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Archive for June, 2011

Days like this one are the hardest when it comes to keeping my vows. I promised myself I’d write every day, because that is one of the few pieces of common advice I come across when sifting through authors’ tips on writing. I’m not about to only write in longhand or only write on a computer disconnected from the internet. I’m not going to write while drunk or hungry and I’m certainly not going to buy a lake cottage or mountain cabin to serve as my scrivener’s retreat. The least I can do is take myself down to my desk once a day and pound something out. Some days it’s 500 words for the blog and then 1000 for the book. On occasion I’ll set aside one or the other, doing only blog work or book work.

But for a week and a half I’ve been passing multiple kidney stones; for five of those days I was the only one at home and also had the sole responsibility for two dogs. That doesn’t sound like much until you realise that one of those fellows is coming up on 12, is as arthritic as I am and is incontinent to boot. Forgive me for not being one of those people who wants to use an indoor peepad. There are just some things I can’t abide…giving animals permission to go in the house is one of them. So that means a lot of trips outside.

Some writer–I honestly can’t remember which one, only that she was a woman–was a harridan in her “10 tips on writing” when she talked about writing every day. She kept going on and on about how it didn’t matter if you were sick or dying. You had to write every day. Oh yeah. I remember one other thing about her. I know she’s someone whose books I don’t care for that much. Maybe because she writes them even when she feels like garbage.

And here’s where we get to the nitty-gritty of my problem. I am sick so much that if I don’t write when I’m sick I’d never get anything done. Still and all, even in my world there’s sick and there’s SICK. Sniffles, minor headaches and the aches and pains that come with my six-pack of autoimmune diseases are all something I can work around to a degree. I have enough hours in a day to allow me to pound out a few words and work on my family history side project.

But this? This feeling that mothers say is worse than labour, that soldiers say is worse than being shot…I confess that I have a very difficult time writing when the little pebbles of bone dust make their way through my innards. I have a difficult time doing much of anything, to be honest. So writing on days like this is when I pit my will against the dark. Nothing much comes of it other than the certainty that I’m a tough-minded broad.

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I spent a full week on a book last week, which for me is a rarity when reading fiction. Now if it’s a non-fiction book I’ll take forever because I’ll set the thing aside to look up every little piece of information that sounds interesting. The George Washington biography is taking so long precisely because it has led me down more rabbit trails than the Easter Bunny. But a fictional story? Those I can move through pretty quickly, once I place my mind in the author’s hands.

I am beginning to think this year, however, is going to be cursed. Because every book I’ve read since my birthday (or series of books–>I’m looking at YOU, Hunger Games Trilogy) has started out like gangbusters and sucked me in. I’ve skipped meals because I’ve been so engrossed and enthralled by Katniss and Sugar.

But then they start to just flake out. The book that sucked my week in last week, and ended up just sucking, was The Crimson Petal And The White. And yet again it started so wonderfully well that I honestly couldn’t put it down. And then about 51% of the way through (reading a Kindle is like watching one of those fundraiser thermometers colour itself in) I started to realise that all we were doing was spending time watching a male author from the 21st century imagine what was going on in the minds of female prostitutes and missionaries of Victorian London. And he spent a LOT of time on those minds. Almost too much after a point. Because it just became plodding and dull.

If you have a book about prostitutes that is dull, you have a problem.

When I read the reviews for Crimson many of them warned me away because of the explicit sex. I wish they’d warned me instead of the dullness and frustration that turned the second half of the book into a gristle pudding; both flavourless and hard to chew. Harder to swallow.

It’s funny because my biggest problem in my own fiction writing is knowing how to finish something well. I am loathe to bring things to a conclusion because I generally love my worlds and the folks I’ve created to people them. But I’m starting to gather that endings must not matter, given my experiences with these last two books.

And now I’m nervous because I’ve just started the first half of the fourth book in A Song Of Ice And Fire. I put off reading the thing for the bulk of a year, because I insisted I wouldn’t start it until the second half (marketed to the world as “book 5“) was on the horizon. I’m starting to fear that I’ve cursed that book as well, seeing as how nothing I read this year seems to hold up.

