My favorite books of 2016

books-1655783_1280I read a lot. I don’t know how many books I’ve read over the last year. Based on my account in Amazon, I’ve read close to 200 books. That sounds like I’m bragging. I’m not. Reading is basically my one form of entertainment. I don’t watch tv very much and I’ve missed out on a lot of good shows on Netflix. Due to having small kids, we don’t leave the house very much.  I’m also a fast reader, which I think can be a good thing and a bad thing. I read a lot of books, but I probably would get a little more out of them if I slowed down a little bit when I was reading them.

Since I am a writer, I use my reading to hopefully become a better writer. I try to think about what makes a story successful, what I like about the characters, what I think of the dialogue. I also try to pay attention to common tropes and cliches so that I can keep them out of my own writing. Reading to me is its own sort of education.

Anyway, because I read so much, I thought that I would end this year with a list of books and book series that I read over the last year that I enjoyed and would recommend. I’m not going to give a detailed review because I have a sizable list of books to review and the blog post would get entirely too long. Also, I always end up revealing spoilers even when I’m trying really hard not to. These books are not listed in any particular order.

Book series

  1. The Raven King (The Raven Cycle) by Maggie Stiefvater
    I really enjoy Maggie Stiefvater’s writing and I especially liked The Raven Cycle. The fourth book came out in the spring and it was a great ending to the series. YA. Magical Realism.
  2. The Rose and the Dagger (The Wrath and the Dawn series) by Renee Ahdie
    This duology made up of “The Wrath and the Dawn” and “The Rose and the Dagger” is a retelling of “Arabian Nights” so it’s about a ruler who marries a woman every night only to kill her in the morning. I liked the first book a little better than the second but they’re both  very good and it’s a nice short series. YA. Fantasy.
  3. The Captive Prince Trilogy by C.S. Pacat
    There were a lot of fans of this trilogy who had to wait a long time for the third book. Fortunately, I started this series only a few months before the last book came out. This series might not be for everyone but if you are looking to maybe step out of your comfort zone, you might like this. Fantasy. LGBT.
  4. Crooked Kingdom (The Six of Crows Series) by Leigh Bardugo22299763
    “Six of Crows” came out last year and “Crooked Kingdom” came out this year. I will read anything that Leigh Bardugo writes. I loved her first series, The Grisha Trilogy and The Six of Crows Series was set in the same universe. Only consisting of two books, it was filled with witty banter and heists that go wrong. Great characters and a fast read. YA. Fantasy.
  5. The Lady Darby Series by Anna Lee Huber
    I don’t really know how I found this series but I love it. I like books written in the regency era. I am fascinated by the limitations that were put on women at that time. I’m not always a big face of mysteries, but all of the books, of which there were five, were very good. Seriously, if you like historical fiction, give this series a try. Historical. Mystery.
  6. The Darkest Minds Series by Alexandra Bracken
    These books have been out for a couple of years and I think that they are going to make a movie out of them. They’ve been on my list for a while but I finally got around to them this year. I really loved the main character, what she goes through, how she changes, what she becomes. If you like dystopian books, this might be a good choice for you. YA. Dystopian.
  7. A Court of Mist and Fury (A Court of Rose and Thorns series) by Sarah J. Maas
    I read the first book last year and I thought it was okay, but the second book that came out this year, A Court of Mist and Fury was so much better. I think there is one more book in the series so we’ll see how it goes. YA. Fantasy
  8. Empire of Storms (Throne of Glass Series) By Sarah J. Maas
    Maas has two book series going right now and I have no idea how she does it. I think they’re both solid book series. Empire of Storms is the fifth book in the series and usually by now I would have grown tired of a series, but this has been an exception for me. I think there are two more books to come in this series and I have no doubt that I’ll read those as well. YA. Fantasy.

Books that are (thankfully) not part of any series

  1.  Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff61gfhxkbrll
    I love how this story was told in two parts, one from the husband’s perspective and the other from the wife’s perspective and how each told the same story in a very different way. Brilliantly written. Literary Fiction.
  2. The Swans of 5th Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
    I’m always interested in anything having to do with Truman Capote and he was such a bitch in this story. Biographical.
  3. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
    This story is about a girl who is born with wings and her brother who doesn’t speak. The story follows three generations of women in a bakery in Seattle. The writing is beautiful and heartbreaking. Magical Realism.
  4. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
    I love Donna Tartt. She is one of those writers that makes me feel like a total hack. It took me a while to get to this one, but I was not disappointed. My one thought that ran throughout the book was, “But what about the painting!?!?” So good. Literary Fiction.
  5. What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty51tsqz9yfol-_sy346_
    A woman falls and bumps her head and when she wakes up she thinks that she is ten years younger. It made me really think about how much we change and our relationships change within the span of even just a few years. I thought about this book long after I finished reading it. Literary Fiction
  6. The Good Girl by Marian Keyes.
    I just read it, so it’s fresh in my mind. It was written from multiple perspectives and times which was a little confusing at first but you catch on pretty quick to what’s going on. I almost didn’t include this book because I thought for the most part it was mediocre. However, the end really sold this book for me. Mystery/Thriller.

