• Staircase to basement room.
    cozy,  fiction,  short stories

    My Eldritch Life

    My new house is a little strange, I’ll grant you. The rooms seem to rotate in and out of existence. Oftentimes I wake to find a staircase I’ve never seen before, just sitting there, and the floors can’t decide whether they’re carpet, marble, bare dirt, or mahogany. But it wasn’t too much trouble. I didn’t even realize I had a roommate until an eldritch creature slithered out of a brand-new closet to talk to me about the last three days.

    “Oh, it’s been three days since I moved in?” I asked. “Time flies.”

    Ilgilgrit’f’n said, “Most people are begging me for an exit door within eight hours.”

    “That sounds distressing.”

    “Well, it is,” zie said, “but I’ve rather come to expect it. How are you managing everything so normally?”

    I shrugged. “Well, it’s sort of like life, isn’t it?”

    “I don’t follow.”

    “The house is like life,” I explained. “It’s just a series of rooms to which we can never return. If I leave something behind, I know I can’t go back for it, so I take only what I need and don’t worry about the rest. All of these rooms are really nice. You’ve done a great job decorating the place.”

    Taken aback, but also flattered, Ilgilgrit’f’n asked, “Thank…you?”

    The house was rumbling again. It was unsettled, shifting around me, and I picked up my knitting back from the couch. Beyond the doorway, the staircase swayed, twisted, and blurred, before turning into another hallway. The wall at my back started oozing shadow. It wouldn’t last long.

    Knitting bag over my shoulder, I beckoned for Ilgilgrit’f’n to slither at my side. “Have you ever tried to go back to the same room twice in a dream? You can’t do it. Your brain doesn’t build a house for you to dream inside. You’re just imagining one room after another. So…it’s like that.”

    “I thought the house was like life,” said Ilgilgrit’f’n.

    “That too. Life, dreams, potato, potato.”

    The hallway stretched ever-long, passing a kitchen dappled by afternoon sunlight and taking a left turn right after the den where a fireplace burned in the depths of winter evening. I decided to sit by the fire with my knitting bag.

    “Most people go insane with this stuff,” said the eldritch beast.

    “I don’t blame them,” I said. I went back to reading my book. “Living is pretty insane.”

  • A figure standing silhouetted by the light at the end of an underground tunnel.
    featured,  fiction,  short stories

    The Bunker After the End

    I thought I was alone, after the end. Then I found the bunker. Then I realized there had always been people inside. And they were hiding from me.

    The few who didn’t try to run away, screaming, donned full HazMat suits before approaching me. I was sobbing by the time they encircled my crouched body in a creaking mass of canvas suits and sheer plastic face protectors.

    “I’ve looked for you so long,” I wept. “I have been so lonely! Why won’t anyone touch me? I haven’t been touched since I was a child!”

    “You’re sick,” insisted a man in the suit.

    I felt wonderful, and I had always felt wonderful, my body functional as any toad swimming downriver, or the birds flapping in the sky, or the other companions I had held dear in my excruciating solitude.

    There was nothing but abyssal loneliness in the concrete box where they shoved me.

    “What are we going to do with her?” asked a woman outside my door.

    “We have to kill her,” said the man. “She came to find us. There’s no more time.”

    “Kill me?” I asked, banging on the inside of the door. “Kill me?”

    I sobbed that my weakness had sent me to this bunker, into the arms of humans; I sobbed that I had not simply been satisfied in my freedom of the outside world above. Instead of cherishing the grass under my bare feet, I had wondered what it would be like to hold hands with another girl. And now this was my reward for wanting people. This bleak room, these bleak words, my bleak heart.

    ***

    The woman let me out of the cell. “Lisa,” she said. “I’m Lisa.” I didn’t have a name because I’d never needed one. I was simply me.

    Lisa felt bad for me. Against everything that the other survivors recommended, she wanted to take me to her room, and feed me, and clothe me, and treat me like any neighbor in their little bunker.

    “You’re so small,” she said. “There’s nothing about you that might threaten us, no matter what they say!”

    She had never lived in a place with grass or sunlight or toads. She lived in a closet with a mattress, which she was eager to let me rest upon, and a few dirty scraps of cotton that formed her wardrobe. Lisa embraced me with her generosity. I was so pathetic that I loved her for it.

    Until the others found my cell empty.

    Until the others came running to Lisa’s room, so angry with her that they shoved her – threw her – and her head bounced off a shelf and the life went out of her eyes instantly.

    “Kill the outsider!” shouted a man.

    They chased me down the hall of their bunker with furious hands groping at my back, pipes swinging at my head. Finally one struck me. I fell to the ground and blood poured out of my face.

    “Kill her!” said another. “She’s dangerous!”

    The wolves had stolen my food while I was sleeping. The storms had drenched me when it was too cold to be wet. The bees had stung me when I got too near their hive. But they had only hurt me out of the nature of their existence, and there was no comparison to the rain of blows they smashed upon me.

    In my anger, I did what the wolves did, and I bit someone’s hand. The copper taste of blood filled my mouth.

    “Dammit!” The man jerked back and shook the blood off onto the floor in little drops.

    “She got him! Kill him!”

