Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Burden of Words

Sometimes the hardest thing ever is to be writing

Before getting my MFA in writing I wrote for pleasure when I had the time or a story idea hit me. I didn't get caught up in daily/weekly word counts. It was a hobby that had been with me since I was old enough to hold a pencil to paper. It brought me peace and joy, an escape from the every day stress of life. It was where I could go to manipulate and control the reality of my characters. Writing was very much a guilty pleasure because it wasn't taking me anywhere. I didn't expect it to do anything other than entertain me and give me the high that only comes when I expel creative energy.

I wrote all the time for different outcomes. In my career, I wrote tons of press releases, reports, grants, etc. They each served a very distinct purpose and I wrote to a specific audience in hopes of a desired outcome. The writing was fact-based and formative to fit whatever guidelines the piece required. The words were my own, but the topics and form were pre-dictated. There was no room for creative liberties. I spent hours upon hours completing this type of writing so when I had the chance to write what I wanted, I relished it. 

Writing has always come easy to me and I love words. That is why I chose careers that involved writing. In my marketing days I got to write scripts for commercials and multi-million dollar advertising plans that integrated all forms of media. I enjoyed that very much, even though the parameters were not entirely my own and the bottom line wasn't to entertain, but to sell a product or service. I did this for ten years and while it was fun, it did not get my adrenaline going the way that writing a kick-ass fictional scene does.

Later, I transitioned to the non-profit world where grant writing is king, along with their associated grant reports letting funders know how their dollars were spent and laying the groundwork for why their continued support is critical. It is dry and thankless writing. It strokes the ego of those in positions to give monies to those who need it to make systemic changes that always require way more money than what funders give. I get less than zero joy from this kind of writing. In fact, I feel that it often robs my soul of hope by the sheer weight of what I'm doing, which is essentially begging for money to help others have a higher quality of life through one program or another. This is the kind of writing that I do most days and it drains the creative juices from me faster than anything else I can think of.

The whole time I was writing these other forms, the pipe dream of writing fiction for a living was a dormant, yet present itch at the back of my psyche. It tickled me from time to time to let me know it was there, but was gentle enough for me to ignore it and keep doing what I was doing. As I became more and more disheartened with the writing I was required to do, the itch started to grow stronger, "Psst, psst, remember me, your first love?" Still, it was barely a whisper over the rational part of me that hushed it with thoughts of stability and regular pay checks. Publication didn't seem like a practical way to provide a living. It was for other people. Other people were those who could take a risk, or had the means to live on a dream for a while to make it happen. I was not one of them. I did not allow myself to entertain the notion that I could write for a living, that I could gamble on my creative talents to make a career. Even with the luxury of a dual income household, I hushed that voice inside me.

But like many artists know, that voice can only stay quiet for so long. After a while, it is like a growling stomach that sometimes roars so loud those around you can hear it. Warren heard it. He said I needed to feed it. I resisted for a while, pacifying myself with small writing contests and filling flash drives with stories that had no chance of becoming ink on paper. But, that was not enough. The growl grew and after hours of conversation about how it was time for me to do what made me happy vs. what I needed to do for others, I quietly fed it. 

Pursuing my MFA was like going to a buffet. I got to try different forms of story, learn from some of the best writers I had ever read, and spend time surrounded by others who loved writing as much as I did. I was encouraged to play, explore and learn in a way that gorged my senses and made a part of me come alive. Even before it was over, I knew I would never be the same. I could never still that voice inside me again. It was going to be a larger part of me than ever before and I had an obligation to nourish it properly.

That meant that I had to put the days of casual writing behind me. I now had a degree that qualified me to call myself a writer, so I had to write. Books like The Artist's Way said that I should be writing 750 words per day - in the morning no less. Authors on my Facebook feed were getting book deals left and right and bragging about daily page counts. My classmates were getting agents and promoting books. I was part of a community of writers that before, I had only admired from afar. Now I was considered one of them.

It is exhilarating and terrifying. Daily word counts is the stuff of nightmares for a single mom who works two jobs and has to juggle her kid's growing social commitments. It looms heavy over you on nights when you're so exhausted from your day of doing for others that you can't even concentrate on the news just so you can catch the weather and make sure your kid dresses appropriately the next day. It kicks you in the gut on days that you finally find a pocket of "me" time and you have a million things you want to do, but those words claw at your brain and try to force you to your laptop. Some days I can tear away from life and anchor into a story. Other days, I have to resist because it's the only time I'll have to do the things I really need to do, but that aren't die hard necessities, like wash my car, bathe my dog, or shave my legs. Those days, the words are a burden. The stories call to me like a menace that threatens to take my peace of mind. Sadly, those days are more frequent than any writer will ever like to admit. But I am admitting it here. I don't write everyday, sometimes not even every week, with the exception of this blog. I would love to, but I haven't found a way to make that possible.

