100 Word Story: Baby Oaks

Baby oak trees were sprouting all over Lana’s front yard. She plucked each one from the earth with more force than was necessary, and then she tossed them into the garbage disposal. She exhaled deeply at the comforting gurgle of the blades disintegrating the foliage.

Even her trees were producing babies.

By now, ten minutes had passed. Lana shuffled into the bathroom, where an ominous white, plastic stick laid on the counter. The little window still displayed only one pink line.

Suddenly, Lana felt guilty. Hard as it was to create life, she’d been so quick to take it away.

The Night I Met David Sedaris

Over the weekend, I made the seven-hour drive to Portland, Oregon, for a David Sedaris reading at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. David Sedaris is my biggest inspiration and in the days leading up to the event, I was like a kid waiting for Christmas morning.

As an author myself and a lifelong book nerd, it’s surprising even to me that this was the first author reading I’ve ever attended. When David stepped onto the stage, my heart fluttered like it used to when I saw my favorite bands in concert in my college days.

David already inspired me through his writings, but as he walked off the stage at the end of the evening, I took a moment to absorb the charismatic, genuine, and seemingly fulfilled writer that had just made more of an impression on me than I ever expected. I rushed out to the lobby with my copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day, my favorite Sedaris work to date, willing to wait in line as long as necessary to get my book signed.

David amazed me by taking the time to have a real conversation with every single person who approached him at the signing. I’d been able to hear some of the conversations of those directly in front of me in line, and as I waited my turn, I daydreamed about what we would talk about. Some people told him they were writers and wanted to talk about reaching out to him when they become famous one day. I decided early on I would avoid such a conversation; I wanted to truly talk with him, not to him, and I didn’t want to look like I’d come to his reading to push my own agenda about wanting to be a well-known author one day. After all, I’m sure he hears this all the time.

As David was signing books, he was also eating his dinner—a plate of snazzy-looking food presumably provided by the hotel next to the concert hall. As the woman in front of me—one of those up-and-coming authors excitedly discussing her aspirations—was getting her book signed, David actually offered her some of the bread on his plate. There were three or four slices of bread, and the woman awkwardly declined, stating, “Oh no, I don’t want to take your dinner from you.” David responded by ensuring her he didn’t even want his bread, and he was hoping to get rid of it. The woman thanked him kindly but still refused the bread.

After 45 minutes in line, it was finally my turn to step up to the table. Next to the signing table was an empty table where, earlier in the night, an organization had been set up seeking potential blood marrow donors. David began our conversation by mentioning how quickly they ran out of forms after the show, and voila—our discussion was centered on transplantation.

But, of course, David knows how to keep things interesting. What started off with a comment about bone marrow donation quickly turned into his fascination with the fact that the first penis transplant was recently performed. David doodled a random picture in each person’s book, so as he spoke excitedly about what penis transplantation means for men born severely less endowed, he drew a bloody ax on the Me Talk Pretty One Day cover page.

After he finished his doodle and added his signature to the page, he asked if I wanted some of his bread. Playing it cool, I responded, “Well, I did overhear you were trying to get rid of it…” He urged me to take a slice and I tried not to seem too eager as he motioned to the plate. I did take some bread, though not because I was especially in the mood for it. I was certain that eating David Sedaris’s bread would make me inherit his magical powers. After David closed my book and pushed it toward me across the table, I thanked him as well as I could without squealing and toddled off to the exit with the bread cradled in my hands like it was a Faberge egg that needed protecting.

I walked back to the hotel with my mom and my best friend, who had accompanied me to Portland but not to the reading. We sat in the hotel bar while I recounted my evening, all the while nibbling on the bread (which was delicious, by the way) until every last crumb was gone.