New writers that I enjoyed

I feel like every year I find a new writer that I really like and want to read everything that 41ymnepsxpl-_sx329_bo1204203200_they write. This year, I read all of the books by Rainbow Rowell. I think her most famous book is Eleanor & Park, which was the first book I read by her. I liked it so much that I read her other novels as well. I loved all of them. I like her sense of humor. I like her characters. I like her stories. I like the way she writes. Read her books.

Another writer that I discovered this year was Courtney Milan. Up until now I haven’t read a lot of romance novels. I’ve read just about every book by Georgette Heyer, but up until this year have veered away from the bodice-ripping books. There is just something about a cover where a half-naked man is tearing off the clothes of a overdressed but very fancy looking woman that just doesn’t appeal to me. However, I read an article that talked about romance novels  actually being great feminist literature, so I gave the whole genre more of a shot. Out of all of the books that I read, I would say that my favorite were the ones by Courtney Milan. They were interesting, entertaining. The characters were well-rounded and a lot of the most annoying romance tropes were absent. I will admit that I was a snob about romance novels and I was pleased that I gave them a shot. Not all romance novels are created equal just like any genre, but there are good stories to be found there.

Reading goals for next year

First of all, I don’t think that it makes sense to write about all of the books that I liked at the end of the year. There are just too many books and I don’t have the time or space to really write about them individually. So, I think I want to write more about what I’m reading throughout the year. I hope that also gives you, my reader, the chance to recommend books to me or to let me know what you thought of the books that I’m reviewing.

Secondly, I think I should read a little more non-fiction this year. I’m a fiction junkie which I feel no shame about, but I know there are a lot of great non-fiction works out there that I should give a try.

Finally, this past year was one of the first years that I started to read outside of my normal comfort zone. I want to do more of that. I’d like to read more diverse books this year, and expand my universe a little bit more as a reader.

So, yeah, this whole post is entirely too long. It’s sort of like a big book dump. I’ll try not to do that next year. However, if you’re looking for something to read, I hope you’ll check some of these books out.

A lack of focus

bokeh-336605_1280“It’s red.”

“It’s red.”

“The light is red.”

“Oh,” I said, slamming on the brakes.

“Did you not hear me tell you that the light was red?” my husband asked.

“I heard you. I just think my brain decided to process what you were saying later.”

We sort of laughed about it. The light had turned green before I had even come to a stop. There was a good chance that had I blown through the intersection, it would have been close enough to green so as to not be dangerous. Still, I was on a flat stretch where I could see the traffic light for a long time before I came up on it and it was a road that I was very familiar with. I both saw the traffic light and heard my husband mention it three times before I actually moved to stop the car.

The other day I went upstairs four separate times to brush my teeth. I kept finding myself downstairs having never brushed them. It seriously took all day for me to complete this small task and it only happened because the mossy buildup on my teeth exacerbated by the excessive amounts of sugar I’ve been eating was getting out of control.

I don’t know what is going on in my brain. I’m not doing a lot of thinking. That’s for sure. I find the days just slip by. What did I accomplish today? How did I accomplish so little?

It’s like when I used to have dreams/nightmares about waiting tables. I always dreamed that I had too many tables and too many customers who needed something and I just couldn’t seem to fill up the water glasses. The whole dream felt like I was walking through chest-high water with weights around my ankles.

Fortunately, I still have it together enough to make sure my kids are fed, hydrated, clothed and bathed, but I have to give a lot of credit to my husband who has had off of work the last week or so. And if my daughter went an entire day in her pajamas, what’s the harm? She was comfortable and we put clean ones on her before she went to bed.

I’m basically functioning at the survival level. That sounds dramatic, but I just want to be clear I’m not at the clean house level (shout out once more to my husband who is picking up the slack) nor am I at the all the laundry is clean and put away level (although, to be fair, is anyone at this level?). I’m not even close to being at the I write novels level or even the I paint pictures level. Going for groceries or planning meals for the week feels impossible. How was I able to accomplish this before? Did I have some sort of algorithm? I get to the end of the week and I’m close to making a meal out of cheerios, frozen peas and tofurkey slices.

I don’t like talking about this. I want you to think that my life is just one beautiful, sparkling Pinterest board. I want you to picture me at home with my precocious children, making crafts and baking cookies. Not wandering the house like someone who has just survived a tornado. Not looking at my kids and husband as if I can’t even comprehend the words coming out of their mouths.

I also don’t want you to think that this is what my blog is going to be about. Post after post after post of Amanda wallowing in her own self-pity and doing nothing to fix it. I didn’t want to share the first post about being depressed and I don’t want to share this. I know that this loss in concentration is part of the depression I’m feeling. I’m sharing it because I want anyone else out there who is reading this and feels the same way to know that at least you aren’t alone. Maybe I’ll figure out how to get through this and I can share it with you. Maybe you have some ideas to toss my way. Maybe we pull each other up out of this mental haze.

This is what I’m going to try: I’m going to give myself until the new year. Then, I’m going to start making goals again. I think I might create a bare minimum that I want to accomplish in the next few months and just try my best to do that. I also think I might try to be a little more disciplined about when I go to sleep and when I wake up and what I eat. I think I may also start creating lists and keeping track of what I accomplish and what I don’t. Eww. This is beginning to sound like New Year’s Resolutions and I try my best not to ever do those. Just trust me when I say that I’m going to keep trying to find a way to get my focus back and if I find the answer, I promise, I will share it.

