Music of the write: “Roddy” by Djo

I love a song with a good mood swing.

“Roddy” by Djo is just that — a chill summer jam meant to play low behind a patio party or blast through ear buds during a hot morning commute. It’s got a twinge of 1960s harmonies and 1970s dance to it, just like a lot of indie alterna-synth-pop (think Saint Motel, Robert DeLong, Peking Duk).

And then the beat drops, and it’s like the room’s gone cold, everything has slowed down, and any movement you make is, as many of my yoga teachers have described in restorative flows, “juicy.”

So maybe the song doesn’t have a mood swing as much as a temperature change. It’s because of that shift that it’s on my writing playlist. Sometimes I get writing so fast that the word selection is shallow. The drop in “Roddy” reminds me to slow down, maybe break the action to give the reader time to breathe, and really dive deep for the right phrasing.

Now to give a plot twist via some context…

Anyone who watches Stranger Things probably has an infatuation with Steve “the Hair” Herrington, the jock-turned-big-brother-figure who represents one of the strongest character arcs in recent television memory. He is the Don Draper of demigorgon hunting, the Walter White of the Upside Down.

He’s also the artist known as Djo.

It’s fitting that an actor who has so expertly carried a role as complex as Steve’s would also produce a dynamic groove. I look forward to seeing what else he released.

The writer on the eve of her 28th birthday

Congratulate me, folks. Barring any freak accidents in the next 12 hours, I’ve survived the 27 Club.

Years ago I wrote an angsty short story from the perspective of a singer on the night before her 28th birthday. She grapples with death, trying to decide what would be more beneficial to her celebrity: living another day or dying just in time to join the 27 Club, the group of talented musicians who all died at that age. That story’s not posted on this site, as it was written by a sheltered 20-year-old in the thick of mourning Amy Winehouse.

I was never at risk of joining the 27 Club — apart from the occasional boozie night out and ill-advised habit of jaywalking, I rarely do anything to put my life in jeopardy, and I’m one of the very fortunate ones who has never desired let alone contemplated ending their own life. I also have a no-food-in-bed policy, which rules out taking the Mamma Cass route.

(For those who don’t get the joke, the Mamas and the Papas singer was found dead with a half-eaten ham sandwich on the bedside table, or so legend has it. Also she was 32, not 27.)

But 27 meant something more to me. Last year I announced it was my “golden age,” as I was born on the 27th and my lucky number has unoriginally but consistently been 27. It was going to be the year of publishing and handstands, style evolutions and more cooking.

Now today I’m finding myself taking inventory. Omaha is still “in sub” with publishers via my agent, and I’m not as far along in Nobody’s Hero as I hoped to be by now. I still can’t do a handstand, though my crow pose is fly (heh). My hair grew out, I hated it, and I cut it back to the pixie I had throughout my early 20s. I bought Chrissy Teigen’s cookbook and made exactly two recipes from it.

But then I think of what did happen. I did have a job change that plunged me into a new world of strategic communications during a turbulent time in our company’s history. I fell even harder for the Man with Time On His Arm. I spent 10 days in London, two of which I spent touring on my own and discovering not only the city but also myself. I bought my first pair of Vans.

So maybe the biggest lesson of 27 was to have goals, but be OK setting them aside to let other opportunities take center-stage. As John Lennon sang, “Life is what happens when you make other plans.”

Which is why I’ve decided to let the big things happen as they will and focus on a couple little, attainable goals for 28:

  1. Watch more documentaries, especially the kind that make me cry. I long for the same hopeful weeping I experienced during just the trailer for Knock Down the House.
  2. Get into Bruce Springsteen’s music. Like, wrapped in an American flag bandana, into it. Right now my phone has only “Hungry Heart” and “Pink Cadillac,” and I’m a disgrace to my generation and the one before it.
  3. Start being OK with mixing metallics in my jewelry choices.
  4. Admit publicly that I like Imagine Dragons and always have, from when they dropped “Radioactive” and played in our college street for free, to now when they make anthems for sports commercials. There. I did it. Check.
  5. Accept the fact that I will never watch every episode of 30 Rock, Friends, or How I Met Your Mother because there’s too many of them and I’m particular about my sitcoms.

In a year I’ll have to see just how many of these I achieved. Now I have to go learn all the words to “Born to Run.”

A letter home from Camp Dungeons & Dragons

Dear whoever,

I’m writing to you from a cozy but comfortable apartment in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. There’s no seat back on the ottoman? piano bench? cushioned side table? that I’m sitting on, but I’ve been too busy leaning into this experience to care.

That’s a lie — my butt and back hurt — but hey, wasn’t that a great sentiment?

So far, Camp Dungeons and Dragons has been fun. Half of us is entirely new to the concept, while the other half is patiently tutoring us through character creation. Many of us have to get used to a game without limits: As a role-playing game, there’s no rules of what you can or can’t do, provided the dice roll in your favor.

At the head of the table sits our camp counselor, Kyle, the Dungeon Master himself, educating us on gameplay and character creation. Any race can be any class with any background, he explains, which means there’s near-infinite possibilities.