In an ideal world I would wake up at the crack of dawn and write before I do anything else. And most times, I think that is what it will take to ever see my dream of publication come to pass. But I am not a morning person and don't do my best writing when I would rather be sleeping. The hours of my peak are spent at work, or on the weekends, I'm on a field or rink cheering on my little girl who expects me there, paying full attention to her. 

I knew the moment my degree was in my hands that I would forever be torn between life and being a writer. Being a writer is like a possessive boyfriend who demands of your time and attention no matter what. When you're not with him he is blowing up your phone, stalking your social media and looking for his place in your day. When you're together it is bliss but the knowledge that the time together must come to an end looms over you because you know you can't ignore the rest of the world forever. You have to divide your time between your love and your life and the two will forever play tug of war with your heart. 

That is stressful. The act of writing is not. The life I live between words is. It means never feeling accomplished. When I'm writing I feel selfish, like I should be doing something else. When I don't write I feel lazy, like I'm letting my dream slip between my fingers. How do writers balance it all? I read other blogs written by authors and I follow many on social media and they make it look seamless, like the universe just aligns for them to be able to do it all. My universe doesn't work like that. It never has. I wish it did, but on the other hand, it would require so many sacrifices that I don't think I can make. I can't not work. Perhaps I could work only one job for 40 hours a week instead of 70. But then, how would ends meet in such a way that I can give my daughter the experiences that will form her future like rock band camp and sports? I could forego working out and spend those hours at the keyboard. But being of strong body has been as therapeutic as writing. They go hand-in-hand to keep me sane. Maybe I have to say no when asked to chair committees at church. But volunteering of my time and talents is as much a part of me as my left kidney so that would re-shape who I am at my core. That's the problem. I want to be too much. I am too much. It's not a bad thing, but it is taxing on the mind and body. When I feel like too much, writing becomes a heavy weight. To clarify, I'm not talking about the act of writing, I'm referring to the times that I don't write.

When I don't answer the call to write I feel like a failure at life. It feels like I am not giving or being my all and that feeling stings. No one likes to feel like a waste of skin but that is what not writing feels like. A day I don't write feels like a day wasted. Not right away of course, but when I look back and realize that I haven't written anything in a week, no matter what that week entailed, I feel like I failed myself. 

I didn't feel that before my MFA. Before being called a writer I didn't feel that I had to write. It came from this new label and the expectation that comes with it. It becomes more ingrained every time someone asks me how my book is coming along, or what I'm writing these days. These are well-intentioned questions and I'm not implying that I don't want to be asked. It's just a reminder of a responsibility that I have to myself to get these stories out. It compels me to recall all the hours, days and weeks that were not spent writing and how that impedes my forward motion towards my goal. 

But, it is also the fire that keeps me moving as a writer. Even on the days that I chastise myself for not having written one word, I know that it doesn't negate that I'm a writer. Maybe it just means that I'm the slowest writer in the world, and that's just something I'll have to accept and learn to live with.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Kicking the Shit out of Option B

 "I promise to do all I can to kick the shit out of option B."

Those are not my words, they are Sheryl Sandberg's (Facebook COO and author of Lean In), but I feel them to my core. I heard them weeks ago and they have been swimming in my subconscious ever since, a chorus at times when I see them playing out in my daily life. I had to face life's Option B the day Warren left this world. It was unexpected, horrific, heartbreaking and defied everything I thought I knew about love and life. 

I was not prepared to face the rest of my life void of the plans and vision he and I had set for ourselves, our marriage, and our family. We had been a unit for ten years. He had been my rock since the day I agreed to go on a date with him. Ours was an instant bond, a spark that although sometimes dulled in the stress of every day, it never went dark between us. There was no one I'd rather be with (most days) and no one who gave me the kind of unwavering love that asked for nothing in return. 

