Advent: Hope (A Surprise)

Advent catches me off guard every year. Today, I found it in the Book of Mormon.

Advent catches me off guard every year. Maybe because it is a solitary sort of observance for me, as neither my son nor husband are particularly interested in it (they have other, less formal, ways of keeping their focus on Christ this time of year), or maybe because I expect it to start later than it does, or maybe because I’m always a little unaware of myself in relation to the passage of time. Regardless, right about the time of year I start thinking, “Gosh, is it dark already?” Advent arrives. Appropriate, no?

A few friends of mine posted their Advent lighting on Sunday. I thought, “Ah, it’s that time of year, of course.” I had forgotten, as usual. It was a pleasant surprise. My friends are observing “hope” this week. They’ve all had pretty difficult things happen this year (2016, you are the worst), and seeing them reflect on the virtue of Hope this week was inspiring. So I gave their posts a little thumbs up and moved on.

Today, I was surprised by advent during my scripture reading. I thought it might be nice to study some accounts of the Savior’s birth, and I encountered hope there. I don’t know why I was surprised by it. It’s right there in the song: “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices.” I mean, it’s not scripture, but it’s close, right? But I had forgotten, as one does. Majesty and humility, I remembered, glory, joy, and salvation, but hope slipped my mind entirely. As it does.

Anyway, today I read the account of Christ’s birth as related in the Book of Mormon, in the first chapter of 3 Nephi. The Christians are having a rough time. The people around them think they’re bonkers. A while back, a prophet went around saying Christ would be born by a certain time, and here were all these signs that he was going to be born. The signs appeared, but not THE sign. So the unbelievers mocked, which would be bad enough, except then they decided that if THE sign had not appeared by a certain date, they were just going to kill all the followers of Christ. Na na na na boo boo, I guess.

So their leader, Nephi, is distressed. Things are looking grim. He pours out his soul in prayer. We aren’t given his words, but I’m sure you can imagine what they might be like. I’m sure we’ve all had similar prayers. I’m guessing it was something along the lines of “Please oh please oh please help,” maybe mixed with, “I don’t understand,” and “Why is this happening to us when we have done everything you said?” I’ve prayed all of those prayers.

And Christ comes to him, as He always does, and offers Nephi hope. “Lift up your head and be of good cheer,” He says, “for behold, the time is at hand, and on this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow come I into the world.” Which, now that I think about it, is basically what He always says: “Don’t worry, I’m coming.”

And guys, get this: THE sign? Is a night with no darkness. How perfect is that? How appropriate and fitting, that the Light of the World should be signified by literal light? In addition to the new star in the heavens, this light brightens the whole Nephite city. “For behold, at the going down of the sun, there was no darkness; and the people began to be astonished because there was no darkness when the night came.”

And this is the promise and the hope Christ leaves with us, that when our Night comes, we can be filled with Light instead of Darkness. Even though the people in the Book of Mormon had been told what to expect, when the sign came, many of them fell to earth, just dropped dead (but not actually dead) from the shock of it. Hope surprises us. It surprises us by showing that the Lord keeps His promises. It surprises us by keeping watch with us all night long. It surprises us simply by showing up, an unexpected friend at a rather dull and uncomfortable party.

Hope isn’t going to sneak up on me again this year, though. I know it’s there now. Shepherds, wise men, Nephites all watched. I’m watching now, too.

On Infertility: Body Envy

I don’t talk about my experience with infertility often, partly because I don’t like to acknowledge its existence and partly because plenty of other people who care more have already spilled plenty of internet ink about their own, very similar, experiences. But infertility is no fun, and today I feel like talking about it. I’ll go back to pretending like it doesn’t exist tomorrow. I don’t say I “struggle” with infertility, because what is there to struggle about? Struggling implies I have some kind of power to fight back, and is necessarily combative, neither of which are particularly true in my case. I DEAL with infertility. I’m not fighting with my body. I’m negotiating with it. Ok, body, you do not really feel like ovulating on a regular basis. I respect your wishes. But I need a kid or two, so would you mind ovulating just once or twice? What about if I give you some very powerful drugs to help you out? How can we both get what we want? That’s the kind of conversation I have with my body.

