Gatlinburg is Burning

smoky-mountains-on-fire

 

Wildfires
are a thing that happens in California every year,
not in lovely, green, humid Tennessee.
Nearly everyone in Tennessee has been to Gatlinburg
so when we heard it was burning, it was as if
a friend was on fire. Waiting for news. Is the candy shop still standing?
Is Dollywood burning?
Are the Ripley Aquarium animals all right?
It’s hard to imagine these things as ash. Places that feel like childhood friends, consumed.
It’s hard to imagine the Great Smoky mountains actually smoky…
but there’s the evidence, on the news, on the Internet
the mountains you remember lovely green misty
are now angry burning dying; a monster threatening
the streets decked in Christmas lights. An orange glowing haze as the fire
creeps closer and closer.
The people get out. Mandatory evacuation.
I imagine the horror of that one road out of town
the one that feels interminable when you’re waiting
for vacation to begin
and imagine sitting on that road
gridlocked in fear
as the flames creep closer.
We sit in our homes further west on the Plateau
praying, dancing, lighting candles for rain (the latter is ironic) —
please let the months-overdue rain that drenched us last night
go East —
save the people, save the animals, save the green things,
bring relief, stop the flames eating our memories.

 

 

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It’s Garbage

a98781_worst-art_1-artist-shit

 

My therapist tells me that all things in the history of my scanner brain are bringing me to a confluence.  I’m a 5 on the Enneagram, and that means I’m great at pulling crazy things together and making something new out of it.  Up till now I’ve been mostly gathering.  Maybe I still am.

There have been many times in my life as an artist when I looked at the piece of art I was making and decided it was garbage and consigned it, literally, to the trash heap.

But they weren’t novels.

But there were other times, especially when I was painting oils, that my wonderful painting teacher told me it was okay to blot out that lovely perfect eye that was in the wrong place and paint over it.  She even took the paintbrush from me and painted over that perfect horse’s eye and told me “go again.”

Life is art.  Whoever told you there are no do-overs is totally wrong.

So yesterday, when I felt like the 37,000 words I’d written on my novel were absolute garbage that didn’t even care about, I already knew the answer to that problem:  Just Keep Swimming.  You can’t edit what you haven’t written.  Get to the end of the first draft, then go back and fix all the things that need fixing.  I really was getting discouraged.  I thought the whole project needed to go.

And then, I wrote Murphy into the story.  If I write the sequel to this novel, he will be a main character, but in this story you just get a glimpse of him.  And I love him.  He made me realize that all the other characters thus far are cardboard cutouts next to him, maybe (horrors) even my protagonist.

Here’s a glimpse, in which my intrepid protagonist is hiding in the closet hoping “Billy” doesn’t discover her and her mates:

“Mmn,” Murphy grunted. He never once looked in our direction. “You know, my shift doesn’t start for another six hours. And I beat Green at cards last night and he owes me a flask. Tell ye what, if you’ll go get it from him, I’ll share it with you.”
I heard the man’s bunk creak but I couldn’t see him. “Yeah?”
“Yeh,” Murphy said, reaching out and tapping his empty whiskey bottle. “I’m out, and that’s a thing I can’t stand. But it’s dark and I don’t feel like walking over there.”
There was a short silence. “You never share your whiskey.”
Murphy, whose voice had been soft through all of the conversations I’d heard from him thus far, thundered, “MAYBE I’M FEELIN GENEROUS!”
“Jesus,” the other man muttered. “Fuckin’ crazy Mick.”
Murphy shrugged. “Your choice.”
“Fine,” Billy grumbled. The bunk creaked again and I saw him get up and pull his boots on. Then he headed toward the closet. “Where you goin?” demanded Murphy.
“To get my coat. It’s cold out there.” I heard two other tiny sharp intakes of breath as all three of us in the closet caught ours, quietly.
“Ye fookin pansy,” Murphy muttered. “I’ll get yer damned coat.”
“What the hell have you got in the closet that I’m not supposed to see, Murphy?” I felt Emmanuel’s big hand clamp down on my arm and I felt him brace to fight, if he had to.
“Best ye doont know, Billy. Ye’d have to tell and then I’d have to kill ye.”
The door cracked open and he wisecracked, loudly, “Shoosh, love, don’t make a sound now, I’ll pay ye as soon as he’s gone.”
There was a hearty guffaw from the room. “I don’t know how you managed that, you bastard. Captain Briggs catches you, he’ll have your left nut.”
“Good thing he woont, then. Go along now, Pansy boy, the whiskey’s waitin.” He threw the man’s coat at him.
“And if I drink it before I get back?”
“I’ll shit in yer boots.”
“Filthy mouthed damned Mick,” the man muttered, and the door slammed.

