Monthly Archives: September 2013

Personal Archive: “How to Lose a Friend”

(Note: I wrote this essay a couple years ago for English 101. See this post for background info. All photos are from our trip and taken by me.)

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She followed me all over that island.

From the moment we stepped off the plane, I went and she followed. When we arrived at Euston Station and stood before the map of Technicolor spaghetti that’s the London Underground, I pointed and she followed. From Manchester to Ilford, from Beddgelert to Edinburgh, I got the directions, copied the confirmation numbers, reserved the rooms and read the maps.

Maybe she couldn’t do it herself. Maybe she didn’t want to. But for the first time in our lives, she was completely willing to let me take the lead, and with that sort of trust, how could I refuse? With every step I heard her voice just behind me, the fall of her feet and the straps of her backpack clinking. So it’s strange to me, looking back on a friendship three years dead, that it was on that trip I started to lose her.

No two people can be exactly alike, much as they’d like to think they are. Even in our childhood it was evident Emma and I didn’t share certain interests. A love of art, language, music and beauty: the obvious things were the things we bonded over. Things you can feel with your hands and hear with your ears. We painted together, watched movies and made clothing, played guitar and obsessed about the Beatles, all at shared levels of enthusiasm. But when I wondered out loud what the songs were about, or what the artists were feeling when they applied paint to the canvases we both loved so much, she would laugh and ask why I bothered with those kinds of things. As much as I tried, I couldn’t give her an answer. I just did. I saw things that were not there, thought about things that didn’t exist–not anywhere outside my own head.

However, that was beginning to change. With a lot of work and a little bit of magic, I was learning to make them exist, for real, in the world we both inhabited. That’s what I was trying to do with my story about Dinas Emrys.

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As we were planning our month-long tour of the UK, I made one thing clear: I wanted to go to Wales. Not just any part of Wales. Snowdonia, specifically the village of Beddgelert. I wanted to climb Dinas Emrys and take pictures of the ruins while I was on the same continent. It was my only stipulation.

You can find it easily; a mere stone’s throw from the A498, you don’t even have to get out of your car to get a picture of it. A rocky hilltop with a shaggy pelt of bushes and scrub running along its back, Dinas Emrys embodied everything I was struggling to express with my writing: rich history, hidden treasure, a tapestry of folklore and actual ruins you could visit, touch, feel and experience. Here at last was a physical link between the world of my imagination and the world everyone else inhabited. There was no way we could pass up an opportunity to visit.

Honestly, I shouldn’t be surprised with the way it turned out. Hiking for miles up to your knees in mud, following a meandering course up an obscure hilltop it’s technically illegal to climb, all to take some pictures of a pile of rocks isn’t high on many people’s list of things to do before they die. Maybe I was expecting too much out of her. Maybe I was just hoping for a little bit more.

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“I’m gonna go back to the room and watch TV for a while,” she told me over scrambled eggs and oatmeal in the bed and breakfast dining room. A dark-haired family in the corner spoke softly in Welsh, their words sounding like a limerick over the tinkling of forks and spoons.

“But. . . I thought we were going to Dinas Emrys today.”

She tossed her hair over her shoulder. “Again? We went yesterday.”

“We just went by and took pictures. Today I want to climb to the top.”

I have lovely pictures of us that day: her standing by a stone shed almost completely covered in moss and lichen; her in front of the lake; another one of her in front of the lake; and the obligatory me as a speck in a field, with my mountain as the backdrop. That entire trip, the only pictures of me are the ones I coaxed her to hold my camera and take. If she didn’t come, who would take my picture at the top?

“You can go,” she said, her voice taking a sharp turn up. “But I wanna stay in the room this morning.”

Our room had been a deal, but that’s the extent of its praise. We slept in the attic, with the only view of the windswept countryside being straight up, through the skylight.

“Emma, this is why we came to Wales. I have to climb that mountain.”

“Then climb it.”

“I don’t wanna go by myself.”

