April 17, 2017
Something bizarre happened to me yesterday. It was so strange that I haven't been able to fully process it even 24 hours later. It involved an impossible feat of physics, coincidence, and a brutal exercise in perspective. See this picture of my car's grill, noting the 2" x 4" openings in it? Hang onto that image because it is pivotal to this story.
But first, I need to tell you that it's been a difficult few weeks. The end of March, my sister announced that she and her partner of 17+ years are divorcing. He's a good guy. We love him, and of course we love her. My nieces are grown, but this still affects them. These sorts of lifequakes stir up unresolved family issues and arguments, too, at least they do in mine.
On top of that, my writing retreat business folded before it even got started. After five months of working like mad dogs with only a handful of sign-ups, in early April my partner Allison and I decided this is not the business for us. It was good to step away, but the whole experience is failure-scented.
Finally, my first and probably only nonfiction book releases in two short weeks. In it, I step out from behind the cloak of fiction to share how I turn my life into stories. I LIKE THE CLOAK OF FICTION. That's why I write novels and not memoirs, for the love of Pete. But the fact-to-fiction process has been so transformative for me, so healing and so much the seeds of great writing, that I can't keep it to myself. Sharing it is the right thing to do, just like the TEDx Talk was the right thing to do, but I've still felt like a naked freeway turtle for weeks now, that sensation growing stronger as my May 1 release date approaches.
So yeah. I've been on edge lately, pessimistic, overwhelmed, looking forward to something just around the corner that'll make me happy, promising myself life'll get better soon. (That's what's referred to as Minnesota optimism. You can put up with really cold winters if you spend your time thinking about summer.)
That's a recap of my recent life up until yesterday, which is where the weirdness begins. I was traveling the 3.5 hours south from my in-laws to my parents. I was driving fast, but not too fast. My mind wandered as I drove. I unraveled the guilt I felt for not spending the previous day with my kids, with Z only home from college for three days and X stressed from all the family changes. I worked through plot holes in Mercy's Chase, the next thriller in my Witch Hunt series. I daydreamed about the honeymoon Tony and I would finally take when we saved enough money and carved out enough time.
I was mostly feeling relaxed when I crested that hill and discovered...a flock of pheasants sitting on the road, in my path. I gasped. A car was coming toward me and the ditch to my right was steep. I had to stay in my lane. I slammed on my brakes, but it was too late.
Have you ever hit an animal with your car? It's one of the top five worst sounds in the world. It's visceral. It's hollow and solid and feathers and bone. It's pain and you created it. I sucked in my breath and my eyes shot to my rearview mirror. I grew up in the country and knew the rules: you didn't leave an animal to suffer. Please be dead please be dead please be dead. Except...I didn't see a carcass in the rearview mirror. My stomach dropped. The pheasant must be hung up somewhere on my vehicle. I drove a few hundred feet and parked on the shoulder, scanning the ditch for sticks. I was almost in tears because if I had to remove that poor creature from my car and then put it out of its misery with my bare hands...well, I couldn't think about that.
And for one sweet minute, I didn't have to. When I stepped out of my car and walked on trembly legs around to the front, I saw no bird. No feathers. No sign of an accident. I dropped to all fours. The pheasant wasn't under my car, either. I stood, glancing all around. I felt a little dizzy. No way way had I imagined this. I leaned against my car to catch my balance.
That's when the flapping began. The pheasant was trapped behind my grill.
Like some rural David Copperfield, that bird had squeezed his chicken-sized body through one of my grill's 4" x 2" openings while the car was traveling at 60 mph. Not possible. (Let me share the photo again here so you can see how impossible this was.) There was no way a pheasant was trapped inside of my car looking at me through my grill like my own personal zoo creature. Except that it was happening. I popped my hood, felt the seams along every inch of that grill, scoured the tire wheels and underbody, looked for any other possible explanation, but there wasn't one. The speed and angle must have been freakishly perfect.
