The Noise that Wasn’t There

Last night I heard a noise. Pretty sure it was mechanical, like a garbage disposal left on, except not quite that. It was coming from upstairs (my neighbor loves to share her radio listening). I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what room it was coming from or even be 100 percent certain it was originating from upstairs (but where else?). I set my ear to my refrigerator, thinking maybe it had developed a new tone to run beneath its usual whirring.

By the time I went to bed half an hour later I’d considered that maybe I didn’t hearing anything new. I’m absolutely certain I did, but it was at just the right pitch, what in other circumstances would be called the sweet spot but for me was instead just shy of the same pitch of my tinnitus. That, fortunately, meant that the mystery noise didn’t prevent me from falling asleep. I’m using to the incessant pitch that sings me a private symphony. But it also made me feel like a dog chasing her tail. Where did it come from? Was it really there at all? I couldn’t localize it because there comes a point at which I don’t know if I’m hearing the noise inside my ears or the noise outside of them, and that’s really weird.

Listening for the mystery sound.

Listening for the mystery sound.

A friend suggested that I need a Third Party Hearer. Yes, please. I can think of several situations in which this would be handy. She also suggested that someone develop an app to help figure out where That Sound is coming from. Again, please, yes, let’s have this. Then, the next time I close my hearing aid into its case with the battery still engaged, I won’t call maintenance to figure out how to make the noise stop. (I used to wear my hearing aid nearly every day, but not that day, and now at work it mostly helps me to hear how much louder the keyboard is, and why bother to with that?)

At the same time all of this was happening—or not happening—the writer part of my brain kept trying to figure out how I could use this in a story. It needs a twist, a reason, and that brought me back to the amnesiac alien in my current Work in Progress. Growing up, I always wished I could ascribe some reason to the ringing in my ears. Alien communications malfunction would be such a better answer than “nerve damage/hearing loss” because shouldn’t I hear less with hearing loss? No need for the special sounds, thanks for the offer and all, but I’m returning them for a refund.

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Why Not?

I was talking plot with a writer friend a few years ago. It went like this: “My character has to find a way to prevent an attack that will kill thousands, but I’m writing myself into a corner. I can’t kill thousands of people.” She replied oh so matter of factly, “Why not?”

That response, so rationally given, blew through the limitations I’d unconsciously set myself. The truth is, I can do anything in my writing. How well I do it is another matter, but nothing’s gained by turning away from an opportunity to expand a plot, dive deeper into a character, or push the boundaries of my own imagination.

Why not have the gallant hero make a choice that gets him dirty? Why not write in alternating first person POVs or give first and third a whirl? Make the villain the main character. Break up the couple with the great, fated love. Set off a nuclear bomb.

It might suck. It probably will suck. At first. That’s why we research, we revise, we trunk and try again. It’s not going to be golden the first time out the gate. The first time I tried to walk, I fell down. And the second time, and the third. You get the idea. Why expect to master the first time you try a new writing technique or the first time you write a book?

Fall down. Get back up. Try again.

Blow up the plot. Push a character to be more. Because why the hell not?

What Yoga Taught Me about Writing, and Writing about Yoga

Yoga has seen me through various injuries and a years-long bout of chronic pain, but I don’t maintain nearly as regular a practice as I’d like. The same holds true for writing. I’m writing more now, and more often, but there will be times when I simply hit a wall. I’ve always tried the “one book at a time” approach for fear that allowing something else in would eliminate forward momentum completely. (Yeah, don’t probe that too deeply for logic.) Lately I’ve discovered that I really enjoy having a second project to switch to when I come speeding up to that wall. It’s temporary avoidance, but it gives me space to think without feeling like I’m standing still.

St_Thomas2008Aug 198

A leaf bends in the wind and floats in the air. It goes, unprotesting, with the flow.

If one thing isn’t working in my writing, I no longer beat my head against it. I shift gears.

Lately after a yoga practice, I experience pain flare-ups from an issue I’ve dealt with—and beaten back—for years. The current fix is to change my practice and make it different from what I prefer. I don’t want to do that. I have it in my head what my yoga practice will be, what it should be, and damn it, that’s what I want to do. Except I hurt later, and I am so very over that. I found myself avoiding yoga to avoid the hurt, ending up in less pain but still unhappy because I wasn’t getting all the other benefits of my practice. The solution, I realized, was to shift gears.

It’s time to stop fighting. I need to set aside my idea of what my yoga practice should be and let it be what my body is demanding it become. The sooner I do that, the sooner I’ll feel better. The sooner I’ll get over the honestly unnecessary angst and move on. My body may feel some discomfort, but the true suffering is in my head. Just like when you get to that scene you’ve been waiting the whole book to write and it’s not working. It’s falling flat. Now that you’ve written everything that comes before, it doesn’t fit the way you envisioned. But this is the way you want it! No way are you going to end this book without cramming that scene in The Way It’s Supposed To Be.

