Monday, February 19, 2018

Catching the Echoes - An observation About Love, Loss and Memory

I have owned Burmese cats for years, starting in 1980.  They are a lively, affectionate, intuitive and very smart breed.  Burmese originated in and around Thailand and Myanmar, and spent centuries hanging around people - generally in temples.

Merlin and Morgan
My first two Burmese cats were a pair of brothers named Merlin and Morgan. They were supposed to live to their mid-twenties. Or so I thought. I did wake up when they were fifteen and realized that they were old, but they were with me, they were fairly healthy, though the one boy's kidneys were iffy, and we would all continue as we were, unchanging. Or so I thought.  The first one died in my arms of a heart attack on August 28, 1996.  I was stunned.  His brother died one month later to the day of kidney failure secondary to a severe hantavirus that his old body survived, but which threw him into a decline. I hadn't wanted him to go, but I had realized that I was fighting against his best good, and I told him that I wouldn't insist on his living and would let him go if that was what he wanted.  It was.

There is no 'back to the drawing board' when love has touched you.  Whether you believe in forever or not, the very fact that your life has intersected and run together with another's has changed you. You are not the person you were before you came to love the one who has departed. You have an altered perspective, you have a part of you that grew in response to that other one. You have a way you would respond to the other's voice, jokes, antics, love. You can't go back to what you were before you loved the other.

But life does go on, and grief must be dealt with and resolved in one way or another. I didn't expect to 'replace' my boys, but I needed to have pets in their places, so Boomer and BJ came to me. Boomer is a Burmese. BJ's father was a Burmese (a particularly nice one!), so though he's a Bombay and black, he looks, through the face, like my first Burmese. That is when I encountered the echoes. 

I started catching hints, sometimes faint, sometimes very strong, of my old boys.  A way one of the kittens reacted to being stroked. A way of tilting the head.  Finding one curled up on a pillow and raising its head to blink at me in a familiar way.  The sound of a voice.  It was not as though the lost ones had come back as those two kittens, but as though, somehow, I was given back the part of me that had loved them. As though I had been given a chance to re-live their kittenhood, to revisit memories I had forgotten in the rush of the years, to have the hurts, the sad memories somehow smoothed away, and the memories of the young, strong, lively ones returned to me, fresh and clear, unspoiled.

I have experienced this with all lost loves, memories that touch my shoulder and remind me that love still exists in me.  I recently opened a book and found a folded slip of paper with a note from my father saying that he believed in me, and enclosing a check to 'keep the wolves from the door'.  Driving through Vermont one autumn afternoon, seeing a hillside with a familiar slant behind a yellow house...  My grandparents' old house, which they sold decades ago, now repainted.  Landmarks had changed, but I remembered.

Those memories, touching our experiences, are a part of us, a reminder.   Something to be embraced.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

IWSG for January, 2018 - Plans and Dreams

This is the January entry for The Insecure Writer's Support Group Blog Hop.

The hop takes place on the first Wednesday of every month.  All are welcome to sign up and participate, and visit the blogs of the other participants.  

The co-hosts for the January 3 posting of the IWSG are Tyrean Martinson, Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor, Megan Morgan, Jennifer Lane, and Rachna Chhabria Go visit their blogs!

The question for January's blog hop is: 

What steps have you taken or plan to take to put a schedule in place for your writing and publishing?

Tempus Fugit...if you haven't noticed.
Speaking as a writer who had not written anything substantive or published anything at all in three years for a lot of very good reasons (there: I've said it!), even thinking of writing was a step in the right direction. But that was only the first step. 

I read a man's blog where he mentioned an app that reminded him to write 1,000 words per day. It was on his iPhone, he couldn't avoid seeing it, and it was a nice reminder for him. I sat back, blinking. That was what I needed! A reminder, rather like getting jabbed in the ribs with a thumb, rather than a rather muzzy, wistful 'Gee, I should really be writing...' thought I.

I went hunting for the app and discovered that it is an older one and unavailable right now. Apparently it is not mainstream and is undergoing an overhaul.

After some searching, I found a similar one for iTunes: Momentum Habit Tracker.  

I have set it to remind me to (1) write 1,000 words per day; (2) READ (amazing how you can stagnate if you don't read other peoples' work...), and SCOOP (my cats' litter box).  Hey, what's good for writing is good for cleaning.  It also offers to 'discuss' any issues with you.  I haven't taken it up on that offer just yet, since I am not sure how to address  my iPhone.  I'm sure I will learn.

So far, so good.  I get pinged around 8pm if I haven't set up my writing time.  Or reading time, or scooping time.  I've enjoyed getting reacquainted with other writers like Georgette Heyer and Tolkien.

