Butter Fingers

Butterfingers

Never played cricket, but a quick search reveals those guys make the absolute BEST faces as they’re dropping the ball

Lately I drop a lot of stuff.

This is super frustrating, because it used to be I could catch anything. Okay…actually, I still catch pretty well, but holding on to smaller crap has become much more difficult.

Example: Do not hand me a bunch of pistachios and ask me to hold them in one hand while I crack them open and save the discarded shells in the other hand without at least one – er, okay, maybe more like twenty-one – hitting the floor at one point or another.

You may conclude from this that I eat too many pistachios. You may be correct.

That’s beside the point.

stark handed thingsThe point is more like: expensive medicine or not, that kind of simple stuff is nearly impossible with Parkinson’s.

Which means I’m now more like Tony Stark in yet another way – I don’t like being handed things.

Hey, I’m getting used to it. Just don’t hand me anything and we’re cool.

But hold on, this post isn’t about Parkinson’s or pistachios or Iron Man, it’s about writing. Of course.

A writing career, I think for most writers, is always going to feel like something slippery in your hands, at least a little bit. Something that could easily be dropped at any moment, whether you’re just getting those words on the page, trying to find an agent, already published, whatever.

Because at every one of those stages, there’s rejection. It starts with being brave enough to finally show up at that first critique group and wincing as people talk about the words you’ve put on the page. Then it continues into querying agents, having those agents pitch to publishers, getting reviewed by critics and readers, and on and on and on. Rejection, rejection, rejection.

Every writer I know is facing rejection in some form or another, all the time.

kid-kicking-ball

Future Writer

It can be exhausting, just like having those butter fingers – grabbing something only to drop it, over and over again. Or trying to learn to kick a ball for the first time, because at each stage you feel like you’ve got no idea what you’re doing, that you”ll screw something up, drop the ball, trip over yourself, fall backwards.

Or – maybe worst of all – that someone’s going to notice you standing there and figure out you don’t belong. Good old imposter syndrome.

But I guess if we all DO feel like that, maybe none of us SHOULD feel like that. Because in between those rejections, your successes are hiding, waiting for you in the shadows. And you’ll only find them if you go through the rejections first.

In fact, maybe we start out looking at rejection a little bit wrong. Maybe rejection isn’t something to fear or dread. Maybe rejection is something we all ought to be seeking out.

I recently ran across this post on LitHub, Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year. The title seems subversive. It can’t possibly be right, can it? Do you want 100 rejections in one year? Really?

Well, yeah, actually, I think you do. The point is, you can only get to where you’re going by working a lot and submitting that work for appraisal. If you submit too early, you’ll know it. But you shouldn’t feel like you’ve made a huge mistake or you’re dropping the ball. You learned something, right?

The anecdote in that LitHub article that stands out to me the most is the comment about the pottery class from the book Art & Fear. Here’s a little outtake from the article, but you should really click over and read the whole thing.

In the book Art & Fear, authors David Bales and Ted Orland describe a ceramics class in which half of the students were asked to focus only on producing a high quantity of work while the other half was tasked with producing work of high quality. For a grade at the end of the term, the “quantity” group’s pottery would be weighed, and fifty pounds of pots would automatically get an A, whereas the “quality” group only needed to turn in one—albeit perfect—piece. Surprisingly, the works of highest quality came from the group being graded on quantity, because they had continually practiced, churned out tons of work, and learned from their mistakes. The other half of the class spent most of the semester paralyzed by theorizing about perfection, which sounded disconcertingly familiar to me—like all my cases of writer’s block.

The other night I was at a dinner with a bunch of artists and this same subject came up. I told a guy the above pottery story, and he said, “That’s just like the Grateful Dead.” He then proceeded to relate how the bass player for the Dead didn’t actually know how to play the instrument when he started joining the band on stage for little gigs. But Jerry Garcia apparently (disclaimer: I’m repeating the story the way it was told to me; I’m not actually a Grateful Dead historian) told him, “Just come and play every night. You’ll learn.”

