Tuesday, February 23, 2010

An unwatched parade

One of the greatest rewards of being a writer is the transfer of your best thoughts onto paper. I have a folder of papers from high school that I have kept to remind me of how far I've come as well as what I have accomplished in the past. Sometimes, I just kept the original draft of an essay and the final product. Occasionally, I kept just the last page of the essay, where the teacher left comments and a grade. It was from pages like this that I learned words like "astute" and "poignant" and it lifts my spirits for me to remember that I've been called that.

On the other hand, it is an immensely difficult thing to be unsung. As I believe I've mentioned in the past, I am not a novice writer. I was first published at the age of 19, ten years ago. I have been writing fiction and non-fiction fairly consistently since the age of twelve.

I'm lucky to have one brother and he married a great girl who is now aspiring to be a novelist. Hers is the kind of story people will remember far down the road. While her husband did an internship and she was expecting my nephew, she wrote a chapter a week for her younger sister. She blogged about it, facebooked about it...

I'm not that kind of writer. Yes, I tell people about what I'm doing, but I don't make it a public spectacle. I have a good friend who is involved in a relationship and she is much more enthusiastic about the guy on Facebook than she ever is in real life because it's an attention-grabber and some people really need that. Me, I need attention, but have been treated for so long as someone not worth admiring that I just can't pull it off.

Not only that, but who will really care that this one author typed out her mediocre novel on a laptop with a couple of keys missing after putting in 8-hour work days while she was a nearly-30 spinster? After all, there are people out there writing bestsellers while bored and pregnant, on welfare and a single mom, whatever the latest story of the day is.

But it grates on me. I have been a published writer for 10 years and still overheard my mother say that it was exciting to "finally have a writer in the family." I went to my sister's baby shower and while all of my mutual friends with this in-law grilled her on when she'd be looking for an agent and how her latest chapter was coming, I couldn't get a single one of them to say hello to me, much less ask how my book was coming. When my siblings and I went to lunch with my favorite cousin, I attention-whored in desperation by making some critiques about the latest draft that I'd read of this in-law's book. Immediately, everyone admired how I was supporting the writer in the family. Ironically, this in-law is the only one of the family who even calls me anymore and it's generally to ask when we can have another word war.

In 7th grade, my best friend ditched me and took all of my friends at the time with her. I didn't realize this had happened until the day that I won 3rd place in the Boston Globe Art Awards and couldn't find a single person to be happy for me other than my art teacher. I spent the rest of 7th grade eating my lunch against the wall because I couldn't find a place to sit.

I feel exactly like that right now. I am doing something monumental and one person in my family seems to care. It's petty to whine that my siblings and cousins and friends care too much about someone else, but it would be nice if any of them cared at all about me.

In short, I am an unwatched parade. Plenty of pomp, circumstance, flash, excitement, but no one along the route to cheer me on.

In short (again), it blows.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

In Memory Of...

So, if you're not familiar with my fanfic tendencies, let me clue you in to a major one. I am good at writing character deaths. When writing a long story, that's one of the first things that I plan out and, strangely/sadly, I look forward to it. Not to the same degree as one reader who said quite memorably about one character, "Yay! They're married. Can he kill her now?" But I almost always start a story with a bit of wistfulness for those who will not make it to my closing word of every epic: "Finis."

Well, not so with this book. After writing Alex for a while, I wanted to kill him off, but wasn't about to be that petty. As soon as I worked out one part of the plot, I knew two characters were going to die as a result of that crucial part.

But, as I said, the book is being written non-linearly. I first wrote the scene that is in the aftermath of that crucial part and a huge emotional impact comes from the death of this one character. Then I went back and wrote the scene preceding the event and realized that I could choose whether or not to kill that person off.

And so I reached my first actual crisis of character when it came to a death. I can't claim that I shed any tears over the idea, but I really like this character. "Good old JK" says that Harry Potter came fully-fledged into her imagination and this relatively minor character is like that. I don't remember coming up with her, but in one of the first scenes I wrote, there was a lovable bisexual redhead who eschewed cars and rode her bicycle everywhere. She and that bicycle kept turning up and I'm not sure where the bisexual part of her came from (we've never seen it manifest yet), but once I started getting to know her, I realized she was. She was another person that cracks me up in this story and I needed a character like her. Sadly, for the interest of making the villains as cunning as they're supposed to be and for the purpose of driving a permanent wedge between two characters, she's going to die after all.

