Writing Exercise: Driving (Part 1)

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The driving is nothing for me. Years of practice have taught me to turn off whatever part of the brain is responsible for boredom, fatigue, for feeling your body’s reaction to sitting in the driver’s seat for hours. The ritual is like this: You put the keys in the ignition and you start the engine, and the resulting sound will be the sound of work, a symphony of gasoline and transmission fluid flowing from tanks through lines curling like snakes under the hood, and there is the imperceptible sound of sparks firing, all mechanical processes I don’t fully understand and I don’t care to. I only really know the sound of the engine and the relief of the car starting, which sends off a chemical reaction of endorphins and serotonin that flow within me and pump blood through my veins, as if I am a vehicle myself that is awakening. I am certain this is the same pleasure smokers get from nicotine.

Not me though, I smoked a few cigarettes when I was a kid, a little more than a teenager, and for all my nervous habits and  inclination to step outside of parties into the cold silence of the host’s doorstep, I never understood The Cigarette, or the Ritual of Smoking, although I envied those who did. I watched enviously as my friends borrowed lighters from one another and started conversations with strangers as code for a cigarette. I watched them try it the other way around, too, asking for cigarettes as an excuse to begin a conversation. I saw bulky men with strong hands delicately strike matches across auburn stripes of phosphorus, and I happily breathed in the puff of sulfur that appeared when they shook out the flame. But I myself never liked to smoke. I could not get past the violation my lungs felt as if I had betrayed them, and I felt no pleasure in it.

When I smoked, it felt like I was an actor in a play. Every time I held the cigarette in my hand I could see the stage directions in my mind – She flicks her cigarette absentmindedly and takes a deep drag, staring ahead. I don’t even wear lipstick, so the filter seems emptily used and naked afterwards, no red lip stains, no evidence of Me, and it reminds me of a one night stand that leaves no trace of emotion in your memory.

Oklahoma City is eight hours away, and really, as I said, I don’t mind the drive. I am three hours in and feel the numb high that comes with having no association with my surroundings. Everything is neutral when you are driving. No one is particularly good or bad; people are simply a blur of faces that either smile at you through their windows as you pass them or just stare blankly. I do talk with some people, mostly at rest stops or gas stations. It’s always the usual small talk that involves where are you coming from (Albuquerque), where are you from, and upon hearing I’m from North Carolina (though not mostly recently), the comments follow about visiting a very nice beach in the Outer Banks once whose name the stranger can’t remember. I find myself very cheerful during these conversations. Laughter comes easily and I never feel at a loss for words when talking with a stranger. Short exchanges, meaningless in the end, finishing once we each nod in parting and close ourselves off into our cars, our metal doors a physical end to the conversation.

The open road is a kind of meditation for me. I-40 East flows smoothly like one big black coffee spill and for the most part, I am able to empty my mind completely. Except for the intermittent thoughts of Ethan, and the memory of the blue hair-tie on the closet floor. The hair-tie that was not mine, an object so minuscule, a simple thin, elastic band, an ordinary thing that was only unusual for the fact that it had somehow manifested over the weekend while I was at my spring work conference. Of course, at the moment I discovered it, I at once realized the hair-tie had been a long time coming. It had threatened its presence with the extra work obligations, the sudden interest in texting, and most telling of all, the way Ethan seemed to lose the ability to look me in the eye.

But driving is a good anesthetic, and the memory is pushed further down into my mind with each billboard that I pass. Amarillo comes and goes; I pause there only long enough to stop at an ice cream stand, a wooden structure with thin walls against which several tumbleweeds are beginning to stack. I hold the ice cream in one hand and drive with the other, soaring out of Amarillo and further east, eventually crossing the Texas-Oklahoma border. It is a somewhat drastic change from dust and dirt to endless grass, infinite green. The Oklahoma sky seems to hang lower, its clouds more in reach, billowy tufts of cottony-grey atmosphere hovering above the stretch of highway. The low Oklahoma sky is a total contrast to the New Mexican sky which always remains distant, like the inside of a church, with its high domed ceiling.

