Facebook, Undead Russians, and the Tying of Loose Threads

Terrance Winter, a writer for The Sopranos, has a ready answer when asked about the most frequent fan question he fields — hands down, it’s about the episode with the missing Russian. What happened to the Russian?!

If you’ve seen the series, you know what I’m talking about. The episode, called Pine Barrens, features a botched execution of a Russian thug and his subsequent mysterious disappearance into the frozen wilderness of New Jersey. Neither the Russian nor his would-be corpse makes any other appearance in the series, and the mystery surrounding his whereabouts is never solved. It drives people bananas. Series creator David Chase had this to say about the episode:

This is what Hollywood has done to America. Do you have to have closure on every little thing? Isn’t there any mystery in the world? It’s a murky world out there. It’s a murky life these guys lead. [1]

Part of me loves this mystery. But that part is infinitesimally tiny compared to the part of me that feels that the NOT KNOWING is an unscratchable itch that will preoccupy my psyche until kingdom come.

I had reason to revisit my hatred for loose threads recently because I experienced the unparalleled joy of tying off a thread that has been dangling for the better part of thirty years. When I was in fifth grade, my best friend moved away. This was back when long distance phone calls were expensive and when the internet was still only a gleam in Al Gore’s eye. My friend and I exchanged letters for a few months, but quickly lost touch. I’ve often wondered about her over the years, but web stalking never turned up any clues to her whereabouts. Recently, though, I happened upon her mother’s Facebook page, which led me back to her. Thanks, Evil, Personal-Data-Stealing Corporation! My childhood friend is happily married, owns a powerboat, and seemed only mildly disturbed by my decades-long obsession with finding her.

As a writer, I am torn by the same impulse that led Chase and Winter to craft a messy ending for the Pine Barrens episode. I’ve written before about the unanswered questions in the Lindsay Harding series. My latest book will (I hope) be the start of a new middle-grade adventure series set in Scotland, and my initial draft left many questions unanswered. Life, after all, is a tangled ball of loose threads that dwarfs the biggest twine balls in Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Missouri. You hear that, Midwestern states? Your balls are not as big as you think.

I’m also a reader, though. With the help of a kindly literary agent, I realized that the initial ending I wrote was unsatisfactory, especially for a middle-grade audience. Readers needed more answers than I had given. As I polish this new draft, I’m trying to strike the right balance of resolution and continuing mystery. It turns out that resolution is as easy as killing a Russian in the Pine Barrens, which is to say not very easy at all. Wish me luck!

Virtual Tour of a Virtual Book

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This month, I’m going on an actual trip with my actual family of squishy little humans, the first proper vacation we’ve had in several years. I will bring a real book made of paper, and read it with my eyeballs while sipping a tropical cocktail and raking sand with my newly-pedicured toes.

I’m also going on a trip next month, but not really. There will be people there, but not really. And there will be books, but not really.

Allow me to explain.

Next month’s trip is a virtual audiobook blog tour kindly organized by Jess the Magnificent at Audiobookworm. The way it works is, Jess sends virtual copies of my audiobooks to reviewers and bloggers who agree to post reviews, interviews, excerpts, and other content on their blogs on certain dates. As the author, I make the rounds on social media and online, commenting and interacting with each blogger on the assigned day. No actual anything changes hands at any point. None of us ever meet in person. The reviewers never hold a copy of my book in their hands. We are living in the future, people.

For both kinds of trips, prep is key. On the blog tour, all the content has to be requested, created, and shared on a strict timetable for the tour to run smoothly. So while I’m frantically trying to make sure that we’ve packed swim diapers, sunscreen, and a bunch of those little pouches of pureed fruit that are like baby crack for the actual trip, I’m also trying to prepare Top Ten lists, photos, and publicity blurbs for the blog tour. Even with Jess as my virtual travel agent, creating a two-week digital trip is almost as exhausting as planning a family holiday that will please both my toddler and my teenager. (Both kids like sleep and melted cheese, so I’m building our itinerary around those things).

