What Will You Give Up To Write?

It’s a great question to ask yourself. What will you give up? What will you sacrifice? Are you hungry enough? Hungry enough to be a writer?

It’s a question we’re asked in the MFA program. Are we hungry enough? Do we care enough? There’s a spark, a flame in us, there has to be. We all moved to Montpelier for this graduate school, for the chance to study in a Writing and Publishing MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts. But can we maintain it? Keep going? We’re adults here, it’s up to us. No one else cares as much as we do about our own writing. It’s as simple as that. No one else cares as much as we do about our own writing.

Literary citizenship comes up to, how we interact within the writing community. At clown school, I remember being reminded that it was more important to be consistent, to show up than it was to be a genius. If we were difficult, if we just took without giving back, our reputation took us down regardless of what we created.

I see it here too. Who cares and is generous with the other students. Who goes out of their way to help, give thoughtful feedback when asked, in short, who shows up for others. Seeing how we are (mostly) being there for each other is incredible, we’re in this together. We all want to become better writers. We need each other. We learn from each other. This community is ours for the rest of our writing lives. It’s important.

Yet, the truth is we are alone. No one makes me get up early to write. No one demands me that I edit and revise my prose. No one stands in the corner, tut-tutting when I stare out the window or look at Facebook or drift off.

No one but me. I’m here. I moved 2400 miles. My friends and family are far away. I’m here at my desk. It’s eleven on a Sunday morning and I’ve written a new sketch/ prose poem, revised three others, edited a book review, and started editing a travel essay someone has sent for publication on Wanderlust. I might go for a walk again soon but not yet, I’m caught up in the daily focus of writing. Reading is later in the day, not yet, not now, I’ll get to that later on.

So what did I give up to be here? To live as I have for years? Especially for the last 18 months with no income but what comes from writing and editing. It was a good question from Sean Prentiss, a good lecture from Julianna Baggott. It’s lingered in me this week. In no particular order, this is a list of what I’ve given up, so far.

  • new clothes
  • routines
  • netflix
  • new music
  • new books
  • boots that fit properly
  • organic food
  • going out to restaurants
  • furniture
  • a new car
  • going to movies
  • heating
  • home upgrades
  • hairstyles
  • motels and hotels
  • a full pantry
  • my home in Bromsgrove
  • my home in Madrid
  • family
  • friends
  • lovers
  • kids
  • and boredom

You see, it’s time to live up to my potential. I’m hungry. I want to claim my place in the writers’ community. Let me know how I can help. I’ll be there. One way or another, I want to give back. I am here. I’m not giving up, not now.

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Call For Submissions

 

Wanderlust Journal is looking for travel narratives and stories from the road, all those explorations in landscape and environment.  Wanderlust Journal  has an ongoing curiosity into how travel changes us, the reasons we leave home, and what we experience. We’re looking for new voices and emerging writers to publish. Why? There is a shortage of quality places focused on these travel essays.

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Do you have something to say? Well written and evocative of something more than just a personal experience that takes the reader to see the world in new ways? We’d love to hear you.

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Unfortunately, we are currently unable to provide payment for publication in Wanderlust Journal. One of our long term goals is to reach that point. We have no university funding, grants, scholarships, subscriptions, or memberships. The $5 submission fees only cover the Submittable website and our own. We are volunteers, the readers, editors, publishers. This is a work of love for a good story.

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Wanderlust Journal – click here for more information. Thanks!

Stay Hungry. Stay Human.

GRAB LIFE.

Grab your beloveds and tell them. Go after your dreams. Be hungry. Act on your hopes, on your ideals, stop making the same bloody excuses. This is it. This is your life. Please grab it. Be hungry. Stay awake. There are no guarantees, we don’t know how long we have. We don’t know what our friends and loves are going through. We don’t know when our own clocks will go silent. GRAB YOUR LIFE and claim it. Every fucking day.
Too many friends have lost people the last few weeks. Four people in my world died. So please stop fucking around. This is it. This is your life. Stay hungry. Stay human. Unless you’re a dog, then just be a dog. Running full out.

