Writespiration: “Becoming” by Michelle Obama

Trust me, when I cracked open Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming, the last thing I expected to get out of it was writing inspiration. An increased respect for one of my heroes, inside look into the Obama administration, and painful nostalgia at how far we’ve fallen since her time in the White House, sure. But who on earth would turn to the memoir of a former First Lady and forever champion of children, equal rights, health and fitness for a pep talk on writing?

But there it was, page 43. 

“Failure is a feeling long before it becomes an actual result.”

Obama was writing about her elementary school in Chicago’s Southside. In seventh grade, the Chicago Defender ran an opinion piece that claimed Bryn Mawr was a “run-down slum” led with a “ghetto mentality.” Despite protests from the teachers, principal and community saying otherwise, that article contributed to a growing fear that her once diverse neighborhood was finally succumbing to the blight that struck communities affected by White Flight in the 1970s. 

The theme continues throughout the book, and she brings it up a couple other times when describing college and her husband’s 2008 campaign. But when I read that line, I immediately applied it to my writing.

Nobody’s Hero is a wreck right now. I’ve been her before with other projects, most of which are now collecting proverbial dust on a literal hard drive, not even close to being continued, let alone finished. They vary in style and genre, but they all have one thing in common: they were chucked aside as soon as I started feeling like I was failing them.

Reading Obama’s story — the major shifts in her career from lawyer to community advocate, the highs and lows of her husband’s presidency, the love she has for her country — you know she wouldn’t be in a place to tell us her story if she had surrendered to that feeling of failure instead of pushing through.  

All writers have those projects that they stuff away because they become too challenging, too messy. It’s not easy to declare something a failure and move on to the next project, but it can be a lot easier than continuing to work on a book or script or poem that’s complicated to untangle. I wonder how many pieces with great potential we’ve left languishing in forgotten drawers and cyber folders because we never got past the feeling that they were lost causes. 

Another surprise from the book: I have never before read a memoir that I couldn’t put down. I think I literally consumed the whole thing in four sittings (thanks, cross-country flights!) thanks to its candid and conversational writing style. It’s an absolute must-read for anyone contemplating writing a memoir — or writing in general, come to that.

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Writespiration: “Sigh” by Unloved from Killing Eve

This song makes me want to smash five bottles of champagne on the floor and dance over the pieces in five-inch stiletto boots made of leather. 

If that seems oddly specific, it’s because you haven’t watched Killing Eve,  a rightfully lauded show that debuted last year and gained Sandra Oh an oh-so-deserved Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. This song appears a couple times in the most tense, plainly cool moments of romance between two women who have yet to meet face-to-face. 

Seriously, watch Killing Eve.

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 19: An artist known as Epsom

The sculpture garden had exactly seven lifesize clay statues, donated to the gala by a nephew of one of the board of directors. His name was Matthew Gimley Solomon IV — a curse of a name handed down from grandfather to father to son to grandson — but the underground art world knew him better as Epsom. It was a little science joke he had created when he learned his initials, MgSO4, were also the formula for magnesium sulfate, better known as epsom salts.

It wasn’t that his work for the Gladstone Gala sculpture garden was particularly good. All seven statues were of humanoid creatures — an angel, a demon, a little girl, a little boy, a sorcerer, an archer, and an oracle carved from stone and each possessing a single rusted-metal feature — and while they demonstrated his talent for sculpture, they didn’t showcase any of the creative spirit he put into his other work, which was too avant-garde for this crowd. The board wanted to show open-mindedness by spotlighting the work of a one-name artist but not alienate their more traditional — and generous — donors, so while they allowed Epsom to go by his art name, they asked that he refrain from his usual melting-wax statues of screaming refugee children or towering spires made of tarnished wristwatches with broken glass faces.  

Matthew Gimley Solomon IV had put up a fight for appearances sake before publicly acknowledging that in the spirit of hope and healing, he would be creating something “new and fresh for the gala that aligned with the foundation’s values and hope for a better world.” What he really did was go into the old storage unit he rented for unwanted work and taken a feather duster to a seven-piece collection he completed in his second year at art school. Some repairs should have been made to the metal embellishments, as a couple pieces had submitted to time and rust to loosen from their clay holds, but Epsom couldn’t be bothered. A bitter taste flooded his mouth as he remembered how the professor had given him a passing grade with a neon yellow post-it note that read “Great technique, but no heart.” On the upside, those five words had inspired him to make his work all heart, with very little technique. On the downside, that approach had gotten him kicked out of the school. 

Epsom had refused to attend the gala, insisting that he had another appearance priorly arranged. He was present for the installation of his seven clay-and-metal creatures but left under the cover of a hoodie and jogging pants before the guests had arrived. The only appearance he had to make that night was a date with a former Calvin Klein underwear model at his penthouse where there was always a bottle of Moet in the fridge and box of condoms in the nightstand drawer. 

