Angela Consolo Mankiewicz: A Poet Bows Off The Stage

Me, Angela and Rose at the LA Times Book Fair in 2014 at USC.

A good friend, one of my favorite people, in fact, died this morning. I am going to miss Angela Consolo Mankiewicz.

If you were to ask me to describe her, I’d say she was beautiful, honest, intelligent, kind, thoughtful, and wise. She loved poetry and good stories. She loved learning. She loved classical music and playing the piano. She loved her friends and helping people and reaching out to people. She loved her cats very much. She loved her husband fiercely.

Someone told me recently that there are four levels of friendship in Los Angeles. The first is dropping off and picking up your friend at LAX (the airport). The second is not telling the cops where the bodies are buried. The third is helping your friend bury the bodies. The fourth is reading his or her manuscript or screenplay. Once Angela took a friend under her wing, she was willing to read his or her manuscript and thoughtfully go through it, give good feedback and advice on where to go, and cheer them on. She was one of the best writerly cheerleaders I ever had. She was also honest in her feedback and critique without being harsh or dismissive. It was usable and constructive and thoughtful. That can be a rare thing, especially in this town, which is full of competitive writers.

Angela and I at the Miracle Mile Writers Club booth at the West Hollywood Book Fair in 2010. She brought a copy of her opera to play for people who happened by.

I first met Angela when I began going to the Miracle Mile Writers Club, back in 2006. Back then we were trying to become part of the California Writers Club and met at the Fairfax Library once a month to talk about the business part of writing. We were a motley crew of writers at all different levels in a variety of genres. We didn’t always know where we were headed as a group, or as individual writers. Angela wasn’t looking for a critique group (which we weren’t); she came looking to spend time with fellow writers. She was patient with newbies and veterans, those who were quiet and talkative. If she judged people it was to see how kind they were to others.

She was a poet and was also working on a libretto for a science fiction opera when I first met her. I loved her work; loved her voice. She was a Pushcart Prize Nominee in 2010. She had worked on her poetry and writing, developed it, understood the work it took to be serious at this thing called writing. And she was willing to read mine.

She got my first novella, The G.O.D. Factor, reviewed in Small Press Review (now defunct, but run by Len Fulton) — and not just by her, but by Hugh Fox.

She understood the stops and starts that happen with writing. She even liked my most recent short story, which is still looking for a home. I will miss having her at my back, cheering me on.

You can see her blogspot with links to some of her work here. You can read more about her here. Most recently she had been published in the Women’s Review of Books and Voices de la Luna.

After our writers group broke up a few years ago, and we all went our separate ways, Angela and I would still meet for coffee or tea, and to talk over life, love, annoyances, and of course our writing. She also liked to have writers over at her house to talk about the universe, love, hate, politics, prejudice, and how to solve the world’s problems. New Year’s Day I would have dinner with she and her husband and our friend Rose. These were solid, cherished times for me.

She had been sick for a while — non-smoking lung cancer — but fighting it every step of the way. It was only in the last month that she deteriorated so quickly. Only over the last week did friends and family understand that this was it. She was on her way out. Some of us rushed over to see her one more time when we heard, but even then, her voice, that vital and vibrant Brooklyn accent, was stilled as she slipped into sleep, and eventually, several days later, slipped away from us completely on a bright and sunny Los Angeles morning.

Waging Peace

AFTER I RAN out of blank cards, I started decorating regular Christmas cards.

 

The need, the drive, didn’t hit me immediately. It came on me slowly, sneaking up on me from the side, in a zigzag pattern like spies or commandos storming a building in a World War II movie.

But first, after the initial shock and bottoming out of my stomach on November 8, 2016, my emotions went all fire-engine red and boiling hot orange anger mixed with gray despondence and despair. I couldn’t believe half the country had decided not to show up at the polls so that 25% of the country could vote in a man who makes fun of the disabled and thinks it’s okay, normal even, to speak with such disrespect about women or immigrants or anyone really, other than himself. It had been a year since Dad had died and I felt like I was grieving for my dad all over again, AND the country he’d immigrated to, at the same time.

But eventually, I needed something — anything — to keep me going, get me past this and back to life. Staring off into space for hours at a time between bouts of rage and grief does not pay rent or get stories written or feed the cat.

Normally, writing is one of those tools I use to find my way around my emotions, but I was too raw to write. It just seemed to make things worse. I just got angrier, especially at anyone who called for acceptance and calm. All those people asking for that felt too much like the slimy arm of some creepy authority figure trying to manipulate me into behaving a certain way. It felt wrong.

At the same time, the anger wasn’t productive, but it wasn’t going away either. I still needed to figure out how to manage all this anger and grief. Teddy, my cat, tried to console me. My heart was breaking for dreams I had held fast and hoped would come to fruition since I was a little girl. These were dreams I’d had for even longer than I’d wanted to be a writer. Dreams of hope and a world where everyone had a place at the table, no matter their gender, race, religion, ethnicity. These dreams predated my desire to write stories.

TEDDY DID his best to console me while I worked through things.

So, I had no words to describe what I was feeling; no words for dealing with the grief. Anger, hurt, and betrayal cycled through me constantly. I tried to tamp them down, but always I was wondering, did those people who voted for Trump, some of them quite possibly friends and family, did they truly comprehend all the damage he would do? That people they knew and loved would lose access to healthcare? Did they care about that at all? Did they care at all about the people they knew in blended families — blended genders, blended nationalities, blended religions, blended sexualities? Did they care that free clinics and Planned Parenthood clinics and other programs who help people with little or no access to healthcare probably kept people they knew healthy enough to be productive members of society? Did they care at all about all those people, from babies up to adults, who are disabled and probably going to lose access to necessary education and occupational programs? Did they not get that science is real and climate change really is killing us all?

