It’s February, but the weather around here has been more of a false spring. Balmy rains and warm weather tricked the trees into blooming early, and I wanted to buy into it. Last Thursday, I propped open the back door while I was in the dish pit, and kept finding reasons to go out to the bailer. It was sunny and warm, and it felt like winter was finally at an end.
Two days later, I woke to a snowstorm I had no choice but to drive through. Four hours total, round trip. Heavy flakes coated the car as I packed it, and I looked up the road. The mountains before me were already white with snow, haloed in gauzy clouds.
I kissed my sleeping love, scribbled a note that I’d be home around four, and then I drove into the snow.
Coasting along 40 and 26 through that white, silent landscape, I felt small and vulnerable. There was a persistent clunk from the floorboards I had yet to identify, and every skid and slip of the tires tightened my knuckles till they hurt. The snow worsened, blinding in parts, and at one point, I pulled over to catch my breath. A hush fell over the car when I cut it off, and for a moment, all I could hear was that soft pitter-patter of snow.
I stepped out and looked up.
The dark rock wall beside me was coated in icicles half as big as my car. Snow blanketed the boughs of trees above me, a gradient of pale grey and dusky purple in the shadows, and I thought about a game my mother used to play with me when I was a child. She’d ask me what colors I’d use to paint what I saw. Black and white were not allowed. “You have to see past that,” she’d tell me. “What do you see?”
It took me a while to figure out the trick I use now. With the distractions of light and shadow, it’s hard to see the individual hues. If you unfocus and let it blur, all you can see are hues. A palette, a gradient of vivid color bleeding together, utterly devoid of outlines. I didn’t have the vocabulary I needed at first to know what paints I’d need, but I learned. Burnt umber, raw sienna, phthalo blue, alizarin crimson. The lesson stuck with me, and thirty years later, every time I see something so beautiful I wish I could paint it, I deconstruct it the same way.
What I saw: burnt umber, Payne’s gray, indanthrene blue, neutral gray, Prussian blue, all mixed with titanium white. The snowy world around me was cast in a strange twilight, a softness to it that felt utterly unreal.
I thought of taking a picture, but it felt wrong. I knew it wouldn’t truly capture what I saw. So I took that moment with me, and I left.
On my return trip, the snow had already melted. Sunlight returned, banishing that soft, strange world, and I felt a sense of homesickness for the moment I’d lost. The rain returned, and now, almost a week later, the trees are budding again. Violet crocuses have erupted along the sidewalks, and daffodils are slowly lifting their heads from wet earth. It remains to be seen which way the weather will go.
I’m not the only one wondering. Weather has become a common concern. All around me, people murmur about climate change and politics. Doubt and terror of living in a world seemingly governed by chaos.
“Everything is out of control.”
A block up, activists line Pack Square. The signs differ by the day, but they are always a call to action, begging the rest of us to wake up. Change things. Go vegan. Protect our earth. And I think about them as I pour ice into cups. I think about Antarctica disintegrating, of people drowning from floods and unprecedented hurricanes. I dump coffee grinds into the compost, over and over, and I wonder how many of the people around me know we are currently living in an extinction event. How many of them know the hard facts of what we’re in for. How bad it’s actually going to get.
I take the compost and the recycling out, and I remind myself of the reasons why I get out of bed.
Every day, I walk past a graffitied bumper on my way to work. GRIEF in red, stark against white concrete. It’s not the only one of its kind. That message is everywhere in this city, scrawled in the same hand, seemingly everywhere I go. GRIEF, like an answer to a question unasked. A confirmation of why I’m here.
A wave from an invisible hand.
I saw it again today. Yellow, this time, bright against the black plastic of another gas pump. I paused, as always, and wondered who it was. Why they wrote it. What they’d been through.
I wished I could wave back. Say, “I see you.” Say, “I see it.”
Say, “Me too.”
“Interesting test results” was the first thing my doctor said to me when I walked into his office. “Come on in.”
I sat down and folded my hands and waited. Worried. Watched him scribbling furiously. Worried some more.
“So.” He handed me a sheaf of papers. “I was right.”
I flipped through the papers, but didn’t understand.
“The reason your medications aren’t working is because they can’t. Go to the last page.”
This individual is heterozygous for the C677T polymorphism in the MTHFR gene.
MTHFR. My mouth quirked.
“Now, check out page six, upper right corner. See where it says ‘poor metabolizer?”
CYP2D6 enzyme activity: None.
“That combination right there is why nothing works. Your brain isn’t methylated enough to properly regulate your neurotransmitters. That second mutation? That’s where the weird side effects are coming from. Put the two together, and we have the reason why you haven’t responded to treatment. But it also tells us how to fix that.”
I turned the pages, trying to understand. I’d studied psychology as an undergrad, and I had developed familiarity with psychiatric medicines over time in treatment. Few, if any, had benefited me. Therapy was effective, but it wasn’t a cure. I’d manage to maintain a normal baseline for small stretches, and then inevitably crash again. The diagnoses changed, over and over, according to my reactions to medicines. The prognosis was never good.
Believing you are an unsolvable problem is bleak at best. I’d been more worried the results would come back completely normal. But there on the page were answers. Entire classes of contraindicated medicines that I’d known from my own reactions didn’t work, but doctors had run me through anyway. Years of treatment that had been a waste of time, and we didn’t even know.
I fought back tears.
“This is fixable?”
“It is now.”
2019 wasn’t a kind year.
But neither were the years before it.
Between 2016 and 2018, I lost just about everything. Friends. Family. My home. My car. My hopes. My dreams. All of it crumbled. I couldn’t make it make sense, and my attempts to cope with it were poor at best.
I don’t think anyone necessarily copes well with divorce or death. Both are complete breakdowns of meaning. What you thought was solid no longer exists. You start to doubt whether it ever really existed in the first place. Others attempt to help, advise, console, but they can’t get through it for you.
The person who has to learn how to live with it is you. And that means a lot of grief, a lot of redefining what you thought you knew. A lot of burials. Reexamining the factors that led to a failed marriage. Rethinking the choices you made, and whether, in hindsight, they were the right ones.
In 2019, I spent a lot of time sleeping in my car. I drove between Greenville and Asheville, trying to outrun my own grief. There was so much of it. I’d spent so much of my life in Greenville. I had so many memories there, and after Pru died, too many of them were painful. It was easier to sleep in my car on a cold February night before a work shift than sleep in a warm, comfortable bed in my parent’s house, reminded of the person I’d never be again.