Finally, to the people who urged me to seek help for my depression, thank you for caring. Thank you for encouraging and even pushing. I am doing something about it.

Until then, if you see me wandering around the streets with a vacant look on my face, could you please point me back home?

On first drafts and the drafts that follow

girl-lostI’ve come to love writing the first draft of a book. It’s the sprint through the letters and the words, a pulling together of paragraphs and pages to get to the end. You’re not required to make every word perfect. You aren’t required to patch up any plot holes. It’s no big deal if your characters need a little work or your dialogue is stilted. All of those things are merely a blur as you rush past.

I’ve written about it before, about how I can’t look for perfection here. If I do, I won’t finish. I’ll be on the first page, agonizing over the first few words.

There’s also the discovery in the first draft. There are two types of writers, the pantser and the plotter. I’ve tried to be a plotter. I’ve tried to outline everything, make notecards, make a detailed map of where my story is going to go from start to finish, but it never works. I feel sort of suffocated by my plans. No, I like to have a couple of characters, a problem that they have and a vague idea of where I want them to end up. It’s a crazy sort of thing, writing something, not always sure how I’m going to get from one space to the next. It can be stressful, but man, it’s fun.

Now, it’s time to pay the piper. I imagine plotters usually have a better handle on what it happening in their books. They’ve done a lot of the hard work up front. I would imagine that at the end of their first draft, they have a pretty tight story. Pantsers have to make up for their fanciful dance through their story, with big changes in the next draft. I’m like the grasshopper that played all summer long and is now facing an uncomfortable winter.

So, onto the next drafts and the edits that come with it.

This doesn’t feel like playing anymore. This feels like work. I’m reading through paragraphs and it all feels clunky and disjointed and a mess. Maybe, the structure of it is good, but I’m going to have to really make the writing better. So, I make notes. I highlight the rough sentences. I think this is just like painting. I’ve roughed in the large swathes of color and now it’s time to really get in with the detail.

I’m ready.

Pen is up.

And go.

Go.

GO.

I know how to work past the paralysis of the first draft. I know how to just zip right along and not take myself too seriously. That time is over. Now, I really do have to do my best to make it perfect. Perfect is paralysis. How do I find the right words? Do I take this out? Should I add this in? Am I taking a piece of writing that had life and spark and movement and am I with every pen stroke murdering it? Am I turning my writing into wood?

It’s just as easy to doubt myself now as it was before. Maybe it’s worse. Now, it’s not just a case of not being able to do something well. It’s about ruining something that might have been good. This may be a little dramatic but it’s like dismantling a bomb and not knowing which wire to cut. Okay, no, that really is too dramatic. Actually, it is just like trying to find your way without a map. You hope that you’re going the right way and you’re using the little you know to orient yourself, but until you get there, you can’t really be sure that you’re heading in the right direction. I don’t have an answer for this. If you’re reading this and you do have the answer, I hope you’ll tell me. I think it must just all be about experience. As I become a more experienced writer, I hope that it will become easier. Of course, something tells me that there will always be space for doubt here, no matter how long I’ve been writing.

I’m just going to keep moving forward. It is the only advice I can give myself and anyone reading this who might find themselves in this place with me. Keep working. Keep moving forward. Let’s hope we’re not lost.

The fraud in the mirror

notes-514998_1280Over the weekend I applied for a mentoring program. It’s for unpublished YA authors with a complete manuscript and it gives them an opportunity to pair with authors who are in the process of publishing a book in the next year or have already published. The published writers will help the unpublished writers polish their manuscripts and help them with their query letters. If I get in, it could be an awesome opportunity for me. If I don’t get in, my plan is to continue moving forward. Work on my book until I have it where I think I need it and start querying for agents on my own.

No big deal.

So, I put together a query letter, and emailed it along with the first ten pages of my book. As soon as I hit send, the anxiety began to build inside of me.

What was I thinking? Why did I think that my book was going to be good enough to submit to this? Why did I let anyone convince me that it was good enough to send? They were probably just being nice. It’s like when your kids draws a picture and you have no idea what it is but you tell them it looks good anyway and you hang it on the fridge. That’s probably what everyone was doing. And I fell for it. I bought into this idea that I was going to be some published writer. What do I know about writing? I have an associate’s degree in graphic design. I don’t even have a bachelor’s degree. Before a few year ago, I hadn’t written any fiction since high school. And what? Now, I’m a novelist?

Oh my god. Now, they’re going to know. They’re all going to know, what deep down, I’ve always known. I’m a fraud. A fake. There is a part of me that has always known it and has tried desperately to convince me.

It’s that voice in the back of my head. Sometimes, it is friendly. At times when I’ve struggled with writing, it gives me a sort of verbal pat on the shoulder and says, “It’s okay. You tried. Writing probably isn’t your thing.”

Sometimes, it is mean. It mocks. It urges me to give up because I’m just embarrassing myself. “Everyone feels sorry for you. You’re delusional.”