Or were they as angry as I was, but from a different viewpoint altogether? Were they so clouded with fear and anger at losing grasp in a changing world that their vote was a last attempt to hold onto a world that no longer existed? Maybe they truly believed that the world was a zero sum problem, so if someone gets more, they automatically get less. Maybe they didn’t realize that if we all win together it’s better for all of us. Maybe they didn’t grasp that just because people with different beliefs were showing up and asking to be counted, didn’t mean any one belief system or way of life was being invalidated.

I kept wondering why they didn’t understand: If they didn’t believe in a woman’s choice to do with her body what she will, or that people of the same gender could marry, or that other religions were just as valid as their own, or that science was real and we all deserve to have access to, or the ability to obtain food, clothing, shelter — that that was their choice. They could believe that if they wanted. If they wanted to keep their world small, that was their choice. But that was the thing. It was their CHOICE. The rest of us chose NOT to live in that small world. And we continue to choose NOT to be sucked into that dark abyss with them.

As angry as I was with that particular “them” — the “them” who had chosen a smaller, darker world — I also knew that somehow I needed to get past that anger. Somehow, the world needs to change to allow all of us to co-exist, not just a few of us comfortably and the rest tossed under the bus. And I knew that I needed to actively participate within myself for that change to take hold.

Of course, I wasn’t thinking nearly as coherent as above when I started making Christmas cards and watching Star Trek and Christmas movies. But, my brain couldn’t deal with it all, it was too much. No editing or writing jobs were going to get done while my brain was in this fog of grief and disbelief. No reaching out to others on the other side to show them that the world needed to be open and not closed was going to happen while I was just so very angry. In fact, no real thinking was happening at all, at first. It was Christmas movies cuz… Christmas. And Star Trek (TOS, TNG, Deep Space Nine, Voyager … it didn’t matter) cuz Star Trek is always relevant. And then I reached past the words to something deeper and began to create.

I got out my pens, pencils, brushes, paint, glitter, glue, blank cards, old cards, scissors and everything and set about painting and drawing and cutting and gluing and spreading glitter over everything.

At first I was just going to make about ten cards, just enough for some family and close friends. But then I realized there were a few more people to send to, and then I needed to get more laminate pouches, and then more glitter. Eventually, I found that once I got started, I couldn’t stop. So I just got as many 4 x 6 cards and laminate pouches as I could afford, ordered more stamps, and set about nonverbally expressing myself as hard and as loud as I could.

I wasn’t sure who would get what card at first. I just looked at pictures and colors and let my emotions and creative urges have their way with me. I’d make a bunch of cards, set them aside to “set” and make more, or work on making my Christmas crossword and newsletter. Then, I’d take the cards that were “set” and look through them, and look through my address list and see what spoke to me. The cards told me where they wanted to go.

It was all instinctive. There was no coherent thought to it. Pick up a blank card, think of the colors, look at the bits of paper I wanted to use in a collage, glue, paint, cover with glitter. Let dry. Repeat.

I couldn’t stop, so I decided to go with it. Each night I’d do as many cards as I could, wearing myself out so I wouldn’t cry myself to sleep.

Once I got through all the 4 x 6 cards I had purchased, I found regular Christmas cards and started decorating them, too. Colors and glitter. If I was being forced to have a president who believed in a dark world with no color, then I was going to make sure I spread the color and the glitter and light and life as far and as wide as I could. I don’t even know if I can describe the fierceness in my heart at how necessary it felt for me to do this.

It was early/mid December when I finally felt myself floating to the surface of my emotional ocean. Coherent words and thoughts were finally stringing themselves together outside of work. And the phrase that kept repeating itself in my head as I worked on my cards was “waging peace.” And that’s when I realized that what I had been doing was fighting a war in my heart to match the war “out there;” I was waging peace.

And then it was like everything broke loose. It didn’t matter if you were anti-Trump or had voted for the orange monster, or someone else, I was waging peace with these cards, and I was waging it in your direction. And dammit, I was going to be heard. This was my effort to reach out and get my message across — not with words, as words had failed me. If you weren’t going to listen to me or any words I said or wrote before the election, you weren’t going to care about any words I said to you now.

But now I was waging peace with color, pictures, paint, glitter, and my purely emotional and whimsical hope for a holiday that would be merry despite the despair in my heart and the fear and hatred peppering the world.

And I believe this still. Somehow we all have to get that message out there, past the prejudice of speech and old arguments, go primal and pre-speech, with hearts and dreams and color and glitter and hope — we have to reach out to the world and wage peace.

Christmas Crossword 2016

The last few years I’ve created my own little tradition of creating a Christmas crossword puzzle for my Christmas newsletter. It’s no New York Times-level crossword, but it’s fun to create and share. After I make sure everyone’s had a chance to see it in my newsletter, I like to share it out in the great wide world, in case there’s someone else out there who might have fun with it. So, now, without further ado, this year’s Christmas crossword.

Editing: Getting From There to Here

Proofreader, Copyeditor, Editor

Proofreader, Copyeditor, Editor

When Putt Putt Productions was first begun, I used to have “Writer, Proofreader, Copyeditor, Editor” on my business cards. I had experience with very detailed bookkeeping type work and had proofread for the periodical librarians back in college. In addition, at the time I filed the DBA for PPP, I’d been working for a company where I was speed proofing and formatting several documents a day (think double digits), sometimes having to change which style rules I was supposed to adhere to (APA, MLA, Harvard, Turabian…, or some variance in between) from one document to another, and also making sure everything was up to snuff with our own style/formatting code. And then sending the documents on to the clients after they were approved by the editors and my bosses.

Somewhere along the line, between proofreading the documents and passing along client order requests to our editors, and troubleshooting or passing along information from client to writer and back again, and generally running the office when my bosses and other editors were off doing other things, I began taking those orders myself, assigning writers, making decisions about content, sending along documents, and then advising my bosses and editors after the fact of what had been done. One editor I worked with pointed out I was, in effect, an assistant editor at that point.

Because of the extent to which I did all that work, and the freelance writing I did for this company after hours, I had no problem putting “Writer, Proofreader, Copyeditor, Editor” on my business cards.

