“Flight”: A Short Story

July’s always been a magical month–the high days of summer, berries galore, twilights that last until 10pm–and this year it’s kicking off with a pretty great start: a short story of mine published in Bards and Sages Quarterly.

BardsandSagesJuly2017

This is my first piece in print, which is pretty exciting. It’s about a little girl and her little brother and some troublesome powers he’s developing. Here’s a short excerpt:

The bell on the corner store door rang as we walked in, holding hands. I am always supposed to hold Mateo’s hand when we go to the corner store and can’t let go until we are inside. Mrs. Oberlin smiled at us and Mateo let go and ran up to her counter.

“How are we today?” Mrs. Oberlin said. She stood up slowly from her stool and reached to the shelves above where the caramel sits. Mateo stuck out his hand, his other arm clutching Pepita.

“No, Mateo,” I said. “No caramel today.” If he had a caramel Lucia would smell it on his breath, feel it on his sticky fingers, and she would know we had left without permission.

Mrs. Oberlin smiled at Mateo. “Another time then.”

Mateo didn’t say anything but didn’t put his hand down either.

“You’d better listen to your sister, young man,” Mrs. Oberlin said, putting the jar back on the shelf.

Mateo kept his hand out.

“Mateo, no,” I said.

He lowered his hand but I could tell something was wrong. The pout on his face turned to a frown. I watched to see if his chest was rising and falling but it wasn’t. His cheeks turned red as he held his breath.

I grabbed his hand.

“Mateo, let’s go.”

“No comic books today then?” Mrs. Oberlin said.

I didn’t answer because I was pulling at Mateo, trying to get him to move. “Mateo, come on.”

Mateo ripped his hand away and stomped on the floor. As his foot came down, the jar of caramels came whizzing off the shelf, just past Mrs. Oberlin’s head. She cried out, which frightened Mateo. He cried, too, and five more jars came flying off the shelves and crashed on the floor.

Mrs. Oberlin was screaming now. I wanted to tell her it was alright, to please be quiet, but I heard a rattling noise and looked up and saw all the jars shaking on their shelves. Mrs. Oberlin was pointing at Mateo and clutching her chest. I grabbed his hand and we ran out the door. Behind us, the rumbling stopped.

I usually have a terrible time writing endings, but for this story, the ending came first. I saw a picture of the last scene in my mind’s eye and developed the rest of the story around it. (What is that scene? Sorry, you’ll have to read the story to find out.)

It must be said—my writing group was absolutely instrumental in shaping this piece. It’s a much better story for their edits and advice. Folks, don’t write in a vacuum. Go find some like-minded people and share your work.

“Flight” is featured in the July 2017 issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly. The print version is available on Amazon, and you can get the digital version (in multiple formats) at Smashwords.

“Home”: A Short Story

Oh hey! My first published piece came out this morning in Allegory eZine.

Here’s a little taste:

The Jeep rumbles through humid backlands and I count the mosquito bites on my right hand: four, just that I can see. Goddamn Louisiana. Why anyone would voluntarily live in this armpit is beyond me. I hate when the missions take us out to Hicksville, USA–but that hate is wasted, since that’s where we almost always go. The kind of people who have the kind of things we’re after, they live in places like this, where minding your own business is the law of the land.

Three of us out today. Me in the backseat, Jim and Rambo up front. Rambo isn’t his real name, of course, but that’s what he calls himself. Stupid as shit, but good at his job and a good driver, too. He’s driving now. Jim’s in the passenger seat with a walkie-talkie, waiting for more directions. The land flying past has been getting less swampy, more forested for the past couple miles. We’re close, but until we get details from Command, this is just a bug-ridden joy ride. And we don’t get paid unless the mission is a success.

Read the rest online (for free!).

This was a fun one to write. I woke up one morning after having a super intense dream… and then immediately went to the computer and started writing. The story was already about 60% complete—all I had to do was figure out the ending. Which is NOT how I usually come up with story ideas, so all in all it was a weird experience. But I’ll take it.

The pile of rejection slips is paying off. Just gotta keep pluggin’ away.

Oh thank sweet baby jesus the 2nd draft is done

I finished. It’s done. 33 chapters. 84,681 words. I ended up rewriting the entire last third of the book. It took me far too long (three years OMG IT TOOK ME THREE YEARS) and it induced all the rage but it is done.

I’ve gotta say, based on this experience? Second draft = WAY harder than the first.

Is it any good? I’m not sure yet. My eyeballs are spent, I need a new pair.

But it’s done. The 2nd draft is done. After a long nap and several drinks… it’s onto the next step.

