The Thief

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I’m standing in the middle of a winter storm with northerly winds that kick icy flakes into my face scratching my cheeks and stinging my eyes.  Twirling snow dances across the pavement. In the air, the snowflakes link hands together creating white-out conditions. It’s terrifying – because when I’m brave enough to raise my eyes and face the assault of icy air again, I can’t see a thing in front of me. The road has disappeared. There’s nothing in front of me, or behind me. The world has vanished.

I’m waiting for it to stop: that moment when the sun will slide through a cloud and like a flashlight illuminate the faint outlines of buildings and reveal snow covered draped trees to me again. Even for the briefest of moments, would make all the difference in the world: it would be a reassurance that this storm will end.

I’ve been asked what I would do when this happened to me: the moment when writer’s block sets in, and like a thief that’s tip-toed through my home when I wasn’t there stole my dictionary, thesaurus, and in a final assault on my creativity – walked off with my computer in the middle of the night. The bandit has stolen everything I could use to put words together, whether it is on paper, or in a blog post.

In all honesty, I can’t remember the answer I gave to this problem. But I suspect knowing me, I would have used my running experience and said something such as, “I would write over it. Keep writing, no matter what! And then hope, that someday the words would come easier again.”

The experience of running has taught me that sometimes, I need to push on and over, the most difficult days. Not every training day will offer sunny skies, seventy degree Celsius temperatures, and tank top and short-wearing weather.  Some days will be minus thirty-five degree Celsius temperatures, layered clothing, steamed glasses, and ice buildup on my eyebrows, hair and lashes. But those are the days I know I need to get out the door and do the best I can, with the conditions I’m given.

But I don’t always keep running in a race. Sometimes I’ll slow down, walk it out, and wait for the pain in my calf to subside (ditto for nausea). I know this to be true: sometimes I need a little break so that I can return to my 10 KM run, half-marathon, or marathon race stronger than I was a few moments ago. Ultimately, for me at least, what matters most is crossing the finish line.

Writer’s block haunts me. It slithers in the shadows and reappears in the most terrifying and most unexpected times.  It waits for me. Sometimes when I’m at my strongest mentally; and sometimes when I’m at my weakest. It’s stalked me so many times: inching it’s way closer when I wasn’t watching, forcing me to keep my eyes open longer resulting in too many late nights and scrambled thoughts. Then before I even knew what was happening, my ideas and ability to weave stories together had vanished.

In this community I won’t lie to you, there are times I’m scared I may never be able to write another story again. (To those on the outside, I’ll say something different.) Those are the moments I reach for the switch in a room and attempt to illuminate the darkness. When my fingertips hit the light switch and I hear the “click” I’m slightly relieved – relieved, until nothing happens. Because now I know, I’m in the middle of a power outage.

After scrambling around trying to find the one lighter I own in my house, I light a candle and watch the glow because nothing else works. I can’t make toast or coffee, there’s no TV or radio, and if the power outage lasts long enough, I’ll run out of hot water.   Now I know there are some things I should do during a power outage: buy bottled water, batteries, and flashlights; and keep the fridge door closed to prevent food from spoiling. Other than that, I need to wait.

I’ve faced writer’s block before: sleep-deprivation, viruses, injuries, and personal life upheaval have been some of my enemies. With all these factors, when my mind struggles to take care of day-to-day tasks it saps my creativity. My brain busy building to-do lists, for to-do lists, has no room to build heroes and plotlines.

But I continue to move forward as much as I can through it. In those moments when I find I can’t create something new, I’ll work on something old, revise my manuscript, or work on marketing material. Above all else, I keep working, no matter what. My fear is this: If I stop working too long, the ever-present negative naysayer in me will grow louder and my writing adventure might be over.

Eventually, I know the winter storm will stop and I’ll hear the hum of the fridge starting again. With this sign, I’ll flick the switch and the darkness will end with light. Normally when the power returns, the thief shows up on my front step with my dictionary and thesaurus, and good guy that he is, he’ll even help me set my computer up again.  With my coffee pot percolating, and my toaster toasting, I watch as new and old characters walk through my door and my world-building begins once more.