But then something happened in cyberspace. I interacted with people, writers and editors, in the small speculative fiction community. I wasn’t diplomatic about something and didn’t behave well, and someone wrote that if I were a “real” editor, I would have known better. Paid better attention, understood the responsibility, etc.

After considering what I did and what they said, I realized they had a point. I took that bit, “editor,” off my business cards and have assiduously avoided being called an editor ever since. I wanted to be honest about what I could do for people. Some people use the term “edit” loosely and things can get messy when that happens, especially when we’re talking about paying for the service. I had experience with academic research documents, but relatively little in fiction or newspaper or magazine copy. I knew I would gain more experience in those areas, but until then, I didn’t want to promise more than I could deliver.

Well, that was back between 2000 and 2005. New Year’s Day this year, 2016, a friend of mine approached me about being a developmental editor for her piece of fiction, a novel-length work.

I had done some proofreading and copyediting work for her. I had helped her spruce up copy for letters she was sending, but editing — developmental editing — a full piece of fiction for her, I wasn’t sure I could do it. Even after over a decade of beta reading, proofreading, copyediting on stories, marketing documents, dissertations, theses, articles, and even at the paper, I still felt like a fraud in saying yes to her. However, she talked me into it.

This afternoon, I looked up from going through her book for the third time and realized that I was doing it. I felt like a kid learning to ride a bike who suddenly realizes her mom let go of the back end halfway down the block.

WHOOOSH!

I’d been editing!

Time to put it back on the business cards…

 

The Epistolary: Writing Exercise and Personal Journey

Back in July, I was going through a book of writing exercises and the one I was working on was called an epistolary. You pretend you come upon a stash of letters, or even use a real stash of letters, and write story from that, basically reconstruct the letters into a story.

Such an exercise is actually one of the earliest versions of the novel, or so my professors taught me when I was at Western. Fanny Burney’s novel, Evelina, was one such novel. Carrie Fisher wrote her semi-autobiographical novel, Postcards from the Edge, using an epistolary form for the first part of the book, leading the reader from postcards and letters to journal entries, before finally landing them in the first person narrative of the story.

Well, I thought I would take a stab at it, though it was probably going to take longer than a single night. But I got caught up in creating this thing, and ended up working on it most of that evening before finally winding up to the ending that had been in my head since the beginning of the story.

I feel good about that story, what I did and where I took it. The style reminds me a little of one of my favorite writers, Italo Calvino. I hope I haven’t inadvertently copied him. I’ll have to look into that. I’ve gone through the piece once, but it’s still “baking” (Rising? Proofing?) right now before I go through it and do some more tinkering. It’s been a few years since I sent anything out there. Not even sure where I’d send it! But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. It needs a few more drafts before I even think about that.

In the middle of writing that piece, I also realized I had material ready-made for a real epistolary. I had letters and cards I had sent to my dad from the time I was in grade school on up through college.

But let me back up a bit so you get where I’m coming from.

As my friends and I get older, more and more of us are becoming members of the “adult orphan” club. Some people “lose” their parents at a young age (though I hate that term “lose” – as if a person were an earring or a set of keys) and that is a devastating experience I’m thankful I never went through. The rest of us who are lucky enough to have our parents around into our adult lives, usually don’t have to worry about becoming members of the “adult orphan” club until we reach at least our 40s and 50s.

And then we watch and wait as each of us in our cohort becomes a member of the club. Whether suddenly, or as a result of a long illness, eventually our parents die. And even though we are adults, that experience of “losing a parent” crushes the child within all of us. I remember years ago talking with a neighbor about it. She was in her 60s and she talked about how much like an orphan she felt after her mother died some years before. Another friend of mine whose parents had both passed away a few years ago has said it was like losing his champions.

Neither of these people had perfect relationships with their parents. And yet, they still felt overcome with loss when their parents died.

And when that happens, when a parent, or anyone close like that dies, those left behind are left with putting the rest of those lives, the personal belongings that had meaning once upon a time, to rest. Because it’s not over when someone dies. I mean, some people are more prepared, more organized, than others. My grampa had a list with all the information needed for accounts, who to call and notify, the stuff about the will, what to do with his body, etc. Most people aren’t that prepared. Even with all that, it still took time.

After the body and brain have ceased to work and have been cremated or laid to rest or otherwise taken care of, it can take months, or even years, for a person’s entire life to be put to rest.

After all the relatives, friends, agencies, acquaintances and everyone else has finally been notified of your loved one’s passing, after the body has been disposed of, after you have acknowledged your own grief, there’s still all the material possessions to go through, homes to figure out, the online life to slowly shut down, the financial threads to be untangled and released. Jumping through hoops with people over the phone or in person who are trained NOT to believe you when you say, “I’m trying to shut down the email/account because my father/mother/spouse died and no, I do not have the PIN, but I might have the password and I do have the death certificate/social security number….” Or whatever else it will take for them to believe you.

And as much as you think it will be something you will have cleared up maybe a month after the death, that’s just not how the world works. Your body holds your grief as pain, and every task you do in laying your loved one to rest is taxing your body, your brain, your emotions. It is all painful. If you can accomplish one task a week while continuing to carry on with your life, that’s doing okay. If you can do one task a day? Phew! Wow! Make sure to give yourself time to crash and burn, because your body will demand it; laying a loved one to rest is hard work.

After watching other friends of mine who have had to go through this, and now as my family goes through a “laying to rest” of my father’s life, I think a safe guess for how long this takes is 18 months. Yes, after a parent dies it could take 18 months before everything with their lives is finally settled and laid to rest. Maybe more, maybe less.

But when this happens to you, and it will, remember that. Mark it on your calendar and hold it out as a marker to hang onto when it seems like everything is taking so long to sort through and manage: 18 months.

Earlier this year, in the spring (about six months after Dad died), one of the projects I took on to help lay my father’s life to rest was to go through the personal correspondence he had kept over the years and, if possible, mail it back to the people who had written him.

