Was It Meant to Be?

There are perfect moments in life when all the confusion falls away and things become clear. You see how everything fits together; every loss, every disappointment—they all led to the happiness you feel right now. With its infinite complexity, the universe can’t help but hold all you’ll ever need. The trick is knowing how to find it.   –“Lost and Found”

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With my parents in 1988. I surgically excised my toxic boyfriend from the photo after we broke up.

This is an excerpt from a chapter of my memoir that tells the story of a wonderful thing thing that happened as a result of a painful loss. It’s a fancy way of saying, “It was meant to be,” or “Everything happens for a reason,” neither of which I necessarily believe.

I spent most of my 20s being furious at my parents for fucking up my life. They were good people and I know they did their best, but their best was sorely lacking. They lived in a perpetual state of learned helplessness that informed all their decisions. The opportunities they missed to get help for themselves and for us had long-term consequences that affect me to this day.

I used to drive myself crazy imagining what my life would have been like if my dad hadn’t drank, or been stuck supporting his sick parents, or my mother was well enough to teach. But worse than the typical things I missed, like ballet and music lessons, were the pivotal things that impacted my growth and success as a young adult.

I had a lot of emotional problems when I entered high school. One of the administrators suggested that I get counseling from an agency that, as it turned out, I unwittingly ended up at seven years later anyway. The other recommendation came from my uncle, who said my parents should have me apply to small, private colleges instead of large state schools. He said the small schools would want me and would offer financial aid. I only know this because my mother told me years later — like, when I was in my 40s and clearly too old to do anything about it.

Because I had a slow start my freshman year of high school, it didn’t matter how many “As” I earned the next three years. My cumulative gpa was permanently fucked. That meant no scholarships, which was a disaster for a kid with no money who also had parents with no money. My two years of earnings from McDonalds evaporated halfway through my second semester at Bowling Green. I cobbled together the remainder of my tuition with work-study and a Perkins loan, which I got to spend the next two years paying back after I dropped out of school.

Being out of school meant I had to get a job, so I spent a year temping at various offices in downtown Cleveland. For a sheltered, sensitive kid who had never planned on anything but an academic life, it was brutal. I spent those days feeling alone, confused, and terrified that everyone would learn how stupid I was and fire me. For all my book smarts, I knew nothing about the real world. Temping in a city was a crash course in survival.

Eventually I got a full time job as a secretary — a profession I’d spent four years in college prep to avoid. I bought a car and moved out. I was broke and unhappy and deeply ashamed of what a failure I’d become, but I made the best of it. I took every computer class the bank offered. I became a Wang database administrator. Then I learned about relational databases and took classes in Paradox. Later, I took a minimum wage job at an internet provider and learned HTML. Those skills got me contract work and better paying temp jobs when I returned to college full time.

Unfortunately, the stress of adapting to student life after so many years of being a professional triggered severe depressive episodes. I was barely able to function. I spent three years failing and dropping out of classes before I finally graduated with a cumulative gpa of 2.76. It was humiliating for a former Honor student, but after eleven years of aborted attempts to get my bachelor’s degree, I was thankful just to have the damn thing.

The gpa was an issue when I applied to a master’s program at the same school but they admitted me on a probationary basis. I got a lot of help from professors who knew me from undergrad, especially when I told them about the depression and explained that I was now under a doctor’s care and on medication. Upon learning that I knew web design, the department chair offered me an assistantship as the department webmaster. I kept my own hours and worked offsite. Ultimately, my boss didn’t care how much or how little I worked as long as the work got done. This enabled me to get my graduate degree while also holding several part-time jobs, and it paid the mortgage on my house.

I graduated just shy of a 4.0 (stupid B in 20th century Irish Novel and Film!) and I defended my thesis at the same time I finished my course work. My advisors and the department chair told me that was almost unheard of, but I didn’t really have a choice. I couldn’t afford to pay tuition on my own, so I had to get everything done by the end of the assistantship.

With my master’s degree I was able to teach English classes. With my writing skills and computer background, I was able to create technical manuals and user guides. With my knowledge of internet applications, I understood how to create and leverage online content.

All of these skills are requirements for the work I do now, which is Instructional Design.