When I mention my PCOS to others for the first time (and it’s always a mention, not a big reveal. I’m not “coming out” about being infertile, for goodness’ sake. Let’s not give it any more gravity than it already has, please.), I get a lot of sympathy and curiosity, both of which I’m fine with. I understand where it comes from. I get some pity, too, which I’m also ok with, because it means that person loves me and wishes I didn’t have a difficult thing to deal with. It probably means some less-savory things, too, but hey, we’re all human. The thing that actually hurts my feelings, though, is when people think their good news (“I’m pregnant!”) is going to hurt me. They approach me like I’m made of glass. Their hesitation hurts more than their news. Dude. Like, I don’t want your kids. Yay for you, whatever. You could have 10 kids or 0 kids, and neither situation has anything to do with my empty womb. Have a million. What does that have to do with me? I’ll throw you a million baby showers. Do you think people with get tired of the candy-bar-in-the-diaper game? Let’s do this!

The sad thing is, their caution is justified. My heart does twinge a little with every pregnancy announcement, especially when there’s a crowd of them together (and it does seem like they happen in three’s at least. What’s up with that? Do I even want to know?). But I’m not hurt and jealous over their babies. I’m  hurt and jealous over their bodies. I’ve given up the game that has me jumping through hoops to be skinnier, taller, blonder, and impossible-er. But I don’t feel like it’s so ridiculous to think that my body should function the way it was designed to. So I get irritated when women complain about having their period or PMS. Woman, your body functions exactly the way it’s supposed to. And that’s something I’m just never going to have, no matter how many cycles of Clomid I try or surgeries I experience or babies I manage to conceive. And women who can accidentally get pregnant? Surprise pregnancies? I’ve got some hardcore envy there. I recognize that not every surprise is a welcome one, and I know sometimes pregnancy is an outright tragedy. It’s one of the great injustices of mortality that the women who want babies can’t always have them, and the women who don’t want babies (or don’t want them right then) can. But since when is life fair? Doesn’t take away my envy though.

Mostly I can ignore this envy. Due to my highly developed skill in denial, I can pretend like I am as functional as everyone else. Envy slashes at me, but it goes away when robbed of attention. I spend a lot of my energy in gratitude, the antithesis of envy, and in service, both of which help. And I’m actually a pretty sunny person, inclined to find the good in everything. Sometimes, though, life is just hard, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. So if the light in my eyes dims a little, please don’t take it personally. I want every happiness for everyone, particularly my friends. My sadness isn’t about what you have, but about what I lack, my long-running grudge against God and the universe and evolution and whatever other forces combined to give me this particular dysfunction.

I don’t really know how to end this post. This isn’t a thing I want to talk about often, but I felt like sharing this discrete bit of my experience. Maybe I’ve just made life more awkward for us all. But truth has to count for something, right? Back to our regular scheduled programming tomorrow.

Are You Afraid?

Let me be more specific– are you afraid of writing? Are you afraid of succeeding or failing or being mocked or something like that? So you’ve got this A-MAZING screenplay/sonnet sequence/comic book/journal entry just sitting inside your head, and you know, YOU KNOW, that if you could just get it out there, people would be electrified by it– but something holds you back. What is it?

Here’s the deal: unlike other creative endeavors, it is very, very easy to be a secret writer. Rumor has it that Jane Austen slid her manuscripts beneath her embroidery whenever anyone entered the drawing room where she spent most of her days. It’s not hard to get a rough draft down without anyone being the wiser. If anyone sees you intently involved with your laptop, you can always shut it until they leave. If they ask you for details, you can tell them you were looking at porn (DON’T LOOK AT PORN. IT IS POISON. But it makes for a handy lie. Yeah, I’m a little ok with lying occasionally.  Don’t give me that look! You’re the one who wants to be a secret writer! You’re the one whose WHOLE LIFE is a lie!). They’ll look at you funny, but not as oddly as if you admitted you were neck-deep in fantasyland. So just start writing.