    “Get them both!”

    “What?” asked the man, turning wide eyes upon his friends as they turned their pipes and fists upon him.

    He didn’t let them kill him easily.

    He was more of a fighter than I was. He drew more blood. And each time he drew blood, the vitriol spread, the violence spread, and the men turned upon each other to fight and bite and tear.

    One of the doctors fell near me, dying with his face halfway crushed. He had enough consciousness to tell me, “You brought the virus from outside, inside. You brought the violence with you.”

    “It was always with you,” I spat back as he died.

    The killing spread and men fell. The injured ones went on to injure others. They ran into the other rooms to fight, and the infection spread further.

    I didn’t wait to watch it. I just picked up what was left of my bloody, aching body and I ran outside, to the grass, to the trees, to the forest, to an unforgiving sky with a blazing sun that never meant to hurt me.

  • Acrylic Acacian in Africa by a private Painter
    automating jobs,  existential screaming,  featured,  futurism

    I guess I’m not done having Feelings about AI art yet

    Ethical AI usage has plenty of room for the “wow!” and “this is so fun!” factor, among other personal uses. I just think that right now, the dataset acquisition is reprehensible, the enrichment of the company owners at the expense of artists is the absolute worst of capitalist amorality, and AI art is not capable of providing a net positive to culture until these issues are resolved.

    There is not really any ethical use of AI to generate art if you aren’t using your own datasets and running it on your computer.

    With big companies like Midjourney, you will be using datasets acquired without consent. You will also be providing more data and money to help the business do better theft.

    I totally get why it’s fun. It feels like visualizing dreams. Referencing things that are familiar in this surreal ways. I love that some folks seem to be having this cool community experience with it, sharing things and learning. It must feel enriching.

    I wish that the system that your joy enriches were not *so terrible*. They do not deserve you.

    My ire is always aimed at the system, the moneybags, not the people who are navigating the same moral complexities I am and often reaching different but equally valid conclusions.

    That said, I am asking friends of mine who do it for fun to consider if this is the fun you have to do? There are *so many* fun artistic pursuits. Right now this one is on the forefront of everyone’s minds because it’s novel, but…we don’t have to do it.

    We don’t have to help the people hurting artists because we are having fun with it.

  • A small potted plant with long green leaves. The leaves have scalloped edges and look reddish/shriveled from cold, but it's definitely alive.
    plants,  resembles nonfiction,  slice of life

    The scariest plant I know

    Let me tell you something about a plant named Kalanchoe daigremontiana, also known as Mother of Thousands, or (appropriately) more ominously Devil’s Backbone.

    I believe Devil’s Backbone is a legitimately scary plant. The scariest plant I’ve ever encountered.

    The first thing you should know is that it’s toxic. It contains cardiac glycosides, and big doses can kill pets, livestock, and small children…in theory. Fatal doses are incredibly rare. But I can’t imagine it’s very much fun to consume cardiac glycosides and stay alive, either.

    There are many more toxic plants, but Devil’s Backbone is also difficult to contain: every single scallop around its edge will make babies. You can see a few are still attached. Most are in the soil, already establishing new roots, which will produce more plants with scalloped edges, each of which will…you guessed it.

    Babies are small and lightweight. They travel easily. They will fill the pots of your other plants. They will jump on your clothes to go outside.

    So you can’t really contain this poisonous plant…unless you’re ready for it.

    Surely, everyone who owns Devil’s Backbone is ready for it, right?

    Ha ha! The scariest thing of all is that you can find Kalanchoe daigremontiana and its close cousin, K. delagoensis, at pretty much any major chain hardware store that also sells plants. You can find much-prettier variegations than this. They’re so attractive! Especially when they flower.

    There is no warning about the toxicity or prolificity of this plant in the places where it sold. NONE. (There are a lot of very toxic plants sold with no warning. For instance, lilies can cause kidney failure and death for house cats within hours of taking a single sniff of the pollen. If you knew that, you didn’t learn it from the store where you bought lilies.) (NEVER have lilies in the house if you have cats. EVER.)

    Anyway, I have been scared of Devil’s Backbone for a long time, so I’ve never stopped thinking about it, and become progressively obsessed, and now here we are.

    I bought myself a Devil’s Backbone.

    It came from TX, around 1700 miles away. The package got lost on its route to me. It took two weeks to arrive in the coldest winter Nevada has experienced for years. I fully expected to open the box and find a dead black frozen plant! I was at peace with this outcome: “Perhaps Fate is telling me I should not have gotten this cursed plant,” I thought to myself. “I accept the Judgment of Fate.”

    When my keys first penetrated the box’s tape, I was struck by the strongest botanical scent. I was convinced that was the scent of rot.

    I kept cutting.

    I found the box brimming with cotton, packed totally full. As I pulled the cotton away, the babies started dropping. Little green cardiac glycoside bombs on my counter everywhere. Still green. Many rooted.

    And within the cotton, a slightly cold, little shriveled, but mostly healthy Devil’s Backbone.

    Fate might have said “You don’t want this,” but the Devil herself said, “Oh, you want me. You know you want me.”

