Last night all I could think about was the deadline for this blog post. I had put it off all month. At the last minute I was hoping to write something inspirational for both readers and writers. While hope springs eternal, I found myself pondering – and pondering – what that perfect message should be.
If I’m going to be honest, I knew I wouldn’t come up with anything substantial because I have been distracted. When I’m distracted I usually sit down with a friend at a coffee shop and hash out whatever is on my mind until I’m back on track. Since I can’t do that you’re ‘it’, my friends in a virtual coffee shop. I’ll tell you what I’ve been doing while I’ve been locked down and pondering this post. We’ll start with the garden and move on from there.
Tomato plants. I haven’t actually thought about the tomatoes as much as I have been checking on them. Going outside every fifteen minutes is a nice break from staring at my blank computer screen or at my husband napping on the couch. No matter how often I check, though, the tomatoes still have not turned red and my husband still has not gone back to work.
My fabric stash. Over the last eight weeks I have knocked it down some. Here’s the count: five blouses, a quilt top, a fully-lined summer suit (1 dress that would have fit 15 years ago when I was 25 pounds lighter), and ten face masks. Here’s my question: is sewing my stash like a tree falling in the forest or is it like ‘build it and they will come’? I think it’s the latter. When the day comes to have dinner in a restaurant I will have lots to wear.
Work. Honestly, my brain has been mush when it comes to writing a new book. I have an idea but I couldn’t get it to gel, so I looked through my files and reread some of my early work. I had so much fun that I edited and published five novels from the 90s. I also published The Death of Me, a novella I wrote that morphed into a novel (Before Her Eyes). These two works are as different as they are similar. Some times pondering one thing will lead to another. The trick is not to ignore the ‘other’. Productivity: mission accomplished.
Finally, I’ve been pondering important things: the individual versus the greater good, the constitution and ‘guidelines’ as our lockdown stretches into yet another week, another month, another century. My heart is sad for those who are sick and who have died; my heart is breaking for my relatives and friends who are losing their livelihood, home and, well, everything they have worked hard for. I won’t tell you which side I’m on when it comes to hunkering down or opening up. I will only say that I realize that what I have been pondering all along is something readers and writers have always been inspired by: story. No matter what road we choose there will be stories at the end of it. We are writing them now.
These will be tales of tragedy and triumph; there will be something to laugh at and something to cry over. We will all see these events – and each other – differently. Eventually there will come a time when we put pondering aside so that we can sit with friends at a coffee shop, tell our stories, and hug each other when all is said and done.
How is it that I constantly receive gifts? Gifts from family, every day, all day. “Thought I’d work on your fish table.” Two years ago, at a gathering of friends, I saw a small table—shaped like a fish—of a good height to sit between rocking chairs on my back porch, to set a coke on while I watch the cardinals that have decided to nest in those ugly bushes I’ve been meaning to chain saw down. But not now, because they are roosting there, and I can’t bear to see them go. During this time of pandemic, social distancing and stay at home, my husband is making me a fish table. Of course, it won’t be shaped like a fish, because he hasn’t the tools for that, so he was going to carve a fish into the top. Now it’s three maple leaves. I like maple leaves better.
My son is teaching me to code in html. Okay, he’s laughing with me as I learn to do the simplest of things. I can now create a website that spins a cat picture.
Gifts from friends. A telephone call. Have you recovered? I had a minor infection, cured with good ole antibiotics. My doctor’s gift. Yes, I’m fine. Do you need anything? Yes, I needed you to call, but you’ve done that, you’ve given me the security of a friend’s voice. And I remember what a good friend you are. So incredibly dependable. How do I deserve the wonderful gift of you?
Gifts from strangers. Why? Why do people who don’t know me, give me gifts? Watercolor videos on YouTube. Almost I’ve gotten out my paints. Still scared. Maybe I’ll watch a few more videos. Comedians. I like the guy who sings with famous people in his car. I do that. You know, sans the comedian and sans the famous people. I dance, too. I like to make the people in the car next to me laugh.
Tim Ferriss, gave me a gift, his book: The 4-Hour Chef. More than a cookbook it teaches the reader how to quickly learn anything. Tim recommends the creation of a “One-Pager”. On one page (8.5” x 11”, no cheating with super large sheets of paper) he recommends writing down the most important concepts you must grasp to learn the desired skill. For ten years I have struggled to create meaningful stories, stories that enrich lives. Here is my One-Pager for aspiring writers. It’s good for sticking to your refrigerator, or the wall behind your desk. It’s a gift.