At first I just picked at the pile of correspondence that spilled out of the package. I figured it would be an easy evening in front of the TV. You know, just tossing the cards and letters in piles whilst watching Star Trek or Grimm or something. Right? I might cry, but that would be par for the course.

But it was more difficult than that. I couldn’t seem to approach it head on. I pulled out some folders I could use for keeping them organized. I’d pick a card or letter up, see who had written it and put it in a pile, but then pull another one out and the first one would tumble somewhere and get lost in the pile again as I read the second letter.

And then one day, I just started in. Not just sorting them, but reading them, thinking about these people who loved my father and wrote him, remember the stories he’d told me about these people he loved back.

My dad wasn’t sentimental, most of the time. He was English, which is not quite the same as Nordic, but bordering on it (Viking genes, you know). But he wouldn’t have kept these letters and cards if the people who wrote them hadn’t meant something to him.

I know. I was reading private correspondence, and a part of me felt squeamish at that. But the writer in me was fascinated at the breadth of story that could be mined in this correspondence. The daughter in me, who missed her father so much, just wanted to hang onto one more thing that was part of her daddy.

I could only do a few each night. The more I read, the more I remembered about my own life, what Dad had told me about his life, and the more I learned about these people my dad loved, as well as about him. I cried every night thinking about the love in this family. It was exhausting.

For example, there were cards and letters from my Nana and her mother, “Mrs Edwards.” Nana, or more formally Grandmother Iris (but we just called her Nana) was my dad’s stepmother. I remembered Dad describing a distant relationship with a woman who may or may not have cared for him. For my sister and I, she was the grandmother in England who would send us the occasional nice gifts for Christmas and had the handwriting that was nothing like Dad’s or Mom’s or Grampa’s and Gramma’s. So, I never really knew her. However, these letters were from a woman who really cared about Dad. She encouraged him, asked about him. And her mother, even, really enjoyed my dad, sending him a card or two as well.

There were also cheerful and newsy letters and cards from his brother and brother’s family. Letters from my sister Heather and I that ranged from one-liners from camp to long, rambling missives about our lives and asking him about his. A couple from Mom. Cards from Meeg. More newsy letters from my sister Elizabeth. And then there were a few letters and postcards from friends who must be long gone now. I couldn’t even decipher the names to figure out a proper place to send them back to; those “orphans” are finding a home with my own cards and letters and the ones from Nana (who passed away a few years ago).

Rambling letter I wrote Dad while I was at college. I was babysitting and we were playing with markers.

Rambling letter I wrote Dad while I was at college. I was babysitting and we were playing with markers.

 

Card I sent to Dad for Father's Day, because the antelope was wild and free like my junior high self thought Dad was.

Card I sent to Dad for Father’s Day, because the antelope was wild and free like my junior high self thought Dad was.

 

So, back to the idea of epistolaries as a writing exercise.

In July, when I was working on the writing exercise, I was also still sorting through those letters and cards. And after writing the faux epistolary, I had what I thought was this brilliant idea. I thought that after I had sorted through all the cards and letters and sent them off to their homes and only had mine left, that I would do a close read of them and write an epistolary based on my real letters.

I KNOW! Great idea, right?

Well…

Not so much. Or at least, not yet. Well, you can try it if you want to, but I can tell you from experience that trying that less than a year after someone’s death is not a good idea.

Beside, real life doesn’t always have a story, an arc, an easy beginning, middle, crisis, and end. And so it was with my letters. There wasn’t an easy arc to follow, no beginning, middle, crisis, and end as I wrote my dad the rambling letters about school and music and sports and boys and moving and jobs. It was messy, like real life.

And that’s the other thing. It was messy, funky, bloody, and too soon, too close to home. The girl that I was, and the woman I have become are completely different and at the same time also exactly the same. But separating out what is story and what is not and how tell a true story out of it all – well…

I have a bumper sticker up in my home office from a publisher as a reminder to be true to the work: “Write Gutsy. Write Lovely. Write Bloody.”

Bumper sticker from Write Bloody Publishing (the founder, Derrick Brown, is also a good poet).

Bumper sticker from Write Bloody Publishing (the founder, Derrick Brown, is also a good poet).

 

I’d like that to happen sometime with my letters, sticking close to the bone and writing gutsy, writing bloody lovely, but it’s just not going to happen any time soon.

Breath Stealers: The monsters are real

A friend of mine has hired me to edit their novel — developmental editing. It’s a deep reading of a piece that’s not a simple proofreading or copy editing read through. The editor may read through the work several times looking for consistency, structure, meaning, logic, etc. It can be a long process and requires really thinking about what you’re reading. You can’t just do it on automatic. Fortunately, my friend wrote a novel that’s not only a good story, but also leaves the reader with lots of things to think about.

One of the characters comes to the conclusion, several times, that no matter how hard she tries to do the right thing, the thing that is required of her, it always seems to get her into trouble. She’s chopped away bits and pieces of herself over the years to try to fit into what is required by the many factions in her life, and even then, it’s not good enough. It’s never good enough.

I identified with what that character was going through, so it made me think about that feeling. That feeling that bits and pieces of you have been given away or stolen to accommodate others, and it’s never good enough. It’s a very familiar feeling for me, as I sure it is for others as well.

When I used to go out dancing, there was a bit of a protocol as to how things were done on the dance floor. Just as in walking on the sidewalk or driving along a street, there are “rules of the road” to allow everyone on the dance floor space to dance, express themselves, and have a good time. There was an assumption that everyone was allowed so much of a “bubble” around themselves. Sometimes you’d bump into someone, or they’d bump into you, but for the most part, most people respected the “bubble,” respected the space.

Except for those people. You know who they are. They’d come on the dance floor and it seemed like no matter where you danced, they were there in your space, bumping into you and not apologizing, not moving away, not allowing you your space. So you might move to another part of the dance floor, and there they’d be again. Or you might dance “smaller” so as not to take up all your bubble. This usually meant they just danced “bigger,” taking up what you weren’t using anymore. You could try dancing “bigger” as they did, but that risked some type of altercation.