I reach Oklahoma City eight hours and twenty-eight minutes after I left Albuquerque. The city is an expanse of typical urban buildings, a jumble of squares and rectangles arranged along sidewalks filled with meandering people: splashes of red, blue, green shirts here and there, most everyone in blue jeans. I have no other plan than to spend the night in this city, away from Ethan, away from my friends, away from anything that requires me to think or assess, make judgments. I take an exit that leads to the downtown area, and the road I am on takes me directly into the city center. I know nothing about the city, having only passed through it on occasion driving between New Mexico and North Carolina, but I have no desire for any more knowledge. I am not here for visiting or exploring. I just want to be away for a while.

The passage above is a fiction piece that I started a while back and just picked up again. I plan to post the remaining parts in the future. Thank you for reading and as always, I welcome constructive feedback!


Jobs, Dogs, and Plots: Reevaluating My Writing Schedule


As I mentioned in a previous post, I find that life often calls for a reevaluation of my writing schedule. This week has proven to be the case and for two great reasons.

The first is that Alex and I adopted a dog from the local shelter. We have been talking about doing so for going on a year now and finally felt it was a good time. He was a stray, and even though he was brought to the shelter wearing a collar, no one claimed him after several days. The staff there called him Cheese-It because of his orange coloring, and at the suggestion of a friend, we have tweaked that name to Queso. A ridiculous name and yet also fitting for his goofy personality!

I am sure that every dog owner says this, but he is perfect (really!). He is chill, quiet, friendly with our two cats, house-trained, the smartest dog ever (he is already learning “sit” and “down”), and so on. I’m surprised my poor friends and family are even answering my texts anymore since I have bombarded them with cute pictures non-stop.

This week was my last week of unemployment (another hooray!), and so I was able to spend the whole week with Queso, helping him get adjusted to his new home. He is a huge fan of extremely squeaky toys – the squeakier the better – and loves being brushed, which is good since he is “a bit” of a shedder. Due to this influx of squeaky-toy-time in my schedule and also my new-found addiction to finding ways to remove dog hair from virtually every object in the home, I have not been able to write as much as I would like.

The second reason I need to reevaluate my writing schedule is that, as I mentioned, this week was my last week staying home. I am excited to be starting my new job on Monday which will require an interesting schedule of 7:00 AM – 4:00 PM some days and 9:30 PM – 6:30 PM other days (no weekends though, thankfully). With this new schedule, I will need to do some heavy structuring to make sure I get in enough writing in to remain sane.

I am still working on some ideas, but I am thinking of writing during my lunch break since I will be getting a solid hour every day. I will also be getting home before five three days a week, which will give me time to write in the late afternoon. I have been playing with the idea of posting segments of the same short story throughout the week as a way to divide up writing into more manageable chunks along with more posts about my writing process and experiences.

Time will tell in regards to the best way to adjust my writing schedule, and I will be sure to post updates on any revelations I come to. In the meantime, I welcome any suggestions readers may have for writing while caring for pets and/or working irregular hours.

Tips for Saving Money as a Writer

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Like many writers I know, I would love to be able to write full-time and to get paid while doing so. As of yet, however, I am still working towards that goal (though I do believe it is possible!). In the meantime, I find it necessary to work a job that provides enough income but isn’t so stressful that I’m not able to write at the end of the day. Unfortunately, “stressful” jobs often equate to the more lucrative jobs in my experience, so it is a difficult balance to maintain.

Here are some tips on how you can save money as a writer (and spend more money on coffee!).

1. DIY Writing Retreats

I see advertisements for writing retreats and residencies all over writing websites and blogs. They often show beautiful beaches and smiling writers at work on their laptops, writing in contentment hundreds of miles from the pressures of their everyday lives. My interest is always piqued until I see the price tag, which is very often in the thousands of dollars for trips such as these.

Sadly, my liberal arts degree has not yet panned out into a career in which thousand dollar trips are in my budget. With this financial obstacle, some friends and I decided to plan our own (i.e., free) writing retreat. We spent a weekend at a friend’s house, working together in the common space of her living room, and when the weather was nice, her front porch.

