A Pandemic, Distance Learning, Natural Disasters, and Stories

storm bird

 

If you’re a writer and having a hard time focusing on your story, it’s not surprising. As hard as I try to impose order on my daily life, personal plot twists keep popping up to thwart my efforts. But don’t worry—this is not one of those “doom and gloom” posts that no one wants to read. Instead, this is about how stories emerge despite the chaos around us.

Stories want to live, too. Even if our minds are swirling like hurricanes (hopefully not as we’re boarding up our windows), we can’t help creating a narrative. As we go about our normal lives, which now includes teaching to a screen several hours a day, a story begins impose itself over our concerns. A character emerges, braver than us, who faces our same problems but in space. Or in a world of magic. Or sometime long ago before Google Meets.

Soon other characters rise up to aid our main character’s quest to save their world and right its wrongs. Quirky friends that illuminate the main character’s strengths and weaknesses. Maybe even a potential romance, although our hero really doesn’t have time for that right now.

Just like us in the real world, our main character, who now calls herself Raylene, tries lots of different strategies to solve her problems, only to be stopped at every turn. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to deal with lagging internet connections. It’s the antagonist who has shown up, just to make things more difficult. The villain is product of our nightmares, armed with complete knowledge of her fears. We’re not sure how to help our hero because her paralyzing fears belong to us.

We could remain stuck like that forever, but Raylene has her own Samwise Gamgee, reminding her of who she is and why she is risking everything. They go on together, and suddenly a thought pops up that we should call that friend we haven’t hung out with for months because of the pandemic.

When our hero and her sidekick fail, unforeseen help comes their way, and suddenly the battle is back on. At the same time, we, the writers, are in the middle of our own battles, standing in line at the medical center, waiting to get your temperature taken, or grabbing the last bottle of Lysol off the shelf at the grocery store before an old lady with a cane beats you to it.

Finally, the fighting ends, the day settles into night and your mind calms. Raylene limps back down her mountain with her hair all askew and rejoins her friends. We reach the end of our day and realize that despite overwhelming odds, we made some progress. When we lay down on our pillows, we hope the melatonin we took will really help us sleep. Because we need our rest before the battles tomorrow.

When the story comes back.

 

 

The Locked Room

door

Who knows how long I’ve sat here in this room. The door beckons me, but I know it’s locked. My current situation can’t be easily explained. But for the sake of my sanity, I will attempt to retrace my steps.

One day, no different than any other, I left home with my lunch pail and my coffee in hand. After allowing my car to warm up in the frigid morning air, I drove to work. I even parked my car in the same parking spot that I do every day. Of course, I was the first one in my office to arrive.

My key turned in the office door as easily as any other day. I confess my mind was already consumed with the huge pile of problems waiting on my desk inside. After I flipped our sign around to Open and closed the door, I turned to find myself in an unfamiliar space.

I struggled to reconcile what my eyes were telling me to what should have been there. No desk, no computer, no phone, no filing cabinets, no thin, uncomfortable chairs for clients. Instead, a small cot with a lumpy mattress. A small table with a pitcher and a glass. A tiny window high up on the wall secured with black bars. Bars?

It made no difference to my circumstances whether I believed them or not. Everything I knew was gone, replaced by a solemn prison cell. Suddenly, my common sense kicked in, and I ran back to the door.

My frantic yanks on the knob produced no result. I was locked in.

Of course, I did all the things one should do when finding themselves locked in a strange room instead of their office. I cried. I tried to stand on the table to look out the window. Not as successful as crying. For hours, I pounded on the door so hard my hands turned red.

“Help! Open the door! Anyone out there?”

No one came.

Exhausted, I plopped down on the bed, but the musty smell forced me back up. One close look at the floor convinced me the bed would be a better choice, and I sat back down. Was this a prank? Someone would enter soon with a video camera and crowds of my friends shouting, “Surprise!”

No one came.

Anger surfaced after time passed. This is no way to treat one of their best employees. Twenty-three years of my life sacrificed to this company. Not one single sick day. Never late. Always willing to work overtime off the clock.

“This is what I’ve worked so hard for?” I scream at empty walls.

If I ever get out of here, I’m going to do something I love. Like start a catering business. My lemon bars are legendary. Or sell everything, buy a motorhome, and travel the country. The more time I spend planning my alternate future, my anxiety begins to recede.

Here I am, sitting in a locked room. After considering everything that led me here, an idea blossoms. I’ve always known how to escape, but I’ve been afraid to do it.

“I quit,” I said with a strong voice. Striding confidently to the door, I turn the knob and walk into my new life.

Walking with Cuddles

walking dog

 

“Come on, Cuddles, let’s go for a walk!” I brace myself as he runs into me full force, almost knocking me through the door. Got to read that obedience book again. Not controlling him always leads to disaster.

“Cuddles, sit,” I command in my best version of Frank’s authoritative voice. My husband never has trouble getting him to do what he wants. Cuddles spins around, knocking over the lamp with his tail before he thumps down on the floor and bows his head. Quickly, before he changes his mind, I slip on the choke collar with leash attached. I wish he could walk with me unleashed, but a bird might lure him away, and we’d never see him again.

