Brain Sputtering

I look at the clock. The arms don’t seem to be moving and the digits all look identical. Something inside me pushes against time, wanting everything to just hurry along. Does anyone have time for all the bullshit little things that we have to do and sit through each and every day? All the tedious things that seem to take forever? All the dreaded things?

I am not sure how I came out of that place, but I know it happened slowly as I sifted through my own mush and bullshit. During this period, I had to constantly remind myself to slow down, after all, what was the big hurry? Is it weird that I had to teach myself how to enjoy life’s every moment? Shouldn’t that just be a built-in part of being human? Shouldn’t that just be a given? Yet my anxiety-ridden nature could do nothing of the sort. I had to just get to the other side of things and quickly. The pattern was most noticeable with watching movies. I could watch a film I know I had seen and in some cases not remember a single moment of the film. I discovered the problem was, since all I was thinking about was getting through it, I rarely paid any attention to what was going on. At first, I thought the problem was my memory when really it was my lack of focus, my desire to just “get through it”.

I am not sure if it relates but I also battle a touch of dyslexia. I loved words so much that I fought back my constant poor choice of which letter was correct b p d or q (which ironically still happens frequently when I type). I find that both my hands and my mouth will betray me and either say or write a word that sounds similar to the one I want to use but is utterly incorrect. I catch it a lot when I am editing a piece that I have written really fast, my brain sputtering out a placeholder so that I can get the right word in the right place later. It happened all the time in my earlier years and I was dubbed “dingy”. It doesn’t help any that when I have this “verbal dyslexia” in public I get so embarrassed that I giggle uncontrollably. Ah, but what is life without all it’s little flaws and inconsistencies?

I have never had any kind of treatment for these brain misfires of mine. In my late 20’s, I luckily followed a path to study Psychology and in a storm of self-repair went through a wide variety of self-help books, classes, and therapy, shedding light and doing remodels of all the glaring personal blemishes that covered my interior walls. I also took my love of words for a walk and have challenged myself to improve my speech and vocabulary. Improving my typing speed has been the most challenging. After over a year solid of typing every morning at the computer for at least 20 minutes, I have not yielded any noticeable improvement in my speed or accuracy. That part is disappointing. Perhaps in another couple of years…

Oddly enough the one practice that has helped me the most is to just be grateful. I just stop myself for a still moment, close my eyes, take a deep breath, as I let it out I allow myself to smile. As I open my eyes I remind myself to just enjoy the moment. I don’t know if anyone else suffers from or experiences these things. I don’t know but I am guessing at least some of these things are familiar to most from time to time. I try to always smile, even through the bullshit. I try to enjoy every moment. Some days it’s harder than others, some days there is just too much bullshit and we all just have to do the best we can to get through it as quickly and painlessly as possible. No matter what though, I always have time to be grateful.

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Photo by Seth Doyle on Unsplash

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I Read to Write

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve joked or commented that I wish I could get paid to read. I always envision myself, all curled up on the couch in comfy clothes, my back cushioned on pillows and my legs tucked underneath blankets, a pile of books and snacks on the table next to a cup of hot tea as I sit intently lost in an open book.
Until a couple of weeks ago it hadn’t dawned on me that it could really happen. Yet there I was, sitting in on a conversation about all the ways that writers could make money doing writer related jobs while they work on their novels. The topic of audiobooks came up, to which I joked was my “other dream job” (with the first dream job being a full-time writer, of course!). There was a stir in the room and something stirred inside as the others told me that I could do it, that I should do it. That is when I was introduced to the idea of doing an audiobook audition.
The following week was a whirlwind of research and watching hours of Youtube videos. My research was on everything from microphones to editing software. I got a used USB microphone. I started to learn and utilize the free software that I found called Audacity and played with recording my own voice. I watched video’s on narration and voice-overs and practiced recording myself reading. At first, I was choppy and mechanical. I repeated the same sentence over and over in different tones with different inflections. Finally, I moved my make-shift studio into half of the closet in my writing room. I have arranged, recorded, and listened to my audio, over and over again until I finally felt satisfied with the results.
Luckily, I am proficient enough with a computer that I can set-up, record and edit the tracks easy enough. Now that my “booth” is set up the way I like, I have spent the last few days practicing. I’ve enjoyed the practice so far even though I have to repeat things over and over again. I’m quickly developing an ear for what sounds good. (Although, I now know by heart almost an entire random text out of “A Wrinkle in Time”.)
After my limited experience, I would have to say, this is a good job for someone with some acting skills or background, neither of which do I have. But I long to be an amazing storyteller. I get to try my best to present a story with all the intention and excitement an author has put into the story thus far. I get to dress it up and take it out for a stroll. It seems to me a little ironic that for the last two years, my focus has been on becoming a better storyteller and now I get a chance to… just not in the form I expected.
I still have my dream. I would still love to become an author. I will still try. But I now feel this is also part of my journey. I know that doing this, whether I succeed or not, will help me become a better storyteller. Perhaps this is a door I must walk through to get to the other side or perhaps this is just the next piece of my writing evolution. Either way, I am here and learning and doing as much as I can to tell good stories, to share great ideas and to perhaps add to my working resume. I am both intrigued and blessed by this opportunity and I will do my best to honor it.