So he had no idea that his mediocre art school project was about to become the focal point of a vigilante-villain showdown.  

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 16: The origins of Handel

When Anne woke up the morning after meeting Handel, she had two questions: how many tequila shots had she done, and why had she told the bartender she had a nice rack?

She hoped the answers would somehow explain exactly how she had fallen so hard for the Boy with the Blue Tie.

Anne first saw him from across the packed room, his face, neck and torso appearing in quick flashes between the legs of the pole dancers on top of the bar. At first she thought the abnormally well-dressed guy was watching the same cutoff-clad dancer as she was — then she realized he was watching her. While debating whether to shimmy through the crowd and introduce herself like the fresh-out-of-college adult she was, he made the choice for her and parted the sea of tees and jeans with his oxford shirt and silk necktie. And there she stood, feeling dumb and underdressed in her shorts and sweater.

He said his name was Handel, as in the violin composer. She remembered her best friend in high school playing Handelian concertos on his Stradivarius. Of course, Anne’s Handel wasn’t the Handel, but he did make her as weak at the knees as a Music for the Royal Fireworks. He asked her if she would like another drink, and they retreated to the outdoor patio where the music was softer and the air cooler. There was also a much thinner line at the outdoor bar, which meant the whiskey and cokes flowed freer — as did the tequila.

They talked until Anne’s roommate Lindsey came by with her boyfriend. She was swaying heavily, and Anne knew that meant it was time to go. The Boy in the Blue Tie was just so charming, a welcome change from the panderers and drunkards that usually made a pass at her on a night like this one. Handel treated her with courtesy and let her set the pace of their flirtations.

“Thanks, Mike, but I’ll stick here,” she told Lindsey’s boyfriend. “You take Lindsey home.”

Mike clearly looked concerned and insisted that she come back with them so she wouldn’t walk the three city blocks alone. That was when Handel offered to walk her. Any other man offering the same favor would have been regarded with suspicion, but Mike and Anne alike found themselves trusting the Boy in the Blue Tie. The last thing she recalled was taking a third tequila shot while watching Lindsey and Mike walk out the gate and onto the street. Handel was whispering something in her ear, and she liked the feeling of his hot breath on her skin.

The next morning, all Anne had to remember the rest of the evening by was a phone number sloppily scrawled on her forearm and a headache that split her head in a clean line between her eyes. She was in her own bed, alone, with no sign of anyone else sharing it with her. That was good. Mike and Lindsey were snoring in the room next door. Also good.

Then she saw the cerulean silk tie hanging off the back of her chair.

 

Handel spotted Anne right away. She carried herself with the same faux confidence to cover up the despair of joblessness that every other just-graduated-college adult bore. It wasn’t his intention to get her drunk, but there was little else to do at the bar. And she kept pulling his tie, like she thought it was a cute game of flirtation.

Which it was.

When it became clear that her roommate had abandoned her, he walked her three blocks to her apartment. As they walked in, he could hear the wet smacking sounds and moans coming from behind a closed door at the end of the hall. The only other open room had to be hers, so he quietly led her across the threshold and to her bed. She immediately curled up in a ball on top of the down comforter, the pillows framing half of her face so she looked like a mask upon a satin cushion in a museum. A thing of simplistic prettiness. The moon was low — it was almost 6 a.m. — and the cornflower sky made her fair skin glow with dawn.

Handel didn’t take much time to look at her. From her desk he took a felt-tip pen and wrote his number on her arm. She stirred slightly, giving the last number 2 an oddly angled tail. Before leaving, he left his tie draped on the back of her chair. If he had interested her while at the bar (and if she could remember it), she would want to meet up to at least return his tie. And if he hadn’t or she didn’t? Well, there were other ties in the world.

This was the first time I wrote about a character named Handel, who no longer resembles anything represented in this short vignette.

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 10: Meet Foster Updike

Foster Updike was a tall man, had been a tall teenager and a short kid. The summer between freshman and sophomore year in high school, he had shot up six inches. The pain in his legs had been agony, but the way the girls and some of the boys looked at him that September was worth the sleepless nights, throbbing shins and, perhaps most excruciating of all, endless department store shopping to with his mom to buy new pants and shoes.

Perhaps it was his height that made him impervious to the 27-year scotch Pru had put in the monogrammed silver flask she had given him last Christmas. Not liking the taste of it — it made his mouth dry and smokey, like he had French-kissed a peat brick — he had left it in the bottom drawer of his desk. Tonight, however, had called for a celebration, and he gladly offered it up to his triumphant boss.

“You know what I like about you, Foster Up-Updike?” Pru hiccuped as she examined the flask now back in her hand.

He took it back from her but didn’t drink.

“Your name starts with an F and a U,” she said, drawing out the last vowel sound. “It’s like your parents knew you’d be too polite to tell people to fuck off, so they wanted your initials to do it for you.”