On Rules and Breaking Them

In writing and in life, there are rules. The words “creative” and “writing” don’t always coexist, even for fiction writers. Yes, it’s creative to come up with a great plot full of surprises and twists and insights, but in setting that plot down on the page, there are constant rules. Sentences! Spelling! Grammar! And so on.

Genre writers have even more rules. Happy Ever After for romance writers. The criminal will be captured and made to pay in mystery. Those are the biggest rules and there are so many more that, should you be lucky enough to find an editor or agent to read your manuscript, you’ll hear them all. There are also books and workshops and classes and blog posts that will give you the rules as they understand them. Many writers will attempt to abide by these rules because they want to be published.

Yet something strange happens if you adhere too closely to these rules as a writer. You lose the creative impulse that spurred you on to write in the first place. You paint by number. You give your publisher and your readers more of the same, book after book. Readers expect it. Publishers demand it.

The art of creating something new is the thrill and now it’s gone. But if you persist in your specific vision, if your work is both original and compelling, it might win you acclaim, prizes and money. Or not. So following the rules as a creative writer brings risk, just as, recently, gathering in public is a risk. Certainly if you are not wearing a mask, you pose a risk to others.

I hate the mask, but I wear it because I try to live by the rule of “First, do no harm.” If you are out in public in a crowd without a mask, you may be doing many people harm. I used to suffer with my mask and become annoyed, even angered, by those who went without. Why were they being so selfish? Didn’t they understand that the mask is not only to protect themselves, but to protect others?

There are several answers to this question of why people do not obey the health guidelines to wear a mask in pubic. There’s not a thing I can do to change a single one of these folks’ minds. I wouldn’t even try. So I simmer in anger and bitterness, which I dislike almost as much as the mask.

The Buddhists have a solution, of sorts, to my anger at people who refuse to wear masks in public. It’s not easy, but it works. Anger and other negative emotions are the perfect opportunity to practice compassion. The practice goes like this: you find yourself angry because the person is not following a rule, you recognize you are angry, you turn your anger into prayer for this person, and for all persons like them.

It’s akin to the Christian rule to love your enemy. Turn the other cheek. “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do,” said Jesus on the cross. “May all humans be free from suffering,” loosely translates the practice of turning your own anger into compassion. For a person not wearing a mask in a crowded public space, the prayer might be “May this person (or these people) awaken to the need to protect their brothers and sisters from this virus.”

On this Memorial Day, I give thanks to all the women and men who have lost their lives fighting wars for our country. And I honor all of those who have lost the fight against this virus. Namaste.

No Sugar Coating

Trying to load a photo (been trying all day) is not working. Lots of things are not working. For me, for you, for just about everybody in the world. I may not have Clorox wipes, but I still feel lucky. We have a home, we have food, we are able to pay our bills. So many can’t.

Still, lucky as I am, life is difficult now. I’d like to just Stay Home, but my dad is ill, though not with coronavirus, and needs my help. I’m driving him to another doctor appointment tomorrow. I hope we don’t have to go to the drugstore again. I need to find the courage to tell him I can’t take him anywhere else. Doctor or pharmacy. That’s it.

My dad lives alone. He has masks and a grocery store next to his condo, so he’ll be okay for food. We think we have a medication problem under control. Al and I don’t know what will happen when we leave in May if Dad refuses to come with us. Mom is in Michigan, our home is in Michigan, and so far, Dad is refusing to leave Florida. Mom says there is no way she is coming to Florida.

My heart is breaking, but not literally. It’s beating. I’m not sick. My children, grandchildren, and parents are all well. We have a month or so to try to convince Dad to leave Florida with us. If he gets the virus, there is no family here for him. Here’s how I’m coping: eating sugar (but not wheat). So ice cream and potato chips but no cookies. Drinking wine. But not too much. Taking my anxiety meds. Also, reading Regency romance novels.

I try not to watch too much television news but I read the Washington Post every day. We watch the local news for Covid updates. We watch national news and sometimes my favorite cable news show. Deadline White House with Nicole Wallace. We just binged Ozark.

I’ve slacked off on meditation and yoga since Dad has needed so much help this past week. It depletes me. I know I’m not taking great care of myself, but I’m being safe, and I’m doing the best I can. I’m writing this post. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to this week.

Heard From Editor

True to her word, I heard from my editor last week after delivering my manuscript of Jane in St Pete in early January. I’ve second and third guessed myself since then, but she said it was a “treat” to read and my characters were “quirky and interesting.” She’s sending it to the senior editor with a recommendation for a contract!!!!

There will be edits but nothing big, nothing like I imagined in my head. I am so relieved and pleased. Another piece of good luck landed last week, too. My Michigan chapter of Sisters in Crime wants me to lead a workshop in June. I’ll be the opening act for our star, Jane Cleland. What an honor. And if the virus still holds us captives in our homes, we will do it online.