So, you might leave the dance floor in a huff to get a drink, only to find that you’re now standing next to one of those people, who is pushing you aside to get the bartender’s attention before you. If you’re lucky, you finally find yourself some space outside in the parking lot having a cigarette, where you can swear at the world, swing your arms and kick the curb, getting the encroacher out of your system.

If you’re lucky and they haven’t followed you out to bum your cigarette. If you’re not so lucky, then there they are again. They took your space and your drink and they literally want to take your breath as well.

I don’t go out dancing anymore, but that concept seems to hold true in other parts of my life. There are people out there who don’t seem to want to acknowledge that you are allowed your space, your breath. They walk into a room and take up the entire room with their presence. I’m not talking charismatic people who have a large presence, I’m talking about those people who steal the room. They steal your space and everyone else’s space in the room. They steal their attention, their voice, their breath.

If you are anything like me (and there are a ton like me, I know), you think, “fine, I’ll just manage fine in this little corner.” So you move to that corner, thinking that now the person stealing all that space will be mollified. But they’re not. That they have 75% and you have 25% is not good enough for our breath stealer.  They want more. So you make your space smaller. You cut away at your space, letting them have 80% while you decide 20% is enough for you, if they’d just leave you alone and let you have it.

If we were talking sharing the bed with the cat, the dog and your assorted family members, this might be okay, comforting even, but we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about people who want to steal your space. You give up more and more of your space, more and more of your place at the table and that’s still not good enough for them. Your physical, emotional or psychological parts of yourself that you hold space for? They want that. Everything you hold dear to yourself — your ideas, your space, your opinions, your emotions — they want.

Why? I think each breath stealer has his or her own reasons, insecurities. It makes them bigger, more important. Or maybe they’re just absolutely clueless about how they are the big monster in the room stealing everyone else’s life.

dont-let-de-boo-hag-ride-ya
In Gullah culture, there’s a creature called a Boo Hag, a breath stealer. They’re like a vampire in that they steal your life, your energy, but by stealing your breath, not your blood. They creep into your home and float above your body and steal your breath as you sleep. When you wake in the morning, you have no energy. Or if that’s not enough, they might steal your skin (you can read about it here).

Probably everyone plays the part of the Boo Hag at one time or another in their lives. I mean, if things go the way they’re supposed to on any given day, then life is a bit of a give and take, right? You might give of yourself one day and take the next. Like the marketplace, you get paid and go out and spend your money for goods, which pays someone else, who goes out and spends money for goods or services, and so on, etc. You breathe in from someone one day, and breathe back into them the next. And there will be days when, whether or not you’re aware of it, you will be the one playing the part of the Boo Hag. You will be selfishly demanding the space, the breath, the opinions, the energy. They are all yours, dammit! People OWE you! Didn’t they know that?

Then you get over it. The huge bubble you have selfishly built from other people’s space is burst and you are once more a normal person, not a monster. You are once again seeing that, yes, other people deserve their own place at the table, just as you do. They deserve their space, breath, ideas, opinions, etc. This is an exchange.

But some people never “get over it.” The always demand more and more space. Nothing and no one is ever good enough for them. They want it all.

I know other women probably deal with this, maybe other minorities do, too. But you’re with a group of people and you don’t talk much. You know it’s safer to just keep quiet. But then you’re asked to speak up, so you do. And as soon as you start to speak up as much as the others at the table — not more than, just as much as — you’re suddenly labeled the loud-mouthed bitch by the breath stealer at the table (usually just one or two, because they won’t tolerate others like themselves at the same table). After listening to said Boo Hag talk about their work for hours, you finally talk about what you do or what you’re working on or other things in your life, and their eyes glaze over or they decide to interrupt you. “Too much drama” for them to have to listen and pay attention to someone outside of themselves.

I remember sitting at dinner with a couple and they went on and on against immigrants and people with mental health issues, and several other demographics outside themselves. Grand statements that swept millions of people into a corner of “undesirables,” without any thought given to any of those people as individuals at all. And this couple employed immigrants and had family members with physical and mental health issues. They had made a good living doing what they liked to do and instead of turning that good outward to help others, they decided they wanted more, and that the only way to get more was to make sure others had less. (At dinner that attitude made itself known by how often they talked across me or others whenever we tried to make a point or state an opinion.) Making a good living wasn’t good enough. Living in their space was no longer good enough. Now they had to take that space away from others as well. I used to think of them as friends. Did I change? Did they? Will they ever come back to themselves? Or were they always selfish bastards?

I was watching a film with friends one night and it wasn’t the best movie. It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t bad. We kept watching. But one of the people there kept heckling it. If you’re at home alone watching a movie and heckling it, fine. Besides, you can turn it off, unless you want to see how truly awful it is. But the movie wasn’t in the heckler’s home, and it wasn’t being turned off. And she kept heckling, not just saying how bad it was, but also using an entire demographic of people (in this case middle-aged women) to disparage it. Why? Why use a whole group of people who have done you no wrong to disparage something? It wasn’t entertaining. It was rude and selfish and so bigoted against an entire group of people. I’m a middle-aged woman, for crying out loud! I was getting offended, but I did what I do, which is kept quiet, made my space smaller. That’s what we’re taught to do with rude people, right?

Was that just a bad, selfish moment for her? Should it have been a learning moment for me? Should I have said something? Will she ever see it on her own? Will she ever come back to herself? Or has she permanently morphed into the selfish monster who wants to claim all the space?

It’s like bullying. When I was a kid I was bullied. Back then, you just put up with it. When Todd and Tom wanted to chase me home and throw rocks at me, I learned to hide until they left school and make my way home a different way. When Robbie and John called me names, I ignored them. I played on another part of the playground with other kids. I tried to make myself as inoffensive as possible. Ignore it and it will stop. And sometimes that works with bullying. But other times?

Other times they decide that it’s no fun when you ignore them, and to run you down with their bicycle is more fun. They want your space. They want to claim the air you breathe.