I should have mentioned the movie premier in London I endured for her, the press of people twenty-deep against my back, a man dressed as a pirate nearly knocking me down when the stars passed within autograph reach. My camera held those pictures too, and she’d looked at them every day since.

I should have mentioned it, but all I could think about was being alone, for the first time, in the wilderness of a country that wasn’t mine.

“Please, Emma. Come with me.”

“I told you, I don’t want to go. It’s going to rain and I’m tired and we went out yesterday. My shoes are still wet and I have a blister. We’ve been travelling for weeks and all I wanna do is lie around and watch TV and do nothing!”

The family in the corner stopped talking. I looked down at my eggs, half finished and cold on my plate.

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I climbed it, of course. This wouldn’t be much of a story if I didn’t. The pictures are a swirl of green moss, black earth and grey sky. I sat on the ruins of the 11th-century keep and thought about characters that would never come to life, a story that would die in my mind. I wiped the rain from my lens and started down the mountain, imagining–as always–I heard the footsteps that did not follow.

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Anton Chekhov on Description of Setting

Hillside in Wales, photo by me

“In my opinion a true description of Nature should be very brief and have a character of relevance. Commonplaces such as, ‘the setting sun bathing in the waves of the darkening sea, poured its purple gold, etc.’ – ‘the swallows flying over the surface of the water twittered merrily, etc’ – such commonplaces one ought to abandon. In descriptions of Nature one ought to seize upon the little particulars, grouping them in such a way that, in reading, when you shut your eyes you get a picture.

For instance, you will get the full effect of a moonlight night if you write that on the milldam a little glowing star-point flashed from the neck of a broken bottle, and the round black shadow of a dog, or a wolf, emerged and ran, etc. Nature becomes animated if you are not squeamish about employing comparisons of her phenomena with ordinary human activities, etc.”

–Letter to Alex P Chekhov, Babkin. May 10 1886.

(via Comma Press via The White Page)

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September 21, 2013 · 9:26 am

Hey There, You Found Me!

To all the new people rolling in, I just wanted to take a moment and say:

Welcome!

I am but a humble writer, who about a month ago got this crazy idea to start publishing stuff on the Internet. Other people do it all the time, so why can’t I?

Oh, that’s right. I don’t finish stuff.

Failure nips at my heels. I steep it in hot water and sip it over the morning paper–to build an immunity I like to claim but more likely so that I don’t get any bright ideas. People have success, tis true. Just other people. Not people like me.

But because I go crazy if I don’t, I continue my sad and lonely practice of writing, and lo and behold some people start noticing. I don’t know who these people are, but they like my posts and they click the follow button and so, I think, maybe there’s something to this. It’s not a nail driven into the wall full of rejection letters, not nearly. (I don’t have the fortitude for that just yet.) “Like” is so much more agreeable-sounding than “rejection.” Maybe people do like me; maybe I’m just kidding myself. Either way, I keep writing, because that’s what I do. My world is chaos without writing.

And then out of nowhere the right people find my stuff and all of a sudden, I have this thing thrust at me that I can’t rightly call a failure.

What is this thing? It’s shiny, and weird, with smooth edges and colorful buttons. It’s comments about things I came up with, way beyond the basic, “Like your post!” It’s engagement, it’s communication, it’s validation. It’s connections with real people, which take my little self-indulgent hobby and give it a purpose. Hey Jordan. There’s people out there who think like you do. With things to say about subjects you find important. And they want to have a conversation.

This thing might be, though I’m not going to get my hopes up because after a month there’s no way I’ve arrived–still have a long way to go to prove myself there–this little shiny new thing might just be a little piece of success.

So thank you, readers, and commenters (especially commenters!) And thank you WordPress for featuring my post “Writing Without A Map: In Which I End Up Exactly Where I’m Supposed to Be” on today’s Freshly Pressed. It’s just the sort of encouragement a fledgling writer needs to keep at it. Because Lord knows writers face enough rejection as it is.

