Slight Air and Purging Fire

I burned a story in a five-gallon bucket when I was 15.

I haven't thought about it in years, but a friend was talking with me about Eighth Grade and, apparently, it features a scene where the protagonist burns a box of her "hopes and dreams." I both really want to see this movie and really feel that I may, like my friend, cringe my way through the entire thing.

Because, that resonates.

When I was 15, I sneaked out of my house after dark with one of my mom's lighters, clutching eighty or so handwritten pages. I borrowed a bucket from my dad's work truck. I walked far enough away from our trailer that I wouldn't be seen and sat in our overgrown garden, haphazardly lighting the pages and dropping them into the bucket. I remember that I cried, or maybe forced myself to cry because it would be a more dramatic memory that way.

The next day I walked into the woods behind our trailer and found a good spot to bury the ashes and the pages that hadn't burned up entirely. I didn't dig too deep, but I still couldn't find the spot again when I went looking a few weeks later, convinced I'd made a huge mistake.

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Years later when all of the feelings associated with why I'd burned the story had faded, I found a part of it that I had typed up to share with my best friend, probably in one of the many time capsules she and I created during a few impressionable summers. I rescued it. I treasured it.

I think I have it still.

Fellowship and Sisterhood

When I think about movies that have made an impact on me, there are plenty that I have loved. I watch them over and over again whether I’m feeling blue or otherwise; I recommend them madly to friends. But when I think about the word “impact,” the choice is pretty obvious.

I saw Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the theater when it came out and was so hyped, but it was the trailer for a soon-to-be-released film that would eclipse my Hogwarts fervor for years to come: The Fellowship of the Ring.

I’d never read Tolkien, though I’d seen the 1977 The Hobbit a number of times as a child and recalled being mostly creeped out, though also not unreasonably delighted. But 2001 was well before the time when one could count upon a slew of nerd-centric films over the course of the year, so I was naturally into anything that promised elves on the big screen.

And how it delivered.

To this day I still get a chill when I hear Galadriel’s voice over the pitch-black opening title, and not just because the movie itself was a wonder. Because of Peter Jackson’s interpretation of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, I forged my first online identity and found friends in other cities and across the globe who are close to my heart even today.

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Before social media, we were just social: we navigated impossible-to-follow AIM chats where everyone personalized their font and the color of their text, and we commented on every single blog entry on our platform of choice, Diaryland. We called ourselves the LOTR Sisters and we were online friends when online friends were still something parents didn’t necessarily know about. We were teenage girls from Ohio and Illinois and Texas and Louisiana and Arizona, we were from Malaysia and Singapore and Canada. We aspired to be a whole lot of things but mostly we just nerded out with each other, writing blogs and poorly photoshopping Tolkien-themed holiday cards. We tried to grow up without giving too much of our love of wonder away.

Today we are from even more places. We are engineers and librarians and photographers and actresses and writers and designers and creators and social workers and mothers and managers and educators. As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to revel in the power of the internet to connect like-minded folks, and feel pretty lucky that I got to experience that from a relatively young age – before it was a relatively common thing. Every time one of these gals shares something about her life, whether it’s a new baby or a new book, I smile, remembering how we came to know each other and how likely we are, still, to rise to the defense of our favorite elf or hobbit.  

Word Drops

When I think about my formative years, I think about crippling shyness, bad hair, worse poetry. What I couldn’t say out loud – which was a lot – I wrote and wrote and wrote. And I remember, too, making the conscious decision as a senior in high school that it was my writing that would define me. I claimed it when, in what seemed like the boldest of moves in my 18-year-old brain, I wrote and delivered a speech at our baccalaureate. And a big part of the reason why I owned my voice was because of my creative writing teacher, Ms. Calder.

She was a free spirit who wore fluid, printed tops and glass beads, who shared slide photographs of her trips to Egypt and Greece on the classroom’s overhead projector. She oversaw the regular publication of a collection of student writing, Word Drops in Literary Puddles, but mostly, she entrusted the bulk of the work to her most eager and interested students. And in my eleventh and twelfth grade years, that was me and one of my best friends.

Everyone in her writing classes had their work featured and it was our job to select from their submissions, to solicit a cover illustration and to design and layout each publication. There was a considerable amount of drama when someone turned in the lyrics to a Barenaked Ladies song, claiming it as their own, and when the just-right accompanying piece of clip art could not be found for my latest poem about heartbreak. Weren’t they all about heartbreak?

But Ms. Calder didn’t judge us as I fear I’d judge my melodramatic teenage self. She was patient, encouraging and had a wry, appreciative wit that I sometimes think was wasted on high school students. She regularly pressed us to submit our writing to a regional publication for student writers and celebrated with the class every time someone’s poem or short piece was selected for publication. When I graduated, she bought me a beautiful pen and a photo album. I still have the photo album but I’ve lost the note she’d tucked inside. I wish I could remember what it said.

Ms. Calder passed in 2013. I just learned that this morning, before I sat down to write this, to remember her and the ways she trusted me – taught me to trust myself.