At the site affiliated with NaNoWriMo’s Young Writer’s Program (which I love), Sarah Rees Brennan addresses this tension between wanting to get your words out, and being afraid that someone might see them. She says:

Writers have to be both hugely self-doubting (or else how could they make themselves better writers?) and tremendous egotists (or else how could you make something up, and hope that people will pay attention?). Writers can’t earn, say, veterinary degrees, and then quietly point to a diploma if people tell them they aren’t “real” writers. Writers are so often told they aren’t doing it right.

And let’s be real– in your first draft, you won’t be doing it right. But that’s ok! It’s part of the process! You get it all out and then you see what you’ve got and then you pretty it up. Think of your first draft as yourself first thing in the morning after a hard night, and be a little easier on yourself. Anyway, Brennan goes on to talk about a lot of criticisms writers face, and how to write through it. It’s a quick read, but really encouraging. Maybe check it out– and then get writing! NO ONE HAS TO KNOW IF YOU FAIL. (“Fail” as defined by yourself, of course.)

Excerpt from recent stuff, a section about Aleesha:

She reached up to straighten her hair a little and caught a whiff of her hands. Ugh, really? They smelled of latex and powder and just a memory of sweat, no matter how much she washed them or how much cocoa butter she rubbed into them. She’d spent all day in the lab, so she smelled her hands with regret, not surprise, but even on non-lab days (lately, only Sundays) she carried a whiff of plastic and antiseptic. Her pomade smelled like vanilla, though, and that was able to mask it some. But she didn’t have any pomade in her hair today. She leaned her head a little towards her armpit for a status update. Yeah, that was gross.

You Have Excellent Taste.

I have too many other words to write down to share much with you today. Instead, enjoy Ira Glass’s take on the learning curve attending creative production. It’s very validating: yes, your work probably does suck, but you know what? That’s not a problem. Here, just watch:

So. Tired.

I’m so, so tired. We’re at day seven of National Novel Writing week, somewhere between 10,000 and 11,000 words ideally, and the bloom is off the rose.

That’s not true. It’s just that everything I write, I write late and night, and I am reeeeeeeeeally tired. But honestly? I’m not tired of writing this novel. My typical writing process involves 6 or 7 “false start” drafts of about 15,000 words, and it usually takes me months to get there. I should hit 15000 words by… Saturday? at my current pace. And my current pace, the nature of NaNoWriMo itself, doesn’t allow for six or seven false start drafts. So this is all very new stuff for me, and since it’s new, I’m going to say it’s encouraging.

Here’s some encouragement from Patrick Rothfuss, which is an expansion on the best writing advice I’ve ever heard: “Writers write.” Here is his One Commandment of Writing (and you really should go read the whole article. It’s short.):

1. Yay, Verily. You Must Sit Down and Write.

1a. Thou shalt not go see a movie instead. Or watch reality TV. Thou shalt write. No. Stop. You don’t need to clean out the fridge right now. Neither dost thou need to sort the recycling. I’m not even kidding. Go and write.

1b. Thou shalt not just think about writing. Seriously. That is not writing. The worst unpublished novel of all-time is better than the brilliant idea you have in your head. Why? Because the worst novel ever is written down. That means it’s a book, while your idea is just an idle fancy. My dog used to dream about chasing rabbits; she didn’t write a novel about chasing rabbits. There is a difference.

1c. Thou shalt not read, either. I know it’s book-related, but it’s not actually writing. Yes, even if it’s a book about how to write. Yes, even if you’re doing research. You can research later. Sit. Down. Write.

I just love the simplicity, the austerity of it. Put your behind in the chair and get to it, writer. How are your projects coming along? I know you have all month to work on them, but a little prewriting might be in order, maybe? Just to get the thoughts you already have in order? I hope your projects are going well. I can’t wait to hear about them at the end of the month!