When I was a kid and that happened, I ran home to my mom and grandparents and they called other kids’ parents. “Things were discussed” and a bulk of the bullying stopped. But when you’re an adult, you don’t have someone to run home to, except maybe your cat. You just have yourself, maybe a trusted friend to talk it over with, to figure out how to deal with it.

So what do you do? Do you keep self-editing pieces of yourself? Stripping things away to become less and less around others who demand more and more? That doesn’t seem right. But then, to go back to the dance floor analogy, trying to constantly dance with your elbows out so you don’t lose what little space you have is exhausting. That’s not right either. To go back to the bullying example, you could try to find another part of the playground to be on, and that will be okay for a while. But these people don’t go away.

My go-to strategy has always been to keep politely silent. Nod and smile until I get home where I can lock the door between them and me. I know that at least this space I can call my own, as long as I can pay the rent. In this space I can write my thoughts and think my thoughts and they are wholly my own.

But I can’t always shut myself away can I? Maybe that’s what we’ve all ended up doing in some way or another? Maybe that’s why some people become shut ins? They just want their space to be theirs without interference from the big, monstrous breath stealers, and that’s the only way they can safely keep their space.

I have no ultimate answer for this. The most I can say is 1) that the Breath Stealer Monsters are real. Watch out for them. And 2) I enjoy developmental editing because it leads me on thoughts like this one.

 

Never had an attic

So, one of the writing exercises in Clear Out the Static in Your Attic is to describe something in detail from your attic, whether real or metaphorical is kind of hazy.

I never lived anywhere where I had an attic, though. We never had an attic where we stored things when I was growing up. Wanted one, never had one. We had a basement, a room under the stairs, crawl spaces. No attics.

So, in doing this writing exercise I had to decide, should I describe the basement I do know, or the attic I don’t know? Is there a difference in how we store our memories? Whether in a mental basement or a mental attic?

My basement will always be the basement in the house on Pear Lane with the cool room beneath the stairs and the wall of shelves for canned goods, the large zinc sinks, the drain in the corner, and the cut out cupboard in the wall where Gramma kept her bulbs. My sister tells me there was a little spot on the wall where Grampa kept his guns behind chicken wire, but I don’t remember that. I figure I blocked that.

I guess what I’m saying then, in reading the above, is I’ve answered my own question. I don’t connect with an attic like I do a basement, so it’s best to use the basement.

The title of this chapter in the Clear the Static book was “Floorboards.” So, we’re supposed to describe the floorboards in the attic.

The floor in the basement was concrete, of course. It was painted gray in the main room with the zinc sinks, but there was green shag carpeting down the stairs and at the foot of the stairs and into Mom’s room. That’s all we had for carpet. My sister and I got the linoleum in our room. It was cream-colored with gold glitter in it and had these odd shaped star things in black and pink. My sister and I used to pretend they were spiders and we had to get around the room without touching them, which meant hopping about from door to bed to bed, and back again.

Blurry photo of the linoleum we had in our bedroom.

Blurry photo of the linoleum we had in our bedroom.

In the summer, when it was 108 degrees outside, the basement floor was nice and cool to the touch. But it was way too cold in the winter when we’d tiptoe across to brush our teeth in the zinc sinks so the grownups could have time in the real bathroom getting ready for work.

One of my favorite places in the basement was halfway up the stairs, just sitting there, sometimes reading a book. When I first learned about prayer, that was where I sat to pray, asking God for a crown, a robe, a scepter and a chest of jewels to arrive there by the time I came back to my favorite place on the stairs.

Gramma tried real hard not to laugh when she explained to me that’s not how prayer works.

Still, it was one of my favorite places in the basement.

The other favorite place was the little room beneath the stairs. It was always warm, all year round. It was where the hot water heater was, which was “new” and right next to the old hot water heater, or boiler, which was made of iron and had 1898 stamped across it. It was the room where the ironing board and iron were kept, always set up. It was where all the old games, knickknacks, toys, sewing supplies, fishing rods, and other oddments were stored. As far as I was concerned, it was a glorious room. A magical room. Down there was where the old Chinese checker game lived, alongside the 1,000 piece dragon puzzle. It was one of the places where I hid when things went wrong. I think of all the rooms in that little orchard house, that’s the room I miss the most.

Yeah, it’s not the attic that works for me. It’s the basement.

Writing is a marathon

When I was in grade school, I started sprinting. I wasn’t superfast. In fact, I was just sort of fast. And I liked the longer sprints, the 220 mostly (now called the 200 meter), but not the longer ones like the 440 (400 meter). And I wasn’t quick enough at the start for sprints like the 50 and 100 yard dash.

But when I walked, I liked to go slow, stop and look at things. Family walks used to be interesting. Mom liked to walk fast, I tried to keep up. My sister would out-and-out stop to make us stop so we’d both wait for her. Now, of course, they’re both fast-walking fiends.

I liked going fast on my bike, though.

In junior high, I actually lettered in track and volleyball. Mostly the 220/200 meter and the relay – nothing too long or too short, like I said. And it was again, mostly stick-to-itiveness that got me those letters. I wasn’t the fastest, but I didn’t give up.

Sports letter

I also wrote poetry a lot, not stories. I thought about writing stories, but I was all about the poem. And sometimes plays. I really liked the idea of writing plays at the time. In grade school, I used to check them out and bring home ones I thought I could mess about with at home, to direct my sister and our friends in. Or really just me and my sister. Maybe if I’d gotten involved in drama more in junior high and high school I would have tried writing plays.

Anyway, that’s all to say that all these things I did were the shorter versions of things I was into. They were the things I could do in brief amounts of time. They were things that I knew I could finish.

In high school, we moved from the east part of the state to a larger town, a college town, on the west part of the state. Completely different type of town. My interests traveled with me, of course, but the friends who I’d done track and volleyball and drama with who would have pulled me along with them were back in Wenatchee. I was starting over in Bellingham. New school. New system. New friends. The only thing I really held onto was orchestra (but without the private lessons). I have Mr. Schlicting to thank for that. He grabbed me before I could shy away and got me into orchestra and chamber.

