Finding Your Creativity in a World That Seems Hopeless

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My creative friends and I are having a hard time being productive these days. I don’t know of a single one who isn’t struggling. Most of my social media timelines have at least one friend noting that trying to write during the current political upheaval in the US is like pretending nothing is going on while the house is burning down. They punctuate this observation with gifs of people seated at a table while bombs explode, shots are fired, and victims run screaming with their coats on fire. You know the ones I mean. You’ve probably posted some yourself.

I feel the same way. I haven’t been nearly as productive as I’d like for longer than I care to admit. First I was devastated by the election results. And yes, they’ve been as bad for our country as I feared. Then I had some personal losses, one after another, so many in such a short period of time that had I put them in a story, readers would have rolled their eyes in disbelief. 

I had a hard time believing that anything I was working on mattered. I was both angry and terrified, while at the same time grieving. I tried to do one of those online meditation things about finding hope in uncertain times but it only pissed me off more. The message was about acceptance–and at the time, it infuriated me. My inner voice kept screaming that there are some things that we should never accept, that should outrage us, that we should resist. I gave up that particular meditation for the time being.

Face it, the insanity of American politics aside, when you read articles like this one, in which Steven Hawking and other scientists believe humans will be extinct in less than 100 years, it’s hard to believe there is any value in writing love stories about paranormal investigators.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypse. I began reading messages of support and encouragement. They came from my friends at first—reminding me how much pleasure writing gives me, but also how much pleasure my stories give other people. For years now, I’ve said my main goal in telling stories was to make someone’s crappy day a bit better—to provide a few hours entertainment, to let someone lose themselves in another world for a little while—so they could forget the stressful job, or their chronic illness, or the burdens of their daily life. My dear friends reminded me of that, and I deeply thank them for their unwavering support and belief in what we do as creators. What I do as a creator. Now, more than ever, we are going to need relief we get from reading stories that make us happy.

But it’s more than that. A friend of mine, a wonderful writer, penned this statement as a means of encouragement to us all:

“We are the people who create. And I don’t just mean that we’re creative, I mean that in no matter how big or small a way, we bring something good into this world, make it better. We build instead of destroy, make things move forward instead of back. We create friendships and fandom families that stick together. We create positive thoughts and energy that will always spread farther than we think. We create better versions of ourselves, and help others grow that way too. We create stories, crafts, art, discussions, pictures, and so much more, and bring joy to others through what we do. We create love. So many times this place, the fandom, all you people, have saved my day when I have needed it the most. And every time I hear that something I did or created did the same for someone else, I feel a little surprised that I had such power, but also very happy that I could shine some light on a day that might have been anything between mildly grey and near dark.”

Her words came into my darkness like a shining beacon.

Chuck Wendig, an author who posts kick-ass blogs about being a writer, posted a list of constructive things we as creators can do, titled Mourn, Then Get Mad, Then Get Busy. I found this post heartening as well. In particular because it acknowledged my fear and despair, and then gave me practical things I could do about it.

My husband sent me this link, which also inspired me. It’s from the comic, Oatmeal, entitled It’s Going To Be Okay. I confess, I didn’t want to read it at first because I didn’t want someone trying to persuade me things aren’t going to be as bad as I fear, but I was very glad I did. You should read it too.

Last night, long after I should have been asleep, I came across this tweet from George Takei:

The Ministry has fallen. Death Eaters are about. But, my wizards, together we can defeat the dark tides of bigotry and intolerance. #WandsUp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It made me smile in a painful sort of way, but it also reminded me the power of the written word. The magic of stories that makes us not only see similarities between world events and books we grew up loving, but it makes us want to be better people. We want the Ring to get to Mordor. We want to see Voldemort vanquished, the Empire defeated and Palpatine destroyed. We want to believe that one day, ignorance, hatred, and intolerance will give way to the kind of society that creates Starfleet, and that people of all races, genders, nationalities, and species can serve together—as a team—on the greatest starship of all time. Because otherwise, we’ll all be living in Panem and the Hunger Games will begin soon.

I won’t kid you. I’m terrified for the future of my planet, for society as a whole, for my personal health and safety. And I’ve been wondering what one exhausted, frightened, middle-aged woman can do. The answer is, I can continue to write. My stories might not change the world. I probably won’t create the next Harry Potter series, or write something that catches fire like the Hunger Games. I write romances, and heck, I probably won’t even write the next 50 Shades of Gray. But what I can do, in my own quiet way, is tell stories where diversity and acceptance aren’t dirty words, and where love wins in the end.

If I make someone fall in love with a character who is not like them—if I humanize that person for them and make that reader want what is best for them—then I’ve taken steps that might make them stop viewing ‘different’ as ‘other’. And if the only thing I achieve is that I make one other exhausted, frightened person feel a little bit better, a little bit calmer, even for a few hours, then I’ve done a good thing. If I can make one person say, “Whoa, that isn’t right, and we need to change that,” then I have done a great thing.

Let’s all go out there and do great things.

 

 

Just Wear It…

Last week I discovered a perfume I truly adore, something unusual for me. Most perfume just doesn’t smell as good on me as it does in the bottle, but this one was fabulous.

I don’t wear perfume often, nor makeup for that matter. I don’t go out much and my work demands sturdy clothing over sexy. I indulge my girly side with nail polish in outrageous shades, but even then, I stick to the more conservative colors on my hands and save the more unconventional shades for my toes.

For the most part, the only makeup I wear is mascara. Occasionally some eyeliner. Rarely do I put on lipstick. I never wear foundation. And yet, just like perfume, I like these things. I’m just saving them for a special occasion.

So when I fell in love with this perfume, my first thought was, “Wow, I love this so much, I could wear it every day!” Until I saw the price tag, that is. Then I instantly relegated it to “Only on very special occasions.”