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There is, out there on the internet, a place where people have anonymously recorded their experiences with recreational drug use for everything from caffeine to meth.

I stumbled across it about two years ago when I was double-checking the interactions with one of my newer medications (i.e. could I take Tramadol with Benadryl). Even now when I go to double-check a pharmaceutical side effect that page occasionally pops up.

And I can’t help but read it. And then I get mad. And then I read it again.

I’ve been trying very hard lately to avoid having pity parties for myself because they just aren’t productive. All that happens is that you spend your wheels in the poor-me mud for fifteen minutes and then there you are, fifteen minutes poorer and grumpy to boot. But I have been having a really difficult time lately avoiding the outrage I feel at what seems like others wasting good health on stupidity.

It’s so very not libertarian of me. So very not judge-not-lest of me. I’d honestly say it’s one of the traits I need to work on the most, and I suppose that’s why I’m admitting here. Hello, my name is Katherine and I’m filled with anger at recreational drug users.

I understand addicts. I really do. But in my mind an addict is someone with a health problem not unlike mine. So while some of the trappings of addiction, like the urge to make heroes out of those who are in rehab, annoy me I don’t really get enraged at addicts. I feel bad for them.

But these recreational drug users, like the kinds over on this website I’m mentioning, they burn me up. You read their stories and they go into great detail about taking six or seven times the basic dose of a medication that people like me take to survive. And they take it “just to see what happens” or to make the Cartoon Network seem funnier or NPR seem deeper. They talk about going into mindless trances for days while they coccoon in the pillowy bliss of their high. They talk about the sick grandmothers and neighbours and aunts they’ve stolen the pills from and the friends who take them to the hospital when they go into a drooling seizure in front of the television.

It makes me so very angry, these people who have health and time and energy and some level of wits about them. These gifts they don’t even see as gifts, the precious things they carelessly discard as they break relationships to tickle their mind.

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Being a writer is sort of like being a tightrope walker. No matter how good you are, there just aren’t that many circuses around anymore. People have forgotten what a real highwire artist looks like, gingerly crossing on half an inch of hemp, high above the crowd. What few circuses are left have their own walkers in house–getting in front of a sincere audience to prove your mettle is hard.

And now that everyone has their own balance beam, it is harder still. “Look, I’m a tightrope walker!” they say, as they totter across the wide beam, six inches off the ground. Most of the time I figure it’s good to applaud the lowbeam walkers because you never know when one of them will graduate to the big top. And there’s not a lick of harm for anyone in being encouraging. Especially when you yourself (i.e. me) aren’t much of one for doing anything without a net.

I have to say, though, that I found myself with a case of the grumps yesterday afternoon when I visited another blog for the first time. It was an obviously home-made affair, and I was there for a blog entry that another friend had linked. I read the entry and then did a quick stop when I got to the part where the blogger described their person as “a writer.” (“all evidence to the contrary,” I thought to myself. I was really in a bad mood.) Then, I looked across the top of the page. Yep. There it was. One of the links was “On Writing”.

It’s like one of those balance-beam walkers offering classes in gymnastics.

Yes, I write about writing sometimes. But I don’t kid myself that I’m enough of any sort of expert to have the same “on writing” section that authors with multiple best-selling published works flaunt on their pages. Besides which, I figure, why does anyone want to read my advice On Writing when I haven’t even Finished My Novel or Found A Publisher? It seems sort of stupid. I’ll converse about writing, talk about what helps me.

I’m wrestling with myself even as I write this post. Because I really believe in the core of my being that being a writer is very much about a personality type and a way of looking at the world. But I also think “being a writer” means you “write things”. A few days ago Patrick Todoroff wrote about an experience it seems we share–encountering folks who call themselves writers who are more about the cache than the work.

And I guess that’s what is bothering me, if I have to distill this grump into a pure thought. Writing fiction is a craft and an emotionally difficult thing to do well. To have there be people who are poseurs makes the entire craft seem too easy to get at.

Writing–real, good, quality writing–is WORK. It isn’t just hanging out at a coffee shop with your laptop.