 

The bad news is, I am definitely a character-first writer, so if my characters are crap, my novel is crap.  The good news is, I know how to go back and make them better.   Dory has it right.  The answer to art is the answer to life.

Just keep writing.

Just keep painting.

Just keep swimming.

Journaling

journalkitty

This is Nin-Nin the journal kitty (among many other talents).  Every morning I have to fold his blankie for him and put it at my writing desk in my bedroom, where he comes to visit and hangs out while I journal.

I started journaling in 2001.  I wish I could say I’ve journaled consistently every day since then but it comes and goes.  I started journaling because of a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and if I had to pick one book that’s changed my life, that’s it.

At the time I had just left Jehovah’s Witnesses and I was in a dark place.  I thought God was going to kill me at Armageddon, but I was so disenchanted with the religion that I didn’t care.  Julia asked me to look again at my concepts of God.  And more importantly, how they related to my art.  Because, she says, all art comes from God.

That might be an unpalatable suggestion to some people and it was to me, at the time.  Jehovah doesn’t care about that stuff, I thought.  But I had to learn that she meant (at least, this is how I feel now) that place of the divine inside you, the thing that is soul, or essence, or truth.

Ah, maybe I’m getting a little deep for a Saturday morning.  The point is, in the last 16 years I’ve come a long way, baby.  I went to my journal to figure out what I thought about everything, because I’d been told for years what I thought about just about everything, and I had to figure it all out for myself again, from scratch.   In the meantime I’ve written the odd poem, a lot of essays, a few articles that were published in the paper, and I have come full circle to writing a novel, now.  I have ideas for other things I want to write.  It’s easy to discount the writing I do on a regular basis.  Over the last couple of years I’ve become pretty consistent and I write in my journal every day.  I put stickers in it and I write in colored pen that you would probably find obnoxious but I love them and I love the process.  I start by documenting where I am in space and time:  what am I making (I am always making), what am I reading, what am I listening to or watching, sometimes what’s in the news, what’s Dictionary.com’s word of the day, what tarot card did I draw today, what are my current obsessions.  Then I just write, sometimes about what happened yesterday, sometimes about how I’m feeling.  It’s the place where meditation, catharsis, rambling and inspiration come together, and I wouldn’t be without it.

Some day I feel pretty sure that I will write a book about my journaling journey because it’s a thing I think everyone should do, and I have a lot to say on the topic.  If you have a hard time with a meditation cushion, it’s an active thing that can get you in a meditative frame of mind without navel-gazing.  If you’re grappling with tough feelings about something (brother’s death, election went very wrong, whatever), this is where you figure it out.  If you’re so tired and bored you can gripe about life.  It’s not for anyone else.  It’s for you. And then it clears out all that junk so that you can open up the channels and let your creativity off the leash, which is the point of The Artist’s Way.  It’s meant to help blocked artists, but it’s done so much more than that for me.

So each morning I sit with my kitty and my cup of tea and from the end of Daylight Savings Time to the beginning, my happy light (oh, I could wax poetic on that topic too!), my colored pencils and my pretty journal and my stickers, and I tell the Universe what’s going on with me.  I have no idea whether anyone besides me will ever care to read them… I like to think my son might, some day when I am gone, but there is a LOT to go through because I keep other journals besides these, and there is a whole big box of them in the closet.  It doesn’t matter though.  I do it for me.

I think you should do it for you, too.

