Category: writer

How writing is like mountain climbing…

…but not the way you would think that it’s like mountain climbing.

The other day, I posted this on Twitter:

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Is that what happened? Yes. We did that. It was awesome.

Is that how it happened? Yes and no.

A few days before the mountain adventure, Josh and the boys and I were walking down by Medina Lake, throwing rocks and looking at the pretty water. Josh sees the mountain. Josh goes, “You see that mountain over there?” I go, “I can’t do this with you right now.” Undeterred Josh says, “One of these days, I’m gonna climb that mountainmountainountainountainountain…”

The next day, while it’s raining, we talk about how awesome it would be to kayak across the lake and climb the mountain. We could take a lunch! The boys would love it. Now if we just had some sunlight and less wind, that mountain would be ours. The forecast for Wednesday said it was going to be sunny and 75. We had our date with destiny.

Wednesday dawned even more beautiful than the weatherbots had claimed it would. We loaded up the boys and took the kayaks down to the water. Let me take a second here to explain something to you about kayaks: It’s nothing to get a kayak off a truck. You’re pumped. You’re ready to get in and paddle away. You just lift it down, throw your seat in, and pack it to the water with your kayak buddy, boom, done.

All life-vested and water-shoed up, we hopped in and paddled toward the face of that shining mount. Which at this point in the morning was in shadow, but you get the idea.

About fifteen minutes later, as often happens with distances over water, the adults in the expedition started to realize just how far away that shining mount was. Fifteen minutes paddling in low waves and we were still only about halfway there.

No problem! No problem! It’s always a little farther than it looks! We can do it and it’s totally going to be worth it. Just keep paddling! And so, to the sound of several more “You see that mountain over there?”s from Joshua and “Night Begins to Shine” singalongs with Bear, the intrepid family of gypsy pirates made their way across the last half of the lake. Whew! That was fun.

There were rocks and fallen trees washed up on the shore and all kinds of cool stuff to explore. We did that for a bit. Then it was time to start the climb to the top. Joshua grabbed the dry-bag full of lunch, Bear grabbed a spear he’d fashioned upon landing, Oak grabbed nothing, I grabbed the phone, and up we went.

Or up we started to go. From far away, the mountain looked like it had a pretty thick canopy of tree cover, but when you see it from a distance (and through the eyes of a Missourian or Arkansan), you think, “Trees? Hot dog! The more shade for the climb the merrier! It isn’t even a very big mountain!” But in Texas, trees on mountains are not trees like you and I think of trees. They are a nefarious mix of scrubby brush, brambles, squat little cedars, and fire ants. You don’t walk up the side of a mountain in Texas. You crawl up it.

To give you an idea what I’m talking about, a visual aid:

This was the biggest clearing all the way up the side of this mountain. I was almost able to stand up to take this picture.

We climbed and crawled and scratched and clawed our way through the underbrush (everyone in our luncheon party over three feet tall did, anyway). Thorns and cedar boughs snagged at our clothes and hair and skin. Ants attacked the boys. The warmth of the seventy-five degree day settled in. Josh picked a path through a cluster of trees and brambles I didn’t think I could squeeze through. I got hung up trying to get to the marginally-less-brushy other side. My clothes snagged. Thorns scratched me up. A bee roughly five times the size of a Missouri bee came at me, bro. I was being pushed and pulled and abraded and I did not like it.

I won’t lie to you, friend. I looked up the side of the mountain, completely unable to see the top or any other measure of progress and I considered telling Josh that we should either stop there and call it good enough or go back down and eat lunch on the shore. The shore was pretty nice. The brambles were not. The going got tough and the eden was like, “No way, dude. I quit.”

But then, as it often does when I’m caught in the middle of doing something I don’t care for, this other wheel started turning in my head. That wheel was thinking about stories and how they related to mountain climbing. Not from a reader’s perspective. Not your basic dramatic structure of rising action, climax, falling action. No, other-wheel was thinking about how much it sucked to be in the thick of it writing the rising action when you couldn’t even see the climax, let alone the resolution to the story you’re pouring your heart and soul into.