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Our Secret Worlds and Facing Reality

Near Dinas Emrys, Wales, one of my secret worlds. Photo by me.

We writers live in a secret world.

It’s evident from our faces, which go blank at inappropriate moments, our eyes searching for something we can use to scribble down a line. It’s evident from our obsession with subjects that wouldn’t interest most people past a Wikipedia stub, and it’s evident from the massive gap that appears between our world and our attempts to ground it in reality. All artists, I believe, live in such a world, and all art (from the Latin word for craftsmanship) is an attempt to bring those worlds into fruition.

When I was younger, brimming with an entire universe of secret worlds, I thought this set me apart from everyone else. After all, none of my friends had characters banging on the inside of their skulls and threatening death and dismemberment unless they hurried up and finished the dang book. (True story. Please don’t call the mental health police.)

In fact, outside the online community, where it seems everyone and their illiterate cousin is writing a book, you many never once run into another writer in the wild–and if you do, you’ll most likely be too buttoned-up for either of you to know it.

But that’s okay, because everyone has a secret world. We writers just have this overwhelming drive, like all other artists, to share ours with others. And for some reason, we think this makes us special, when all it does is isolate us from those who cannot help but fail to “get it.”

Because that’s the thing about secret worlds. They’re intensely personal, the sum of all our life’s experiences, and how can we possibly hope to properly articulate that? Sometimes I envy all those people who are content to simply occupy their secret worlds, never once feeling the urge to share it with others. It would certainly make relationships a whole lot less complicated.

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I have a piece of personal writing planned for an upcoming post, but first I wanted to write about the ability writing has to isolate us from the rest of the world–because that piece clearly illustrates how I let that happen. And there’s the key: I let it happen. I made the choice to go where my friend could not hope to follow, then held it against her to the point of souring our relationship.

The truth is no one can follow us into our secret worlds, not even other writers. That’s why we put so many hours in front of a keyboard or holding a pen: we desperately want to communicate our worlds in ways others can understand. Without others, we’re alone.

The title of my personal piece is “How To Lose A Friend,” and I wrote it a couple of years ago during a particularly low point of my life. Naturally, in trying to make sense of it, I blamed it on someone else (which is so easy to do when you’re no longer speaking). Even though I’m happy to report we’ve patched things up, having both gone through the painful process of growing up and experiencing life’s uncertainties, I feel compelled to share this piece because I think it’s a mindset we writers fall into so easily: Us and Them. Us, the great misunderstood, and Them, the uncultured cretins.

(What’s particularly interesting about it, I think, is the friend I lost happens to be an artist herself, and a rather good one. Make of that what you will.)

I’ve taken the liberty of changing her name, not because I’m afraid someone might recognize her, but because in the end, it wasn’t really about her. It was about my narrow-minded selfishness. I chose to isolate myself within my world, and I paid the price most bitterly. I can only hope that I don’t make the same mistake again.

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Writing Without a Map: In Which I End Up Exactly Where I’m Supposed to Be

Downtown Griffin, GA by Amber Rhea

Setting out to write a novel is a lot like setting out on a roadtrip. Everyone does it differently. Some people collect maps and make plans, some have only a destination in mind, others don’t even know that much. For them, it’s the journey that matters, destination left up to the whim of chance.

My husband is a planner. Yesterday morning, when we decided we were going to drive an hour and a half south of Atlanta to one of those wild animal safari parks (where zebras and bison slobber on your windshield), he printed off pages of directions, complete with three different maps in varying levels of detail. Having navigated four weeks of Europe with nothing but Rick Steve’s guidebook and a keen sense of direction, I laughed at his lack of faith and tossed the maps on the floor with the Egg McMuffin wrappers.

“It’s just one road the entire way,” I told him. “Stay on I-85 until you hit LaGrange.”

Forty minutes later, after dissecting the themes of both Breaking Bad and There Will Be Blood, my husband asked what exit we were looking for. And, because my sense of direction is good but apparently not good enough, I immediately started getting a Really Bad Feeling About This.