As a couple of over-achievers, we aspired for more because of one another. We wanted to make our other half proud. We strived to be worthy of the kind of love we shared because we knew it was rare. In the spirit of that sentiment, we constantly planned for our future. Often Warren was the visionary, seeing where he wanted to be five, even ten years down the line. I was the more grounded of us. I asked the questions, but believed in his answers. We worked out the details together. I could go on and on about all the things we were supposed to do. The problem is, that won't get me anywhere. There were places we wanted to live, cities we wanted to explore, concerts we wanted to share, business ventures we wanted to pursue. Before you say, "But Christina, you can still do them for him...blah, blah, blah..." take a moment to consider that those options, I'll call them Option A, are not what I want for myself. They are great, they have promise and they were exciting and attainable when we were facing them as a couple. On my own, they are part of a life that I cannot cling to. They represent a life that isn't meant to be. Holding on to old dreams takes away from what we had, as though they can be easily replicated. They cannot.

Can I move on my own? Sure. Can I visit those cities we wanted to explore? Of course. Can I start one of those businesses we mapped out during all those late nights? Probably. But I don't want to. They weren't my Option A, they were our Option A. They worked because we each had a role to play to make them happen, and we were going to do them together. He brought his ying, I brought my yang. It wasn't just for me, or for him. Option A was the evolution of a life planned together. 

When he died, Option A went with him. It tried to stick around. I often told myself that I could still do all those things, that I would do them for him. The truth is, most of our plans are not attainable in my new reality. Aside from logistics like a single income and raising a child on my own, they required his talents, focus and belief. I don't have enough inner motivation to face what should have been in the wake of what will never be. No matter how it turns out, it will never be as it was supposed to be. It will be a fabricated version, an adjustment that I am not willing to concede to. I don't want the scraps of Option A, and that is what it would feel like with just my 50% brought to it. There's no way to add his charisma, die-hard faith and optimism. There would be no Warren to push me when I am stuck, or show me another way when all I see are the obstacles. My rock will not be there to push away the barriers that are inevitable when pursuing life's goals. There is only me, with my memories of how and why Option A was best, and my will to make it work the way we envisioned it. That is not enough. I am not the woman I was when I was his other half. That woman died with Warren and the one that is left is still re-building and getting to know herself. She has a different life. Her needs have changed. She is stronger, yet never been as fragile. She is tough, yet raw to the touch. She has a fierceness that doesn't negate her fears. 

This new life requires new options. I have to think about life as a single mother of a growing girl. I am all she has of the family that promised to love her, keep her safe and happy every day of her life. Her needs fall on my shoulders. Her future depends on my choices. Because of her and the life I want for us, I have to have different options, goals that reflect the new life we live. It's time for Option B.

Option B is a work in progress. It is forming every day as I discover new facets of who I am, of what I can accomplish, and what I want. Option B involves bittersweet memories and a desire to honor the memory of the most visionary person I ever knew. But it also has elements of survival, new skills, and is shaped by a different approach to my purpose in life. It comes with the sadness of knowing it isn't the original plan, but carries the excitement of newness and possibility. It may not be as clear as Option A once was, but I know one thing is certain about Option B: I am going to kick the shit out of it. I am going to make it awesome, and Warren will be proud, wherever Option B takes me.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


There are several challenges that float through Facebook. I ignore 99.9% of them, but I was tagged in one and thought I'd have more fun addressing it here. It's the 7-7-7 challenge. It stands for 7 sentences from page 7 of a current WIP (work in progress), then tagging 7 writers to participate (I'm not doing that last part. I guess I'm doing the 7-7 Challenge). 

Like most writers, I have several works in progress at any given time. I dabble in them depending on my mood, and rarely share them. But, today this challenge got my attention and I'm giving it a shot.

Aside from working on revisions for the YA manuscript that is getting ready to go on submission (GULP), I am working on a middle grade novel about a Mexican American boy who moves from LA to a small town in Central Iowa. It centers around his trials at trying to fit in while being one of the first Latinos to move to the town. It is based loosely on stories I've heard from Iowans who lived through that experience in the mid-nineteen-nineties. 

For this story, I thought that I was taking a step back from making it personal in the way that my other stories are. For starters, Guillermo the main character, is male. He is younger than the ones I usually write, but I love his innocence and curiosity. He isn't jaded and cynical like the teens I usually write. Aside from being from a poor family, he hasn't encountered death, violence, drugs and neglect like my other characters do. He has lived a mostly sheltered life, although he's starting to see the world as more complex when he faces intolerance and ignorance in his new home. He wants to belong in a way that all kids do, but has to contend with getting out of his older brother's shadow. 

Of course, like all writing that comes from the heart, I can't escape writing myself into the story. My experiences as an adolescent were different, but some of the ways he handles challenges come from my reactions to similar situations. His questions were once mine as I encountered bigotry; classism; sexism; ridicule, and a longing to be like everyone else, even as I knew I was distinct in a way I could never hide. Writing this story has become personal in ways I had not imagined when I started, but it has made the story that much more endearing. It inspires me to keep at it, even though I have yet to dive into the story arc, and am still unsure of how to plot the main desire lines of my characters.