Keep Writing.

I have a confession: I sometimes get discouraged with this writing quest.  The epic battle for me commenced some seven years ago when I finally sat down with my weapons: computer, paper, pens; and a notebook to scribble writing-related-to-do lists, ideas for stories, and sometimes a part of my in-progress manuscript. (Oh, how I love thee Staples, supplier of writing essentials!) I had decided that was it: I was going to commit to writing.

In my early twenties and early thirties, I picked up writing a few times and then quickly threw it aside at various points in my life foregoing the writing adventure because it seemed impossibly difficult with a zero chance of success. I did not have a Journalism Degree. Neither had I majored in English Literature. Those were the people who wrote books: Not Administrative Assistants.  So I focused my aspirations on my full time job and with making time for family and friends.

By my late thirties multiple personal struggles had battered me but did not break me: changing jobs multiple times, my father’s death from lung cancer, and my brother’s accident that left him paralyzed transformed my outlook on life and made me realize whatever you want to do – do it now. Tomorrow is always the unknown.

After that, I diligently plopped my butt in my chair in front of my computer and within a year I produced a manuscript. I sent the manuscript to Literary Agents and some Publishers. They all rejected it. Then I thought perhaps I needed some help and recruited an Editor.

I thought I was on to something. I thought my stuff was funny and brilliant. My husband never finished reading the draft copy of the manuscript I gave him.  That should have been a clue. And what did the Editor say about my version of the next Time Travelling Best Seller? Well, it was far from being a Best Seller with more comments and red through the Word Document than I care to mention in this blog post.

What little ego I had, was bruised. (I swing wildly between 5% of the time thinking I’m the next J.K. Rowling, to the other 95% of the time wondering: What the heck am I doing?) Discouraged, I stepped back again. I spent some time licking my wounds and feeling sorry for myself. But oddly enough, I never stopped writing.

Then, I began writing short stories, accumulating a few, and then thought about creating a manuscript based on the stories that I’d created. I put a collection of short stories together and once it was complete, I went through the time-consuming process of researching Publishers that might consider it. I tailored each package based on the submission guidelines, shipped off the packages, chewed my fingernails, and waited. My second attempt to be published with a Publisher and I was rejected. Repeatedly.

BUT. There’s always a BUT. One Publisher sent me a hand-written rejection and the part that I (perhaps naively) focused on in the letter was this:

“But I would encourage you to keep working on this, and to keep showing it to other publishers.”

I received his letter around Christmas in 2014. When I read that part of the rejection, I danced around the dining room table. I’ve never been sure if my writing is good or not. And even today, doubts still linger. However, from the Editor’s hand-written few words on that note, I decided I would pick the strongest story in 1500 Words or Less: A Collection of Short Stories and send it off to a neutral third party (the Editor I had used to review my first manuscript was a friend) to get an honest opinion of my work. I paid for the review, critique, and revisions that came with it.

When I received the detailed write-up from this neutral third party I noticed she pointed out flaws in the story: incorrectly chosen words, punctuation errors, and she provided recommendations on how to improve the story. Overall though, she loved it, and thought I was a good writer.

The validation from the Editor provided some confirmation that I should continue with my writing. I would love to say that 1500 Words or Less was published by a big name Publisher. But that would be a lie. And above all else, I pride myself on telling the truth.

After more than a year of submissions, I decided to self-publish 1500 Words or Less. I would like to say my self-publishing endeavour became an overnight success and I became a New York Times Best Selling Author. But that would be the Fiction Writer in me that wrote that line in this blog post.

What have I accomplished in my quest to write? I’ve written MANY short stories, some better than others, and some of those tales even found homes in Literary Journals. I’ve created two different blogs with one that ran from 2016 to 2017 titled, Pushing Boundaries; the second is this one, Tortuous Tales. Then there is the research I’ve had to do on each Publisher, How to Draft Cover Letters, Synopsis and Query Letters. Finally, while my knowledge in this area is very limited: I’ve learned a little on how to market my stories. I’ve self-published three short stories on my own, and the collection of stories titled, 1500 Words or Less.  I’ve learned a lot.