Once writing, I have to keep up with it.  There is a nice (?) little app called 'Write or Die' (by Dr. Wicked), which I encountered during NaNoWriMo:

Write or Die by Dr. Wicked

This is the dashboard.  You set the time (in this case, 60 minutes) and the output (1,515 words in this case - attainable).  You can select the screen background - white works for me - and any deterrents or incentives that will keep your nose to the grindstone.

There are levels of motivation,  including one where the program starts erasing what you have written if you don't write fast enough to suit it.  This was a little too harsh for me, so I selected different motivations and rewards. 

If a certain amount of time passes with no output (I selected two minutes), an alarm sounds and I am treated, so to speak, with an alarming image - in this case, it is Grumpy Cat, superimposed on my typing and scowling at me.  It is hard to be alarmed and buckle down to slave at the keyboard while laughing like a fool, but it does help.  The beep is more effective than Grumpy Cat's scowl, but the grin is helpful at any rate.

If you manage to meet your goal, you are treated to a rewarding image.  I chose a cute puppy wearing a birthday hat, which appears behind the text that I have typed after I have reached my goal.  If I am cooking along at a great rate, it is a little startling to see that I am scattering text over the face of a cute puppy in a party hat, but it makes me laugh and continue typing.

Have I written every day?  Well, no.  But I'm reading more and writing more and thinking more and jotting more, and the cause of the blockage, a combination of work, eldercare, health issues and exhaustion, is now beginning to crumble.  The momentum is back, and while it may be a bit of a struggle, I am going to commit to having my most urgent WIP, an eagerly awaited (by my readers, at least) installment in my Egyptian series, in a state to be published by September.  I can do it.  Besides, I don't want to have Grumpy Cat mad at me.  

I know that cat is SOMEWHERE!

How about yourself?  Do you need to do something to get going?  It's a common problem, and not just with writing.

Read the other entries in this hop and see what they say - I will be reading them, too!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

This is the July entry for The Insecure Writer's Support Group Blog Hop.

The hop takes place on the first Wednesday of every month.  All are welcome to sign up and participate, and visit the blogs of the other participants.

This month's co-hosts are Tamara Narayan, Pat Hatt, Patricia Lynne, Juneta Key, and Doreen McGettigan. Go visit their blogs, and join in!

The question for July 5 is:

What is one valuable lesson you've learned since you started writing?

That one is easy, though I find I have to cut my way through various good lessons I have learned in my writing path.  You know: setting the scene correctly, keeping your characters straight, avoid cliches, allow for development, let the plot unfold skilfully...  Lots of good lessons that will help you to write better, keep your stories unfolding properly, clarify characters...

A few of my notebooks
But the valuable lesson that underlies all of that, without which I, for one, can't write, is easy and embarrassingly basic.

Write it down.  

To expand: if you get an idea, preserve it in a form that you can retrieve.  

Have access to something that will help you capture the ideas.   Carry a pen and a notebook.  

Wax tablets and stylus: the past never leaves us
Wax tablets and a stylus are rather  cumbersome, but they have served over the millennia.  And if you are writing about the distant past, you can get a feel for how they worked. (Some stores actually still sell them, like this one...)

Enable the dictation feature on your iPhone (if you have one).   Or call yourself and leave yourself a message.  (But do tell your family not to delete such messages until you have had a chance to listen to them.)
The important thing is to capture your thoughts.  I have had too many times where I had a brainstorm - a plot twist, the answer to something that had been puzzling me - and thought 'Oh, yeah.  That is perfect!  I'll write it down when I get home.'

A few of my notebooks
The thing is that I often get busy and forget to write that scene when I get home.  In fact, I find myself trying to recall what scene it was, what story line, and what characters.  

We all have a lot going on, whether or not we are writers.  Things that snag our attention, and we're all to willing to succumb to a lovely distraction.  Or a disgusting one.  Sometimes we get tired.  And sometimes life really gets in the way and we lose our focus while dealing with concerns like death, unemployment, friends' celebrations and scooping litter pans.

I started carrying a notebook around with me and jotting down whatever I thought.  Over the years I developed a system with notebooks that were dedicated to whatever I was working on at the moment.  I would date the note, jot whatever it was that I thought and then, once I got around to transcribing it, making a line across the entry.  But what if you are working on, say, a story involving the Cat Show world and you have an idea for something a French veteran of the Napoleonic wars might say?  Write it down as you can.   Or...  Get a notebook with different sections and jot it in there.  It doesn't matter, so long as the idea is captured.

Paper towels work, too...
I worked for a clothing store, part time, a few years back.  I had long stretches where I had to monitor the store's dressing room.  I was working on one of my Egyptian stories at that time, and ideas were coming thick and fast.  I had no way to carry in a notebook, and I needed to capture the ideas/ clarifications/ brainstorms as they occurred...  So I used paper towels.  I wrote a post about it a few years back.  Here's a photo of the notes.  Some are crumpled from being shoved into my pocket.  