18 Rejections

That’s how many I’ve collected this year – from short stories, submitted to various magazines. Eight submissions are still out there, waiting, biding their time. So who knows, 18 could turn into 19, 20, 21, before this year is over.

I say this not to be pessimistic, but to be realistic. This is part of the writing life. Most writers out there probably know, in theory, that there will be rejections. I don’t think they necessarily understand the volume. There will be a LOT of rejection. And it usually comes after you’ve waited weeks, months.

18 is actually a VERY small number. Some writers aim to gather 100 rejections over the course of one year (heard from Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo of Women Who Submit). The idea being that if you’re submitting that much…well, some of them are bound to hit the mark.

Not going to lie – some days, it’s discouraging. Usually on days that’ve already gone off the tracks, for one reason or another. On those days, I let myself be sad for a little while, maybe get a treat… then I send out two or three more submissions. Immediately.

Some days? Some days the rejections are actually encouraging. I think only a writer could truly understand how that could be the case, but when you get one that’s personalized, when you get one that says “not for us, but we’d like to see more of your work”… that’s cause for a little celebration.

Writing is about process, and this whole circle of sending submissions, receiving rejections, repeat – it’s part of it. If you’re submitting, you’re putting in the work. You’ve just gotta have faith it’ll eventually pay off.

Between Ease & Effort

A few months back I started taking yoga classes to get some sort of activity in my life that is not dog-walking. The other day, one of the instructors was talking about the space between ease and effort: how every pose should be a balance between those two. We should be pushing ourselves to be better (the effort), while also finding the comfort and joy in each move (the ease).

On our recent road trip though Montana, my brain mulled over this concept. We were on a long straight highway, clear as the eye can see. Looking at the world stretch out before us. A valley between sharp hills, west of the Rockies, with conifers clustered in gullies. Early morning sun making long shadows across tall grass, the occasional hawk poised overhead. A sky so big and blue it hurts the eyes.

The more I see of it, the more in love I am with the world. Why would anyone think there is anything better than right here, right now, this beautiful perfect earth that we have?

I get the feeling of seeing it all for the first time, the first time, as if no other eyes have devoured this landscape. Greedy. It fills you with such joy and such loneliness. It is good to look at rocks and realize how young, how small you are to this place. I could drink in all the world and never get enough.

2016 has been a big one for me in terms of trying new things, putting myself out there. Hedgebrook, going on my first-ever backpacking trip, making the decision to take the leap and leave my job… I couldn’t have foreseen how this year has gone. And I’m glad for that. I always want to see like this: filled with wonder at what the earth created.

This is how I want to live my life: full of adventure and a just a tad bit of uncomfortableness. Between ease and effort. It’s the balance between those two where you really shine.

What I Learned at Hedgebrook

The last week of June, I attended a Master Class at Hedgebrook. For seven whole days this was my home:

Hedgebrook_Cabin

An adorable little cottage under the cedar and maple trees, all to my own.

When I returned to the real world, everyone asked, “How was it??” And I replied, “Amazing!” Which was the truth–but not the whole truth. Being there WAS amazing. It was also surreal and difficult and kind of like being on another planet. No matter how hard I try, I can’t wrap up the experience with a single word, one wise thought, one feeling.

It seems easier instead to make a list. Things I learned at Hedgebrook.

  • I need structure. I arrived at Hedgebrook ready to WORK, to WRITE, to get down ALL THE WORDS…and whoa that did not happen the first few days. I wrote a bit, but mostly I kind of flopped around, trying to find my footing. By the end of Day 2 I realized what was missing: a routine. Every day I woke up, started a fire in my wood stove, drank coffee while writing morning pages. Then it was time for a meandering walk in the woods. After that I was able to settle down and get to business. Creating my own structure gave meaning to the day and made it easier to focus.
  • Fawn are really loud when they’re crashing through the brush. Like, “I’m maybe about to be eaten by a cougar” loud.
  • I start losing syntax VERY quickly after several days of solitude. My thoughts start floating, drifting. I focused on the sounds of words, repeating them over and over in my head. I had to consciously pull it back together before class, before interacting with other people, to ensure that I could form normal human sentences. Re-reading my journal from that week is like some trippy day trip into another dimension.
  • I can’t write for eight hours straight. Supposedly some writers do this? They probably have elfin blood in them.
  • I got surprisingly lonely. I’m an introvert by nature, so I definitely don’t mind solitude. But the first few evenings alone in my cabin were rough. I missed my routines, I missed my people. This got easier as the days went on.
  • Some scenes really do need to be handwritten. One chapter of my book was not working. I stared and stared at the laptop, trying to fix it, before finally picking up my notebook, heading to the cozy overstuffed chair and rewriting the scene by hand. And YES. That did it. That broke the spell. The chapter went in a totally different direction — what it had needed all along. That connection of pen to paper fires up some different synapses in the brain.
  • Writing makes me HUNGRY. Dear lord I ate so much food. Raspberries and pot pies and cherry-cornmeal cakes and mounds and mounds of homegrown vegetables. The brain is a big ol’ organ, and I apparently had to sustain it.
  • Left to its own devices, my mind turns toward the fantastic. Every time I wandered through the woods, my thoughts drifted to Narnia, to Hansel and Gretel, to the Sidhe, to children and young maidens being flitted away, never to be seen again. Maybe these seem like scary thoughts, but they weren’t. They were comforting.
  • On Day 3 I started saying good morning to the banana slugs. So there’s that.
  • Writing? It’s a process. Some days I racked up the word count, knocking it out of the park. Some days I stared out the window for hours, doodling and noodling. Those days seemed frustrating at the time…but in hindsight, they were necessary. There’s ebbs and flows and that’s ok.