Today’s excerpt, a paragraph from a “Becca” chapter (you met her in an earlier post):

She woke all cozy inside from her dream, a small smile on her lips. Then she noticed the blare of her alarm and the time, nonnegotiable realities. She had dreamed she knelt across the altar from Jared in a bright white room, mirrors stretching infinitely behind each other them, light filtering in through golden stained glass windows, the whole scene promising love, forever, bliss. Sheathed in cascades of lace, she’d never looked happier. She threw herself out of bed with a lurch and confronted her reflection in the pre-Seminary darkness. Yoga pants and a t-shirt. Well. A thing was what it was and not what it wasn’t.

Motivation

What makes you want to write? What makes you finish writing what you started? For me, the best motivator is deadlines. But when the project is self-imposed, when no one ever cares if I finish or not, a self-imposed deadline just won’t do (I’ve lied to myself to often to trust me). So what then?

In a “pep talk” for last year’s NaNoWriMo, Kate DiCamillo suggests that we use our anger and willfulness to fuel our productivity, flipping a giant cosmic bird to all the haters out there. She relates the following story from when she was a book picker:

Bob wanted to be a writer, too. But he wasn’t writing. Every morning we had the same exchange.

Bob: “How did the writing go?”

Me: “Fine.”

Bob: “How many pages did you write?”

Me: “Two.”

Bob: “Do you think Dickens wrote two pages a day?”

Me: “I don’t know how many pages Dickens wrote a day.”

Bob: “Yeah, well let me tell you something, you’re no Dickens. So what’s Plan B, babe? What’s Plan B for when the writing doesn’t work out?”

For this question, I had no answer.

I turned my back on Bob, pulse pounding, fists clenched, and climbed the stairs to the third floor and started picking books.

When the alarm went off at 4:30 the next morning, I thought about Bob and that is part of the reason I got out of bed.

So what gets you out of bed in the morning? What you love or what you hate? “What’s Plan B, babe?” It makes me violent, and I don’t even know Bob!

Blogger C. Jane Kendrick considered this on her blog yesterday as well. Her post was aimed specifically at how to deal with haters. Her suggestion is that we stop trying to block out all the negativity. Instead, see it as an opportunity for growth. Use what’s useful in it and disregard the rest. Like Herbert’s “Litany Against Fear” from Dune, we face the hate, we allow it to pass over us and through us, and when it goes past, only we (and our art, hopefully) will remain. I think there’s merit to this idea. As writers, it is essential that we have access to a whole range of human emotion. Blocking out negativity may end up hobbling us after all. And it’s one thing when we face criticism head-on when we can’t escape it (family holidays come to mind), but focusing on the negativity on purpose? Deciding consciously to take it all in, and then turn around and make something good out of it? Wow. That takes guts.

When I think about what got me started actually writing novels (as opposed to just wanting to write novels), it was largely in response to a challenge: “You told me you wanted to be a writer, but all you ever do is sit around the house and mope.” (I was in a toxic romantic relationship at the time, and between you and me, if you’d been in that relationship, you’d have moped a lot, too.) Delivered like flung dagger, I took the very next opportunity to start writing. It was a terrible fantasy novel set in a swamp that I never bothered to finish because it was too, too awful to be salvageable. Also I had some better ideas. So, sure, let’s say resentment got me started, or a need to prove to whoever was watching that I really was who I always intended to be. Maybe I just wanted to prove that always keep my promises, unlike some people. Those aren’t very positive reasons to create. Is it any wonder I gave up on that novel? Resentment is exhausting. I’m too lazy not to forgive someone. And then where is the energy for my writing? Gone.

No, for me what works best to get to the finished project isn’t the need to prove I’m better than someone else, or to prove that I can achieve my dreams in spite of whatever the world throws at me. I’m pretty comfortable not being the greatest person in the world, and, you know, not every dream actually is achievable in the time allotted to us to live (still holding out for teleporters though). For me, it’s still deadlines. 30+ years old, five years since grad school, and I still need a deadline. Sure, it’s often self-imposed, and sure, I know I’m a big fat, liar, but I have to start somewhere. A deadline and an interested audience can take me pretty much all the way there. Who would’ve thought that the antidote to hate would be not love, not apathy, but a checklist?