I’m SUPER excited about both trips, and I hope you will come along. On the virtual one, that is. You are totally not invited to the beach.

Word architects

After a long hiatus, I finally started working on a novel again this month. With apologies to all the very patient Lindsay Harding fans, I haven’t started working on the next chaplain mystery. Instead, I’ve begun revising the manuscript for the middle-grade adventure novel I wrote a few years back in the hopes that I can submit it to agents in the fall. It feels good to be back in the saddle!

During this fallow period in which the sum total of my finished writing projects consisted of a single 1,500 word short story, something surprising happened. I’ve been offered two really cool opportunities to put on my Author Hat© and do Cool Author Things©. In my experience, that doesn’t usually happen. I’ve found that if I don’t promote the heck out of my books, attend conferences, and crank out new material, my sales dwindle to a trickle and my Author Hat© gathers dust in its metaphorical closet. Luck was on my side the past few months, though!

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Celebrating with Jeri Rogers, Literary Editor of Artemis Journal at LitFest Pasadena.

Cool thing No. 1: I got to go to LA and be fancy in a room full of extraordinarily talented people. That 1,500 word short story I mentioned above won the Artemis-Lightbringer “Women hold up half the sky” competition for science fiction with feminist themes and a strong female protagonist. My story received dual publication in Artemis Journal and on the Hollywood NOW website in addition to a cash prize from Hollywood NOW. You can check out my story in the 2018 edition of Artemis or hear it performed by actor and filmmaker Kamala Lopez, recorded live at LitFest Pasadena a few weeks ago. My story starts around minute 57. There’s also a little awards ceremony at the end where I give an impromptu, margarita-fueled speech.

Cool thing No. 2: I’ve been invited to go to one of my favorite places in the world, the Outer Banks, and give a book talk on Saturday, September 29th. Here’s how that whole thing came about. My friend Pam is an innkeeper. Kind of an 18th-century throwback job, huh? She keeps inn (inn-keeps?) at the White Doe Inn in Manteo on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. She recently started up a series of evening arts events and, knowing that A Death in Duck is set near there, she invited me to come give a book talk as part of the series. I said yes before she even finished inviting me.

Both of these unexpected wonderful opportunities reminded me of something. When you publish something or otherwise put your writing out into the world, you lose control of where that writing goes or how it will impact people. Being a writer is kind of like building a house. You may build that house for a specific client or with a clear vision for who will inhabit it. But years, decades, or, if you’re incredibly lucky, centuries later, that house could be roughly the same. Or maybe it will have undergone a complete renovation or maybe it’ll be a crack den. Once you hand it over to the world, you can’t control who lives there or what they do.

The same is true of writing. People’s reactions can be scary or disappointing, like when a series of negative reviews from homophobes blights your book’s Amazon page (the literary equivalent of a crack house?). But they can also be thrilling and encouraging, like when you get to travel to both coasts within the space of a few months to share your work. Not bad for an unproductive year.

Mindy Quigley in Space!

I got word a few weeks ago that my short story “Equality Day” was selected as the winner of the 2018 Women Hold Up Half the Sky Award, sponsored by Artemis Journal, Light Bringer Project & the Hollywood Chapter of the National Organization for Women.

The contest required me to write a science fiction story with feminist themes and a strong female protagonist. I’ve never attempted anything even remotely like this. Though I did manage to birth an infant, launch a child into middle school, and have my kitchen renovated, 2017 was a spectacularly unproductive year for me in terms of writing. For most of the year, I’d felt all but brain-dead. However, when a writer friend sent me the contest details, I could feel my long-stilled creative juices begin to softly burble.