That’s the biggest thing I’m trying to keep with me post-Hedgebrook: focusing on the process rather than the product. Because if not for the process…why do this? Why write at all?

I no longer feel ragey when I think of my 2nd draft. I’m working it out, smoothing out the kinks. It’ll get there. I’ve broken through the block and that’s what matters.

(PS: Women writers! Hedgebrook is currently open for residency applications. DO IT.)

Pinch Me

About a month ago I got some exciting news that I keep meaning to share on ye ol’ blog. And then…I didn’t share it. And didn’t again. And then I realized I kind of didn’t want to share it, lest it actually be a fragile thing that would dissolve under the harsh daylight of reality. It’s not even that big of a thing–but to me, it feels impossible. I’ve confirmed dates and exchanged emails and sent in paperwork so apparently the impossible is happening and I don’t need to worry about frightening it away.

You remember Hedgebrook? I was accepted to one of their Master Classes. I applied back in February thinking I probably wouldn’t get in–but hey, no harm in applying, right? (My general philosophy for life: “Might as well give it a shot!” Success rate is mixed.) In April I was told I was on the waitlist…and a day later, I was in. This particular Master Class requires a work-in-progress, so I’ll be focusing on the Never-Ending 2nd Draft. In June it’ll be 10 days on an island in the midsummer woods, with my own little cabin, sharing the time with five other writers and an instructor to guide us all along.

I’m excited and nervous. This’ll be the first time in almost 10 years that I’ve devoted a large chunk of time solely to writing. And even the last time I did that–in college–my time wasn’t 100% devoted to writing. There were other classes to attend and papers to write and jobs to sit through and card games to play and Grey’s Anatomy to binge watch.

At Hedgebrook, it will just be me and my writing. No cooking, no dog walking. No internet, no TV. Nothing to distract from the words on the page. Which is TERRIFYING. Nothing to distract from “this is working” or “this is all garbage burn it now quickly burn it all down.”

I said I’m a writer. Now I’m putting those words to the test.

Rage Against the 2nd Draft

Last week I attended a talk by Daniel Handler at Hugo House. Handler was witty and intelligent and generous (and the topic, “bewilderment,” fascinating). During the Q&A, someone asked how many drafts he typically writes. If memory serves, he said three or four. What stuck out was his quip about second drafts:

You think, I’m just going to fix this crown molding. And then you step back and realize you have to burn the house down. –Daniel Handler

I laughed at the truth of those words; simultaneously, I wanted to cry and rage and despair at the truth of them.

I usually try and maintain a “glass half full” outlook, but here’s the truth: writing a second draft is really effing hard. At least, writing MY second draft has been really effing hard, and if that’s not a universal truth I don’t want it acknowledged because it’ll make me feel like shit.

I am actively angry at the words that blink back at me from the computer screen. I tweak them and move them and delete them and add them back in. Every once in a while there’s an “ah ha” moment of pieces clicking into place–that one chapter, that one scene, that one sentence finally doing what I want it to do.

More often than not, the words spit back, “That’s all you got?”

I have not met any of my deadlines for this draft. First I was going to have it done by the end of December. Then January. Now here we are with daffodils pushing dirt and the final chapters remain in their untouched state.

At this point I just want to be done. Every cell in my body craves to be done, to no longer have to think about narrative arc and character development and scenery description. And of course the irony is that it won’t be done until I sit down and finish the damn thing. Until I wrestle this untamable, obtrusive, offensive second draft into submission.