A couple of months ago burnt out and high-strung after facing an onslaught of personal upheaval that lasted for nearly six months (because that’s the way it goes), I placed twenty pieces of paper in a hat. There were ten pieces of paper that said, “QUIT” and another ten that said, “KEEP WRITING”.  I know this next part sounds ridiculous. But I took the hat and shook the pieces of paper around. While I was doing this, I was emotionally distraught with anger and sadness at finally slamming the door on my impossible dream.  With twitching fingers, I grabbed the piece of paper and opened it to crinkled words expecting to see the word: QUIT.

But that’s not what it said. I breathed a sigh of relief when the Universe said, “KEEP WRITING”.

I know the Universe hasn’t decided that I’m a super-talented writer weaving magical words together that will reshape borders and save lives.  But maybe the Universe knows what I might have already known before I reached in and grabbed that piece of paper: that for me quitting is no longer an option. My life has already been rewritten, and I must KEEP WRITING.

I kept that rejection letter from the Publisher from 2014. Occasionally I’ll pull it out and read the words again. I also kept all the other template rejections as well as the ones that said, we enjoyed/were impressed by your writing. The template rejections remind me of how hard I’ve already worked, and how much time I’ve already committed to this endeavour. On other days when I doubt myself, I’ll find and read again the personally written rejections where the Editor ultimately rejected the story, but thought my writing was still good.

I also kept that piece of paper that said, “Keep Writing.” It’s taped on a wall next to my computer. It serves as a reminder that I had one day where I thought of giving it up and how unhappy that thought made me feel.

It also encourages me to always: keep writing.

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Be Happy

“I want to be happy.”

It’s not a question, or a statement that ends with an exclamation mark. It’s not said with a red flushed face full of rage, and clenched fists by my side. Nor is it said with childhood giggles of naivety, and dreams of white unicorns, and rainbows at the end of every road.

I say, “I want to be happy,” as a goal that I reach for in the background of my mind. It’s something I raise my hands in the air towards, and stand on tippy toes to give me an inch of extra height, in the hopes I may reach it.

I’m old enough now, to know what doesn’t make me happy.  Reluctantly, I admit that what I’ve heard in darkened corners of doorways, and with whispered breath, turned out to be true: “It’s not about the money.”

Money is necessary. I’ve struggled financially. I know money allows me to purchase food to fill my fridge and cupboards, to keep the heat turned on, and a roof over my head. I know it allows me to replace worn out shoes, and tattered clothes when needed.

But for me, once those basic needs were met, I found myself spending money on frivolous items that brought me only temporary happiness.  Manicures. Pedicures. Facials. I would purchase clothes in a credit splurge only to realize once I was home, I never liked the colours, or the fit of the garments at all. The cast off clothes would collect dust (quite literally) until finally in a springtime purge I would reach into my closet, and pull the never or rarely worn shirts, pants, and dresses out. Forcing the items into a black garbage bag, I would haul them to my local donation box. I always hoped the discarded items saw more light with someone else, than they did with me.

Other things that I dislike: being stuck in traffic with cars lined up as if we’re all fleeing some natural disaster that’s about to strike. I’ve also found my happiness dial moves in the opposite direction, when I find myself in a perpetual five mile marathon pace rushing from one errand, or event, to another.  I’m impatient. What that means is that I get irritable and sullen when I’m stuck: whether it’s in writing a conclusion to a story, or in a long line-up, you’ll find me shifting from foot to foot, muttering under my breath, “Come on, already!”

I live to hang out with my husband and dog, reclined on my back deck, with a glass of white wine in my hand as we talk about our plans for the future, or where we’ve already been. I enjoy spending time with family and friends; whether the gathering is in a local coffee shop, in a restaurant sharing a meal, or on a walk through the woods on a crisp winter’s day with new fallen snow, you are guaranteed I am content.  I relish good food made at home, and if I’ve managed to make fresh bread, you can be certain that between mouthfuls of hot, spongy, white deliciousness, you’ll find a smile on my face.