I was becoming someone else, but I didn’t even know who that was. It was terrifying.
Now, a year later, I know why it scared me.
I am the one who decides who and what I become.
The last time I posted here, I’d decided to move to Asheville. I didn’t have a solid plan, but when was the last time a solid plan had worked out? I knew what I needed in order to make the move, and as long as I could keep up with my bills, I could make it work. It would be difficult and scary, but difficult and scary were the norm. Things have never been easy, but if I’d survived that far in Greenville, surely I could do it somewhere else.
I found a job in Asheville. It didn’t work out. I clawed my way through three weeks of interviews and zero callbacks till I found another that did. I’ve been slinging coffee in a cafe in downtown Asheville since then, surviving mostly off tips. Serving isn’t easy, especially with chronic fatigue, but I manage. I walk the mile back to my car, and on the drive back, I call my mother just to hear her voice.
Ten years ago, I was living in terror of watching her die.
But she made it. She’s healthy and well and tells me about her latest project with the gardening committee, the latest news with my siblings, all the things she did that day.
I started this piece with the idea that I’d say something about grief. If anything, it’s this:
My mother saying “I love you, too” before she hangs up is worth every ounce of grief I went through ten years ago.
An unexpected hug from a new friend is worth the struggle of trying to get close to people after being hurt.
A suspended moment of awe on the side of the road, marveling at snow in a warming world, makes me want to fight for it.
Finally getting a solid answer on what’s wrong with me, after years of feeling hopeless and unfixable, was worth fighting this hard to stay alive.
And struggling to write this, after months of feeling like I’d lost my voice, reminded me why I say anything at all.
To the artist who reminds me why I endure grief:
Thank you for telling me I’m not alone.
Thank you for reminding me why I’m doing this.
It’s a scary, chaotic world out here, isn’t it?
But we’re alive, and we’re in it. We can change it. We might not be able to fix it, but we can remind each other not to give up.
Thank you for that.
Maybe I’ll buy a marker, so I can give you my answer. Same as yours, just one word.
I’ve been in quarantine more than I’d like this year. Being trapped at home has pushed me to escape into other worlds, and many of the ones I’ve found have been utterly engrossing. Given the sheer amount of content out there, I usually find new things via word of mouth. Here’s what I’ve found and loved.
Tales From the Loop. I loved everything about this. Everything. The characters, the music, the directing, the writing. It left me in tears several times. While this is definitely sci-fi, its human touches will leave you bereft. I loved this. LOVED this.
Stray Souls, The Red King, and Love Advice From the Great Duke of Hell. I’ve devoured comics in all forms since I was eleven, and Webtoon is a gold mine of amazing stories. What do these three have in common? Great plots, great characters, killer art. The amount of talent these creators have is…staggering, and I look forward to every episode. It keeps me going.
THE FEVER KING and THE ELECTRIC HEIR, Victoria Lee. After reading the first few chapters of the graphic novel on Webtoon, I had to find out where the story went. Lee’s worldbuilding is staggering, and her characters will gut you. While the first book feels heavier on plot, THE ELECTRIC HEIR puts character dynamics front and center. It’s a story about what it is to be a survivor, and how difficult surviving truly is.
AGNES AT THE END OF THE WORLD, Kelly McWilliams. In this apocalyptic YA, a strange virus that turns living creatures into red crystal quite nearly ends the world. To save her brother, Agnes flees from the cult she was raised in to seek help in the outside world. I was absolutely fascinated by the virus, and a bit horrified. If you liked ANNIHILATION, you’ll dig this one.
THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF ADDIE LARUE, V. E. Schwab. If you haven’t read this one yet, do it now. Addie is an incredible character, stubbornly choosing to live even as the centuries wear on her. The infuriating dynamic she shares with Luc, a primal god of darkness, is equally compelling. She seems utterly doomed until she meets Henry, a sad, sensitive bookseller who, unlike everyone before him, fails to forget her. To say anything further would spoil this one, and its unraveling tale is well worth your time.
FANGS, Sarah Anderson. At first take, I went “waitasec, is that the Odditorium? IT IS!” Seeing a local dive bar taken over by supernatural creatures was the hook for me, but its sweet, funny love story truly drew me in.
OLD GODS OF APPALACHIA has one of the most mesmerizing voices I’ve ever heard. Ghosts, witches, and haints dwell deep in an alternate Appalachia, where terrifying stags with luminescent antlers creep out to make terrible bargains with the locals. Do yourself a favor, give this one a listen. Start at the beginning–you’ll be glad you did.
THE MAGNUS ARCHIVES follows an archivist as he documents the various horrifying accounts of those desperate enough to seek an occultist’s expertise. I’m still working my way through season 1, but there are some stellar stories here. “The Piper,” “The Killing Floor,” and “A Father’s Love” were pure nightmare fuel of the best kind.
Today, the world outside was vibrant. Emerald green and daffodil yellow, a chaotic spray of pink cherry blossoms amongst crimson tulips. Spring has erupted in chartreuse moss and warm sunshine, and yet it feels like the sun is gone.
I struggled with this feeling all day. A long-absent weight eased onto me, and I couldn’t recognize what it was. I roamed from room to room feeling hunted by this thing, like I needed to physically break the psychological thread slowly binding me in place.
And then I realized what it was, and why it bothered me so much.
This metaphor is going to get weird, but just…follow me with this for a minute.
Pretend you live in a huge house. It’s a lovely, rambling old thing, with a huge backyard, a wraparound veranda, a beautiful garden, and a picket fence you paint every year. You love this house, and you’re familiar with it. You grew up here. You know every creak, every noisy floorboard, what it sounds like in the winter and the spring. And all your life, you’ve trusted this house and its grounds, tending its flowers, minding its upkeep, utterly safe in the knowledge that this place is yours.
But one morning, you open the curtains to discover the world beyond the fence has disappeared. In its place is pure nothingness. A black void has cut off your home from the rest of the world, and it leaches at the edges of what you still have.
At first glance, this world is so unknown, so repulsive you’re certain it has to be a dream. You pinch yourself. You check the clocks. Check every measure of time and light and rightness and sanity to try and disprove what you saw. But when you look again, the void is still there.