Sometimes, if I am at loose ends with a story, I will leaf through my notebooks.   For me, it helps to rekindle the ideas, the sense of adventure.

That is one of the most important practical lessons I learned when I started writing.  Other lessons?  There were plenty.

I'm off to read everyone else's insights.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

I Quit! (Or do I?)

Today is the first Wednesday of the month, which is the date that the Insecure Writer's Support Group holds its monthly blog hop.

If you haven't heard of the IWSG, you need to look into it:

To share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds.  It's a good place to go to for advice, reassurance and a lot of enjoyment.

Today's question is:

Did you ever say “I quit”? 
If so, what happened to make you come back to writing?

This month's co-hosts are:
JH Moncrieff, Madeline Mora-Summonte, Jen Chandler, Megan Morgan, and Heather Gardner  

Go visit their pages!

So...  Have I ever decided to quit writing?  

No, I can't say that I  have.  I  have been discouraged, I have wanted to burn whatever story I was working on, and call various people idiots for various reasons, but I haven't decided to quit.  How can I?  I'm a writer.

...But I have trickled to a near-halt.  Inertia.  I wrote about it, obliquely, here and here.  I've been in dry spots, as you see.  Sometimes they seem to stretch on forever, and you wonder if they will ever stop.

I am in one right now. I haven't published anything new in three years.  I have followers, people have read my work, but I haven't put anything out.  Sales are falling off.  

I have a number of works in progress.  The second book in my Orphan's Tale series is nearly complete.  It was delayed, in part, by a plot revelation that required an internal rewrite. But it is nearly finished...and I haven't touched it in a year.  I have a fable, a 'short' (say, 45,000 words) that is nearly done. Nearly.  There are several stories in my Memphis Cycle that were coming along.

So what happened?

Life.  Eldercare issues.  Work issues.  Money issues.  (It costs me nothing to write, thank goodness).  And I have been very tired.  Very tired.  It's hard.

A friend told me of a time that she was discouraged.  She was at a show, and was talking with the man who had been mentoring her.  She recounted children problems, worries about her husband's job, illness, disappointment.  It was all so hard, she said.  Her mentor, who had been busy jotting notes about the things that were going on at the show, said without looking up, "Quitting is easy." 

My friend stopped speaking.  Quitting is easy.  But it was not an option those ten years ago.  She moved past that point and is doing well.

As for me, quitting is easy, I suppose.  Except that I can't quit.  I am a writer.  I write stories.  I have stories to write.  I can't go back.  I don't want to.  And I have been through this before and may well go through it again, all things being equal.  I'll survive.

So...  What can I do to get out of this particular situation?

I can wake up.  My job issues are behind me, along with that job.  I will set my timer for, say, half an hour.  And during that half hour I will write.  At my desk.  On my laptop.  No internet.  Just write.

Sales are down?  I'll finish the various books, half an hour at a time, and get them out there.  

Writing doesn't need to be lonely: I have begun to participate in writing activities.  Joined groups (including rejoining IWSG).  Maybe go on a retreat.

And I will get more sleep.  That's more important than I realized.

The blog hop is here.  Check it out!

Friday, October 28, 2016

In Memoriam: Pets

We call them 'pets', and we pamper them and fuss over them and sometimes think that they are in some way a status symbol. 

They love us unconditionally (though perhaps even more deeply when food is involved) and ask in return only that we be their Alpha dogs or -cats and provide them comfort, protection and affection.

In almost all cases, we are the gainers.

The worst thing about them is that they have such heartbreakingly short lives, and the puppy or kitten that rolled across the floor and hurried clumsily to you is suddenly the white-muzzled dog who lifts cloudy eyes to you and thumps his tail on the floor.

Dogs or cats?  I have both.  They both give love.

And they both die too soon.

Last night I bade farewell to a boy I have owned and loved and laughed at for nine years.  It was hard, but he was surrounded by those who loved him as he slipped away.

You never get used to it, but truly, it is a small return for the unquestioning, generous love they give us.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

IWSG October 5, 2016: Getting started

Today is IWSG day. Come join Alex J. Cavanaugh and all the other writers who support each other, make us all smile and think in this monthly hop. No one is mocked or sneered at. All are welcome. We have all been there.

Please be sure to visit our host Alex J Cavanaugh, and this month's co-hosts: Beverly Stowe, Megan MorganViola Fury, Madeline Mora, Angela Wooledridge, and Susan Gourley.

The twitter hashtag is #IWSG

Visit the website and look around:

This month's question is:  

When do you know your story is ready?

