Monday, April 7, 2014

When writing and reality collide...

Hi there! Remember me?

Gosh it's been a while since I posted here. I have been busy, but not all of it has been writing. There are stories to tell... 

First of all though, let's talk writing!

Since the first of the year, I've finished two books, and turned one in, but decided to have the publisher hold it back in lieu of the sequel to the Greenwood Cycle trilogy that started with FORTUNE'S PAWN and continued in PROPHECY'S GAMBIT. Well, MASTER'S ENDGAME is currently still in editing, and looks like it will be for a while. I'd rather have it done well than rushed, though right now I doubt we'll see it published before the end of the year, if it makes it into the rotation this year at all. I might have blown my chance of having anything that size in print, by holding back the first Sudarnian Chronicles book, FORGED BY FLAME. Of course at the time I thought things would go smoother than they have—Murphy's Law at work again. I had hoped to see THE WINDRIDERS OF EVERICE out by now, but I don't set the timetables, the nice folks who publish these things do. I'm sure they have their reasons for not releasing that yet.

I have completed a couple short stories this year, and I'm waiting to see them hit print. One was a joint piece with fellow writer and pal, Mr. Lee Houston Jr. We had a lot of fun collaborating, and will likely do that again. Our cooperative venture was well received.

Lately I have been working on a brand new book, which is somewhere between 1/4 and 1/3 written at this point. Over 20,000 words into it so far, all written over two months. I've written far faster in the past. With this one I've been picking away at it as time allows; most days only a few hundred words at a clip. I can't tell you what it's about or where it's going, but it will be an action-adventure story destined to become the first of a series, and my initially sketchy proposal has been enthusiastically accepted. Right now, working on that book is virtually the only writing I am getting done. My personal has taken a detour in a couple of areas.

Last year, my elderly mother was diagnosed with age related memory-impairment. The medical folks have decided it's dementia, and the sad prognosis is that her cognitive function will continue to go downhill. She was put on medication to slow that progression and we're making her as comfortable as possible. Right now, Ma is still living with my adult children and their family in our old home, the one she's lived in permanently since 1985, and off and on for several years before that. A meagerly educated housewife with no more than a portion my dad's Social Security benefits to support her since age 60, she was widowed at age 49. We gave her as full a second life as we could manage—something I'm very proud of. Since I also had a son with an autistic spectrum disorder, I never returned to work outside the home. I became by default the head homemaker and caretaker, and Ma helped me with housework, as well as raising both my boys. That is the reason I was able to find some time and incentive to learn to write. Now her grandsons and my dear daughter-in-law follow that example and help care for her. I have her over here on this old farm whenever everyone needs to go out or they just need a break, since we can't leave her alone anymore. Sometimes I spend an afternoon over there, and I have at times slept overnight when she's been ill.

As you can guess, those days Ma is here or I'm there, I don't do much writing. I honestly don't mind, because spending time with my mother while she is still lucid enough to appreciate it is very important to me. I lost my dad early in life, and I mourn the time we could have spent together. As much as I love writing, I love my family even more. I'll willingly take a afternoon off to make someone else's day brighter.

When they tell you that these diseases of the brain are a long goodbye, they aren't kidding folks. My mother is just entering that gradual downhill slide and already she's losing pieces of her life. That makes my heart ache, because she had a rough childhood and many difficult years while I was growing up, and it's not until I had children of my own that I understood how hard it had been to raise us without the kind of skills most other mothers take for granted. She was hard on me at times, but over the years, we made our peace.

My dad taught me a lot, and he always encouraged me to believe in myself. I grew up understanding that love means more than pretty words on cards and anniversary gifts; that there is a dutiful responsibility involved toward the people you care about. It's what gets you out of a warm bed to go out in the cold each morning. It's what keeps you up all night when a family member is ill. It drives you to find a way to make a lonely person's life less solitary, even if you had issues in the past. We always lavished my mother with special little gifts and attention on holidays and birthdays, knowing that feeling special, even for an afternoon, makes for fond memories. I'd like to think some of that will cheer her in the difficult days to come.