Rattled, you close the curtains. The garden is still there, but a dark seed has taken root and you can feel its roots unfurling. Spreading. You feel more than know that the outside world is not safe. Every so often, you peer out, hoping things will have gone back to normal.
The black void is still there.
You decide not to look, but on the next day, you can’t help yourself. You hope it was just a dream. You hold your breath as you sneak up on tiptoe and snatch back the curtain.
The void is still there. Nothingness surrounds your patch of sky, your bizarrely sunlight porch. It looks so normal, and simultaneously so wrong.
Time becomes slippery. The clocks are no longer an accurate measure. Cut off from the world, you begin to think in recursive loops. The same way you pace the house, over and over, repeating the same actions in the hope of retaining some sense of normalcy.
But every day, the void swallows more of your world. Each glance outside reveals some new loss. It spills over the fence and into the yard, creeping inch by inch. It takes the garden, and then the walk. Now, the void laps at the bottom of the stoop. An ocean of black encroaches upon you, and you know it’s just a matter of time.
Day by day, it invades. Endless black spills in from under the door, dismantling all sense of safety. Now, you are a hunted animal, struggling to leap from one remaining room to the next. You know you are cornered, but there is no escape.
Not until it pins you in a single room.
Out there, it is not safe. Everything you trusted and found comfort in has disappeared, taken by this nameless thing. It’s so vast and endless that you don’t have any idea how to fight it.
Where you once lived safely, you now live governed by fear.
It’s just a story, just a metaphor, one I used to describe to therapists and family members what happened when I got trapped in my house.
Agoraphobia has bitten me several times to varying degrees. The first time it struck, I didn’t know what it was. I only knew that nothing was safe anymore, and the only place that did feel safe was home. But even that sense of safety began to crumble as the fear continued to grow.
First, I couldn’t leave the house.
But then I couldn’t be around my family. I locked myself in my room and waited until everyone was asleep to come out. At times, the room would close in on me, too, and I would crawl under my bed, trying to hide from a thing I couldn’t understand.
I did not know what agoraphobia was, or panic disorder, or depression. What I felt was so convincing that it truly felt as though I would die if I took one step past that last threshold of safety.
But it happened again and again. The first time, at 13, again at 15, again at 17. It chased me out of my first attempt at college. And I mostly kept it at bay, but it would come back to varying degrees over time.
It returned in my late twenties, and after a protracted battle, I managed to overcome it.
Now, with COVID19 sweeping the globe, it is a terrifying specter again, lurking at the edge of the yard.
What I am trying to remember is that collectively, we are all experiencing this. Our access to the outside world has become progressively limited as the virus spreads. Unlike the irrational fear of agoraphobia, this threat is real.
In some ways, it is comforting to see others reach out and try to help each other cope. Because most of us aren’t. We’ve lost our jobs. We’ve lost our gathering places. We’ve lost physical human contact. Even when we do go out, there is an element of danger that causes me pain to watch others struggle with. Things that I once did out of irrational fears are now necessary precautions. Gloves. The endless washing. Wiping down groceries with disinfecting wipes. Avoiding others with a very real fear of terrible consequences.
At the same time, though I know it is rational and necessary, repeating the pantomimes of agoraphobia is deeply terrifying. Watching this thing consume the world the same way it has consumed me in the past is something out of my worst nightmares.
I could not identify why I was struggling so badly with quarantine.
But now I do, and now that I know which enemy I can fight, I want to help others who might be struggling with isolation the same way I have over the years.
Here’s what helped me.
–Isolation is the worst part. Try to stay in contact with others. Voice messages are a great alternative to phone calls. Group chats are also helpful, especially if you struggle to make conversation.
–Limit your exposure to bad news. We’re all drowning in updates. Use browser extensions to blacklist subjects. Mute or unfollow where you have to. Tell people you’re overwhelmed by it and can’t talk about it. It’s okay to set those boundaries. You’ve got to be able to take care of yourself.
–Stick to a schedule. Make a to do list for the day. Cross off each task you manage. Mine is brimming with small tasks, because I need the sense that I’m getting things done. There are lots of apps for this. You can also reach out for accountability to friends. Like, “I need to accomplish at least five tasks. Will you talk to me while I clean the kitchen?” Challenging each other with tasks can turn it into a game. Making sure you stick to static wake times, meal times, and bedtimes is HARD, but it helps. The goal is just to try to make sure you’re taking care of yourself. Which leads to…
–Take care of yourself. This is why I have to make a daily to do list. I have to remind myself to shower, brush my teeth, take meds, drink enough fluids, manage pain, make sure I eat. Baseline self-care is one of the first things to go for me with the onset of agoraphobia, so it’s one thing I try to remain vigilant of.
–Set aside “comfort time.” This can be sitting with your cat, reading a book, playing a video game, cuddling with a loved one, or watching a movie. In my case, it’s usually wrapping myself into a blanket burrito in a dark room with some rain noises. The goal is to really, truly, physically relax. Reduce stimuli–dim the lights, turn down the volume–and do things that make you feel better. Light a candle. Soak in the bath. Eat some chicken nuggets while soaking in the bath. Whatever, as long as it’s something that actually feels good.
-Distractions are going to take up the bulk of your time. Some of them will be practical, useful distractions, and some of them won’t. Try to switch them up throughout the week. You don’t want to get burned out on one activity.
-Set aside “stress time.” All that pent up worry and frustration has to go somewhere. Write it down. Let yourself get it all out. Rant to yourself in the car. Scream into a pillow. Sing along to something loud. Go for a run. Sweep your kitchen. (Cleaning is generally my go-to.) Go for a run. Or do jumping jacks in your backyard at 3 AM. It’s gonna look weird, but if it works, it works.
–ASK FOR HELP. When you get to a point of being too worried, too scared, too overwhelmed, reach out. Crisis text lines are a thing, and they are WONDERFUL. Text 741741 to talk to a crisis counselor. They’ll talk you through what you’re experiencing and help connect you to the resources you need. Mental health is critical for all of us right now. It is absolutely valid to feel overwhelmed, hopeless, and afraid. You don’t have to do it alone. More resources specific to COVID19 here.
While you’ll often feel alone and scared, please remember you aren’t alone. So many of us are in this together right now, and I see so many people leaning on each other, helping each other, doing their best to make sure that we all get through this.