This profession did not exist when I graduated from high school in 1983. And it did not mature into a web-based discipline until the 00s. Colleges eventually caught up and began offering master’s programs in instructional technology; I just got there the long way.

It’s a high-paying field, especially in manufacturing, where instructional designer jobs are hard to fill. My employer had to go out of state for our last hire. So no matter what happens in my current job, I will always be able to find work, and I will always make a livable wage. It’s a very good place to be at this time in my life, but I wouldn’t be here without all the obstacles that forced me down this path.

I don’t know if that means this was meant to be. I only know that I ended up in a job that is perfectly suited to my temperament and skills. But more than that, my twisted career path exposed me to different industries and enabled me to work closely with all kinds of people: corporate VPs, blue collar workers, creative staff, tech guys, academics, and students of all economic levels. Those experiences have given me insights into people that I might not otherwise have met.

For a writer, that information is invaluable. A fiction writer needs to understand other points of view, and it’s a lot easier to do that from experience than imagination! In a very real sense, the losses and disappointments I had made it possible for me to achieve my dream of writing a novel.

All I need to do is finish the damn thing. 😛

Sister Patty Ann, I Hardly Knew You

“Like most teenagers, I was the center of my world and thus believed that I was the center of everyone else’s, too. I was convinced that Sister Patty Ann hated me.”

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When I wrote my memoir in 2004, one third of the book was devoted to my student days at Lumen Cordium High School. It was a beautiful place and it transformed me from a disconnected and indifferent student to an active and engaged young women with a passion for learning. There was only one blot on the otherwise perfect four years that I spent there.

Her name was Sister Patty Ann.

She taught Biology and was the subject of many tearful entries in my Sophomore year journal. Like all nuns, she looked ancient but was probably not much older than I am now. She was irritable and impatient and did things that, to a sixteen-year-old girl, seemed petty and vindictive, like making us outline entire chapters from our biology textbook, and then taking points off for a missing period behind an enumerator. She was the only person who ever called me Terry — a nickname I despised — and I was too afraid of being yelled at to correct her.

Like most teenagers, I was the center of my world and thus believed that I was the center of everyone else’s, too. I was convinced that Sister Patty Ann hated me. I dreaded Biology class and spent every moment in that room filled with anxiety that Sister Patty Ann would call on me and then yell at me for being wrong.

It all came to a head in the Spring of 1981, when I had to meet with her during a free period to make up a lab I’d missed when I was out sick. I had to prepare a slide to look at something under the microscope. Sister Patty Ann spent the whole time hovering over my shoulder, micromanaging my every move, and loudly sucking her breath through her teeth any time I touched the slide.

It was too much for a sixteen-year-old girl to bear.

I turned around and shrieked, “Would you just back off already??? You’re making me so nervous, I can’t concentrate!”

Sister Patty Ann was startled. “I’m not doing anything,” she said in a surprisingly reasonable voice.

“Yes, you are! And I’m sick of it!”

Now Sister Patty Ann looked bewildered. “What are you talking about, Terry?”

“I try SO HARD but NOTHING I do is ever good enough for you!” I started bawling my head off. “AND STOP CALLING ME TERRY!”

Sister Patty Ann waited quietly for a moment. “I’m sorry, Terry,” she said. “I didn’t realize you were such a sensitive girl.” Then she told me to go splash water on my face so we could finish the lab.

After that she was nice to me. One day she was waiting outside the classroom. As I entered, she threw out her arms and gave me a bear hug. My teenage brain nearly exploded as I realized that The Dragon Lady actually had a heart.

As the school year was ending, Sister Patty Ann told us a story about the early days when my high school was founded. All the nuns at the convent got to choose which subjects they would teach. Sister Patty Ann loved history and wanted to teach it, but a nun with more seniority got it instead. No one wanted to teach biology, so that job fell to the nun with the least seniority, one Sister Patricia Ann.

I left class that day feeling incredibly sad for her. She’d wasted twenty years of her life doing something she hated. I felt sad that I hadn’t known about it sooner, because maybe I’d have tried to be more understanding.

If nothing else, maybe I would have hugged her back.

Playing God

“For me, a great character starts with a great name.”

You’d think after decades of writing that I’d have my process perfectly honed and locked down. But writing a novel-length work of fiction in a new genre continually forces me to develop different writing muscles. 