  • fiction,  prose

    Look At Me

    I’ll coruscate for you, if you want me to; I know you’ve been lonely in lightless liminality so long. When my spine bends the body twists and light travels where your fingers once wanted to go. I’ll coruscate. You’ll watch. We’ll stand apart, separated by photons and a few breaths and beads. When the light comes in, I’ll shine it your way, if you promise to look. Lift your head up and open your eyes until you see.

  • movie reviews,  reviews

    “The concept of progress acts as a protective mechanism to shield us from the terrors of the future.”

    I made the mistake of watching Lynch’s Dune two days before Villeneuve’s Dune was released. Months later, I still find myself unable to decide which is the “better” movie. I suspect it’s Villeneuve’s. Certainly, Villeneuve’s is much more successful in the box office. Yet I can only think of Villeneuve’s Dune in terms of how it lacks compared to Lynch’s Dune.

    Dune is largely considered impossible to adapt, which is silly, because Lynch did fine adapting the whole book. Turning half of the book into a montage may not be what certain fans prefer, but if you watch the movie for itself in Watsonian fashion, it makes sense: Paul Muad’Dib is created by the events in the beginning of the movie, and we see his creation being the downfall of his enemies when he fights Sting And Friends at the end. It is a story at mythic scale that does a “one two, skip a few, ninety-nine, one hundred” approach to the plot. You can try to argue with Lynch’s approach, but there’s no point, because this is David Lynch we’re talking about.

    Villeneuve’s Dune isn’t a complete story in itself. It ends halfway through the book, in a fashion both anticlimactic and abrupt, and does not attempt to construct a standalone story out of that material.

    In the meantime, the movie drags us through many long, slow scenes that amount to little more than concept art while establishing world and mood. I genuinely believe that the amount people enjoy this movie is dependent on how likely they are to repeatedly peruse an Art of Dune coffee table book. Although I love concept art, this isn’t in a style which appeals to me. It’s minimalist, geometric, and nearly monochromatic to almost a comical degree – as though Villeneuve was making a deliberate move away from the lush Baroque world Lynch built.

    What do you think the future will look like after humans have spent a couple thousand years trucking around the galaxy? Will we have ancient structures that glory in the accumulated wealth of our empire, or will we be utilitarian?

    What do you *want* the future to look like? If you think, “I hope the future has a lot of sheer sandstone faces,” then I bet you will love to stare at Villeneuve’s Dune.

    Similarly, I found the actors’ performances less compelling than in Lynch’s adaptation – probably because many of them were flown in for a partial movie shoot, whipping out a few scenes under the promise they will have a lot more scenes in the second half of the movie that has yet to be made. But Villeneuve’s vision for this movie also involves making Paul Atreides a “normal boy” who is moody and irritating, completely unlike Lynch’s Paul Atreides, who feels like he was born a legend and will die a legend and belongs to the mythic forces surrounding his life. The sense of drama is so different.

    I could continue enumerating the elements of this adaptation which I found to be inferior, simply because they are so much less *interesting*, but I think I’ve said enough to make it clear I’m more of a Weird Movies Person than a Whatever Villeneuve Was Trying To Do Here person. I can’t evaluate this version of Dune on its own merits, and I don’t want to. The fact I sat through it for so many hours isn’t just because Oscar Isaac is one of the hottest people on the planet. I was clearly some kind of entertained. But it will never be anything but the Lynch’s Dune turned down from 11 to a 4.

  • existential screaming,  featured,  slice of life,  the worst timeline

    The World is Outside

    Days after it begins, I find myself missing Disneyland. I sit in a chair in front of my television, longer in diagonal than it is tall, and I don a headset. It is a heavy thing that covers my eyes and bands my head. I adjust its fit with dials until a television floats in front of me in the void, clear as though I sat in an empty cinema. I haven’t been to a cinema in a while. I’m not sure if I’ll ever go again.

    Speakers ring my room, seven-dot-one of them, and when I select a video on my console, sound engulfs me from all of them. Within the headset, the TV has yielded to a lifelike environment. A 360 video where I can turn my head and the sounds will follow. I stand on a quiet street of Disneyland, on the way to critter country, in the blue early morning when most would avoid Splash Mountain.

    From my chair, I walk up the line. I look up, down, left, right. I’m aware I’m not in control, but I feel like a passenger along with someone else, and we take the line briskly. It’s warm in my house but I remember how cool the air flows in the line for Splash. I have walked past those lights in reality, in the before times, when queues were packed and I could be drowned in an ocean of overheard conversation.

    My home theater smells faintly of popcorn; with the scent memory comes along churros, turkey legs, hot pavement. I’m really sitting in the log ride now. I’m going on the flume. The ride sings and sways around me, and even though I don’t get wet on the final drop, my heart thrills in anticipation.

    The video ends there, when we’re climbing off the log at the end. Taking off my headset is disappointing the way it’s disappointing to step off a ride. You have done the good part. You waited in line 35 minutes for a 4-minute thrill. The headset slides away and I remember I’m still in my dim home theater, with neither churro nor Mickey. My Echo dot rim shines orange. Another delivery from Amazon. Everything is deliveries now. Everything comes to me here, in my fortress.