I feel like you’re going to think I’m making this up for the sake of a well-rounded blog post–Oh, adorable, a life lesson about never giving up that applies to writing, how quaint!–but I’m not. I wasn’t thinking about how you had to keep plugging away at the story so you could get to the climax where you would stand with your face in the sun, looking out over the gorgeous landscape of your creation, and for a second, just a moment in time, all that hardship would be worth it.

Nope, I was thinking about how I’ve spent almost four years writing about the people of Halo, and to be quite honest, I’m tired of it. Oh, I still love them. I still love their hometown. I always will. But some days I think, “I swear, Tough, if you screw one more thing up, I’m going to wring your scrawny neck!” I’m in the middle of the third book and some days–okay, a lot of the days–it’s a chore just to think about working on it. I’m tired of it. I want to work on something else, play something new, phone this one in and call that good enough. Where I’m at right now in Godkiller, I can’t see a climax or any sort of resolution. I can’t see any progress at all. The brush is too thick, I’m all tangled up, and something creepy-crawly is biting my leg.

If you’re a writer, or if you know any writers, you’ve probably heard that November is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The object of this game is to write 50,000 words in one month (the equivalent of a short novel). I’ve been really intent on keeping up with NaNo this year for a lot of reasons. One is now that we’re living on the road, I want to make sure I keep writing every day. Always be hustling, do work, etc, etc. Another is that I really want to have Godkiller out by the end of this year (a goal that’s looking admittedly ridiculous at the moment), and 50k more words sure wouldn’t hurt.

But one benefit of NaNoWriMo that I didn’t see coming was this: It’s fun. I’ve made the target word count exactly 1 time out of the last 20, but every single day I put my butt in a seat and I write. I write in laundromats, passenger seats of trucks, on couches, in booths, on beds, on floors, on porches, inside, outside, with kittens sleeping on my tummy, with little and big boys playing Super Smash Bros next to me, while I’m making supper or waiting for my turn to teach home school. I pour words out without worrying what the next scene is going to be or where the story is going or how they’re going to survive this. I stretch out descriptions and conversations and sentences until it feels like I’m padding a college English essay and then I laugh because I remember that terrible essay I turned in once about Enkidu and Gilgamesh and this is that kind of fun. I know it’s not good, but it’s not about being good. It’s a race. It’s a video game. It’s make-believe. It’s FUN.

I’d forgotten that writing was just plain fun.

Sometimes I get so bogged down in worrying about what will come next and how the story will end and whether it’s even worth telling that I forget how great it is to just sit down and play make-believe for a while. I wrap myself in the brambles of trying to Write Good and Satisfy Readers and Stay True to My Characters until I forget that this is just a first draft. First drafts are for the writer. We can play to our heart’s content, entertain ourselves, and laugh like nutcases at stuff no one’s even going to see. Second and subsequent drafts are for worrying about the audience and Good Writing and such. Later will come the editing. Later will come fixing. Later will come agonizing over every sentence until I can recite whole scenes back to you verbatim. Oh, and I will do that. I’ll do it for about a month before I publish and about a month afterward, while I’m lying in bed and supposed to be asleep, to make sure I’m paranoid enough about every potential typo or misplaced comma.

Right now, though, I’m just having fun, playing make-believe, and finding out what my characters are going to do next.

This is the stuff I was thinking about while clawing my way up that mountainside after Joshua and our sons–occasionally interrupted by violent thoughts about short people whenever someone yelled back down, “Why’s it taking you so long, Mama? Just go faster!”

Then, suddenly, we were standing on a rocky outcropping looking out over the tops of scrubby trees and cacti at a brilliant blue sky above and a shining lake below.

“I think this is the only clearing up here,” Josh said.
“Yeah, looks like it,” I puffed.
“Let’s eat.”
So we did. We we sat on rocks and we took off our sweaty shoes and we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and gulped down lukewarm water.

We still had the trek down. We still had the much-longer-than-expected kayak ride back to the campsite. We still had to drain the kayaks and put them up on the truck’s racks–and let me take a minute to tell you about putting kayaks back. It’s no easy feat. You’re tired. You’re sunburned. Your arms feel like jelly. You’re ready to go back to the camper and lay on the couch without moving while your kids watch a cartoon until you convince your spouse that you should get Mexican for supper rather than cook.

We still had all that ahead of us. But right then we were just sitting on a mountain eating sandwiches. They were delicious.

