A story of me

This week my day job has sent me to California to work with a team from all over the country in establishing a learning program for employees. I’ll be in charge of communicating to more than 140,000 people globally that this program is now available — come July, anyway.

But this meeting is about spending three days face-to-face with the people behind the project so that I can tell the story accurately. After all, people like stories. At least, that’s the theory that’s behind pretty much everything I do as a professional and as a moonlighting novelist. 

Part of my pre-work for this meeting is to prepare a story that will explain to the group who I am and how I got here to a Fortune 25 company’s communications function. So I’m taking advantage of this four-hour flight to Orange County and writing it here. 

My life has been a series of fortunate events. I was born into a middle class family in middle class Chicagoland, attended a good school district, went to the best journalism college in the country, and graduated with a near-perfect GPA due to a zealous obsession with acing each class, a film minor I practically snoozed through (ever watch L’Avventura on less than four hours of sleep?), and a complete disinterest in the more destructive social scenes. 

A lot of my best work came from lucky breaks. As a reporter for the Columbia, Missouri, city paper, my best story — a profile of a family who participated Viking re-enactments — came from walking past a house in the Benton-Stephens neighborhood without a raincoat as a storm started to rumble overhead. They happened to be sitting on the porch and invited me up to stay out of the downpour, and I walked away with a story that would define my time at the university. I became “Viking Finder,” or at least “that girl who found the weird-ass family that fights with battle axes in their front yard.”  

After college, I happened to apply for a corporate communications gig that on the surface I had no business filling. I didn’t get it, but 18 months later — and a career at an HR magazine publisher that gave me no upward mobility — they called me back when the woman who did get it moved on to a different role. Now, three and a half years later, I’m still there, clawing my way up and over into another role that I still feel like I have no business filling. (I’ll probably leave that part out when presenting to the group this week.) 

Outside of work, it’s the same thing. My greatest breaks have been a matter of luck. A vice president likes my last-minute idea of writing a retrospective on the Vomit Comet and sends me on a zero-gravity test flight, where I meet Joey Fatone of *Nsync, the band that defined my fourth grade experience. A literary agent in Italy likes my tweet about my novel-in-progress and six months later I’m a represented author waiting for a publishing deal. The Man with Time on His Arm happens to think I’m as cute as I think he is and goes from being the bartender at my favorite Chicago watering hole to being one of the most important people in my life who often says “I’m proud of you,” which always brings me to elation.

Now that I’ve written this, it looks a lot like humble-bragging. Maybe it is. But know that a hell of a lot of work followed those lucky breaks — a lot of stress-dreams, late writing nights, chewed-up lips looking for the right word or working on a deadline. I’m still in the middle of an intellectual battle between imposter syndrome and a Wonder Woman complex of wanting to fix everything, regardless if it’s in my job description or emotional capability.  

So that’s my story, at least so far. In the spirit of last weekend’s holiday, maybe it’s the luck of the 40-percent Irish. Maybe my parents forgot to mention the fairy that blessed me with good fortune as a way of apologizing to my mother for the twelve hours of labor she had to endure. Or maybe fate is a real thing, and I’m just embracing the plot twists as they come.  

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A Nyquil-loaded writer’s review of 2018

A fairly healthy 2018 has decided to bid adieu by deploying a nasty cold in its final days, so I’ve been spending the last 72 ours valiantly fighting it back in hopes that it raises the white Kleenex flag in time for my darling friend Hannah to arrive in Chicago tomorrow afternoon.

On the upside, this gives me plenty of time to write. 

On the downside, this also gives me a great excuse to rewatch seasons 3-5 of Archer because “I need rest.”

So forgive however this year-end recap turns out, as it is a product of Nyquil, procrastination and self-disappointment at said procrastination.

Last year I published several listicles highlighting my favorite 2017 write-spirations. Although this year came with an equal amount of creativity fodder, I grew so tired of reading other “best of 2018” recaps that I decided not to scream into the already loud fray. Yes, we all loved Killing Eve, and Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer was revelatory, as was her live tour. You don’t need yet another person telling you this. (Though really, Killing Eve is marvelous and available on Hulu).