Some of us decided to devote the whole weekend to writing and stayed overnight in the spare rooms, whereas other writers came and went as their schedules permitted over the course of the two days. We broke up our writing sessions with food runs and meditative breaks, all of which helped keep our focus strong.

2. Low-Cost Writing Courses

If you are looking for an opportunity to consistently focus on writing, a local writing course might be of interest. Community colleges often have what are called Continuing Education courses. These are courses that basically anyone can sign up for and don’t count towards a degree. The average cost of the ones in my area are about $75-$100 for about eight weeks of classes (usually one night a week). My local community college has been offering Continuing Education courses focused on poetry, memoirs, and crafting children’s books.

If your age qualifies you as a senior citizen, you may even be able to take courses completely for free, even at the university level. Most colleges have information on their websites that will give more information about these opportunities.

3. Free Writing Groups

A quick Google search can help you find writing groups in your area. These are typically groups of people who meet together in coffee shops to either critique each other’s works or simply to share space while writing individually. Often, these groups are free, or sometimes charge a small amount for each session, around $5.

Different communities have various styles of groups, so be sure to look around the local bulletin boards and community newspapers. When I lived in Albuquerque, there was a group of poets who met together in a community building and took turns reading aloud their works. The city’s Poet Laureate even led the group! Everyone was welcome to attend, and it was a wonderful way to hear the works of local writers.

4. Find Used Books in Your Area

Writers know that reading is a great way to keep your writing ideas flowing and to get a feel for a variety of writing styles and voices. Books can be pricey, but if you know where to look, you can often find some amazing deals.

Local libraries often have book sales to supplement their budget. I’ve seen a few that have bi-weekly sales in addition to seasonal “clearance” sales, where you fill an entire shopping bag of books for only $5. Often, the selection includes newly released books and bestsellers in addition to the standard classics. These book sales can be extremely popular (think Black Friday electronics!), so wear your running shoes and your game face.

If you don’t want to brave the crowds at the book sales, remember that checking out books from the library is also an option. This is not only free but is friendly for the environment. You also don’t clutter up your home with books that you will only read once.

Facebook groups are also popular places for people to sell books or even give them away for free. People who are relocating may use these groups to post their items, as they are often looking to get rid of them quickly. Do a search for your area and see what comes up!

5. Writing Software and Apps

Scrivener is a writing software that is specifically designed for writers. I know several people who swear by it, and if you are the type of person who loves to organize your writing, it is worth a look.

The site offers a free 30 day trial, and is an exceptionally fair trial at that, as the 30 days are not necessarily consecutive (a day is only counted if you actually use Scrivener that day). The program itself is normally about $45, but Scrivener offers a huge discount during the month of November for Nanowrimo participants, so that is a great time to purchase it (and get focused on your writing!).

There are tons of free writing apps out there. I use a voice-recording app to take verbal notes when I’m not able to hand-write an idea. Mindomo is a free mind-mapping app that helps you plan plots. There are also several free apps that can help you keep track of your writing habits and time spent writing.

Do you have more tips on saving money in the writing world? Maybe you use a free app that has been invaluable for your writing, or you know of great low-cost writing courses? Feel free to leave a link in the comment section and spread the word!

Living a Life of Writing: Volunteering at the Local Library

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If you were to ask me what influenced my interest in writing the most, I would answer without hesitation – growing up within walking distance of a public library.

I lived within a block of the library for most of my childhood, and I visited it on average two or three times each week. I still remember getting my very first library card when I was a kid. It was a sleek, silver piece of plastic that represented freedom and endless hours of reading virtually any book I wanted. I carried the card in my little plastic purse, feeling important every time I reached in to take it out and check out a stack of books. Often, I would walk home with a pile of books numbering over a dozen, reading the top one while walking.

