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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

  1. What Keeps a Reader Up at Night?

    July 16, 2017 by Diane

    In high school, there was a guy (wasn’t there always?) named John McLean. He strode across campus in his long pea coat with epaulets, hands jammed in the pockets. He had pale, lightly freckled skin, brown hair that flopped across his forehead, and a small red scar across the bridge of his nose.

    I was mad about him.

    He hung out with me, once. I sat on the front lawn at school with my best friend, when John passed by, saw us, and kicked back next to me. He plucked at the grass, and a bee stung his index finger. It was Karen who took his hand and removed the stinger.

    Oh, how I envied her, holding John McLean’s hand.

    John’s feelings for me were probably non-existent, although I saw him at a party once through a haze of marijuana smoke. Later, I typed a poem about it—which was less a poem and more a wishful journal entry in stanzas—with a line about him looking up and “reaching out without reaching out,” and how I suddenly felt “tired, so tired,” (but in a good way, in a “I can sleep for a long, long, blissful sleep” way, because John McLean had looked up and reached out, sorta).

    No, John had feelings for a girl named Cathy, who lived on the same mountain where I lived, and rode the same school bus as me.

    Oh, how I envied Cathy, waiting for the bus with John McLean’s arm around her.

    Why am I telling you this?

    Story.

    So far, you might be intrigued, but you’re not really invested in John McLean like I am. I haven’t fleshed him out on the page, like I have in memory. As a reader, you’re not ready to stay up late flipping pages to find out what happens next. Sure, there’s a hint of conflict, a want that I, as the protagonist in this real-life drama, have, and something in the way of me achieving it.

    But what if I add this:

    Forty-odd years later, on a July night, I decide to look up John McLean on the internet. I want to see if he’s overweight and bald, or slim and rich, or married with kids, or divorced and wandering Nepal in his long pea coat.

    Why am I so curious at 11 pm on a weeknight, knowing I need to rise and shine for work the next day? What compels me to go down this rabbit hole on the internet at this point in time? And why am I fascinated by a guy I haven’t thought of, except fleetingly, since high school?

    Story.

    I want to know: whatever happened to John McLean?

    First, I try to find him on social media. Nothing. Then, I Google his name and the city of my high school. I find a woman whose last name was McLean. Her obituary says she was preceded in death by her nephew, John McLean.

    Wait, my John McLean?

    Okay, technically, not mine. But still. I need to know: is John McLean dead?

    I sign onto my high school alumni site, something I’ve never done, browse the yearbooks, and narrow down a year when he appears. I scroll through the grainy photos one by one, wondering if I’ll even recognize him, until…bingo! There he is, with the eyes and nose of a lion, grinning like someone who’s just been reprimanded and doesn’t give a shit. I must have drooled over that photo all summer long when I was fifteen. Of course I’d recognize it!

    Where did he go after high school? I spend another hour searching through archives of old newspapers, and then…this:

    John McLean was found dead near his truck in Half Moon Bay. He was 29 years old.

    It can’t be!

    I count back from the year of publication, and that puts this John smack-dab in the middle of my high school, at the exact moment of time that I attended.

    I’ve found him.

    Dead. At 29.

    So young!

    No wonder he never appeared on Facebook or Twitter or any social media site. He died before they were invented!

    According to the obit, John was an avid pilot. A pilot?—I had no idea he loved to fly. He raised bunnies and cattle. John McLean? A rancher?

    Now, I’m consumed by his story. I need to know what happened. But it’s 2 a.m., time to turn off the light, which I do, feeling spooked and saddened and wistful, spinning “what-ifs” in my brain.

    What if I track down his sisters? According to the newspaper, they lived in San Jose at the time of his death. Do they still live there? Would it be weird to ask them what happened? (Yes! Not to mention creepy.)

    What if I dig into the archives of the Half Moon Bay Review to find out about the accident that killed him?

    What if I search his college alumni website?

    What if I phone Karen, who I haven’t seen in thirty? forty? years, and say, “Remember John McLean?”

    “Who?”

    “John McLean. From high school.”

    “Nuh-uh.”

    “Oh, come on.The guy with the long pea coat.”

    “I don’t know. Maybe. Why?”

    “He died when he was twenty-nine.”

    “Ohhhh-kay.”

    What if I talk Karen into flying to California to join me as an amateur sleuth?

    What if, by finding out what happened to John McLean, I am somehow changed in the process? (Having less to do with the boy I remember, and more to do with the youth I’ve lost.)

    Then, I’ve got the makings of a memoir.

    Unless…

    What if I fictionalize this story? I’m agoraphobic, haven’t stepped outside my cottage in ten years, and this obsession over John McLean is the one thing that gets me to face my fear. It’s no cake-walk, going out into the world, tracking down the sisters, retracing his steps from high school to his final day on Earth. There are obstacles I need to work around (with the help of a side-kick, of course), not to mention the fear I need to overcome. But something drives me to answer the riddle, which says volumes about me. And what if all my detective work digs up something about John McLean that rocks my world in ways I never could have imagined?

    Then, I’ve got a novel.

