An Assemblage of Memories

I’ve been cleaning my house all summer, which isn’t particularly memorable except for the fact that I really don’t clean if I can help it. But my housekeeping habits are not, thankfully, the subject of this post.

In the process of cleaning, I gave away a shirt my sister gave me. It was peach, light and cottony, drawstringed at the bottom. It had a hole, and it didn’t fit me anymore. I’m only now realizing how much I regret having given it away- and not just because my sister happened to see it and even though she has said a hundred times she doesn’t mind, I still feel bad about it.

I regret letting go of the visual memory in that shirt. I was living in a rented basement full of spiders that was never ever warmer than fifty degrees, I had a job and an internship, both of which I hated, and I was finishing graduate school on the weekends. Looking back, I’m relatively certain I was depressed because the three things I remember most are angry tears, trying to drag myself out of bed in the morning, and a sense of grief and isolation. My sister overnighted a package to me in the midst of all this darkness. It had a bottle of lavendar nail polish, a package of gummi worms, and the shirt. I cried for hours over how much hope those three things gave me when I thought I couldn’t find any.

It was a horrendous time in my life and to this day I cope with it by alternately joking and pretending it never happened. The shirt served it’s purpose- it gave me hope, uplifted me, reminded me that people loved me and would no matter how bad things got for me. It didn’t fit. It had a hole. It was right to give it away, and yet I regret it because in just a glance from the shadows of my closet or a touch of the soft fabric, I could remember all of these things.

There are other things in my life heavy with memories. The t-shirt I wore on the worst date of my life. The song I listened to on my drives home from overnight CNA shifts on a dementia unit. The orangey cinnamon perfume I wore my first year of college. The smell of spaghetti cooking on a cold winter evening. Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, which transports me home to the living room of age ten while my sister played piano and my dad sang as he did the dishes and I didn’t worry about anything of consequence. The strong sharp chai I drank doing homework at my childhood friend’s kitchen table. The lumpy stuffed lamb I’ve had all my life, part puppet and part stuffed animal. The coarse flannel of the blanket I was given after finishing my final performance in high school theatre. The feel of cold winter wind in my hair and thumping bass as I drove home from community theatre rehearsals my first year in a small town after college. The taste of a banana shake the day the neurologist confirmed I wasn’t dying. The smell of fresh hay and cut grass through the windows as I drove home ahead of a moving trailer when I finally left that terrible basement and horrible year behind.

The things that hold our memories aren’t always obvious until something happens. You turn on the radio and suddenly you’re fifteen and falling in love again. You sit down to dinner and suddenly you’re caught in a moment of pride and joy and celebration from ten years ago even though in this time it’s just another Tuesday night. You send a shirt out the door and realize it was holding a tiny piece of your heart. It’s like meeting yourself coming and going- encountering the ghosts of all the selves you’ve been, and maybe a few you aren’t just yet. Seeing yourself as a stranger, just for a moment.

This is good. The only way to know who you are is to see who you’ve been- all the good and all the bad, all the broken and all the whole- and acknowledge that pieces of all those past selves are still in you. But they’re also not you anymore. You are more than the sum of your experiences and moments. You are more than your triumphs, mistakes, broken hearts, angry words, shed tears, greatest achievements. You are a future in which all of those pieces have impact but not power. You are the accumulation of every one of those things plus something more. The person you’re becoming. Give your moments and memories their due. Look around you, touch, smell, listen. Then make it all mean something.

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Everything Is Not Enough

Am I the only person who gets these two mixed up with each other pretty much always?

I’m an everything person. When I start a project I want to do All Of It Every Single Thing Immediately. Unfinished things irk me. They nag at me, pulling me back to them over and over. I’ll be in the middle of a meal and get up to add or change or adjust something, I’ll stare at the ceiling for hours trying to sleep and constantly being lured back to the project. It’s not just writing that does this to me, though it is the main culprit. I can’t clean my house unless I’m ready to clean every nook and cranny top to bottom (which is why I never clean). I’m terrible with gifts because I want to buy every gift for every holiday for every person NOW but then I just want to give it NOW too and not just any gift will do it has to be the most amazing and wonderful gift ever given. I set my Goodreads challenge sky high but then think if I’m not ahead and over it, I’m behind. I make a weekly to do list and then feel like a huge slacker if I don’t finish it all within a few hours. If I’m invested or interested or excited enough about something, I’ll forget to eat or lose track of time for hours. You might say I’m very thorough in my passions.

