Inner Critic

The number one thing people told me we needed to do when Al retired was have two television sets. I immediately saw the wisdom in this. Al loves sports and I do not. So by Big Game day, we were all set. Not only had we purchased a new television for Al, but a new recliner, too.

So Al reclined in comfort while I watched Sanditon, Taylor Swift’s documentary, and two Grace and Frankie episodes in the guest room. Perfect. Al seems to really be enjoying his retirement and I get a kick out of this new laid back husband. Everything would be perfect if only my inner critic would shut up.

Most writers have some acquaintance with the inner critic. I used to shut mine up with chocolate, but now I have to watch my sugar. So, I need a new coping mechanism. Meanwhile, my inner critic laughs in glee, remarking that writing about retirement is not quite the riveting subject I had stupidly presumed would provide fodder for many a post to come.

I have a writer’s group here in Florida. I don’t say much about them because we have all agreed not to discuss anything said in the library where we meet. I am going to bend that rule a little bit because I don’t know how else to say what comes next. One woman wrote in present tense. It turned out really well, we all loved it, but then we all love everything she writes.

I was having one of those rare moments of hubris when I proclaimed “I don’t know what I’ll write next week, but whatever it is, I will write it in present tense!” That was three days ago and I have not been able to stop thinking about it and trying out sentences. My inner critic hates every single one of them. I even tried to write this post in present tense. How hard could it be?

Very. So while retirement continues to flow harmoniously, the writing has hit a speed bump. It’s not like I’m blocked. I can always write. But never have I ever had to use the backspace like I’ve done this morning. That’s fine. I love a challenge. I thought Al’s retirement would be a challenge, but no, it’s wonderful in every possible way.

I can feel myself about to do something reckless here. I’m not only going to write the group pages in present tense, I am going to post them here one week from today. And that is how to shut the inner critic up. For now.

The Startle Reflex

It happens at least once a day. Al creeps upon me unawares and I startle and scream. It’s embarrassing. I worry my neighbors will think he’s abusing me. This is not a new thing, I’ve had a strong startle response my entire life. People startle me in the grocery store. But it’s gotten worse since Al retired. At first, I thought, okay, well, I’ll get used to him being around and it will calm down. Also, he is doing things to help me now like walking a little louder or making some kind of noise to alert me to his presence before he’s right behind me. As of yesterday, it was not getting better.

I finally looked “startle response” up online yesterday, pretty sure this was going to be just another weird something I have to live with. As it turns out, some of us are born with stronger startle reflexes than others, and, with it, eventually, comes anxiety. Not sure why this surprised me. When I was teaching, I’d be alone after class, erasing the board and someone would stop by the door to say hi, and I’d be so taken aback the eraser would fly from my hand.

Turtles sunning themselves on the bayou

I still don’t have any good answers about what to do with this increasingly annoying reaction of mine, although Al is trying to help by being a little louder when approaching me from behind. I’m trying to be more mindful, meditate more, and I’m practicing yoga. Also, I’m taking my meds.

I got the mindfulness idea from an article in Psychology Today. Mindfulness is just being in the moment, having a single focus. I tried, yesterday on our walk around the bayou, to keep my mind from wandering. Mindfulness is exhausting! And I’m not sure how it helps calm a crazy amygdala. (The place mid-brain where the fight or flight response resides.) I think if I was totally tuned in to simply taking one step then the next, I’d be even more startled by an alligator crossing my path.

Baby Snapper sunning in the bayou

Our alligators have their favorite spots to bask in the sun, but they are mostly well away from people. We did see an alligator on our walk yesterday. It stayed in the water, only eyes and snout on view as it floated along like a peaceful log. I call the huge resident alligator here on the bayou Big Snapper. Now, there’s a Baby Snapper, too. Al told me the one in the water next to us yesterday was Baby Snapper. He showed me a photo of Baby Snapper sunning he took last year. She’s bigger now.

Last year, I gave up nature walks entirely. I was just too fearful of ticks and also Big Snapper, despite it never getting near anyone in our large community. But yesterday, I was not afraid of the alligator in the bayou. Maybe because it was Baby Snapper. Maybe, could it possibly be, because I’d been practicing mindfulness? For whatever reason, I had a lovely walk in nature with my dear understanding husband. We even stopped awhile to observe the leisurely progress of Baby Snapper floating down the bayou.

Careful What You Wish For

Friends gave me lots of advice before Al’s retirement. The thing I heard most often was the need for two television sets. That makes sense because I dislike sports and Al can’t conquer the English accent. He likes fast action stories and I prefer PBS style romance. But we often read at night instead of watching television, except when the “big game” is on. There’s always a big game. So we bought a second television. Done.

Many women chuckled and offered variations on “It’s an adjustment.” My more frank friends said “You will wish you had more time alone.” It’s only been 20 days, and while it’s been an adjustment, it’s not been difficult. We figured out how to divide chores the first week. In a very tangible way, this is my retirement, too. Cooking, cleaning, laundry and shopping…he’s doing half of everything. And without and fuss. Or, not much.

As for fun and relaxing activities, Al is not one to sit around and…write books. He says he’s going to read some of my books, though. I won’t hold him to it. He is a non-fiction guy. That’s okay. He goes to the gym three times a week, golfs regularly and even played shuffleboard this week. He says it’s like pool. I didn’t inquire further.