And, from what I understand, learn he did. I do know the Grateful Dead were around for a minute or two.

So I guess what I want to say is this:

Writers! Don’t let your butter fingers paralyze you. Don’t dread rejection so much that it keeps you from working a lot, from seeking critique and opinion. Whatever stage you find yourself at, don’t be afraid to drop what’s in your hand. Listen, even if you do lose twenty-one pistachio shells, you can always pick them up, throw them out, grab another batch, start over. And I promise there will be success soon enough. Just keep learning from your mistakes.

But really, still don’t hand me anything. That’s just plain wrong.

And I’ll probably drop it anyway.

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Why Parkinson’s Will Make Me A Better Writer

 

Our characters are supposed to change.

In our stories, characters have arcs. They begin as one sort of person and gradually transform into another, usually in response to the events of the plot.

It shouldn’t happen all at once, though. Those are the bad stories, where the character just snaps his fingers one day and – boom! – now he’s different.

No, the better stories contain scenes that show little changes over the course of time – a few weeks maybe. Months or years. An entire life. Little changes that add up to him being a different person by the end, and it all happens in a way that makes the transformation as a whole feel entirely plausible.

Sometimes these changes are so small, so subtle, the character – or the reader – doesn’t even notice them. Or maybe they have an awareness of…something, but it isn’t quite clear exactly what’s happening.

This creates a wonderful intrigue in the story that keeps us turning the page. Something is different, sure. But we’re trying to puzzle out just exactly what, to put our finger on the transformation happening just beneath the surface. The what. The why. We want to see the next little change, to find that new clue that might point us in the direction of the answers we’re yearning for.

And these little changes, these barely noticeable things, well, eventually they do become something big. Ultimately our character is a different person at the end of the story than they were in chapter one.

Change, change, change. It’s one of the inevitable things in life, like death, taxes.

It hasn’t even been a month since I received my diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Not so much time at all, really, but enough to grant me an opportunity to collect up all those scenes in my head. The subtle little changes that were merely puzzling at the time but now, with the benefit of hindsight, reveal the path to a much larger transformation, like someone sweeping the dirt off a track that had always been there.

Maybe one scene is at a kyudo practice, where lately our hero’s left arm is explicably shaking when he gets into kai – full draw – the arrow wavering at the center of his chest, his aim difficult to maintain. He practices again and again, listens hard to his teachers, but he can’t seem to correct it. He decides to take a break from Japanese archery, just for a little while. A few weeks that become months. A year.

On another day our hero notices his arm’s in a strange position while he walks. Sort of fixed at his side. Weird.

Our hero’s a writer, did I mention that? He loves critique groups, and one day when he’s heading into the local library for one, the librarian asks if he’s all right. “Of course,” he says, wondering what she means. “You’re walking like you’re hungover,” she laughs. Odd.

Stupid, but lately he can’t find the hole in his shirtsleeve for his left arm. His hand hunts and hunts, continually failing to locate the sleeve hole. For the first time, he makes a change to compensate – trying to put his shirts on left arm first, the opposite of what he’s been doing his entire life. A little better. Still…strange.

And why is it hard to dig his keys out of his left pocket all of a sudden? And how come his left hand feels sluggish when he’s typing? And where’s this shaking when he takes a heavy casserole dish down from the top shelf of the fridge coming from?

He always had those video game fingers. There was a time when he was pretty darn athletic. Is it carpal tunnel? Arthritis? Nope, red herrings. He tries keeping his keys in his right pocket. Every once and a while he finds it more comfortable to hunt and peck on the keyboard with one hand. Oh, and make sure to remember to use the right hand to grab things from the fridge. Change.

Change, change, change.