    ***

    Later, my children wear the headset for the ride. They giggle and shriek through it. To the imaginative child, it is all real. I hold my five year old in my lap, nose pressed to his hair, and I imagine that I’m really in Disneyland with my kids, that everything is fine, that humanity is connected.

    ***

    I needed more nicotine, so I prepared to go outside. I would ride my hoverboard today. It extends the trip, turning ten minutes there-and-back into an hour, and will give me priceless exposure to sunlight.

    To leave, I prepare. I remove my face mask from the cloth bag where it’s sat for the last week, airing out. I tie the top straps above my ponytail to relieve my ears of the pressure. I tie the other one low, and the mask it long enough that it conforms to my chin. I tuck the upper hem under the rim of my glasses.

    Atop that, I wear a hat. And then there is sunscreen. My backpack. My boots. I leave.

    I soar over the sidewalk through a mile of quiet suburb. When I see people coming, I get onto the street to offer space. Some of them are wearing masks. Some aren’t. People jog, walk their dogs, walk their children. The parents look exhausted. The retirees look angry.

    My second mile parallels an arterial road feeding the golf resort. It’s quiet too. Handfuls of cars pass, each as distant from each other as though their pickups are afraid to inhale each other’s fumes. When I wait at stoplights, I do little circles on my hoverboard, swirling in place. I press the crosswalk button with my knuckle and scrub the skin furiously on my shorts.

    It’s one step onto the hoverboard at the beginning of my trip and one step off at the gas station. I use my cell phone to lock the hoverboard and leave it tucked behind the bench. Even now, this neighborhood is low on property crime.

    I get a bottle of wine, candy for my children, a Gatorade. I wait in line for the register on one of the floor’s blue marks, indicating every six feet. When it’s my turn to pay, I request refills for my electronic cigarette, and show my government ID through a plastic sheet to the cashier. She’s not wearing any protection. Her eyes are bruised.

    With my backpack loaded, I step back onto the hoverboard. It’s quiet on the way back home, along a mile of artery and a mile of suburb. I step off at home. I leave it by the front door. I remove my shoes before coming inside. I take everything out of its packaging and hang my backpack by the front door. I wash my hands, thoroughly, while singing Mr. Brightside under my breath. A strawberry plant hangs over me at the kitchen sink, shriveling from lack of sunlight.

    Then I refill my electronic cigarette and inhale the taste of Virginia tobacco, stinging on my tongue, exhaling in plumes.

    ***

    I’m lying on the bed in my home loft. I recline against a beanbag chair, my legs propped up by a pillow. A detective show is cast upon the white wall next to me. The image is so large that the people are real-sized. I’m sitting just beneath them, a silent observer to their investigation, in a time and place where the streets were crowded and people only wore gloves at crime scenes.

    The room is dark besides; I’ve put a  blanket over one window and tucked a jacket under the blinds of the other. The projector hums quietly, puffing warm air into a warm room. The ceiling fan sketches lazy loops on the ceiling in shadow. My only company is my cat. She purrs against my hip.

    In my hands, a game console. While murders are solved above me, I harvest fruit in a digital world. I shake it from trees and pick it up from the ground. The graphics are sterile. There’s no dirt under my nails, there are no spots on the fruit, and they never fall rotten. There is value to the stylized act of digging and picking and building in this game. Every little task is monetized. It feels productive.

    When my five-year-old climbs onto the bed, I realize it’s gotten dark and I’ve had a migraine unnoticed for hours. My head is heavy. The child wants to snuggle. I gather him against my body, abandon the console, abandon the detectives, and slither between the covers of my bed with him.

    He sings while he falls asleep. When he’s limp, I engulf myself in a bathrobe and step out onto the balcony. The lights of suburbia spread below me. The horizon’s still a tiny bit orange-blue where twilight surrenders to nighttime black. The artificial stream in my back yard gurgles cheerfully, and the real frogs croak loudly. They briefly silence when I press the button on my plasma lighter to light my pipe. The buzz of its arc disturbs them.

    ***

    I’ve already been at my computer for hours when my nine-year-old wakes in the morning. I stare at two monitors: one shows a news feed updating me on statistics, deaths, responses across the country; the other showing a game of Frostpunk, where I struggle to keep two hundred-some survivors alive in an apocalyptic blizzard.

    “I’m cold,” my child complains.

    I shuck my robe and wrap them in it. We stand beside my open window, hugging each other sleepily, without words. I’m so tired. I can’t sleep because I’ve had too much nicotine and caffeine. My body won’t calm down. But there is a measure of rest in holding and being held.

    The birds are especially loud in the mornings these days. I don’t think they’ve always been so loud. I think they like how fewer cars there are, how the world’s intensity has been turned down a few degrees. Still, there are sounds of human activity; the spring breeze carries the grumble of car engines and lawnmowers to us.

    “Don’t you love how the morning sounds?” I asked my child, who is so tall that I can rest my cheek upon their head.

    “No,” they said. “Because it reminds me the world is still out there.”

    I don’t like those reminders either. I was anxious to leave the world, but became even more anxious to return to it. There are more cars starting than there were a month ago. Businesses are beginning to open. People have to work. It’s safer inside, it’s safer away, but the world is still out there.