    Story is answering the question: what happened? Supply an interesting premise with a universal theme (who hasn’t wanted to track down an old crush?), appealing characters, a mystery, and a quest that forces the protagonist to change, and you’re well on your way to keeping your readers burning the midnight oil.

    Whatever happened to John McLean?

    I’m hooked.

    Is it just me?


  2. How to Go Down When the Ship of Life is Sinking

    May 28, 2017 by Diane

    For the love of God, jump!

    I can’t remember the last time I laughed. I mean one of those stress-busting hearty belly laughs where tears stream down my cheeks and I can’t breathe. In a good way.

    My workplace took a turn for the serious. The ship is sinking. At first it listed. We added more weight to even things out, but all that weight filled the ship with water, and now we’re going down like the Titanic. Some people jumped overboard. Others were pushed, gently and with great sadness, to lighten the load. The rest of us are bailing water like crazy and occasionally getting into catfights.

    There’s a rescue ship on the horizon. We can see it, but it’s not here yet.

    So we offload more weight and strap on life preservers.

    This is the third sinking ship I’ve been on. The first was a travel adventure company that adventured it’s way straight into bankruptcy. The second was a nonprofit that managed their books so badly they didn’t realize they were out of profits until I developed a budget, brought in an ace accountant, and pointed out: the money? It’s gone.

    What’s the common denominator?

    Me!

    Am I the hex that brings these ships to their nautical knees?

    Or am I just boarding the wrong ships?

    At a writer’s conference one summer, a respected writer/teacher/book reviewer brutally edited my short story. The first paragraph alone was so bloody from the red pen, the page sobbed in pain. I told myself, I’m not a writer, I’m an actress, and marched across the quad to the empty theater, sat in the back row, and cried.

    Wrong ship?

    On Saturday nights, KQED airs movies. This week, it was the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel. As I watched, transfixed, I remembered working on that show in college, watching from the lighting booth every night while lusting over the set construction manager who lusted over one of the dancers. I remembered dancing the ballet sequence in another R & H musical, Oklahoma, when my partner almost dropped me into the orchestra pit. I remembered shimmying on the grocery store checkout counter as Babe Secoli in the musical Working, and belting songs with a cockney accent in The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd.

    I remembered those smells, those roars. My heart yearned for what was missing, like a long lost love. I told myself, that’s the ship I belong on, not this sinking tub I’m on now.

    Here’s the thing. I could bail, but the lifeboat is sinking too.

    It’s not a matter of finding the right vessel for my voyage. It’s a passenger issue.

    I was one of those cats fighting last week. That isn’t me. The real me finds humor in the nutty stuff that drives us nutty. But there I was, snarling, showing my claws, ready to jump. Stress will do that to me.

    I haven’t found the humor in the situation yet.

    However. Until the rescue boat arrives (and it will arrive), I’m committed to going down dancing and singing. I’ll be like those musicians on the Titanic who refused to abandon their instruments, sawing away on their violins as screams filled the air, because as long as they still had breath, nothing had the power to take away their music.


  3. Speak now or forever hold your head in your hands

    April 23, 2017 by Diane

    It seemed like a good idea at the time.

    After all, I’ve survived haircuts in the past. It goes like this: I show the stylist a photo, say, “I want this cut,” and my stylist says, “Your hair won’t do that. You’ll look like a man.” We dicker, I give in, and she gives me a cut that makes me look like a conservative middle-aged woman.

    Which I am.

    Minus the conservative part.

    My hair has been earlobe-length for twelve weeks. Well, not the entire twelve weeks. It took twelve weeks to mosey to my earlobes, and I would have let it mosey to my shoulders, but it was starting to straggle, not mosey, so I decided to go for pert and fun instead.

    I decided to get a pixie cut.

    I scoured the internet for photos of pixie cuts and printed them out, including one of an older woman with a severe style that was the perfect example of what I didn’t want, and showed them to my BFF, Dave.

    He liked the manly one.

    “You’re taking beauty advice from a man, because…?” My old stylist said. I trusted her opinion, so popped in to get her feedback. By the time I’d popped out, I’d committed to an appointment with her, three weeks in the future, at a price I couldn’t afford.

    Why didn’t I tell her the truth? You’re worth every penny, but I don’t have that many pennies to part with!

    After squirming for days, I sent her a text message. I need to get my hair cut sooner rather than later, and since you’re totally booked, I’m going to have to cancel our appointment. It was the truth. I was attending a networking event and wanted to look professional, not scraggly.

    My new stylist, the one I can afford, doesn’t know how to be brutally honest. When I showed her the photos, saying, “I want it short at the sides like this, with longish bangs, full in the back, and cropped close to the neck at the bottom like this,” she said,

    “We can try that.”

    I looked up. “But can you do it?”

    “It will be very short in the back, but we can try.”

    There was that word again. Try. I looked at her long Asian hair, with a wide strip dyed a sort of orangish-blonde, and put my head in her hands.

    It seemed like a good idea at the time.

    Until she brought out the clippers.

    I’m not talking about toenail clippers. I’m talking about those electronic razory things that teenage boys use to buzz-cut their hair. The gizmo barbers use for a manly cut.