I read everything I could get my hands on. My favorite series as a kid was the Baby-sitters Club, and I read every single copy that the library had in stock (and if you are familiar with this kids’ series, you know there are hundreds of titles). These books introduced me to a diverse group of characters from all different backgrounds and interests. I read all the Harry Potters, putting my name on the library’s hold list as soon as possible so that I could be first in line to read the newest release.

I checked out non-fiction books for school projects when I needed research material. I used the internet there during the time my family didn’t own a computer. When I got to high school, I saw the library as a quiet space to complete my homework when my living situation didn’t provide that. Being surrounded by so many books in such a happy place, I realized early on that I wanted to write things that would end up in libraries. I wanted to write like all those authors I admired; I wanted someone else to pick a book with my name on it off the shelf and find happiness with it, too.

Over the years, I developed a connection with libraries that I still have today. Walking into a library instantaneously improves my mood, and I love the concept of essentially “renting” a book for free and sharing it with the community. I guess this passion shows because it is a running joke with some friends that I am constantly mistaken for the librarian in public libraries! People often come up to me and ask me to help them find certain books or ask for information about the library’s services.

With my new practice of “living a life of writing,” I recently decided to volunteer at my local library once a week to help pay back some of that goodness that libraries have provided me. It is also a chance to surround myself with books on a consistent basis. Today was my first day, and I loved being able to help the librarians shelve books, even if to most people that task sounds tedious. I’ve never thought about how long it must have taken the librarians to shelve those hundreds (probably thousands) of books I’ve checked out over the years!

I am looking forward to getting more involved in my community and learning how to share my love for libraries with others. I also like being able to basically browse books at the same time I’m volunteering, so I get to make a running list of books I want to read. Taking this opportunity to introduce more writing-related time in my life is a huge step for me, and I can’t wait to share more of what I learn while helping out there.

Do you love your local library as well, whether it be public, personal, or even a tiny, free one? Or do you have more ideas for opportunities to surround yourself with writing consistently? Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear from you!

Writing Exercise: Time Shift (Part 2 of 2)

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Below is the second half of a short story, my writing exercise for the day. To read the first half, you can click here.

The man continued, still staring down at the half-empty glass in front of him.

“Three years ago, I spent the summer out in New Mexico, in Albuquerque, working on a farm in the South Valley. It was an internship for my senior year of college, and I was gathering information for a research paper. The paper was for my environmental studies class and detailed acequias and their irrigation benefits throughout the region. I was there from June through August, the hottest parts of the year, working on the farm every day that summer.

It was hard work, too, the hardest physical work I had encountered thus far. I didn’t know many people my age, and so I spent most of my free time exploring the landscape. In the late afternoons when the work was done for the day, I made the half-hour drive up to the eastern border of the city where the Sandia Mountains are. The foothills of these mountains hold countless trailheads, and I took to hiking along these trails each day to catch the sunset. I’d never seen sunsets like that, turning the mountains pink for a few minutes each evening, just like a sandia, a watermelon.”

Here, the man stopped to take a swig of his drink before continuing.

“One of these evenings, I was hiking on a trail that circled around a small mountain’s edge, offering breathtaking views of the city down below. Out there, the land stretches ahead of you for dozens of miles, and you can make out the buildings downtown, and even specific streets. During this hike, I stopped at a gathering of boulders and sat on one of them to wait for the sun to set. It was almost a meditative experience up there for me, with the clear skies and winds blowing down the mountainside, all around me.

I had been there maybe fifteen minutes or so when I heard footsteps behind me. A guy my age was coming up the mountain from the opposite direction from which I had come. He had dark brown hair that was parted neatly along one side and was dressed what I thought was a bit formal, a button up shirt and pants like my grandpa used to wear. The guy waved to me and asked to join me on the group of rocks.

“Of course,” I told him, glad to see someone my age after so many weeks on the farm with older workers.

As he sat down on a nearby boulder, I noticed his shoes – brown, flat, leather ones that looked like they had next to no traction. They must have been slicker than anything on that dusty, crumbly trail.