She treated everyone like a writer before any of us were worth reading. It was a gift.

And so was she.

The Other Side

I feel like the next time I attend a conference or similar, I should put some sort of warning on my table. Something like, 'Painfully Awkward' or 'May Hug Without Warning.' I definitely hugged some readers and friends, new and old, at this year's Ohioana Book Festival. Thank you for humoring me, strangers.

But, I got to hang and chat with some incredible writers and book enthusiasts, and extol on the virtues of unapologetically messy first drafts while speaking on a panel with some fine fantasy authors. The questions were so smart and I feel like every time I have the chance to participate in something like this, I learn more about the craft of writing, and from just about everybody in the room.

It's strange, to sit on the other side of the table. I still remember attending a book festival and approaching from the aisle, eager to talk about books and writing and dreaming big about the publishing industry. I still do this every time I meet an author, honestly. And whether it's because I'll always be a reader first or because I've got a severe case of impostor syndrome or I'm just irrepressibly awkward, I don't know.

But once, many years ago when I came up to her after hearing her on a panel at Books by the Banks, Laura Bickle asked me about what I was writing and gave me her email address, later introduced me to a bunch of her friends writing in Columbus. And just a few weeks ago, we shared a table and gushed about books and it was the best. I still feel like the same person, still aspiring, always.

There was a young woman who stopped by our table at one point, asking about drafts and writing, and I answered her questions as best as I could. She came back a few minutes later and told me about what she's working on and said people have told her it's been done; she asked me, did I think she should keep writing it?

I said heck yes she should.

I told her, you have to write the story that you want to write. Everything's been done before, but it hasn't been done by you.

I wish now that I'd hugged her, too.

Audiobooks to Listen and Love

Audiobooks are the best and easiest way to sneak reading into a busy life - whether you're commuting or, like me, loading the dishwasher for the ten-thousandth time in a week, a good audiobook allows for a totally different sort of immersive reading experience. I've also found audiobooks allows me to revisit old favorites in a new way, as a good narrator breathes new life into an already beloved tale. Some of my favorite audiobooks are books I've read in print several times. These are among my favorites, and ones I unashamedly listen to at least once a year.

Garth Nix's original Abhorsen trilogy, comprised of Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen, are phenomenal reads - and they're narrated by Tim Curry. Is there really any higher recommendation? I don't think so. But if you need one, he nails the voice of a cat who isn't quite a cat and teenage necromancers so exceedingly well, I think he must be some sort of mystical being himself.

When I first read Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, I enjoyed it despite the narrator's self-congratulatory nerd behavior. Because I know dudes like Wade Watts - they're my friends and I more than tolerate them because they're actually pretty lovable despite their tendencies to gloat about canon and name drop like crazy. It wasn't until I listened to Wil Wheaton read the book, however, that I really fell in love. He softens the edges of a sometimes irritating character and really brings a new depth and heart to an already charming book.

On a friend's recommendation, I downloaded Terrier, the first in Tamora Pierce's Provost's Dog trilogy. I adore Pierce, though she is one of the authors I know is writing for a far younger and less jaded audience than I belong to. Having this series in audiobook form - I went on to download Bloodhound and Mastiff - was just perfect. I could take my time and really dwell in Beka Cooper's world without getting hung up on language or reflecting on how long ago my own teenage years were. Bonus, I could listen with my girls in the car.

Max Brooks' World War Z is one of my absolute favorite books - basically zombies plus PBS, two of my favorite media things. The audiobook is spectacular in just the same way, with an all-star cast narrating what's basically a historical account of a zombie war that hasn't happened. Yet?

So, including The Ghost Bride feels like a bit of a cheat, because I re-read this in print once a year, too, but based on the number of times I've also listened to it, I couldn't leave it off this list. Yangsze Choo, the author, narrates the book herself, which I just love. It feels a little like getting to spend time with her as well as spending time with her strange and lovely world.

Reading vs. Writing

Is there a book you've read you wished you'd written? This is a harder question for me than I initially imagined that it might be. If I'd written some of the books I ardently admire, I'd have been robbed of the opportunity to enjoy reading them. At the same time, some stories are so enchanting, some writing so smart and wicked, that I can't help but wish I'd had the idea and the skills, too. And of course, there are some tales - I find this particularly true of retellings - where I am so deeply disappointed in how a legendary concept is so poorly imagined.

In the end, I'm not sure there's any book I've loved that I'd really rather have written than read, though there are a few stories so skillfully told that they're more than worth mentioning.

The Native Star

M.K. Hobson's The Native Star is an underrated gem and one of the few steampunk/weird west tales that doesn't get so involved with itself that the story and the characters are lost. Perhaps it is that I am most drawn to the characters is what makes this one stand out to me - the elements of the world embellish their lives, rather than the other way around. I'm all for a well-built world, but Hobson manages to make her alternate history feel as vibrant as the real one without overshadowing some truly spectacular characters - and a unique magic system - in Emily and Stanton.

