“Living is Easy With Eyes Closed”

John Lennon’s quote is the basis for my Tuesday soapbox.

Listen, I do write about writing. I do want to inspire your creativity and help you along with your craft. It’s integral to my purpose in life.

But part of inspiring creativity means reminding you of the massive computer sitting atop your shoulders and why we should never forget to use it.

This week I’ve been researching statistics, studies, and references for an article (probably a book one day) on the staggering racial disparity present in our privatized prison systems, in particular, how it affects young black men in our communities and the short and long-term damage it causes to their families as well as to our society as a whole.

So you know… a real fluff piece.

The problem with scrubbing off a bit of dirt from the surface of something like this is that you expose a teeming cesspool of disease and horror beneath. And once you look into that darkness, falling ever-deeper into that rabbit hole of associated cultural setbacks, systemic traps, and loopholes for those in power, you CAN NEVER NOT KNOW.

You’ve opened your eyes.

You swallowed the red pill.

You know the truth and life becomes difficult.

(Well, if you’re a human being with a heart and a decent-sized sense of empathy, and compassion, life becomes difficult.)

Suddenly, with your eyes open, you see it everywhere.

You see it in the unarmed black woman body-slammed by an officer twice her size, when she wasn’t even fighting back. You see it in the teenagers of color who are convicted of crimes while their white counterparts go free. You see it in the wary HOA’s that lodge baseless complaints against a family because the color of their skin makes the neighbors ‘nervous’, and cause entire families to lose their homes.

I’m not talking about 1955 Alabama here… I’m talking today, here. In our city. In our community.

And I’m ashamed of us, and I’m shaky, and I’m pissed off.

I feel like if I were the mother of dragons…I might pull a Season 8 Episode 5 and burn it all down to rebuild from the ashes.

sack-of-astapor-s3e4
What bells? I didn’t hear any bells…

 

The problem is too big.

That’s what we’re told right?

You can’t fight the system! It’s so much bigger than us. We don’t have the power. The government controls it. The rich control it. The churches, the states, the universities, the public schools, the whole of American culture…

But if you will remember…

The computer on top of your shoulders. The big 10 pounder. The one that processes thoughts and emotions, chemicals and body regulation, the one that creates poetry, writes novels, formulates complex plot and character design.

That’s not nothing.

That’s a powerful weapon in the hands of an informed public. And the way I see it, once we open our eyes, it’s our duty to shake as many egg pods as possible, peel back some eyelids and make the world pay attention.

Two open eyes becomes four. Becomes eight. Becomes sixteen. Becomes hundreds…

The Beautiful Stuff has everything to do with facilitating the best version of humanity we can muster. The most compassionate, fair, and just human we can be. And when we are faced with a hard and ugly cesspool, teeming beneath a society built on the death and destruction of so many lives, we can no longer live easy.

So neither should the powers that be.

 

pawns and king
Never underestimate the power of a well-informed populace with like-minded goals.

My eyes are open and I will do my damndest to keep those that benefit from the broken and ugly system from covering them up.

We may not have the money. We may not have the loopholes and congressmen in our pockets. We may not have law degrees, or time, or the power of influence on large groups of people.

But we have our words. We have our minds. We have our actions and, I hope, enough anger to bypass our fear. Pay attention and acknowledge that this is a problem. Shine a fucking light on it so the rest of the world can’t ignore it anymore.

Find that spark in your chest. That pinprick of light that knows every human deserves to be safe, to be heard, to be healthy and fed, and treated with respect. Find a way to make it grow. Let it lead you to do what you can to change the inequality of the world around you.

You can always do something. Little. Big. It doesn’t matter the size of the action but the heart you put into it.

One water droplet may not have much impact, but a rainstorm can change the landscape.

Go out there. Be bold. Be heard. Stand up for each other.

grayscale photo of man woman and child
Photo by Kristin De Soto on Pexels.com

Conferring on Conferences

 

 

Okay, so I promised two weeks ago that last week we’d be talking about writing conferences. Then my squirrel brain shouted “I do what I want!” and flicked its squirrel brain tail and stole some nuts and ran off on a tangent.