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The Renewing of Vows

A strange thing has been happening lately. People have started interacting with me—people I don’t know from life outside the computer, I mean—and being nice to me. I don’t know why the sudden influx, but the fact that it’s all happened at once has made me a little bit paranoid. I’ve tried analyzing what these people might want, tried chalking it up to the politics of social media and my chosen profession, even decided that it was probably all some elaborate joke that I’m not in on.
It’s weird to be paranoid about someone saying something nice to you or talking to you at all. It makes you feel like an even worse person who should be kept even further away from society than you had originally thought. The instinct is to disappear for a while, give it all time to blow over. My husband and best friend have both been trying to help me be less crazy, but for all their good intentions, the craziness just keeps escalating. To the point where I’ve tried to convince myself that even they have ulterior motives for talking to me. This is how I know the situation has gotten out of hand. I’ve always been a little bit suspicious of people who are nice to me, but never of Josh. He is the one person I trust completely. God put him in my life to show me what unconditional love looks like and Josh has never once betrayed that bond. I shouldn’t be wondering why my own husband wants to be around me.
Then the other day, as crazy people sometimes do, I wondered, “What if everyone else is just being normal? What if I’m the one with the ulterior motives?”
I once told my friend that just because a nerve was deadened didn’t mean it was gone. Sometimes you feel the pain from dead nerves in other parts of your body. So if something else is hurting and you don’t know why, maybe you should check your dead nerves for cutlery.
In May, that friend chose to stop living. Since then, my life has been spent earnestly praying that my remaining friends won’t do the same. And little by little, seeing a change in myself that I never would have expected. While I’m trying to show as much love as possible for my friends and family, do anything I can to keep them happy and alive, I’ve been slowly preparing myself for the worst. Every time the phone rings, I know it’s bad news. Every time I get an email I’m sure it will be too late. I don’t want to hurt like that again, so a little bit at a time, I’ve been closing myself off from everyone.
Maybe that’s the real reason I’m trying so hard to be suspicious of everyone—because I don’t want to get so deeply invested in someone else’s life that I can be hurt like that again.
That feels like a very cliche, very self-centered thing to write. My friend killed himself; his wife and so many other people who loved him so much are fighting their way through existence in spite of the pain, and the only person I’m worried about is me. But it’s true. All this time, while my brain has been telling me, “The people who are being nice to you either want something from you or are playing a joke on you,” my heart’s been screaming, “Shut off! Get out now, before it’s too late!”
I used to think that thing about building emotional walls was just a cop-out. People who were afraid built walls and, by God, I would not be afraid of anything. I once told my friend, “For the record, I think you know that you could love someone like she said she loved you, but you’re choosing not to. […] People always act like love is this big, uncontrollable thing when really it’s just a series of conscious decisions.”
Look who’s eating their words now, right?
Last week, I was sitting in the truck with the boys and we were talking about their friends at preschool. Oak said, “I want everyone in the whole wide world to be my friend.” Bear immediately said, “I don’t.”
For me, both of those things feel true. I write for a lot of reasons, but the deep and abiding one is that I want to be able to reach people. In fact, in a sort of manifesto-rant I sent my friend once in response to his musings on suicide and existentialism, I said,

“I think a lot about existential meaninglessness. Like when I realize it’s Thursday instead of Monday and that even if it was Saturday it wouldn’t matter because nothing is different about this day of the week or that one. In two months, probably a year, I will be doing what I did today. […] What is the point of this? I wonder. Nothing is ever going to be different. I’m just killing time so that time will be over, not so I can get from here to anywhere else. […] All I really want to do with my life is make other people’s hearts hurt less. Not a realistic or measurable goal, but I do have a few specific hearts in mind. Yours is one. I’ve been given a whole lot of love I don’t deserve, enough second chances to exonerate a serial killer caught in the act, and that kind of thing shouldn’t stop with me. The phrase pay it forward grates on my nerves, but it’s an accurate description. […] The truth is that existentialism doesn’t really apply because the world we live in isn’t absurd or meaningless. Sometimes it seems like it is when we can’t see past what we’re taught is the big picture—the one that just involves our lives—to the real super-big picture of all the lives ever.”