Much hair pulling and teeth gnashing later, and possibly a wise writer-friend giving you a verbal slap upside the head, you realize the futility of your resistance. That scene has changed. Your vision carried you right up to it, and then it took flight, altered into something different, something that’s more than a spur to keep going. It’s now a vital, necessary part of the whole. And you’d have realized it a lot sooner if you’d just stopped insisting that what you wanted was still the same thing as what was needed.

There are times when we need that slap to wake us up. And there are times of quiet revelation. However we receive them, we should remember that their lessons can be recycled. Maybe we’ll benefit more from them in the future.

Handwriting versus Typewriting

It was brought to my attention via Twitter a few weeks ago that the Common Core education standards don’t place much emphasis on legible handwriting. The wave of the future, as you might guess and The New York Times reports, is the keyboard. Kind of obvious, right? But the decline in handwriting isn’t something to write off as a sign of our technological times. The article states:

“Children not only learn to read more quickly when they first learn to write by hand, but they also remain better able to generate ideas and retain information. In other words, it’s not just what we write that matters — but how.”

KnowledgeIf schools teach students how to write the alphabet and make a signature, but then focus more exclusively on keyboarding skills, what might we be losing beyond the physical act of handwriting? I love to write. Books, letters, lists, doodles. (I have an earlier post on letter-writing.) If there is paper and pen, I want it in my hands, so this article got me thinking that “what if?” The relationship between hand, pen, and paper—and the way the hand, eye, and brain engage in that format—is different from hand, keyboard, and screen. I don’t even need to see the keyboard to use it.

With a keyboard, I can type more quickly and scroll all the way back to the beginning and correct something before I ever reach The End. Despite that, this format always feels more official and formal to me. In contrast, writing by hand is a subtle sign to my brain that I’m allowing myself to be messy. It’s okay to scribble things out, to take the whole thing less seriously. I can always tear off the page and throw it away.

I’ve identified some consistent reasons behind when I switch to paper:

  • Screen fatigue
  • A difficult or emotional scene
  • I’m stuck and my perceived formality of the file on the screen feels too constraining

Whatever the motivation that gets me to switch from keyboard to pen and paper, these handwritten scenes are always my better ones. I’m finding the computer and keyboard fine for originating words on setting and structure and all those little in between details. For action and emotional resonance, I want to pour it onto paper. On paper, it becomes more about the story and less about the producing of the story and how many words I’m getting out. (Because who doesn’t like to check their total word count at the end of a writing session?)

Given everything I feel I gain from handwriting, I wonder what younger generations may lose if they’re less inclined to pick up a pen. What value does handwriting have to you? (Does it?) When do you turn to it?

Amnesia! Aliens! Hearing loss? Bees! … Mining?

All of these things are related, somehow, in my head. Years ago I had an idea to use my experience with tinnitus (ringing in the ears) in a novel about an amnesiac alien on Earth who has no idea she’s not native to the planet. The premise was not nearly so coherent when it first occurred to me, and I was busy working on other material so no need to think much about it.

The subconscious can be very wily. In December, as I was wrapping up revisions on one novel and about to begin revisions on a second, I felt the need for something different. So I shook off the preconceptions of what and how I write, metaphorically cracked my knuckles, and when the words started coming, they were about the amnesiac alien with tinnitus. In first person present tense. (Really not sure how that happened.) Only now my alien had a hearing loss too, and something about endangered bees and evil aliens who mine a planet to death.

Bees, somehow very important to my new novel. These bees are in Seattle.

Bees, somehow very important to my new novel. These bees are in Seattle.

The tinnitus aspect of my main character, Deja (DAY-hah), is straightforward enough. If you’ve ever gone to a concert or been exposed to a loud noise, you may have experienced some ringing in your ears afterward. For many people, that ringing doesn’t always have a definite cause, and it never ends. I can’t remember ever not hearing the noise in my head because it was there long before I was ever aware of it. It would be much cooler if the “Beeeeeeep” was the result of something like alien communication. Thus, Deja’s tinnitus gets a Higher Purpose (hardware malfunction).

What I didn’t plan for this book was to incorporate my experiences with hearing loss. As with the tinnitus, I don’t remember ever hearing better than I do. And because I hear well enough despite the loss, it wasn’t caught until I was in elementary school. As I got older, I wised up to the ways in which I was compensating. And I realized that my left ear sucked at its job so the right one inherited phone duties. Combined, they’re an okay team. And now they’re helping me to write a main character who’s not defined by what a piece of her can and cannot do (or several pieces considering the amnesia). My previous MCs have struggled more with ethics than anything else, and I’ve never incorporated so much of myself onto the page before. I’m looking forward to the journey. I’m especially looking forward to that “something about bees and mining” part.

If you’re curious about what the world sounds like with hearing loss, check this out.