His wife starts complaining about his right turns while he’s driving. He has to admit, they have been a little wide. What’s up with that? He’s always been an excellent driver (cue Dustin Hoffman’s voice from Rain Man). Why, now, does he have to think so hard about it all of a sudden?

One day the pinkie and ring fingers on his left hand start to hurt, then go abruptly numb. They come back, eventually, but now those little changes on our hero’s left hand are bigger. It’s clear – his fingers aren’t moving like they’re supposed to.

“I think something’s wrong,” he says to his wife.

There are CT scans and MRIs. “Normal.” He keeps telling doctors he has diabetes, could it be related to that? The neurologists squint at him skeptically. Those same doctors make him walk up and down their hallways, test the strength in his hands by gripping them, assess how big and fast certain movements with his fingers are. It surprises him how much trouble he has with some of these tests.

Still, maybe it’s just a pinched nerve. It could be that, right? More squinting from more doctors.

And eventually one of them says, “Parkinson’s.”

Our hero will always remember the day of his diagnosis, because it’s the day before his wedding anniversary. The next night, he and his wife dress up and head out to the fancy restaurant they planned to and everything is fine, because he’s pretty strong about these things after all.

But when he goes to pay, he has trouble getting his credit card out of his wallet. Then, try as he might, he can’t get the card into that little slot in the card holder. Such a basic thing, but It. Just. Won’t. Go. Finally his wife reaches over and does it for him.

In a series of small changes, it’s hard to pick the one that will be the Dark Night of the Soul for our characters, the moment in the story that becomes our hero’s low point.

This point in time, this little struggle with the card, it shouldn’t be any bigger than all those other scenes, but somehow it is. Somehow, it’s this moment that almost brings our hero to tears right there in that fancy restaurant. Because he thinks, is this what his life is going to be about now? All the things he can’t do?

He can’t pay for his own anniversary. He can’t drive right, put his shirt on right, take something out of his damn pocket. Walk without limping, open a fucking door. He can’t.

Can’t. Can’t. Can’t.

Eventually, though, in the really good stories, our hero reaches a point on the arc where he  gains a new sense of who he is becoming, when he emerges from that Dark Night of the Soul with a renewed purpose and vision.

There are things he can do.

He can take the medicine the doctors have prescribed. It’s already making him feel better, loosening his hand up again.

He can join support groups, participate in studies, read about balance and stretching and other physical activity that might slow things down. He can make sure to get to the gym more often.

Our hero can make sure to use that Wii his wife decides to buy him for Christmas, for more work on balance.

images-4He can find that boxing therapy a couple of towns away, designed specifically for Parkinson’s patients, where he might get to learn boxing from a former pro nicknamed “The Truth.” And, really, what guy doesn’t want to learn boxing from a dude nicknamed The Truth? Do they play Eye of the Tiger? They should play Eye of the Tiger, like the whole time, every time. (Oh, and maybe he’ll even get a matching nickname, like The Falsehood or something).

He can become a better writer by remembering all those little changes that got him here, how those scenes worked, how small and insignificant they seemed at the time, but how they added up. He can take the same approach in his own work, create better arcs for the scores of people in his head.

He can.

I can.

Can. Can. Can.

And the great thing is, even though I am different now (aren’t we all?), even though the big transformation hinted at by all those little changes has happened, this isn’t a book. It’s real life.

And the end is still a long way off.

 

 

Clean

The envious CLEAN sticker

The envious CLEAN sticker

For a couple of years, I’ve been getting phlebotomies, which is a procedure in which a giant (hey, to me it’s giant) needle is stuck in my arm and a big bag of blood is drained from me.

I’ve whined about it before, I’m sure, somewhere, so I won’t go into great detail here. I know for sure I wrote a short story about it, which is called – creatively – PHLEBOTOMY. The fact it morphed into a vampire story should tell you all you need to know about how I usually feel leading up to and during this procedure.

