I was flying home from a work meeting on the night of Friday, November 11. While frightening and deadly acts were happening halfway across the globe, this was the sight outside my wingside window. I didn’t have WiFi, so I had no idea what was happening in world news. There was only the thrum of the engines, the buzz of my overhead air vent, and this view, with the city bustle below, the reddening sky ahead, and that sliver of lunar light above.
When I walked out to the family car that had come to pick me up at Terminal B, my husband informed me about the breaking news in Paris. We wondered how people were coping over there, and if the extra security walking around the airport had anything to do with the events still developing in France. Over the next few days, there were political discussions, as well as conversations about safety, social centrism, and the cultural narrow-sightedness of our first world society in particular. But my mind kept coming back to that picture I took from an Embraer window.
I’ve always enjoyed flying. Since I’ve been a kid, I’ve been getting on planes at least two or three times a year, and, despite some of the rigamarole involved in check-in and security lines, it remains one of my favorite ways to travel. There’s a feeling of detachment from the land below when we fly. We can look down from a plane in flight and see for miles around: freeways, farmland, rivers, lakes and oceans, all as a kind of separate spectator. As a child, I often wondered if that vantage point was how spacemen saw us, and how that high perspective affected their opinions. From 10,000 feet, you can’t hear what’s going on below, the prayers or the curses. You can’t see individuals, either, neither their shape nor their color. You can only see the parts of the world as their own wholes: villages, towns, cities. And when you fly at night, even over large expanses of land or water, you look for light. Sometimes, it’s just a point. But, if you keep looking, odds are you’ll see more points, more light, until there’s so many, they’re impossible to count.
When we hear about violence, hatred, and acts of terror, it’s natural to be afraid. It’s human to want to close ourselves off and hide. But it’s important to remember that the world isn’t all darkness. There is light here, too. Sometimes, it’s just one point. But keep looking. You’ll see more.
I’d meant to write a post about keeping balance in our lives, especially as writers, since many of us spend a lot of time sitting sequestered away in front of a computer. I was going to advise keeping a good exercise regime (I try to do 20-30 minutes every morning, plus walking or running through the day), a good eating schedule and habits (veggies and fruits are good and good for you!), and a regular sleep cycle (many of us ignore sleep in favor of work, studying, or even writing, when getting enough or even more sleep can actually help us do those things better). Then I had a horrendous work week that turned into two weeks – now approaching three – and I realized that I don’t even take my own advice. Instead, I put on a specific kind of mask: what folks at my institution call my PennFace.
“Pilot” by George Hodan; public domain image
Similar to the Stanford Duck, the image of which is a duck swimming placidly across the water while its legs kick furiously beneath the surface, PennFace is a term used to describe the mask some students wear to cover up their anxieties, fears, and stress. They walk around campus with smiles on their faces, saying, “I’m all good!” to their friends, and generally acting – on the outside – that everything is going swimmingly. On the inside, though, or behind the closed doors of their dorm room, they may sweat, cry, or curl into the fetal position while they wish for the world to leave them alone for a while. I have that closed-off feeling a lot, but I try to project myself as being confident and carefree.
Everybody has their own issues, and everyone deals with their issues differently. But nobody wants to burden anybody else with their problems. I certainly don’t. So, I put on my PennFace. And, that works. For a while. But we can only go so long before we have to stop running, stand up straight, and face our issues. The mask does no good then: when it’s only us and that which plagues us. The difficult part for me to admit is that that stop running bit isn’t so terrible when I finally do it. In fact, it’s very, very often a good thing, and what helps me get back on track with the rest of my life/job/whatever. Like the heroes about whom many of us write, we have to face our fears, and those moments of truth usually make us stronger.
We make the decision to stand up and confront our troubles alone. We don’t have to take the next step alone, though. Family, lovers, friends, coworkers, therapists, teachers, clergy – there are so many people out there willing to help. Asking is hard. But doing everything alone is so much harder.
Some people enjoy conflict and chaos: they thrive on it. Personally, I prefer control and routine. But, life by nature is chaotic, and how we deal with that chaos affects how we live. I still pull out and put on the mask, a lot more often than I probably should. I’m learning, though. And, I’m finding I like seeing my real face in the mirror a lot more than I like seeing my PennFace there.
How do you cope with your “PennFace?”
I’ve been away from blogger land for a while, but I’m getting better. Thanks to everyone for your emails, messages, and support. It’s meant a lot just to know I’m not alone.
Just a brief update to assure those of my followers who are still with me that I’m not dead.
As friends who follow me on my Twitter and tumblr (warning: some NSFW there) have probably seen, I’ve been writing a lot in recent weeks. I challenged myself to a 30-day writing challenge, where I write a story vignette every day this month, and that has been helping me get back on track with my creative energies, which had dipped to depressing levels. I hadn’t quite realized how much I love writing until I hadn’t been doing it for a while. But, now that I’ve been writing every day again, I’m feeling a lot better about just about everything in my life.
I also “published” – and got the hardcopies for – From Hell (A Love Story), my homoerotic space opera. It felt fantastic to hold in my hands a physical representation of my work, even if it was just an experiment in the CreateSpace venue, for a book nobody’s going to read. I still got multiple copies, though I’m not sure why. One I kept, and one went to my friend Carmen McLaughlin, whom I also commissioned to paint the book’s gorgeous cover. I guess I’ll keep the rest for doorstops or something.
I hope to get back to all of you soon. We’re busy at work with Alumni Weekend and Commencement activities, and I have a video series project I’m editing. I should have more time after this month, though. I also won’t have my writing challenge hanging over my head any longer, so maybe I will get into writing something new.
Today, I posted the final chapter of my sci-fi western romance, “From Hell: A Love Story.” It’s the third story I’ve finished this year, “Finding Mister Wright” and Fearless being the other two.