My fear is always based around the fact that I’m never going to be good enough and that everyone is going to find out. I don’t have to listen to that voice in my head when I’m sitting alone at my kitchen table writing. No, I hear it when I hand my manuscript over for someone to read. I hear it every week when I write my blog. When someone tells me that they enjoy my blog or they liked my book, I want to hug them and thank them but I also want to narrow my eyes and let them know that I’m onto whatever scam they’re running.

I find myself wondering when it will go away. Is there any level of success that would make me believe in myself? I was a graphic designer for three years and it never went away. I always felt like a hack. I still contend that I was. Will I always feel that way about my writing and my painting as well?

impostor-syndrome-cartoon-823x1024I know what it is. It’s called imposter syndrome and knowing it by name helps. It also helps to know that a lot of people have had it at some point in their careers. I wonder how many people will read this and nod their head. Everyone? It’s prevalent enough that there are tips on how to overcome it. Talking about it is supposed to help. Imposter syndrome expert Dr. Valerie Young says, “It’s also a matter of changing your thoughts, slowly over time, and taking risks in spite of the inner voice telling you you’ll fail. Do the thing that scares the heck out of you, realize you survived – or maybe you fell flat on your face. But you gave it your best shot.”

So, I think we have to just keep working. Keep moving forward.  My writing isn’t actually some destination that I’m working to get to. It’s the never-ending road, the eternal journey. This feeling that I’m never going to be good enough can be the wind at my back, always pushing me forward, motivating me to do and be better. If I’m going to think of myself as a fraud, then I’m going to put my heart and soul into fooling everyone, especially myself.

For days when I’ve taken the risk and failed, when I’ve fallen flat on my face, there’s whiskey. And after that, a new day to dust myself off and got started again.

Maybe, I’ll get into this mentoring program. Maybe I won’t. Maybe, I’ll have to go a different way. This isn’t that song, “Lose Yourself” by Eminem. There isn’t just one shot. We have a lot of chances and a lot of ways to get to the same place. There are also a lot of ways to mess up and a lot of ways to feel rejected. There are countless ways to fail. The only way to avoid that is to never do anything at all. The problem with that is, then you never do anything at all. No dreams. No plans. No goals. I just sit at my kitchen table and write stories that no one reads.

Just like “‘Tis better to have loved and lost: Than never to have loved at all.” Tis better to have tried and failed : Than never to have tried at all.

The little engine that sometimes can’t

sadI hate the word depression. I would rather use any other word than depression. I usually say that I am blue. Sometimes, I say that I’m sad.

I’m blue right now. God, I hate admitting that. It feels like a terrible weakness, a part of me that I don’t have any control over and that I can’t just fight through. I can’t make myself feel happy. In fact, I’m having a difficult time making myself feel anything at all.

It’s something that happens this time of year. Usually, it occurs in January and February. This year it has arrived a little earlier. It always coincides with the short days and the long, dark nights of winter. I’ve never been diagnosed with depression but if I was going to self-diagnose I would guess that I have seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

SAD is characterized by a change in mood that occurs with the changing of the season. It’s characterized by irritability, and low energy. It’s tied to melatonin and serotonin levels and if I had the energy I would look up what that is, what it does and what it means. But I don’t. You have the internet. You look it up.

At any rate, it’s a miserable feeling.

It happens to some degree every year and yet every time it happens, I am surprised. You think I would remember. You think I would recognize the signs. I fight it as long as I can. I think to myself that I just need to soldier through it. I just have to keep working. I’m a big believer in the most important part of getting good at something is showing up and doing it. But, when I sit at the kitchen table, it’s so much harder to find the words. I can sit for hours and not get anywhere. It would have been better if I had just sat on the couch and binged on some Netflix.

Maybe I’m just paying for my frenetic, nearly manic productivity of the summer. It’s the summer when I am busy every moment of the day. I work in the garden. I take my kids places. I pick baskets of fruit in sweltering orchards and take them home to preserve them. I write thousands of words every week. I paint. I feel invincible. I feel powerful, even limitless. I marvel to myself at my work ethic, at my drive, at my ability to accomplish everything I set out to do.

Basically, I’m the little engine that could. All summer I coast down the hills, happily zipping along. Then fall hits, and I have to start chugging up the next hill and by winter I’m basically ready to give out. What was once a feeling of being able to do anything becomes a feeble, “I think I can.” And sometimes it just becomes a sad, little, “I can’t.”

It happened last year, towards the end of December. The book I was working on completely fell apart and by January I had trashed it. The book I’m working on now is a mess. I don’t think I’ll trash it, but I have a strong desire to put it away unfinished for a while.

I don’t know what’s worse about this inevitable slowdown. Is it the sharp decline of productivity or is it the terrible feeling that it’s never going to rise again? All of the habits that I formed will just erode away until I am once more weeks away from the last time I wrote anything or painted anything. This past year, I eventually found my way again but what if next time I don’t?

So, this year, I’m going to do my best not to give out, to keep that creative engine going. It doesn’t matter if I’m not producing the same quantity or even quality as I was before. The important thing is to continue moving forward. I’m adjusting my goals, giving myself a little more downtime. I’m allowing for an afternoon nap now and then, an early bedtime, a ridiculous novel read only for the escapism it provides. I may write less and paint more. I may go for walks or just listen to music. Maybe, I’ll bake bread. On days when I feel more like myself, I’ll work harder. I’ll keep moving.