  • Diaries,  slice of life

    Seven Ways to be Stoned

    One.

    You’re in New York City for the first time. Your friend’s walk-up is cluttered and cozy, as homey as it should be, and it smells like weed. She smokes a lot. She eats even more. You haven’t done much before, but she offers a bowl to you, so you clumsily navigate lighter and pipe.

    Truthfully, you’re scared to have a lighter that close to your face. But you’re in your twenties, your friend is in her thirties, she’s like your big sister. You want to look like you know what you’re doing. So you light it–flick–and your nose gets warm while you touch the flame to a corner of the herb. You inhale as it smolders. You get a little smoke. You think.

    You go out on her balcony, which is small and made of wood so wobbly you’re not sure it can hold your weight, much less a charcoal barbecue. Neither of you know how to use a charcoal barbecue. You laugh a lot trying to get it to light in the wind. You keep a fire extinguisher on hand just in case.

    You feel the warmth after another hit on the pipe. The vegetables you grilled with your best friend taste better. You laugh a little louder.

     

    Two.

    It’s cold outside, but you don’t want to smoke inside. You put on a balaclava. You wrap yourself in a bathrobe. You put on slipper socks. You huddle under a blanket on your balcony and light your bong, hands cupped around the pipe to shelter it from the wind. It still won’t light and your fingers are getting stiff. Grab the plasma lighter. It’s not as good, somehow, but it will make your herb burn even when the wind is blasting.

    You take a couple deep hits that make you cough plumes into the chilly night, and the smoke is sucked away to disperse against the crystalline starlight. The harsh hits are bad for your lungs. You go inside, take a shot of Pepto to soothe your throat, puff on the inhaler to open your lungs. You settle into bed with a cold nose, cold fingers, and a dizziness that makes the room sway in the wind with you comfortable in its womb.

     

    Three.

    You’ve gotten good at baking with cannabis. People like your cookies–some of them say you can’t taste the weed on it, which isn’t true, because your husband cringes to nibble. But many people like the skunky taste. You like the skunky taste.

    You’re careful with the cookies. You can’t have children getting into them, so you entomb them in a bag, carefully label it with contents and date, and stash it in the very back of the deep freezer. Since you’ve filled it with almond slivers, oats, and raisins, your kids won’t eat them even if they find them. But you want to be sure. You want to be responsible.

    You’re so responsible that you don’t try the dough or the cookies. The butter must be infused, and the cookies baked, cooled, and stored, before your kids come home from school. You don’t want to be stoned when they get here.

    Once they’re safe, you clean the skillet where you made cannabis ghee and prepare an omelet. It doesn’t taste like weed. Only when you’re sprawled on the couch in awe of the music melting through your muscles do you realize you didn’t clean the pan enough, and now you’re very, very stoned despite your naive efforts. On the bright side, while your cookies do taste like weed, your omelet did not.

     

    Four.

    It’s a cold, windy night on the Pacific coast. It’s so dark that the beach and the ocean are indistinguishable from each other. You’re in love with the woman at your side, sneaking onto the boardwalk amid the dunes. You haven’t told her about this big warm secret coiled in your belly. Your bodies hold warmth between them while you shelter the pipe. It’s the second pipe you bought on this vacation. The first one wasn’t properly drilled with holes, and it weighs down your pocket. It’s pressing against her thigh. She smells like coconut oil and she’s beaming at you when flickering lighter shines gold on her face.

    You both inhale. You take all the smoke inside of you and breathe with each other, seated on the sandy steps. The ocean roars slower than your breath. There’s a dark shape on the shore. You can’t be sure if it’s a signpost or a man coming to bust you for getting stoned on the beach in the middle of the night. It’s scary. But being scared is funny.

    Her skin is so soft, so smooth. You don’t know it yet but six months later, you won’t be talking. This moment that makes you giddy with the joy and desire will be only a memory. The shape on the beach is a signpost. Nobody cares you’re smoking in the dunes. You’ll still have the pipe without a hole drilled properly, and sometimes you’ll hold it in your hand and remember how her braids felt against your lips.

     

    Five.

    This morning, your cat died. She was in your arms, swaddled in a towel, while a gentle veterinarian injected the medicine to stop her heart. You carried your kitty to the car so she could be cremated. You set her in the back seat on the towel. That pile of fluff is all that remains of a life you loved and cherished and tended your entire adult life. When the car drives away, she’s gone.

    There are cannabis cookies in the freezer, carefully labeled and stored out of reach. Each one has about fifteen milligrams of THC, you estimate based on how they make you feel. You eat two, three, four. You keep eating them until you feel nothing but dizzy warmth. Until your eyes are too dry to cry. It’s not healthy, you’re not coping, but maybe you don’t have to cope right now.

    A couple of days later, your baby is brought back in an urn. You hold her. She weighs nothing. She no longer purrs and rolls over to get belly rubs. She doesn’t put a paw on your arm while you’re using the computer mouse. You make a shrine to her because she’s so big inside you, some of that feeling has to be set down somewhere else.