Aftermath

cheekwood-treehouse-2013a

I thought I didn’t want to bring politics to this blog, but I gotta be honest, y’all, I’m struggling with the results of this election.  I’m not the only one, am I?  I mean, even if you picked the winning side, you didn’t feel 100% great about it, did you?  I know I wouldn’t have if it had gone the other way.  And yet we have to carry on and figure out how to come together, how to make a bridge over the divisive rhetoric.

I may  have more to say on this topic in the week to come, and I apologize for the politics, but I can’t help it.  I wanted to give you all of me in this space, and here I am.

I’ve engaged in some hearty introspection this week, I have to tell you.  I scribbled out this poem this morning.  Take from it what you will.

 

 

“Kindness
Is never the wrong anser,” I said,
Frolicking through fall leaves.
“What if someone is bullying you?” he said.
“Never,” I said, making a snow angel. “People
Bully because they feel unloved.”
“What if someone hates you?” he said.
“Not then,” I said, making a daisy chain. “My
Mama taught me to always counter
Hate with Love.”
“What if they’re killing you?” he said.
I tucked my flower skirt aside and sat in the sunshine. “Gandhi said,
‘An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.'”
“What if they’re hurting your family?” he said.
And darkness fell, and I became someone else.
“Then there will be hell to pay,” I said.

How Strange – Your Protagonist’s Flaws

doctor-strange

The world looks completely different when you are creating.  I have always noticed this when I’m painting.  You finish up a painting session, and then you go outside and the trees are suddenly a collection of shapes and shadows and lights.  It’s your right brain putting the world together the way IT sees it, and it’s really nice, because most of the time your left brain is the boss.

But I noticed it again when I went to the movies last night and saw Doctor Strange.  Here in the throes of trying to craft a story, I saw the movie as just that… I saw the character arc, and the protagonist-antagonist dynamic, the rise and fall of the action, the flow between where the protagonist is prevailing and where he is knocked down and almost out.

And I ate. it. up.  Love the movie, by the way, and while I will be talking about the story here, I will not spoil it for you.  I’m enough of a New Age geek that I absolutely adored this movie.  Nature of reality, damn, let’s have more stories about that, with special effects that mess with your head, woo!

Anyway, the monumental character flaw of the protagonist absolutely slaps you in the face here.  He reminded me of House from the TV series of the same name… medical genius but arrogant as heck and a real ass about it.  But House (at least as far as I watched the series, which honestly wasn’t that far) never really resolved that flaw.  Ultimately Stephen Strange gets pretty self-sacrificing (not saying more than that!) in solving the problems that plague his world… problems he never asked to be involved in solving.

I have a pretty solid background setup for Once a Rebel, 10,000 words (ish) in, but I realized two things about my book watching the movie:  my character is not flawed enough, and I am not thinking nearly epic enough as far as the challenges that face her.

So I’m going to talk for a moment about character flaws.  Specifically, about protagonist flaws.  Here’s a link to a list for your writerly use, with a list of possible character flaws.  Please click and open it because otherwise the rest of this blog post won’t make that much sense to you.

First of all, looking at that list, you need to be really careful about this.  There are two reasons you want your main character to be flawed, which essentially boil down to one, the second one.

  1.  It makes a good story… static characters are not interesting.
  2.  The reason it makes a good story is because your protagonist is in actuality a stand-in for your reader, and you want them to identify with your protagonist.

So, while you must have a flawed protagonist, they cannot be too flawed.  You don’t want an axe murderer, probably not someone who sleeps around, probably not an extreme racist or skinhead or something.  There are certain character flaws that are unforgivable in a protagonist.  It’s easy to err on the side of making them too likeable, so making them hate-able probably isn’t a worry.  It’s more likely that the writer will give them flaws that are more like quirks.  Some examples from the tropes list above:  forgets to eat, fear of thunder (unless thunder figures into your story or your world pretty heavily), heavy sleeper.

So ultimately, the character’s flaw and basic fear need to play into the conflict you’re planning, because the conflict is the catalyst that causes the character to change.  In Doctor Strange’s case, his towering ego and mastery of science has to get slapped down in order for him to embrace becoming a beginner again in learning the occult arts and looking at reality in a different way.