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WALSTIB

I was in the bed asleep, in what had been my bedroom from the time I was fifteen until I was ousted from it by Miriam, the German exchange student who left cigarettes in the dresser drawer and made fun of my posters of John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn. (I was 18. And had posters of John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn. Instead of, say, whoever was sexy in 1988. What is wrong with me?!?)

We were back home for my brother’s wedding and I was nervous. We were broker than broke and I had to hand-knit my top and hand-crochet their wedding present. The night before I had spent large chunks of the bachelorette party dancing by myself to disco hits from the 70s at a bar where the men had been drinking since the 70s. I have this sickness which compells me to act upon my free spirit in dance bars and Karaoke lounges.

So it was an August morning and I had no money, a bad case of exhaustion and a Bob & Tom t-shirt as a “prize” for “best dancing”.

“Jerry died.”

That’s all my husband said. But it seemed like enough to me. The whole world was changing too fast as it was. I didn’t know where I belonged or whom I belonged with. I was torn between my childhood home and my life in Nashville. The Grateful Dead had always been my version of adulthood, representing a freedom and an escape into music. I had used the Grateful Dead as a way to ease my way from one close-knit family into a larger one, a way to make it easier to leave home. I had found my husband through the Grateful Dead and we spent what version of a honeymoon our broke selves could afford at a Dead show.

So here I was already conflicted and then Jerry died. I felt at that exact moment that life was telling me there were no more shelters, no more bus stations. It was time to get on with things.

My soon-to-be-sister-in-law’s father was suffering from cancer, and at the wedding as he gave her away I was struck with this core knowledge that he would also be gone soon. I spent most of that wedding crying uncontrollably. Everything was change and loss and I just didn’t want to acknowledge it.

I spent that fall and the first part of the next year in a haze of broken. My husband and I separated for eight weeks while I cast about in search of something to land on. In search of my right mind. I eventually found it, and by April things were on the mend. But I came out of that time knowing that I was the grown-up now. There were no safe holes to hide in, so it was best to build my own safety.

Last night I went to a live show with my husband. The first since Warren died. And I have been struck with how much better the music is now that I bring a whole self to it. Now that I’m free to enjoy it for music’s sake and not as a life-raft I hope to sail upon.

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My internet expertise appears to range from 1988-2009. When I decided to take a sanity break a couple of years ago I started missing out on memes and phrases and behaviours. But it has been the longest September ever and I just couldn’t keep up with all the Pedo Bears and ORLYs and lipsticked pigs and congresspersons’ underwear bulges.

That’s why I had to verify with the two sources I trust most on such things (Aunt B. and Urban Dictionary) the exact meaning of “Concern Troll” earlier this year. For those of you as ignorant* as I was:

A person who lurks, then posts, on a site or blog, expressing concern for policies, comments, attitudes of others on the site. It is viewed as insincere, manipulative, condescending.

So I didn’t recognise it when this guy (with no backlink) popped up at another blog to start talking about how all Christians–except him–are Neonazis and he is the New Dietrich Boenhoeffer. You’d think, with my internet savvy circa 2009 that I would at least know enough to walk away when Godwin’s Law bears out. But I blame the stone drugs. (Wow. I blame the stone drugs for a lot of things. Lazy me.) Or the fact that my husband is at Bonnaroo and I can’t text him pictures of the dogs. Or the fact that any time someone says “Dietrich Boenhoeffer” I start to get the same flopsweat I get when someone says “C.S. Lewis”. Sure, those guys are great theologians with whom I have much in agreement. But they’re still JUST MEN.

Anyway, I engaged this fellow early this morning, still in my Greensky Bluegrass afterglow. And as I ate lunch it dawned on me. He’s a freaking Concern Troll. I have, for the first time in YEARS, bitten troll-bait. Clearly I am out of practise here. But at the same time I told him he can engage me here, so that we can spare Mike Duran. (I’m not linking to Mike’s site on this because I don’t want to further muddy his blog on this matter.)

So, Matthew, if you want to continue the conversation…

*Ignorant is not a bad word. Despite what some people say. Everyone is ignorant of something. Including, it would seem, the knowledge that “ignorant” is not a bad word.

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Mike Duran stumbled across yet another “Will Evangelicals Vote For A Mormon” tempestbag that someone dropped into the teapot of the internet, and decided to ask his largely-Evangelical audience what they thought.