One other character that is like that but who is NOT going to die is Julie. In my very first draft of Chapter 1, I was introduced to Ella's best friend, a wisecracking person whose bag looks like AC/DC and Jackson Pollock got into a fight. She was based on a friend of mine, but her artistic sense is based on one of my three best friends in high school, who decorated everything from her bag to her Converse with Wite-Out. When I went to mywebface.com to discover her appearance, I found out that she looked something like my very good friend and ex-roommate. I didn't realize it until I got to her glasses and went "Wow, wait...That's just weird."

I love being introduced to my characters.

I'm getting to 100 pages of text this week! Wish me luck!

Saturday, February 13, 2010


If you've never gone to this symposium (Life, the Universe and Everything), you are missing out. First of all, it's a weekend of scholarly geekdom where they have everything from "World-building a religion" to "Interesting Facts about Killers," costuming workshops to "Saturday's Werewolf: Vestiges of Pre-Mortal Romance in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight." You can walk around and see people dressed in the occasional costume, but regular people as well.

One of my favorite things about the symposium is the laid-back kind of atmosphere that comes out because it is a small symposium. Two years ago, I was on the organizing committee and got to take Gail Carson Levine out for a leisurely lunch where we discussed writing. Today, I was standing in the registration room, started talking to someone who wanted me to read the new Brandon Sanderson book and then Brandon Sanderson turned around from his place nearby and started debating his comedic style in his various series with us.

Whether or not I ever have hordes of readers and fans, I want to be that kind of writer. Someone who will hang out with the fans at signings or be willing to talk about what I meant by certain things in my books.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Confessions of a Survivor

So, it's now after midnight on February 8 and I feel more comfortable writing on this topic than I do on February 7.

I've talked about the inspiration for the plotline, some of the fundamental philosophies that I'm working with, etc. but I'd like to address some of the characterization and plot issues based on my own life.

So, as I mentioned before, I'm a Bostonian Mormon. No, that's not like a Roman Catholic, more like a New York Jew. Regional attitude+religion.

Anyway, so some 10.5 years ago, I met this really nice guy named John who was from the Detroit area. He made me laugh, had little fear and was a good friend to me. A year later, he left to be a missionary in Nevada. By the time he finished his two years as a missionary, I'd left to be a missionary for 18 months in California. On my first day back at our mutual alma mater of Brigham Young University, I ran into him again and spent 5 hours of the next two days talking to him. Three days after we ran into each other again, he called to ask me on a date for Sunday, but ended up taking me to a Star Wars marathon that same night.

I fell hard in love with him. We were history nuts with a lot of things in common, were supportive of each other and he made me profoundly happy. On June 12, 2004, we got married in Salt Lake City so both sets of grandparents could make it.

On February 7, 2005, my friend Amy picked me up from my apartment. Dad had offered to let me have a small vacation by giving me a plane ticket to Virginia, where my sister lived. I kissed John, promised I'd try to be back in time for Valentine's Day and that I'd call as soon as I could. Amy drove me to the Mt. Timpanogos Transit Center a few miles away and put me and two suitcases on a bus to Salt Lake City.

That was the end of a very long week. Two weeks before then, John had tried to choke me to death for wanting to go to choir rehearsal because they didn't want "lying b****es" like me there.

A few days later, Dad had a fight with John and offered the plane ticket because John seemed to be emotionally abusive. I got that voicemail just before singing a concert with BYU Women's Chorus and when I couldn't stop crying between the rehearsal and the concert, I told the conductor that it was because of my broken tailbone.

The following Monday, I was on my way to apartment-hunt with John when my sister called to convince me that I should take the plane ticket and get away for a little while before John got physically abusive. I blurted out the truth and only convinced her not to tell my mother by saying I was going to talk to my aunt who's a family therapist the next day.