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Fiction: The Arc of the Plot

As Julianna Baggott said in class:

  1. Breathe in.
  2. Hold it.
  3. Hold it.
  4. Just a little longer.
  5. Release.

Funny, yes? But oh my, so true. I look at the stories and sketches I’m writing these days and they each have that basic arc. It’s such a simple lesson. One worth sharing.

 

This #1

It’s not as expected, this apartment. It’s in a basement. To look out the windows, I have to stand up. The dogs see only fake wood paneling. The cat sits on the windowsill, unhappy to be trapped inside. I can’t breathe. The landlady shows us around, quite the good cheerleader, and nodding and smiling, I suppress a panic. What can I say? We’re outdoor dogs, even Little Stevie, or should I call him Cat Stephen now that he’s an adult? Go deep, I tell myself all the time, go deeper. That doesn’t mean into a basement.
In my twenties, I worked for a metal worker in Santa Fe. Taken by the piles of steel in the yard, the shapes and weight, the sounds of the mig welder and that raw sharp smell of the grinder, I walked in, scruffy as usual, looking the part already. Within a short conversation, my unskilled self had an internship with Flip. I worked with him mostly, but helped Larry, the tall twiggy owner, by spraying polyurethane and paint onto finished lamps, tables and gates, sniffing deeply in the afternoon thunderstorms. Flip, or Phillip to his parents, was a stocky thick set local, blackened by the work, and with a huge laugh that flew out of him like a startled rabbit, Flip had ways to box people on first impressions.

“You’re an outdoor dog. There are indoor dogs and outdoor dogs. You belong outside.” Flip chuckled, as he looked me up and down, both of us a similar age and height. “Yep. Don’t be fooled. You’ll not be happy with a desk job. So, anyway, if you can carry that angle iron, the ten-footer over, I’ll set it up for you to grind the edges smooth before I tack weld it to the rest of the framework. Got it?”
Yes, an outdoor dog. Still scruffy, I sit in this basement apartment and plan an escape. It’s been three nights. I can’t do it. This dungeon will kill my spirit, my energy and me. Each night, I close the computer, try to read, and hope for night to fall so I can sleep and start again. Count down to moving out. It’s four o’clock, the rain thunders against the window, the lights are all on, and for a summer’s afternoon, it’s a dark cold afternoon down here. Can I go back to bed? Please? Yes, it’s been three nights. I drove over 2450 miles from New Mexico to move here, into a ‘downstairs apartment with windows overlooking the lawn’ and technically, that’s what I have here but –

But. I see the lawn at eye level. Harold and Rosie admire the fake wood flooring. Stevie makes his escape and sits under a shed by the van. With coffee in hand, I head out with the dogs who run for the trees and lift legs with glee. The clouds hang low over the pines and the many other tall deciduous trees that I no longer recognize after a lifetime in the Southwest. Breathing deeply, I crouch down onto my haunches, sip coffee and watch the trucks and cars fly by on this busy highway. What have I done now? Oh shit. I wanted a challenge. This might be too much. Not a quitter, there has to be a way. A ladder up and out of this dark pit. The mozzies find me and after a shuffle to the van for another layer of pure DEET, I sit back down and consider the options. Harold and Rosie ask to sit in the van, a Dodge conversion van that I’d stripped out and installed with a platform bed, some drawers, stocked with clothes and a basic kitchen set-up, for three pets and myself to drive slowly cross country. It’s a better home than this. Can we simply move back in? Yeah, why not. It’s home. Fuck it. I’ll live in a van.
So what’s so bad about a dungeon? I mean, a basement? Claustrophobia. Depression. Panic attacks. Trouble breathing. Trouble eating. Eyes flicker. Heart races. Blood pounds. Clammy neck. Feet sweat. Trouble waking. Trouble sleeping. Lack of creativity. Lack of room to move. Lack of windows to stare out of as I write and sketch. Lack of light. Did I mention panic attacks? Oh, yes, well, more of those. I can’t do it. I can’t. I can’t.

The coffee is done, time for more. Not one of the critters will come back inside. As I wait for the kettle to boil in this kitchen with no windows, I mentally write a list of my ideal place.

  • Pet-friendly
  • Walks and gardens for critters to explore
  • Under $600
  • Two vehicle parking
  • Well-lit, sunshine, windows, all that good stuff for outdoor dogs
  • Heat and internet included
  • Space and quiet to write and draw

The basics.