I’ve written before about how I tend to approach writing like a project to be managed. The contest had a very concise 1,500 word limit, which made it feel like a do-able project. I didn’t have to try to snap my sleep-deprived synapses into shape in order to knit the details of an entire novel together. I just had to maintain concentration for a few hours at a time. Pulp-O-Mizer_Cover_Image

 

Even still, the road to triumph was paved with many false starts and deleted pixels. When I begin a short story, I almost always start with an idea that’s WAY too big for a short story. That was even more true with “Equality Day,” where the story I wanted to tell had enough detail for at least three feature-length films. The world I pictured had achieved a veneer of social equality by eliminating all outward signs of gender. I didn’t want it to be hard-core scifi (no spaceships, no time travel, no blue-skinned creatures sporting ray guns). But despite the similarities to our own world, the story remained stubbornly unwieldy and enormous, and there seemed to be no way to make it smaller. To make matters worse, I had next-to-zero time to sit down and start working through my ideas on paper.

Weirdly, the fact that baby-rearing gave me so little time to write improved the story. What I lacked in computer time, I made up for in many nights of half-conscious cogitation. Throughout November and into December, while I was nursing my son, I kicked around ways to bring the story under control. Late one night, with my little son suctioned to me like a remora fish, a vision dawned on me–a little child who lived in a genderless world, seeing a woman for the first time. Before I slipped back in bed that night, I jotted down what became the first sentence in “Equality Day”:

The first time I saw a woman, I must’ve been about five.

That sentence gave me what I needed to get started. A few furious drafting sessions and many edits later, I’d managed to tell the story I’d wanted to tell, in only 1,468 words.

Look out for “Equality Day” in Artemis Journal and on the Hollywood NOW website in early May. And look out for me at LitFest Pasadena where the story will be read on stage by a celebrity guest on May 19, 2018!

When God prank calls you

When I was in my early twenties, I planned to go to seminary and become a Unitarian Universalist minister. I cherished this dream for several years, going as far as meeting with admissions officers from Meadville Lombard Theological School. This revelation may come as a surprise to those who know how much I love swearing and sleeping in on Sunday mornings. Over this past summer, I mentioned my now-silent religious calling to chaplain and author Kerry Egan. She asked me what made me give up on the idea. “Well,” I said, “I realized that I’m not good at being. I’m great at doing, but horrible at being.” She knew just what I meant. Religious folk are supposed to exude a calm, non-striving presence. I’m a halfway decent listener and I’m genuinely empathetic. But I’m also an antsy, leg-jiggling, nail-drumming advice-giver and people-helper. A lot of times, what people, particularly those with spiritual problems, need is to be truly, deeply heard. I’m about as deep as a jelly roll pan and about as still as a Mardi Gras parade. I am not minister material.

What I didn’t share with Kerry was the full backstory of the period of my life that led me to give up on the idea of ministry. The decision not to pursue ministry grew out of working with the Worst Possible Mindy. Worst Possible Mindy–let’s call her WPM–is a former boss of mine, a hospital chaplain who worked at the Duke Medical Center. I think of her as the worst possible version of myself because she seemed to embody and amplify all my foibles. She was full of great ideas, but terrible at seeing things through to completion. Her prodigious energy sizzled out of her in all directions, often leading to confusion, chaos, and crisis-mode actions. She had strong opinions and never curbed the instinct to share them. Although WPM probably meant much of what she said in jest, her need to be heard could make her come across as an rabid alpha female or a bully. Watching her operate was like watching the Bizarro Superman version of myself. As a boss and as a human, she was pretty much a disaster. The fact that she was a chaplain, someone who was supposed to exemplify the best of humanity, someone who was supposed to be in close touch with the universal and the divine, made her failings seem 100 times worse. I gave up on ministry because I was afraid that would happen to me — that standing on that pedestal would lead to a nasty tumble. I concluded that my dream of becoming a minister had been wrong. God hadn’t really called me.