I say “snuck out” because I promised all three of my children that I would stay home all day and write. I agreed with them that since I’m 65, I should stay home, sheltered in place, because that’s what we are all being asked to do where I live. This Corona Virus thing has me good and scared and I completely understand that to stay healthy, it’s best to avoid contact with others.
It’s not like I don’t have plenty to do. I’m in the middle of writing the next chapter in my book, making a quilt and I have a new found desire to bake. But that’s where my troubles began–I needed eggs and butter. That is, I needed eggs and butter if I was going to stay home for the next two weeks, feed my husband breakfast and still bake.
I figured that if I ventured out early enough, I might not run into as many people. So I did and I was right. My beach city was quiet, devoid of crowds, bikes and surfboards. I got dressed and was in line by 9:10. The store had opened at 9:00 and there were already about fifteen people in line ahead of me. Kudos to the pleasant Trader Joe’s staff who kept the store well stocked and the line moving. And kudos to the folks in line who, thankfully, approached the whole event with smiles on their faces. We all made a point of not standing too close together and I’m grateful that I heard neither a cough nor a sneeze.
In thirty minutes I was in and out of the store with lots of good stuff, including eggs and butter. I also left with another unexpected bonus. I met a new character for my book. She is a combination of the three wonderful women who I stood in line with. Total strangers, they shared their good humor as they threw out questions to the crowd like, “How many of you are over sixty and snuck out today?” and comments like, “I won’t tell your kids if you don’t tell mine!” All three were colorful women with infectious smiles who I soon found out were actually as scared as I was to be out and about when we should have been at home. I took all three home with me in my heart and joyfully morphed them into my new character.
These are challenging times for our world and I do not take lightly the recommendations coming out from the CDC and our local health officials. And I must admit that it will be a while before I need or want to venture out to the market or Trader Joe’s again. But, I am grateful to the staff who continue to work so hard to keep our markets full. I also want to extend a personal hurrah to the medical community who are working so tirelessly to get us all through this crisis. I have a first hand view of it as I watch my daughter, who is a nurse, march off to work to keep her cancer patients safe.
Good health and best wishes for an end to this soon!
BWG member, Christopher D. Ochs is our From a Cabin in the Wood’s author. We’re sure you will enjoy his post “Jack of All Trades?”
Christopher D. Ochs’ foray into writing began with his epic fantasy Pindlebryth of Lenland: The Five Artifacts, recommended by US Review of Books. Several of his short stories have been published in the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group and Bethlehem Writers Group anthologies and websites. His latest work is a collection of mirthful macabre short stories If I Can’t Sleep, You Can’t Sleep.
His current literary projects include: short stories in Firebringer Press’ next entry in their Eternity anthology series, an e-book prequel novella for Pindlebryth of Lenland, a YA speculative fiction novel My Friend Jackson, and of course, the second novel of the Pindlebryth saga.
Chris has too many interests outside of writing for his own good. With previous careers in physics, mathematics, electrical engineering and software, and his incessant dabblings as a CGI animator, classical organist, voice talent on radio, DVD and anime conventions, it’s a wonder he can remember to pay the dog and feed his bills. Wait, what?
Jack of All Trades?
I recently reflected over all the jobs in my lifetime from which I have received a paycheck. To the best of my recollection, they were:
During one particularly unsuccessful discussion with an HR individual, she commented, “Wow, you really are unfocused!” However, I look at it differently. I can truthfully say that I have been blessed, in that every job (after I completed college) has been a profession that I chose to work, and loved doing. That is not to say that some positions had their share of difficulties. There have been occasional instances of professional backstabbing and other malfeasance, plentiful examples of managerial incompetence, and so on. The Peter Principle is alive and well, let me assure you! Despite these workaday frustrations, my work involved in one facet or another one or more intellectual discipline I loved: physics, math, music, computers, and language.
Late in my hopscotch of professions, I began to despair. I felt that I had become the proverbial “Jack of All Trades, and Master of None.” A friend and co-worker made an observation that helped me out of my doldrums immensely. He said, “Your first degree was in physics, right? That means you have the discipline to figure out how anything works.” I’ve found that holds true, but only to a point. It does not help much in my latest choice of vocations, namely writing. Mathematical maxims and the comfort of the immutable laws of physics are notoriously absent.
Somerset Maugham’s (in)famous maxim states, “There are three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” How true! To further my confusion, several writing authorities have posited, “Once you know the rules, you know when you may break them.” To borrow a metaphor from “Dungeons & Dragons,” I often feel like a Lawful Good paladin living in a Chaotic Neutral world.
However, I’ve discovered my professional wanderlust has still managed to come to my rescue. My wide experience of work has afforded me the chance to rub elbows with people from all walks of life: from blue collar to white collar, from ditch digger to Nobel prize winner, from unrepentant sinner to bishop. My choices have allowed me to make friends with citizens of all six populated continents.