I’m telling you this as much as I’m telling myself this: there is a collective good here worth saving. It isn’t all doomed. But the only way out is through.
Please take care of yourselves out there. I hope we all make it to the other side of this thing alive and with more empathy and compassion for others. More ingenuity for fixing the problems that have long affected our communities and our world at large. Yes, so many things are falling apart, and that’s terrifying. But we can get through this. And no matter what it looks like on the other side, we will rebuild. We always do.
Much love to you, reader. Thank you for making it this far.
I get asked about revising a lot.
I have been asked about the process so much that I crafted a workshop out of it. I can’t give the same workshop every month, but it’s a fairly vital topic.
Writing and revising are not easy. First, there’s the writing part, which is as arduous as it needs to be. You pump out your zero draft, molten and messy, then you have the raw material needed to revise.
Some people do not “do” zero drafts. Some people revise as they write. Hats off to you if you’ve figured it out. I myself have yet to finalize anything below four drafts.
Revising is necessary for a creature like myself. Here are my notes on how to stay sane throughout the process, fellow tender morsels.
HOW TO REVISE YOUR BOOK
So you finally got to “THE END.” You persevered through all doubts, reservations, and fears, all to arrive at those two golden words.
But are you finished?
Oh, my friend, you have only just begun.
What do you mean, I HAVE TO REVISE MY BOOK?
Remember how teachers asked for rough drafts? Y’know, you’d be assigned some enormous research paper, and teachers would set due dates for the entire process: thesis statement, introduction, outline, rough draft, and final draft. In all likelihood, this was to ensure they didn’t receive messy, incoherent, hastily-written papers.
Oh, my lovely. Listen: that 400+ page beast you’ve just finished is a rough draft. It is not ready for querying. It is nowhere near close to a final edit. Under no circumstances should you pay someone to “edit” it. Immediately hiss and swat at any evildoer who suggests otherwise.
This is not to undermine the glory of your achievement. You have accomplished an amazing thing. You’ve written a book.
But it is not ready.
And the only thing you should do when you understand this is SAVE and CLOSE the file.
Let it rest for at least a few days. Your eyes must be fresh and unclouded by hate when you come back to your pages.
The initial pass serves two essential functions:
Clean up the document for readers. Be your own spell check. Eliminate basic typos and wonky formatting.
Note what you need to work on. Jot down what pops out at you—clunky dialog, plot holes, verbal crutches, weak characterization, inconsistent point of view—and compile a list. I separate problems by whether they’re global (manuscript-wide changes) or local (scenes).
Once you have a list of potential issues, turn your focus outward. You’re going to need more eyes. Remember: verify before you vivisect. What you consider a flaw might be your novel’s finest aspect.
Start searching for critique partners and beta readers. You’ll want to work with someone familiar with your genre and its demands. Not sure where your book would be shelved? Start with who you imagine reading it. Where would they go to find your book?
Write a summary. Readers and critique partners will want an idea of what they’re getting into. A good rule of thumb for what to include (per the wondrous Nathan Bransford) are CHARACTER, CONFLICT, and QUEST. Pretty much every pitch I’ve ever read follows this basic structure:
“When conflict happens to the main character, they must overcome the conflict to complete their quest.”
This applies to fiction and nonfiction of all kinds. Tossing a ring into the fires of Mordor does not a quest make. A Campbellian hero’s journey does not have to be epic in scale to be compelling.
If you’d like to go on your own hero’s journey, the next step you could take in this process would be to write a query letter. It’s certainly one way to knock out several birds with one stone, and if you’re interested in traditional publication, it’s a dragon you’ll be forced to to face. However, that particular journey is best covered in a separate workshop. Let’s refocus.
Critique partners! Where does one find them?
Feedback received. Now what?
Identify what resonates and what doesn’t.
Not all critique is good critique. It’s up to you to decide what will help your book. Cast a wide net and see what issues your readers consistently point out. If readers repeatedly tell you the voice is weak and your favorite character adds nothing to the story, you might want to reexamine voice and characterization.
Collect feedback. Bounce ideas off readers and writers you trust. You’re forming a strategy for the next draft. One could call it a…
Remember how I mentioned “global” and “local” issues? That’s the idea. Start big and work your way down.
PLOTS AND SUBPLOTS
Examine your structure. Is there a clear beginning, middle, and end? Is the overarching conflict ever resolved? If you’ve woven in subplots, ask yourself whether they make the story compelling or confusing. Each thread should serve the tapestry. If it doesn’t…
Does your reader care what happens? No? Probably a good place to blow something up or burn something down.
Does it drag? Does it move too fast? Your readers will let you know.
Are your characters believable? Do they change over the course of the story? Who are they at the beginning, and who do they become by the end? Every character may not experience a clear arc, but your primary and secondary characters should be affected in some way. If they move the plot, the plot moves them.
Remember, we don’t have to like them. They just need to be interesting.
POINT OF VIEW/TENSE
What lens best serves your story? Is it an edge-of-your-seat thriller? First person present might be your friend. Third person past is a popular choice for fantasy, but feel free to do weird things with it. Turn it inside out. Make it work for you.
There are multiple voices in your book. One set belongs to your narrators. One belongs to you. Depending on how many points of view you choose, balancing the two can be difficult.
Common elements of voice include vocabulary, syntax, and description. If everyone speaks and acts like a poet, the reader will have a hard time telling your characters apart.
Get familiar with these terms. Issues with characterization, pacing, and point of view will likely show up as culprits in multiple revisions.
More than one.
Dear writer, revision is a hydra, but keep faith: your strategy will improve over time.
What about the finer things?!
Ah, those literary devices. Are there particular themes you want to work in? Maybe a character is associated with a symbol. Or you’d like to create a brooding, dreadful atmosphere. Perhaps one character acts as a foil to another. Clever motifs, foreshadowing, and shifts in narrative structure might be high priorities for you as a writer. Don’t discount these darlings when pages are on the chopping block. A minor stylistic change might save an otherwise broken plot.
Any other tricks or tips?
A few hacks I’ve found helpful in identifying problems:
- Read it out loud. Nothing susses out wooden dialogue or run ons quite like reading your own pages out loud.
- Print it out. I’m not sure how many times I’ve been stumped on a problem, only to immediately spot it on a printed page.