 

Adult Sarah remembers. So without further prodding, let’s get into the meaty goodness of writers conferences and why you should strive to attend at least one a year.

If you’ve never been before or even if you are old-hat in the world of conferences, here are a few tips on how to choose the right one for you, how to get the most out of it, and how to not feel completely overwhelmed in the process.

 

How do you choose which one to attend?

 

  • If you are anything like me, you’re wealthy in creativity but strapped for cash. One of the biggest deciding factors, for me, is the cost of the conference (including travel and accommodation expenses) against what classes, speakers, and agents will be there. Getting to pitch to an agent, or multiple agents for publishers specific to your genre is a boon. Classes that are not just interesting but will help expand your craft are also good factors to consider.

 

  • Some conferences are genre specific and if you are a comfort-hugging archetype who doesn’t flirt around outside your style and subject matter, then definitely consider something specifically geared to your genre. The Romance Writers of America is hosting its annual conference in New York City this year…but, as my first bullet point states, it’s a little too much expense for my budget. Plus, I like to flirt… (outside of my genre, that is *wink)

 

  • If you’re stuck deciding between two, look at the courses offered, the speakers presenting, and if they are offering pitch sessions, especially agents suited to your work. Pick the one that gives you the most opportunity for growth and stretches your creative and ambitious goals.

 

 

How do I get the most out of my conference?

 

  • Here’s what I’ve learned. Plan ahead but be flexible. Conferences don’t just start the minute you pin that snazzy name badge on your seldom-used dress clothes. They start the year before, during writing when you (hopefully) self-reflect on the issues you have with your WIP, your style, your grammar, or even the steps you want to take next. If you have trouble with dialogue but are a whiz at plotting out the perfect story arc, then use your conference to build up your weak points. Even if it means stepping out of your comfort zone. Which leads me to my next point:

 

  • Sit it on at least one session that is outside of your genre, comfort zone, or even interest. Look, conferences can be amazing experiences but if you’ve been through sixteen hours of various takes on the query letter, trying to perfect your memoir pitches, you’re not growing as much as you could be. “But Sarah, why do I need to grow as a writer? I’m practically perfect as is!” Of course you are…but I ask you this: why does an athlete cross train? Why does an engineering major still have to take social science classes? Because learning about the realm outside yourself will make you better. Try a sci-fi world-building class or screenwriting. I guarantee, you will get something new out of it that will help your project and your craft.

 

  • Push your limits. Talk to people you wouldn’t normally, share your story, your success, and your pitfalls. This is an awesome opportunity (I’m talking to you little introvert from up there) to commiserate, vent, and rejoice in the craft you love so much. Pitch your novel, article, or story. Talk to the larger-than-life keynote speaker (here’s a hint: every single one of them I’ve had the pleasure to meet has been the kindest, most down-to-Earth and supportive writer). Come away feeling like the weekend/day was an experience that has changed you in some fundamental way.

 

How do I not get overwhelmed?

 

  • For goddess’ sake, take a break in the midst of it all. I’m the worst at this. I paid the money and I’m going to hit every single class. I will volunteer, pitch, hit up the speakers at the dinner table, and stuff every bit of information into my head until explodes! Then by day two, nothing makes sense in my mind, words are blurry, I’m not sure what my name is, and I’m crying into my mashed-potato tower, while wearing Underoos on my head that clearly are not my own. Take the breaks between sessions or even forgo a session and find a quiet corner or go for a walk outside. You need it to recharge, allow time to absorb the information and be refreshed for the next round.

close-encounters-of-the-third-kind-mashed-potatoes

 

 

  • If you are pitching to an agent or editor, polish the shit out of that thing. Take your pitch to your critique group, your friends, random people on the street before the conference and learn how to deliver it with confidence and clarity. Know your story, your characters, and your plot, inside and out. That first page should sing the sweetest siren’s song anyone has ever heart and lure the tepid agent from the afternoon lunch lull into something exciting they want to read more of. The more you practice your pitch, the more it will feel like a conversation with a good friend instead of an interview.