Here’s the important takeaway:  the protagonist’s flaws should be big enough to make it a question of whether they will overcome them and sort out the conflict.  And the conflict should not be just a series of bad things that happens to the character, but something she has control over if she does overcome her own inner obstacles.

So, my plan for today is to sit down with that list and think about George’s personality as I’ve already established it, what her great fears and flaws are, what her desires are, and how those are going to play into the conflict I haven’t quite sorted out in my head yet, in hopes that those concepts will generate the conflict.

Happy writing!

Once a Rebel

So here’s the big reveal… that’s the working title of my NaNoWriMo novel (which will probably not stick, because I’m not at all sure I like it).

It’s an alternate history steampunk story set at the tail end of a protracted Civil War and afterward.  Its heroine, “George” Arrington, is a southern belle turned airship owner and pilot after the death of her father, running the Union blockades and bucking every tradition she has ever known, in hopes of making enough money to dig her way out of the debt he accumulated.

Here’s a teaser from my first draft, set after George’s father dies and she announces her intent to assume his debt and pilot the airship across the blockades.  Emmanuel is the Creole servant who has been with her father for years, and who was freed in her father’s will.

steampunk_airship_pirate_flag_by_tashi_yoshima

 

Aunt Miranda was absolutely silent on the carriage ride back to Arrington House. Seething? I don’t know, there might have been something else there. I think she was utterly shocked that anyone at all had dared to countermand her wishes. From what I’ve seen at Chadwycke Manor during the two summers I spent there, no one dares. Ever. I think that surprised her as much as my proclamation.
There would be no more public spectacle, though. She wanted to avoid that at all costs.      So we went back home, and the moment we walked in the door, she exploded.
“Are you out of your mind?”
I folded my arms. “Maybe. I have nothing to lose.”
“You have everything to lose! Everything that is left to you! Here I am offering you a chance to go to England and find yourself a decent match and you are throwing it away on some whim?” She was getting positively apoplectic and the boys came running wondering what on earth was going on. Her hat was even crooked.
“Aunt Miranda,” I said patiently. “I do very much appreciate your kindness and your offer. Come, let’s go into the parlor, shall we?” I gave the boys a wink once she’d turned and stormed that way to let them know everything was going to be all right. It was, wasn’t it? Once we were there I said, “As I said, I do appreciate your kindness and your offer. In fact you have always showed us nothing but kindness. But I am an adult, and I am now responsible for these two boys, and everything else Papa left, and I mean to see it through and not abandon any of it.”
“What’s going on?” Charles finally gathered the courage to pipe up.
“Your sister is talking crazy, that is what is going on,” she said. “Even if you want to pick up where your father left off, you have more debt than you can deal with, you haven’t the faintest clue how to pilot an airship, and you’re a woman. Women don’t do things like that, they get married and behave themselves.”
I laughed. “Like you did?”
“That—” her mouth snapped closed and she looked at me with her head cocked a little, and maybe she saw me for the first time, not as someone to drag around in her wake, but someone who was maybe a little bit like her.
I sat, marshaling all the calmness I could, though I was not at all sure I could pull this mad scheme off. “I’ve been thinking about it. You need your American cotton. Hank needs to go to military school. Charles needs to stay here and grow up to be whomever he’s going to be. I need…” I trailed off. I need that airship, I was thinking, but how do you explain that to someone like her? “I… how can I explain this to you? This was Papas dream. I don’t know where he went wrong. If I throw it all to the winds and sail off to England with you, it feels like I’m letting everything he worked for die. Every dream he had. He’s… I want to keep his dream alive, Aunt Miranda.” My chin was quivering now, damn it all.
She softened. “Oh, my dear,” she murmured, and heaved a sigh. “You cannot keep him alive.”
“I can’t abandon him, either,” I said, staring hard at the clock that was suddenly ticking very loudly in my head to stave off the tears that were threatening.
“My dear, how can you even think to be an airship pilot?” she said, earnest now.
“Mr. Wilcot will teach me,” I said.
She tsk’d. “Do you even know what it is like? What ship’s crews are like? You’ll lose your… respectability….” She didn’t mean just being an airship pilot and acting inappropriate for a woman, she meant that someone on the crew would rape me and then I’d be worthless as a bride.
A rich, deep voice rumbled from the corner. “I’ll not let that happen,” Emmanuel said in his thick Creole accent. “I will go anywhere she goes. I’m a free man.” I turned around and stared at him. He was free, but he would follow me…? I stood up, and walked slowly over to him, and I hugged him. “Thank you,” I whispered. Because it meant he believed in me, and whatever crazy schemes I was hatching.  He patted me a little awkwardly.
That was scandalous enough, me hugging a colored servant. Well, I was done playing by the rules. They didn’t apply to me anymore. Another, quieter tsk from Aunt Miranda. I figured she’d get used to it. Eventually.
Poor Hank and Charles. I went to them, and I knelt, my stays cutting into me, taking one of each of their hands in mine. “What do the two of you want?”
“I just want to stay here with you and Hank and Elsie and Emmanuel,” Charles said.
“I want to go to school,” Hank said. “I’m ready.” Ready to kill him some Yankees, he meant. Poor boy. His shoulders were squared, and he did look terribly grown up in that moment. He was right, he was ready.
So I stood, and I faced Aunt Miranda, and I said, “Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to buy Elsie and Benjamin and Sarah from the estate, so that they are not part of the inheritance. If this scheme of mine fails I don’t want them getting sold off to someone who won’t treat them right. Charles needs them, he’s had enough change and more to come.” I took my hat and my gloves off because I was working up steam. A lady is not supposed to take her hat off. “And, if you can find it in your heart to help Hank go to school for the first couple of semesters, I will pay you back once I start making a bit of money. I will run your cotton from Charleston to Liverpool, blockade be damned,” oh my… how many times could I shock her in one day? “And I will make this work. I will.” I must have looked like I was ready to fight this 85-year-old woman. Her head was cocked and she was appraising me, and maybe she saw another warrior. I know she saw someone who wasn’t going to take no for an answer, and after all, it was all mine to do with as I wished, except the house. Which basically meant, the airship. That was all I really wanted, anyway.
There was silence, into which the clock’s ticking roared. Finally, after an eternity, Aunt Miranda said, “Very well.”