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My Experience with a Sledgehammer

Last year an intriguing contest rolled across my Facebook feed. It was held monthly at a local wine shop in Portland, OR. All I knew was that it was a short story writing competition and at the time, I was just getting my feet wet with writing fiction. I had studied books and kind of dabbled a little but that was about it. At this point in my writing progress, I was a strictly solitary writer. I had no groups that I was involved with outside of stalking a handful of websites and Facebook groups online. I was also somewhat disillusioned that all one needed to be a great storyteller was to be able to write well, which I felt confident I could. I walked into the shop knowing no one in the group, at the time that was the part that I thought was brave.

The administrator explained the process. We had 36 minutes (which is why it is called the Mini-Sledgehammer) to write a complete short story (beginning, middle, and end) and it had to include all four prompts (usually a character, action, object, and phrase). At the end of the 36 minutes, we would have a short break to upload our story to the online thread so that we could all follow along as we each read our stories out loud. Then the judges (usually an admin or two plus the previous month’s winner) would select the current winner based on things like story arc and originality. Honestly, the first time, I was devastated that I didn’t win.

But I learned and after I swallowed that jagged little pill, going and participating became something that I loved to do. When I started, I was unaware that actual short stories are deemed the hardest pieces of writing to do well. I was hard on myself for not grasping the concept more, month after month. I was also discouraged but I fought that discouragement back with a heavy dose of determination.

With each session that passed, just listening to the other’s stories, I was so inspired by their levels of creativity that it started to affect my own. I learned and I grew as a writer because of the group. Last night was my fifth time attending and while I once again did not win, I smiled with the acceptance that I am getting better. While I still have a long ways to go, I am grateful for the improvement. I am inspired by the group’s observations and comments on my writing and am more dedicated than ever. Not to win but to succeed where I once floundered.

Here is yesterday’s attempt, unedited.

Mini-sledgehammer for May 2018
36 minutes, 4 prompts

 

Character: a kid with chickenpox
Action: opening a window
Object: a lava vent
Phrase: “I always perform magnificently!”

Smoke and Scars
Written by Jaimee Walls

Baxter Bradley sat in his dingy south facing room, the sun beat across his spotted chest and sweat gathered on his brow like the smoke on the horizon. He itched all over even where his mom had spotted the calamine lotion leaving him feeling like a bingo card on breast cancer awareness night. Grandma used to drag him along with her before she died. Like a statue, he waited for the alarm to sound again. He wanted to get up and at least draw the curtain but he didn’t have the strength to do so. His mom would be home soon.
The alarms were sounding again and the ground shook from time to time. He knew the danger was growing closer but it’s not like he could run or anything, not today. Why did all the cool stuff happen when he was sick? He had a vision of being like the men years ago who engineered a series of pipes to put out the lava flow hardening it into a crispy crust of new land. He pictured the congratulations from all the community and news crews. He would announce with no unnecessary certainty that he outsmarted the lava vent that grew into a fissure covering miles of his hometown. “I always perform magnificently!” he announced as he tried to raise himself slightly so that he could creep into a spot where the sun wasn’t going to make things hotter.
He heard the front door as his mother came in and fought to open the window, it slapping open and wind rushing in. “It’s as hot as that lava vent in here!” she announced and turned on the overhead fan. “How are you feeling?”
“Like butter burning in a pan…” he winced as she checked his forehead.
“I’m going to go run you a bath.”
“Not another bath mom, come on. Besides I can barely get up. Shouldn’t we be evacuating or something?”
“There is a ship waiting, just in case, but the authorities say we should be fine.” She grabbed the calamine lotion and the bag of cotton balls. He started scratching just at the sight of them.
“Don’t scratch, you’ll scar.” She held his hands down as she dotted the spots again.
The siren went off with a sick sound of its own followed by a low grumble beneath Baxter’s bed. A dog howled along with the siren. Outside a scar in the earth was growing wider, setting things ablaze and devouring every little thing it touched. Smoke drifted in through the window and danced with the thin curtains. He pictured the pools of lava licking flames along the little things in his life. Part of his school was gone so at least there was that. It might be a nice long summer, he just wondered if there would be anywhere left to play.