On February 1, I met my aunt for a concert and asked to talk to her outside for a few minutes. She convinced me of the same thing that my sister and father had suggested. As we were leaving the concert, John became worked up over the traffic that was caused by the concert and attacked me again. The police were called, but I didn't press charges. The people who kept him away from me until the police arrived were two missionaries assigned to work with the Church's Family Services and they offered to provide therapy to me if I should ever need it. By the end of the night, I had asked Dad to arrange my flights. The missionaries would later become my therapists and good friends.

On February 3, I wrote my mother-in-law to tell her that John had become physically, emotionally and sexually abusive and that I was going to take a few days away to let things cool down. I warned her that I might have to simply leave before that date and she responded to say that she supported that and was willing to lend me any money I would need to leave.

Money was tight because of our status as starving students as well as my medical bills from a recent surgery. The next day, I went to my usual Women's Chorus rehearsal without having had food to eat all day and needing to walk home because I didn't have bus fare. One of John's friends who was a fellow Alto II gave me a granola bar and bus fare because of my rotten day. On the bus, I ran into Amy, a friend I hadn't seen in months who knew both John and myself from our honors program. She was the first mutual friend that I told about the abuse and she called in 'sick' to work, bought me dinner and then kidnapped me for a night. By the time she gave me a ride home, we had set a date and time for me to get out.

I took the bus on February 7 to my parents' place in Salt Lake City. My Mom had been on tour with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir when my sister blabbed the news that I might be leaving an abusive marriage. She immediately asked about any current bruises or injuries, but my major complaints were a sore wrist that had been bothering me since August and a pain in my ribs. Neither was serious and there was no bruising in the rib area, so we gave no thought to it. I learned 4 months later that the sore wrist had actually been broken when he beat me on Christmas afternoon. It was not until February of 2009 that a chest x-ray looking for pneumonia showed a growth on one of my ribs that was thought to be cancerous and turned out to be an improperly-healed fracture from my days as Mrs. Lambert.

I spoke to John several times over the next week, but when he threw a telephone through our wall when I said I wasn't able to come home for Valentine's Day, I decided to take further action. My parents helped me find a divorce lawyer who suggested that I seek an annullment and I went into hiding until the papers could be signed. I tried to make arrangements to return to BYU while my parents worked out possible ways that John and I could attend the same university without coming to blows. I was on-campus for a meeting with an advisor and Dad one day when John spotted me across the street. He ran over, ecstatic that I had come back to him when he thought I was still in Virginia and Dad physically kept me away from him until we got into the car and left. John followed us to my parents' apartment and tried to get into the apartment while I hid in the master bathroom and hyperventilated. Dad convinced him to go outside to talk and with the doors closed and thirteen floors of apartment building between us and the sidewalk, we could still hear John's screaming fight. He fled to his grandparents' house, where they took him to the hospital to be sedated and had him restrained by police. A few days later, he had been ejected from the university and his parents removed him to Michigan where he spent some time in a mental facility and was unable to hold down a job because of his mental instability. We know now that his diagnosed ADHD was actually Aspberger's Syndrome and he has been treated accordingly, but on May 19, 2005, a judge ruled that our marriage had never existed.

Five years later, I'm still single and still have times when this affects me as profoundly as it did then. I have had clinical depression since I was 14. Last year, when I found out that all my fear over having cancer were due to the fact that I never got that pain in my ribs diagnosed as a broken rib, I plunged into an abyss of anger and profound depression that affected me until several months later.

Sometimes, I wonder how much of my writing is influenced by all of this. I wrote a draft of a novel in 2005 and one of the major themes was the destruction of a friendship by abuse and unrighteous dominion. I still haven't gone back to revise that novel because I'm not sure of how I would write it now.

As I've said before, a central theme in this book is the question of who you are really able to trust and the unreliability of traditional mentors. I have to wonder if some of those philosophies stem not from my original interpretation of The Matrix Reloaded but from my anger at having been denied traditional happiness that's supposed to result from marriage to your soulmate. Mormons believe that marriage can be eternal; my marriage lasted 11 months and 7 days and is now annulled.

Sometimes, I look at the writing that I've done so far and castigate myself for seeing Alex too much as John and trying to turn Ella into what I think I should have been back then. I certainly have more empathy for her because like me, she is forced to turn her back on someone she trusted implicitly for her own sake.