I think the hardest thing for me on this project has been creating entirely fictional characters. Normally, my characters are at least loosely based on people I know but that wouldn’t work for JEZILLA. I couldn’t shoehorn real people into the story; the characters had to fit the material.

For me, a great character starts with a great name. I think of a cool name or suggestive nickname and then picture the type of person it would fit. In JEZILLA, the protagonist Rocky is a pun on the movie character Rocky because she’s a fighter. Then I made her the physical opposite of Rocky — a petite girl. For Sanji, I conceived a somewhat nerdy character with the screen name ninja_guy (who obviously dreamed of being a real ninja) and then gave him a real name that was somewhat of a palindrome. I gave him exercise-induced asthma as an obstacle to that dream. It’s not a big one, I’ll admit, but I imagine it’s pretty hard to fight bad guys when your windpipe is seizing up. Mack was derived from a Mack truck and therefore a part of her is mechanical. For Sisko, I pictured a rock star or similar type of “sexy bad boy” and the name just popped into my head.

My second tool for character development is dialog. The interaction between the characters gives me insights into their deeper selves. And that’s how I had my latest epiphany about JEZILLA.

I’d just finished re-writing a scene that was important to the plot. I’d already re-written the thing a dozen times but it still felt forced and unnatural. Even worse, I was really starting to dislike my protagonist. Frankly, I was sick of her temper tantrums. Writing from her point of view was emotionally draining but I’d been writing her like that for over two years and this was the first time I’d had that feeling. What was going on?

I set the writing aside and just let the problem live in my head for a few days. It occurred to me that I was two-thirds of the way through writing the book. The time I’d spent with Rocky was cumulative, so things that might have seemed cute in the beginning were annoying as hell now. (Funny, it seems to work that way with real people too.)

I had a moment of panic. Had I created a bad character? No. She was just too one-dimensional. Rocky was all anger and id. What were her good points? And why would Sisko put up with her being such a bitch all the time?

20180126_134915Rocky needed more layers. So did her friends. I had to go back and expand earlier scenes, add introspection from Rocky, and possibly write a new scene or two. I also needed to give Sanji and Mack more agency. They were too passive. And Sisko needed a really compelling reason for being friends with Rocky in the past and putting up with her abuse in the present.

I ran through all of the scenes from JEZILLA in my head and noted opportunities for introducing more information about the characters. Then I filled a notebook with several pages of notes and I was back in business.

The Ghost of Christmases Past

“Christmas songs are cheerful and hopeful — two words that no one would ever use to describe me.”

For as long as I can remember, Christmas has been my favorite holiday. As a kid, I loved the anticipation leading up to it. The blast of cold air, followed by the scent of pine, as my father brought the tree through the front door. Opening the doors on the Advent calendar and lighting the Advent candles. We also had a nativity set that I thought was beautiful. (Who knows how it would appear to my adult eyes.) On Christmas Day, baby Jesus appeared in the manger, which conformed to his body perfectly. It was magical.

Unfortunately, my father was still drinking back then and my mother was increasingly ill, so when Christmas actually came, it was often a disappointment. Even worse were the years my parents were broke and I got to listen to my friends talk about all the awesome gifts they got.

But then my father got sober and we all got some type of counseling and Christmas got a whole lot better.

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My younger sister and me, dancing a merry jig to “Linus and Lucy.”

Christmas was especially joyful when my siblings and I had grown into adults. At dinner, we somehow crammed seven adults at the dining room table and four kids at a card table. Then we enjoyed my mother’s delicious turkey dinner while discussing movies, books, and our jobs. You couldn’t ask for a better Christmas.

Then my father died.

The first Christmas he was gone, the family gathered at my brother’s house instead of my parents’. That was different. My mother hadn’t cooked the meal I enjoyed so much. Worst of all, my father was not at the head of the table, peppering the conversation with his typical dry comments and sharp observations.

After that, the family fragmented. My younger sister spent Christmas with her in-laws and my brother spent Christmas with his. My older sister and my mother would put together a little turkey dinner and invite a friend or two. Some years my husband and I joined them. Other years, most of us managed to show up at my brother’s house. And while all of those Christmases were very nice, they weren’t the noisy, chaotic, laughter-filled times that I remembered. They couldn’t be.