My editor says it will take about two weeks to hear from her boss, so in that time I’ve been reading mystery short stories and trying to glean anything I can about writing the mystery short story. I have written a few. My vague plan is to dig out “The Charming Criminal” which formed the base upon which I built my secondary characters, Barb and George.

I am not a plotter, not really. I let the story take me where it wants to go. If I’m floundering in the middle of a long work, I step back and determine what needs to happen. Jane Cleland has a very good piece of instruction about how to deliberately plot a mystery and that helped, but still, my story tends to go its own way. I hardly know what I’ve done until it’s over.

However, my favorite part of teaching has always been planning the lesson. So my plan is to take “The Charming Criminal” apart to figure out how I put it together. Because I can’t find any books on the internet about how to write a mystery short story. Although, as a start, I’m reading the best ones published last year.

(OMG Joyce Carol Oates “The Archivist” from this collection is so good. Chillingly so.)

Some writers sneer when another author says their books write themselves. One guy said to give that answer about how you write is to be disingenuous. Nope. One example is the way I ended the book. My editor really liked it. She said it wasn’t the usual pages of monologue where the murderer tells all about his crime. Well, at the time, I was just going by intuition.

I did have to rewrite that last scene from scratch a few times. I tend to know (not always, but mostly) when things in a narrative don’t work. So I just keep trying until I get something that feels right. No idea my ending was at all unusual until my editor admired it for that very reason.

There will be edits and other writerly stuff to take care of, but for now I’m bursting with pleasure on my own little cloud of happiness.

Where I'm Writing From

This is a new writing spot in the same tiny winter condo I share with my newly retired husband, Al. Well, he retired January 1, 2020. Since then, it’s been a journey. We came almost immediately south to our winter home in St. Petersburg, Florida. Since we bought this place, this is the longest Al has been here. Since we’ve been married, this is the longest time the two of us have been together all day every day.

At first, Al had lots of activities and so I was able to comfortably keep most of my beloved habits and routines. I could write in my notebook every morning, spend a good part of Monday writing a blog post, go to dance class, yoga class and writer’s group. Al golfed, went to the gym, and took up shuffleboard. He was thinking of joining a poker group that meets at the clubhouse. Those were good times.

You know what happened next. COVID-19. Al and I have been mostly at home without much interaction with others for one week. My mother back in Michigan has been isolated for two weeks. It took us a little longer to get the memo that staying home is what we should do. Al stopped golfing. The gym closed. All my activities here on the Bayou closed, as did Al’s shuffleboard. We’ve heard people are still using the pool, but I’ve never been one for pools. I prefer beaches.

All our 35 miles of lovely white sand beaches have closed. Our Michigan family has canceled a trip down. That was wise, the right thing to do. You want to be in your home state where your doctors are when a pandemic hits. Our doctors are in Michigan and we are just moving in the Medicare so we really hope we don’t have to visit any doctor here. Most people who get this evil disease won’t have to see a doctor. We are older, but we’re healthy, so we’re optimistic. Speaking of healthy, I taught Al yoga. I miss my yoga teacher, though. She was really, really good. I just do the basics, like the series of poses called Sun Salutation to “Here Comes the Sun.”

We had a dance party, just the two of us, one night, with the help of Alexa, our non-human helper. Mostly she plays songs for us and tells us the weather in Michigan. We used to feel smug about that…now we just ask so we won’t pack up the car and head north too soon. For one thing, my dad is here. I hope to talk him into coming home with us (not working so far). The other part is our house there is much bigger, although really I finally have Al where I’ve always secretly wanted him, close by my side all day every day. Except when I want to read or write.

We watched the new ZZ Top rock doc on Netflix (I’m not a fan of their music but I love a good story about creative people making their dreams come true and this one was excellent). Also on Netflix, we’re watching The Stranger. It’s good, too. I see that the new Emma is coming to video straight from the mostly-closed movie theaters. I’m torn. $14.95 seems way too much to pay. Maybe for my birthday. Until then, we’ll just go on as we have and hope the sky doesn’t fall.

Things are quiet. We see walkers and people playing tennis, but we prefer to keep our social distance. At first I didn’t even want to take walks, but since Al did yoga, I have to now. Other than walking along the bayou nature trail, we have been to the grocery store, and my dad visited last Tuesday. That’s the extent of our activities outside staying in this little condo together. Which is why I moved my desk into the bedroom. The bedroom has become my refuge for reading and writing as Al pretty much watches CNBC (or as I call it “the money channel”) from opening bell until close of market. It keeps him (mostly) calm and busy, so I’m not complaining.