I always get a rush of mixed feelings whenever I write the last words to a story. Relief for having reached the finish line, but a sense of sadness, too, at saying goodbye to characters I’ve come to love over the drafting time. Some stories never move much past that first draft, for me, but others find their way to revisions, rewrites, and re-posts. Still others become launching pads for completely different stories…or, the same story woven in a new pattern, as is often the case for me.
My issue at this point is: What do I write next? I’ve got a continuing timeline set up for my sci-fi western characters, but I feel like giving them a rest for a bit. I’ve been doing some off and on revising of Fearless and “Finding Mister Wright” over the last few months, and I’m enjoying revisiting those worlds, but it’s not the same as new writing. It’s been years since I’ve gone without a new writing project, I’m not sure I could handle not having one! The good news, I suppose, is that I’ve got a few twelve-plus-hour plane rides to consider my options (or maybe start playing with that heretofore unknown something new). That’s right – I’m out of here for the next few weeks while I visit my family in Japan. So, I won’t be around to read/comment/blog much or at all. But, don’t worry – I will eat lots of yummy sushi and green tea soft-serve in your honor!
So. I’ve done romance. I’ve done family stories. I’ve done science fiction with a western twist. Maybe it’s time to poke at that detective murder mystery? What do you think? What helps you decide what project to tackle next? Do you rassle your Muse into cooperating, or do you let the faerie ramble?
Woo! Yeah! That’s right: Complete!
On a side note, as many of you know, I recently had a bit of a rough go. Many of you offered kind and supportive words for that, and I have to thank you. Your words really helped me move past what could have been a downturn. Some of you even said saying farewell to one friend would allow me to make room in my writerly life to make new friends…and I did! A mutual love of a shared universe put me in touch with a talented writer with whom I’ve enjoyed some of the best writing conversations about character, plot, and issues that I’ve had in a long time. And it’s felt glorious! The extra-awesome part? This writer is also a visual artist, who has offered to do art of my story, with my original character! I’ve been floating on clouds ever since I heard that. I will share if that’s allowed…but I may want to keep this one to myself.
I feel like I’m on a rollercoaster, lately.
Students are back, which makes my work days both easier and more difficult. It’s great to be around that enthusiasm and excitement, especially at the start of a new semester, but they come with a set of headaches, too: technical issues, personal issues, conflicts, conundrums, and an air of chaos that’s been missing during the summer months. I know as soon as they settle into classes, the craziness will die down. I just need to make it that far.
Family-wise, I did some traveling over the summer. Mostly up to the old family homestead, which was fun, but the journey is tiring. Especially when work follows the next day. I’m back to Japan again in October, which I’m definitely looking forward to, though I could do without the minutiae involved in planning three different people’s schedules.
My stories are what truly keep me going day to day. Wednesdays and Thursdays tend to be my best days of the week, because I post new chapters on Wednesdays, and the feedback always gives me a jolt. I’m no longer so insecure that no feedback will make me drop a story mid-stream, but I fully admit seeing a new comment appear in my email inbox gives me a short adrenaline rush. Of course, that doesn’t last, but I go back every day or so to re-read some of the more thoughtful comments and questions to restore my confidence.
The other day, on my commute to work, I passed the painting above. It was just sitting there, alone, on the sidewalk by the station. No name on it, and nobody around. I knew it probably wouldn’t be there on my return walk, so I snapped a photo of it. I’m glad I did. That painting reminds me there are other people out there struggling, many in much greater ways than I am, but some in ways very similar to me. It also reminds me that there are really only four things in any person’s existence that truly matter: learning, laughing, loving, and living. We can all do those, no matter where we are in our lives, our careers, or our relationships.
I’ll keep working, naturally. I’ll keep spending time with my family. And, of course, I’ll keep writing. But when the ups and downs of my rollercoaster days start to wear me down, I’ll do my best to remember what I learned from seeing this painting on the street. Will you do, too?
I did manage one post for June (my flipping the coin villain backstory post), but the rest of the month was a wash, blog-wise. But, I did have some excitement. Drumroll, please….
My husband read one of my stories!
Some of you out there are likely thinking, Big f***in’ deal, but this was a huge deal for me. My husband hadn’t read anything of mine since university, which is…well, let’s just say it’s a long time ago, now.
I’d left my original story “Finding Mister Wright” in a file folder on the dressing table a few months back, inviting him to take a look whenever he felt like doing so. I left it up to him because I don’t like when other people force their writing on me. But, as the months went by, seeing that folder left untouched rankled me. So, when he messaged me one evening and mentioned he’d read it, I was walking on clouds!
I know it doesn’t look like I’m excited, but I was.
We spoke about it in some more detail, and I’ve gotten to bounce some ideas off of him, for how to make the third act come together with more punch. One thing he said that made me nearly burst with glee was, “I like how you keep writing these characters after their main story is done. It gives them a much ‘fuller world’ feeling. Like they’re real.”
Honestly, a lot of my characters are real to me, even the fantastic ones. That’s what makes writing so joyous for me. It’s also why I get sad whenever I come to the end of a story. The characters and their relationships grow on me after all that time and effort of pulling their world and all of their conflicts together.
So, as of today, two people have read that first draft of “Finding Mister Wright” (Hi, JM!). Each of those people, with their timely feedback, has made me think about not just this story but all of my writing in a more focused way. I’m still undecided on the best way for me to get my stories out there – querying and sucking up to agents and houses, or hiring an editor and publishing on my own – but I feel like this little boost has fanned the flames of my spirit to be even stronger than before. Brighter, if you will. And each little bit of extra brightness makes the darkness of defeat seem not so foreboding.
I hope everyone out there is having a great summer (or whatever your local season may be). I’m looking forward to sharing more stories and steps forward in the months to come!