I could make excuses about being busy or sick or bored but really it’s just every time I open the project I am angry at the lack of progress, the lack of perfection. I am angry just thinking about it. “Burn it all down,” the back of my mind says. Burn it all down.

But for better or worse, five years of metaphorical sweat and (some) literal tears are not something to just throw away.

Sometimes we just need to acknowledge that this is really hard, what we do. It’s also a blessing and a lark and a joy, but writing is also really damn hard.

No glass half full–that’s just the truth. And like so many writers before me, I will shut up and push on and someday, somehow, finish the second draft.

Then I can move on to the third.

Walk, Read, Write

The way I see it, if I can manage to do these 3 things every day, I’m doing alright:

  1. Walk
  2. Read
  3. Write
The first one clears my head. The second two feed me.

I’m not adding any time limits or stipulations. One thing I figured out from 2015 was to be a little kinder to myself. If I just get in a 10-minute walk, a bus ride of reading, a page of prose…that is so much better than nothing.

Full disclosure: I did not finish the second draft of my book by the end of year, like I had planned. And while I’m a bit disappointed (and mostly like OMG WANT TO FINISH THIS STUPID THING), I’m not beating myself up about it. The ending of the book is…rougher than I had remembered. A lot had to be totally scrapped, a lot written anew. The main point is I’ve been working on it, almost every day.

Austin Kleon has a blog post about how we spend our days. Ultimately, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. It may seem small, but focusing on just three things every day adds up.

Last week I was tired. Eyeball-ache tired. I hadn’t slept well, had a 9am meeting I was stressed out about, slept on my neck funny. I farted away my morning writing time on the internet and really didn’t want to walk the dog. But I pulled on my super-stylish safety vest and headed out.

A small sliver of crescent moon hung above the neighbor’s house. Towards the end of the walk, I noticed that the horizon was turning the most vibrant shade of cerulean blue. Only a week ago, it was still pitch black at that time. The days are slowly creeping longer, and I wouldn’t have noticed if I’d stayed inside.

Walk. Read. Write.

I Am a Writer

A few weeks ago I attended a “Winter Salon” at Hedgebrook, a literary nonprofit that supports women writers. I went up for the day, took classes, listened and learned.

I keep trying to describe the day to people and keep falling short. It seems no matter what I say, I can’t accurately describe the feeling there. So I’m going to try again and start small. Very small: pomegranate arils.

Hedgebrook practices what they call radical hospitality: “everything you need to nurture your soul and your creativity.” When we arrived for lunch after our morning classes, shaking our heads dry from the driving rain, we found long tables laid out with real silverware and cloth napkins. Each place setting had a winter salad dotted with pomegranate arils. It can’t just be me — there’s something decadent about those little red jewels. Pomegranates are only in season a short while, and their round, lumpy exteriors always seem such a hurtle to getting the fruit inside. But here they were laid out before us, waiting to burst between our teeth. The rest of lunch was a hearty, comforting affair — chicken soup and tomato soup and squash soup and buttery galette and brownies and gingerbread — but when I picture it in my mind’s eye, those arils are the things I see. Their presence said, “You are welcome.”

After lunch, the teachers talked about women writers supporting women writers — how elevating one elevates all. As the conversation unfolded, I looked around the room. There were writers there, like me, scrambling to figure out a path in this weird, wordy world. There were writers who’ve been published many times over. There were white-haired writers who didn’t care an ounce for the career portion of things — they were there for the love of writing.

The feeling you get at Hedgebrook is one of validation. Here is a place that says, “What you do is important, and we are here to support it.”

I’m lucky — so lucky – to have people in my life who take my writing seriously. My husband helps me carve out time and space to write. My parents always ask how the book’s going (usually with a kick-in-the-pants from my dad). My best friend encouraged me to start this blog.

Sometimes I’m not sure I take it seriously. Don’t get me wrong — I work hard. I get up early and write and I participate in writing group and I spend time (and money) to attend workshops. But when people ask me about my work — I stutter. I stammer. I mutter something innocuous and turn the conversation. I don’t feel like a “real” writer because I’ve never had my name in print. It doesn’t pay the bills. It feels like a hobby, something done in secret.

My afternoon class at Hedgebrook was with a writer named Ijeoma Oluo. Something she said has been rolling around my head for the past week and a half:

“It takes a lot for people to call themselves writers. You just can.”

So I’m trying to embrace that.

I am a writer.

To that end–I’m changing the name of this blog, to my name. I’m not hiding behind a nom de plume anymore. You can find it now at ldoxford.com.

I am a writer. These are my stories.