NaNoWriMo is Here!

logo_of_national_novel_writing_month

 

I went to Mad Writers’ Club meetings thinking, I want to write and illustrate children’s books.  I still want to do that.  But doing the writing prompts, and hearing local author Kelly Martin talk about her experiences with NaNoWriMo, and then hearing that several of my mad writer compatriots were doing it….

Well, shoot, I’ve been saying I’m going to write a novel since I was born, practically.  I do some pretty sparkling characterization.  I can wrangle description and dialogue.  But I’ve always told myself, I’m not that great at plot.

And when I met my husband, who has entire worlds in his head and epic stories to go with them that we play out weekly in RPG stories, I kept telling him we needed to write a  novel together, because that dude can PLOT.  And invent worlds, which I’m only okay at.  It never panned out, I don’t know why.  I tried once to follow his story in an RPG with a novel, and got stuck in the endless rewriting chapter one loop.

Anyway along comes Kelly with NaNoWriMo, which I had heard of before, but not with that much interest.  A novel in a month, seriously?  And when she came to speak to the mad writers I was still thinking children’s books.

But then last Wednesday at the meeting, on the way home, I thought about one of Russ’s RPG worlds and how much I LOVED the character I played.  There’s no proprietary stuff in the world, it’s an entirely original concept (not Star Wars or D&D, which we often play).  So I thought, I’m going to take that character and run with her, and let her play in the world he devised and see what happens.

I’M GOING TO DO THIS.  The thing I’ve been saying I should do, forever.  Write a book!  No, really!

I am such a Renaissance girl that I don’t think Russ took me too seriously but I’m on fire and I’m rocking it.  Day three, I’ve got 7,193 words written out of the final 50,000 goal for the month.  I’m sure I’ll hit a snag (with plot, probably) but that feels pretty awesome.

By the way if you’re also a WriMo my super secret code name on the site is chyvalrie, look me up and I’ll cheer you on.

So NaNoWriMo, here I come!  Let’s do it!