Naomi Novik's Uprooted is definitely in my top five favorite retellings-ish, ever. Novik does exactly what I aspire to do when approaching writing any kind of folk or fairy tale, making it feel familiar and strange in the same instant, surprising in the ways that it conforms to what we know as much as it breaks away into new and delicious territory. I plan to fangirl Novik so hard at Dragon Con this year, you have no idea.

Leigh Bardugo manages to do something with Six of Crows that I honestly think I may never be able to do as a writer: invest readers deeply into the lives of multiple, distinct, and distinctly unheroic protagonists. I don't even generally enjoy reading books where the perspective changes, but with this one and the equally unputdownable sequel, Crooked Kingdom, I wouldn't have had the reading any other way. While I felt connected to certain characters more than others, I still felt affinity for each, and readily shifted between their voices and aims.

I know that I am still writing the sorts of books that I liked to read, for the ideal readers who enjoy the same weird and wonderful things that I do, but truly: I think I'd rather focus on getting better and read more from authors I enjoy than co-opt their voices and ideas.

Whoa, Whoa, Ohioana!

If you'll be in the Columbus, Ohio area on April 14 and want to talk nerdy about books, writing, or my latest trash ship (there are so many), I hope you'll stop by the Ohioana Book Festival to chat. I'll be selling and signing books, as well as participating on a panel with some truly excellent writers of fantasy and science fiction, including Laura Bickle, Linda Robertson, and Susie Newman.

I plan to throw money at other authors and bribe readers with candy and stickers, because I am an adult.

But really, it's a lovely and free event for book devourers of all ages. And if you don't want to eat words, there are food trucks.

Changing Diapers, Changing Times

My capacity for sentimental attachment is really out of control. I went digging in my basement for the totes of cloth diapers I'd stored after our youngest finally started (but still suuuuper unreliably) using the potty. There are boxed up baby clothes that certainly give me the sniffles, but there's something about these diapers that threatens to undo me.

Changing diapers is such a small, regular act with a baby, but also, it is an intimate one. All hours of the day, sometimes multiple times within an hour, you lift and clean and swathe their little bottoms. When they are very small, they are pliable and sweet with their noodle-skinny legs. Later they may giggle and kick. Later still, they are just not having it, and you devise ways to distract or entertain them while you do the necessary deed. I remember reading that as much as I was tempted to make diaper changes as quick as possible when my girls got older and less willing, actually slowing down, taking my time, talking with my baby-then-toddler, would help me get back to the littler times, when it was a moment of quiet and care. Sometimes, that even worked.

And so it is surprisingly difficult to part with these diapers, because they remind me not only of my girls when they were small, but the rituals of caring for a baby - something I will most likely never do again, at least not with my own. As much as I do not miss the laundry, realizing that there's a part of your life that's truly behind you - even with new joys ahead - instigates a surprisingly deep sorrow.

Even when what you're mourning is a diaper change.

The Heart is a Lonely and Not Particularly Wise Hunter

I've got a thing for tragic bastards. I should clarify, my desire is purely for dudes of a fictional variety. I have exactly zero time for the bullshit of living, breathing disasters. But I have been thinking a lot lately about the themes and sorts of characters that resonate with me, what I'm drawn to read and write. As silly as it is, my recent experiences playing Dragon Age: Inquisition have made this pretty clear to me. I've always appreciated Bioware's nuanced characters and the ability players have to befriend or isolate or irritate them, and this installment in the series is, in my opinion, the best in terms of executing this particular hallmark of the studio.

My first two play-throughs, I barely spoke a word to Solas, became absolute besties with Dorian and Cassandra, and romanced Cullen, whose awkward word vomit and head scratching endeared him completely. But, I kept seeing folks talking about the draw of the Solas romance and how it tied in with the game's overall narrative - which is spectacular - so I decided to give it a try and rolled an elven Inquisitor.

And now I'll never look back.

What is it about colossal fuck-ups that is so appealing?

While the charming, well-intentioned dude may at first secure my attention, it just doesn't last. Perhaps this is why your average romantic comedy can't hold my attention - I love a good love story but I need even more than space and elves to complicate things for my weird little heart. I need world-shattering mistakes.

There are other fictional fellas in here. Not surprisingly:

As I am writing the final book in my series and contending with some of the choices and realizations in The Dread Goddess, I am trying to feel my way forward with Gannet and Eiren - without giving anything away, certainly things between them have never been easy, and there are new troubles now. In earlier drafts of the first few chapters, something just didn't feel right. The forgiveness, the comfort, the ease with which they were moving forward, together. Because something is wedged between them still, and Gannet is, of course, claiming responsibility. Given what he knows and doesn't know about himself, and what's at stake, there was a tension and a distance that wasn't at play yet in that draft.

So, I had to make some changes.

In each book, we've learned something new about Eiren and Gannet and about their world, and now that they're presumably holding all of the pieces, they're finding that their shapes are strange, sharp, fragile. I feel as much at Gannet's mercy as Eiren does, sometimes. Even though I'm technically steering this ship, there are storms in their characterizations that even I underestimate, or miss alltogether.

But, take heart. I may enjoy tragic bastards, but I do not enjoy tragedy.