I ended the email by saying, “Well, here we are. Where are we?” like Henry from The Extra Man because my friend was a fan of Jonathan Ames and because I was hoping it would make him laugh. When I can’t do anything to help, I try to make people laugh. Like Stephen King, I’m not proud. I’ll go for the gross-out.
I want people’s hearts to hurt less. I want them to know that they’re not alone, that there is meaning, that life isn’t just time killed so it will be over. I want them to know that God loves them and that I love them. But like I told my friend, I’m not entirely sure how to do this.
Maybe losing my friend launched me into a sort of crisis of faith. Not faith in God, but in love. I mean, I loved him so much—so many of us did—but it didn’t help. Maybe at some point over these past seven months, I decided the risk of being hurt wouldn’t be equal to the gain of loving someone, so I stopped trying.
This is something important, something I think I’ve been trying to forget: Love never was about me. It’s about reaching out to someone who might never have felt this kind of thing before. Maybe me loving someone can’t save them—as my sister pointed out, saving people is Jesus’ job, not mine—but maybe it can make their time on Earth a little better.
I made a promise once. I said that I would stay like this, with the barriers down, naked and vulnerable, with my hand out. Because if I can’t be completely honest with you, my readers and my friends, how can you believe me when I tell you something about God or Jesus or love? I wrote that it hurts to exist like this—and back then, I didn’t even know the half of it—but that I wouldn’t pull my hand back because what if I did and no one else reached out to you? I said I would rather let myself be hurt than take that chance.
So, I guess the long and short of it is that I have a choice to make. I have to decide whether it’s worth more to me, whether you, you who are reading this right now, are worth more to me than the pain and humiliation of loss and rejection. Whether I’m willing to risk the possibility of getting hurt or being made fun of or humiliated or rejected or whatever so I can be honest with you and love you and show you that you’re not alone.
I swear I’m going to try. With all my heart, I’ll try. I’ll do everything that I can. Because you are worth it. God thinks so, and so do I. If you don’t have anyone else, you have Him and me.
Something else that just occurred to me: What if the people whose friendliness I’m obsessing over are doing the same thing? What if where I am right now is on the opposite side of that stretched-out hand, the “you” these people are trying to show isn’t alone? Maybe there isn’t any rejection, not really. Maybe there’s just paranoia and fear and self-hatred and the inability to believe that someone else would want to be nice to you enough that they would take the chance and reach out.
Whoa. I think I just gave myself a brain tumor.
Well, here we are. Where are we?

Coping Mechanisms as Story Generators

Finding a story to tell has never been a problem for me. I attribute this to a coping mechanism I developed as a child. When I’m too hurt, scared, or angry to deal with what I’m feeling, I let my imagination wander off for a while. I put myself in the shoes of someone who can take a lot more punishment than I can, then I give them a completely different set of problems. Ignoring the psychological implications, that kind of escapism makes for a lot of fun stories.

The actual process goes something like this: Wake up in the middle of the night, scared to death? Imagine you live in a world where you’re only awake at night and you’re not scared.

Why is the world like that? Because after the revolution, dichotomous political parties came to power and the country has been in a tense power struggle ever since. At present, things are so divided that they’ve literally become night and day for the people aligned with the opposing parties.

Why are you, specifically, awake (and not scared) in the middle of the night? Because I’m a former child soldier who still takes contracts from the general who was my commanding officer during the revolution. The whole country can feel another war coming, and right now this second, I’m helping smuggle kids out of the country before the outbreak under cover of darkness.

Does your former CO know? No, he would want the kids around because if they’re trained young enough, they become the most effective killers, like I did.

Then why are you doing it? Because the girl I love wants to protect as many kids as she can from turning out like we did.

This coping mechanism/method of calming myself down/story builder works for me because:
1. It has nothing I’m currently trying to avoid (monsters, nightmare stuff, etc.).
2. It pretends that one of my enemies (the dark in this case) is actually my friend.
3. It has all of the story elements I like (an unfamiliar world, danger, romance, and a main character who is a badass).

Is this a healthy way to deal? I don’t know. All I know is it helps me go back to sleep and it’s one of the reasons I never worry that I’ll run out of stories to tell. Heck, I have a 10,000-story backlog from childhood to now, all I have to do is pick one.

Whether or not I’ll be able to do those stories justice is a whole other post.