Within two days, I’m offered a few places. One is so far out of my budget that I don’t bother checking. The other two appeal. Most of the boxed checked positively, and so with hope, I load up the van with dogs, trick Stevie into the dungeon with wet cat food and a taste of cream. Then we go a looking. Fingers crossed. Toes unstuck from fake floor, I clean myself up quickly but not thoroughly. The usual.

“Up the first street at the lights in town, left after four miles, across the dam and past the pond, drive 1.8 miles and I’ll the first home on the left,” says Carol.
The drive was refreshing, the lake tempting, and with hope in me, we parked outside a single story home in the trees on five acres. Yep. I could do this.

Yes. I can do this. Carol’s dog is a sweetheart, a shy timid Collie rescue called Jim. She’s a forthright, messy and friendly woman of a similar age to me. We get along great, easy conversation, but the room is small even though it has good windows facing south. Carol chats away as she tells me of the room she’d make for me, emptying this shelf, this table, this box, yes, the place is cluttered. “I haven’t had roommates for about six years though, so let me think about this again. Women of a certain age…”

Yes, she said that to describe me. Me! Really, I only just turned fifty dammit, and it’s already begun? Wow. Not a good wow.

“Up County Road, past the Corner store that is also a post office and a pub, head another few miles when it turns to dirt and you’ll see a log cabin set off the tracks a ways,” says Anne.

The road to Anne’s is through open agricultural land, farms, log homes, up and through the trees and past the store. I stop in and poke around the shelves, ones full of healthy dried goods, quality coffee beans, fresh veggies, and beer. In the back is a tavern that’s open four evenings a week with live local music. I like this place. They are looking for help. Hmm…

Anne’s on the deck sweeping off a few leaves. Her shitzu pup wanders over to meet mine and tails wag as Anne laughs, a hearty booming breath up to the skies. She’s a full soft woman of a ‘certain age’ like me, yes I said it, and we hit it off. She shows me her apartment. It’s a dungeon. Even worse than where I am now. I stifle the panic and climb up and out, staring at my camper van with longing. Yep, fuck it, we’ll live in the van.

“I can’t do it. I’m sorry.” I explain the fear and terrors that come with dark and closed in spaces. Hands twitch and heart races within my one and only clean tee shirt; humidity kills laundry. Fear does too.
“Well, would you like a coffee any way?”

In the kitchen, we prop ourselves against counters and keep chatting. It’s a shame that the apartment is down in the ground, not even one window to sit at except from the toilet. I know. I know…who could live like that? Not me obviously. Nor my critters.

Anne and I chat about writing, college, and animals. Her big dog died last fall. Her old cat soon after. After mentioning Cat Stephen, Anne shows me a cat door, mudroom for the litter box, and when we put away the now empty coffee mugs, she takes a breath.

“Do you need your own space? What about sharing this home?” She grins cautiously.

“Why? What do you have?” Messy hope slips against grainy hope to live in a nurturing home like this. If only.

Upstairs are two bedrooms in the roofline of this log home. One end of the house is hers, a master bedroom and a bathroom. The other corner has two small rooms looking out onto her twelve acres, a field full of apple trees, and there’s even falling down wooden shed in the meadow that needs help, perhaps for chickens she offers.

“I’m sorry but the curtains don’t close, it’s very bright in here. Too much for me. And in this room,” she shows me the other one, “this room was my crafts and books and storage. You could have both rooms, if you like. This could be a writing studio. If it’s not too bright.”

Looking out of the window, I breathe and imagine sitting up here with a desk and laptop, reading and writing, watching the dogs play in snow as Stevie sits in an apple tree.
“Yes. This is perfect. This.”

So, how are the rattlers at your place?

“How are they? Er, fine, thanks, pretty healthy.”
I smiled and wondered if that’s what he meant, this tourist I was chatting with at the coffee shop in town. Here I am in Madrid, NM, talking about rattlesnakes as usual. It’s the season for paranoia. I’m over it to be honest, looking forward to moving to Vermont, a place of bugs and mozzies, something less life-threatening. I can deal with that.