My phlebotomies are done at a cancer facility. I don’t have cancer (thankfully), but that’s where they’re done. After I meet with the doctor, I’m led into a sunny area with walls of windows and recliners that might even look pleasant at first, but it’s not really because pretty much everyone else there is getting chemotherapy, which I’ve no doubt is a lot less fun than a phlebotomy.

I can pick any chair I want, and most of them are usually empty. The only rule is the chair I pick has to be “clean” – in other words, one someone wasn’t just in – and this is notated by a strip of white paper with a block of yellow in the middle that has the black letters “CLEAN” stamped on it.

Yesterday I had a phlebotomy. It doesn’t take that too long, but I do always, of course, bring something to read or work on (though I’m deathly afraid to move my arm while it’s going on – did I mention the needle is GIANT?)

On this particular day I brought with me a printout of a manuscript I recently completed. I’m letting it “sit” – mostly – but on occasion I take a tour through it and check it out, and that’s what I was up to on phlebotomy-day.

I picked out my “clean” recliner, set my manuscript on the side table, and moved the white strip of paper off the seat so I could sit down. It wasn’t until I was settled into the recliner that I noticed I had dropped the strip onto the top of my manuscript. It rested there aslant, as if someone had given it the once over and decided it was ready to go (note that it is FAR from ready to go), that it was “CLEAN.”

And it got me to thinking.

Whether or not the recliners are clean is a pretty objective thing – there’s some procedure that’s followed, a set of defined steps, a particular cleanser that’s used, whatever. The point is, at the end of these steps, the nurse can slap the “clean” tag down and, boom…clean. Nobody’s going to argue.

I recently submitted a new manuscript to lots of people (NOT the one I was reading during my phlebotomy, a different MS). When we writers send our work out this way, it’s a real act of faith. We cringe. We worry. We fret. And we hope, above all, that it comes back with that CLEAN tag aslant across the top, some rough form of it, anyway.

In my particular case, it did – from several folks. (Well, not “clean,” exactly. No piece of writing can ever quite get that particular stamp, but “good” as in “continue revising.”) But a person or two had the opposite reaction. The MS needed a lot of work, according to them, possibly enough to give serious consideration to moving on to a different project entirely.

Because reacting to a piece of writing, unlike cleaning a recliner, isn’t objective at all.

Nope. It’s sooooo subjective.

These reactions have been spinning around in my head for a couple of weeks, causing endless confusion as to What I Should Do Next. Should I move to the next project, leaving this book I cared about and loved so much behind? Should I stick to my guns? Something in between?

I think this is the normal, constant state of the writer – staring off into space contemplating What I Should Do Next. I hope that’s normal, anyway, because, man, seems like That’s All I Ever Do.

So it was that I stared down with some envy at the white strip of paper erroneously declaring my even newer MS to be “CLEAN.” Jealous of those objective, definable steps to that status for the recliner. Wishing writers, too, could rely on a single person to declare a book or a story is “CLEAN”…as in “DONE”, that this assessment was a Yes or No question at all.

Then my envy disappeared, because I realized something else – that subjectivity (or rather, lack of objectivity) is part of the magic of writing. After all, the beauty of how different we are, while still being the same underneath, is one of the very reasons I write.

And the thing is, no writing is ever clean, is it?

  • If your critique partners love it, your agent might not.
  • If your agent loves it, editors might not.
  • If an editor loves it, not all readers will.
  • If readers mostly love it, the critics might not.
  • If readers and critics both adore it, it might get made into a movie, and maybe movie-goers won’t like it
  • Even if you’re Shakespeare, some dude will log on to Amazon and give you one star centuries after your death. Jeez.

So we must learn to appreciate this part of the process, the wonder of trying to get a story right when no one can agree on what right even is.

To appreciate that all of us have our own version of “CLEAN” and it’s different. Awesomely, gorgeously Different.

I still have no idea what I’m going to do. I probably need to decide soon. But phlebotomies, though I kinda hate them, always make me feel a little better. This one especially so.