It has been fun living in his world of trailer parks and small town Iowa. It's not a world I have ever experienced and has taken hours of research, from touring trailer parks via YouTube, to visiting small Iowa towns and talking to friends who grew up in them. It has taken me on Internet searches for meat packing operations and made me recall touring a Tyson plant in Perry, Iowa over a decade ago. I have sat quietly in playgrounds and malls to observe boys more or less his age (not in a pervy way) and noted their vocabulary, mannerisms, how they interact, and what makes them laugh. It's been like a social experiment and I have enjoyed it along the way. It makes me excited to one day have a writing life that does not include full and part time jobs that take time away from feeding my passion.

Back to the challenge... At this time, this particular story is a series of scenes. It started with journal entries and I removed them, wrote them as scenes and used them as background. As I read through it I am debating whether to bring them back, or keep the story flowing as vignettes of his life in this new place. It is in very raw form so bear with me, as it is like a piece of clay that has yet to take the shape it was meant to be.

Page 7:
In this scene, Guillermo and his family have just completed the cross-country journey from LA to their new hometown. When he was told of the move, Guillermo imagined his family moving into a house where he'd finally have his own room. During the road trip he began to decorate his new bedroom in his head, excited at the envy it would elicit from his friends back home who all shared a room with siblings. Instead, his family moves into a trailer, as was common when Latinos first moved to work meat packing plants in towns across Iowa. Sadly. as close as the mid-nineties most Iowans did not want to rent or sell homes to Latinos so trailers were their only options.

This early in the story, Guillermo and his fourteen year-old brother have no idea about the racism that dictates their living situation. In their mind, their family has made a mistake and the boys are angry and disappointed, their excitement extinguished when they learn that not only will they not have their own rooms, but they will be sleeping on the couch until further notice because the trailer only has one bedroom, and is smaller than the converted garage they called home back in California.

Here is my response to the 7-7-7 Challenge: 7 sentences from page 7 (minus tagging 7 writers):
Ma told them to unpack their sleeping bags and the overnight bags they kept in the back seat. It was too late to unpack the trailer and they did not want to wake the neighbors, whose trailers were less than ten feet from theirs.
Guillermo looked around one last time before following everyone back outside. He wondered how all their stuff would fit in such a small space. He wondered if they were really poor now. He wondered why his dad was so excited about Iowa. He wondered how planet earth could house a place as cold as this, on the same continent as sunny California.
Beyond this, Guillermo goes on to experience trying to make a snowball (it's harder than you would think to create a ball out of the powdery fluffiness that falls in the Midwest), writing his name in said snow and getting caught. He thinks he's going to die during a tornado drill, and has to be strong as the strain of living in such a foreign place puts a strain on his parent's marriage. There is a lot of social commentary sprinkled throughout, as experienced, seen and digested from the perspective of a twelve year-old boy. The world I am creating is one that unfortunately, too many kids can probably relate to when it comes to proving their worth and finding value within themselves when no one else sees it.

I am roughly 12,000 words into this story, so there is a lot that has yet to be developed, but it is a work of passion, and the art of my soul. And of course, it's totally personal.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

How it Went Down

It took less than ten seconds to lose the only car I ever loved. I know it’s just a car and that I’m lucky to be alive, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less.

I swung the car around to the front of the main entrance to my office, as I’ve done the other million times that I walked out of the building and forgot something. I put the car in neutral and turned it off. I hopped out, turned around, and saw the car start moving away, gravity triggered by the slightest decline in the parking lot surface, one that I had never noticed before. 

I didn’t have time to think. I ran after it, unlocking the driver’s side door, trying to stop the car from rolling. When my strength and weight was no match, I stretched my upper body across the driver’s side to reach the emergency brake, which I had only ever forgotten to execute once in my six years of driving a manual car. I had reached over and put on the brake many times on a flat surface, but trying to run alongside as the car picked up speed made it impossible. The car accelerated. I ran faster. I lost my grip and tumbled. It was probably for the best that it flung me out when it did, because I landed three feet from the sinkhole that swallowed my car.

What I saw when I got up from my fall
When I got up from my tumble I parted the bushes, expecting to see my car rolling off into a field, which is what I thought was back there. I never knew the sinkhole was there because of all the brush and bushes that covered it, but there it was, ten feet deep and nearly twice as wide. I came face to face with the underside of my car, the front end at the bottom of the hole, the back tires floating high.