    She brought out the clippers and started buzzing the back of my neck. Waves of hair plopped into my lap. I squirmed. What have I done? The more she buzzed, the more I squirmed, until finally, she put the clippers away and finished up with scissors.

    The front looked great. Pert, the way I wanted. Maybe I was overreacting. I felt cautiously optimistic.

    Then she brought out the hand mirror. She held it up so I could see the back.

    I was speechless.

    Stunned.

    I thought I might be sick.

    That’s not me. That’s…a BOY!

    “Let me take a picture,” she said. She took several shots of the back of my head with her smartphone and showed them to me.

    I batted it away.

    “I’m sorry,” she said. “Don’t worry, it will grow.” And then, “It’s cool!”

    I managed to write a check and drive home.

    I stuffed a chocolate truffle in my mouth.

    I called my mother.

    “Just don’t turn your back on anyone,” she advised. I pictured myself backing out of every room.

    I jammed the movie Sabrina into my DVD player and watched Julia Ormond dazzle Greg Kinnear and Harrison Ford with her girly pixie cut, and tried to drown out that inner voice screaming, WHY DIDN’T YOU SAY SOMETHING WHEN YOU SAW THE CLIPPERS?

    Why didn’t I?

    Why didn’t I speak my truth?

    Because I didn’t trust myself to know the difference between a clipper cut and a scissor cut, even though past experience had shown me that razoring fine hair is always a bad idea.

    The truth is, I sat on my truth.

    What other truths was I sitting on?

    Here’s one:

    Writing a humor blog seemed like a good idea. A way to amuse myself, and, hopefully, others, while pushing my work out into the world. A world of seventy people, but still, my corner of the internet universe. And it was a good idea. Fun. Until I latched onto the crazy idea that a humor blog would be a terrific platform for literary fiction. All I needed were, oh, 10,000 subscribers, and I’d attract the attention of an agent or publisher, followed by a big fat cash advance for my novel.

    Which meant attracting another 9,930 readers to my blog.

    Piece of cake.

    I hopped on Twitter, and tried to entice followers to my website by sharing my blog posts, a form of virtual arm-twisting of strangers. Which is just…icky. Aaaand, to get those 9,930 blog subscribers, I needed like a million Twitter followers, and I had about 1,600. So Twitter, which started as a platform for my platform, became a bad math equation and a popularity contest gone haywire. It brought up feelings from high school, when I was lousy at math and anything but popular.

    Yes, my amusing little blog had morphed into a full-blown Twitter addiction.

    Every time I wrote a post with the goal of getting more subscribers, every time I checked my stats on WordPress and my followers on Twitter, every time I considered setting up a Facebook page, and, oh, how about a page on Medium?—which I did—I squirmed inside.

    So I meditated on the question: to blog, or not to blog? I begged my higher self to give me a clear sign, first thing in the morning when I woke up.

    And I got a sign.

    An image.

    Of me in a straightjacket.

    It made perfect sense!

    I’m hampered by the blog’s name: Squirrels in the Doohickey. I’m boxed in by the theme: writing about the nutty stuff we do, say, and think when confronted with the stuff that drives us nutty. I tried sneaking non-humor pieces on: Before the Bulldozers Came, When Innocence Wore Your Brother’s Baseball Glove, even the early Only the Lonely. These were some of my favorite posts. But they weren’t keeping with the theme. An agent or publisher would raise an eyebrow and tell me, gently, that a humor blog is not a platform for literary fiction.

    I know that. Like I know clippers are razors in disguise.

    So, what is my truth?

    I remember why I enjoyed sharing humorous anecdotes in the first place: hearing my mother’s laugh. She has a great laugh. When I tell her my latest squirrelly encounter, she gives a sort of choking, squeaky laugh, then says, “Another one for the book.”

    But that’s not the book I want to publish.

    I was talking to a co-worker about Steve Martin. There’s Steve Martin the comedian. Steve Martin the film actor. Steve Martin the writer. And now, Steve Martin the banjo player touring with his band. Steve does it all, but not necessarily at the same time. He chunks his life into whatever pulls him, and I envy him that focus! At some point, when he was doing stand-up, he held up a mirror so to speak, and said, that’s not me, I’m an actor. And off he went.

    In the mirror, I see a humor writer. Fair enough. Part of me is a humorist. But lately it feels like that’s not me. I’m a fiction writer.

    So my truth, right now, is to blog for the joy of it, with no other outcome than this: if I make one person’s day, get one person to smile or chuckle or shoot coffee out their nostrils, it’s worth it. No pressure to attract more whatevers. No pressure to churn out a post every week on the dot. Just blog when something amusing strikes me, and leave it at that. So I can focus where my heart is leading: writing fiction.

    One thing is certain: whenever I feel uncomfortable, unsettled, and I start squirming, it’s a clear sign I’ll soon be holding my head in my hands, muttering, “That’s not me.”

    Although, truth be told, I am a bit of a tomboy. With this new pixie cut, jeans rolled at the cuffs, sneakers and a sweatshirt, I have the urge to shoot spit-balls at strangers, and make farting noises with my armpit.

    And I have an extra bounce in my stride.