It’s silly, of course, to say that I ate David Sedaris’s bread for good luck. I know that wherever my writing takes me, it is because of my hard work and dedication and not because of a piece of food David Sedaris didn’t feel like eating. He had inspired me long before I drove 400 miles to see him, and long before he drew a bloody ax in my book, and long before I snatched a piece of bread from of his plate. At the reading, David told a story about being 33 years old and wondering how he was going to go about becoming famous. At 29 years old, I wonder the same thing, but I’ve learned—and still learn—a lot from writers like him. And even if 20 years from now I find myself sitting on the other side of that table, offering my food to my fans and talking about penis transplants, these authors will continue to inspire me.

Have you ever traveled a long distance for an author’s reading? If so, what drew you to that particular author that made it worth traveling so far?

mtpod

The Characters Among Us

Each time inspiration strikes, it’s always a little different.  Sometimes I get an idea for a whole story.  Sometimes I simply conjure up a single scene in my head.  Other times, I think up a really incredible character.

Source:  http://www.learnnuggets.com/2013/03/serious-comic-character-development-ii/
Source: http://www.learnnuggets.com/2013/03/serious-comic-character-development-ii/

Characters are my favorite because they are sprinkled everywhere in life.  I’m amazed at what happens when I think about the various people I know and meet.  Whether they are friends, coworkers, or mere acquaintances, it’s easy to focus on a person and sum up in one sentence how they might easily be turned into a main character in a story.  For instance, here is a list I came up with of characters that could be based off of people I know or have met.

  • A young man with only one leg who charges $10 for the story of how he lost it.
  • A man who flies to China for three weeks to meet a woman he met on the internet following the death of his wife.
  • A woman who suddenly quits a project management job she loves and moves to Taiwan to teach English to young children.
  • A man who makes a living selling moose and elk antlers he’s carved into beautiful works of art.
  • A woman who has a “Day of the Dead” themed wedding.
  • A woman who refuses to go to the doctor or the hospital for any reason.
  • A man who appears to be a loving husband and incredible father, but lands himself in prison for attempting to strangle his wife.
  • A man who serves time for accidentally suffocating his baby while they napped together.
  • A man who leaves everything behind to move to LA and become a famous actor, only to return to his hometown after admitting he’s failed.
  • A woman who survives a horrific car wreck that should have killed her and that left her with permanent injuries.
  • A man who breaks off his engagement when he falls in “love at first sight” with another woman, and dies in his 90s still happily married to the woman for whom he risked it all.

The list above is based on people who all really exist.  If I were to pick any one of them, I could create an entire story around his or her situation.  When struggling with writer’s block, I often feel I’m lacking ideas for stories.  Yet in looking at this list, it’s clear to me that what I need could be as simple as describing some of the people I know and finding an opportunity to build a story around a key aspect of his or her life or personality.  Characters are quite literally everywhere we look!

Do you ever think about the people you know as potential characters?  If so, what about those people do you typically focus on?

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Saying No to NaNoWriMo

nano

Three years ago today, I had been working on my first novel for only five days and I was approximately 16% finished with the first draft. Yes, in 2011 I participated in NaNoWriMo—that time during which writers everywhere attempt to write a 50,000-word novel between November 1 and November 30. It was my first NaNoWriMo and as it turns out, it would also be my last. I did finish my novel in 30 days and I learned quite a few things in the process, but I can say with certainty: Never. Again.

Let me clarify, NaNoWriMo is an amazing concept, and I’m grateful for its existence or I might have never had the extra “push” that helped me finally write a complete novel after years of starting and stopping. This post is in no way intended to talk smack about NaNo. I am silently cheering on every single writer who is participating right now. However, the things I learned about my own writing when I participated a few years ago confirmed that it isn’t for everyone—especially not for me.

First, it turns out there is such a thing as writing too fast. In general, writers are encouraged to write like lightning and return to spend quality time editing later. The thought is that when you edit and perfect as you go, you get caught up with perfecting and you risk becoming discouraged, getting distracted, and/or never truly finishing your novel. In my case, I prefer to write more slowly and perfect as I go—keeping my confidence high is what motivates me to finish. When I did NaNoWriMo, the deadline forced me to write about ten times more quickly than normal. As I began reading through my finished draft, I was so disappointed with the quality of the writing that I felt I was better off just starting over. While that might work for some writers, it wasn’t a good approach for me. In the end, I trashed the novel I wrote during NaNo.