But as a runner, I didn’t fit anywhere anymore. And though my shotput had been okay for a junior high kid, it was lousy for high school. Somehow, I got talked into joining the cross country running team. I don’t know how. Maybe it was the Chariots of Fire movie. I don’t know. Long distance running had never been something I was into. But somehow I made it. It was longer and slower (for me, though for others it was faster). I frequently came in last or tied for last.

Writing happened, outside of homework, in fits and starts. I explored being an architect for a while instead of a writer. It seemed like there would be more promise for employment, and more exotic than mundane writing. I read books, thought about things, wanted to make the world a better place, had dreams. Meandered.

Eventually, though I quit running for track in high school, I did end up running for myself in college and later. And that’s also when I started working on longer forms of writing. My poems got longer, as if expanding my lungs, my breath, my stamina, also seemed to expand my ability to expand on my ideas. I wrote longer poems and short stories, toyed with ideas for novels. They were halting and poorly written, but coming out nonetheless.

It wasn’t until I read “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg that I connected that writing was something that happened between the brain and the body; it was just as much physical as mental. Goldberg’s theory was that writers had good figures because they (we) expend a lot of energy writing. It takes stamina. It also takes stubbornness and focus, like running long distance does.

Now, I know a lot of out of shape writers, because if you spend all day in front of your computer and get out of the habit of moving around, your body will deteriorate. But I also know what she was saying. I get it. It takes strength – physical, mental, and spiritual – to write, to keep at it and not give up.

Last year, my cat died, my dad died, hell, my washing machine died. My best friend’s dad died, and his dog died. The paper I work for was sold and we not only changed how we do things and got a new boss, but we also moved down the street. I also moved out of my kitchen while it was being redone, and back into it, and out of the rest of my studio apartment while it was being repainted, and then back into it. Family visited in between.

2015 was exhausting.

Writing got dropped like a 10-pound sack of potatoes.

I’d been working on a book, well a novella and two books. And before everything hit the fan, I thought that one of them was close to completion. But I would soon learn that even with all the practice I had with poems, short stories and novellas, when it came to novels, it wasn’t going to be a sprint. It was going to be a cross country journey requiring stamina and focus. And I was getting there, bit by bit. I might come in last, but I figured I would get there eventually.

And then last year happened.

It’s been over a year now, but I am finally getting back into writing. But like all exercise regimens, I’ve lost the “conditioning” I once had to sit down and stick to a piece of writing. I’m barely working on poetry, only nipping around the edges of stories. I have to get back my stamina. Gotta practice the short sprints before I get back into the long distances.

A couple of weeks ago, I opened up the file for the novel I thought was close to being finished and realized just how much farther I have to go on it. I have to get in my “distance training” again before even looking at it. So much more to do, more exercises getting the creative writing chops back. More poetry and short stories so I feel comfortable in my writing skin again before I get back into the marathon training that is novel writing. It will take some time before I finish this book, or any other for that matter. I need to be comfortable with that. This isn’t a short sprint. I’m in it for the long haul.

 

Obsolescence and Wringer Washing Machines

One of the exercises from “Clear Out the Static in Your Attic” is to take something that’s obsolete and explore it from the perspective of being out of time. Look at the tension that happens when it is out of its regular time and place. Alternately, try to imagine something that is used all the time now, which may become obsolete sometime in the future. Explore what that looks like.

For this exercise I decided to explore the old wringer washing machine that’s used at Pickett Fences down the street.

This GE Wringer Washer is similar to the one my gramma had.

This GE Wringer Washer is similar to the one my gramma had.

Time in a Washing Machine

The shop was one of those upper class boutiques that fakes old-fashioned working class sensibilities with creaky wood floors and fixed-up crap your grandparents and great-grandparents threw out because the new stuff from Sears & Roebuck really did work better. Vintage things you could have gotten from your parents for free when they cleaned out the attic or the garage or went through your grandparents things after a funeral, sat next to artisanal objects and products handcrafted — sometimes by special snowflakes and sometimes by actual artists and artisans.

And all of the items — Vintage and artisanal alike — cost much more than your working class family would have ever dreamed of paying for such things as soaps, scarves, cards, buttons, and other cool objects.

Old things made new and cool again.

New things being cool because they had the patina of being old, because they could.

One of the shiny new old things in the store was the outer shell of a wringer washer sitting in the middle of the store.

I wasn’t going to go into the store, I really wasn’t. My budget didn’t normally include visiting boutiques that had objects that cost enough to bite into my grocery budget, or clothes that would only fit prepubescent girls with no hips.

But this old wringer washer, sitting in the middle of the room, it drew me in.

I felt myself shrinking as I approached the old washer. Slowly, I was changing from a 50-something woman in a 21st century city, to a small town six or seven-year-old girl. Gramma’s voice was in my head warning me stay away from the wringer washer as she fed in the clothes from the basin into the hard rubber spools. My little hands and arms might get caught up and pulled through the wringer.

My six-year-old self wanted to help her grandmother, but obediently clasped her hands behind her back as she stood on tiptoe to see into the basin. Watch the clothes pulled out, fed into the wringer, back into the basin. Rinse. Repeat. Hung to dry on the clothesline in the utility room of the basement.

And then I am standing over the hollowed out basin in the boutique, once again a grown woman, and staring into a container of vintage scarves. This is nothing but a display piece. No monster agitator to mangle my hands and my clothes. No greedy wringers to take off my fingers or arms. Inert. Dead. The working-class demon is now an empty shell of itself in an upper class boutique on Larchmont Boulevard.

The first time my poetry got published

When I was in junior high — Pioneer Junior High, home of the Bears — our school newspaper had a poetry contest. I had moved across town from another junior high, Orchard, home of the Bulldogs, a couple of years before.

Annuals from Orchard Junior High and Pioneer Junior High, 76-79.

Annuals from Orchard Junior High and Pioneer Junior High, 76-79.