As a writer, this “Jack-of-All-Trades” life path has afforded me a rich smorgasbord of characters, experiences and observation that I may draw on.
More often than not, we writers are a solitary bunch. I’m guilty as charged as well, as I am not as gregarious as everything above might imply. We huddle in our writing rooms, happy with our keyboard and coffee (or tea). It can become isolating, and that has its own dangers, when we spend too much time in our own head. We are often told to “write what you know,” but if you limit your experiences to your writing shed, it can limit one’s scope. And of course, if you can’t get out and about as much as you’d like, just read the memoirs of other people’s experiences.
So get out. Leap into that new job you’ve been dreaming about. The unemployment rate has never been better, after all. Try a new experience. Learn a new language or craft at your local high school adult program, learn a musical instrument, join a new group, be it a painting klatch or mountaineering club. Volunteer at a food bank or museum. Broaden your experience, and if you remain open and observant, I guarantee you’ll never run out of ideas to inspire your writing.
I hear it’s good for staving off Alzheimer’s as well…
Rebecca is swamped today, so we’re featuring one of her more popular posts from our archives.
The day I stood in the choir loft surrounded by my fourth grade peers I had no idea that I was about to learn a lesson in suspense, terror, fear, retribution and resolution that would lead me to a career as a thriller author.
The day was hot, air-conditioning was unheard of, and we wore our itchy, ugly, brown wool Catholic school uniforms year ‘round to save our parents money. I was a very good girl. I never drew attention to myself, folded my hands with fingers pointing heavenward when I prayed, picked up trash on the playground and helped pass out papers in class. But that day, I made a blunder that put me in Sister Carmelita’s crosshairs. As she raised her arms and positioned her baton in anticipation of another rousing chorus of a hymn I have long forgotten, I rolled my eyes. Yep, I rolled them to the back of my little ten-year-old head in frustration and exhaustion.
Sister Carmelita cut her own my way. I realize now that she had mastered the art of eye cutting because she couldn’t move her head given her the box-like wimple. Everyone stopped breathing. No one knew what I had done, only that I had done something very, very bad.
“Miss Forster.” Sister Carmelita’s voice was modulated appropriately for God’s house. “Wait after choir.”
My stomach lurched. I felt light headed. I was doomed.
Sister Carmelita is long gone. During her time on earth she faced changes in her church and her life, but I doubt she ever knew how that day changed me. So, if you’re listening, Sister, I want you to know that, 30 years later, that moment sealed my fate. I spend my days writing thrillers, trying to recapture the exquisite sense of suspense I experienced that day. Here is what you taught me:
1) Less is More: Your understated notice of me, the glitter in your eye, the sound of your voice was more intriguing, more compelling, more enthralling than screaming, railing or ranting.
2) Timing is Everything: All 29 of my classmates knew I was in trouble. I knew I was in trouble. I even knew why I was in trouble (disrespecting you, God, choir practice, country, family and all living creatures with a roll of my eyes), yet you didn’t nip things in the bud with a mere instantaneous admonition. My comeuppance was exquisitely timed. You threw in an extra hymn to extend practice, studiously ignored me, meticulously folded your sheet music as my classmates silently went down the stairs. You waited until the door of the church closed, clicked and locked us together in that big, shadowy church before you turned.
3) The Devil’s in the Details: You were taller than me (back then almost everyone was taller than me), but that wasn’t why I was afraid. It was your whole package, the details of your awesome being that were so formidable. Covered head to toe in black, your face framed by your wimple (which, by the way, looked like the vice used during the Spanish Inquisition), your hands buried beneath the scapular that fell in a perfect column to the tips of your shoes, made for quite a package. But there was more: The scent of nun-perfume (I think it was soap, but it smelled like nun-perfume to me), the clack of those huge rosary beads attached to your wide belt, the squish of your rubber soled shoes. I saw all this, I heard all this, I smelled all this and each sense was heightened because of the hush surrounding us.
I remember your methodical advance into my personal space. I remember you lowering your eyes as I raised mine. The suspense was heart-stopping, the anticipation of my penance almost unbearable. Quite frankly, you were terrifying.
But here’s the funny thing: I don’t remember how it ended. Did you scold me, sister? Did you show mercy and forgiveness? I only remember being terrified. Like the brain of the seven year old Stephen King swears gives him inspiration for his horror books, you, Sister Carmelita, inspire every sentence I write in every thriller novel I pen. For that, I can’t thank you enough.
I also want you to know, I have never rolled my eyes at anything since that day in the choir loft.
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