We live in Pinellas County, where there are currently 38 known cases of coronavirus, the virus that causes the disease of COVID-19. That’s low and we’re lucky. Most people in Florida (70%) are retired and don’t work anymore. We’ve saved all our lives for a little slice of year-round sunshine. Our lives have been upended, sure, but we don’t have many of the problems the rest of the country struggle with. Not yet.

It’s those people here and elsewhere on the globe, who have been on my mind. I’m worried for small businesses, for the service industry, for the paycheck-to-paycheck folks. There’s a great tradition in St Pete for small businesses. Downtown is mostly run by entrepreneurs. We love that. I see I am speaking for Al now. It was bound to happen. I’m surprised at how good we get along in this small space. I’m surprised how little I watch the second television that everyone said was essential when a spouse retires. But then, I am a reader and a writer.

I am also about to turn 65, the magic number for people who want to get into grocery stores early, when everything is freshly sanitized and shelves are fully stocked. You can see how that really won’t matter to us here where almost everyone is 65 and older. It will be a mob scene, but at least a clean one.

I had big plans for my birthday. A new business in St Pete, Book + Bottle was supposed to open last week. They sell books and wine. I love the whole concept. So I was going there, dragging Dad and Al because it’s my birthday and I get to say where we go and what we do. I also planned on visiting Frida’s bakery and cafe, another wonderful local business, for my dinner out, because I never cook on my birthday. Also, they have flourless chocolate cake and great food. I went there with writer friends before the enemy virus hit, and thought Al and Dad would like it there, too.

Just like almost everywhere in America, those two places have mostly closed for business. I hope our local small businesses can keep it together until the crisis is over and we get back to normal. It feels sometimes like things will never be normal again. Or there will be a new normal. Both Book + Bottle and Frida’s have curbside service, so we may just hop in the car and go out to support those businesses from afar. I’ve never ordered a book or a bottle of wine as a carry-out before. Since it’s my birthday, I can insist!

It’s a whole new world out there. I hope you are doing well. Until next week…

What Might Have Been

I wake up by slow inches. My head pounds with a dull sickening weight. A relentless thirst makes it hard to swallow, impossible to sleep. My stomach roils and I pitch myself from the bed and to the toilet. I didn’t eat much yesterday, so I dry heave into the cool and clean porcelain bowl, once, twice, a third time. I rinse my mouth with water from the tap, then, exhausted, lie on the tile floor. Coolness kisses my cheek as I drift away. I like to be away. Away, all memory of last night is vast and blank. Away, I have nothing to regret, no secrets to hide. Away, I don’t wonder where I got the new bruise blooming on my inner thigh. 

“MOM!” I hear my older son yell. He’s outside the bedroom door, but it’s still too loud for this early in the morning. “MOM! Todd will not get up for school. I’m going to miss the bus if I don’t leave now.”

“Okay, honey,” my voice is rusty as I try to project it through the bedroom door. “I’m having a quick shower.” I stagger upright and turn on the water again. Will he know it’s just the sink and not the shower? Probably not. “Have a good day. I love you!”

“Love you,” he says. I know he will have his homework in his backpack and his lunch money in the pocket of his jeans. Mark is a good boy. He’s only ten, he shouldn’t be responsible for his little brother, who would sleep until afternoon if I let him. 

I lift the tank lid of the toilet bowl and pull out a fifth of vodka. Good. Half full. I take a long drink then another. Just enough to stop my hands shaking. Just enough to get everything into alignment. Eventually, I stash the vodka and brush my teeth. I drag a comb through my snarled hair, pull on sweat pants. They don’t match the t-shirt I slept in but I don’t change. I don’t care if the secretary in the main office judges me when I sign Todd in late again. I don’t care if she raises her eyebrows because I’m using the same thin excuse as yesterday. 

I think about the vodka still in the bottle in the bathroom. If I drank it, I’d care even less. But I don’t. Not yet. I need to get Todd to school and I am careful not to drink too much before I drive. I am a good mom. I love my kids. I’d never hurt them. 

I thrust my feet into sneakers. They’re bright pink and hurt my eyes. So don’t look down, I tell myself. Maybe today I won’t drink. Maybe today I’ll call my sponsor. Go to a meeting. I know I will be welcomed back without judgement. But then I think about how I have already had a drink today. My sponsor will know. She doesn’t take any shit off me. I might need a new sponsor. That’s fine. I can stop drinking tomorrow.

This piece of fiction came from the prompt “What Might Have Been.” There was a time in my 20s I felt sure I would become an alcoholic if I didn’t change my life. The first change led to other positive changes and a huge discovery–I’d been drinking to self-medicate in an effort to calm fear, anxiety and panic. I still don’t know how my subconscious knew I needed to make those changes, I’m just happy I listened.