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Blooming and Buzzing

Sitting on my back deck, I hear the buzz of the bees against an azure sky. They dance from flower to flower, fully enjoying my lavender in early bloom. There are more bees out than last year and I am happy for that, we need bees.

The ants are out too but there always seems to be too many where I live. At least they don’t bite like the ones in Florida where I grew up. The ants we have here in the NW are called sugar ants and that is usually what they go for. They march in through unseen cracks and open windows as a continuous stream of moving invaders.

All of the plants on my deck are either blooming or budding and I light up each time a new one exposes itself. Right now there are blooms of pink, red, purple and yellow. Within the next few weeks, these will be joined by blooms of blue, white and orange. I am sad the daffodils didn’t last long this year, my tulips never bloomed, and I can’t remember seeing any crocuses this spring either. The temperatures have been too warm.

A determined spider takes advantage of the light spring wind and casts a wider net. We all catch lunch in our own ways. The sun tempts us all to be more active and in turn, we get a little hungrier. The busy buzz of the bees inspires me and reminds me to keep moving, keep working and to stay persistent. To do work for its own sake and to never stop trying.

The birds have been chirping and singing for hours now and it makes me wonder what all they must be saying to each other. People are busy too, their lawn-mowers revving to cut the tall grass, the sounds of nails being driven into wood and motorcycles speeding down the highway. It’s not warm enough for the squeals of a sprinkler. It will likely rain tomorrow anyway.

So, I wanted to say, thank you Spring for your warmth and sunny skies! Thank you for the new leaves on the trees and the lavender for the bees. Thank you for longer days and shorter nights and thank you for your bloom and buzz alike!

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Novel Number Two

During the month of March, I was introduced to the continuation of the National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) with Camp Nano, which is always done in April. I persuaded myself to attempt the same feat that I had accomplished just a few months ago back in November. There is this one character that I have carried around in my “back pocket” for a few years and knew she was ready for a novel of her own. I decided this was the perfect time to bring her to the surface. I gave her her own spotlight and stepped back to see what would happen.

I started out on April 1st with all the gusto and feeling I had from November. In the weeks before, I had taken the time to develop her backstory as well as creating a current “situation” and even a subplot full of personal tension. I gave her a bit of a platform and set out to tell a harrowing tale! During this time, I also started or was in the process of reading 3 heavy-hitting books. “The Art of War for Writer’s” by James Scott Bell, “Character’s and Point of View” by Orson Scott Card, and “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris. I also didn’t fully take into account the fact that April is our busiest month of the year at my work and that I was scheduled for almost double my normal workload.

Like I said, things were good at first. Although I wasn’t regularly hitting my word count and I knew it. I was exhausted from work but I kept telling myself that I could catch up. I got sick. I caught the crud. Of course, I did. I was stretched too thin already and barely able to keep my house clean. I was managing to get some reading done and in turn, learning things along the way but not getting much in the way of actual writing done.

As my story became clearer and clearer, I realized that I had more work to do before I could really keep writing, or at least that is what I told myself. The truth was I had lost my way. I had taken on too much and my learning was getting in the way of my writing at that point. For the first time since I started writing again, I hit a full-blown wall of solid writer’s block. Through my reading, I learned why I hit this particular wall, but it did me no good as far as finishing the manuscript by my deadline. I had oversold myself and needed to step back. So I did.

This is also the first time I didn’t beat myself up for not finishing by my deadline. I showed myself some compassion and for once, I learned something by not finishing. I learned that reading a brilliant book like “The Silence of the Lambs” makes your own writing look even more amateurish than you would ever think possible. Also, I would not recommend reading any type of learning books while trying to reach such a tight goal. I worked on things that are developmental in nature instead of just focusing on getting the story out. I ended up changing the direction so much that I couldn’t recover fast enough to keep the ball rolling, not with me on top of it anyway.

So, once again my character goes into my back pocket. Only this time, for the next few weeks, as I finish up these books I am reading, I will be working on her character and her story, but this time from the pinhole points of synopsis and loglines, developing elevator pitches, voice journals and honing her story down to the barest essentials. I will take the current story skeleton that I have and piece it together like Dr. Frankenstein and put meat on its bones like fattening a calf for slaughter. When I am finished, I hope to have done my character justice and while I’m no Thomas Harris, I hope to create a lasting character, with deeper substance and an amazing story.