Instead, I thought I’d compose a list that’s probably less SEO-friendly and certainly less replicable, unless everyone commits to selling out Sleigh Bells’ next tour and gets to stand up as a grooms-maid at a friend’s wedding. So here it is, a list of experiences I had this year that contributed to my writing:

1. This year came with a few steps closer to being a published novelist. I had a short story printed in Z Publishing’s Emerging Illinois Writers collection, which I remind myself is how Chuck Palahniuk started — having Chapter 6 of Fight Club appear in an anthology of Oregonian writers. 

I also got signed with TZLA shortly after that because one of their agents liked a tweet I sent out about my then-work-in-progress, Omaha. He has since started submitting it to publishing hoses and recently assured me that “2019 will be a great year!) I’m holding him to that, but I’m not slowing down. 

2. The Man with Time on His Arm, full stop. His creative sense of humor, patience with my complaints about writers’ block and generosity of ear (and input) to my half-cooked story ideas is worthy of a Booker Prize in itself. When I told him Omaha was going to be represented by TZLA, he hugged me and said he was proud of me, and honestly it meant more to me than if he had said “I love you.”*

*Sub-item: I built on my wealth of material for a romantic dramedy by saying “I love you” during the intermission of Dita Von Teese’s Chicago House of Blues burlesque show on May 18. I was very drunk on vodka. The timing was wrong, but the sentiment was not.

3. In June I spent ten days in Barcelona and Rome, and talk about inspiration. Not only did I see the palace that belonged to Livia — the wife of the Roman Emperor Augustus and poisoner of probably a hundred different people, all in the name of becoming a goddess (can you say diva, queen and legend all at once?) — but I also walked the streets where artistic revolutionaries like Botticelli, Salvador Dali and Ernest Hemingway once walked. It sounds cliche, but you can’t escape the hope that some of their brilliance might come home with you on the soles of your fashionable Guess walking sandals. 

4. I was part of my friend Ryan’s wedding party and stood (though things got shaky for a minute there) in Louboutin heels and a tuxedo among some people he’s known far longer and better than me. More potential romantic dramedy material: however: I once was in a (weird, long-distance) relationship with the officiant, so naturally….everything was fine, and the lack of memoir-worthy hijinx was the only complaint I could make about the whole event, unless you count introducing a Missouri-bred bachelor party to Malort early enough in the evening so they would really remember it. 

Unfortunately, being this fresh off the Keelers’ nuptuals has led me to shelve my short story, “The Wedding,” due to an entire plot premise that could be terribly misconstrued for a reimagining of the ceremony and events leading up to it. Stay tuned in 2020, if not later.

5. Despite losing a toenail and being slightly bruised the next morning, I had the time of my post-apocalyptic life in the mosh pit at Sleigh Bells’ Chicago show. But I already wrote about that. Other life-changing musical events included seeing Elton John in the flesh and being just a tackle’s distance away from Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, as he sprinted past me on the main floor of his stadium show. The man knows how to wear thin linen pants. 

I was going to continue this post with a list of 2019 goals, but the Nyquil is really kicking in now, and the letters are starting to look a little wobbily. Remembering how my roommate in college posted four solid tweets of nonsense under the influence of the miracle flu-drug, I think I’ll sign off now while I stay coherent.

Foot.

Teddy bear.

Suitcase.

Four-poster bed.

Trigonometry.

Auld lang syne.

#NaNoWriMo2018 Post mortem: A landfill of chaos

I’ve been away from the blog for a while because I’ve been recouperating — in all aspects of life: sleep, social, day job, reading. Turns out devoting all of November to 50,000 words of a book really detracts from, well, everything else.

But here I am, 50,788 words later, with 2018’s National Novel Writing Month behind me. Goal achieved. Book…in progress.

Because that’s really all this year’s NaNoWriMo accomplished, really. By the middle of the month I abandoned my usual approach of “write with a few plot points in mind and the connective tissue will come together naturally.” Instead, I found myself writing blurbs, scenes, and conversations in roughly the order I expect they’ll appear in the final product. 

I gotta say, my first three chapters are super tight, and there’s some real filth that would make EL James blush.  

In 2017, I wrote Omaha, the book that I had been planning for three years, submitted a detailed synopsis for, and promised to an interested agent. With Omaha currently “in sub” (a term I learned from a fellow corporate novelist that means “in submission with publishers”), I was both blessed and cursed with lower stakes this year. And that allowed me more wiggle room to write whatever parts of the book I wanted. 