    Two more cookies, three more, four. The months pass and you’re always stoned. But by the end of it, you can hold her urn and cry. You stop taking so much weed. The emotions come back and you live in a life without your cat. Somehow you handle it. You have to. Grief doesn’t feel better when you’re stoned, not the way that love and music do.

     

    Six.

    It’s an afternoon on the weekend. Your kids want to play LEGO. You popped a chocolate earlier, so you’re mellow, and life’s stresses have faded away. The house needs to be cleaned. The yard’s a mess. You haven’t showered. But now you’re on the couch, cozy and floating, so it’s easy to give yourself permission to fuck off and play LEGO.

    Your son gives you the broken minifig without arms. He plays the one with long hair. You climb walls and jump off with silly cries and your children laugh and laugh and laugh. It feels good and simple, the way childhood felt. Anything can happen. The couch can become canyons. The pillows are trampolines. When your kids bounce, you bounce too, and their kisses feel like going to heaven. If only they could always be this happy. If only you could always let yourself be this happy.

     

    Seven.

    It’s raining. It doesn’t do that much around there. You grab the papers, the grinder, the funnel, a lighter. You settle under a blanket on the couch in your gazebo. Rain dribbles off the edges while you pack a joint.

    Life’s been hard, and you’re tempted demolish that joint in one go. Suck it down until there’s nothing but a roach too annoying to smoke.

    But you take it slow. A couple good hits and you stub it out. Then you lay back on the couch, close your eyes, and listen to the rain, knowing that there’s nothing to do today. The rain is like music. It feels good when you hear it. Sometimes the wind blows drops against your cheek. Your husband is with the children, your dogs are warm on your legs, and there’s nothing but you and a few puffs of smoke on a wet gray day.

  • featured,  resembles nonfiction,  writing,  writing advice

    NaNo Eve

    October 31st is, in many circles, Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve or Samhain or what have you. And don’t get me wrong, I’m in the United States, so I definitely dress up and eat candy. But October as a whole is more of the Halloween celebration, and October 31st is the transition from that season to another.

    That’s right. For me, the last day of October is National Novel Writing Month Eve.

    For those of you unfamiliar, NaNoWriMo (referred to in the rest of the post as “NaNo” because I can’t pronounce “NaNoWriMo” out loud to my personal satisfaction) challenges the participant to write 50,000 words of a story in the month of November. I have won NaNo a total of fourteen times and participated in the November event* sixteen times before 2019. The stories aren’t anything to talk about – frankly, I’d drop them at the bottom of the ocean if I could keep personal access to them and still hide them away from the world – but NaNo hasn’t ever been about the destination. It’s all about the journey.

    (*The nonprofit behind NaNo also runs an event called Camp NaNoWriMo twice at other parts of the year, and they used to run an event called Script Frenzy. I’ve dipped my toe in both on my multiple occasions.)

    As someone who has undergone the journey regularly in my adulthood (and once under the age of eighteen), and made it to 50,000 on most occasions, here are some of my tips to muddle through to the finish line. What this isn’t: a way to write a decent book during that time. Rough drafts aren’t decent by nature, and I’m still figuring out how to have one that I can take through edits on my own. This post is about the sheer mechanics of cranking out words and sentences and paragraphs over the course of thirty days.

     

    What is your goal?

    One of the benefits to NaNo is its formal structure. You have thirty days to write 50,000 words on one story, which means there’s some outside deadline if you can’t set ones on your own (one of my classic foibles), and that’s what you submit to get the winner certificate on the site. But my golden rule of writing – of doing anything, really – is this: there are no universal rules, and as such, there aren’t universal goals, either. The habit book I read recently, Atomic Habits, had a similar idea in mind when they touted the formula to getting better at anything: repetitive practice just hard enough to be a challenge, but not so hard that you can’t do it.

    Obviously, NaNo is within this sphere for me, at least where cranking out word count is concerned. It isn’t for a lot of people. I use a computer all the time even if I’m not formally writing, so I type almost as quickly as I think. If you’re going for the “write the same amount every day” method (more on that in a minute), you write 1667 words, and if I have specific story ideas in mind, I can usually do that in a little over an hour. Even if I don’t, I can make something up within two hours and move on with my day. That’s not possible for everyone, whether because their words-per-minute is low or because it’s hard to think in story form or a million other reasons.

    Have you ever thought, “Well, guess NaNo isn’t for me”? That doesn’t have to be true! It’s part of the NaNo culture to approach it in your own way; I can’t remember a time when the NaNo forums didn’t have a NaNo Rebels section entirely devoted to people doing it outside the greater structure. This can include:

    • Picking a reachable word count.
    • Writing a bunch of shorter stories throughout the month and using that for your formal word count.
    • Picking up an already-started story and continuing it for as many words as you can.
    • Cowriting a story. (I’m not actually sure if this is NaNo rebellious or not, but it’s not the image of the lone writer bleeding onto the keyboard I have in mind, at least.)

    Official NaNo isn’t a competition against other people, despite some low-level competitive elements. It’s a personal challenge. It’s trite to say “just showing up is a victory”, but that’s because it’s true. One word during NaNo is a word you didn’t have before.

     

    How do you work?