Here's something they don't cover in driver's ed: what do you do when you find yourself on a lonely country road with a huge wild bird magically trapped in an inaccessible part of your vehicle? You get in the car and start driving, that's what. And then you call your husband who is 40 miles behind and to the east of you and has no suggestions off the top of his head but to be fair this was new territory for both of us. We agreed to meet 25 miles south where his road and mine converged. It seemed like a solid plan until I'd driven all of two miles and started crying. That poor bird. It must be terrified. I couldn't drive slower because then he'd be there longer, but I couldn't drive faster because the radiator would heat up faster. I was torturing this creature.
When I smelled burning feathers, I thought, That is the unluckiest bird in the world.
I couldn't keep driving for another 23 miles, not with that poor animal suffering. There was a closer town straight east. Going there meant I'd miss Easter dinner for sure, but I couldn't keep this up. Ten minutes later, I found myself pulling into a gas station, wondering if I should park with my pheasant facing or away from the store. I decided on facing. He flapped when I walked by.
Inside the gas station, I spotted a couple farmers talking. "Hey," I said, "I've got an odd situation and I'm hoping you can help?"
They gamely followed me outside, and in true Midwestern fashion, did not lose one ounce of their cool. "Well I'll be damned. That's a full-grown rooster you've got in there." They chuckled. They told me maybe I'd have pheasant for dinner. They looked every which on my car and came to the same conclusion as me: the only way in was through the grill, and the only way out was by dismantling the front bumper. I didn't have the tools. They didn't either. They pointed me toward the police department. The situation could've only grown more surreal if one of them took to the air himself.
At the police station, Officer Jeff didn't bat an eye when I told him I had something weird to show him--you guys, you really do need to visit Minnesota--and as soon as he laid eyes on the pheasant, he jogged back inside to grab a pair of gloves, some tools, and spent the next 20 minutes wordlessly removing my bumper. The longest sentence he strung together came after I asked him what we'd do when we got that poor bird out. I was not looking forward to seeing the shape he's in. He was surely broken every which way but Wednesday.
I wanted the officer to tell me that he'd take care of the bird. Instead he said, "Hopefully, it'll fly away."
Officer Jeff, for all of his quiet capability, was clearly a dreamer.
The top seal of the bumper was finally off. Jeff directed me to pull the lip of it forward and down, keeping out of sight because if that pheasant had one ounce of sanity left, he was going to hide from humans. I was still 99% sure that bird was never coming out and that I'd have to sell my car when a big pile of pheasant poop dropped near my feet, I heard a glorious mad fluttering, and that bird took off. Like, IT FLEW, low and wide, that graceful path that only a male pheasant can fly, most of his gorgeous tail feathers still intact. He disappeared over a hill into the nearby woods. I let the bumper slam back, ignoring the deep indents its left in my fingers. Jeff and I were standing side by side, watching the pheasant fly.
"It's an Easter miracle," I finally said. We both laughed.
He reassembled my bumper. Just another day at work for him. I thanked him profusely. Tony pulled up four minutes later and hugged me. There were a couple of those soft poofy underfeathers up by my engine, but no other evidence. We slid into our cars and drpve to my mom and dad's, where everyone had waited to eat until we arrived. The food was cold, the company good, and I couldn't stop thinking about that bird. He'd survived a collision with a car at 60 mph, had broken no bones as he slid through the tiniest of holes, and avoided being cooked alive on the radiator as we'd driven another 13 miles.
He was the luckiest bird in the world.
I'd thought the exact opposite when I'd hit him. I know life is about perspective, but it's a hard truth to remember. Thanks to the pheasant, though, there was no missing it yesterday, and I began to realign my own perspectives accordingly. My family shake-up sucks right now. It really does, but it's an opportunity for my family to clean out some calcified garbage. I lost $5000 and hundreds of hours trying to start that retreat business, but in the process, I remembered that I'm on this earth to be writing, not travel-agenting and marketing. More importantly? I realized that I've been living my life in the future for years now, waiting for the money and the time to finally enjoy myself. The time is now, always, and it was worth $5000 and hundreds of hours to learn that (I hope it's cheaper next time I have to re-learn that, which'll probably be in a few weeks). Also, thanks to that damn pheasant, I booked two trips yesterday, one of them my honeymoon, a year after my wedding. Yay! And finally, my book, Rewrite Your Life, my super-personal how-to guide that comes out May 1? Well, as my friend Aimee wisely said, for good or bad it's no longer my book. It now belongs to whoever reads it. I hope it brings them what they're looking for.