But that’s the point of NaNoWriMo, as most participants understand. Author Chuck Wendig has the best, or at least most colorful,  perspective on the 50,000-word, 30-daylong sprint:

“What once was an innocent tract of unbroken order is now a landfill of chaos….That, I think, is the guiding principle of National Novel Writing Month: you are here not for purity, not for innocence, not for perfection. You are here to ruin a perfectly good empty page. And that isn’t just the purview of this month — but it’s writing any story, on any day.”

In a different blog post, Wendig also points out that you don’t win NaNoWriMo by hitting the 50,000 word mark by 11:59 p.m. local time on Nov. 30 — you win when you finish the book. And I agree. Here I sit with 81 pages of everything from full chapters to quippy five-sentence paragaphs that have to eventually get strung together into somethign coherent, and I don’t feel like I jogged across the finish line triumphantly but rather scratched my way across it, breaking a few nails along the pavement.

(Apologies to anyone like me who still feels their sphincter tighten when they think about that shot from inside Buffalo Bill’s well in Silence of the Lambs.) 

So as I finally sit down with enough energy to do a post-mortem on my work in November, I recognize that I’m far from winning NaNoWriMo, regardless of the snappy e-certificate they sent me. There’s a lot of work to be done, and I eb in and out of excitement and dread at it. But it’ll get done, and I’m a lot further along than I was in October.

Now it’s just time to bring some order to the landfill of chaos.

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 24: Writing filth

I was talking to my friend Ally last week after a month of noncommunication thanks to our busy schedules. She asked how the writing was going, and I honestly told her that my NaNoWriMo projects is now just a collection of episodic scenes featuring my main characters. I’m hoping that I can stitch them together like patches into a quilt later when it’s time to make Nobody’s Hero a real book.

She told me that she’d let me go so I could either write or sleep — she’s on the West Coast, so by the time we had gotten to this point in our conversation, it was almost 11 p.m. my time.

“Yeah, I’ll probably write,” I said. “Not sure what, so it’ll probably be some kind of sex scene.” 

She started laughing when I explained that my writer’s block is usually cured by writing a one-off piece of filth (if you’ll excuse the old-fashioned term for healthy eroticism).

“So at this point, this entire book is going to be filth.”

I have two friends who are published erotica authors, and I give them all the credit in the world for it. First off, they had the guts to self-publish. For another, they were able to turn those silky pieces of “easy” writing (at least for me) into a slinky dress of a book that keeps the royalty checks pouring in.

Meanwhile, here’s what I wrote that night after hanging up from my call with Ally:


He made good on his promise to give her something to blush about the next day, but it wasn’t necessarily for the reason she had hoped. The night before had been one of both self-abandonment and self-consciousness. At one point he had bound her wrists to the bedframe with his tie, but no matter how tantalizing his lips were against her stomach and — other places — all she could think about was whether her deodorant had held up.”

 It’s definitely not the dirtiest thing I’ve ever written (a post-college long-distance relationship built on Skype conversations helped hone my smut-smithing skills), but it’s indicative of the character I’m developing. After all, we rarely abandon who we are deep down when we get into bed.

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 22: Thankful for 2018, planning for 2019

On this American holiday of Thanksgiving, I find myself with a lot to be grateful for this year. I hit a number of writing milestones that I didn’t necessarily expect: my short story Septimus is in an anthology of emerging Illinois writers; I finished and submitted my first manuscript to an agent; TZLA agreed to represent me and my book, Omaha; and I received my first rejection from a publisher.

A lot of changes came this year, too. New job, new apartment. The Man with Time on His Arm started off as a couple of dates in December 2017 and January to become a solid part of my life — not a muse, but a partner in shenanigans (I ate oysters for the first time!). I finally let go of some of the regret I was keeping around under the guise of “for my writing and my humility” despite not being good for either. 

But what I’m most thankful for is having another year to create, and this week I got started by reaching out to my friend Cody:

“2019 is going to be the year I think we should start actually creating the crazy shit we conceptualize over boozy brunches,” I wrote, fully sober at my desk in corporate America. “I just saw a comic called Exorsisters and was like ‘that seems weird enough for Cody and I to have come up with at the Bongo Room,’ the only difference being that someone actually made it instead of laughed over it while wolfing down a sidecar pancake.”