Then it dawned on me. I have an awful lot of perfume that fits into this category. 

Do you know what happens to perfume that sits in a bottle too long and doesn’t get used? The scent degrades. The chemistry within changes. Before you know it, the magic is gone. The product you thought too precious to waste on everyday life has been completely wasted by not being used at all. 

I think a lot of us spend too much time waiting for special occasions to bring out the things we love. Life is too short. We need to stop ‘saving’ ourselves for potential-but-not-guaranteed events. This doesn’t just apply to perfume, or that favorite pair of shoes, but to ourselves as well. How many of us have chosen not to go to the beach or put on the cosplay outfit because we weren’t happy with our appearance? We don’t ask for that raise because we’re afraid we don’t deserve it. We don’t follow our dreams because we’re afraid of being crushed. And somehow, we think at some future date, when all the stars align and we look exactly how we want, that we’ll get the other things we want as well.

In the meantime, we tell ourselves the perfume is too expensive to wear just around the house.

Put on the perfume. If smelling that delicate scent on your wrist makes you smile, wear it, by God. Even if you’re only going down to the barn. 

Don’t put it on for someone else. That applies to the makeup and the favorite clothes, too. Put them on because you like the way they make you feel. So what if you’re only going to work? As long as you can get the job done (and you’re not violating any dress code), wear what makes you happy today instead of saving it for some future date. If someone tells you you’re too old to wear graphic t-shirts, or that you really should stop wearing x-y-z when you love how you look in them, tell that person to stuff it. The ONLY thing women of a certain age should stop wearing is the unsolicited opinions of people on the Internet.

Stop putting your life on hold for some mythical time when you are prettier, thinner, smarter, richer, or what every yardstick measurement you’ve been holding yourself up to. Live. Love. Smile. Today is yours.

Wear the perfume. Don’t let it go bad in the bottle because it was too precious to ‘waste’. Life is too precious to waste. Every day that we get is a special occasion.

 

The Perils of Decision Fatigue

It occurred to me this weekend that I am beginning to suffer from a kind of global decision fatigue.

I only recently ran across this term. Someone used it in conjunction with sticking to a diet plan, and how many of us can do so up to a certain point in the day, when decision fatigue sets in. The article went on to list ways in which you could fatigue-proof your diet plans so you didn’t fall victim to bad food choices late in the day or when you were under stress. I thought it a useful term and made note of the points in the article.

I think it’s similar in some ways to compassion fatigue, in which caregivers or people in the health professions, such as doctors or nurses, burn out on the emotional demands of their jobs.

And I’ve got another one for you that I made up just now: fear fatigue. It goes hand-in-hand with its partner in crime, outrage fatigue. Because at some point I have to look at the headlines that say we’re all going to die from a) an imminent pandemic (it’s just a matter of time) b) catastrophic climate change (also a matter of time) c) global war (which will probably get us first, given the current administration), so I don’t have to worry about losing my Social Security or Medicare or health insurance because I’ll already be dead. That’s what clicking on the news does for me these days. Paired with the sickening and terrifying changes in policy within this country, I’m glad on some level I still can be outraged and afraid.

But the fatigue is setting in.

All of it is coming to a head with the decision fatigue. I’ve had to make a lot of difficult decisions lately, the kind that make a great Lifetime movie but suck when it happens to you in real life.

I am required to make many important and difficult decisions at work on a constant basis. I am having to make tough decisions at home as well. I am tired of feeling unwell much of the time, and have added trying to change my diet into the mix–something several friends have suggested I hold off doing right now. I see their point, but I also desperately want to feel better. Changing my eating habits does seem to make a difference in that, despite bringing its own stresses to the mix. But it’s more decision-making.

This past weekend, another one of my elderly animals has begun showing disquieting symptoms. I found myself literally paralyzed in determining what was best to do for him. Do I put him through extensive diagnostics when he is nearing the end of his natural lifespan in the hopes of finding something treatable? Knowing the stress of such tests could kill him? This is a spooky little cat who hates being handled and definitely freaks going to the vet. I know in my heart the likelihood of finding something treatable is pretty slim, so I’ve been going round and round, making and unmaking my decisions, certain one minute I will take one course of action, only to change my mind a few hours later.

Deep breath.

Because that’s what you have to do when decision fatigue sets in. You have to take a step back. Take a deep breath. Look at your decision logically. Take the emotional component out of the picture for a moment.

For years, I’ve had a firm policy: no important decisions without a fully belly and good night’s sleep. Most decisions don’t have to be made on the spur of the moment, so if you have the time, take it. Don’t leap into action without making sure you’re in the best frame of mind to make a good choice. This addresses the fatigue portion of the problem. Don’t discount that. We make our worst decisions when we are emotionally and physically wiped out. If at all possible, sleep on your decision-making. Many times your subconscious will show you the way overnight and you’ll wake up with the realization of what you should do.

For many people, this is what prayer does for them. If you are of a religious persuasion, pray about your decision. The acting of praying about something is another means of putting some distance between you and the problem and giving yourself time to sort it out. Just remember, if you ‘turn something over to God’, you’re not supposed to snatch it back and worry over it. That sort of looks like you don’t trust God to handle it. 🙂

Talk with your friends and family. Get their opinions. It’s not likely they will all agree, but it is likely that the people who care about you will give you some indication as to whether you’re on the right track or not. Moreover, you may find overwhelming support for one decision over another and make your choice easier.

Forgive yourself for not being perfect. This is a biggie with decision fatigue, I find. Part of the inability to make a decision stems from the paralyzing fear it will be the wrong one. Yes, you make make the wrong choice. The consequences could be greater than just slipping off your diet plan. But you’re making the best decision you can with the information you have at hand. You’re not setting out to deliberately make an unwise choice. Let your fear go.