It has been a long time, and I believe both junior highs are now middle schools, and neither one has newspapers anymore.

I don’t think the poetry contest was a regular yearly thing. I think it was a “one off” that our school newspaper was trying out in my 9th grade year; it was a glorious “one off” as far as I was concerned.

I remember being really excited at the prospect of a poetry contest. I figured that this was it. This would be the thing that would prove I was a writer. And I think it was also the first time I actually considered sharing my poetry with others. Before this, I don’t think I ever really thought about other people reading what I wrote — I mean, not really (other than silly day dreams, and Paul McCartney songs on the radio in the early morning helped with that). The whole concept that someone other than my teachers or my mom might read what I wrote was foreign. On the other hand, I knew I needed to enter this contest. And I think my mind filed the poetry I’d be submitting in the “homework” portion of my brain to keep me from freaking out about it.

So, I approached it as I would any homework, like I was working on an essay for class, and assumed that only the teacher advisor, and maybe the newspaper students, would ever see the poems I submitted.

The little house on Pear Lane.

The little house on Pear Lane.

But maybe I should back up a little — give you a little history.

When Gramma and Grampa decided to leave Wenatchee, my mom and my sister and I moved from the little house on Pear Lane with a double corner lot, a huge back garden, a little play house and a cool basement, to the tiny two-bedroom duplex on Dakota on the other side of town with a dime-sized yard. Not very far as things went, but far enough to put me in a different school district. Far enough to leave behind friends I’d made my first year of junior high, leave behind track and volleyball coaches and orchestra teachers and cute boys I had crushes on, and then have to get to know new friends or old friends from grade school again, whilst wondering if I would be able to please my new track and volleyball coaches and orchestra teachers. Would I find new boys to have crushes on?

So, what I’m trying to say is that even after being at PJH for a year, I felt the need to prove myself. I really was holding onto this poetry thing like a lifeline to do that.

When we’d lived on Pear Lane, my sister and I had shared a room in the basement. We’d built forts out of our closets and beds. We’d played “avoid the monsters on the floor” (the creamy linoleum floor had those pink, gold, and black star things on it) and other games. When I wrote it was with visions of becoming another Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott, or L.M. Montgomery. In my world, I was Jo March.

The window I left open so Peter Pan could visit.

The window I left open so Peter Pan could visit.

My sister’s bed had been by the door at the bottom of the stairs and mine had been by the small window that was high up in the wall. I’d left that window open every night when I was really young in hopes that Peter Pan would come to visit. Later I kept it open just to annoy my sister. (It was a basement window with a screen, hidden at the side of the house, in a small town, so no one cared I left it open.)

When we lived on Dakota, once again my sister got the bed by the door, and I got the bed by the window. But this time we were on the ground the floor and the windows looked over the little hedge and the yard onto the small street. We had carpet on the floors and shared a closet with a sliding door and were older, so no more did we build forts or play “keep away from the monsters on the floor.” Instead, we — what would they call it these days? We were “establishing our territories.” We put duct tape down the center of the room. We charged each other 1/4 of a penny every time we touched the other person’s side of the room. Trouble was, my sister’s side was by the door. I had to run down the short hall and do the long jump to get to my side of the room without touching hers, which was only successful about half the time since that was not one of the things I was good at in track.

I probably still owe her money from then.

I still loved being next to the window, though. It was my own little corner of the world. The windows were larger and let in more light. They only opened out a little ways, though, and I didn’t leave them open at night as much anymore. I was old enough now to have seen scary movies and know about the monsters who broke into houses. I wrote messages to my friends in runes or codes, coloring the paper with mom’s leftover coffee so it would look like parchment (she was so annoyed when she found out). And my bed by the window is where I sat to work on my poems for the contest that year. I remember sitting there in the early morning, and sometimes in the evening, looking out the window while I wrote and rewrote lines, crossed it all out and started over again.

I remember working on two poems that year. One I had written mostly while we lived in the little house on Pear Lane. It was simple, following the seasons of the year, and about being a kid in a small town: riding bikes, running along canal roads, running through the sprinkler in the summer, playing in the snow in the winter. I began it on Pear Lane, but I finished it on Dakota. I remember calling it “Childhood.”

Then there was the other poem I worked on, but only on Dakota. It was specific to my immediate condition and was full of young teenage angst and yearning. It hurt so much to express all that that it felt good. I called it “Alone.”

I had put my entire young self into those poems. And then, somehow, I had the confidence and bravery to actually enter them into the contest. A contest where people might read them who hated them, who might point at me and laugh at my ridiculousness. But at least one of them, “Alone,” made it. I think I remember getting third place, but that didn’t matter. It placed, and because of that was published in the school newspaper.

I was so proud! So happy. I don’t even remember the other poems that made it in. I think I remember some semi-cute guy offhandedly saying to me, “cool poem” in one of my classes. It put me over the moon.

I brought home my copy of the school newspaper and swore I’d always keep it. This would always be mine. No one would take it away from me. I’d always have this newspaper as proof I’d been published somewhere.

But, well, things don’t always turn out the way you think. I learned a valuable lesson — to always keep extra copies of what you’ve had published, to keep tearsheets, to keep the original poem or story somewhere safe. Because I lost the copy of that school newspaper with my poem in it, and the copy of the poem as well. I’ve moved several times in my life since then. Every time I have to go through old boxes I think, “I wonder where those poems went.” I look again, just in case. Still not there. They’re long gone in some landfill, probably decomposed by now.

I used to go online every so often and see if anyone had scanned in old copies of the annuals and newspaper from back then. Maybe I’d run into my poem. I even wrote Pioneer Middle School to see if they kept copies of their old newspapers (they don’t). The real world is not Sunnydale and I don’t have a Willow to hack in online and find things that aren’t there.

While I know from the perspective I have as a middle-aged adult that these poems were probably childish first attempts at poetry, “juvenalia” as a friend calls such things, they were my first attempts at poetry. My first attempts at poetry where I actually won something. My first attempts that got published. I will always honor them. I will always miss them.