- Get weird. You have no idea how many times changing the font of a serious POV to Comic Sans MS saved my sanity. Give it a try sometime. You’ll thank me later.
PERFECT VERSUS GOOD ENOUGH
Advice is great and all, but…
WHEN IS IT DONE, you scream into the void.
WHEN IS IT FINISHED, you howl, hurtling your MacBook down the street.
WHEN AM I DONE?!
There is no fail-safe for this. You have to develop your own rubric. Traverse your own underworld. Rescue your manuscript from its depths. When you’ve done all you possibly can, throw it farther. Enter it into contests. Query. If problems still exist, you’ll find them.
With persistence, you will accrue enough knowledge and experience to know when it’s time to shelve a project and move onto the next.
The only way out is through, dear writer.
The “see with eyes unclouded by hate” quote is totally applicable to the revision process: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EISWfdFNiUU
Nathan Bransford’s masterlist of writing advice: https://blog.nathanbransford.com/writing-advice-database
More about that godforsaken Hero’s Journey: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero%27s_journey
Upstate Creative Writers Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/upstatewriters/
Upstate NaNo Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/upstatenano/
The Absolute Write Critique Partner Master Thread: https://absolutewrite.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?30-Beta-Readers-Mentors-and-Writing-Buddies&s=207dbc0de5272ad710ac3f6527ec01cb
Writer’s Block Party Critique Partner Match Up: https://writersblockpartyblog.com/2018/01/11/wbps-critique-partner-match-up/
Critique Partner Google Match Up https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/critique-partner-matchup
#CPMatch Twitter hashtag: https://twitter.com/hashtag/cpmatch?lang=en
#CPConnect Twitter hashtag: https://twitter.com/hashtag/CPConnect?src=hash
Jes’s revision checklist that is, in fact, pretty ultimate: https://www.inklyo.com/ultimate-fiction-editing-checklist/
Another trustworthy list from Marissa Meyer: https://www.marissameyer.com/blogtype/from-idea-to-finished-step-6-revisions/
The date took me by surprise today.
I was scribbling down my schedule–I travel so much these days, it’s hard to keep the days straight–when I realized I’d forgotten what the day was.
Grief is funny like that. It’s taken seven months, but here I am, finally at the point where it’s no longer piercing my prefrontal cortex. It’s sneaky, hidden in muscle memory, and when I thought “oh, oh, that’s why I’ve been so upset,” the pen fell out of my hand.
Last month, you hid me a message in a fortune cookie. And because this is how grief works, I knew, like, deep-down, gut-deep knew. Something was coming. I hoped it was good, and it was.
The car eats up a lot of miles these days. I traverse a circuit between Greenville and Asheville, and the only time I stop moving is when I’m asleep. I work, I write, I struggle, ineptly, to build new connections in a new city, and work toward the idea of living the life I want to live.
It’s hard, without you.
There’s that stretch of 25 through Flat Rock and Fletcher, right after the NC border, where you and I first talked about moving up there. We were on our way to a book signing, to meet authors who were the exact sort of people we wanted to be. It was a time when I believed without a single doubt we’d get there together.
Seven months now of struggling toward that without you. It still doesn’t feel right, but I’m doing it anyway.
Listen, I know you were worried, but the advice you gave me last year about staying soft was solid.
You’re the armor around my heart, now. And I’m doing just like you said. It isn’t easy. I’m not the person I was. Everything is new. Everything is awkward. I feel helpless at times.
But this softness isn’t helplessness. It’s a conscious choice to not be anything other than exactly what I am. To stop hiding, and own this thing that bleeds in plain sight.
I have always been this thing, I just…
I couldn’t be honest about it.
That was the first lesson, and the hardest one.
Every defense I had was useless. Everything I’d ever used to keep myself safe didn’t work.
I’ve been helpless in various ways in my life, but it never felt as awful as it did to stand and hold your hand and know I couldn’t do a goddamned thing to save your life. The only thing I had control over was how I chose to let you go.
I tried, good buddy. But I’ve lost so much. I have lost so many people. So many things.
Loss doesn’t make you better at losing things. It makes you worse at it. Because you can logically know exactly how it works, but the heart doesn’t get it. It never gets it.
You held my hand as long as you could, because you knew losing you was gonna smash me to bits. And it did. Exactly as much as it had to, exactly as much as was necessary.
Losing you could have destroyed me.
But here I am, trying to build. Continuing forward despite the unknowns.
I’ve always been intimately acquainted with death; it’s always passed me by. It always chooses someone else. It brushes past me, and every time, every single time it’s like I go running after you. All of you. In my heart, I’m still that seven-year-old kid, returning to the same back porch night after night, hoping that maybe, just maybe you’ll come back.
But I can’t do that anymore.
I got that offer you told me about.
This fall, I’m going to move. Me! Agoraphobic me, who’s never been able to move away from Simpsonville, who’s always been afraid. Who never had faith that I could take care of myself, that I could take chances.
I sure have taken on a lot of them since you left. Ugh. I know you had a cackle or two. I’ve got some scrapes, yeah. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But I never did this when I was supposed to. I’m stunted. All those years of bowing over, braced for the wrong death.
God, I never thought it would be you.
And I never should have stopped living the way I did, but I thought I wouldn’t be able to survive the pain.
You were a shelter through the worst of those years. You understood, you knew why I couldn’t leave. Maybe you know my heart a little better, now. All the times I wanted to tell you just what that meant, but choked on it.
You were part of my purpose, you know?
You were a reason I was here. Why I stayed here. Alive. You know it, now. I know you do. Whatever you are now, however you exist. You’ve seen my insides. You saw the full map. You know.
You know why I can’t stop moving, these days. Why it’s so hard to lay down and sleep.
It’s hard. I don’t know what I’m doing, exactly, but I’m doing it, based on a dream I refuse to let go of, even if you’re not here anymore.
Listen, I couldn’t tell you this while you were alive, but you don’t have to worry anymore.
I’m sorry I walled myself off the way I did.
I was in so much pain. No one could touch it. It was just this agonized knot of wrongness in the middle of my chest. Walking away took every ounce of willpower I had, and it just kept sapping me of everything. Every dream. Every hope. Everything I’d believed in. I crumpled in a way I never had before, and no one, absolutely no one could truly get inside my heart.