‘How can you wear those things?’ I asked him. ‘I’m hardly making it up the trail in these hiking shoes.’ I lifted my own foot to show him. He looked puzzled and mildly amused at my own shoes, a pair of sneakers I had used throughout college.

“I don’t have any trouble with these. Those shoes of yours though, I’ve never seen anything like them,” he told me. At the time, I thought that was a strange remark, but he seemed friendly, and I thought nothing more of it. We got to talking more, and I learned his name was Marco. He worked downtown at the drug store and was in medical school at a local university. I told him about my research paper on acequias, and he said he was familiar with them as many of his friends were farmers.

As the sun set, we saw that it was getting late and parted ways; I didn’t think anything more of Marco or our conversation. However, the next day, I ran into him again and so on for the next week or two. We hiked together several times, and one day I ran into him as I was walking up from my car which I always parked in the lot just outside the trailhead. Instead of offering to hike, he invited me to his home where his sister was making an enchilada dinner.

I had grown tired of the farm meals and accepted gladly. I learned that he walked from his house to the trailhead, so we turned away from the trail on foot. I followed him down the street, surprised that I had not noticed there was no sidewalk before; I supposed I was always too hurried to get on the trail to notice each evening.

It was after just a few minutes that I began to feel a little uneasy, kind of like that feeling when you know you’re getting the flu but you don’t have any real symptoms yet. My head had a slight ache and the sun seemed to be beaming down hotter than ever, but Marco didn’t notice. He just chattered on about his sister’s ability to cook anything you asked.

The sun was beginning to sink in the sky, and feeling the dryness in my throat, I thought I might ask him for a glass of water when we reached his house. I found myself wishing we’d taken my car, as we would already have been there by now.

At that moment, I abruptly realized what had unsettled me. Turning back at the trailhead with Marco, I had not seen my own car. Nor the lot that had been filled with so many other vehicles of people visiting the trail. My mind could not recall anything but the dead end of the street opening into grass and a post marking the trail’s entrance.

‘Marco,’ I asked him, ‘Are we nearly there? I’m not feeling well.’ The ground felt uneven below my feet although it looked perfectly flat.

He replied that his house was just around the next street corner, and I could rest there. As we rounded the corner, we came into a neighborhood filled with quaint houses. We were met with what seemed to be an old-fashioned car show, with the vehicles parked along the street and strangely, in people’s driveways.

I remarked on the amount of antique cars in the neighborhood, but Marco didn’t seem to notice and just shrugged my comment off. He led me into the yard of one of the old style houses and opened the front door. The house was immaculate inside, but again, all the furniture seemed to be of a style even my grandmother would have thought out-dated. I followed Marco further into the house and into the kitchen, with the impression that I was on the set of a historical movie.

A woman who I presumed to be his sister was stirring a pot of something on the stove. She wiped her hands on the apron around her waist and turned to greet me. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Although she seemed nice, something about her made me feel ill-at-ease. Her clothes were all wrong, too bulky, too grandmotherly. Her makeup was too dark, eyebrows too thin, like she was dressed in a turn of the century costume.

She extended her hand in greeting, but I found myself only staring, alternately at her and then Marco, the ache in my head getting more intense. My gaze landed on the wall behind the sister’s shoulder. On the wall hung a calendar, and as I read its marking, the floor seemed to fall out from under me. My head was swimming and I lost consciousness, but not before I distinguished the number “1926.”

When I came to, I was lying in the parking lot at the trailhead, beside my car. Neither Marco nor his sister were anywhere in sight. I drove to the farm as fast as I could. That night, I told only a few of the farmers there what had happened, but of course they didn’t believe the story, and they were worried I’d come down with sunstroke.

I went back to the trailhead every day until my internship was over, but I never saw Marco again. When I tried to retrace the path to his house, it was just as I thought. No neighborhood existed near that particular trail.”

Writing Exercise: Time Shift (Part 1 of 2)

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The passage below is the first half of a short story that came to mind a few days ago. I’ve always been fascinated by people’s stories of their own experiences with the supernatural and the reactions others have upon hearing these tales that seem to defy rational explanation.