 

  • If you are pitching, don’t be intimidated by the agent or editor. Remember they are people. They are there, specifically, to talk to you. To hear your story. To find the next big thing. Most of them are also just like you…they may even be wearing Underoos and like mashed potatoes. The point is, it’s okay to be nervous, but don’t go in assuming they relish the idea of shooting you down. Be polite and always thank them for their time and any advice they have to give.

 

  • Sleep before. Sleep after. Eat nutritious food, take walks outside whenever you can, and watch the caffeine and the booze. Free coffee stations are like crack for me (okay, I’ve never been addicted to nor have I ever even tried crack but…you get the idea) and cash bars are a tempting mistress at the end of a long, people-filled day. But you have things to do tomorrow and Underoos stay safely tucked in if you can avoid that third cocktail.

underoos1

 

Well, good luck out there writer. Go find you a conference and learn to mill about in the wealth of knowledge and inspiration. Leave any comments or helpful hints you’ve gained over the years here, or even your worst experiences. I can’t wait for you to jump into one and discover how decadent it feels to immerse yourself in the craft you love.

 

Shooting The Curl

Something changed in the last month, my friends. Something kind of big. I didn’t really feel it at first, much like a solar flare or an earthquake a thousand miles away. The gentle flap of a butterfly’s wings somewhere in Malaysia. That’s how it began. Just an itch. A bit of a tickle…

You see, for the past seven or so years I’ve been on this track, inspired by the loss of a friend who left this dizzying ride far too soon. The day his light went out, I vowed to shine mine brighter; to burn out if necessary, but to always, always push towards my desires and passions.

And I succeeded in many respects. I achieved goals I had set, I went forth, even with paralyzing fear, to put myself and my work out there, to try new things, to live each day as if death might snatch me in my sleep.

And it’s a beautiful way to live. But no one mentions how hard it is to burn that intensely for so long. It’s nearly impossible to sustain in any healthy way. And I ended up sustaining it in not so healthy ways. Losing sleep, detrimental coping mechanisms, the overwrought sense of always being tired and worn out. Damage to my physical body. Damage to my mental health.

That’s when the butterfly fluttered somewhere in the distant neurons of my brain, and inspired this rising tsunami.

Living like you might die is a great way to get shit done. But I think I’m coming to grips with the idea that I might not go out like a candle extinguished, surprising and fast. That maybe, I’ll make it to 98…and if that’s the case, I have to slow my roll enough to make those fifty-some years just as beautiful and full.

Well, watch the wave come in…

I have to learn to slow the moments down. I am learning to say no to what doesn’t bring me joy. I am learning that not every day, week, month, year is the day, week, month, year that will see startling changes and massive accomplishments.

Sometimes I won’t get out of my pajamas all day. Sometimes, even after being a meticulous worker for most of my life, I won’t take the extra shifts. I may even put on a few pounds and kick my fucking scale to the curb.

Because I’m learning to save my effort for the things that really matter.

I’m committing myself to the things that fill my time with meaning.

This life-altering shift has helped me take a hard pass on things that have only been important because they mattered to the other people oscillating nearby. It’s got me skipping out on the mundane shit that doesn’t serve the purpose of my joy. Most importantly, it’s giving me permission to let go of people who don’t deserve my time or energy.

Does that mean I walk around being an asshole to everyone, shirking my commitments, and letting the laundry and bathroom scum build up to disgusting proportions? No. Because I might not die tomorrow, but if I did, I’m not going to leave a dirty mess behind me.

But does it mean if the bathroom looks fine but for a few spots on the mirror and some toothpaste in the sink I’ll put aside my ten pages of editing to clean it up?

Not any more.

Does it mean I’ll take all the jobs I can get, pro bono, because my platform ‘needs’ the solid underbelly from it?

Not any more.