I broke the silence with a shriek. Not because I was hurt, but because I could not believe what I was seeing. My baby, the car I spent three years searching for; the car I learned to drive stick for; the car that carried me on so many road trips across the country and had so many left in her, was now immobilized, gone in an instant. I knew I’d never drive it again. 

All because I forgot my gym bag. The sadder truth is that I knew the moment I saw the car that I wouldn’t have had time to work out that weekend anyway, even if I hadn’t had the accident. 

I don’t know what was heavier, my embarrassment at forgetting something so simple as setting the emergency brake, or my sadness at losing my car. What I didn’t feel until much, much later was gratitude. Even as I looked at the car, knowing that if I had been in it I would probably be dead or severely hurt, I was angry that I would lose something else in life. Hadn’t I lost enough the day my best friend took his last breath? Why didn’t I fall in the hole, too? Was he not ready for a reunion? Why was it OK for him to die but I had to stay on earth and deal with this mess? Why was there even a hidden sinkhole on the property, and why did my car have to fall in it?

My heart hurts seeing my baby like this

My beloved Element deserved a finale much better than this

These questions played and re-played in my head as I watched three tow truck operators use two tow trucks for over two hours to pull the car out. When it emerged, even as it was banged up like I had put it through a can crusher, I wanted to hop inside and drive it home. I wanted it to be OK. I wanted to make it all better. In my irrational mind still filled with disbelief, I thought that was possible. My car had survived so much already. How could a ten-second event be the last of this wonderful machine that held so many memories? 

Of course, I could not drive it. The car was hoisted to a tow bed, on its way to a lot filled with cars that would be dissected for parts like a lab rat no one ever loved. But my car wasn’t an unloved lab rat. It was loved and counted on like a member of the family. It brought me independence and joy. It was unique and reliable. I felt bad-ass shifting gears on the open road, knowing that most women my age are intimidated by manual transmissions, but to me it was the only way to go. How was I going to replace a car that was discontinued in 2011 and rarely seen for sale? I don't blame people for not trading them in. Who would ever want to get rid of such a wonderful vehicle? It would be nearly impossible to find another, especially a 5 speed manual. I felt like life sucker punched me again, reminding me that for every smile, there would be a stream of tears, because that was my lot in life and I should never forget it. 

Time brought clarity and reality. Accidents happen. I was alive. Finding a new car wasn’t going to be the end of the world. I had options. These thoughts brought me slivers of hope. I could think about all the things I wished my car had and see if I could find the perfect car for me. The problem was that it only had one feature that sometimes posed a problem, and that was lack of seating. It was a four-seater. It rarely bothered me, though. How often would I need to haul more than three other people anyway? That did not outweigh the long list of features that I loved about the car, like its simplicity and durability. It never faltered, got up hills in the snow, offered a lot of cargo space, and rode well across terrains. It was a lot like me. It didn’t let much stop it (big hole withstanding). It was no non-sense, low maintenance with no bells and whistles. It did what it was designed to do, and did it well. Now it served as another reminder of how quickly losses happen. In the time it takes to offer a greeting and a smile, it was gone forever. Fragile, like life.

I looked at other types of cars and tried to see this as an opportunity to embrace change. The problem was that I wasn't ready to let go of driving an Element. It had too many features that I loved, that were important to my lifestyle. From the first day I got the car I remember telling Warren that I would drive it into the ground (ironic, I know) and get another Element because I loved it so much. He felt the same about his Maxima so he could relate to my brand loyalty. Here I was with the option to get a more souped-up car, with more seating or luxury features, but none of them made me feel excitement. In my heart, I wanted another Element. Thank God for small miracles, my dad did an Internet search and found one that looks exactly like the one I lost, but is five years newer and has 60,000 miles. It's also a manual transmission, which I am not ready to give up, even if my mother disagrees.

As I drove my new Element off the lot I told myself that it is just a car. It doesn't hold the memories my old car did. Warren didn't teach me to drive stick in it as we drove home from Colorado. We didn't take it with us on adventures in camping with our runaway dog. It hadn't racked up miles from taking us to Arizona to see loved ones. It was just a car. But, I know myself. It is just a car until I start to create new memories in it. It is just a car until it safely gets me up my driveway in four inches of snow, sparing me from breaking my back shoveling through it. It is just a car until my daughter learns to drive in it and I teach her the way her daddy taught me. Perhaps I am too sentimental, but for now, I am feeling what I should have felt that day - grateful to be alive and have the opportunity to make memories. 

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