Remember many decisions are not irreversible. If you discover you didn’t make the right choice, chances are you can change direction and modify your course. It’s highly unlikely you’ll wind up in an oubliette like Sarah in Labyrinth.

 

But even if you do, remember, Sarah got out in the end.

Rookie Author Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

The other day I stumbled across a great Facebook thread in which a new author asked for advice: she wanted to know what kinds of newbie mistakes to avoid as a first-time author.

True to form, the writing community, including myself, chimed in with a number of excellent points. Afterward, it dawned on me this would make an awesome blog post, and here we are.

So here’s my ‘I wish someone had told me’ advice.

In no particular order:

1.Google your pen name before you start using it. I had this awesome pen name in mind, but when I Googled it, I found out it belonged to a Hungarian stripper. What are the odds, right? I was tempted to use it anyway, only I just knew every time someone did a search for my books, the stripper’s website would come up. Seriously. Google your pen name. You really don’t want the same pen name as a serial killer. Also, be careful of having a ‘unique’ spelling. If people can’t remember how to spell your name, they aren’t likely to find you on a web search. It’s easy. It takes less than thirty seconds, for Pete’s sake. Just do it. You won’t regret it.

Whether or not you need a pen name is another discussion altogether. I personally think if you write in wildly divergent genres, such as ‘sweet’ romances and dinosaur porn, you’d better have two pen names. But that’s just me.

Do yourself a favor: if you have a pen name, use a different browser for your author activities and keep everything separate from your real name. It will make life MUCH simpler when doing business as your author persona and save time and energy by eliminating the need to log in and out of different accounts.

2.Platform and promotion. Yes, you have to have it. No, no one likes promoting themselves, but it is a necessary evil.

In order for promotion to work, you already have to have a platform and internet presence in place. A website (more on that later), Facebook page, and Twitter account are probably considered the bare minimums, but most writers have pages on Pinterest, Tumblr, Goodreads, Amazon, Instagram, G+… well, you name it. Many writers have pages on sites geared toward their genre, too. It’s a lot to keep up with. My rules for platform and social media: pick the two or three sites where you are the most comfortable and spend time there. If a site makes you unhappy, you won’t be your best there. Learn how to cross post from your main sites to other sites. I rarely spend time on Goodreads or Tumblr–they just aren’t my kind of places, but other people hang out there, so when I post a blog entry like this, I make sure it automatically cross posts to those other media platforms.

Worry less about your ‘brand’ when starting out. Be friendly. Share other people’s announcements. Interact with people in a manner that does not always center around your books or writing. For heaven’s sake DO NOT auto-post tweets or private message people with BUY MY BOOK spiels within seconds of them friending or following you.

There are some great books on social media out there. I happen to like Kristen Lamb’s We Are Not Alone:The Writer’s Guide to Social Media. I might not agree with everything Ms. Lamb says (she is very much against pen names, for example) but she has some good points to make. One of which is that your name should be easy to find–it should be part of your website, your Twitter name, etc. Having a cute Twitter handle might be fun, but what if no one remembers that @AwesomeWombat is really McKenna Dean? Don’t make it hard for your readers to find you.

3.Websites: Your website is your home base. It is going to be the main way readers find you. Make it easy for them! You have roughly two seconds to make a good first impression when people land on your page. If your site is too hard to navigate, too difficult to read, has too many moving gifs or images that roll by too rapidly to read, you’ve lost a perspective reader right there. They will move on to the next site, to look for some other author whose home page doesn’t make their eyes bleed. Whether you have a static home page or not is up to you. But the most important thing is that your site is crisp, clear, and easy to navigate. Your social media links should all be in one place. Your backlist and buy links should be easy to find. You should update your blog on a regular basis. If you have a newsletter or a way for readers to follow your blog, it should be easy to find and sign up. Two seconds. Otherwise, your viewer will click away.

4.Reviews: if I had put these in any kind of order, reviews probably should have gone at the top. EVERYONE had a lot to say about reviews. For the most part, I tend not to read my reviews unless I’ve been sent the link from a trusted review site or a friend has discovered a glowing review and they want to share it with me.

Everyone gets bad reviews.

Don’t believe me? Look up your all-time favorite book. I guarantee that you will find someone who utterly loathed it and flamed it royally in their review. Any time I stumble upon a review I wish I hadn’t seen, I perform this very task and it is amazing how therapeutic it is. Because if someone can hate the book you adore, then it puts things in perspective for you. Over and over again, authors gave DON’T ENGAGE A NEGATIVE REVIEW as their number one advice. Just. Don’t. The author *always* comes out looking like the bad guy here, and nothing will alienate fans faster.

There are some people who’d suggest not responding to any review on Goodreads, as it is a site primarily for readers, not authors. I know many authors who interact with their fans quite happily on Goodreads, but I confess, it feels like an abandoned mine field to me. One false step and BOOM. But that’s just me.

The point is, don’t let one bad review negate the twenty good ones you’ve received. Don’t let a ‘meh’ review derail you from your planned story arc, or shut down your writing mojo.

When I first began sharing my stories, feedback was the crack that kept me writing. It was addictive, getting the kind of praise that made you giddy with delight. When I made the jump from fanfiction to original fiction, feedback was much harder to come by and not nearly as inclined to be kind. A negative review had the power to negate fifty glowing ones. I’ve let past reviews shake my confidence and alter my proposed projects. There is only one time that I think you should pay attention to negative reviews, and that’s when the same thing keeps being said over and over by different people. That usually means you either failed to make your point clearly or you failed to understand what your audience wants.

The longer I’ve been at this, the less impact reviews have on me. Don’t get me wrong—I adore an awesome review! And excellent reviews—especially in large numbers—will definitely drive sales. But I no longer let bad reviews upset me.