Secondly, the sacrifices I made to finish my novel in a month gave me a sour taste for writing for a period of time [albeit a short period] after completion. Working full time meant I was writing in the morning, writing on my lunch break, and writing in the evening. (Hey, I said I was a slow writer, didn’t I?) Meanwhile, my husband, my stepson, and my pets sat idly by as I spent 30 days attached at the hip to my laptop. Before NaNo, I might have written a blog post every few days and I wrote quick short stories as inspiration struck; but during NaNo, I was so worried about not hitting 50,000 words that I found it necessary to put my novel above everything else in my life for a month. Writing is, and always has been, my passion—but even writers have to have a balance, and NaNo threw mine off kilter.

Though I won’t be doing NaNoWriMo again, I took some valuable knowledge away from it. First, that I’m capable of writing a novel. I only participated in one NaNoWriMo but since then, I’ve written several novels. During NaNo, I learned the importance of outlining, researching, and (most importantly) getting to know your characters on an extremely personal level. Without busting through that first novel three Novembers ago, I might not have been ready with this knowledge and my other novels might have never happened.

To everyone participating this year, I wish you the best. I’m not along for the ride but I’m proud of each and every person who is determined to hit their 50,000+ words!

Have you ever participated in NaNoWriMo?  Are you doing it again, or do you plan to in the future?

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Beyond the Snapshot

polaroidsThis past weekend, my husband and I joined my parents on a trip to Montana to see family I haven’t seen since my wedding two years ago. On our first morning there, I sauntered into the living room to find my young cousin sprawled out on the floor with a box of old photographs.

The box was close to two feet long, a foot wide, and around four inches deep. Photos were nearly spilling over the sides. They ranged from small black and white photos taken in the 1950s, to digital prints from the early 2000s. Scattered among the photos were poems, cards, newspaper articles, and old junior high documents from as far back as the 1970s.

I spent an hour sifting through the photographs and marveling at how much things change over time: Fashion, vehicles, interior décor, toys, cookware, hair. As I contemplated this, it hit me that this single, small box of photographs contained hundreds of stories. Births. Deaths. Weddings. School dances. Vacations. First dates. Family reunions. Camping trips. Sporting events. Nature walks. Holidays. Sleepovers. Snowmobiling. Music performances. Awards. Gardening. Working. Pets. Costumes. Swimming. Pony rides. Cooking. National parks. Retirements. Zoos. Wildlife. First haircuts. Snowstorms. Digging in the sand. Boats. Oceans. Celebrations with champagne. Children playing with trucks and wagons. Children getting into trouble. Sun tanning. Sledding. Little girls playing dress up. Handmade clothing. Squirt gun fights.

To name a few.

The photos all seem simple, on the surface. A smile, an embrace, a kiss, a frown. But at each of those moments, whoever had the camera saw a reason to capture them forever. That reason is a story, and at least one belongs to every picture I looked at.

Isn’t that incredible?! But wait, it gets more amazing.

Each person who looks at one photo will tell a different story. Whether fact, fiction, or a little of both. No two people will tell identical stories behind a single photograph.

Mind = blown.

If you’re like me, you usually look at a photo and see only the exact moment it was captured. But give it a try—look at a picture, whether it’s on your wall, your desk, or your screen, and really try to imagine the whole story behind it.
Have your own thoughts on the stories behind photographs?  Do tell!

For the Love of Reading

As a writer, it almost pains me to know people who don’t like to read. My husband, for instance: not a big reader. I’m not sure why it’s so hard for me to understand how some people don’t enjoy reading. After all, our differing interests are what make us all unique. Not everyone likes running or surfing or opera or watercolor painting—myself included on a couple of those—so it’s silly for me to have trouble expecting that not everyone reads.

This got me to thinking: what is it about reading that brings me so much enjoyment? I could talk all day about how much I love to read, but that doesn’t really explain why. After some contemplation, I’ve listed the reasons reading is one of my favorite activities.