Lost Star Wars swag

Vader LeiaFor some reason, I remember the cards the best. There were three sets – bordered in blue, red and yellow.

I HAD them. The complete sets. All the colors.

I would leaf through them and remember the scenes from the movies. I’ve seen the movies dozens of times, but I’d venture to say those cards are the things that allow me to recount the entire plot from memory at a moment’s notice.

But I have no idea where they went or when they disappeared.

I had SO MUCH swag – so many collectibles – from those original movies (Episodes IV – VI) and somehow I lost it all.

And now THE FORCE AWAKENS has come out and I bet all that stuff is WORTH THOUSANDS.

I wonder if I would sell it if I still had it. Probably not.

Stormtroopers FalconI remember the drawer in my room where I kept the cards. It was the same drawer I started saving the letters from my Japanese pen pal, the ones she would write in looping cursive on the delicate Japanese paper.

Girls. They might’ve been the problem.

I had a Millenium Falcon. You could open the cargo bay doors and play out fight scenes with your action figures. It even had a little piece of the floor you could lift up and hide your Han Solo action figure in.

And oh – the action figures! – I had all those, too. I was constantly losing the guns that they held in their curved little hands. Never have such calamities arisen from the misplacement of such a small piece of plastic.

The light sabers in Luke’s, Obi-wan’s and Vader’s hands. The blasters in Han’s and Leia’s hands. The little straight brown stick in the Sandperson’s hand. I guess his staff?

When you lost the blasters, you had to have people holding the wrong gun. Han held the one the Stormtrooper was supposed to have. It just wasn’t right.

One day, somewhere in the backyard, I lost my Chewbacca. Not just his blaster. The entire figure (“guy” I think our eight year old, non-PC brains called them. I lost my “guy”).

That was a tough day.

I think I had a case where I stored all the action figures so I WOULDN’T lost them. A spot for each “guy” and then it closed up and you carried it around by the handle. I might be confusing this with the case I know I had for my matchbox cars, but I don’t think so. I think there was a Star Wars case, too. And still, I lost Chewbacca.

I had an X-wing and a Tie fighter. I’m remembering you pressed a button on the Tie Fighter and the “wings” popped off. I don’t remember why. Maybe when you were acting out scenes from the movie you were supposed to do that when the bad guy got shot down?

Liberated PrincessA lot of fun, acting out the movie with all those toys and figures. But somehow the cards. Those were my favorite.

This stuff was always out, all over the place. Probably drove my mom crazy.

That’s what happened isn’t it? Moms. They throw out your toys, toys that could be VALUABLE later. Are you guys crazy?!?

Star Wars 7 1977Ah, but there’s one thing I still have – the comics. I SAVED the comics. I’m talking the original series from 1977. They’re buried in all those boxes in my basement right now – too many for me to fish through – but I KNOW I still have them. Not every issue, but a lot of those early ones.

One of my nephews is a Darth Vader NUT already. He’s three, and we’re pretty sure he thinks he’s a good guy (which, by the end of Jedi…). For Christmas, all I got him was Darth Vader swag. Toys and books and other little stuff.

No cards, though. Now I’m thinking I need to get the kids cards for the new movies. Yeah.

And my sisters better not throw them out. EVER.

 

 

 

My tattoo is way cooler than yours

Mother TattooSo I had my second colonoscopy in six months this morning. Things went much better this time.

I had the first procedure back in July because of some family history. I remember waking up from the anesthesia, feeling fine and all ready to get something to eat after being on a liquid diet the day before, when the doctor came storming in and told me, “You ruined my day!”

This took the mood in the room down a notch, I can assure you. I’ll spare you the full details, but there were some polyps that resulted in some unexpected complications (which in my heavily sedated state I had no knowledge of until that moment) and, well, I ruined the doctor’s day. This meant two things:

Continue reading

My Morning as Ethan Hunt (or…Tom Cruise maybe)

Ethan Hunt from Mission: ImpossibleI had an interesting morning.