My time is worthwhile, my craft is worthwhile. And if I don’t get any more of those little side jobs because they cost even the kindest, well-intentioned acquaintances then at least I will have the time that they took for me. And that’s priceless.

Does it mean I’ll drop my precious hours of writing, or family time, to take on a few extra shifts at my part-time jobs?

Not anymore.

Does it mean I’ll sign up for the time consuming races that guarantee I’ll end up with some injury, just for the ‘glory’ of bragging rights and the ‘challenge’?

Not this year.

I think I’m done with bragging. I’ve proven I can rise to challenges and I think I’m good with getting over giant accomplishments. I think I’m going to shoot the curl of this tsunami and ride it out…let it take me past all of the underlying reasons and expectations of others and do what’s best for me.

After all, I’ve only got half my life left. I spent a great deal of the first pleasing others, trying to anticipate and follow through with what they expected and needed of me.

I think it’s time I shook up some of those misperceptions.

 

Inaugural Tuesday Blog: “Doing Better”

Okay, that title makes it sound way more important than it is. It’s really just a normal weekly blog post, but I thought I would make it sound more official. It’s “Inaugural”…makes it sound like a need a fancy dress and an invitation… neither of which I have.

From now on, my weekly blog will be posted on Tuesdays. I wanted to spread The Beautiful Stuff out a bit more and appreciate your continuing to follow me.

Let’s get into stuff.

You all know I love this lady…and this is one of my favorite quotes from her:

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” —Maya Angelou.

I never expect perfection from myself or others. True beauty lies in the quirks of our imperfections, after all. That being said, our larger-than-comfortable-for-birth brains have no excuse for not changing behavior that is damaging. We have this funny little thing called foresight and allows us to think ahead, from the point in time we’re at to where our decisions can lead.

Learning is one of the greatest gifts we were given. Learning from others, from books, from experiences; our mistakes, our pain. We learn most from struggle and strife…and hopefully use that knowledge to do better the next time around.

Think of the amazing things that have come from this process!

As a species we’ve made great advances in society with science and medicine, saved species, and ended disease. Now…that doesn’t mean we don’t fall in equal and terrible measures and sometimes fall back into dark areas of ignorance and inflexibility.

We’re still losing species, spreading old diseases that used to be nearly eradicated. Some of us are falling off of the edge of a misconstrued flat world, it’s true. Idiocy is a hard condition to fight and I don’t have enough words to do it today, so let’s just focus on the theme.

Do your best. Until you know better. Then do better.

Our survival depends on the constant improvement…the evolution, if you will, of our knowledge.

When you become aware, when you wake to a cultural fallacy or the inconsistency of a prescribed “truth” don’t stay stagnant. Don’t support the norm out of fear, or worse, laziness. Ask the questions, the hard ones, and when you see the dark lying beneath, use what you know to bring it to light, and fix it.

This is a large scale hypothetical and it feels overwhelming to the small human. So, I urge you to think about it in terms of your own life. It doesn’t have to be vast, sweeping, cultural change to make a difference. Sometimes changing ourselves, piece at a time, can be the spark that starts the big fires. So start with you. What can you do today to “do better”?

Standing up for the fallen? Extending a hand to the broken? A kind word? A donation of time or money? A voice against injustice?

It doesn’t even have to be something so altruistic. What about an acceptance of your own happiness? Saying no to what you don’t want, or to that which makes you heart or soul sick? Letting go of the habits and addictions of your past to do better for you?

Taking a goddamn nap when you want one, eating that piece of chocolate cake, saying no to that glass of wine, or yes to that bourbon. I’m not going to tell you what you can do to “do better”, but I will tell you this;

Sometimes “doing better” is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Because better is often a rocky path, a steeper hill. It’s so much easier to falter, to roll down that hill, to let yourself go…and we’re all going to stumble. That’s ok. Remember? Imperfections are beautiful.

Just keep on, doing your best, until you know better…then do better.