The thing is, none of my obsessions are laborious. I’m not miserable, in fact, getting super excited and enthusiastic about everything makes my life really very enjoyable. Most of the time. But in all honesty, it’s also EXHAUSTING. At times, being somewhat incapable of moderations and halfways has prevented me from starting things I know will be difficult to manage long term (waking up early, exercising, saving money, anyone?) Being so determined to Accomplish Everything With Perfection Now can make me scatterbrained and distracted, and sometimes makes it really hard not to feel like I’m failing when I don’t accomplish one thousand things at Quality One Thousand every single day. I get restless, have trouble sitting still, and despise red tape or progress that takes time. I hate not yet/not now almost more than no. And while I’ve grown pretty good at accepting these things in the world (publishing moves slowly, people in general have lives, traffic happens, people have to be allowed to think and respond on their own timeframe, change happens slowly) I’m terrible at giving myself the same permissions. I expect this high level of performance from myself almost all the time and most of the time its wonderful and exciting and invigorating and something I’m totally capable of. It’s not until I’ve crossed that fine invisible line from thrilled to stressed that I realize it.

Goals don’t have to be as high as we can possibly make them to matter. Just because we don’t do it now today this exact moment doesn’t mean we won’t do it, eventually. In good time. Passion and excitement are excellent and wonderful, but they can so easily become stress and shame. It’s good to want to rule the world. It’s not so good to kill yourself doing it.  This is probably something I’ll be working on my whole life (bless the people in it for loving me anyways) but I’m not going to give up on it. Our lives are important, nuanced, unfolding things. They happen over time for a reason. I’m going to try to get better at granting myself grace, and knowing that doing enough doesn’t mean doing everything. I hope you will too ❤

The One Where I Write Something Like A Bio

To be clear, I’m writing this because I think I’m going to give PitchWars a whirl and someone had the brilliant idea of doing mentee bios so we can all get to know each other. Another point of clarity: my bio writing skills are pits. Also, I’m terrible at being particularly interesting and I love gifs but have no idea how to make them work with WordPress. Apologies.

So I guess we’ll start with the most important facts: my favorite kinds of candy are sour, fruity things like gummi worms and Airheads. I like to say my patronus might be a falcon or unicorn but it’s really probably any animal wearing a cross expression. I love coffee, tea, and hot chocolate equally and in particular situations, my favorite season is fall, and my personality in TV characters is something of a cross between Leslie Knope and Nick Miller.

About Harry Potter- I’m a Ravenclaw, which I know from Pottermore. However, some friends of mine have been recently alarmed to learn I haven’t read all the books (I’m finally doing it now, halfway through the Half-Blood Prince so I’m almost there!) and I’ve only seen the first three movies.

TV shows I adore include Parks and Rec, Sherlock, The 100, Broadchurch, The Paradise, and old ones like I Love Lucy. My favorite movies, depending on my mood, are Inkheart, Pride and Prejudice, Letters to Juliet, and National Treasure 2. Like any true book lover I can hardly choose a favorite but I reread the Anne of Green Gables series every year, as well as various Madeleine L’Engle titles, and some modern books I’ve loved enough to reread are Vicious and The Near Witch by Victoria Schwab, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, How We Fall by Kate Brauning, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, and The Winner’s Curse/Crime books. Other favorite things are bonfires, candles in all kinds of delicious smells, flowers, super soft blankets and super fluffy pillows, chocolate chip pancakes, spinach dip, naps, and collecting both beautiful books and unique antiques (favorite word combo!) I also adore cooking, and I am relatively fearless in it which means sometimes I make amazing things and sometimes I fail in a truly spectacular way. Fantasy- ESPECIALLY historical fantasy- is probably my favorite genre to read but I love a really good historical or contemporary and I most love books that are very hard to define. A handful of other random things: I just tried Stitchfix for the first time and I love it, I’m considering applying to phd programs, I work with kids in my dayjob, my best writing day was 11.5k, I adore live theatre both on and off stage, and musicals are the fastest way to my heart (especially Guys and Dolls and the Music Man).