It's sad to see my mother gradually slipping down that slope toward not remembering the key points of her own life. We talk a lot about the past while she still recalls most of it, and I do quite a bit of memory prompting, because I still recall many stories that she told me so long ago. As a writer, I will have to jot all these things down in a book someday, even if they will only be read by immediate family. Right now though, I just want to get through what I have to face, and not miss any quality time in the process.

In the dark of the night, you lay awake, thinking of all the places you've been, the things you have seen, the people you've met, and the stories you've heard. In spite of her rather unconventional life, my mother has had a lot to share, even when she's just telling me the same old stories I've heard for years. I can fill in the blanks for her, because a writer's mind collects information like a big old sponge. I'm glad now that I took the time to listen, and at how carefully I paid attention, so that I know exactly who this tired elderly woman is, and what's more important, who she was. Her legacy will live on through me, and it will pass through my fingers on a keyboard to become words on a page and stories to be told to children, and grandchildren, and generations beyond. No talent is given for naught; so if I can't always write fiction, then I can write the stories of our lives. No one ever truly dies, whose deeds are recorded so that they live on long after the mortal years are gone.

I have a baby grandson now, and I also inherited an older grandchild when my youngest son married his sweetheart. I want them both to understand who we are as a family, why we've lived the way we have, and to appreciate the rich heritage that came before their generation. The fact that one of those two siblings was not part of my biological bloodline doesn't faze me in the least. I too was a child who shared only half the genetic background of the parents I grew up with, and I have absolutely no idea who my biological father is. I was extremely close to the man I called Dad, and that's who he'll always be to me. My sons never met Dad, he passed before the oldest was born, so they have little point of reference to the stories I've told them over the years. I barely have any pictures of him. Yet he's still very fresh in my mind, some thirty plus years after his death, and I can bring him back to life on pages that can be handed down over the years to future grandchildren and the generations beyond. Dad's values and his stories are still all up in my head, so they will be shared as well.

I babysit the little one on weekdays now, sharing the responsibility with his mom's parents and family. It allows DDIL to work a daytime shift and sleep normal hours, so I'm glad to help out. A rested mom is a lot happier and healthier. To be trusted with a precious little boy is a sign of faith in me as a parent model; to help raise him in some small way makes me very proud. Both grandsons are joys, and I don't consider having one or the other of them here any imposition on my time, even though I have had to seriously scale back on my writing hours as well as juggle my schedule to be up earlier in the AM and not linger online at night. With the current book I'm working on requiring so much research, I am still managing to get work done on it in mornings before the small fry arrives and some afternoons and evenings after he leaves. I don't burn the midnight oil these days because I need to be fully awake and alert to properly care for an infant. 

Life brings changes, but I've seen that all through my writing years. If you love what you do, you make time when you can, and adjust your expectations where you must. Many of the things I write about in my fiction come from experiences in my own life. Who knows what inspirations will come from spending time with the little ones? Watching this busy guy learn about the world by touching, tasting, and observing what goes on around him gives me fantastic insight into how some alien life form would view human experiences. His rudimentary attempts at crawling, sitting up, and speech (he's barely 7 months old) remind me of what it's like to be unable to move freely or communicate effectively. With babies, you do a lot of guessing as to what they want or need, though the more time you spend with them, the more you understand. 

Today Ariel the Wonder Dog barked at something on the TV. Zack sat there very alert, ba-ba-baing back at her, his neck stretched out and face intent, trying to get her to bark at him in return. She whined at me, and so did he, both trying to express in some way their frustration with not being understood and having this noisy other creature competing for my attention. It dawned on me that I was their interpreter, yet I could not understand what either one actually said, just their body language and basic intentions. 

A writers mind goes to some strange places. I could see the baby as a mistrustful Gaulish village leader who has never spoken to an enemy warrior before. The dog was a roman centurion from a legion about to overrun the area. I was the newly appointed ambassador from the last village to have been conquered, who is trying to insure that the transition happens peaceably. There you have the start of a very tense historical drama. All from 2 minutes of baby talk and dog barking.