So what do you say to the question about rattlers? Where do I begin? Do you want the statistics of injuries, deaths, human encounters or animal encounters? The names and numbers of those who’ll come take care of the snake for you? Talk of Little Chris, who once drunk as a skunk, thought he could pick one up with his hand. He ended up in hospital for a week. Stories, you want stories? Are you sure?

We had a few bad years, the moisture and springtime brought an abundance of mice, rats, rabbits and snakes. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Or rather, I’m going back too far. Let’s talk about now. In May 2017.

This week, Rosie my mini-Husky/ lab mix, went to the vet for blood work so we can start her on heartworm. We had to sedate her, and that alone took an hour to mellow her out enough to then cover her in a towel while Nan took blood. While we’re sitting around after Harold, the other dog, a Collie/ Husky mutt recovered from minor surgery, and Rosie is trying not to fall asleep, Nan tells me of a rattlesnake bite. Damn, already? I’m not ready, already…

Rebecca’s young dog, Nika, was bitten on the nose, spent the night in the emergency care at the local vets in Santa Fe. Costly, scary, not something I wish on anyone. I forget though, how unusual this is, this risk of rattlers. In a presentation given at Overland Expo in Flagstaff, one of the crowd asked me where I lived since so much of the class was spent on the subject of how to take care of rattlesnake bites and more importantly, all those little things we can do to limit the risks. Like move to Vermont, that sounds good to me.

I’ve been at home in New Mexico since 1993. It’s been a while, I come and go most years, most months even, but rattlers are part of life here. No flip-flops on walks. Cut the weeds and grass near your home and on paths. Clean up the piles of lumber, trash, recycling etc to keep rats away and also so there are less places for the snakes to claim as their own . Don’t walk around at night in the height of summer. Don’t walk around in the evenings and mornings of spring. It’s all about timing, temperature, season. There’s so much to consider. Not that I knew any of this when I bought my land outside of town. Finally, I was a grown up! I had property, twenty acres, an adobe shack to create into a home. All within reach of the local village, it seemed perfect. In many ways, it is.

That first summer though was a challenge, emotionally. Living in a school-bus, raising a new puppy, Harold the Handsome, and building a home while working as a landscaper the rest of the week. Damn I was fit. And busy. It was a good life. I had a home! Well, almost. The shack was about twenty by twenty with a flat roof that leaked, broken windows, dark and dank, with straw and dirt floors. The fourth wall, facing the driveway, was incomplete, some windows, some half-finished stable doors and not much else. I put the mattress inside once I’d cleaned up after the last human pack-rat/ squatter had left it filled with pipes, broken tools and gadgets, dirty clothes, old rotten sleeping bags for him and his kid. I’d claimed it back to health, swept the dirt, put in a camp-chair, a mattress, and a stove for coffee in the mornings. Home, I had my own home.

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Harold woke me up with a squeak. Dark inside our new home, I fumbled for the flashlight but couldn’t find it. Harold squeaked a puppy yip of fear. A rattle sounded. I froze. Harold shook. At the end of the bed, a rattler coiled up and stared us down. Saying nothing, I slowly climbed out of bed, clutching Harold to me, and hugged the walls, gently moving around the bed and out the front almost-door.

I stashed Harold in the truck. I locked the doors.
No, I don’t know why, but I locked the doors. No snake would get him now.

It was five in the morning. What the hell was I to do? My friends Alexis and Alan were camped on the land with their two kids. I wrote a note and stuck a rock on top so they’d find it on opening their doors in the morning. First light was creeping over the horizon and I craved coffee. To Java Junction then. Down the dirt road and into Madrid we drove. Harold on my lap, me trying not to cry. It was too early though, the cafe wasn’t yet open. I drove to Carol’s and woke her. Eyes still closed, she passed me the tools. I shook my head.

“You want me to do it?”

Nod. Nod. Desperate nod. Carol was one of our local snake-wranglers, and of course I wanted her to do it. I was too freaked out. This was my home. My supposed safe space. Home. Home isn’t meant to be invaded by things that kill. That’s in movies and books. Not real life. Not my life.

“Okay, give me half an hour. I’ll meet you at Java. I need a shower.”

A shower? At this time? It’s too important for a damn shower…but I nodded, mute as ever, and wandered next door. Elisa came to the porch in pajamas.