The nine others of us await our turn to peruse the guidebooks that will give us the details on what weapons a ranger versus rogue carries; what the differences are between green, black and red dragon-borns; how much strength versus dexterity a barbarian gets; and whether it’s more advantageous to be a sorcerer or wizard. There’s a difference, I’ve learned.

I’m Hepburn, the human barbarian who became an outlander after learning her parents, half-elves, had lied to her all her life about her identity. When they finally confessed after I couldn’t do the spells the other kids were doing, I ran away from home and wandered the land, not to be seen again until now, when I showed up with a glave, a dagger, four javelins, a staff, and what appears to be a viper fang dangling from one ear.

For a group of creatives, character creation is the easy part. It’s the math to figure out skill levels that requires us to snort lines of eraser shavings as we struggle with simple addition and multiplication.

After hours of preparation fueled by Totino’s pizza rolls, peppermint patties, carrot sticks, cheddar popcorn, beer, and a dozen Do-Rite donuts, the Dungeon Master announces it’s time to embark on our journey.

The setting: Neverwinter, a metropolis with a thriving gig economy where Gundren Rockseeker has recruited this ragtag team of wizards, humans, bird-people (“aarakocra,” campmate Alyssa calls it), halflings and demon-like tieflings to guard a caravan of food to a neighboring village. A bard styled after Orson Welles in his later years provides endless entertainment and infuriation.

Gameplay only lasts about two hours, with all of us struggling to track what kind of character each person is playing — apart from Orson, that is, as Cody is loathe to let us forget his identity — and half of us needing guidance on how to add attack bonuses, do perception checks, and determine damage points.

Our entourage takes on a group of overly amorous and jealousy-prone goblins that kidnapped Mr. Rocksucker (though I’m still not convinced this isn’t a setup on his part to get us to work for free — the gig economy is a capitalistic scam, after all). We tend to leave carnage in our wake, dropping goblins from cloud-shrouded treehouses, blasting them with poisonous gas, and even forcing their Wookiee-esque ringleader to laugh and vomit himself into submission.

By the end, my butt and back aren’t nearly as sore from my seat as my abs and chest are from laughing so hard at Katie the gruff-voiced Zorus the Tiefling, announce he is wearing “just pants,” Cody the reincarnated Orson Welles throwing a cream pie to cast Tasha’s Hideous Laughter on our Wookiee nemesis, and one of our more mild-mannered camp mates, Mike, getting swept up into the game and yelling at Alyssa:

“What do you mean? I’m half-elf, bitch! Oh my god, I am so sorry.

Leaving camp behind is hard, but we’ll be back in September when Kyle leads us to Byssia, a chain of islands and atolls amid conflict between the “free people” and the “civilized” capital. I promise to write frequently from our waterbound adventure.

Love from camp,

Kate, aka Hepburn

Time for a refresh: Blogging becomes routine

Most nine-to-fivers’ weeks revolve around Friday afternoon — that unavoidable feeling of temporary freedom from work when there’s a couch and a movie or friends and a drink waiting after 5 p.m. and two blissful days of no meetings, no deadlines, no mass-batch coffee that gets steadily more bitter throughout the week.

But for me, there’s something else that happens: Kellye Whitney blogs.

I met Kellye when she hired me in February 2014 for my first journalism job. It was one of the coldest Chicago weeks on record — nothing close to this year’s negative-40s, but at that time we didn’t see climate change plunging us into an Ice Age that quickly, so negative-teens was a catastrophe. For a year and a half, she put up with my New Grad Smell and how I, in her words, would “dance in her doorway” with a story idea or just another music recommendation she’d pass up because the artist didn’t sell physical CDs she could play in her car. I became a stronger writer under her editor-ship, and I became a more open-minded, critically thinking white woman under her mentorship. “Woke,” the young libs say these days, but more inclined to do something about it instead of just tweet about it.

We’ve remained friends after she lovingly nudged me out of the niche-magazine nest toward my next adventure and left our old company for her own odyssey as an independent consultant and content developer (hire her!). Except this time, she invites me to dance in her text messages on select Fridays with the same question: “What should I blog about this week?”

The text comes like clockwork in the morning, and most weeks I’m prepared with a list of things I’ve seen on Twitter that either made my blood boil or heart soften. My suggestions don’t always hit the mark, but when they do, Kellye never fails to acknowledge the source. Last week’s topic: Nike’s Betsey Ross shoe. This week’s topic — TBD. If asked, I think I’ll recommend some of the coverage of the U.S. Women’s National Team, as “A Life Not Grey” looks at diversity and media. Or maybe I’ll get her to ruminate on how if country cross-over “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, a gay Black man, spends three more weeks at No. 1., it will become the longest-running No. 1 in history.*

*On second thought, she won’t pick this one, as I don’t think there’s a CD version of OTR available yet…

But coupled with the satisfaction that I can still pitch a good story comes the guilt of knowing I haven’t blogged on my own site for more than a month. Then add in how WordPress just sent me confirmation that my domain name has been renewed for another year to the tune of $18, and I guess I should put at least $18 of effort into “Convincing the Muse” again.