I have never liked team sports: watching them or playing them. I prefer to read, and it’s true I have not had as much time to read since Al retired, but that’s fine. I enjoy doing things with Al like walking on the beach or just having a coffee together in the morning. We have been grocery shopping together and that’s more fun than you’d think. I had so many chores and rote routines, mixing it up energizes my chi.

I like line dancing though it’s not actually a sport. Well, I guess it can be, but I do it for fun. I love to dance. And I like yoga, too. It’s true I have not yet found the time to actually go to line dancing or yoga class since Al retired, but I plan to do both this week. The one thing I’ve done on my own consistently is go to the writer’s group. No surprise there. Writers are my tribe.

Most of my married life, I’ve not had a companion. Now I do. It’s what I always wished for and my dream has come true at last. It’s lovely. Sure, we’re still in our honeymoon phase of retirement. We have some tough decisions and hard work ahead, but I’m certain we’ll manage it all. Together.

Happy Writing Holidays

Stephen King does it every single day, sometimes including Christmas day. So does Nora Roberts. What is “it”? Writing. Some of us can’t go even a day without pen and paper or a keyboard. Unless we get our writing fix, things just don’t feel right.

That’s true for me, too, but I am not wealthy and I don’t have assistants to help me get ready for the holidays. Al is working more hours than God, saving up for the big retirement…so I alone must clean and shop and wrap and cook. And also bake cookies with Ben!

Since my own retirement from teaching, I’ve started most days with morning pages, and if I can’t work on my novel, those tide me over, like a snack before dinner. Or photos of my grandchildren until the next visit. But yesterday I had the whole day and I used it. Tucking laundry duty into yoga stretch breaks, I read and revised my entire manuscript.

It took about ten hours. I cut about ten thousand more words and didn’t add nearly as many back. But this morning I noted in my morning pages the holes in the plot that I need to fill. I have already filled Ben’s stocking and wrapped all the gifts. I just got back from grocery shopping for cookie ingredients and Christmas dinner.

I’ve got some final organizing to do tomorrow. Like get the guest room ready! I’m not sure when I will write those last few scenes, but I’m not worried because I know where I need to go and I’m almost ready for Christmas. I keep checking my calendar…can it be true?

Will Al really be home forever in one week? We have waited a long time for this. Even though friends think we’re in for a bumpy ride, I cannot wait to begin the next part of our life together!

And to all my friends, I wish you a heart full of love this holiday season. ❤

Character Arc

In three weeks, Al, my husband, is retiring from his career of 40+ years in the same building, with the same company. We’ve been married 35 years, so as long as I’ve known him, he has gone to his job every day. In that time, I’ve changed jobs six times. What this means is that I am not good at working for others. I dislike anyone having authority over me. Al is the opposite. He thrives in his work community and the bosses love him.

How will this play out in real life for us when he is finally home and does not have a place to go to that makes him feel secure, special, important and needed? His job does all of that, because he’s made himself valuable to the company through the years. Now I’m going to have to help him find similar rewards in retirement. I know it’s really up to him, but what’s a spouse for if not support and love? I gotta be there for him.

Books demand the same thing. You gotta be there for the book every day for many days, many hours of every day. Unlike Al, I take a day off writing once or twice a week, but it’s kind of like eating sugar. If you eat sugar one day, the next day you’ll want it again. If I take a break from writing one day, the next day it’s easier to take another break. Then another. So for me, I need to write (almost) every day or I lose the flow of the novel.

I have only recently realized the full extent of what a big deal this is, for both of us. Before this realization, I assumed Al would be like me, happy to be away from the grind, better as the boss of his own life, a better life having fun (finally!) with me. And he still might surprise me. He has so many projects he’s put off over the years, begging for him to start. Being together as a couple is the biggest project of all. Al has more often than not worked six or seven days a week.

We are in for a major adjustment. Ironically, my main character is in the midst of an even bigger adjustment. Her husband died unexpectedly and she went off the rails a bit, retiring from a job she loved, selling her house, moving from Detroit to Florida. She’s really not dealing with any of it, because, well, there’s a murder she has to help solve.

I set my deadline to finish this book as December 31, 2019. That’s Al’s retirement date. Three weeks. And I just finished my final chapter. Should be perfect timing. Except. I just chopped 20K from my manuscript. Why? Because they were boring. They didn’t move the plot forward or build character arc. In fact, my character’s arc is flat. I have not yet gotten to the heart of my character’s inner story, which has a major effect on her outer world.

How can an arc be flat, you may wonder. Well, it’s called avoidance. My character has some difficult changes to adjust to, kinda like I do in my own life. Many of them involve dismantling her former idea of what her life had been. She got some things wrong and now she needs to fix them so that her life can go on, better than before. That’s character arc. For a book to be satisfying (at least to me) a character has to grow, change, and learn something about herself during the course of the novel.

I pretty much skipped those parts. I write crime novels and my focus has been on the murder and whodunnit. I’m not sure I’ll write another 20K words in three weeks. I’m not even sure my character’s arc plus the subplot around it (which I also gave short shrift) needs to be 20K. I won’t know until I write it. The book will be as long as it needs to be for me to get that satisfaction of my character gaining wisdom and being happier for it.

Maybe writing my character’s arc will help me with my own major life change. Wish me luck! And have a happy holiday season.