I was thinking about how we learn things last Sunday when my mother was over here. My oldest son, who is with her the most, complained quietly to me that she tells him the same old stories over and over again. While that can seem tiresome, I'll guarantee you those timeworn tales will never be forgotten! Repetition is a very effective tool of rote learning. That is something stressed in the TALES OF THE VAGABOND BARDS, for the the entire purpose of these itinerant minstrels and storytellers is to keep both a written and oral history of the lands, so that those in power currently don't rewrite the past to suit their own needs. Songs can teach as well as entertain, and they are easy to memorize. You just sing them often and the words begin to stick.

I was also reminded of how in the Dark Ages, hermit monks on the fringes of the crumbled Roman Empire transcribed texts from ancient sources that had otherwise been all but lost to barbarian raids. If not for those lonely scribes and their labors of faith and love for the written word, virtually most if not all of what has become collective human history would have died long before our generation. Perhaps then, on a smaller and more intimate scale, we can preserve our own heritage—even if it's only by using an old tale of days gone by to create a new work of fiction. For instance...

My grandfather had a way of proudly embellishing stories to make them more entertaining. It was a source of family embarrassment, as he was rather loud and determined to be believed at all costs. One of his favorite whoppers was about what happened to him after he was hit by a car, riding his bicycle to work one day. That accident did happen, and he sustained a serious head injury from it that required hospitalization for a while. The part he added was being attended by, "...a doctor with a long white beard," and the story got more involved the longer it was told. Grandpa would always move a hand down to his waist when he talked about this ancient medical practitioner who saved his life; and my grandmother, mother, and her other siblings would scoff and roll their eyes. As a kid, I didn't care if it was true or not, I just loved to hear him tell the story! Now I write about long bearded wizards with white hair and mad skilz, and they're just as wise and capable as the imaginary octogenarian doctor who reputedly saved Grandpa's life. You have to wonder how much of my imagination came from listening wide eyed to all those tall tales. To write good fiction, you have to suspend belief long enough to get a feel for the character. Thanks to Grandpa, I got a head start on fantasy fiction in my childhood.

Oh the stories I know. Sadly, I'm not sure if anyone else recalls them, or even gives a damn if they do. My mother might have even forgotten that particularly elaborate fabrication of Grandpa's, because these days she often mixes him up with my Dad. I remember it though and because I do, I can still share the memory, reliving not only her past, but my own as that little girl who loved to listen to a good yarn well told—even if they weren't always quite remembered the way they happened. I can use them to fuel even more tales of my own if I wish. That's also how a writer's mind works.

So even though my writing life and the real world around me are currently colliding, it doesn't have to be one way or another. This year I will spend a lot more time with family, a lot less writing, and I'll still make time to dig in the garden or steal an occasional day to go goof off somewhere. Yet I won't be unproductive. My mind never stops creating; it never passes up an opportunity to wander down paths unknown and sometimes completely bizarre. I may only have time to jot down ideas, or lay there in the dark connecting the dots between fact and fiction before sleep takes me to dreamland. But I will  at least conceive the skeleton of some new stories, and if they have to wait a while to be fleshed out... well, that's happened before. Much of the work I have in print now, as well as those waiting to be published, started out as raw ideas and some cobbled together phrases back when I was raising my own kids—a few even directly inspired by the boys. I've so many ideas for those storylines, I might not live long enough to get them all told. I'm not worried in the least about getting rusty. Five minutes at the keyboard and I have my mojo back.

So if right now, you don't have enough time to create your masterpiece either, take heart. Just get those raw ideas jotted down, and move on with your life. They'll be there, waiting for you to turn them into works of art. Don't fall into the trap that it has to be all finished or not worth doing, because that's total bunk. Do what you can—put ten words in a paragraph, make a rough sketch of a scene, jot down that line of poetry, play a few notes of music. Just capture whatever you have inside because it's better than bottling it up, and then finding out later that your inspiration well went dry and your ideas have turned to dust and blown away. Writing for me has become a daily habit, even if it's just an idea tucked into an email, or a blog post about why I can't write as much as I used to. You can do that too.

Go make a beautiful mess, because life is short. Babies grow up fast, and people get old and forgetful. Do it now, just because you can.