Look up “writer quotes” and you’ll find an abundance of advice telling you to just write. Or, as my new favorite Dorothy Parker would say, “I hate writing, but I love having written.” Sometimes you just need to start creating instead of waiting for the idea to be perfectly clear — or already brought to life by someone else. 

I kind of wish Frankenstein’s monster had been missing a finger or something when the good doctor brought him to life: It would have been a better metaphor for writing if Victor had just said “Eh, we’ll get him a new thumb eventually.” Ideas don’t have to be whole for you to start working them — that’s the very point of National Novel Writing Month.

So I’m thankful for the progress I made in 2018, but I’m even more excited for what half-formed monsters I bring to life over the next 365 days.
 

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 17: Ipsento

I’m writing this on top of a door that’s now a table wrapped around a pillar. 

There’s a metal plate with a spot for a doorknob and keyhole to my right, a couple nasty scratches to my left, and a latte with honey and cayenne pepper just behind my tablet. Someone with my name just ordered a slow-drip coffee, and I could hear the barista call out for them, even from back here. I started thinking how the first thing I’d do with telepathic powers would be to transmit a drink order from my spot here at the door-table so I don’t have to stand in the long line at the front.

A woman behind me just explained the show Friends to her friend, who kept insisting she knows the show but just didn’t ever like it (I can relate). There are two students studying for an exam on Marriage and Family Therapy — at least, that’s the textbook sandwiched between the coffee table and a blue mug while they scroll through each other’s Instagram accounts (I can also relate).

A woman in a stained ivory coat sits on the same bench as them, styrofoam cup on the table next to her and white plastic bag of belongings on the floor. Her New Balances are clean white, I notice, as she gets up to leave after having sat, either contemplating the room or getting lost in her thoughts of what could have been.

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 13: RIP Stan Lee, or A pause for Excelsior

We all knew it was coming. Unlike his characters, Stan Lee was going to fade away eventually.

Yesterday we said goodbye to the man who created the entities that inspired a lot of us to build our own worlds and imagine our own heroes. And he did so in a way that was motivating, inspiring and — perhaps most of all — inclusive.

I’ll admit that I’m one of those late-comer geeks who got heavily into the comic book scene once the zeitgeist said it was OK. (Harry Potter was far more my thing.) But once I discovered this magical world that was Stan Lee’s Marvel comics creations — starting with Iron Man and stretching both forwards as the MCU unfolded and backward as I discovered his original work — I put him in the pantheon of great creators, not just of the 20th century but of all of literature.

I’m not afraid to say that Stan Lee is the Shakespeare of this epoch. Think about it: His numerous characters are canonical to our society, and their stories often convey greater meaning than what’s simply written on the page. They seek truth and justice, but are inherantly flawed, and those flaws are what make them relateable and likeable to us. They might have superhuman powers, but they’re still human under all of it. 

Obviously Stan Lee and Shakespeare aren’t the only ones who figured out this magical formula for timeless, applicable characters. But they are in a limited class as far as how many they were able to create, how many iterations those characters have been able to endure, and how they’ve entered our common language. “To be, or not to be” is right up there with “Don’t hulk out on me.” 

(OK, maybe not. But wouldn’t it be great if it was?)

Last year he released this message to fans, and it has stuck with me since I first saw it:

“(Our) stories have room for everyone, regardless of their race, gender, religion, or color of their skin,” he says. “The only things we don’t have room for are hatred, intolerance and bigotry.” 

The message of inclusion is right up there with my own credo to make my work for everyone and representative of anyone. I wrote a whole book with a character who could be cast with any actor, regardless of ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation or age — the point being to make it so anyone could see themselves in the narrator’s place. While Stan Lee’s characters were more concrete, being drawn on a page, he preached the message to the end that anyone should be allowed to connect with them, enjoy them, and share that passion with others. 

To me, Stan Lee’s breadth of creativity is enough to immortalize him in our minds’ hall of  Great Literary Figures. But his insistance that everyone be allowed to adore and adopt that work is what makes him one of the greatest figures, period. 

Excelsior!