I had no idea how deeply we needed my father to function as a family until he was gone. He was a stabilizing influence, which is funny when you consider how badly he wrecked our lives when he was drinking. Without him, things felt shaky and uncertain; the family was falling apart and couldn’t be put back together. My mother, in particular, seemed lost. We all tried to help her but obviously we couldn’t do the one thing she would have wanted most, which was to bring him back.

For me, Christmas has lost its magic. I’ve held on to what I can: my husband and I put up a tree and I spend many hours admiring its sparkling magnificence. I also have over 100 Christmas songs in my music collection. Listening to them always lifts my mood. Christmas songs are cheerful and hopeful — two words that no one would ever use to describe me.

Inevitably, I play A Charlie Brown Christmas and let in the ghost of Christmases past. I look at the photo of my sister and me dancing. Outside the frame, my father is sitting on the couch and in a departure from his normally stoic self, he joins in as he waves his arms in the air.

Merry Christmas, Dad. We miss you.

The Stories We Tell

“I have a repertoire of stories involving me trying to run over ex-boyfriends with my car.”

When I entered graduate school in 2002, I knew that I wanted to write a memoir. Even though by age 40 I hadn’t accomplished much of anything, lots of crazy stuff had happened to me. I had a repertoire of stories that I fell back on to entertain new acquaintances, most of them involving drinking. There was a special category of stories involving me trying to run over ex-boyfriends and overly persistent suitors with my car. (They lived.)

The stories from my younger days are crazy and funny but probably should be viewed as cautionary tales of what not to do. The older I get, the more alarmed I am by how reckless I was. And yet, even at my most self-destructive, none of the problems I created for myself held a candle to what was in store for me when I finally became a responsible adult:

  • mental illness
  • job loss
  • foreclosure
  • bankruptcy
  • divorce
  • cancer

I tell those stories too, but much less often and with very little relish. They’re not much fun to tell and typically, the person I’m telling them to has just experienced something awful.

These days, I don’t really have any funny stories from my personal life. I’m old and tired and boring, so I’ve had to turn to fiction to entertain people. But that’s okay. In the end, everyone still loves a good story, whether it’s true or not.

Priorities

“I’ll let you in on a little secret: writing a book is hard. Really hard. Nobody knew how hard writing a book could be.”

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Me, lounging on a chair, reading and not having cancer.

Greetings, gentle reader. It’s been a while since I wrote my last blog entry. I have a good excuse, though: I had cancer.

Had being the operative word. My oncologist went to Defcon 1 with the chemoradiation and then I had surgery and then they did other stuff that almost killed me but didn’t and now I’m just taking a chemo pill to wipe out the last few cancer cells.

I was off work for two and a half months, during which I had planned to make progress on JEZILLA. I had the idea that I would use dictation and speech recognition to brainstorm and create high-level content.  All I had to do was lie in my bed and talk. How hard could it be?

Heh.

Let me tell you what I did during those two and a half months:

  1. jack
  2. squat

When I wasn’t sleeping or watching TV with my eyes glazed over, I was in some doctor’s office getting poked and weighed and told what to do. It was soul crushing. JEZILLA fell to the wayside.

* * *

A little bit of background on me: As a kid I was positively addicted to reading. I loved it so much, I spent all day at school secretly reading a library book concealed on my lap instead of following class lessons. The real world bored me and lots of things about it seemed fucked up and wrong.

To this day, reading is my favorite past time. For the past ten years, I’ve read science fiction and fantasy exclusively. I think of each book as a delightful escape from the real world. One day it occurred to me that I liked sci fi/fantasy so much, I should try writing some.

Having two degrees in Creative Writing, one in fiction and the other in non-fiction, I felt more than qualified for the task. I started a young adult novel about a boy wizard with anger issues who is really crappy at magic. He gets kicked out of magic school because he punched a unicorn.

I wrote six chapters. Then I crashed and burned. I had nothing.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: writing a book is hard. Really hard. Nobody knew how hard writing a book could be. 😉 I thought I could replicate the process that I used for writing my memoir. But as it turns out, writing a fiction novel is nothing like writing a memoir, even when that memoir has vivid characters, lots of scenes, and a theme.

