All your work has not been for nothing.

5) Remember why you started.

Remember that you love what you do. Remember that it was the story first that drew you into this crazy, beautiful journey. Remind yourself of the dreams you had for your writing, for the book you want to hold in your hands and the characters that haunt you.

You are a writer. You create worlds from thoughts and stories from pen and ink. You have a wealth of imagination and characters at your fingertips, and if you take care of your mind, enjoy the journey, and stay encouraged, you’ll make it through the bad days.

Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.

Rottweilers and Writing Companions

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This week, I went to visit one of my friends. She lives in town, which is a very long drive from where I hide away in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and she just moved into her beautiful new house.

She’s got an enormous tree growing in the front yard, and so, so much painting to do inside. I got paint all over me. It was very exciting, because I am a five-year-old at heart and I love paint.

On a side note, I am apparently incapable of using said paint without also painting myself.

Excessively.

But, the highlight of visiting my lovely friend (besides her company, which I have so, so missed) was her new dog. He’s a Rottweiler, and he met me at the door with his big, sloppy grin, his huge feet, and his clumsy, overexcited welcome.

We were instantly best friends.

Now, I am not really a dog person. Most of the time. I have a cat who head-butts me when she wants affection and drools like a dog, so I’m pretty happy. (Please don’t tell her I told you that. She would be mortified.) Besides that, an enormous dog in my very tiny house would be a disaster. Things would be broken. A lot of things.

But, realistic dangers aside, my friend was very lucky I didn’t try to sneak that dog out the door with me. I couldn’t get enough of him. He was big, he was goofy, he wanted all the attention, and I was totally ready to comply. We were painting, and—considering he has very large feet and not a great deal of coordination—he was not invited to join in. My friend insisted that he stay out in the hall.

Spoiler alert.

He did not stay out in the hall very much.

As much as I loved hanging out with this guy (and kissing his head, and being drooled on by him, and nearly tripping over him when he leaned against me or squirmed between my legs), I could already imagine the damage he would do in my little house with his big feet. So I came home and kissed my kitty on the head. And got booped on the face. And head-butted, because she loves me an extra-special lot and when I sit down to read or write, she likes to be right there with me.

It’s pretty distracting, actually. But every writer needs a writing companion, just like wizards need owls or toads. It’s always nice to have a little chum to curl up in your lap while you’re exploring the untracked wilderness of your imagination, or chasing a dragon, or arguing with trolls. I’m pretty convinced that, without a kitty to purr in my lap, it would be much harder to find my way home again.

Do you have a writing companion (or just a favorite chum) in your house? Tell me about them in the comments!

On The Edge Of Living

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All men die, I tell them when they ask me why the world ends the way it does. And when they die, they come here.

We’re not dead. Not yet. They ask me why that is, but I don’t tell them the reason. I don’t tell them that we’re the forgotten people, the ones sent ahead to meet Death before she was sent for them. Some know already.

The ones that don’t are happier not knowing.

We live in the cliffs. Beneath Death’s falls, on the edge of the world. The seventh sea flows above us, spilling over the black rocks, tumbling into the abyss below us. The dead follow the current, and they fall. Straight to heaven’s doors, the tales say, or maybe straight through hell’s gates. I’ve stopped trying to guess which. Maybe it’s both at once. Maybe neither.

Either way, I don’t intend to find out. We live on the edge of the world, in the span of breath between living and dying, and I have no intention of joining either side.

Instead, I watch the sunrise from the black rocks, the cliffs and ledges. The light passes through the falling water, glinting like jewels, gleaming like veils of gossamer and pearls. Rainbows dance across the damp stones, and mist hangs in the air, smelling of wet earth and sea air. The dead pass us by, hardly more than a flicker of pale light, a solitary spirit caught up by the falling water and the ocean currents.

I’ve been watching them this morning, mostly before the sun came up. They’re easiest to see by moonlight, and I find that I think clearer when I’m behind the falls. I’ve lost count of how many souls have gone by, some of them so thin that they’re nearly transparent, but I have to go back now. The others will be waiting, and if I don’t come they’ll worry.

I rise, climbing down from the ledge I’ve been sitting on. The rocks are slick with mist and moss, but I’ve been climbing these cliffs for a millennia, and it’s been a very long time since I’ve slipped. I know these rocks too well.

The ledges below are flushed with green, with tangled vines and waving leaves. The gardens are being tended already, and more people are awake than I expected. Fires are being lit, coals fanned to life and kindled again with driftwood and dried grass. I kneel beside one, helping the woman to blow the embers to life again. She glances at me, at my soaked shirt and wet hair, and smiles. “Been at the falls?”

I shrug. “Keeping watch, that’s all.”

She nods. Someone is always watching the falls, not for the dead, but for the living. Those who were sent ahead, meant to meet Death on her way rather than waiting for her. People like Mazia, whose uncles put her on a boat in the seventh sea and towed her into the current. She spoke with the wind, they said, and her smile belonged to the devil.

Personally, I’ve always liked her smile.