Image source:  www.pixabay.com
Image source: http://www.pixabay.com

Reading awakens the imagination. Books contain endless possibilities. Think of the number of people and places that exist today, and have ever existed, and multiply it by infinity. Stories and books continuously open doors in this infinite realm. The more you read, the clearer it becomes that there is no end to the different stories that can be told.

Reading demonstrates what words are capable of. I fall into the category of people who always believe the book is better than the movie. Part of my thinking is because major events of novels are often left out of their movie counterparts. But it also has to do with the crafting of the story itself. Single, individual words are crafted together to portray a significant slice of a person’s life. It’s like a painter starting out with a palette of little blobs of paint, and turning it into a fantastic work of art. Words are powerful but it’s not always obvious; reading is a time when I understand just what kind of power they hold.

Reading allows for prolonged enjoyment of captivating stories. The more time I spend with my nose buried in a book, the more I begin to feel a part of the world in which the story is taking place. I feel I get to “know” the characters. The end of a book is often an emotional experience because this world that I was immersed in is no more. Yet if I’m watching a movie, I don’t spend long enough watching it to feel so deeply connected to the people and places within it. Because it takes longer to read a book than to watch a story unfold on the screen, I see it as a bonus that it’s just that much more time I get to “live” inside of that story.

Reading is a display of every writer’s uniqueness. One basic story can be a completely different experience with each and every book. Personally, I like a lot of genres. Some people only like one or two, such as mystery or romance. Even if I were to fall into the latter category, I would never get bored with the same type of story because authors’ backgrounds, perspectives, imaginations, and styles make every story a brand new experience.

What would you add to this list?  Leave a comment and let me know!

Pen-spiration #1: Chuck Palahniuk

Writers often hear that they must read books in order to succeed at writing. I wholeheartedly agree. There are a number of reasons it’s crucial to a writer’s success, but personally I know I learn a lot in the process of reading.

Part of the way I learn how to write well through reading is to make note of what stands out about writing I consider to be “great.” This is why I’m starting a series of Pen-spiration posts in which I hone in on my favorite authors and analyze what it is about their writing that has inspired me throughout the years.

It only seems appropriate that I’d begin this series by taking a look at my number one favorite author: Chuck Palahniuk.

ChuckP

I was a little late to the game in discovering Chuck’s books. About five years ago, an old roommate of my husband’s was gushing about Invisible Monsters and she was surprised to learn I had never read any of Chuck’s novels. The second I admitted I was unfamiliar, she thrust a copy of Invisible Monsters into my hands and promised I would fall in love. Indeed, I did.

The first thing that inspires me when reading Chuck’s books—and the thing that keeps me coming back to read every single one—is the characterization. Never have I seen more oddball, obscure, and disturbing—yet somehow slightly lovable—fictional characters. Every time I draft up a character that seems a little “off” or “boring,” I think of the characters in Haunted, Survivor, and Diary (to name a few). These characters are not the type of people I could imagine sitting next to at work or talking to over my fence. Chuck’s characters would admittedly seem out of place in any of my own fiction, but their traits and personalities remind me that the best characters are the most unique. If I feel like I’ve met my characters a hundred times over in my daily interactions, I can only assume they’d be all too familiar to my audience; therefore, I strive to create characters that are truly one of a kind.

I’m also inspired by Chuck’s farfetched plotlines. He has found the perfect balance between believable and unbelievable. My belief is that he accomplishes this in the way he practices “showing” versus “telling.” If he were to list out an outline summary of the events in his stories, I would probably scoff at them and say, “That would never actually happen, and it’s way too out there.” Yet, that’s not how Chuck tells his stories. Rather, he tells them through imagery, characterization, and emotion, and these things are woven together in such a way that even the unbelievable plotlines don’t come across as implausible. What this teaches me is that admirable writing is a balance of the story itself, and in what way the story is told.

Who is your all-time favorite author? What has his/her writing taught you or inspired you to try within your own writing?

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