Like we do every day, Cuddles and I walk down our street, his head close to my leg on the right. Proper position makes your pet respect your leadership. A few of our neighbors are out with their dogs. They nod, but remain on the opposite side of the street. Their dogs whine and tuck in their tails as we pass. In response, Cuddles growls and pulls at the leash.

“Cuddles, leave it!” I should have brought the spray bottle with us. He hates it when I spray him on the nose. The smoke cloud makes it hard for him to see, and he hates the sizzling sound.

When we reach the park, I follow the meandering path that runs through the shade of the trees. Cuddles loves being outside, and he puffs out a happy rumble. Two moms grab their children off the playground equipment and quickly strap them into their strollers. They manage to zoom away right as we approach. Some people are so chicken when it comes to having their kids around strange pets, passing that paranoia down to another generation.

But I can’t control other people’s reactions, so I walk Cuddles out of the park and head home. He is hardly pulling at all now, and I’m thankful Frank and I decided to adopt a pup instead of an adult shelter pet. These last two years have been a lot of work and cost us new cabinets in the laundry room, but our Cuddles has shaped up nicely.

Back home again, I open up the gate and take off Cuddle’s collar. He flaps away into our screened in backyard, shooting out flames as he goes. All in all, he’s a great little dragon, and we wouldn’t trade him for anything.

After the Fight is Over

Inspiration, Motivation, Life, Inspirational, Outdoors

 

It’s done. I wrote 50,000 words for #NaNoWriMo2019. Funny thing though. I still want to get up at 5:00 a.m. and write. Instead of creating a new book, I’m working on the HOG newsletter and typing this blog. After that, I need to work on revising my other book. At various points during November, I thought I’d run out of words, but my fears were unfounded. Of course, I need to begin revisions on the rough draft I wrote during NaNoWriMo, but that book needs to ferment for at least a month.

Rain beats on my roof, wearing away the rough edges of this difficult year. Too many funerals, not enough weddings. Negativity and violence every time I pick up my phone. Christmas is knocking at my door, and I long to feel its glow.

In an hour, I’ll bundle up, grab my umbrella, and go out into the world. Two and half more weeks of school before vacation. In the midst of the holiday rush, I smile.

I wrote a book in November. Rain can’t wash that away.

Almost there

Mountain Climber, Sky, Landscape, Climber, Mountain

I had been doing so well. Cranking out 1,500 words a day for #NaNoWriMo2019 like I knew what I was doing, when suddenly I ran out of story.

Just like a car, a writer can run out of fuel, in this case words. At the beginning of November, I’d started with an outline and 17,000 words for a new project. No problem. The outline ran out after the second week. A slight problem. I started talking up new scenes for the book at dinner and writing them in the morning. Worked great right up to the last two days.

My book was finished, and I still had 2,400 words to go. Now I had to take back out my amended outline and find places to fit more scenes. A big problem if you have a deadline. But I sit at my computer and type, dragging my dead brain up the mountain, wishing I had a Samwise.

But it’s too late to turn back now. I’m already walking on the burnt ground of Mordor. If you’re with me, if your word count hasn’t turned to balloons and confetti yet, don’t despair.

There’s still two days left.

Are we there yet?(a NaNoWriMo tale)

Home Office, Workstation, Office

Only five more days remain for #NaNoWriMo2019. Not exactly sure where November went but I know a good chunk of it was spent writing. Up at 5 a.m., sitting at my computer with a big cup of coffee. My dogs hanging on me, begging for attention while I squeeze in an hour’s writing before work. Writing even when I’m not sure where the story will go. Of course, I’ll end up with a messy rough draft needing years of revision, but at least I have something to start with.

Like many of my writer friends, I have stories in my head that never see a page. Life is full of necessities and emergencies that get in the way. Don’t get me wrong. All these interruptions are important. But there comes a time when we need to sit down at our computers and type. When we do this, magical things happen. Ideas become words. Words become stories. Even if the book never gets published, now it has a title, chapters, and a life of its own. It can’t get untold.

NaNoWriMo won’t mean a completed project for all who began, but documents were saved and notebooks were filled. Magic happened because we sat down and wrote.

NaNoWriMo Check In-the pregnant pause

Girl, Sadness, Loneliness, Sad, Depression, Alone

 

The first three days of NaNoWriMo have been hard on my diet. My scale reflects my lack of exercise while sitting at my computer. My jeans are tight, I feel grumpy. Reminds me of when I was pregnant. Uncomfortable, moody, my priorities shifting… Yet here I sit waiting as a new book is in the process of creation. Day by day, page by page. When I was pregnant, I had to keep in mind the goal—a blessing, a child, a family. I had to be patient even through painful long days. Now with this writing, I need to remember the goal—a new book, a chance to share my story with an audience.

When it emerges complete with future revisions, it will be worth it. I will hold it in my hands with pride for it was born through sacrifice.

Write on, my friends, for your creation desires to be born.

