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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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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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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The Divided States

In some ways, our country has always been divided. Our two system party, the American Dream vs. Big Brother, North vs. South, Rich vs. Poor, Cowboys vs. Indians… Yet even with the violence of the civil war, our current divide seems more dangerous and more deadly. Is it because of our ever-growing population? Is it because of the ease of modern communication? Is it because of our growing and impassioned beliefs? Is it because of politics and the political systems in place? Or does it simply boil down to the fact that we are human and have a very primal human nature? Or is it because these continuing issues seem to be uniquely American in nature and are forever woven into the fabric of our life and our flag?
Our divided states are like one big chopping block instead of a melting pot. Combining and emersion are not encouraged; keep things divided, separate from others not like you, alienate anyone who is different. This is how the dividing occurs and we are willing participants because we all have opinions and preferences. I would rather not indulge some of our cultures worst traits, yet maintaining freedom means those traits get to stay. It is a serrated edge that cuts and separates the “what could be” from the “what is”.
“They” have us fighting with each other, solidifying the division, closing our ears and our hearts off to viable solutions. Alienate. That is what an abuser does. If he can alienate his victim, then the abuse can go on as directed, without interruption. The abused usually is clueless as to what is going on, too busy trying to juggle the blame and horror of the situation. That is what many of us are doing or experiencing. And yet we are blind to it.
If you say to me, “The kids don’t know anything about gun control! They were just eating Tide Pods last month!” Perhaps you are right. Still, as adults we are supposed to protect the children until they are old enough to make their own decisions, that is our job. It is our job to raise “responsible members of civilized society”. Whether as an adult or a parent, you have to realize that if we don’t like what the children are doing, then we need to educate them and guide them, not belittle them. The age of abuse is passing out of existence and we must lovingly evolve our thinking. Let us use communication as a tool instead of a weapon.
I believe that we are mainly divided by those who want change and those who don’t. It’s almost like a couple who is continually fighting. One side thinks everything is “just fine just how it is” and the other side is showing all the ways things aren’t fine. Perhaps there are some things that shouldn’t change. But we obviously need to sit down and really look at what is working and what isn’t. Isn’t that what you would do with car trouble? Or financial issues? What is working well and what needs to change? And then how do we change it? It is pointless to constantly point the finger of blame and not provide or explore working solutions.
I believe sometimes problems arise so that we can (together) find solutions. Perhaps strength and change come from having the hard and difficult discussions. Perhaps this is where we find our true humanity. Perhaps in the process of breaking down is where we create the strength of building up. Perhaps this is where we bridge the divide. Let’s fix this rift before it gets wide enough to swallow us up. We can fix things without losing what we have. But if we continue to fight amongst ourselves we could lose all that we have built. Divided cannot be United.

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The Cost of Value

The concept of value differs depending on how you use the word. As a noun, it’s the importance or usefulness of something. Yet as a verb, it’s the monetary worth. We all value different things. To one person, the truth might be valuable and to another, it might be a cost. The things I value will not necessarily be the same things that you value. Therefore, to me, a value is relative and changing. Value is intrinsically individual.

To draw deeper into this idea, there are also personal values that shape who we are and shape our decisions. What we personally will or won’t spend money on, what we hold dear, what we cherish and believe, what we live for, what we would die for. These are things that cannot be priced yet they often have a cost. I value hard work, not just for the money it affords me, but also the feeling of freedom and satisfaction it awards me in the long run. Putting time into relationships also affords a cherished experience that we could not have without putting in that time. Finishing a project brings pride and a sense of accomplishment that we could not have without putting in the hard work to make it happen. You hear about lotto winners saying that the money did not bring them happiness, this is because life does not work that way. Life is all about hard work and motion, if you just sit there on your ass you will never get anywhere. You must value motion and get to work, that is the cost.

So, while some people value education and pour their time and money into that, others value fun and experiences, spending their money on vacations or toys. Some value their image and spend money to maintain that image on everything from cars to name brand apparel. Some value privacy and freedom preferring to live a simple and muted life. Some value family above all else and solely strive to provide for their family unity and connectedness. My list of examples could go on infinitely, but my point is that many of us carry strong values that permeate our lives and all our decisions.

It should become obvious then, that these differences are the basis for both human connections and rifts. If you and I value the same things, then we are connected. If we value different things, then we are split apart and there is less to connect us. The universe pulls us in different directions and blinds us to the real reason for the rift. Something I cannot connect with is not important to me, leading to an apathetic viewpoint. While variety and diversity are the spice of life, the differences between what people value can separate and divide us (the clearest examples of this are politics and religion). What one person values and cherishes another may find ridiculous and ignorant, yet shared values can hold people together and create bonds that last a lifetime.

So, what can we do to keep our values intact (or perhaps be open to re-examining them) while still respecting the values of others? How can we change the dynamics without going either rogue or militant? How can we bridge the gap and the honor the diversity of all humans? Is there even a way? Does this mean that we must respect the bad and evil in this world as well?

For me, I think that we can all make improvements on how we communicate with our values and value systems. For instance, we can listen and be understanding, perhaps offering a little more caring to someone who doesn’t share our own values. We can try to understand why something is valuable to another and respect that viewpoint even if we don’t agree. It’s doubtful and foolish to try and change someone’s mind about their personal values. I think it is more advantageous to attempt to understand even if we are unable to be supportive.

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Take Time to Listen

What makes someone a good listener? When they sit quietly, focused on intense eye contact while someone else talks incessantly? When they nod in agreement? When they get outraged or sad in all the right places? Or do you find a good listener to be someone who gives feedback? Or do you simply want to be understood? Do you desire someone who can empathize with you? Since communication is the backbone of humanity, it makes sense to improve these communication skills; it is the “miracle grow” to our developmental evolution. Listening can tune us into our fellow humans, helping us dive below the surface of things, and enriching our communication along the way.

 

I was in my late 20’s before I realized I wasn’t a good listener. I was young and self-absorbed. I rarely paid attention to anything that was said to me (perhaps that’s why I never followed anyone’s good advice…) so when slapped in the face with this embarrassing fact, I knew I had some personal development work to do. At the time, I was taking classes at the community college, so I signed myself up for a class called “Interpersonal Communication”. It happened to also fill my speech requirement for my Associate’s degree yet it wasn’t an actual speech class, which I would have hated. So, I jumped into this class not realizing it would change my life or how.

 

I approached the class with the idea that not only would I improve my listening skills but also my communication skills which I knew were severely lacking. I walked into class confident that I would come out the other side as an active, resourceful, and skilled communicator. The class was anything but that for me. I struggled more than I expected. In fact, I don’t think I made it through a single presentation without crying. I still don’t know what about the whole experience was so heart-wrenching for me besides the sensation of overwhelming vulnerability, or beside my inability to open my mouth and finally honor the muzzled girl who lived within me for far too long.

 

I recently decided to re-read the textbook from that class. After more than a decade, it no longer gives me anxiety. Instead, it is like re-watching an old movie. I barely remember it but when I look back to the person I was then, I am surprised at how far I have come from that girl into this woman. I have to remind myself that as adults, it is up to us to fill in those blanks from childhood and give ourselves the proper tools through learning, so as to ensure our future success.

 

Becoming a better listener has improved my quality of life and enriched my relationships with others. It has helped me to see that the heart of listening is in understanding and while it is difficult to understand something that you haven’t personally experienced, it is a good thing to try. It is good for the person who wants to be listened to, and good for the person listening. So, let’s all step up to the possibilities of language and each do our part to help each other evolve and grow. Let’s strengthen the backbone of humanity and enrich what it is to be human.

 

Take time to listen.

listening

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