So I put my dysfunctional boy wizard on hold and started to research plot development for fictional novels. I drew arcs on paper and penciled in my plot points at the appropriate places. After many aborted attempts, I switched to outlines. Nope. Then I tried index cards. Double nope.

For some reason, I was incapable of creating and committing to a fully-developed plot. It boxed me in and created paralyzing anxiety, which was weird because in my job, I prefer to plan out my writing. I map and outline everything and I’m fastidious about grouping and hierarchy. It would seem, however, that beneath my plotter facade lurks a pantser yearning to be free.

In desperation, I bought On Writing by Stephen King. I’d heard other writers gush about it for years. OMG OMG it’s the bestest book on writing EVERRRRRRRRR. I was skeptical, but I went ahead and downloaded it to Kindle. If you haven’t read it, I’ll give you the Cliff’s Notes version:

Just write. Then keep writing. You’ll figure it out.

Normally, advice like that would make me scream and tear out my hair. I mean, c’mon man. TELL US YOUR SECRET. But King’s minimalist approach comes from the following assumption: If you’re an avid reader, you know how to write a book because you’ve internalized the rules for story telling.

Reading that was liberating. It allowed me to trust that I knew what I was doing and not worry about conforming to some expert-approved formula. It gave me permission to just be myself.

I put away the books on writing (except for On Writing) and I just wrote stuff that I thought was funny or interesting and the words came easily.  And why not? Over my lifetime, I’ve read and re-read hundreds of books. The knowledge was in me. I just had to dig a little.

I’m now 40,000 words into JEZILLA. It’s taken two years to get there but I’m extremely happy with the material. When I started the book, I vowed to treat it as a hobby and not turn it into a second job. I told myself not to worry if my novel ever got published because my goal was simply to find out if I could write one.

Still, having cancer and the serious medical complications that came with it made me realize that I could not afford to drag my feet anymore. I had to set a deadline for completing JEZILLA, just in case (God forbid) I went to the Big Library In the Sky sooner than expected.

I aim to finish by December 2017. It took me two years to write the first half; now I’m giving myself six months to write the rest. Wish me luck.

How Would You Tell the Story of Your Life?

“Even if my memoir is never read by anyone, I’m still glad I wrote it. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.”

My memoir is sitting in the proverbial “drawer,” although in these modern times the drawer is a flash drive. My thesis adviser, who oversaw the entire MS, urged me to get it published, so I spent two years after I finished it trying to find an agent. I disliked the process intensely. It felt too much like job hunting, which I’d been doing without success for three years by then.

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There he is: the one and only “Brown Jesus” my mom beat the crap out of.

But even if the chapters of the memoir are never read by anyone, I’m still glad I wrote it. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. For one thing, it was cathartic. At the time I wrote it, I’d spent 10 years in therapy trying to undo the damage from the first eighteen years of my life. We barely scratched the surface.

The memoir forced me to confront memories of traumatic experiences that I’d never fully processed. I was fortunate that my mother and two of my siblings were willing to talk about the things that happened. Getting their version of the stories helped to jog my memory and it helped me to portray the people and events more empathetically. Some of it was painful, certainly. The chapter that made me cry as I wrote it was from the absolute lowest point of my childhood. I wrote it last. That was a strategy I learned from Alice Seibold, who said that she waited until the rest of her memoir was completed before writing the chapter about her brutal rape.

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How many of us have happy, smiling photos from the most painful times of our childhood?

The second thing I got from writing the memoir was the understanding that some of the things that I believed when I was young were wrong. I’d misinterpreted or simply ignored the signals that were so obvious to me as an adult. For instance, at the time it happened, I never wondered what my father was doing when I caught him hiding liquor bottles in the basement ceiling. Children want to make sense of the world and will invent reasons for the unexplained. I also saw times in my teen years in which people reached out to me and wanted to be friends but I was too self-absorbed to notice.

By the time I finished the book, I had faced down my demons and gained a better understanding of the world I lived in as a child. It diminished memories that were painful simply because I had remembered or interpreted things wrongly. In the end, the process of writing the memoir gave me a sense of peace and perspective for the first time in my life.

I highly recommend it.

EXERCISE: Good or bad, what is your most vivid memory from your childhood or teen years? Write about it in first person as if you were there. When you look over your story, what does it tell you about yourself? Share your thoughts and excerpts in the comments.