Ewan, too, came to us from his own family. His legs are crippled, and they were finished with him. Most of the others have the same story. A child that no one wanted, a baby that was an inconvenience, a grandmother who was a burden. They come to use one by one, and we take them in. The lip of the falls catches them, the rocks that allow the dead through but hold back the living. I hear them, or someone does, and we bring them here. Here, where the sun shines like liquid gold through the curtain of falling water, where the moon rests on her flight across the sky, and the stars seek shelter from the burning rays of the sun. Death doesn’t come looking for us here, and the nights are cool and still, broken only by the rushing of the falls. They are broken when they come, but they heal. There is peace in growing things, in gathering a harvest, in building a colony. We live on the edge of the world, in the span of breath between living and dying, and we are content.

For The Writer Who Doesn’t Have A Routine

This last week, I sat down with one of my writer friends at a coffee shop.

We talked for a long time. About everything. Movies we like, story problems, agents and publishers, and life in general. 

It was wonderful.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had the chance to really sit down and have a heart-to-heart with another writer. I forget, sometimes, how incredibly similar we are—and yet how wildly different we can be. As I mentioned last week in this post, no two writers ever have exactly the same routines, inspirations, or methods for digging up their fantastical stories. We’re each unique, and our writing process is uniquely ours. It’s tailored to our hearts and our stories, and no one can tell us exactly how it works.

So what happens when we just . . . don’t have it yet?

Honestly, this is something that writers of all ‘stages’ struggle with. When you start writing, no one hands you a ‘how to’ pamphlet or gives you a map of your own brain that shows just where the stories are hiding and how best to lure out a stubborn plot point. Even an experienced writer, with years of practice behind them, can get thrown off by a scheduling change, a new story that refuses to be written the way the others were, or even their own growth as a person. Something that worked for you five years ago, or even five months ago, may not work any longer. Editing routines, daydreaming to plan your story, writing routines, and even something as simple (or complicated) as finding time to write can seem impossible when you’re not sure quite how best to approach it.

Again, no one can tell you how your brain works, how to spark your own creativity, or how best to create your own routine. But, if you’re stuck and not sure how to begin to develop a process—either for the first time or after years of using the same routine—here are five tips that might help.

1) Allow yourself room to explore.

Take some of the pressure off of your writing for a while. Experiment. Try things that may not work, like rising an hour earlier to get some extra writing time in, or taking walks with some of your favorite music to plan out the next chapter or plot point you’re going to be working on. Visualize your story with drawings or post-it notes, or try reading chapters that you’re supposed to edit out loud to see if that helps you catch mistakes.

Journal with your characters. Ask them questions.

Have a board on Pinterest that is devoted to ideas for your story.

Try pantsing it. Let your characters run wild, and let the story tell itself. See what happens!

Try outlining every detail with a cork board and index cards.

The point is, be adventurous and go a little wild! You never know what might work for you.

2) Ditch the routines that don’t work for you.

There is no set method. If it doesn’t work, dump it. Throw it out the window. No regrets.

Seriously.

If rising early leaves you groggy and uninspired, don’t do it. Try something else. Give it a week or so, or even just a couple of days, and if it’s not lighting a fire under your words, then dump it. The last thing your story needs is a forced routine that gives you no joy and results in nothing but wooden words.

3) Take note of what others are doing.

Check out ideas on Pinterest, or ask around on Twitter. I’m sure you would find a whole load of writers who would love to share their routines and give you some tips.

Take what they say, and sort through it. Copying another writer’s routine probably won’t work for you, but their experiences can give you some hints. Ditch what you don’t like, and file away the tidbits that sound relaxing and inspiring. Take nothing as gospel, but be open to trying new things. Who knows, you may stumble across something that works for you!

4) Give it time.

Writing is all about the journey. You can’t write a book in a day, and you definitely can’t slide into a new routine in a day either. Allow it to change, to fluctuate, and to grow with you. Remember the things that helped, and do them often, even if they’re a bit of work and time.

5) Don’t overthink it.

You don’t need a complex routine to call yourself a writer. You need a story, and you need to sit down and write. So do what is comfortable, do what inspires you and helps you focus, but don’t latch onto practices that you don’t feel you need, simply because they are ‘popular’ or someone told you that you should be doing them.

You are a writer.

You know your stories.

You know yourself.

What fits you, what fits your lifestyle, and your story is what is important. Not a checklist that someone else thinks is vital for your routine.

Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.

January, IKEA, and Reading Goals

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Can we all just agree that January lasted an entire year?

Because it lasted an entire year.

Seriously, that was the longest month ever. And, thank goodness, a fairly productive one for me, considering I set my expectations way too high and had to rein it in a bit in the last week. Mostly to preserve my sanity.

Still, the things got done. So everyone is happy.

Right?

Good.

This weekend my mother is in Virginia, visiting some of my older siblings, and in her absence, the house has exploded, four kids got lost, and someone baked a cat into a pie.

I’m kidding. We’re all fine.