So yesterday I texted Kellye that I was going to take a queue from her and make Fridays my “pub day” for blog posts. Her response was what she’s told me for years as we’ve continued our separate second-lives as fiction writers: “Schedule and routine are wonderful writing tools.”

So even though today is Monday, I’m kicking my newfound routine now and committing myself to at least a post a week. Fair warning: There are going to be some anemic ones in there, as well as some egregious typos, half-baked stories, shallow characters and blatant self-promotion.

So nothing too different from what already gets posted here. Just on a weekly, regimented basis.

So thanks, Kellye, for continuing to be the editor I need — a total boss, in more ways than one.

 

Writespiration: “bury a friend” by Billie Eilish

My friend Hannah describes Billie Eilish as “if Tumblr was a person.” She’s artistically angsty with a dramatic edge that can almost induce an eye-roll if you’re not paying enough attention.

The first song I heard from her, her new album’s first single, “bury a friend,” was exactly that. God, she’s like the girl from The Ring meets Wednesday Addams meets a record deal. But then I payed better attention. The song is clearly about mental struggles — burying a friend isn’t literal, as it is in My Chemical Romance’s “Kill All Your Friends” (in that one, the singer laments that “We all wanna party when a funeral ends; and we all get together when we bury our friends; it’s been eight bitter years since I’ve been seeing your face,” hence the reason for the murder spree). For Eilish, it’s dealing with the emotional demons that haunt us. 

So perfect for half the character I write, as the greatest enemies they face are themselves.  

Scene of the write: Beef, Bears and blogging at the airport Berghoff

One of my favorite places to write and eavesdrop is the airport, particularly O’Hare International Airport. Not only is it the airport I flight out of the most, but it’s also a hotbed for international flyers getting their last shot at being local Chicagoans. We’re talking about passports in colors you’ve never seen before, being whipped out in the security line, while the bars along the terminal are stuffed full of people watching the Bears vs. Eagles wildcard game, regardless if they’re interested in the outcome.

The Berghoff Cafe is at the end of this United Airlines terminal, and it’s where I was able to find not just a decent sandwich to send me off on a business trip to Phoenix, but it also has decent bar where I can pretend I’m watching the Golden Globes red carpet instead of an NFL game. The guy next to me is shopping on Bonobos while drinking a beer — no, wait, he’s now scrolling through HBO Now.  And now he’s checking hotel accomodations in Toronto. 

The corned beef sandwich was more than decent, I’ve decided. It was downright good. 

It’s mostly older people perched on leather-topped stools around the high-top wooden tables. Most are drinking beer, but one woman just dropped half a glass of white wine off at this end of the bar and walked away. If I wasn’t paranoid about cold sores or picking up (yet another) virus, I could easily finish it off for her without anyone noticing. Instead, I’ll stick to my merlot served in a white wine glass — she looked like the chardonnay type, anyway, and I’m not a fan. Gives me headaches.

I know this is the second post I’ll have published this year, and still no sign of my resolutions. Those are coming, though slowly. I’ve decided this is the year I step away from obsessively planning everything, as it usually leads to too much stress and not enough productivity. That’s the rub: Spending so much time planning you don’t get any time to actually accomplish what you set out to do. Isn’t that a whole John Lennon lyric? “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”
Guy next to me just added some camel-brown chinos to his Bonobos cart. He could pull off that color.

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.

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 28: “Savior” by St. Vincent

Another song discovered this week at just the right time. I’m diving more into Pru’s romance with Federal Vigilante Agent Maxwell Spelling, and when I heard “Savior” by St. Vincent — really heard it — and decided it was a perfect summary of their relationship. Pru is so enamored by him that she doesn’t mind that he’s looking for her to be a distraction, scapegoat, accomplice and victim all at once for him. Similarly, St. Vincent’s song cosmetically sounds like a woman’s adventure with sexual experimentation as her partner begs her to take on different roles (nurse, teacher, nun, cop and leather-momma).

But that’s not the point of the song at all, it turns out.

“I got ’em trying to save the world,” she murmurs at the end. “They said, ‘Girl, you’re not Jesus.'”

So not only is “Savior” about the demands Max makes on Pru in their relationship, but also on the demands she makes on herself and those around her. St. Vincent insists she “can’t be your savior” until being worn down by her lover’s pleas. Pru succumbs to her own addiction to the rush that comes from making a difference.

#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 21: “Snow Girl” by Staygold

My playlist-prodigy friend Hannah Burkett sent me the link to “Snow Girl” by Staygold on Monday with the simple message, “I’m OBSESSED with this song.” Seeing as she’s the reason I listen to about 37 percent of the music I do (rough estimate), I tuned in.

Seriously, I don’t think I’ve stopped listening to it since that first play. The song came into my life at a perfect time. Right now in Nobody’s Hero, my main character has a come-to-Jesus meeting with the only other person in on her secret when he gets tired of her making decisions without taking him into account.

“So selfish, can’t help it, I know,” Staygold’s song says. “I should think of myself / ‘cuz you never ever thought about me…Acting like I am emotional / wonder why I should stay when I know you won’t change / only happy when you’re in control / you’re always getting your way.”

I know how the argument has to end, but this song just put me in the mood to write a good confrontation.