My answer is that it is never ready.  Or, at least I *think* it is never ready.  I was just reading one of my published books, one that I am really happy with, that expressed what I wanted to express and told, I thought, a good story.  The fact that it features two of my absolute favorite characters is an added treat.

I opened the paperback copy I had printed for myself, read a section and thought, "You know, it would work better if I expanded the various contractions and changed a couple words."

I had to put on the brakes, hard, and admit that the story is set.  Too much fiddling makes the story stale.  (This does not mean that I won't fix the odd mistake that I find).  

And now, I am going to reveal what insecurity has me by the throat at the moment:

It has been too long since I published.

...or, come to that, since I wrote anything really new.

The Memphis Cycle

I have a series of books set in New Kingdom Egypt (think Ramesses the Great) with a great many stories that can come off that.  I have my notes: the stories just need to be written.  

The Crocodile Fable

I have a short piece, a fable about a crocodile, that is nearly finished.  I just have to finish it:

The Orphan's Tale #1
The Orphan's Tale #2

I have a series set in 1830's Paris with one completed, another nearly completed and the final one well underway.
I have other stories in varying stages of being outlined...

But I have published nothing in over three years.
Why?  Well, my father died in 2012.  That was a terrible blow. My delightful mother's health took a downward spiral.  She had been caring for my father and now she was dealing with her own issues.  She needed surgery, she needed to be moved to a better place.  And she was far away from her family.

Work issues, travel issues (my mother lives 250 miles away) money issues.  I was, and am, very tired.   But I can feel things moving, stirring.  I have ideas.

...and I received some notes from readers:

I really enjoy your Memphis Cycle stories.  I have all of them in paperback.  I know you have one in the works: is it coming out soon?
I replied, and they replied enthusiastically. It made me smile.  And it started me thinking. 

It could be done.  The fable is about 40,000 words, the cover is finished.  I have some 'shorts' on the Egyptian stories that could be put together.  Something to please those kind people who wrote me and follow me.

I have some vignettes from the Paris story that I could put out.  Something to read.

Ramesses the Great never looked better...
And, things having eased up a little, I can set the Paris story aside for a bit to let the edits sink in.  I could take up some kind friends on their beta-read offers and put the manuscript out for review.

...and I could get to work on the full length novel that fits after the second book of The Memphis cycle.  Heck, I have a cover:

...errrrr....  Maybe I need to work on that...

(You aren't down for the count if you can find something to laugh about, you know...)

Check out the posts on this hop.  Read, comment, enjoy.  I'll be doing the same this evening.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Where were you when the world stopped turning...?

Today is the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.  I saw a headline that likened the day to 'History Just Like Pearl Harbor.'

Well, that is certainly true.  It was history, just as our births, deaths, celebrations and actions are history.  And yet, for all the significance of our day to day activities, 9/11 somehow stands out as an especial time in history.

  • It was the day people realized that their 'homeland' was not immune from attack.
  • It was the day people learned of needs and incidents far greater than their own daily heartaches and activities.
  • It was the day that we learned what it is to be truly helpless.
  • And it was the day that we learned that we could survive, and that heroes really existed.

Russian 'Tears of Grief' memorial
(It was also a day I learned that some people are too stupid to live and need to be devoutly ignored:

A woman from Canada on a message board:

Americans need to think, sincerely and without offense, what they did to cause this attack.'

I don't generally get nasty in public.  You don't put out there on Facebook or message boards things that you wouldn't want printed on the pages of the great newspapers of the world.  But my response that time reduced the poster to tears.  And I don't regret a word.)

I heard the tales of heroism, of the firefighters and rescue workers toiling up the stairs in the Towers against the tide of fleeing people.  Going ever upward to serve and protect and rescue.  Giving their lives.

I never saw the footage of the plane striking the towers.  I missed it, somehow  In later years I decided not to seek it out.

Some months after the attack, I was talking with my father, a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam.  I was saying how humbled I was by the heroism we saw on 9/11. 

Dad frowned thoughtfully.  "We saw heroes," he said.  "They were everywhere that day, and after.  The people lining up to give blood, to help however they could...  But, you know, if I had to say who the real heroes were that day..."

He fell silent.

"The police and rescue workers?" I suggested.

Dad shook his head.  "They were heroic," he said.  "But you know, that was the purpose for which they pledged their lives.  To serve, protect, fight if necessary...  And they did it beautifully.  But those people on the plane in Pennsylvania, possibly headed for the U.S. Capitol...  They were everyday folk with the backgrounds they had, caught up in a situation.  And they took action. They were true heroes."

Maybe so.   Probably so.  Everyone seemed to step beyond their own needs and turn to others' needs...

It was a day to remember.  One that should not be forgotten or belittled, any more than the other great watersheds of history.

Where were you then?