You tore one hell of an exit hole through me. It completely destroyed all of that. All the parts of me that felt wrong. All the parts of me that felt unlovable.
How could I be the thing I thought I was, when you held my hand like that at the end?
Thank you for still taking care of me.
Thank you for helping me protect this heart.
I thought I’d lost it, but you took me straight to it, you know?
Yeah, the fighter still remains.
And now I’m gonna move to a new city, read my work to strangers. Be an extraordinarily small fish in a big pond. I’ll work a lot, and write a lot, and keep at it till I get to see “For Pru” in print, in a physical book I can hold in my hands.
These days, I imagine my heart as an open cage, a ship in my chest. Door hanging open, so all the people I’ve loved can traverse freely. But when I think of you, I imagine you small, sitting in the doorway, your legs swinging cheerfully as I walk, as I continue, as I keep going.
For you, I’ll stay soft.
For Papa, I’ll keep trying my best to be “Miss Super Fantastic,” who could take one more step.
For Rosanne, who taught me kindness, and Mary Lou, who taught me how to laugh.
For Zeppy, Miles, Tober, and Pitiful. I’m trying to be the human you saw me as. For Tiffany, who should have had more time. For Gramma, who I think of every time I bake. For Big John, who sat me down so many times and told me to keep at it. For Eddie, who told me I had a bookstore with my name on it, and so much money I’d never be able to count it.
This list will grow longer. That’s just how this is.
I don’t know how much time will pass before I see you again.
But I hope when I do, I’ll have learned to love the way you did.
I hope I leave the world better than it was.
Asheville is going to be different than anything else I’ve ever done before.
I wish we were doing this together, on the same timeline. Maybe in another life.
Thank you for still being here inside me.
Thank you for the heads up about where I was going and what I’d be doing next.
Did you see Good Omens?
If you haven’t, I’ll tell you about it when I see you again. It’s gonna be a while, I think, but I know you’ll be there waiting, so I’m gonna keep trying to become the person you had faith I could be.
I miss you.
I love you.
I love you.
I love you.
I love you.
I love you.
I love you.
I love you.
“How are you?”
This is a dangerous question, today.
On the way to work, my knuckles, already OCD-torn, cracked and bleeding, are white with strain. I pinch my nose. I do all the things I know to keep my mascara on my eyelashes, not all over my face.
It isn’t easy, because today marks exactly one month.
Today, it’s been thirty days since my best friend died. Thirty days since I walked in aimless circles outside fourth floor ICU waiting, trying to keep myself from ripping apart the two Christmas trees next to the elevators, breaking absolutely everything in sight. I shook. I trembled. My bones rattled as I stood and watched my best friend’s husband get to his feet and walk to the desk, and talk to the clerk, who opened the doors. And I watched him cross that threshold knowing he had to go and do something I couldn’t bear.
I just rattled in place, knowing that it was time, and that he had to tell them yes, it’s time to take them off life support.
And I couldn’t do it.
I ran away.
I went home. I sat and waited. I couldn’t sit. I got up and paced. I hadn’t slept more than two hours in days. I paced more. My mother just watched me and cried, because it was awful to watch no matter what distance you stood at, no matter what angle you watched from.
It didn’t make sense.
It still doesn’t make sense.
On November 30, my best friend contacted me and Archie, another best friend, for an emergency Stonehenge meeting.
Stonehenge was a friend name, a thing that was what we were for each other: a big old bunch of rocks who were always there and always had been, and, as far as we’d known, always would be.
It’s a hell of a thing when your rock tells you, “So, basically, I’m Deadpool.”
“I’ve got no sense of humor right now,” I told them. “What does that translate to?”
“Turbo cancer!” This, said with genuine, honest humor, because that was the kind of person Pru was. “It’s basically everywhere.”
“It’s metastasized?” I think my eyes watered over at this point.
“Pancreas, lung, spleen, liver.”
My heart did an awful nasty thing, hearing “pancreas” and translating to “pancreatic cancer,” which meant “going to die within two weeks.” So I asked, “What kind?”
Melanoma. Oh! Well, then, there’s time. They’ll run the tests, do targeted treatment, and we’ll all throw in together to help clean and cook meals. Keep everything going while they got better.
I clutched onto Pru’s leg anyway, because I was the one who was a mess, and I couldn’t joke about it. I was and never have been the stoic friend capable of maintaining composure under emotional duress. It’s either the best thing about me or the worst, but regardless, Pru had wanted me there, crying or no.
Later that night, I tried to go home, and I couldn’t. I drove in a circle. And then I started screaming, and I punched the steering wheel, screaming “no no no no no no” because “cancer” and my best friend’s name were not allowed to exist in the same sentence.
But now they did.
Days went by. Tests, but no treatment. Conditions worsened. They worried. A motley of us tried to reassure that we had time, that it wasn’t over till it was over.
My best friend, crying late one night in the stationary aisle of Walmart, telling me “I’ve got to leave something for the boys,” me reassuring that they’d still be here. That there was time.
December came, and by the fourteenth, it was hospital time again. So they went, and they were admitted, and hooked up to tubes and bags and drugs and by the time I saw all the scary physical warnings, the things I recognized, just did not, would not accept…
I swapped gears. Shifted over into disaster-crisis, where I could be okay, be helpful, hold my best friend’s hand while we walked straight into hell.
“It’s okay. I’m here. You can sleep, it’s okay. I’m here. Craig’s here. You’re not alone. You’re not alone.”
There comes a point where that’s all you can do.
I was on my way from work to the hospital when Molly sent a text that I didn’t need to stop by CVS. And then I got another, that Pru’s vitals had crashed and they were rushing them to ICU.
I stared at the numbers.
I drove too fast.
I didn’t really think about it. I just ran. South parking, down the stairs, then across. Then into the hospital lobby. Then the elevators. Trying not to think about what might happen. Just that I needed to get there. And when I did…
God, you know, it was a terrible thing, but sitting in ICU waiting, watching everyone coming in. Waving from the glass. There were so many of us, the desk attendant had to tell us to shut up.
Watching all the people who loved my best friend walk into ICU was the only thing that made the waiting bearable.
Eventually I got to go back.
You notice the weirdest things in hospitals. I saw a lot of them as a kid. Sickness, then heart surgery when I was nine. You’ll never see red paint on hospital walls. Just calming colors.