I’m hoping to get past 10,000 words tomorrow. Here’s hoping they’re better than today’s excerpt. 🙂

She took the kids home, hopped up on sugar and Grandma-love, and put them to bed. Some mothers might be cowed by shrieking, tantrums, vows of eternal hatred, or simmering resentment, but Stefanie was not one of those mothers. “I love you very much,” she reminded her children, tucking them in, “Even when I don’t love your choices.”

Chase, who had been facing the wall when she said this, rolled over and looked at her. “Me too, Mom. Please don’t make me cheat again.”

 

An Alarming Turn

So, one fun thing about doing NaNoWriMo is the instant community of writers writing. Normally when I’m around other currently-writing writers, how ever well we get along otherwise, there’s this sort of furtive, shoulder-hunching tension in which we size each other up. Pleasedon’taskmeaboutmywriting/pleaseacknowledgethatmyworkisamazing. Cringing in expectation of the fist which might actually turn out to be a high five. That sort of thing. It’s exhausting. But during NaNoWriMo, there’s none of that pretense. You don’t have to be a good writer, you just have to be fast. My region is number four in word count WORLDWIDE right now, but I can’t think of any great Maryland writers aside from Poe, can you? It’s so liberating being able to kick my inner editor in the teeth for a little bit, though I know I’ll pay for it when I go back to revise. But at least the thing will be done.

Yikes.
Yikes.

One fun thing my local NaNoWriMo community turned up on facebook on Saturday was this style analyzer. I ran the novel I’m currently writing through it and found out I am writing in the style of H.P. Lovecraft. Since it’s a Mormon fiction novel about faith and challenges and unity and charity and all that jazz, this is somewhat alarming. I joked on facebook, “And suddenly, this became a VERY different kind of novel.” Tentacle jokes aside, it’s alarming because Lovecraft’s style is not one I’d normally aspire to. My familiarity with his work is extremely limited, but his style seems to dance around the point rather than coming right to it. So if this is an accurate reflection of my work– well, my terrible first drafts at least– I’m going to need to exercise my red pen a little more ruthlessly in the future. (For what it’s worth, I ran a piece of mine that is farther along in the editorial process through the analyzer, and it came up with George Orwell. I don’t particularly enjoy Orwell, but he does have an admirably tidy style of writing. So that’s encouraging at least.) Want to find your literary twin? Cut and paste something longer than a tweet here. Let me know what you find out!

Here’s an excerpt from something I’ve written since we last talked. It’s more like a character sketch than a novel, but hey.  SFD, people. Revision is for December. Here ya go:

“Stefanie spent a lot of time on her treadmill. You might say she had a relationship with it. She cleaned it every day with a special cleaner. Her five children were not permitted to touch it under any circumstances. If a treadmill-related emergency were to occur, they were to call 911 and continue avoiding touching it at all costs. (Stefanie held emergency drills during Family Home Evening each month. They reviewed fire, theft, flood, first aid, earthquake—yes, in Iowa, you never know—and treadmill disasters.) The children had to share rooms, including the twins, who doubled up in a crib in the master bedroom, but the treadmill had its own space. The treadmill’s room was furnished with an overhead light, a mirror, a yoga mat, and a minifridge stocked with bottled water, which she knew was wasteful, but she permitted herself this one indulgence anyway. She had fitted it with a special tray, turning it into a kind of walking desk. She knew it was unusual, but, as she was given to saying, “This flab won’t fight itself.”

Stefanie was 36 and had exactly as many children as would fit comfortably in a minivan. She dressed well but never paid full price. Her pantry was well-stocked, as were the food storage shelves lining one wall of her basement, the contents of which she rotated regularly. Dust was afraid of her home, and avoided being seen there are all costs. Veritable pogroms against other forms of dirt and grime were conducted daily. Though she had a child in the midst of potty-training and the twins were not even a year old, her home smelled consistently of either lavender or vanilla, depending on location and time of year. And to top it all off, she had, since high school, worn a size two. She could still fit into her wedding dress, though she never bragged about it. She was proud of herself for not bragging. She never bragged, even though her husband was a successful venture capitalist and her children were widely acknowledged scholar-athletes—even the preschooler. “Success speaks for itself,” she said to her children.