Look at it this way: those really nasty reviews? The ones that go beyond ‘this is why this book didn’t work for me’ and seem to intend deliberate wounding?

Yeah, there are only two reasons someone writes a review like that. The first is because they have a following, and people read their reviews for the flaming zingers. You can’t take something like that personally. It’s not about your book as much as it is about entertaining a cadre of like-minded readers who enjoy the burn.

The second is because this unknown reader really does want to burn you. They want you to hurt so badly over their comments that you seriously consider never typing another word. You know what? SCREW THAT. They don’t get to decide that.

Don’t write for reviews. It will only make you bitterly unhappy. Ditto if you’re hoping that your next story will somehow launch you into J.K. Rowling fame. Write because you can’t imagine not writing any more than you can imagine not breathing.

5.Beta readers versus Editors (and what they bring to the table): first of all, these people are invaluable to you as a writer. As authors, particularly new authors, we have to be willing to accept the input of others, especially if we keep getting similar feedback from multiple sources: that’s your biggest indication something is wrong with your story or your writing style and it needs fixing. At the same time, it can be difficult not to let a strong-minded person take on more credit for the shaping of your story than they really deserve–or should have. Beta readers are not editors, either. Yes, they will catch typos, but their primary function is to tell you if the story is working or not.

Different people catch different things, so I think it is very important to have more than one beta reader. But my main reason for having multiple readers is two-fold: not only do you not want to overwhelm a single person if you are a prolific writer, but it is much harder for someone to claim a larger share of the credit when there is more than one person involved. A beta reader who claims to ‘make or break’ you is like someone who helped you set the table expecting credit for cooking the banquet. A good beta reader is worth their weight in gold. They will help you produce the cleanest copy possible for submission to a publisher or an editor, if you self-publish. They are cheerleaders and problem-spotters. But once the story moves on to editing, their role is usually done. Beta-readers are often friends, which can make it very painful to sever the relationship if it is no longer working for you. But if your beta-reader is acting like a gatekeeper between you and publishing, it is definitely time to end the relationship.

Editors will clean up and tighten your prose, point out that you have used the same phrase thirty-seven times, correct your somewhat loose interpretation of the Chicago Manual of Style, and identify where things need to be explained in greater detail or a weak plot point that needs fixing. But they should not be altering your style to match their own. It is your story. They are polishing the finish on the sports car, not re-building the engine.

Editors can (and should) point out major plot holes and weaknesses of presentation. If you are writing in a specific genre and your story isn’t meeting genre expectations, a good editor will let you know. If the car breaks down halfway around the track, it doesn’t matter how shiny it is. But they aren’t there to re-write the story for you.

You know what they say about people who act as their own lawyers during a trial? “You have a fool for a client.” Well, that applies to attempting to edit your own work as well. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but the chances are very good you’re going to overlook something important by sheer proximity to the work.

6. Don’t game the system. There’s a big difference between recognizing and taking advantage of market trends (something I’m not very good at, but I know people who are) and writing simply to make a buck. Face it, if you want to make money, there are far easier ways of doing so. By gaming the system, I mean deciding you’re going to write serials, or short cliffhangers, or dinosaur porn, filling Kindle Unlimited with them because you can churn those babies out to match the current best deal Amazon offers, and the instant the algorithm changes, so does your storytelling. Look, I have nothing against dino porn, but if you want to write it, do so because you enjoy it, okay? And no sockpuppets singing your praises or slinging mud at the competition. No buying reviews. I really shouldn’t have to say this, right? Pricing your story so that it sells well, or making the first book in a series free? That’s not gaming the system. Buying your way onto the bestseller lists is.

The best way to make writing pay for you? Write. Write a lot. Be working on your next story while you are launching your previous one. Be thinking about the next one, too. Readers are like stray cats. If you feed them, they will come.

Most of us go through a post-story blues, where it is hard to move on to the next project. Get over yourself. I once figured out that it took me nearly a year from the time I conceived of a story idea, to writing it, to submitting it, to having it published before I saw royalties trickle in. Which means that for writing to pay the bills, I have to have a new story coming out at minimum every quarter. It’s one of the reasons self-publishing has become more popular as writers realize they can shorten this time. Which brings me to the next point…

7. Don’t quit your day job. Seriously. Writing a runaway bestseller like 50 Shades of Grey is like winning the lottery. It rarely happens, and certainly not to you and me. The rest of us have to slog out a minimum of something on the order of 60-80K words every 2-3 months in order to even hope of quitting the day job. I don’t know about you, but putting that kind of pressure on myself really puts a damper on my writing mojo. Writing is something I do that makes me happy in order to make other people happy.  But I don’t ever want to look back on my life twenty years from now and wish I’d spent more time walking the dogs or doing things with the family. And I don’t want to take something I love and turn it into something I hate because I can’t turn out a completed product I can take pride in.

But hey, maybe you can be incredibly prolific while still working a full-time job. Or maybe you’re currently jobless, and now is the sink or swim moment. It is possible to make a living as a writer. Just expect to work hard, write a lot, make a lot of personal sacrifices regarding how you spend your time, and don’t expect Hollywood to come knocking at your door with a movie deal in hand. It means writing when you don’t feel like it. It means there is no such thing as ‘your muse’, only the need to put words to paper because that’s your job.

You’re going to hear a lot about how to be a successful author. But by trying to please everyone, you’ll wind up pleasing no one. You don’t really need a ton of fans, anyway. You need a thousand die-hard fans that will buy everything you write and tell all their friends about you too.