Then there’s my passion: writing. I consume huge amounts of time on this “hobby” (and paper) with no guarantee of a rainbow at the end of it. But it’s the one area where I have a voice, and I am in control of the story. My protagonists can be brave, witty, strong, or smart. The challenge they must overcome can be small or large. I can make the characters similar to me, or completely different. And sometimes I may write something, some shared experience, that many people can relate to, and connects many of us together.

These characters in my mind, the places I create – they make me happy when I get the chance to unlock them, and place them on screens, or paper, and share the tales with readers. All the sweat and tears, (yes, I sometimes sweat when I write) all the late nights, all the money invested in books and revisions, is worth it because this endeavour gives me a sense of satisfaction, fulfillment, contentment, and most of all – happiness.

Climb

I’ll be honest with you. I sometimes get discouraged by this “writing thing”. I often second guess my abilities wondering if writing those manuscripts (there’s one that’s complete, and another I still need to rewrite) was worth it. Through weepy, sleep-deprived, blurry-eyed vision, and heart palpitations followed by anxious sweats, I wonder at least ten times a day, will it all be for nothing?

The answer is this: I still don’t know.

Why do it then? Why struggle? Why fight?  When there are no guarantees of a rainbow at the end of the road.

Stories consist of struggle: struggle between other people, within a person’s mind, or with nature.  I enjoy reading stories with a triumphant end, where everything is neatly resolved wrapped up with a pretty red bow. Don’t get me wrong, the ending matters. But when I read novels what makes them intriguing, interesting, and will keep me flipping the pages is the challenge the hero/heroine must overcome. Whether it is Superman versus Lex Luthor, or a waitress wanting something more but plagued by debilitating self-doubt, I want to see them overcome the challenge that is pummeling them into the ground. (Again – whether this is literally Lex, or just a relentless internal negative voice, I want them to win.)

Without it? Without the challenge?

Why would I flip those pages?

It’s the climb towards something greater that makes the story worth it, not simply the ending.  Sure, there’s always a chance the hero/heroine while reaching up will place a foot on an unstable rock and will slip backwards falling hundreds of feet.  It might be heartbreaking to read, to envision it – to feel it. As a reader, I will find myself frantically skimming the pages while shaking my head in awe the hero/heroine doesn’t quit. Because with each step forward it’s a win, and with each fall backwards it’s a loss.  It’s the struggle that makes a good story – whether it lies in fiction, or in reality.

I don’t know how this writing thing will all end, and if I’ll ever reach the top of the mountain.  All I know is this:  along the way I’ve already seen pine trees that cling to the side of the mountain, with blue rivers and streams that cut along the rocky base, while birds soar in the air above me.  It’s not simply the final ascent to the top of the peak that only offers a heart-stopping view – it’s the climb towards it.

The End

Endings are hard. It’s difficult to live through a change in life whether it’s the conclusion of a relationship, the loss of a loved one, or the termination of a job.  Writing the ending in a story is also challenging as it’s the part a reader will always remember. It will define the story. Or it won’t.

And while we’re on the subject of endings, let me reassure you we’ll get back to the short story “Alvina’s Quest for Knowledge.” But I’m interrupting that story to write about endings because the grand finale matters in every story.  Also right now, I’m inspired to write about this topic. So I’m running with it.

If you read my stories, you’ll quickly learn that I lean heavily towards couples with arms clasped around each other riding a sweet high of nothing-can-touch-us-now-because-life-is-so-damn- wonderful! Or you’ll find that in the final pages of a story, my main character will make a difficult decision that will at least “appear” they are moving in a more positive direction.  To summarize – the final curtain will drop when everything is happily resolved.

I’m a sucker for epic conclusions. When I am writing the final pages, you will find me sobbing uncontrollably over my computer hoping  I am communicating a  fantastic death of one of main characters to readers. (Which may not sound like a great ending, but somehow it will be.) Placing a more positive spin at the conclusion of a tale, my foot will bounce uncontrollably under my desk as my fingers tap at the keyboard as I attempt to summon the right words to convey the emotions my hero/heroine feels before they make a difficult decision that empowers them.