Let me know what ‘better’ you’ll shoot for today? What about for the week? Year? Longer? I want to hear it all, throw some inspiration my way.

Let me know humans have it in them to do better.

Writer vs. Idioms

 

Biting the Dust and Chewing the Fat: A Word About Idioms

 

My daughter is learning about idioms in school. With new eyes on them, these expressions and figures of speech can range from all-out ridiculous to so over used that we barely notice them. Keep your eyes open, I’m about to idiom all over this place.

 

The conversation with my daughter got the ball rolling in my head, thinking about the idioms that pepper my own work. Writing coaches and how-to books tell you constantly to watch out for these little story killers, and with good reason. They dull your dialogues. They’re cliche, they’re drab, and boring and are the written word equivalent to a speaker saying ‘um’ and ‘uh’. Idioms are skipped over by the reader’s eye because they are so common as fixtures of language and culture. In other words, they’re time and space wasters.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Now, I don’t want to steal someone’s thunder or throw the baby out with the bathwater because sometimes idioms can be useful. Occasionally a specific phrase used in dialogue can denote or solidify where your character comes from or give us insight into their personality.

 

Saying ‘that dog won’t hunt’ or that someone ‘doesn’t know shit from Shinola’ (oh, and ‘please excuse my French’) are phrases one expects from a certain region or even generation. But unless it is something your character is at home saying, or that paints them in more vibrant colors to the reader, avoid them like the plague. After all, do we really need to swing a cat in a room to see if it’s big enough to do so?

 

It’s hard to cull the herd of idioms in our language; to make our work more precise and original, but it is part of fighting the good fight. When editing, ask yourself if the line has a double meaning. Ask if it’s the best possible way to say what you mean. If it’s an obvious idiom, what could you use instead? Does it contribute to the scene and charm of the moment, or distract from it?

 

So don’t beat around the bush or cry over spilt milk. When the ball is in your court and you’re back to the drawing board, remember; although idioms can be a cloud with a rare silver lining, it is always better to hit the nail on the head and kick overused phrases to the curb.

 

Now, if I can get the use of the Oxford comma right and stop double spacing after periods, I may just level the playing field.

 

If it’s not one thing…it’s another.

 

What are some of your common (or favorite) over-used expressions?

 

VerseDay 12-27-18

For the last VerseDay of 2018 I wanted to give you something amazing and powerful. Alas, this is what you get instead. (Well? Laugh!)

 

Next week, dawning the New Year, I will once again be promoting my submissions to VerseDay for the anthology out next fall. If you want to see your poem in print, please feel free to email or contact me with your poetry and/or essays.

 

And now…the final poem of 2018’s VerseDay adventure…

 

Honey Bee

 

Sometimes,

I miss you.

Miss the sound of your voice,

And the slight buzz 

Dripping Carolina, Honey

 

sweet.

 

I miss your fire,

the uplifting energy; an element so unconfined

The rushing ideas,

The rebellious feeling and defiant

 

heart.

 

I miss you, and your hover,

The way you called my flower the sweetest,

The only, under this sun,

You’ve ever loved, and danced so delicately across my

 

petals.

 

I don’t miss the way

Your deluge engulfed me,

Suffocated and overran in conversation,

The sting of barrage, welting my heart over and over again

And feeling that I was never quite important enough

To stop and take a

 

breath.

 

I don’t miss the pain,

Of the aching guilt you pierced me with,

The weight of what I should be,

What you wanted me to be,

The ideal you set

A high ivory honeycomb of complex,

 

deception.

 

Life does this.

It educates us.

Sometimes in human form,

and one sweetly hovering honeybee

Hard and hurtful once lured by the beguiling warmth

We must choose the limb to chew off to spare our

 

freedom.

 

You were my lesson

To enjoy the drawl but not submit to the voice

To know the sweetness of honey, without succumbing to its

 

taste.

 

To stoke my own energy,

To comprehend that I don’t need yours.

Orbiting in the clouds of your unfathomable passion taught me

To look for the fire in

 

Myself.