8. Piracy: it happens. There is no use giving yourself ulcers about it. Don’t try counting up the money in lost revenue it represents, either. It will only make you cry. Some people don’t fight it. Personally, I do. Piracy means the difference between my paying the mortgage some months, or whether I have to wait another year to replace the glasses with the $400 lenses. Piracy is the difference between having to choose between dental work or going to a writer’s convention. Don’t just bitch about it, though. Every couple of weeks, do a search of your name and book titles (I find that Google Alerts tends not to pick up many illegal downloads–it’s better for notifying you of reviews). If you have a publisher, report it to them–they are losing money as well. Draft DMCA and takedown notices to send to pirate sites. Make sure that people know that many of these sites are just phishing to steal credit card information. In my case, my stories frequently show up on torrents (someone seems to keep uploading a bundle of four of my stories–it’s infuriating to see the same bundle appear again and again…). Appealing to the torrent is usually futile, but you can report the link to Google, which will block it in a title search on their browser. Given that almost everyone uses Google, having them block the illegal site in a search is a good thing. Searching the internet and preparing takedown notices is time-consuming and frustrating, but I do it. Sure, I realize that the vast majority of people downloading illegal copies would never buy from me in the first place. That doesn’t mean I have to make it easy for them to pick my pocket.

There are also some new services cropping up like Blasty, which streamlines the reporting process to Google, making it nearly painless.

9. Don’t ever diss another author. That’s just plain stupid. Unless you are among unimpeachable friends that you trust with your whole heart, giving a frank opinion of someone’s work or personality is fraught with the potential to have your words come back and bite you. Keep it to yourself, even if you feel completely justified, or if someone approaches you, encouraging you to vent. Be a professional and keep your mouth shut and your fingers off the keyboard. That applies in general to most internet kerfuffles and dramas. Remember the great proverb: Not my circus, not my monkeys. This is a corollary to not responding to negative reviews. People talk. And if you malign someone’s writing or themselves as a person, the chances are it will get back to them.

On the other hand, sometimes it is impossible not to have someone get angry with you through no fault of your own. Apologize for inadvertently upsetting them, try to correct or prevent the circumstances that led to the misunderstanding, but if they won’t grow up and get over it, let it go. Don’t talk about it, however. Be the bigger person here. Apologize, move on, and never refer to it again. If they keep bringing it up in the face of your silence, they wind up looking petty and small for holding grudges.

10. And last but not least: write what makes you happy. Don’t write to market pressures. If you have no interest in the latest fad, your lack of enthusiasm will show. If you want to write about chefs, or the horse-racing industry, or US Marines, or WW2 flying aces, or dragons, you can. Just make sure you’ve done your homework, or in the case of fantasy, you’ve created a world with believable rules that make sense. Don’t worry about finding an audience. Chances are if you love what you’re writing, others will too. And they are the readers that count the most.

 

And Now We Are Two

Captain and I took our first walk together without Sampson this evening.

After an uncomfortable evening, in which more than once I woke up because I didn’t hear the stertorous breathing that has marked Sampson’s respirations these past weeks and I thought he had died, he only picked at his home-cooked breakfast this morning. His legs threatened to give out on him when I took him outside, and I knew it was time.

Of course, he perked up when I took him to the vet’s–enough to eat treats at the hands of the staffers who have known him most of his life–but that’s exactly what I wanted. Him still able to motor in under his own steam, if somewhat wobbly. Not glassy-eyed and in distress because he couldn’t breathe. Still bestowing tail-wags and kisses, even though the wide stance of his legs was yet another indicator of how hard he was working to move air.

The process went as smoothly and peacefully as anyone could hope for. He was ready. A pawprint was made. Next week, his ashes will be returned to me and together, Captain, my husband, and I will scatter them along one of our favorite walks.

But oh, it felt so strange to be just Captain and me this evening. This is the first time in nearly twenty years I haven’t had a big dog by my side. I was conscious not just of the absence of his presence, but of a sense of vulnerability I haven’t felt in a very long time.

There will be another big dog at some point. I’ve been looking at my schedule and seeing when the best time to introduce a puppy would be. Not because I didn’t love Sampson, or because I’m trying to replace him, but because I loved him so much his absence leaves a huge hole that only another fuzzy little face can fill.

Goodnight, Sampson.

Who’s a good boy? You are.

Take Your Time

These days, we’re walking more slowly.

Where once the dogs dragged me along as though we were running the Iditarod, these days, there is slack in the leash. Sampson either walks alongside me in perfect heel position, or lags a few steps behind. Captain and I are learning to match his pace, to not push him too much.

I no longer play Pokeman Go when walking the dogs. Though I still enjoy the game, these days, I’m more aware of how Sampson is breathing, and whether or not I need to give him a break. We’ve been blessed by cool weather–for days now, the breeze has been damp caress, ruffling my hair gently in passing. I’m grateful because it has given us a little more time. I realize even without the increased heat our time together is limited, but the typical Carolina humidity is going to play havoc with Sampson’s ability to breathe.

But each day, I see the gradual decline. His appetite is beginning to fail, and I, someone who can barely be persuaded to cook for herself or family, am scouring the internet looking for tempting, wholesome recipes for my dog that won’t upset his stomach. In the past month since his diagnosis, he’s begun to lose muscle at an alarming rate too. And he seems to have gone gray almost overnight. The rate at which the cancer is aging him is nearly unbelievable. It’s like when one of those space vampires on that show Stargate Atlantis suck the life out of their victims, leaving them old before their time. The hiking trip we took just a few weeks ago would be impossible today. I’m so glad we went when we did.

And yet, while I think he is enjoying being spoiled with special food, I don’t think he needs special trips. He’s happy just to go on our daily walks. These days, we mostly go to the playground, and he actually slows down as we pass the jungle gym in the hopes some children will come out and tell him how handsome he is.

The days when he desperately needed to run off leash to burn the energy off of him are gone. A car can pass within feet of us and he barely reacts. That’s okay. It’s kind of restful, actually. And when we’re in the big hayfield behind the house, I do let him off lead. He and Captain putter around in the weeds, the little Jack Russell running circles around the tired old Shepherd.