Anyways, now that I’ve rambled forever and ever, let’s get to the nitty-gritty: what am I like to work with? First, I love feedback and it doesn’t have to be sugar coated because while I do usually have a twenty minute Woe Is Me I Am A Failure Forever, I am always ready afterwards to tear the book apart and begin again. I’m comfortable raising questions or stating disagreement if I feel really passionately about some piece of the story, but I’m always focused on making the story the best it can be and open to ideas and advice accordingly. I have a vendetta against good in my work- good is okay, but why would I not want it to be it’s best? I usually manage to fit in at least 2 hrs of work even on weekdays and I’m very motivated by deadlines (also candy, but that’s neither here nor there).I’m probably best at plot and maybe setting/descriptions but sometimes struggle with dialogue and definitely with overwriting. I’m relatively flexible and respectful of people’s time and the ways life can sometimes interfere with our best intentions. Oh, and my project is a YA alternate history about a girl who is equal parts society darling, seductress, and spy. And that’s about it.

potential mentors, heyyyyy thanks for reading, please excuse my only passable query writing skills when the time comes, and Let’s Get To Work (picture Leslie smiling crazy-eyed at you)!

mentees, HI, nice to meet you, come find me on Twitter and let’s talk snacks and projects 🙂

also you regular readers who for some reason may have read this whole thing- bless you. Have a gummi worm.

A World In The Palm of My Hand

I was talking about writing with a lovely friend tonight, and we were discussing how to build the world of a story. We agreed that one of the most terrifying things is the sensation that you’re writing yourself into a corner and you’ll never be able to get yourself or your characters out. We talked about taking risks, making false starts, and all those other fun adventures books tend to take us on.

Then we started talking about how to move forward in a story when we’re not sure what happens next. There’s a lot of buzz about character-driven stories and letting the characters lead, and I completely agree with that. But something I realized through this last round of revisions I did was that usually, in order to write a character-driven story, we must explore the unknown through the eyes of the character. That can be frustrating and confusing, though, when you don’t KNOW how a character might see something, not to mention why. So I thought I’d share a little trick with you that I’ve only just started using in my writing, and you can tell me how it goes!

My education is in social work, and one of the myriad theoretical foundations for the practice of social work is something called systems theory. Systems Theory is a way of viewing the world with the idea that people exist in a series of systems, both internal and external. These systems act on people who in turn act upon the systems, and the more people and systems involved, the more complicated both the problems and the solutions. This theory is summed up by the phrase, “Person in Environment,” which is a solutions-focused concept that suggests problem solving begins by recognizing that a person is influenced by everything from their country down to whether or not they have a stomachache, and that solving the problem requires recognition and analysis of systems first. It’s a way of understanding not just what has happened but the nuances of why and how, and a way of recognizing that certain solutions to problems may only create more problems in other systems.

This gets much more complicated, and I’d actually encourage you to research it if the idea is interesting to you, because I rely heavily on it both in my day job and in my writing. But hearing about theoretical concepts can get confusing, so let’s give it some legs.

Parks and Rec is one of my favorite TV shows ever, and the episode where Leslie is trying to keep the Parks budget from being cut is an excellent example of systems going awry. Leslie convinces a councilman not to cut the Parks budget, but because the money must come from somewhere, she learns the animal shelter will be closed to obtain the funds. She doesn’t want that to happen, so she does some research and finds some unnecessary jobs to get rid of which will make room in the budget. However, when she does that, her best friend’s job gets cut.

I won’t tell you more because some of you guys might be crazy and not have watched every single episode eighteen times, but you can already see the issues. Leslie wants to solve the problem right in front of her, and she sees that problem only from her perspective as a Parks employee. She makes her decision from a position where the systems exterior to her are the state, the city, the local government, the parks department, her immediate friends, her neighborhood, etc. Interior systems are her passion for the parks, her loyalty to city/government, her drive to solve problems, etc. Because of her unique perspective and relationship to the systems around her, Leslie doesn’t see the problem or her first (or even second) solution clearly which causes a whole string of new problems.

This is where it benefits you as a writer – your character exists within some kind of array of systems, and every one of them exercises some level of impact on your character. When you get stuck and don’t know what happens next, or you’re having trouble figuring out motivations or who your character is, think about systems. How is your character impacted by her geographic location? The times in which she lives? The political, religious, cultural surroundings? How do these things shape her reaction to your plot events, and how does it shape the choices she makes in response to those events?

I recently used these ideas in my own revisions. I realized that most of the book as it used to be was just my character being acted upon by the other characters and floating along, always reacting to other choices and not making her own. I knew I didn’t want that and I read everything I could get my hands on about making characters more active, but I still struggled because I felt like I didn’t know enough about her to know what she might do when NOT just reacting. It wasn’t until I thought more about her background of poverty, and how that might cause her not to trust the systems around her, to distrust sources of help someone else might naturally turn to, and to view the world as being against her, that I could begin to understand how she might think and act. Revisions were still difficult – are they ever not? – but I finally understood my character, and that moved the story forward. I understand how my character saw the world until I figured out how that world has shaped her view.

Maybe this’ll open up a flood of new ideas for you and maybe it’s just confusing, but if you decide to give it a shot, let me know how it goes!