Two minutes later, we’re pulling off the highway.

“You were supposed to navigate!” he said, frantically pulling up Google Maps on his phone.

“You were supposed to stay on I-85!”

We weren’t on I-85. Not even close. According to Google, it was going to take us another hour and a half to get to the animal park, cutting through what appeared to be a glitch: no roads, no towns, just a massive wedge of nothing between where we were and where we were supposed to be.

(To be fair, staying on I-85 involved taking an exit somewhere near the airport. I just wasn’t paying enough attention to tell him that.)

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This sort of thing happens to me a lot–and not just whenever my husband and I decide to get into a car together. As of late, my subconscious has been leading me down some pretty strange streets.

Writers may know what I’m talking about: make a plan, and prepare yourself to go waaaaay off-course. It’s almost like daring your writer-subconscious. “I’ll show you,” you think in your more lucid moments, while your subconscious is muttering, “We’ll see about that.”

I learned to trust my writer-subconscious a long time ago. It knows what’s up.

Most of the time, when I stare at the screen and nothing comes out, it’s because I have nowhere to go, and sure enough, the more I force it, the more we go wandering around in confused little plot circles. And when words pour like crazy, leading me further and further from my nice neat list of bulleted points, I know better than to try and yank it back on track. I’ve been sucking up stories for almost twenty-seven years now, so I’d like to think there’s a part of my brain that knows what it’s doing.

(Hopefully not connected to the part of my brain that knows where it’s going–because if our little roadtrip is any indication, that part needs some work.)

For some time now I’ve been trying to understand what’s been going on with WIP as of late, and a roadtrip is an excellent metaphor. Since 2007 this thing has squirted out of me in various forms and genres, all centered on one guy who lands himself in prison for a terrible, terrible crime. I don’t know why this guy fascinates me but I keep coming back to him, even when it doesn’t seem healthy or make a lick of sense.

Together, we’ve walked some strange roads, but none so strange as the ones we’ve walked this past year. For all of my plans, my notebooks full of dialogue, plot points, and description, I would never have planned on coming here, never in my wildest dreams thought my subconscious would bring me right back where I started: a fictional version of my hometown in all its illogical, country-fried glory.

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Five minutes after my husband and I found ourselves tragically, hopelessly, and unapologetically lost, we ended up in Griffin, Georgia–a town I am sure you will recognize as the filming location of Sundance Channel’s Rectifymy favorite and arguably the best show of 2013 (which is saying a lot cos this year’s been great for television).

And I never would have gone there of my own volition because it’s way out in the middle of freaking nowhere.

Rectify is about Daniel Holden, a man released from Death Row after 20 years due to some murky DNA evidence, and his return to the southern town of his childhood raises questions about guilt, innocence, punishment and forgiveness that I recognized the moment it started–same as I recognized the town where it was filmed.

“Oh my god, that’s the graveyard where they beat the crap out of him,” I said, in much the same tone I used in the presence of Shakespeare’s birthplace and Hadrian’s Wall. “I can’t believe it’s right there beside the road.”

And, about two minutes later: “Look at that! That’s the cute little street, with the bookstore and Susan’s beauty parlor. Did they even do any set dressing? It looks exactly like the show.”

And so on, with the gas station where Daniel buys Smart Water and wonders if it actually makes people smart, and the creek, ten minutes outside of town, where Hannah was murdered. “Creeks kinda all look the same, you know,” my husband tried to reason, but I knew better. This was definitely the creek.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to grow up here, in a town even more rural than mine, what it’d be like to come back after twenty years and try to find your bearings. We moved to North Georgia when I was eight. I’ve never felt like I really belonged. Maybe bringing my characters home helps me define not only who they are, but who I’ve become, as well.

Ray McKinnon, creator of Rectify, might understand. He grew up in Adel, South Georgia, a place probably not so different from the fictional Paulie he created for the show. And like all good Southern Gothic towns, the Paulie of Rectify is a character that exerts a will all its own.