And he is getting tired. I can see it in his eyes. I know the time is coming when I will have to make a decision. But today, we sat in the hayfield for a while, admiring the view. I have him to thank for that. For making me slow down. For reminding me to listen for the calls of the meadow larks and the redwing blackbirds. To close my eyes against the background hum of lawn mowers in the distance, and smell fresh-cut grass on the damp wind.

 

Today by the ball field, we were approached by a family who wanted to pet him. Soon we were surrounded by a small crowd, with Sampson in the middle, wagging his tail and holding court. The mother, sharing that they too had a Shepherd, asked how old Sampson was. My voice caught as I answered because his birthday is soon and I’m not sure he’ll see it. I found myself telling them he had cancer. You could feel the sorrow close over the group as soon as I said the words.

Afterward, Sampson turned back toward the car, choosing to cut our walk short for the first time in his life.

I wish I’d started these posts sooner. I know Captain and I will still go walking once Sampson is gone. I know I will get another dog, and will share the joys and frustrations of having a puppy again after so long without one. But Sampson has taught me that more than ever, life is but the blink of an eye, the space of one heartbeat and the next. I’ve never had a decade pass so swiftly in my recollection. More than anything, I’ve spent that decade working. I know I will have to continue to work hard to make ends meet.

But life is also more than just making ends meet. Sometimes we have to chase the ball. Sometimes we need to lie in green fields and drink in the late afternoon sun. Mostly, we need to just be.

That’s the greatest gift dogs teach us.

 

Of course this is going in a book someday…

I started out with the best of intentions today.

I’d forgotten, however, that the Powers That Be had decided we needed to start doing weekly office meetings prior to the start of the business day. On Mondays, no less. I know this is for the benefit of the newbies on board, but as someone who is not a newbie, I resent upsetting my morning schedule to come into work even earlier than usual. As such, I forgot to allot time to make breakfast and wound up grabbing a granola bar. Okay, could have been worse. I could have chosen Captain Crunch.

Fine. Off to work I go. Only because we now do the early morning meeting thing, it’s been decided I get out early on Mondays, which yay! for getting out early but… that means I get to work through lunch. Because why stop to eat when I am going to be leaving in an hour, right? So now I’m leaving work at 1 pm, and I’m well beyond peckish and moving into hangry territory.

But it’s okay, because I’m going to stop at the store where they have that new salad bar. I’m going to load up on good, healthy food and pick up a few items while I’m at it. I juggle the flimsy plastic tray while I kick my shopping basket along side me, loading the plate as I go. I am just at the end of the line applying a dash of salad dressing when the plastic gives in the middle and the whole thing dumps down the front of my pants and into my basket sitting on the floor at my feet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is salad and dressing everywhere. My planned purchases are covered with bacon bits and cheese. I attempt to wipe up the mess with napkins from the salad bar, but quickly end up with a sticky goo on my hands. A shopping passing by smiles and says, “Don’t take it so hard. It happens to all of us.”

I don’t know what she saw on my face but her words do me in. Tears begin to flow. A staff member comes to help clean up and says, “Having a rough day, dear?”

“No,” I say. “I’m having a rough year.”

And the words threaten to spill out messy and sticky like the salad dressing. I recently lost my cat to heart failure. I lost my mother to an unexpected stroke two weeks later. My dog is dying from cancer. My sister is dying from cancer. Our country is either on the brink of destroying democracy or taking us back into war–or both. Civil rights are being taken back to pre-1950s status. We’re poisoning our planet and the government wants to remove restrictions aimed at slowing that down. And someone has had the gall to be nice to me.

Because kindness is just too much to bear right now.

But I don’t say any of these things. I sniff and wipe my face with the parts of my hands not covered in salad dressing. I see a cute guy looking at me with a worried expression on his face, but instead of offering to help, he tiptoes away like someone who doesn’t want to get involved with the crazy lady snuffling into the California French.

“You can get another salad, sweetie.”

I shake my head. I don’t want another salad. I thank the people who helped me clean up and take the rest of my purchases to the checkout. I don’t want to talk to anyone, so I go to the automatic cashier, only the scanner can’t read my dressing-covered food. I try again and again until I am slamming the items down on the scanner and I have to call someone over to help anyway.

Deep breath. It’s all good. It will be okay.

In the parking lot, I overhear two women speaking of the likelihood of us going to war with Korea. I’m waiting behind them patiently while they put their carts away, but  then one of them says, “Well, we’re living in the end times now. Everything that has been predicted in the Bible is coming true now.”

She shrugs, resigned.

I can’t help myself. “Well, there will be some people in the government that are going to have a rude awakening when Jesus comes back,” I snap.

They look at me, blinking slowly like sheep surprised at finding a dog among them that might possibly be a wolf, only they’ve forgotten what wolves really look like. One of them smiles uneasily.

“Jesus,” I say, shoving the cart into the rack with a little more force than necessary, “believed in charity. Jesus believed in taking care of the poor.” My voice rises a little higher, louder. “Jesus believed in health care.”

One of the women laughs. “That he did.”

“And Jesus, ” I said, not yet finished. “Believed you should pay your taxes.”

There is a narrowing of eyes at that, and a little nod. Maybe I got through. Maybe not. But I swear if I hear one more person fatalistically state that the end times have come and there is nothing we can do, I think I shall scream.

Which is why I ended up in the bathroom at McDonald’s, scrubbing the dressing off my hands like Lady MacBeth trying to remove bloodstains. Right before I stuffed my face with a burger and fries.

SAMSUNG CSC

So no, as a ‘first day’ on a new diet plan went, it was not highly successful. But I didn’t punch anyone, so I count it as a win.