It was supposed to be simple: I needed to get some routine blood work done. I had to fast for twelve hours. So I signed in to my local lab’s website, made an appointment for 8 am and made sure not to eat anything after 8 pm.

The first thing you need to understand is fasting, for me, is a big deal. I mean, I realize there are many unfortunate people in the world lacking food and I feel awful about that, but the fact is, I eat breakfast. I enjoy breakfast. Skipping breakfast is not my favorite thing.

So today when I arrived at their location about ten minutes late and found another woman standing outside, singing to herself to pass the time, the hungry pit in my gut yawned open even wider, because I could see that something was amiss. When I approached, she stopped singing and told me, despite the sign on the door indicating they opened at 8, there was no one inside the office and the door was still locked.

My dilemma began. Given the amount of trouble I’d gone to for fasting, having already had to skip breakfast, I really wanted my efforts to have some sort of payoff. I certainly didn’t want to have to fast again next week. So I waited with her. She resumed her song. Sorta catchy, I must say, though I didn’t recognize it. All I can confirm is that it was not Let It Go.

By the time another twenty minutes had passed, a group of five or six of us loitered outside the facility, still waiting. We were an odd mixture of all genders, races and ages. A true melting pot of American citizens joined together by our hunger, trading stories of how long we’d had to fast and the trouble we’d undergone to be there. None of us wanted to leave empty-handed.

Finally, just before 9 am, a harried woman showed up. She didn’t explain what happened and we didn’t ask; she only told us that she had been called in from another location and was there to fill in for the regular people.

Okay, things are looking up.

She produced a key and unlocked the door, granting us all access to the waiting room. Almost there, right? Not quite.

A keypad lock would let her into the actual office, so she could begin fulfilling all our requests. But, not being from this particular office, she didn’t know the code. She tried several, then began calling around on her cell to no avail. We were stuck in the waiting room.

Not an actual picture but close. Pretty much this size and height.

Not an actual picture but close. Pretty much this size and height.

Finally the woman appeared to give up. Around this time, we all turned to notice the receptionist window was open a crack. Around this time, people, the theme to Mission: Impossible began to repeat in a loop in my head.

We looked at each other and decided, as only a group of otherwise logical and responsible adults who haven’t eaten can, that we were sending the lab technician through this window so she could unlock the door and take our blood. We would not be denied.

In my defense, this was not entirely my idea. In fact, I’m pretty sure the notion started when the heavyset latina woman, who hadn’t said a thing to that point (it’s always the quiet ones), spoke up. She eyed the technician disdainfully and then, in her best Sofia Vergara, said with a wave of her hand, “Ah, she skinny. She fit.”

And, I’m sad to say, that’s all the rest of us needed. Soon enough a chair was dragged over and set up under the window. Everyone was assigned a role: chair stabilizer, technician booster, window holder. All the while, the Mission: Impossible theme is growing louder and more insistent in my head.

I’m happy to report….mission accomplished! The technician was pushed through the window without injury and there was only a brief moment of panic when the shelf she used as a foothold looked like it might give way. My blood was drawn and I won’t have to fast again next week!

Only, that theme music won’t stop playing in my head…I’m looking around the room now for some other dangerous shenanigans I can get into. Better find something constructive to do instead, like write a blog entry. Hmm.

 

 

My apologies for the lack of updates….

…this is not the complete excuse, but the latest issue is I have broken my hand.

I promise to reset things shortly with a post linking in all of the podcasts that have been published since my last update, then resume my weekly updates from there.

Really.

In the meantime, enjoy these pictures of my splints.

Here’s the first one they gave me in the emergency room.
Emergency Room Splint

And here’s the one I am wearing now, and probably for the next six weeks or so. At least with this one, I can type again with more than one hand. (Though it’s just one finger on my right hand I can use).
Permanent Splint