The ICU was spring green.
I walked for the longest time, till I got to a room set up like a surgical theater. And then I stopped, and I looked at my best friend in that bed. The no-longer-conscious tilt of their head, the yellow tinge of their skin. I stepped in.
I walked up.
I teared up.
I said, “Hi, buddy,” and my voice broke.
I searched for my best friend’s hand, and I grabbed it, and I recited everything I could see. Described everything I could see, everything it meant. Googled it. Recited numbers on screens. Blinked fast, blinked hard, because those numbers were not naturally possible with organ failure.
But I watched my best friend fight the numbers back up, digit by digit. I held tight and said “You’re fighting, I see it. There, you did it again. It’s going up. You’ve got this. You’ve got this.”
I held on until my turn was over.
In the morning, I returned. Called work, because there was no realistic way I could leave. I knew myself. I knew I wouldn’t.
I knew I couldn’t.
I kept coming back and standing in that room, hoping it would get better, but it only got worse.
I couldn’t do anything about it. The most I could do was call over nurses, or keep Pru from ripping out IVs, saying, “I know it’s awful, but that one goes straight into your heart. Please don’t touch that one.” And the pinch, one more piece of whatever a heart is breaking inside me, when they stopped more for the pain they heard in my voice than whatever discomfort they felt.
It’s a terrible thing, watching someone you love in that much agony.
I thought a lot about drastic actions. Stealing a bunch of morphine, pulling out all the IVs, and hightailing my best friend out of there. Things that tricked me into feeling better for five minutes, better than the realization we’d already passed whatever threshold would have allowed for a more comfortable death.
Half of me knew.
Half of me would have fought God, the Devil, or both if I could.
Eventually the family was called back. I hesitated at the door, unsure till Craig said “You’re family. Come on.”
That was the morning I watched a dialysis machine running in a futile figure eight, noticed one of the catheters was gone, and another had stopped collecting anything.
The vitals were stable, steady.
But the doctors said “let’s talk about this in another room,” and Pru fought through whatever fog they were in enough to say “Where are you going, I don’t like this, I don’t like this secret meeting”
And I said “We’ll be right back, right back, it’s just loud in here, we’ll be right back”
I didn’t come right back.
I sobbed in an anteroom while two doctors laid out what was happening. That it was time to bring in everyone who wanted to say goodbye.
That it was time to say goodbye.
So I called an emergency meeting of Stonehenge, and the three of us held each other’s hands. Pru’s eyes were clearer, more lucid.
Lucid enough to ask, “Am I dying?”
And lucid enough that when we said yes, they sighed and said, “Well, that fuckin’ sucks.” Strong enough, there enough to tell me “None of that” when I started crying, because our time was limited, and they had many, many more goodbyes that would need to be said.
Even in that state, Pru remembered that I could not, can not handle the word “goodbye.” It was always “see you later,” or “see you soon, good buddy” or “I love you.” We were both prickly as hedgehogs, and we danced around each other’s spines a good bit, but “I love you” was holy. There were a thousand reasons why those were the only words I wanted to be the last I gave, they last they heard.
Even while dying, Pru remembered.
“I love you. I love you so much.”
That was the important thing. There would be time to grieve later. Now, we had the space for one last, good memory. One last good moment together.
Eventually, thirty minutes ran out.
I was holding Pru’s hand.
Time was up, but they didn’t let go.
Everything they had. One squeeze after another. It must have been ungodly painful, but they didn’t let go. I cried. I said “I love you” over and over until it ran together, stopped making sense.
Pru didn’t let go until they went unconscious.
Archie caught me as we walked away. As I folded in half with knowing that was the last time.
That was the last time we’d tell each other “I love you.”
That was the last time I’d hold my best friend’s hand.
Sometimes, I want to go back. I get this feeling, like if I go up there, sneak into the ICU, if I can somehow go back there, I’ll find the door they exited through. Like something out of a story I could write, that door would appear, and I could have another five minutes, another day, another conversation, another hug, another “I love you.”
But I just end up screaming in the parking lot, punching the steering wheel, till the scream turns into the cry, and the cry turns into a plea, and the reality of it settles back over me.
I could say a lot of inspirational things here, about how we keep the people we love alive within ourselves. How we take them with us, how we honor their memory by living, by doing, by loving in their stead.
That isn’t what happens.
I clutch onto the wheel like I’m drowning, and I talk to Pru, because all I want in that moment is to feel like I’m close enough to have a conversation. And I say the things that I can’t help but say, because I can’t keep them in:
“Please stop being dead, just stop being dead, please”
“I wish you could come home”
“I miss you”
The same things I text late at night, when I can’t sleep and I’d curl up on a grave if there was one, because the ache feels like it’ll kill me, too.
I wake up, and sometimes I forget. I forget, till I remember, and it starts over again.
Some days, it’s easier. Some days I remember these tiny, funny things, and I share them with people. That was the thing about Pru—there was something about them that even a stranger can tell what a god damn delight it was to know them. How lucky those of us who got to know them were. Because it’s unmistakable.
Dozens of people, crowding ICU waiting.
Nearly four hundred people in the group Pru initially set up to coordinate our voluminous efforts.
A hundred plus at the comedy benefit.
And the pouring out of people at karaoke after.
I’m glad I made it through that song for you, good buddy, even if it resulted in the loudest, ugliest scream-cry I’ve ever had in public.
It still hurts.
It’s always gonna hurt.
But we promised, didn’t we?
Til the end of the line.
It feels like you’re gone, but…
You left behind quite a legacy, you know?
I’ve got a lot to do, to make you proud.
And even though it’s fucking agony, and absurd, and I’m fairly certain I’m gonna scream-cry my way to and from work for a few days, well…
I’ve got to keep going, no matter how hard it gets.
Even though every step forward feels like it’s taking me away from you.
Even though every tick of the clock makes me wish I could make it run backwards.
Even though it feels like I’m leaving you, somehow.
I know you’re waving. Cheering me on. Cheering us all on.
I will, good buddy.
Just let me stay here a little longer.
It’s busted all to hell, but you gave me my heart back.
I won’t let this harden me.
All the armor fell off, watching you die.
You’ve done a pretty miraculous thing, cracking me open like this.
I’m not the only one.