I’m not usually one who enjoys talking to strangers. No, twenty-odd years of working in my line of business – accounting – have instilled within me an appreciation for the quiet comfort of numbers and order over the convoluted speech patterns enjoyed by so many others in our society. I’ve never been particularly interested in overhearing the droll gossip of strangers in the supermarket check-out lines or the impassioned stories guests on local radio stations so vehemently recount.

However, despite this somewhat reclusive personality trait, there are times during the winter season that I do recall a story relayed to me (and several others) by a young gentleman years ago. The tale was of the type so unique and without comparison that my mind only drifts to it on nights like these, when the snow and wind are fierce allies, and the air has that peculiar crispness which only winter nights offer.

Forgive me for my long-winded manner, but the sequence of strange events seems even more disordered with the passing of time (if time truly does pass one by), and I will do my best to communicate it all as it happened.

I believe the year I heard the story was 1984, as I was in Aspen for a skiing tournament that winter. That was the last year that I skied, due to my knee injury slipping on the porch stairs the following spring, but until that complication, I was still agile enough to compete. I wasn’t very skilled and certainly didn’t place high in the rankings that year (nor the year prior), but I held my own on the slopes that afternoon. My competing was more for a chance to breathe fresh air after a year of working behind the bank’s austere walls.

After the competition that day, all the participants went to the nearest bar in hopes of having a few beers to diminish the chill of the snow and to numb our overexerted muscles. I noticed that most of the skiers in the group sat with competitors who had placed similarly in ranking. I suppose to them, it seemed the gentlemanly thing to do, but in my typical fashion, I took a lone seat at the end of the bar.

I was soon accompanied by a young, sandy-haired man, his hair being of that in-between color that is often mistaken for red in certain angles of sunlight. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties and had ruddy cheeks, brightened with the burnt look most of us skiers got that day from exposure to the sun and wind high on the mountain. The skin around his eyes was pale and undamaged from where his ski goggles had protected it. I recognized him as having scored close to my own level.

He struck up a conversation, and I learned he was from Los Angeles and came up for the tournament each year to escape California and clear his mind. He had a quiet demeanor, and I imagined his personality wasn’t suited for such a large city, much as my own is not.

We hadn’t been seated long before we were joined by two boisterous and somewhat intoxicated skiers, one with a military haircut and one with a wispy moustache that seemed to have given up on growing itself out. In their drunken state, they generously bought a round of beers for both myself, the Californian, and several other skiers scattered around the bar. The two had done very well in the tournament and seemed eager to share their good humor. It wasn’t long before a circle of skiers had formed around us, everybody comparing that year’s trails to those of previous competitions.

As often happens with inebriated and adventurous groups like that which we had created, the conversation turned to sharing tales of evading danger and acts of bravado. One skier, an older man with thinning hair, talked about scaring off a mother grizzly and her cub while on a solo camping trip in Washington. Another man, only college-aged or so, recounted his experience nearly drowning during a poorly planned rafting trip down the Rio Grande.

The stories grew more outrageous as more drinks were consumed. I remained silent, as my vault of stories from working at the bank were limited to balancing books and skimming financial records, hardly death-defying.

During a lull in the conversation, the man with the military cut suggested the Californian share a story, as surely he had encountered some wild creatures in that state.

With the group’s attention on him, the Californian slowly set down his glass in a way that silenced the room. It had grown late, and we skiers were the only ones left in the bar. He wiped a bit of the beer’s foam from his lip and seemed to collect himself before beginning.

“I have a story, but it’s not from California. It’s not about bears, or rivers, or anything like that. There aren’t many people who believe me and that is fine. I don’t know that I would, in their position. But I guess there might be some people who don’t believe that man here wrestled that cougar.” The skier in the crowd who’d shared a dubious account of an encounter with a cougar didn’t protest, only laughing good-naturedly.

The Californian remained serious, and kept his eyes lowered as he began.

This is the end of the first half. I will post the second half tomorrow. Thanks for stopping by! Happy reading and writing!