Since it seemed to be a conversation eerily similar to one I’d already had in the NiT days, I didn’t really have much of an answer other than the flat “no.” I mean, yes, I am Evangelical. And no, I won’t vote for this Mormon (Mitt Romney).

And here is why I hate surveys. Or, more appropriately, why I hate what newspapers often pass off as surveys, because their methodology is so flawed. Because the question they are asking gives them an answer, but it doesn’t pursue the number of root causes for the answer.

I won’t vote for Mitt Romney because of this.

“I am not in favor of medical marijuana being legal in the country,” Romney said as he moved on to greet other people.

Now, I happen to be not only “in favour of” the legalisation of medical marijuana but also “vocally pushing for”.* For me as a Christian the thought that there is an enormously effective medication with relatively few long-term side effects out there, a drug that would help MILLIONS of people for a very low cost, a drug we cannot use…in my mind that’s like looking at the least of these and spitting in their eyes. There is a tool at hand to help, a good tool, and we won’t touch it. That angers me.

*If I were better at writing speculative fiction I’d write the alternative history in my head where the cultivation of willow trees is illegal because of all the witchcraft associations with salicylic acid. The end result being, of course, that aspirin is an illegal drug. I’d call it “Bayer with me.”

But back to Mitt and his whole thing. The main reason I’m never voting for him is his stance on that issue. But I personally believe he has arrived at that particular opinion because of his Mormon religion. For heaven’s sake, adherents to that faith don’t drink Coca-cola because of the caffeine. They’re certainly going to look askance at pretty much any drug at all. Cannaboids would doubtless fall somewhere between having sex with a pig and openly declaring love for Satan. Wait. Do LDS believe in Satan? I can’t remember.

The point being that the answer to the question is a lot more nuanced than “Will the evangelical vote for the Mormon?”

Religion and politics is such an unsavoury stew as it is. Trying to boil it down just makes it worse.

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Yes, upon this rock I will build a blog post.

You would think that at some point I would tire of these things, and you’d be right. But somewhere back there, in a glance over the shoulder, after I stopped counting I also stopped caring so much. I’ll say one thing for RA and Co.–they’ve made Kidney Stones just one more stop on the Ouch Express.

Actually, now that I think about it, it IS largely due to the RA & Co. that I’ve stopped minding the little fellows so much. The daily painkillers I take on a schedule also make the smaller fellows pass a bit easier. Granted, they aren’t the same painkillers that folks stick up a Walgreens for, but they’re halfway between a Tylenol and an Oxycontin. They seem to keep the ureters relaxed enough to keep the stones from getting too badly caught, and that’s where most of the pain is.

Without going into all the dull details of when and where it hurt, let me just say that it was a good 18 hours between when Charlie decided to leave his organic home and when he was expelled from the confines of my body, free at last to live in the open air. Yay for Charlie! His is a story we can all admire, a school-of-hard-knocks tale of a fellow toughened in a grim, dark environment who yearned only to see the light.

No. I am still not on strong drugs. Although this IS starting to feel like I’m taking dictation from that journalist whose name I can’t think of at the moment. The one who was always high and hung out with–oh yeah. Hunter S. Thompson. That’s his name. He hung out with Hell’s Angels and Zevon and other people. Some folks think he was cool but I think he was probably a huge pain to know. Folks who are high all the time are dull. I personally think that’s why they stay high; they have to make themselves more interesting to be with even in their own minds.

Speaking of folks who are high all the time, my husband was in Cuyahoga Falls at a Phish show. Oops. Better clarify. He’s never high, but a lot of people at Phish shows are. Or so I’ve always assumed. Never been to one myself. I was going to go to this one but the tickets were lawn seats. Which to a person like me is sort of prohibitive. Now, though, given this rocky turn of events it truly is best that I stayed home and dog-minded.

I am proud of myself. That’s why this is a blog post at all, unlike the last 30 or so which have passed remarked only on Facebook. I did this at home with no husband and no morphine. I want to call the Doctor from Baltimore and tell him “see! I’m not drug-seeking when I come to your bloody ER, you grim bastid!” Actually I don’t. I don’t want to have any interaction at all with the Doctor from Baltimore.