A lot of us who were lonely aren’t lonely anymore.
A lot of us who kept shutting people out aren’t shutting anyone out anymore.
The thread that was you cinched through us and drew us all together, simply by merit of being people who loved you.
There are so many of us, because there was so much of you.
It was more than enough.
You were always more than enough.
I love you, Pru.
We all do.
We can’t stop.
The hall of antlers was a place Henry only saw in his dreams.
It was staggering to think of how many bodies it had taken to fill that expanse. How much blood, how many lives. In the dream, the question was soft, merely wonder, because awe was the only way to traverse such a place.
And in the dream, the antlers screamed as they broke. No avoiding them–it was impossible to take a step in any other direction. The only way through the dream was forward, but in those splintering howls and shrieks, all Henry could hear were warnings.
But there was no other way.
When he reached the end, the same figure always peeled itself out of the dark. A great horned god, Herne or Woden, so massive in stature that it could only be the night itself.
KNOW ME, it always said. REMEMBER I WILL COME FOR YOU.
The dream always ended with those words. But being a person of solid skepticism, he never put any stock into dreams. He went about his life and his business unharmed by any antlered god, unscathed by even the darkest night.
It was daylight when it finally came to claim him.
He should have known before the deer on the path opened its mouth and screamed.
I didn’t see you until I saw you,
carved out of the end of summer,
late September sunshine along the curve of your jaw.
Sky blue, clear like the way you
saw through everything,
All the way to its core.
And I started admiring fields of pale grass and the corner of your mouth–
that line that forms when you really smile,
the exact way you started to
when you began to see me, too.
Did you feel the way I did?
All lit up like a Christmas tree,
a forest filled with ten thousand fireflies.
Dappled morning sunlight reflecting off a creek,
the path of golden coins the full moon makes over the ocean,
Each trail of light a ladder to heaven.
And I saw you.
And in the dark—
did you see me there? my natural state
Those scraps of shadow and soft violet evenings.
Did my colors smudge yours? Did they call you
to crawl into the dark even as I climbed up to you,
finding you somewhere in the middle,
startled, but not frightened
surprised, but maybe expected
like we found each other at exactly the right time.
Last week, I visited New York City for the first time. Despite living a mere two hours away from NYC as a child, I’d never experienced the Big Apple. I have plenty of memories of Philly (gray, pretzels, gray, more gray) but New York? None.
So when I got onto a plane at 5:30 AM last Tuesday, I had no idea what I was in for. I mean, people try to prepare you. My mother wrote a very careful itinerary including directions for getting a cab. I was warned that the driving could be a little scary.
That cab ride from LaGuardia to Riverdale? Ha…hahahaha. Hahahahaha.
I am so glad to be home where there are proper lane divisions and driving is DRIVING, not furious salmon fighting upstream and/or for dominance. Everything was so much FASTER up there that I felt like a true bumpkin. Luckily I had my sister to lead us from the Met to St. John the Divine to Broadway and the Bronx Zoo. She compacted a true tour in the space of three days–a miraculous feat, honestly, when you consider she also wrangles three young kids.
So here’s the quick and dirty on New York:
Bus rides can take two hours. The subway involves running and confronting the most harrowing ranges of your personal bubble. Never hang out in the road, because a Caterpillar going 50 mph might run you down as soon as a Lexus. The roads are pure Darwinism. Survival of the fittest, whether you’re driving or trying to amble across. Yet somehow, passengers still thank people when they get off the bus and people can be very cheery and polite.
Everything is big and close together, and deep in the city it feels like you’re navigating around some hectic man-made mountain range. The buildings have a way of making you feel like a mere speck amongst thousands. When I followed my sister through the subway and up into Time Square, I wanted to clutch onto the back of her jacket because I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen so many people in one space before in my life. I’d seen it in movies, sure, but the screen doesn’t provide the scent of street carts and the sensory overload of hundreds of flashing screens and people shouting for your attention while you try to follow your long-legged navigator.
I followed my sister through a number of cool places. She took me to the Met, which was overwhelmingly amazing. So many exhibits. After that, she took me to Alice’s Tea Cup. I had a white chocolate strawberry scone that was worth flying up for again at a later date.
Thursday, we took off a few hours early for a show and wandered through Columbia’s campus and St. John the Divine. I’m fairly certain that when Cassandra Clare was imagining the Institute, she was thinking of St. John the Divine. It’s IMMENSE. HUGE. I had a true sense of awe walking around in there. I’ve never been in a cathedral that big, and wow, I wish I could have used it somehow for a book idea. It was a nice pause before we headed into Time Square to go see Aladdin. The stagecraft and the sheer glitz of the performance was unlike anything I’d seen back home. I’m not usually big on musicals, but this one made me realize why people make such a big deal out of it.
Our last day was spent almost entirely at the Bronx zoo. We met up with a very old friend who drove four hours just to see me, and we traversed the entire zoo. The butterfly garden was wonderful, I enjoyed the birds probably more than anyone else did, and I got to spend time with a friend I hadn’t seen in five years. We picked up like we’d seen each other the day before, same as always, and had a very nice time giggling and just BEING with each other.
(I also really liked the peacocks everywhere. It’s very clear who actually runs the zoo.)
All in all, it was a good trip. My sister and I got to spend some time together–which is very nice considering how far apart we are. Our family has always been spread between the North and South, and there’s no telling where she’ll live next. However, I did manage to cope with being on not one, but three planes, so hopefully travelling will get easier for me one day. At least I can survive plane flights.
And New York.
For someone as anxious as myself, the fact that I did not experience a SINGLE panic attack in New York is pretty phenomenal. On the planes, yes, but they were easier to control than in the past. It proved to me that if I can survive the subway, terrifying cab rides, planes, Times Square, and nearly getting lost a few times, I can survive anything. It gave me a huge victory over anxiety, which was almost as nice as seeing my sister.
So that was the trip! HOLLOW FOREST is still in progress (now sitting at 81k, oy vey). I’m close(r) to finishing it. In the meantime, I’ve been making some decent coin with freelance editing projects, trying to get over a rather nasty tooth extraction, and Early Summer. It’s already 90 degrees here in South Carolina, and spring is gone for another year. My yard projects are about to become downright hellish, but once they’re done…they’ll be DONE.
If they get done. Book first.
See you guys next month!