When the sun is brighter and warmer and the manic productivity of summer returns, I hope I’ll be ready.

Needing space

relax-1276639_1280I see a lot of jabs at the idea that someone should need a safe space. I guess it’s pretty easy to make fun of people who need to be protected from words. Didn’t they ever hear that old saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me?”  Aw, the little snowflakes need to be protected. Their poor little feelings are hurt.

These sort of jeers and jabs almost always come from white people. I have yet to see it come from a person of color, someone who worships a different religion and I have never heard it from a member of the LGBTQIA community. No, it’s always people who fit into the mold of what society has deemed both normal and optimal who mock the concept of a safe space.

I mean, it’s awfully easy to make fun of someone who needs a safe space when we’ve never had a racial epithet thrown at us. Perhaps, we’ve never been the victim of sexual assault. Maybe, we’ve never felt like there was a target on our back due to what we wear, who we worship, or who we love.  We don’t really know what that feels like. However, we can try to empathize with people who may have a different experience than us. We can try to understand that there may be times when they need a place where they can feel safe, where they can feel normal and where they can feel okay.

Take a minute and listen to the theme song from Cheers. What on earth do you think they’re talking about here?

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

RaeAnn Pickett wrote in TIME, “After the birth of my first son, I had postpartum depression. I was a mess emotionally, and I was in desperate need of feeling safe. I had no idea what “trigger warnings” or “safe spaces” were, but I had been using them internally for days—avoiding the mommy movies and choosing not to go to the breastfeeding support group where I felt like a failure. Being able to know beforehand what experiences I should avoid and create an environment where I felt safe made it easier for me to share my struggles and move past them.”

There have been times in my life where I have done the same thing, maneuvered myself so that I could avoid something that I found upsetting or troubling until I could find a way to move past it. I have also at times surrounded myself with people who understood me and what I was going through so that I could work through what I was feeling. 

Pickett was able to find the help that she needed for her own postpartum depression in one of these often mocked safe spaces. “When my first postpartum depression support group facilitator said in a hushed, happy voice that this was a safe space, I felt the weight slowly start to lift from my chest. All the pent-up anxiety I had felt was dissipating—just by knowing that the physical place I chose to be in was filled with people who understood me and could help me find the tools to get well.

This isn’t to say that safe spaces can’t go too far in another direction. It shouldn’t be used to stop conversation and discussion. They shouldn’t be used to censor ideas and concepts that we don’t like. Instead, it should create a space where a person can get away from the comments and arguments that are not helpful and can be damaging based on their experiences. Emma Kromm writes in the Harvard Political Review, “A college student who has experienced sexual assault and does not want to hear someone repeat an argument that in any way belittles her experience is not the right target for an indictment of censorship.”

Perhaps, there are times when we should be less concerned about our need to say whatever we want and instead think of other people’s feelings. To be empathetic. To understand that someone else’s experience might be very different from ours and that we all have our own ways of dealing with things that we find difficult. If you think that’s something to mock, then you, my friend, are the reason why we need safe spaces to begin with.

Safe spaces, when used properly can actually create an opportunity for understanding. Morton Schapiro, president of Northwestern University noted that “students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they are themselves comfortable. Safe spaces provide that comfort. The irony, it seems, is that the best hope we have of creating an inclusive community is to first create spaces where members of each group feel safe.” 

Some of us build up our whole lives to be one giant safe space. We don’t go to places where we might feel uncomfortable. We don’t try to learn anything new or try anything different. We don’t make new friends. Some of us wouldn’t leave our house if it wasn’t for the responsibilities we have. If you think about it that way, then maybe we’re all just a bunch of hypocrites for making fun of everyone else for something we do every day.

Maybe you’re a tough cookie and you never needed a safe space. Maybe you never avoided people because you didn’t want to deal with something. Maybe you never wished you could go somewhere and not have to worry about being bullied or picked on. Maybe you are always out trying new things and meeting new people and you don’t feel any sort of anxiety about it. If that’s the case, I think you should just count yourself lucky and leave the people alone who haven’t been as fortunate as you.

Silence is complicity


silence-390331_1280It was always there. It kept to the shadows. It stayed, a whispered monster revered among its small groups of worshipers. We didn’t think it would ever be brave enough to come out into the light. We didn’t think it could ever be that strong. Its days of glory were gone, relegated to the pages of History books that we read and wondered how anyone could ever let it come out into the light like that.

Hatred.

Prejudice.

Racism.

Bigotry.

It has been growing stronger over the last year and over the last week, it has become brave. The Southern Poverty Law Center has counted more than 200 complaints of hate crimes since Election Day, according to USA Today.

It wrote “Heil Trump” and “Fag Church” and drew a swastika on the walls of an Episcopal churchIt shouted threats and whispered intimidation. It picked fights. It used fear like it’s best weapon.

It echoed through high schools and colleges. In its wake, it left behind fear.

How lovely it was to be white, to not be Muslim, to be what is considered “normal.” Now, it’s creeping out into the light, and we’re trying so hard not to pay attention. We’re doing everything we can to pretend not to see it. I should know. I have a lot of practice doing this.