For years I’d tried to set my story of guilt, innocence, punishment and forgiveness in a town that looked like everywhere but could only come up with a hazy shade of nowhere. It wasn’t until I committed to a real place–a place real enough to me, at least–that my story finally started to come around.

How important is setting to your stories? According to agent and author Donald Maass, a setting with character is an essential quality of breakout fiction. How much of your settings comes from personal experience, and how important is personal experience to your writing in general?

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What I Write: Facing the Evil

Dr. Lecter and his patient Will Graham from NBC’s Hannibal

Okay, so I’ve talked a little about why I write. Now…just what the heck do I write?

A handy list of my novels, in various states of completion:

  • at age 12, a blatant Legend of Zelda ripoff
  • at age 14, a less-blatant Star Wars ripoff
  • not long later, a historical fiction about slaves and kings in Fifth-century Wales
  • half novel/half graphic novel about identical triplets and a comic book that takes over the world
  • a hotel that eats people
  • and my current WIP, officially entitled Walls but affectionately known as Julian

That last one…that one’s tough. My novel/graphic novel is very cool, plotty while managing to be intensely character-driven, and if I could just get an artist to turn my script into drawn panels, could actually be something. It’s funny, fast-paced, relatable and accessible. My current WIP…

…is about a guy on Death Row. And the daughter who discovers him, weeks before his execution date. It’s hard to even admit that on a public forum. (And I want to get this thing published?)

When people at work ask what I’m writing (because I try to have pride about being a writer, plus everyone wants to know what I do with my days off, as if it’s any of their business), I simply tell them “young adult fiction.” That’s the category everything falls into, more or less. And it shuts them up enough, even though you’d think, working with kids, writing for kids would be respected. I guess people think Twilight. That’s fine and all, just not my thing.

My thing is apparently dark and evil and unmentionable. A teenager rapes and murders a nine-year-old girl. Sixteen years later, another teenager tries to come to grips with that. What it means about her, what it means about love, what it means about right and wrong. Judgments, personas, and how the past interacts with our lives. Plus graffiti and rock and roll, making your mark on history, your legacy, how you want to be remembered after you’re gone and just how out of our control that is.

Yeah. Try mentioning that in a preschool setting!

My favorite stories have always been about the big things, the dark things, the things that are difficult to explain. Anyone ever read Robert Cormier? For a long time I was obsessed with Neil Gaiman, whose characters always seemed to be in a moral quandary. Lately I’ve been reading Gillian Flynn’s deeply-flawed, unlikable, conflicted characters (she’s like an addiction to something sugary and full of toxins). Recently finished watching Hannibal, ITV’s brilliant Broadchurch, and just started on Breaking Bad. People who do bad things, or try to do good and fail miserably.

Why? Why to we do these things? Why do we hurt the people we love? We commit some terrible acts as a human race, and half the time I understand it while the other half I just sit there, baffled.

Even children. Even little babies, sitting there smacking each other on the head and laughing.

So…what is the most evil thing you can think of, and how can we deconstruct it? Let’s dwell on that for several years of our lives.

I guess it boils down to this, my own personal understanding: everyone is judged. We try not to do it, but a big part of our how our brain works is that it takes unfamiliar experiences and relates them to past experiences. Instant judgement. It’s wrong, it’s necessary for survival, and it results in bullying, social and racial stereotypes, acts of terrorism, and false convictions.

This is Joel Stein, from the latest Time Magazine about getting picked for jury duty:

Judge Richman then asked us each if we were able to avoid making assumptions about the defendant, who was also in the room, based on the enormous tattoo covering his face. I told him I certainly could. But by the 20th time he asked a potential juror, I started to wonder, if, compared with the non-faced tattooed, the face tattooed are more likely to make poor decisions. After all, these are people who walked into a tattoo parlor and said, “I think this design will go well with my face.”