In fact, we’re so fine that we managed to take an entire Saturday and go visit IKEA. Yes, it took almost the whole Saturday. Mostly because IKEA is in Denver, and Denver is a good hour and a half drive from where we live. And because, once you’ve finished walking through IKEA with six kids in tow, you’re ready to call it a day and sleep for the rest of time.

I love IKEA. It’s the best.

Seriously, though. Is there anything more fun than walking through IKEA, planning out all the awesome furniture you would buy if your house wasn’t already overstuffed with other furniture? I like to plan out my eventual writing retreat. Bookshelves, a particular desk that I absolutely adore and will buy one day, a good lamp (because everyone needs one), curtains, plants. I could spend all day planning what I want, then all the money I will make this year buying it up.

I don’t go to IKEA often. It’s probably a good thing.

As hectic as January ended up being, I somehow managed to sneak in a bit of time to read between events, job interviews, and sleepover weekends. Just now, I am blazing my way through Paradise Lost, by John Milton. Thus far, it is fascinating, and I’m eager to really get into the heart of it. The prose is a little hard to understand at first, but, as with Homer’s Illiad, I’ve found that if I give it a few pages, I’m able to get into the rhythm of the story. Once that happens, the language flows, and I can appreciate the beauty of it as well as follow the story.

I haven’t set many reading goals this year. As always, my goal is simply to read what I love, put aside what I don’t, keep track of the titles, and read more than I did last year.

Thus far, I have been able to meet that last goal. Last year, I read almost 20 more books than I did in 2017. Eventually, though, I think I’m going to peak. Hopefully not soon, but it will probably happen.

I’ll let you know what happens—and if anything explodes.

What are you reading this month? Any special goals for February, reading or otherwise? Tell me about them in the comments!

Almost Life

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He was dying when he told me, “I had an almost life.”

The nurses sent for me when he woke up. His face was gray in the moonlight, gray against his sheets, gray against the hospital walls. I sat on the edge of the bed, listening to the heart rate monitor blip softly in the background. Outside his room, the world was moving on. Shoes squeaked on the tiled floors, intercoms echoed in the halls, and someone was shouting.

I barely heard them.

I had an almost life. Whatever he’d meant by the words, they were caught in my brain for good now. An almost life. I held his hand, watching him breathe, wanting to pause the moment and live in it forever. An almost life.

“What does that mean, Papa?” I squeezed his hand gently, rubbing my thumb against his paper-thin skin. “An almost life?”

He wasn’t listening. His eyes were on the door, as if he were waiting for someone. The window was open, for the angels, he’d said, but he was waiting for someone else. His dead wife, maybe. He’d always said she would be the one to welcome him into heaven. “No one else,” he’d confided in me once with a wink, “would have the guts to tell me my time was up. It’ll be Jesus, or it’ll be your Meemaw.”

I used to laugh when he told me that. I believed him, though. He’d been a contractor while I was growing up, so tall that he had to duck to come inside, with a booming voice that shook the house. My father had his temper, but not his love, not his compassionate heart. I’d been afraid of my father before I’d come to live with Meemaw and Papa. I still was, although I wouldn’t admit it, but I’d never once been afraid of Papa.

Death would be, though. I was sure of that. Jesus would come, or Meemaw. He wouldn’t go with anyone else.

But I wasn’t ready for him to leave yet. Not with his words in my head. I bent over, kissed his cheek, and whispered, “Papa?” He looked at me, his eyes faded and far away, and I almost asked him what kind of angels he was seeing now. But his words would haunt me if he didn’t explain them, and I didn’t want to live the rest of my life wondering what he’d meant by almost. “What do you mean, ‘an almost life’?”

He took a long time to answer, and his eyes kept straying toward the door. He was waiting for Meemaw, and I held his hand and prayed she’d wait outside until he’d told me what he meant. I needed this, especially now.

“I almost made it through school,” he said, very, very softly. I winced. “Almost went to college. I was pretty sure I was destined to be famous.”

He laughed a bit, his eyes wandering around the room. A breeze flitted through the open window, carrying angels.

“I almost sold my business. We were going to sell the house too, travel a bit. Whole lot of almosts . . .” his voice petered out, and I tried to breathe. He hadn’t retired, not until they made him. He needed the work to raise his granddaughter when his son abandoned her. I still remember waiting by the door for him to come home at night. He’d never told me I was the reason for that ‘almost’.

Papa pulled his hand away, turned my face toward his and wiped my tears with his thumb. “I almost didn’t make it the day you were born. Did your Meemaw ever tell you that?”

I choked on a laugh and nodded. I’d heard that story more than once.

“I almost missed you.” He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. “Thank God for almosts.”

I buried my face in his chest, crying into his shirt like I had after my first breakup. And after Meemaw had died. We’d both been crying then, but he’d still had strength enough to hold me. “You didn’t miss me, Papa.”

He nodded and looked past me at the empty room. A smile touched his face, the kind he used to have when Meemaw came in wearing a new dress, or when she bought new earrings and wanted him to notice. “I’m glad you weren’t an almost, Kaity,” he murmured. “I had all the right almosts. I was always glad of that.”

“Me too, Papa,” I whispered, watching his soul pull away. “Me too.”