Kerry’s response to my statement about being versus doing was that she, too, lacked the essential skills of a minister. “I learned them,” she said. “I’m still learning them.” They reminded me of the tagline of Stacy Sergent’s wonderful Chaplain Jesus Lady bloglearning (and unlearning) about life, death, God, myself, and other things…  I’ve thought about those words for months. I don’t know if I’ll ever go to seminary. However, the idea of learning has had an effect on me. Most ministers aren’t born to be ministers. Good ministers remain open to learning how to be more human rather than striving to attain saintliness.

Maybe certain in-born characteristics can help your chances of success, but most of the being is actually in the doing, the trying, and the learning.

The Kindness of #alternativefacts, Part 2

I’ve always tended to believe that the stories we construct about a thing are every bit as important as the actual thing. Feelings and shared meanings connect us and make us human. Maybe this is why I love writing novels. Fiction allows me to couch my own truths in other people’s stories.

I’ve seen first hand what happens when facts are divorced from meaning. Before my baby was born, I used to occasionally volunteer at our vet school’s Pet Loss Hotline. I’ve written before about how the most traumatized calls I fielded were from people whose questions could never be answered. Maybe they had trusted their veterinarian, only to later wonder if that trust was misplaced. It was impossible to go back in time and see if another choice would’ve resulted in a different outcome. Or perhaps their unanswerable question was even more visceral, i.e. one day, their pet simply disappeared. These were the callers who couldn’t move past the loss. As humans, unless we can fit a fact into a narrative we can understand, our brains get stuck in a perpetual “does not compute” cycle. Until we can create an answer to WHY?, all the facts in the world just don’t add up to a hill of beans.

In my last post, I said that I used to believe that meaning trumped facts. That was my explanation for the enduring pain of some of the Pet Loss Hotline callers, and that’s why I initially found myself nodding along when Kerry Egan, the renowned writer and hospice chaplain, suggests in her wonderful, poignant book, On Living, that the essence of a person’s experience, rather than the biographical details, are what remains at the end of life. At one point, Kerry tells the story of a dying woman who more than likely conned her way through life, and continued to fake her way towards death. Kerry chooses to focus on the power of the woman’s end-of-life experiences. “In the midst of unknowing,” she writes, “something absolute and real and true happened. Two women learned not just that they could love but that they were worthy of love.”

To me, however, the implications of that position have become less and less tenable in the era of #fakenews and #alternativefacts. The woman in Kerry’s story probably intended to deceive those around her, or perhaps had become so enamored of her own false narrative that she no longer recognized the truth. Either way, I’ve come to reject the idea that allowing someone free rein to craft their own life narrative is acceptable. Call me hardhearted, but I think Kerry lets the dying woman off too easy.

I will argue all day long about your opinion on an issue or a detail from a past event that we each remember differently. Just ask my husband. But I’ve become an ardent defender of the idea that where there is knowable truth, we must try our best to arrive at it. We cannot argue about facts. The blurring of the line between opinion, narrative, and reality and the maligning of the legitimate information is Demagogue 101. Prizing a narrative, whether it be about the size of a crowd or the size of a person’s hands, over knowable facts is dangerous and corrosive. Scientific progress and moral betterment rely on a basic acceptance that intrinsic truth exists.

The Buddha said, “Everything rests on the point of intention.” That has become my new yardstick for deciding when #alternativefacts might indeed be preferable to reality. A person who shares a falsely dramatic memory of walking seven miles uphill through the snow to get to school as a child probably doesn’t intend to deceive or to profit from crafting a false narrative, so I’ll let it go. No (intent to) harm, no foul. A dad who falsely tells his kid that her artwork is beautiful or a friend who reassures her bestie that no one will even notice her ill-advised foray into ombré hair color are almost definitely intending to be kind. A politician who spews whoppers to avoid the consequences of his actions? A woman, dying or not, who gains her lover’s trust in part by crafting a false life story? No free passes. It’s all about intention.

Then again, we all know what paves the road to hell.