I want to be judged for who I really am, what I do and how I treat others. Everyone does. It just doesn’t happen that way.

So I’m writing a novel about a very bad man because I want to face the evil–inside of him, inside of me. It’s not so different from why my main character decides to visit her dad in prison, how she’s able to go out alone at night and paint her pieces: evil may not shatter when it’s exposed to the light, but it does make it easier to see, and hopefully easier to transform into some better.

Pulitzer Prize-Winning author Robert Olen Butler in his wonderful book, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, gets to the bottom of it:

For those two hours a day when you write, you cannot flinch. You have to go down into that deepest, darkest, most roiling, white-hot space. . . whatever scared the hell out of you down there–and there’s plenty–you have to go down in there; down into the deepest part of it, and you can’t flinch, can’t walk away. That’s the only way to create a work of art–even though you have plenty of defense mechanisms to keep you out of there, and those defense mechanisms are going to work against you mightily.

Understanding these things is understanding ourselves. Just like that baby who sits there hitting another baby and thinks it’s the funniest thing in the world, all of us have the capacity to hurt others. We all do it. Some of us enjoy it, most of us bury it in guilt and various defense mechanisms. I want to face the evil, give it a name, and hopefully come out a better person.

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You Stole My Story

(Disclaimer: I now illuminate the sarcasm warning, the spoiler warning, and feel the need to assure you that I love Gillian Flynn because clearly, girl’s got some good ideas. Author Bashing is never excusable.)

 

Alright Gillian that’s enough.

Stop reading my notes.

Stop reading my thoughts.

And for goodness’ sake. . . stop stealing my stories!

*breathes menacingly for thirty seconds*

I was fine with your repeated mentions of the Death Penalty. Ditto the sociopath framing someone for murder. That’s what sociopaths do, right? Heck, I just finished watching Hannibal, that great NBC show about Dr. Lecter and his pet FBI Special Agent Will Graham, and, not to give anything way, but. . . that’s what sociopaths do. Bad things they can blame on others. So you’re fine there.

I was also okay with the creepy southern towns and abandoned buildings, the Flannery O’Connor vibe, distant mothers and challenging views of women. All very reasonable things that do not upset me.

But I just got to the part in Dark Places were Diondra rubs her belly and says the baby’s kicking. That she’s pregnant. That her teenage boyfriend impregnated her, moments after he’s accused of molesting 10-year-olds and hours before he’s arrested for grisly grisly murder that ruins his life.

What gives, eh? I just wrote that, like, last week. After working it out in my head for years.

It’s bad enough that your structure is dangerously close to my structure (which now I probably have to change, no thanks to you), with those chapters alternating between the day of the murders and present-day characters working to solve them. Whose idea was that, anyway? I thought I was being pretty clever with that. Printz Award clever? Perhaps, but now we’ll never know, will we?

But BABY?

That was the opening hook, the setup for the rest of the novel, my entire main character. And now you stole it. You stole my story. You stole my freaking teenage pregnancy you story-stealing, incredibly talented author-person you.

(At least I still have graffiti and Led Zeppelin. If you take those, so help me, I’m gonna go John Shooter on you. And don’t. . . don’t touch the Death Penalty. I see you eyeing it. Death Penalty’s mine. You coulda had your chance, but you put Kansas in a moratorium so there. Chance blown.)

But, really? The chapters alternating between past and present, explaining all the circumstantial evidence they used to put him away? Brilliant. If a little hard to get through and somewhat suspense-deflating. Same problem I’ve been having, so it’s good to know maybe it’s not just me.

(You no-good-story-stealing-teenage-pregnancy-ripping-idea-sucking-incredibly-talented-author-person you.)

And I’m only halfway through Dark Places. Who knows what else of mine you’ve got in there? Been kinda fun discovering it all.

(Again Disclaimer: I mean this solely in good fun and don’t plan on going John Shooter on anyone. It’s actually kinda cool she’s got some of the same ideas as me–just sucks cause she got to them first!)

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