    NaNo can be just as much a personal exploration as a story exploration. Your life needs to fit writing where it possibly didn’t before, and even if you were writing already, there’s still the fact that every day starts with a bunch of writing you haven’t done. Knowing what that looks like to you, and how you address it, is key to reaching your goal.

    There are more ways to write than people writing, which I anecdotally know because of myself and other writers in my life having multiple ways to write. There are locations: home office, coffee shop, library, park. There are methods: computer, notebook, dictation. There are times: on a regular schedule on any potential part of the day/night, whenever you can squeeze in a couple words, a mix of the two. There’s sprint length: 5 minutes, pomodoro, an hour. There’s daily word count goal: the even 1667, double 1667, more words at the beginning and less at the end, vice versa. I have my ways to work: brainstorming by hand, outlining as much as possible, writing on a computer wherever I have the opportunity that day, sprinting when I can but always a fan of midnight sprints, writing a lot when I first have all my ideas and then less as I run out of steam and need breaks.

    Make it as easy for yourself as you can. What easy looks like for you might not be what easy looks like for me, and it might not even be the same thing two days in a row.

     

    Who can you talk to?

    NaNo is fun because it’s a personal challenge. But it’s also fun because it takes what is often a very isolating and lonely experience and makes it communal. If you want to gripe about how far behind your word count is, but you don’t want to change out of your pajamas, you can go on the NaNo forums or social media and find other participants going through the same things as you. Maybe you have family or friends that are also doing NaNo, and you can turn regular hangouts or communication into NaNo write-ins. Barring that, many areas – worldwide! – have in-person meet-ups where you can write as a group in public. I’m one of the most agoraphobic people on the planet, and I’ve still gone to write-ins where I knew absolutely no one. Even if you do none of these things, there can be comfort in knowing that, as unique as the challenge is to you personally, there’s someone else somewhere who is feeling the same things as you.

     

    The pep-talk portion of the post

    One of NaNo’s traditions is to post pep talks by published authors all through the month of November, encouraging you through all points of your journey. (The second- and third-week pep talks, where I feel my lowest and the other authors understand, tend to be my favorites.) The post as a whole is my version of a pep talk, but pep talks are (often) less mechanical and more motivational. So here’s the ra-ra section.

    You can write this. Even if you’re reading this a week into November, thinking “this sounds fun, but it’s too late and I have no ideas”? You can write! You can find writing prompts online, you can think through cause and effect chains, and you can get to 50,000 words. You can enter December with a printed winner calendar and a manuscript document on your computer (and an external saving device, and the cloud – always backup your writing!). You can tackle an idea that’s smaller in scope but no less of a challenge for you. You can do any of it!

    And I’ll be right there next to you this November, as I am most Novembers.

  • featured,  mental health,  resembles nonfiction,  writing

    Headspace

    Some years ago, I had major depression explained to me in terms of rivers trickling down a hillside. The rivers are feelings. Your brain is the hill. Wherever those rivers run, they’ll dig furrows over the years, and become so entrenched that rerouting them is difficult. When you’re depressed, those your river-thoughts dig horrible trenches, black and deep, and the longer it runs, the deeper it cuts. Therapy means more than taking pills to improve the water quality; it also means learning to fill in the old trenches and dig new ones. The work is difficult. It’s dirty. It never ends.


    I spent a lot of time writing as a child. I hit upon feverish obsession in elementary school, drafting lengthy stories about the things that interested me. When I was twelve, I wrote a 105,000-word epic fantasy tome that was slightly worse than Eragon, narrowly, and realized this would be my life. I had plans. I’d have published novels by the time I was eighteen, like my idol Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, and never need another job. My life would exist in the space between myself and the blinking cursor.

    Writing remained a retreat through my teenage years. I moved from high fantasy to horror to science fiction, then urban fantasy when Anita Blake started raising zombies in my brain. My second original novel–and most of the next sixty-plus novels–would remain urban fantasy, and the first of them were written when I was in high school. I wrote and rewrote those books, painfully aware they didn’t yet meet standards. I relentlessly hunted agents. I joined critique groups to pick apart my style and learned what it feels like to bleed over fiction.

    Sometimes I didn’t go to school because I wanted to write. At school, I was lonely. I felt like a lazy fool because I couldn’t track deadlines, organize my binders, backpack, or locker, and I made as much effort to survive as it took to be a straight-C student. Writing at home was different. I sat in a dark room with my heels up on a desk, just me and a glowing CRT monitor, and I wrote stories about tough women who killed evil.


    I don’t think I was ever actually diagnosed with depression. The word floated around because my mother and sibling were diagnosed with it, so I knew what it looked like, and eventually I went into doctors’ appointments, informed them I had depression, and requested a prescription. They assented. If I wanted a dose change, I told them and got it. My depression was self-managed for years.

    My survival through that time is impressive, looking back. I had a total failure of executive dysfunction and seldom got off the couch. Cleaning was a non-starter. Yet I always had clothes and bus fare, I kept a job, and I never had a major breakdown at work.

    I must have written my first dozen published novels at that job. I worked at an isolated desk on a computer room floor, and my job was primarily monitoring, so there was nothing to do unless something broke. As a lightly supervised young adult with vague job requirements, I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. I never saw sunlight. I worked weird shifts. I couldn’t keep friendships.