“Ooh, yes, let me get my gun! I’ll meet you at Java.” She trotted off excited by my news. No need for a shower for the Minx.

By seven o’clock, I’d rallied a team of gunslingers, hoe-holders, kids, families on holiday, families just curious, Grandmas and kin, all ready to take down this snake for me. We couldn’t find the fucker though. My not-quite-a-home was barren, dirt walls, dirt floors, wooden beams and little else. Where could it be? Carol and I slowly lifted the mattress, nope. Then the box spring, nope. I slashed the fabric underneath to make sure, what a nightmare that would’ve been, to find it hiding in my bed the next night. Then Carol mentions how snakes climb. As one, we all look up at the wooden ceilings, above us in the trees but nothing. Carol stepped lightly in ever-widening circles and under a thick juniper some fifteen feet from the house, she found it. A six-footer. Thick of waist and hearty with hissing, it rattled furiously as she caught it in her home-made noose, and dropped it into a metal trashcan. Alexis slammed the lid. Elisa reluctantly put the gun away. The kids loved it: Viv, Sofia, Zoe and Kathryn, all under ten years old and loving every moment. Not me. Not so much. But we were done, right?

Half of the crew left, and Harold was allowed out of the locked truck. He wandered around, sniffing and peeing as puppies do. Then Carol mentioned that at rattlers often pair up.
“I think there’s another one near by. It’s just a sense.”

Oh great. Just great.

Harold was quickly deposited back in the truck. I hid on the far side of the house, rocking manically when Elisa joined me. Five feet something, a Chicagoan folk artist who inspires me constantly with her quirky views and manners, she pulls up the only other chair. The adobe wall behind us hides us from the Sleam Team and it’s peaceful, briefly. She sighs and picks at a rock, making shapes with the scattered debris at her feet.

“They found another. The dilemma now is, what to do with it. They can’t open the trash can because number one wants out. So, I think-”

Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam.

There goes Elisa’s gun as she finishes by saying, “-that Alexis is going to shoot the second one. She might even-”

Bam. Bam.

“-shoot the first one too.”

I can’t deal, suddenly I’m sobbing in the corner with Elisa awkwardly being there for me. Pat. Pat. We’re not the cuddly type. Pat. Pat. Young Viv comes around the corner with a bloody rattle in her hand, dripping down her five-year old skinny forearm, happily showing “Look what I got! Dad cut it off for me! Do you want the other one?”

“Viv,” says Elisa, “now might not be the best time.”
“Oh, okay. I’ll show the others.” Viv wandered off around back to the activity out front.

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These days, the old timers in Madrid call me Snake: they don’t know that I’d cried. I didn’t mention that part. I did get pretty good at dealing with the snakes on my own. I’ve caught three or so per year in the last nine years up here, killed some, got friends to catch some, and even called Animal Control at times. All in a summer’s work, right? What’s the big deal? It just never ends…

A few years later, we had the snake season from hell. A neighbor of mine was breeding them, not intentionally, but you know, three acres of stuff, piles of broken down vehicles, trash, lumber, firewood, old mobile homes and trailers, his property was a hotbed of snake sex. Nine dogs were bitten that summer. Three died. One was a puppy, a little boy I’d called Eric, he and his siblings used to come hang out with me next door. Too young, too small, he’d swollen and died. My snake magic couldn’t help him. I did adopt the rest of his litter though, fostered until we found them all homes, safe homes.

Snake magic. I say that with a shake of the head. So Santa Fe, I can’t wait to be gone from those who tell me all about snake magic, ask me what I’m transforming or shaking off, pronounce my need to let go of old ways to shed the skin of blah-de-blah-de-bloody-blah. I’m too pragmatic, too bloody English for such talk. I nod, mutely, and watch where I step.

After getting back from the vet this week, Harold was sleeping in the house after having a lump removed, and Rosie staggered around, telling the cat, “I’m fine, fine. Just can’t walk too well, right now. Oh shit, SNAKE!”

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.

The monotonous single bark alerts me. She’s seen a snake. I race out and coach her and Little Stevie, the cat, back into the house. With dog-door closed, I look for the snake. It’s six inches of dried cholla. She was tripping. False alarm. Thankfully. I’m over it. Bloody snakes.

At least the home is finished now.  I can sleep safely.

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