I'm smiling as I type this. I'm the luckiest bird in the world.
p.s. If you ever have a ridiculously weird crisis that need judgment-free help with, I can't recommend the Pelican Rapids police station highly enough. Ask for Officer Jeff.
March 20, 2017
I woke to two emails from a woman I have not met. I’d submitted a guest post for her blog. Her first email was a thank you and a lockdown on the posting date. Her second was a pile of mean wrapped in hair. She said she’d just read the article I’d submitted, didn’t know who had written it (surely it couldn’t have been me because she’d tracked down the one salvageable sentence to my blog so knew I could write and wanted more of that), said the rest had clearly been written by a “failed academic,” and declared that the last paragraph of the piece (which was my bio) read like an “infomercial,” so I needed to delete that but also, could I send her a bio?
She left me with two options, either to 1) write the article myself, or 2) have someone else write an article about me, because, “Mixing those two modes won't work. After all, I want your work and book to shine, Jess!”
I'm chuckling as I type this. The levels of absurdity (for the record, she actually had a good point about the tone; the rest was crazy cakes). But if you think I was anything but locked in Rage Tower, shooting death rays at my dog, husband, and child (price of admission, folks) after I read that second email, well, thank you for thinking so highly of me.
The Firestarter fury burned itself out within the hour, but it left behind a worm of doubt. Maybe this isn't the right time to write that book I've been dancing around for months…Now here is where it gets interesting for me. I’m 15 books into my career. I know the games I play, how I’ll scuttle into the nearest excuse and hide there, a hermit crab of a human being, comforting myself with the fact that of course I’d work on that book if not for this lovely, formfitting excuse.
But We Get to Play? The book I’m “working on” now? I’ve never gotten so personal in my fiction, and not coincidentally, desperate in my reasons not to write it. The book is Lovely Bones meets Stranger Things, a time travel to Paynesville, Minnesota, 1983, when boys were being abducted and returned but the adults never told us why. It’s an examination of the monsters we all grow up with. It’s mystery and magical realism, nostalgia and freedom. I’ve outlined it every which way but Wednesday, and now, I circle it. Looking for reasons not to write it.
Maybe I should self-publish a Murder-by-the-Month novella and make some quick cash so I can pay for the trip I want to take with my family, and then I’ll write this next book. And I’m going out of country in a couple days. I should wait until I return to dig in. And I have articles to write for my book that’s coming out May 1. That’s time sensitive. I should do that first. And I work too much. I need more time for fun, less time writing. I already have a full-time teaching job, I shouldn’t make writing another job. And maybe I’m not good enough of a writer to…
It’s that last weasel worry that finally woke me up to what I'd been doing, and I have this morning’s email to thank for it (you might want to take a gift-wrapping class, blog lady, but gratitude for the present just the same): Maybe I’m not a good enough writer to…I recognize that old friend. His name is Shame. He masquerades as a fear of failure, or a fear of success, a need to get this one page just right before I can even think about going on to the next one, a million reasons not to begin or not to continue, worry that I’ll waste hundreds of precious hours writing, that people won’t like the book, that they’ll see my imperfection laid bare in my words, or the order of my words, or that they just won't want to see my words.
I imagine that I'll wrestle with Shame at the beginning of every new book I write (he loses his seat at the table around page 100, dunno why), and I'll have to fight myself back to this place each time. Steven Pressfield does a great job naming this crisis of confidence in The War of Art. Anne Lamott offers an antidote in “Shitty First Drafts”--that whole book is a must-read. But here’s what I know, and what I forget with each book: there is only one cure for the shame, and it is this: word count.