I’m not sure why this happens but it seems to be a normal occurrence that people see my white skin and think that in me they have found someone who will understand their feeling about people of color. A woman told me in the parking lot of the grocery story how the latinos in the store were all so rude and they should speak English. Sometimes it’s not what they say but it’s how they say it. Their voices drop down to just above a whisper when they tell me how some girl we know is dating a black man. They tell me that of course not all latinos are bad but just the ones that live near them are. They assure me that I don’t understand because I don’t live where they live.

They tell me how they really feel about Muslims, about refugees, how we can’t trust any of them, that they could all be terrorists. If I’m lucky I get to hear their usually limited view of the Koran. They don’t like where they want to build their mosques. They don’t like how they pray. They don’t like how they wear their hijabs.

I also get to hear comments on gay people. How what they do is disgusting. How they choose to be how they are. I even get to see a children’s video on God’s view of gay people. Somehow, gay people are ruining marriage for all of us. I’ve had someone close to me say that two gay men shouldn’t be able to adopt children because they will molest them. Of course, who can forget the huge debate that raged on about where transexuals use public bathrooms? A hair stylist brought that up to me just a few weeks ago. She didn’t say anything but she gave me a look, eyebrows raised, the look that said, I’m just waiting for you to give me the go ahead to tell you exactly what I think.

These are all things that I hear in real life. This isn’t from people hiding behind computer screens. This is from people I know and love. This is from strangers in parking lots or in stores or in hair salons indulging in small talk that suddenly takes a dark turn. They see my white skin, my normal American life as a stay-at-home-mom with a husband and two kids and they think that they can say what they want to me and I will be their ally, that I will understand then and I will agree.

I don’t agree but until now I haven’t said too much. I wanted to pretend I couldn’t see it. I kept my mouth shut even when I didn’t agree and worked hard to justify not speaking out. I would say that obviously the person didn’t mean what they said. She doesn’t actually feel that all Latinos are rude.  I would think that there was no point in saying anything. I wasn’t going to change her mind. I would tell myself that I didn’t want to make everyone uncomfortable. If he really feels that way, it’s not really going to effect anyone. He’s just one person. I had a list of excuses that I would make, but none of them ever really felt good enough. I would walk away feeling uncomfortable, feeling like a coward and knowing that whoever I was talking to was right when they thought I was an ally. When the conversation was done, they still probably felt like I agreed with them.

And for all of my excuses, they were all to make me feel better about myself for not saying anything. I told myself that I was empathizing, that I was trying to understand how other people, that I was accepting all people even if I didn’t agree with them. Oh, the hoops I jumped through to justify my silence.

The prejudices and bigotry leaked out from the shadows and I looked away.

I’m not going to look away anymore. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t hear what was said. I’m not going to be silent. When I speak out, I might not be polite about it.

About other things, I’m still trying to be open-minded. If you want to talk about politics or our government, I’m ready. If you want to talk about this past election and have a constructive conversation about the president-elect Trump and the future of our country, I can do that too. If you want to talk about the protests over the last week and whether they are riots or protests protected by the second amendment, let’s go. You don’t have to agree with me. I won’t feel like I have to change your mind. We can just talk. We can share ideas. We’re all Americans after all.

We’re all human beings.

But, if you want to talk to me about generalizations that you are making on a whole group of people based on your limited experience or based on some fake news story on Facebook, I’m going to tell you I don’t want to hear it. I’m not going to listen to your view points on why all Muslims are dangerous. I have a strong aversion to religion but I’ll still defend everyone’s freedom to practice it. I don’t want to hear any hate speak at all about gay people or transexuals or really anyone.

My mom always liked to repeat that old adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

So, if I can’t urge you to change how you feel about the people in our society that are marginalized, if I can’t get you to change your biases toward them, then I’m going to ask you to watch your mouth when you’re talking to me.  I’m taking this seriously.

I can’t kill this beast that is hatred and prejudice and bigotry, not when it seems to always survive, but I will fight to push it back to the shadows.

The siren song of NaNoWriMo

crest-05e1a637392425b4d5225780797e5a76This is the fourth year that I’m going to attempt to do NaNoWriMo. To those of you who are not familiar with NaNoWriMo, it is a celebration of National Novel Writing Month where the participant endeavors to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It comes down to writing exactly 1667 words each day, every day. I have been successful one time.

Now, let me give you a couple of excuses for my other failures. One reason is that every November I get some sort of illness. Without fail. It’s usually a cold, something small to just make me tired and lazy. One year I was pregnant but I was in the first trimester and I think we can all agree that pretty much counts as an illness. Getting ill and missing a few days of writing can put you behind pretty quickly on your word counts and if it happens at the beginning of the month it can be pretty discouraging. Also, let’s not forget that there is a rather large holiday that happens in November.  Pre-Christmas. I mean, Thanksgiving. Now that I’m a grown woman, I can no longer just appear at the dinner table, empty-handed and hungover. I have to prepare food. I have to get children ready. It eats up a lot of writing time.