The Space In-Between

Background, Bay, Beach, Beautiful, Blue, Calm

 

September in Southern California is the space in-between. It’s past summer, not yet fall. We still endure triple digit heat while the rest of the country cools down. No special holidays except Labor Day, and that’s just another excuse to have a BBQ by the pool. Teachers and students sweat through the inclement weather schedule, patiently waiting for relief. Even though I have a pool, this month I rarely dip in, cooler nights dropping pool temperature into the cold range.

In-between. Not yet Halloween or Thanksgiving. Already yearning for Christmas break.

When I lay down at night, I dream of sweaters and boots, grey stormy skies, and hot cocoa. I usually love summer, but when September comes, I am eager to pack away my swimsuit and sunscreen. My jeans whisper “Pick me,” in my closet, my umbrella calls my name. But not yet. Not when I have recess duty under a blazing sun.

Patiently we wait. Sweating through September days. Going to school and work, teased into wearing a jacket early in the morning, only to tear it off before 10:00 a.m.

Other places, the leaves turn colors and fall. But not here in the desert. We outlast the scorching heat while waiting for cooler days.

Sunny, pleasant days that make us forget that many other places will suffer the pangs of winter that will pass us by. Rainy days that wash away dust and smog.

But for now, we are in-between. Waiting.

Today She Needs to Write

Homework, Girl, Education, Studying, Student, School

 

A short story about a short story.

When I announced to my third grade class that one of my Harley stories was going to be included in an anthology coming out next month, a serious-looking girl in the second row shot up her hand.

“Did you have a question?” I asked.

“How long did it take you to write the story?”

Hmm. I knew this student loved to write in her journal, and her quick write responses often filled the entire page. Adults who share my writing addiction know that years can pass before a story or book is exposed to the light of publication. Would my answer cause her to close her journal and pursue another dream?

How long did it take?

Last fall I went on the Harley overnighter that became the subject of my story. When I returned, it was back to my normal life as a teacher. (Often I have compared my life to Indiana Jones, especially the part where he has to go back to his job as a college history professor after outrunning the Nazis.) A few months passed before I found time to sit down and think about that adventure.

Actually writing it didn’t take more than an hour. I read through it, adding and deleting for another half hour. After I thought it was finished, I sent it out with my other submissions, the dark hole where you rarely find out your story’s fate. Meanwhile, some of my other short stories were accepted into online magazines. Nothing for that story. I took UCLA extension classes and worked on my YA novel.

Early in the summer, I heard that my California Writers Club branch was going to publish their first anthology. I took back out that Harley story, edited it again, and submitted.

That story was accepted into the book. The editor wanted some minor revisions. Five months later, the book is almost ready to come out.

So how did I answer? My smile reflected in her eager eyes, I replied, “Only about an hour.”

She’ll find out about the rest someday, but today she needs to write.

 

 

 

 

In Pursuit of Trolls

Trolls

 

The past is a sidewalk chalk painting destroyed by a thundershower. Our lives storm with responsibilities, and urgent demands wash away our pleasant memories. To find ourselves again, we need to remember.

One of my joys as a kid in the seventies was playing with trolls. I was an anti-Barbie tomboy, especially traumatized by Growing Up Skipper. Trolls, with their wide-open eyes, pushed up noses, and squat bodies, were the perfect dolls to play with. They stood up on their own, unlike Barbie with her ballerina toes. It was easy to make clothes for them—cut out some felt and sew on a few snaps and you were done.

You didn’t need a Barbie Dream House to play with trolls. A few shoeboxes lined up, doors cut with scissors, empty thread spools and small jewelry boxes made perfect furniture. My best friend and I played trolls for hours as we created stories, the seeds of my writing passion.

One day we became teenagers and boys replaced trolls. We packed them away, boxes in the attic.

Now I’m a grandmother and my granddaughters play with Barbies. There are new versions of trolls, but they’re not the same. Looking at them sent me on a quest to find the original trolls. A phone call with my mom revealed she tossed my box years ago. How sad that I had not anticipated wanting to see them again. It was time to hit the thrift stores.

Years passed. No trolls in the thrift or antique stores. I found a few of the newer versions, but not my Wishniks with the horseshoes on the bottom of their feet. My stepdaughter sent me a large ceramic troll with pink hair and a tie-dye tee shirt. Awesome, but still not exactly like my trolls.

Then Modesto. While my husband and I were visiting my daughter in Northern California, we decided to hit some yard sales. We pulled up to an older ranch style home with a yard covered with boxes and tables. A large table covered with Halloween decorations caught my eye. Then I noticed Harry Potter collectibles on the next table. My daughter asked the homeowner if she had trolls.

“That big box by the garage.”

That’s where I found them. She didn’t have any of the two-headed ones, but it was a respectable collection. Older trolls, most 1980s versions, but stuffed into a plastic strawberry container, I found one of the originals. Smaller than my hand, wearing a cowboy hat, bandana, and holding a rope (no pants of course) was a Wishnik troll.

It’s smiling face made me smile. The hours of creating characters, worlds, and stories. Looking back across the decades, I can barely hear the echoes of my childhood.

I remembered.