Besides, I am so using this in a story some day. Only it will be funnier, and the cute guy will have the balls to come over and help, and another romance will be born.The realization hit me as I was finishing the last of the fries and my hangry pains faded away. Oh yes. Good stuff here.

 

 

McKenna Hates to Cook

Believe it or not, I used to be the girl you hated when you were growing up.

I say believe it or not because I was the girl with the Coke-bottle lenses, braces, and mountains of frizzy, untamed hair. I was also a bookworm and a nerd, the first one to answer the teacher’s questions and the last one to get picked for any team sports.

As a matter of fact, I was Hermione Granger, only I didn’t grow up to look like Emma Watson. But (and this is a big ‘but’ here) I could eat whatever I wanted and not gain an ounce. 

Yep. You read that right. I lived off of bread, cheese, crackers, and peanut butter. I could grab a burger and fries and not feel the slightest bit concerned about my weight, while my friends subsisted off diet Coke and a cup of yogurt. I never gained the ‘freshman twenty.’ In fact, I was underweight much of my life, to the point that my dad used to call me ‘a hank of hair and a bag of bones.’ It was well after his death that I discovered those words actually referred to song lyrics and were not as fondly insulting as I thought.

I’ll never forget that time in college when I sat down in front of the television with my usual plate of snacks, only to have my roommate say to me, “One day you’re going to wake up fat.”

She spoke with such utter seething resentment, it quite took me aback. But I thought no more about it, and ate my stack of cheese and crackers. Years passed. I survived college, grad school, and entered the work force. My job had ridiculous hours: I started the day with a Coke and a package of Lance peanut butter crackers. Lunch was usually a bologna sandwich or a burger. Dinner was leftover Chinese if I was lucky, but usually a frozen pizza, and sometimes a bowl of Captain Crunch. On a bad day, maybe two. I lived this way for decades. I kid you not. One of the things that impressed me most about my husband when we first met was that he actually knew how to cook. Before we started dating, it was rare that I bothered to make a meal for myself.

My weight slowly crept up from 121 to 135, but it stayed there. I’m not athletic by any means, but I’m reasonably active. I walk the dogs every day. I ride my horse when I have time. I’m on my feet all day at work. But I don’t do any sort of organized exercise. The one time I tried an aerobics class, I dropped out from sheer embarrassment at my inability to follow the routine.

Then one day it happened. My former roommate’s vindictive prophesy came true. I did wake up fat.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But after a lifetime of rocky hormones, menopause hit me like a freight train. I began having 30-40 hot flashes a day. I gained 20 pounds in a two week window. Horrible heartburn assailed me whenever I ate, and suddenly I could no longer handle the foods I’d always eaten. Things were so bad, I wound up having a full GI and Gyno workup done because the changes were so abrupt and so intense, I thought something had to be seriously wrong with me.

Nope. Just hormones leaving town and wrecking the place in their wake.

Worse, I had no idea what to do about it. I was like that kid in high school who never had to study only to get a rude awakening on reaching college. Just to complicate things, eating disorders run in my family, so I tiptoed the fine line between trying to change my eating habits and not getting obsessive about tracking points or calories. We’re talking scary eating disorders in my family–the kind where someone thinks eating nothing but an apple and a cracker for an entire week is something to be proud of. Whatever I did, I had to make sure I didn’t fall down that particular rabbit hole.

I did My Fitness Pal for a while, but the tracking proved problematic. I found it very useful for helping me realize just how many calories I consumed on average however. Jiminy Crickets! I had no idea.

Then I did what any good author would do: I began researching diets. Let me tell you, I practically own the diet section of the bookstore. I have it all: Paleo, Whole30, South Beach, Blood Type, Wheat Belly, FODMAP and more. I got books on healing your gut, your metabolism, your thyroid, and curing your adrenal fatigue.

Let me tell you what I’ve learned.

There is no one perfect diet for everyone. If there were, we’d all be following it. The next thing I’ve discovered is that most of these diet plans have something useful to say. Most of them also have a fair amount of BS associated with them. My takeaway message from everything I’ve read is this: eat more fruits and veggies. Eat less red meat. Avoid processed foods.

We all knew that, right? Of course we did. But somehow it’s more palatable to dress it up under the guise of the X diet. Do I believe that Paleo and Whole30 work for some people? Absolutely. But not because we’re cavemen or because of some entirely arbitrary set of rules handed down by some parents in ‘tough love’ mode. I think the reason Paleo or Whole30 or Wheat Belly plans are so effective for many people is because most of what we eat is really bad for us. I’m not just talking Cheetos and KFC, here. I mean the granola bars and the fruit cups and the Lean Cuisine. I mean 90 percent of what the average on-the-go person consumes here in the US because we’re too damn busy or tired to buy, prepare, and eat real food.

Most of these diets are impossible to maintain long term. As is the four hours of exercise a day that one of my friends used to do to artificially maintain her weight at 125 pounds. To be honest, the idea of giving up bread forever makes me weep. I’d honestly rather give up chocolate. No, seriously. I can’t think of anything finer than that moment when you remove a crusty loaf of homemade bread from the oven and slather that first slice with butter.

But bread is one of the things that makes me feel horrible after eating it. Bread, pasta, cheese, peanut butter… I feel like I’ve swallowed a basketball after I eat these foods.

So what’s a girl who’s an incredibly picky eater and hates to cook do? Especially when her husband can eat three times as much as she does, casually decide to lose some weight and drop ten pounds without blinking. Ah, now I finally know how my old roommate felt. It’s a wonder she didn’t kill me.

Silhouette of a cheese burger loaded with summer garden vegetables isolated on fire, macro

Well, this is my journey. Stick around and find out. I plan to blog something each week about finding my way back to health without losing my joy for living. Maybe the answer is a metabolism reset with one of these diets. Maybe the answer is that I truly will have to give up foods I love and learn to love others. It’s not just about the weight, though I would love to go back to my previous hormone-crash existence. It’s about not feeling like crap all the time. It’s about sleeping better at night, and having the energy to do the things I love to do, and being able to bend over and tie my hiking boots without feeling like my stomach is about to explode.