I usually start the month off strong and hit the wall about half way through and then do a sort of limp/crawl to the finish line. And remember, only one time did I actually make it to the finish line.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to do NaNoWriMo this year. I have an antagonistic relationship with it. I like it because it helps a writer get into the habit of writing. It gives the writer a goal to work towards. There is also something really nice about sharing the experience of writing with other writers. Instead of plinking away at my keyboard alone, I can go to write-ins. I can talk to people on the forums. I can take what is usually a very solitary experience and make it a social one.

What I don’t like about NaNoWriMo is the push to get words on the page. It can lead to a situation where you are pushing quantity over quality. It can lead to a draft that was rushed through to reach a sort of arbitrary goal, but that is a mess and needs a complete rewrite. I also have a difficult time writing a complete novel in 50,000 words. Depending on what genre you’re writing in, that is going to be a very short novel. The one time that I finished NaNoWriMo, I was only about half way to finishing my book and the first draft was such a disaster that by January I had thrown in the towel.

Still, I have to give credit where credit is due. It wasn’t NaNoWriMo that got me back into writing, but it was the thing that got me used to setting goals and word counts and pushing through each day, even when I would have much rather been taking a nap or watching tv. I don’t try to write a novel in a month but I do try to write one in three months. I don’t like to push my word count about 1500 words a day but I do keep it over 1000. Those have been the rules that I have been using for my work this past year and by the end of this month I should have three complete first drafts for novels.

As much as I don’t love NaNoWriMo and as much as I don’t feel that I need it anymore, I still felt the call as November got closer and closer. Now, here we are. I’m not doing it as a way of writing one novel in a month but I am using it to push myself a little farther. I upped my word counts and I put away my paints for a few weeks. I have a novel that I’m working on. It won’t take that many words to finish it, but I intend to make up the difference with other writing, including blog posts, short stories, and essays. I’m also hoping to begin working on a query letter for the novel I finished writing in July. I have a little more work to do on it. I have friends reading it now and giving my feedback but when I am finished with the next draft, I am going to begin querying for an agent. (Eeeeek)

It’s going to be a busy month and although I’m excited, I’m looking forward to slowing down a little bit in December.

Also, I’m already behind on my word count.

My first Inktober

inkto2

My mascot for Inktober.

As is always the case with me, participating in Inktober was a decision that was made at the last moment. I was reminded that it was October and therefore it was Inktober and if I wanted to do it I was already two days behind. Nevertheless, I completely committed to doing it. For the uninitiated Inktober is a monthlong challenge meant to improve drawing skills and habits. The rules are pretty simple. Make a drawing in ink. Post it online. Hashtag it. Repeat. You can do it daily. You can do it every other day. You can post once a week.

I wanted to do Inktober but not at the expense of my writing. The time that I can find to write is sacred and cannot be used on other hobbies and endeavors. So, I knew I wouldn’t be able to do one every day. I also wasn’t sure that I would be able to do one every other day. There might be a few days in a row where I could work and a few days in a row that I wouldn’t be able to. So, I decided to commit to fifteen ink drawings, created through the span of one month. I thought I would be able to do more than that, but I finished the fifteenth at 11pm on October 31st.

I didn’t post  online as I went. I wanted to share them all together at the end here. There are prompts that are provided for each day, but I didn’t use them either. I like doing portraits, so that’s what I stuck with. My Inktober is my own bastardized version of what I think it’s supposed to be but I still think I got what I needed out of it.

inkto3

Sharpie, Pigma Micron pens

I haven’t worked with ink in a while. When I first started doing portraits, I did them in Sharpie and Pigma Micron pens, but it’s been three years since I did those. Ink washes I haven’t done since college. Understandably, I felt pretty rusty. Ink (I use Higgins waterproof ink) is very permanent, in a way that watercolor isn’t. Paint can be gently lifted from the paper, softly scrubbed away. Ink, once it make’s it’s home in the fibers of your paper, is everlasting. Therefore, when you place it on the page, you should do so with confidence. Mistakes can be worked into the piece, but even if the viewer doesn’t know it’s there, you will. There were moments where I sat with my brush or my pen poised over the paper asking myself if I really knew what I was doing. I felt an anxiety working with ink that I rarely feel with paint anymore.

inkto5Still, there is something really beautiful about how ink moves through water. I had more control with pens but I quickly moved to washes when I saw how the black ink bled into the water, how it could be moved around the page, following the wet like a river. It lent itself better to texture, creating a smooth solid color at times, and transparent layers built on top of each other at others. You could have sharp crisp lines and fluid, open shapes. I could have control or I could feel helpless with the way it pooled and bled.

I was most successful when I relaxed, when I didn’t try so hard. I enjoyed those ink washes more. Still, it was difficult to accept the permanence of the ink while relaxing into the method. It felt almost contradictory at times.

It was good for me to work in a different medium for a while and I am interested to see how it will effect my watercolors when I get back to them. I hope it improves them. I also think I might want to do this again. Choose a different way of creating and stick with it for a period of time. Get to know the graphite, the colored pencil, the charcoal or the pastels that I ignore in my collection of art supplies. Get to know them and see how they can affect what I already think I know about drawing and painting.

In the end, I’m glad I participated. I will probably do it again next year with better planning and hopefully, better results. For now, I can’t wait to get back to watercolor.