Creating Habits

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. I believe that every day, every moment, is an opportunity for change. Start tomorrow or right now, but do it. That said, the change of the calendar can be a good opportunity for a lot of things: flip the mattress; clean out the spice cabinet (which is really just an excuse to buy new spices); vacuum the cobwebs out from that one corner where they live. Because the new year comes during the holiday season, I had time to catch up on my sleep and, for once, did not check my work email on vacation like a zealot. Those things combined provided an opportunity to reflect.

2014 was an overwhelming year for me professionally. I struggled just to tread water amidst all the deadlines and demands and found little room left for the things I enjoy. Still, in the few non-work hours I had last year, I managed to complete revisions on one novel, finish another, and begin a third.

2015 should bePen 009… calmer in the workplace. I hope like hell it will be. And with that hope, my new year’s reflections found opportunity for creating new habits. I read something once that said a new habit takes at least thirty days to establish, and common sense says that if I want to write more, I need to write more regularly. Schedules work well to keep me disciplined, so I’m establishing certain days and times to write. I’m also going to seek out more resources to feed my creativity, like a March lecture at the Smithsonian on art fakes and forgeries. (That kind of screams plot idea, doesn’t it?) I want to query one novel, revise a second, and finish the new one begun last year.

That list of wants could be overwhelming. I’ve set expectations in the past to write so many words in a day or weekend, and the failure to do so made the next goal feel all the more oppressive. This time around my goal is simply to write. One step at a time – one word at a time – I can do it. By the end of 2015, I’d like to say that success is my new habit.

What habits do you want to create?

The Lost Value of Letter Writing

I’m a child of the ’80s. Email didn’t come into my life until midway through university, and it needed to build momentum before the centuries-old tradition of letter writing began to fall by the wayside. When I was thirteen, I wrote to my first pen pal, another thirteen-year-old in Brisbane, Australia. From there, my letter writing quickly expanded. I came to have friends in places like Argentina, China, Egypt, Estonia, and Thailand. The postman delivered letters to me with exotic stamps, in penmanship much nicer than anything I could produce, and with details of lives lived far from me. This was before “the global village”, before information sharing was so easy and you could “friend” someone you met in passing at a party with little thought or effort and no commitment for the future. As with anyone you meet, some of us clicked more than others and our letter writing burgeoned from the obvious and polite questions, like “how is school?”, to real discussions of culture, events, and beliefs. I learned how Thais celebrate the new year, discussed the fall of the Berlin Wall with a girl in Germany, and exchanged candy with a friend in Japan. (They’ve got some good stuff.) My letter-writing friends opened up the world to me in a very personal way. “What’s happening in Poland” as the Cold War ended meant “what’s happening to my friend Krysztof.” It made politics relevant and the world accessible in a way I couldn’t otherwise reach as a young girl in a very homogenous American suburb. And it was fun.

Stamps 008

Stamps from my letter-writing days. Yes, that is Lenin’s face glaring at you top left.

Today I’m still in touch with several of my old pen friends and have met a few in person. On my first trip overseas, I met in person my good friend in the Netherlands and she showed me around her home country. Before the trip, we discussed (via MS-DOS-styled email) how we’d handle things if we didn’t get along as well in person as we did on paper. On another trip, I met a friend who drove with her husband and young sons to the town I was visiting to meet me for dinner.  When I, with my American sense of geography, asked if it was too far for her to come, she set me straight: “Nancy, nowhere in Slovenia is far.” When I began writing letters at age thirteen, I didn’t look into the future to see the impact that my overseas friendships would have on my life. I didn’t realize that these would become some of the most enduring friendships I would have, that they were the first step in me exploring my interests in other peoples, languages, and cultures. I just wanted to find out if traffic lights used the same colors in other countries. (They do.) And I loved the anticipation of waiting for a reply. Would it come swiftly? What news would it contains? The mailman and I became pretty well acquainted, and we shared disappointment when a long-awaited letter from India arrived with the envelope torn on three sides, the contents lost.

That anticipation, enjoyment, and surprise is largely gone now. Email is the vehicle of twenty-first century correspondence. That’s been great for more regular communication. I email my friend from the Netherlands nearly every day. We can share so much more of the ups and downs of life for being in frequent contact. But the anticipation of an email reply is not the same as opening the mailbox and pulling out a letter. Typed words on a screen are not nearly as intimate as handwritten words. And emails are a lot harder to pass down to future generations. I still have many of the letters I exchanged in my youth, and many of the gifts that were sent with them. Today, though, we’re more likely to keep in touch on Facebook or via email than by putting pen to paper, and sometimes I feel we’ve lost something for that.

This has been brought home to me over the past year, when I began writing letters to an elderly cousin whose address I uncovered online while doing genealogy research. (The Internet: both helpful and creepy.) There’s a joy in receiving and reading her letters, and amazement when she enclosed a letter that my grandmother had written to her, telling of her joy in her grandchildren. I’m not giving up email, but I intend to revive my letter writing. It won’t be nearly the same as in the past. Today is what it is, and before I write my cousin, I type out what I’m going to say first. But I believe in the value of letter writing, in the unique sharing of self that comes from pen on paper, and I don’t want to lose it.