I’m not particularly a fan of endings where the villain wins, or the protagonist loses, or the main character doesn’t learn from their experience. (A bad ending.) After all the time invested in reading a novel, I can’t help but feel a little betrayed when the main character loses or doesn’t use an experience to change their life.

Part of my belief in happily ever after endings in stories (besides the fact that as with all children, I read fairy tales when I was a kid) is my opinion that all lives of good people will end well. I’ve known people who worked hard their whole lives and were generous to everyone, and expected them to win the lottery if not sooner, than close to the end of their lives. (Yes, I believe really good people should win the lottery.) All those clichés about good things happen to good people, and karma convinced me that good people will live at least their last few days in comfort before the grim reaper comes to take them. I felt they deserved that, dare I say, were entitled to it. Life taught me differently.

It’s hard when an ending doesn’t quite happen the way you expected. I wrote a short story in this blog titled, “What I Meant to Say” (https://tortuoustales.com/2017/12/10/) and imagine my surprise when I returned home from work, and my husband announced to me that he read my blog post, and said he thought the story was depressing. I remember casually asking, “Why?”

“Because,” he said, “I thought there would be something big like a car accident at the end or something, and they’d realize how wrong they were, and there wasn’t.”

“Funny,” I remember saying to him, “because originally that was going to be the ending”.

But in that story, there was no big conclusion. No final heightened climax. The ending of that story was left unfinished. It was a fizzle that lingered and continues to linger. Or if you prefer, it’s like hanging onto a rope swinging back and forth, and you want to let go, but can’t. Recently, I’ve realized these stories are a more accurate reflection of life. More times than I care to say, endings don’t end with a final hurrah! or with a big band playing. They end quietly.

But maybe my definition of “happy endings” needs to be redefined.  Some of those people whose lives didn’t end the way I wanted them to, still had good endings. When I lost a family member who was generous to his detriment, the funeral home overflowed with friends and family. Unlike in The Great Gatsby, people cared and they came with swollen red eyes, carrying tissues, to say their final farewells to a great man.

Maybe not every story needs to end with a finale of two lovers embracing with the caption Happily Ever After written below them. A better conclusion, perhaps a more realistic ending, would be two people holding hands dressed in their best after getting married with a question mark below them.

After all, life, just like a story, never promises anyone a happy ending.

What She Says To Me

“What are you doing?” She asks in a derisive tone. Standing above me, she hangs over my shoulder, staring at my computer screen.

“What does it look like I’m doing?” After a brief pause I add, “working.”

“Why? You know you’ll never get anywhere.  I can see you now – a pathetic, decrepit woman, with scraggly white hair in her 80’s, hunched over her computer saying, oh, if I just keep working, maybe I’ll become a successful writer.” And then if you still haven’t convinced yourself, you’ll say with a last hurrah, “It’s never too late!”  

“You don’t understand. It’s a part of who I am now. Even if I wanted to stop, I can’t.”

“That’s your obsessive-compulsive disorder kicking in. That’s all.” She says it in her VERY familiar authoritative voice. A few seconds later, she adds, “you’re unsuccessful at everything you do. Capital L-O-S-E-R, loser!” She screeches the last word at me as if she were stabbing me in the heart.

“I can spell,” I answer.

“I should hope so. How do you even get up in the mornings? Or,” she tilts her head back, claps her hands together, and says, “Why do you get up in the mornings?”

I sigh, and ask, “Are you done, yet?”

“Not yet. Shall I list our failures?”

“No, thanks,” I answer sticking my hand up in front of her. “I have that list too.”

“Listen, I don’t mean to be so negative…”

“Really? You don’t?” I say swinging my head in her direction with a mix of frustration and sadness in my voice.

I must get my emotions in check. I can’t let her know she’s winning.

She shrugs her shoulders, and says, “One of us needs to be the realist, the sensible one.” She paces around my office, touches my stuff, and continues saying, “listen, if you keep working at just your real job, you’ll probably make it to retirement, and won’t end up broke and homeless. Maybe you’ll even make it to old age.  You can’t keep working and writing at the same time. Your body is showing the signs it can’t handle much more. Give up, and you’ll be buried an old woman.”