My Inktober portraits:

 

Short Story: The Entropy of Denim

denimShe held up the jeans and looked at them critically for a moment. She remembered the last time she had worn them. She had crouched down to pick something up and her left knee had finally poked through the old, tired denim. It was for the best. There was a spot between the thighs that was rubbing awfully thin and she was about one awkward move away from splitting her pants.

Some holes were good. If you bought them from the store like that, they were even cool. But homemade holes from wear and tear never looked like the ones fresh from the factory.

But, oh how she loved these jeans.

She remembered why she had bought those jeans, turning to look behind her, staring at the mirror with the sort of intensely critical eye that she only ever turned on herself. Back then it had been about how they fit on her waist and her hips and her thighs. It had been about where the pant leg had landed on the top of  her foot. Not too long. Not too short. It didn’t matter if they were a little rough and stiff because they had made her butt look fantastic. And isn’t that what it’s all about? A fantastic looking butt?

Those jeans, back then, had been a good pair of jeans. Added to the rotation, worn when she needed something unfaded and whole. Her nice jeans.

Somewhere along the line they had slipped from that. They became soft and pliable in a way they had never been when she had bought them.They stopped being worn out on date nights and weekend activities. They became the jeans she threw on to go to the grocery store, to run errands, to wear around the house. They weren’t her nice jeans anymore, but they became something more. She began to love how they felt on her skin, how they moved with her body instead of against it. They hugged her lower limbs. They didn’t restrain them. Maybe, her butt didn’t look as nice in them anymore, but goddammit, they were comfortable.

Then her knee rudely poked right through that beat up space at her knee.

That was just typical. If something got comfortable, it wasn’t too long before it seemed to all just fall apart.

It was like that soft pair of shoes, her favorite after months of wearing them in, until the soles began to detach so when she walked it was like two mouths flapping open and smacking against the pavement. There was the couch that was neither too firm, nor too soft, that allowed for long afternoons reading or laying in front of the television, but then the cushions started to lose their shape and the whole thing seemed to just sag. There was the car that she loved to drive right up to the very moment that the transmission failed.

Then there were her relationships. It wasn’t true of all people but for her it was. As soon as she started to get comfortable with someone, well, she couldn’t help but start pushing holes through the weakest areas. And there were always weak areas.

For example, there was her current boyfriend. He had been just like those nice jeans at the beginning. Everything he did and said was interesting. He brought her flowers. They went out to fancy restaurants and gallery openings and festivals. He always dressed nice and smelled good. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her neck, the lobes of her ears, and whispered sweet things to her.

All of that was nice, but there were the other parts that were less comfortable. She wasn’t sure if he would like everything about her. Maybe, he would discover who she was at her core and he would reject her. Along with all of that heart fluttering excitement of young love, there was fear and insecurity there . When he didn’t call her back or didn’t text, she wondered if he was getting bored with her. When they ran into his ex-girlfriend, she felt jealous. She didn’t always get along with his friends. She wasn’t sure but she was fairly certain his mom didn’t like her. It was fun being with someone new, but it wasn’t always easy.

Yet, slowly, it turned into something comfortable. She didn’t feel like she had to put makeup on every time she saw him. He didn’t feel like he had to dress up. They didn’t have to go to fancy restaurants, nor did either of them have to spend time or energy thinking of fun and exciting things to do. What was the point of going out all night and closing down the bars, when they could just lay on the couch, eat takeout and watch movies? She didn’t feel embarrassed around him. There was nothing to prove. They knew each other and at the end of all of the knowing, they still liked each other, loved each other. She knew why he didn’t return her phone calls sometimes and she certainly wasn’t jealous of his ex anymore.

There was a brief moment of enjoying this comfortable life, before she started to find the holes.

Sure, she was happy, but she began to wonder if he was the right person for her. If he was “the one.” After all, she may have forgiven him for past transgressions and she might have forgotten the fights that they had over the past few years but they were still there written in the faded and worn cloth that was their relationship. You could patch over it, but you knew it was there.

And if she was honest, it still bothered her why he couldn’t just return a phone call or at least text. It wasn’t hard. And no, she wasn’t jealous of his ex-girlfriend, but why was she always still around? It was beginning to feel like they couldn’t go anywhere without running into her. And would it be so terrible, if just once he dressed up and took her somewhere nice? She couldn’t remember the last time he bought her flowers.

Sure, she loved her boyfriend. He was great. And yet, sometimes, she found herself wishing for something new, something exciting and maybe just a little uncomfortable.

It was difficult to decide what to do. She could stay with her boyfriend, despite the threadbare spaces and the discolored patches they put over the problem areas, but always, she felt the pull to go find someone else. Maybe, when things finally got comfortable with the new person, it would be different. Better.

She held up the jeans and looking at them one more time, eyeing them up with that same intensely, critical eye she had turned on herself when she had bought them.

Well, there was no point in holding on to them. She draped them on top of the other clothes she was getting rid of, sweaters that had shrunk in the dryer, the print that she thought might be fun but just ended up looking weird, the dress that wasn’t quite long enough. Then, she hoisted the box up and marched it resolutely down the stairs and placed it by the door.

Her boyfriend was sitting on the couch, watching television and he looked over at her and then the box. “I can’t believe you’re getting rid of those jeans. I thought you loved them.”