The writing is the reward. The writing is the reward. The writing is the reward.p.s. If you feel like donating to my cause, it'd be totally gnarly if you'd post your favorite early-80s memory below--slang, song, TV show, etc. Suggestions on how you overcome the War of Art are also welcome.
March 2, 2017
Dr. Moriarty. Mrs. Coulter. Alec d'Urberville. Voldemort. Literature is full of deliciously evil antagonists, characters whose primary mission is to keep the story’s protagonist from achieving their goal. Without a villain to serve as a catalyst for the main character’s evolution, most literature would fall flat. Turns out people who make us uncomfortable can serve the same purpose in our own lives: if handled correctly, they super-charge our personal evolution. It doesn’t mean they’re fun to deal with, though, and that’s where transforming someone who has made your life difficult into a fictional antagonist can help you to process the experience and lighten your emotional load.
This 3-part activity is short, fun, and healing:
STEP 1: Freewrite to choose your antagonist.
Freewriting is a powerful tool for accessing your subconscious and boosting creativity. If you’re not familiar with process, it simply means writing for a set amount of time without pause and without judgment. For this first step, set your timer for ten minutes. During that time, write down everything that bubbles up in response to this question: What one person has recently caused me the most stress? Think about any interactions with this person, what happened, and how they made you feel. There is no wrong way to do this as long as you’re writing fast and furious, without criticism.
STEP 2: After your timer goes off, do a quick body scan as you think about the person you chose. Where in your body are you feeling the stress? Briefly record the location and sensation.
STEP 3: Create a character bible page for the person you chose.
A character bible is a notebook or a Word doc that a writer uses to organize a novel’s characters. Standard character bible entries include such things as the character’s name, physical details (height, weight, hair color, etc.), personality traits, and a brief background. For your character bible entry, you’re going to answer some very specific questions about the real-life villain you chose, making up answers where necessary. This fictionalizing of a real person is where the healing really takes off because it requires you to empathize, connect, and create.
Questions for your antagonist:
• What's your name? Nickname?
• What famous person do you most resemble?
• Of all your qualities, which one are you most proud of? Where do you think you acquired this quality?
• What do people seem to like the least about you? How does this make you feel?
• What habit of yours would you most like to change?
• If someone looked in your bathroom garbage right now, what would they find? How about your refrigerator?
• What scent do you enjoy the most, and what does it remind you of?
• If you could go back in time change one day of your life, what day would it be, and why?
• Who do you love most in the world and why?
• What scares you?
• What do you want more than anything? What challenges do you have to overcome to acquire it?
After you’ve completed this three-part exercise, do a body check again as you think about the person you chose in Step 1. I am certain you’ll find your stress has less power over you. How do I know? Besides the extensive science establishing that writing about a traumatic experience alleviates stress and boosts physical and mental health, I’ve got front-row experience. The first time I tried this exercise, I chose as my antagonist an ex-partner. I’ll call him Doug.
He was the first man I seriously dated after I unexpectedly lost my husband. I’d been a widow and single mom for five years when we met online. Doug was 40 years old, intense, smart, artistic, and wanted to return to college. I supported him financially and emotionally, absorbing his weekly outbursts and accommodating his growing jealousy. A month before he was scheduled to move into my house, I discovered that he was actively courting a 20-year-old woman he’d met at the tutoring job I’d helped him land.
I’ve got some personal responsibility in that scenario, for sure, but I was so angry and ashamed that I couldn’t get at the insight and payoff that I know lives inside of every awful experience. I developed this 3-step exercise as a way to not only forgive Doug but to celebrate his role in my personal evolution. As a bonus, I had great grist for a bad guy in a future novel.
Such is the power of rewriting your life.
p.s. A fun side note: two summers after Doug and I split, I received a phone call from an Unknown number. I was in the passenger seat of a rental car, traveling to Indiana to teach at a writing conference. I answered the phone. A private detective was on the other end of the line. Seems my ex was applying for a high security government job and the PI needed to call anyone he had had a relationship with in the past ten years as a character reference. I said that despite nearly four years together I was unable to give such a reference, hung up, and high-fived Karma.