I did not win the contest (because I did not reach 50k in one month) for Camp Nano this year. However, I did win in general because I am learning to set my character into motion and develop a story like never before. While there is still plenty of writing to be done, I am proud every time I stretch my wings and at least try. I always accomplish more than I would have if I had never tried at all.

Camp

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A Black Crayon

 

The smell of crayons always takes me back to my first childhood memories of creativity. Crayons were almost always available and easy enough to use though I was never “that kind” of an artist. To this day, I love the way the wax slides across the paper and catches every bump or imperfection both in the paper and from the surface underneath it. I still love the smell of a fresh brand new box and can hear in my head the sound of the paper being torn off as the crayon leaves itself behind on the paper.
The black crayon was always my favorite. I saw it as the most useful of all the colors because you can use it to outline anything, like the way a tattoo artist or coloring book does. It creates the lines and structure of your focus. It conducts your direction like the line on a road. It is the color of ladybugs and window frames.
Now as an adult, I get to show my grandkids the cool things one can do with a crayon and I love when they think I have some sort of magical powers. “How do you know how to do that Grandma?” my grandson Lucas will ask, his voice filled with wonder. “Because when I was your age, I practiced,” I tell him smiling.
I hope he always sees me as magical, just as I did my first box of 64 Crayola crayons, the cool one with the sharpener in the back. The box was so much better than that smaller, plain, nondescript box of crayons that mom got me before that, which broke, randomly melted, and honestly did not even write the same as the Crayola brand. I remember feeling rich when I opened that package on Christmas day! I am sure that it came with a coloring book but I have long since forgotten what book that could possibly have been.
I do remember emptying the entire box on a regular basis. I used the four inserts to arrange the crayons in color coordinating patterns, resulting in the colors beaming back at me like some confused sort of rainbow. Crayons, in some ways, symbolize my first OCD moments, which as an adult continue to play out in my color coordinated closets and pantry’s, outlined in black. I manage my OCD with a strong dose of writing and have long since traded my crayons for pens and my drawings for stories.

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Don’t Rue the Day!

I was not brought up in what I would call a concise home. My upbringing involved frequent blurted bursts of verbal emotion but genuine communication was not really encouraged. Few, if any, of the values or structure that I abide by now, were present in my youth and have been instilled with the help of people who have cared enough to help me.
Besides my writing, I currently work in a very public environment and am learning to work within a certain set of boundaries with the desired skill-set. There are things that I say, in general, that can be misconstrued. Those who have bothered to give me honest answers when I have asked, tell me things like “people take you wrong” or “you don’t use positive verbiage”. I try to be as concise as possible but not everything comes out the way I intend it. Inevitably, the wrong words are taken the wrong way at the wrong time by the wrong people. I’ve referred to myself as “Miss Understood” or “Miss Spoken” as these titles fit those moments. This is a problem that has gnawed at me for years. While I am still struggling with this, I am actively working on it.
Twice now, in the last twenty-four hours, I have been reminded of RUE… Resist the Urge to Explain. Since the universe has flagged this one down for me, I must take heed and examine this idea closer. Perhaps in the process, I will eventually find out why I do this and find ways to remove this reoccurring problem.
I stole the anagram RUE from a book I am reading, on writing, called “The Art of War for Writers” by James Scott Bell (My favorite writing mentor!). In writing it’s also called “avoiding excess exposition”. As a writer, I can easily go back and cut my dialog and narration using this method and improve my writing. However, when it comes to verbal communication, I am so worried about being understood that I can also come across as Captain Obvious (which no one likes unless C.O. is funny, which is a tough act to pull off, believe me, I have tried).
In many ways, every essay like this I write falls into the RUE pit as I do my best to navigate and share my thoughts and ideas. I can edit my writing. Can I edit my mind before the words come out of my mouth? I have to ask, am I still being true to myself? Or would I remain me… only an improved me? Or an enhanced me? How do I use this technique and strategy to improve my communication overall so that I am better understood in general?
While I have worked hard and in so many ways, changed and edited my own life so that the present reads the way I want it to, I still have some serious work to do. I will have to be dedicated and observant while I try to slow things down and really start paying attention to this aspect of my life. My goal is to become a clear and concise communicator and improve my communication competence, both with my voice and with my words.

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