Come for the food/diet/exercise/recipe chatter and poke around the site if you enjoy paranormal romance. Share your thoughts and experiences. I’d really like to know about your successes and failures.

As for me, several of my friends are doing Weight-Watchers. Of all the paid diet programs out there, it’s the one I’ve seen be the most successful. That said, I’m going to be accountable to my friends rather than to a group. I don’t want to move into ‘apple and cracker’ territory…

Walking with Sampson

My dog Sampson is dying.

He has a mass in his chest the size of a grapefruit, a lesion called hemangiosarcoma, which is common in older Shepherds. It’s a miracle he’s even breathing, let alone eating, playing, and seriously considering chasing that car when it goes past us on our evening walks. Aside from breathing a little hard all the time and slowing down on our walks, you wouldn’t know he was as ill as he is. The last three evenings I’ve taken him down to the local playing fields. Children are drawn to him like a magnet. They come boiling off the baseball diamonds and tennis courts like a swarm of bees, running up to us. “May we pet your dog?”

I make them slow down (because seriously, you don’t run up to a Shepherd waving rackets or baseball bats) but my fears are groundless. Sampson’s ears melt back in happy anticipation of the adoration that is his due, his tail wagging as the kids run their hands all over him. Several times I’ve been tempted to say something. To tell them he has cancer. But I don’t. I don’t because he is so happy and they are so happy, and how can I spoil that moment?

He doesn’t have much time left. We know this.

But the funny thing is, he doesn’t. Or if he does, he doesn’t care.

I firmly believe that dogs come into our lives at various times to teach us lessons when we need them most. I’ve been blessed to have had some amazing dogs in my life. My first Shepherd taught me what it was like to be loved completely and totally for who I was. My second taught me life was more than just getting through the day and set me on a path of life-changing self-discovery I’d never have taken without her. I changed careers because of that dog.

Even though Sampson has an inoperable mass in his chest, I consider us fortunate in that not only do we have time to adjust to the realization we’re going to lose him soon, but he is teaching me much about living for the present. Making the most of each day. How to be a dog.

I spend far too much time these days either living in the past (reacting to events that should no longer be affecting me but still do) or worrying about the future and things I can’t control. Each of us only gets today. Yes, we’re probably overworked and utterly exhausted because that seems to be the American Way, but we have to remember the things that make life worth living. Believe me, it seems like only a couple of years ago, I brought home a fuzzy little moose-puppy. In reality, it was over a decade, and yet it seems like the blink of an eye.

When I go walking with the dogs in the woods, I am reminded of Thoreau: 

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…”

That is what Sampson is teaching me right now. I’m very much aware I’ve spent a good deal of the last decade griping at him to go lie down. I wish now we’d gone hiking more often. That I’d been more patient with his enthusiastic energy. That I’d told my employers ‘screw it’ and spent that time with those that I love.

I can’t undo that now, but I can be the person my dog thinks I am. I can’t quite manage the bucket list thing, but I am determined to make the time Sampson has left be the best it can be. I know on some level, he’s happy as long as we’re together and he doesn’t have to fight for my attention. That’s not quite enough for me, though. So a few weeks ago, I impulsively rented a dog-friendly cabin at a state park, and the four of us–the husband, Sampson, me, and little Captain– went away for an isolated weekend in the woods.

The weather was perfect. The daytime temps were in the upper thirties and lower forties–brisk but not so cold to make long walks in the woods unpleasant. The nights were brilliantly cold in the manner that took your breath away, as did the stars overhead when you stepped outside the cabin at night. No internet. No television. We sat in front of the fire and read while the dogs napped at our feet, tired from the day’s walks. I didn’t want to come home. Best. Weekend. Ever.

And sometimes, that’s all it takes. A reminder life is more than just getting through the day. You don’t have to go to Mexico or Hawaii to reconnect with those you love. You just have to unplug and look at them.

There will be more walks with Sampson. And when he is gone, there will be more walks with Captain, and whatever new dog I accept into my life. I just hope I can retain these lessons in my heart so the next dog–and everyone else I love–can benefit from them.

The cabin had a little journal where campers could leave messages. The book was nearly full–there was just a tiny amount of space left on the last page. Most of the entries had been written by children, stating how much they’d loved their week of swimming and hiking. I left this post:

 

 

 

Hello world!

It would be nice if my first post here was to share something exciting, like a publishing date for the first books in my new series, or that I won the lottery, or that I found a recipe for brownies with zero calories.

Sadly, this is more of a placeholder while I work out the bugs on the new site. Why, oh why, Word Press, did you eliminate the ability to put links in the side bar? I’d like to be able to list where you can find me on the internet in one nice handy side bar, but it looks like I’m going to have to create a page for that. 

What do you need to know about me, aside from the fact I get easily frustrating by changing software programs? I’m a City Girl transplanted to the Country and loving nearly every minute of it. I adore animals and take LOTS of photographs. I used to be one of those people who never had to watch what they ate until one day I wasn’t anymore–and I hate to cook–so there will be a page unrelated to my writing in which I deal with food and food issues.

The hubs and I bought a rundown farm similar to that depicted on Green Acres, if you can recall that show from your distant childhood. Think of me as Eva Gabor in this scenario. If that’s way before your time, here’s a tiny slice of how we live.

 

Okay. so maybe I’m exaggerating a little, but not much. For two intelligent, highly educated types, my husband and I seriously underestimated what it took to run a farm. But we’re learning! And you guys will get the fun of watching our screw-ups along the way, I’m sure.

In the meantime, I’m writing. I will post updates when release dates are getting close.