Now that the dogs have come back inside I think I better go lie down.

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A few short miles outside of the tiny town of Kewanna, Indiana–three churches, a bar, two groceries, a post office and library–was my grandparents’ farm. The first thing we always saw was the big barn, red as apples, as strawberries,as red as barns should all be. When we drew closer the other landmarks would come into view. There was the tulip tree, the hen house, my grandmother’s garden with its trusty rows of strawberries that we’d always count on picking for early summer desserts.

Somehow the farmhouse, a simple white building with black shutters, managed to be both unassuming and central to the entire world of the farm. Inside were grandma’s cookies and grandpa’s hugs, where he’d squeeze us ’til our tongues stuck out. The walls had pictures of Jesus, of aunts and uncles and angels guiding scared children across a bridge. There were books everywhere, obviously loved and read but still treated with respect. They were bought in a time when money was scarce and books weren’t everywhere. There was an old desk in the corner of the dining room where my grandmother had her devotions every day. Taped to one of the shelves was a clipping from an old newspaper that said “Seven Days Without Prayer Makes One Weak.” That was the first pun I ever heard and ever understood.

The Kennedys had Hyannisport and other East Coast families had the Hamptons or Cape Cod. Midwest families like mine had farms as summer homes.The flat fields open endlessly to the sky were our sea, the gardens and truck patches our shore. Instead of boats we rode tractors and we fished in the sky for joy with kites of bright colours.

Each of us had our routines at the farm. I honestly don’t recall what my brothers and sister would do once we got well welcomed with the hugs and cookies. My routine was the oddest ever heard and never understood by anyone, least of all me. I would venture out to the side yard, next to the woods where folks hunted deer for food. I’d find the best, most perfect stick to fall to the ground. (Stick hunting is a mysterious science mastered by children and understood by no one else.) With my trusty stick I would wander the yards around the front part of the farm, meandering from house to barn and back swinging my perfect stick through the grass and making up stories. I told myself stories about families, dogs, missionaries who lived behind a waterfall. I don’t know why the stick was key but it truly was–as if I were divining for waters of folklore.
My favourite spot in all of my strolling was a dark corner against the front porch where the sun never quite warmed the ground all the way. Poking up through the loamy black soil were dozens of tiny white flowers, delicate and scented like all the mysteries of growing were packed inside. They were the Lily of The Valley, like Christ. The flower of the month I was born. I would stand and stare for long minutes at them, imagining fairies sleeping on the leaves and picnicking in the shade. I was always torn between picking one to take with me and feeling like they were to special to disturb.

Last night on a phone call to my mom we talked a long spell about my grandmother. The farmhouse has long since been sold, and Grandma herself has no memories of it. No strawberries or cookies or flowers have stayed in her mind. But my mom was telling me she took Peonies from her own garden to the nursing home to try to give Grandma Eldonna one of her memories back. Mom had transplanted her own peonies from the bushes at the farm and I told her that I wished I had taken some of the Lilies of the Valley and even thought about asking the new owners of the farm if they still had any that I could buy.

“I have some here,” my mom answered.”They came from the farm.”

And now I wonder if it is safe to move the plants from zone to zone. If I can take bulbs from northern Indiana and put them in a Tennessee garden. It took me years to take root here; I don’t think the lilies have that kind of patience despite their magic. But I would like to try.

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If you, like me, get panicky when you sit down at the keyboard or the notebook…

If you, like me, stop writing for the day when you realise that every word leaving your hand is utter cack…

If you, like me, find yourself wishing that flash fiction were saleable…

Then I have the cure for you. Just go to a bookstore. Any bookstore will do. Even Amazon, because that’s where I am now. I am, in fact, browsing the “Sunshine Deals” pages, which is Amazon’s equivalent of a Markdown Table. If you go to another bookstore, that Markdown Table is what you are looking for.

So just browse through all the piles and piles of titles. The endless books on tying flies, falling in love with Faerie, riding dragons, making cakes out of cake mix that fool people into thinking you made them from scratch. Then you realise that there are millions of books in the world, each of them someone’s dream. Or at least their work for a chunk of time.

It takes the pressure off immensely.

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