    But I had the books.


    Perception is reality to the mind. Without enough serotonin, the world is terrible, has always been terrible, and always will be terrible. With too much cortisol, we’re all going to die and it will definitely be sooner than we hope. With a boost of dopamine, we’re in love with life, eternally perfect, always happy.

    For most people, these chemicals are stable enough to function with normal life. There are emotions, but you’re not consumed by them in perpetuity. When it rains, the rivers of your feelings will flow down the hillside, sometimes spilling into sadness or worry or joy. They’re always moving, though. Eventually it melds into the lake of your long-term memory.

    For the depressed mind, more feelings means more rivers going down dark trenches. It means the water floods, trapped within the deepest holes.

    You’re living in the bottom of that hole. You can drown in two inches of water. And people often do, if the trenches are deep enough or if it rains too much.


    My waking hours are consumed by writing, even now. If not the act of writing, then planning my books. I’ve developed myriad ways to imitate a normal life while living in my fantasy world. I listen to playlists when I drive so I can daydream creative ways to murder innocents. I’ll talk about the plots with my dog on our walks. Every time I watch a movie, I’m thinking about how I’d improve on it, or how I could tell the same story except with demons.

    When I go to bars for a few drinks, because I can’t stand being sober, I strike up conversations with people to get inspired for characters. I’m sexually harassed in reality and kill another man in my books. When I’m in the hospital, I make an inventory of sensations, smells, sounds. I get discharged and go home to write a character gravely wounded.

    I dwell on it, I wallow. Even the brightest days can be shadowed by threat of infernal apocalypse at the back of my mind, reminding me I have more to write.

    One time I wrote the death of a three-year-old while I was on vacation at a lagoon, gazing out at a perfect sunset. I had a three-year-old. I was pregnant. It hurt to write, like slipping razors over my tenderest skin, but I wrote it, wondering why all the while.

    Somehow, writing doesn’t feel like an escape. It feels urgent. Like I *have* to be writing, or thinking about writing, all the time. If I don’t, then I have to live in reality. I have to be myself, in my body, in my brain, in this world.


    Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a whole-life approach to treating depression, among other things. The idea is that you must get chemical support in the form of medications and then adjust your life to avoid deepening the trenches. You go to talk therapy. You learn to identify your emotions as you experience them: This is sadness, this is anger, this is fear. You desensitize to traumatic memories. Sometimes it means getting away from abusers, exercising more, or eating differently.

    Ideally, the result is that medication gets you out of the trenches of ill mental health so they can fill in. The rain forms new, different rivers, following easier paths. You have learned to argue without yelling. You take a walk once a day so the sunlight can purify you. You sleep more, talk about your feelings more, and stop dwelling in darkness. After a while, the dark places just aren’t as dark. You get to see the sunlight whenever there’s a break in the rain.


    I started taking antidepressants when my first son was a baby, eight years ago. I didn’t cry as much when left alone with him. That was good. I took them until my second pregnancy, then began again afterward. My medication remained managed by my general practitioner. One helpful GP changed my medication when I complained of low libido, and the experimental antidepressant threw me into wild panic attacks. I spent a week in a mental hospital.

    Since then, my medication has been managed by a psychiatrist, and things have been generally more stable. I’m more functional, anyway. Sometimes I get out of my hole to play with the kids, drive to appointments, and go to the gym. I clean the house occasionally. I’m raising a puppy, which requires a daily commitment to wearing pants and going on walks. Though I was fired by my last therapist for being argumentative, I did do several years of therapy, and my communication has vastly improved along with my understanding of self.

    Still, there are holes, and they are dark as ever. My eating disorder struggle reached a special level this year. I’m still seldom sober. I started using nicotine. My books are getting darker too. I’m trying to traditionally publish dark psychological suspense, with graphic depictions of abuse unlike any I’ve written before. And when I’m doing it, I feel that razor feeling again. The one that’s bad but good and irresistible. Perception is reality. It hurts right to write like this. But it also hurt right to starve myself, to bite my fingers until they bled, to drink until blacking out in public spaces.

    I attribute some of this to the nonlinear path of managing a chronic illness. Diabetics can stay on top of their insulin and still have problems. I have major depression even if I’m on bupropion, escitalopram, and alprazolam to manage it.

    Yet perception is reality. My reality remains between my body and the blinking cursor. When I write, I’m immersed in it, convinced on some primal level that these things are real. Old books feel like memories to me now, they’re so vivid, but faded. Some years of my life, I can only really remember what happened in my books. I’ve chosen to populate those memories with demons, hellfire, and death.

    Will I remember this year by the rapes I’ve written? Or will I remember going to the gym two or three times a week, walking my dog, and building LEGO with my children? Am I filling trenches with medication while digging deeper with my writing?

    I don’t know. I don’t know when I’ll find out, either. As I finish writing this, I’m already drifting to the problem I have to fix in my current manuscript, wondering how I can worsen my heroine’s life in a low-impact scene. There are wildfires in my head. I am filled with smoke. And I don’t know if I’ll ever quite find peace like this, or what life on the surface looks like if I do.