“You’re so much fun. You should stop by more often.” I say sarcastically.

“Well,” she says, “if you keep up with this nonsense, no one will come to your funeral because you were too busy…” There’s a short pause, and then her fingers rise up in the air, and she makes the quote signs, and continues saying, “working all the time.” She huffs, stomps around a little, swings her head in my direction and with her nose in the air adds, “no one will care that you’re dead because when you were alive, you never made time for them.”

“Can you stop talking?” I say as I face the white glow from my screen.

“No,” she says inching her way closer to me until she’s standing to my left side. And of course – she’s still standing above me.

“Accept your fate.”

“Stop it.” My voice wobbles with weariness. She’s crushing me. We both know it.

“Why do you think you’re so special?”

“Oh, come on,” I huff in frustration. “I don’t think I’m special! I just feel like I need to try, to make an attempt!” A cliché spins to the top of my mind and before I can stop myself I use it saying, “I would prefer to try and fail, than never to try at all.”

“Cliché,” she announces to me in that dismissive, superior tone.

“I knew you were going to say that. Sometimes clichés last because they’re true.”

“Or, maybe they’re lies that continue to linger because people want to believe them.”

“Fine. Maybe. Are you done?” If I give her a victory, make her believe she’s won, she might go away, and I can get back to work.

“What’s that line that we laugh about? It’s the opposite of an inspirational quote. Was it, failure, when you’re best just isn’t good enough? Was that it? She says scrunching her eyes at me like a cat does when their plotting to trip you at the top of the staircase so the feline can  get their inheritance.

I snort with laughter. Okay, sometimes she’s pretty funny.  “Yes, that was it.”

I remember the quote so well, by a company called Despair Inc. I get their sense of humour. They have multiple posters with similarly sarcastic quotes. But that one stuck with me, with us, for a long time. I remember the photo they used: a runner sitting on a bench, hands on top of his bowed head. It was an image of utter defeat.  The whole thing was perfectly packaged encompassing a huge range of emotions; sadness, humor, and accented with a heavy dose of honesty.

“That’s you,” she says gleefully.

I pause.

I know how to get rid of her.

I stand up from my desk, and I’m finally at eye level with her. It’s just the two of us.

“Are you ready to accept defeat?” She asks with one eyebrow raised, jaw is locked, eyes are fixed on me.

“No,” I say stubbornly. “Did you know that some people say that failing is necessary? That so long as you learn something from the experience, it might make you better? I’ve heard of people who were fired from their jobs that went on to start their own successful businesses.”

“You’re not them,” she says as her eyes shift from side to side with uncertainty.

“I’m going for a run,” I announce.

“You’re running away from your problems.”

“Nope, that’s not it. You’ve used everything from name-calling, to my concern that I’m being neglectful to my family and friends by pursuing my passion to try bully me to stop me from writing. Then when that didn’t work, you started to discuss what my funeral might look like. Who does that? I need to get away from you.”

“You can’t get away from me. Not permanently,” she whispers in my ear as I change as quickly as I can into my sports bra, running pants, and sweatshirt. “I’ll be back,” she says finally.

I yank my sports watch on, run down the stairs clasping my MP3 player, and pull my running shoes on.

“DO YOU HEAR ME? I’ll be back!” She screams at me as a last effort to be heard.

“I have no doubt,” I answer just before I slip my headphones over my ears. “But when I get back, you’ll most likely be gone, and I can finally get some work done.”

She leans over the railing staring down at me. “Fine. Go then. I still think you’ll never amount to anything.”

My eyes flutter as I look up to the woman at the railing. I smile. I say nothing else, and won’t even acknowledge her existence with a good-bye wave. I turn the door knob, set my running watch, and my legs slowly begin to move from a walk, to a trot, until I’m clipping along at my fastest speed – which in truth, is terribly slow. It’s a race pace that translates to a 6 hour marathon.

But, I don’t care about how fast I go. Because right now, I can’t hear her scolding, hateful, bullying words, anymore.