The Novelist by L. L. Barkat

tea2Concise? Even the word concise is too long to describe this novella –but only at first glance. Coming in at a mere one hundred pages a reader can handle this during an afternoon tea. And some might do just that. Read it. Drink tea. Move on. The English teacher in me couldn’t do that.

At first read I kept growling because the main character just wasn’t delivering for me. She wasn’t writing the novel a fellow Twitter acquaintance had challenged her to write. All she managed to type was “The End” and then freaked out. She dances around it so many ways that for a bit you get nauseous. She infuriates you with her choice of men to the point of wanting to reach into the fibers of the paper and thrash her into some semblance of self-respect. Then there is the on-going search for the elusive tea basket which only serves to remind you of things you have misplaced and yet to find. And let’s not forget the influx of family and their stories. Or the poetry and I am an English teacher but some of this poetry is far beyond my synapses to process. To top it off she tosses in a bunch of well-known authors, some of which you have read and some of which you know you should have read but haven’t, all sharing tidbits of advice. All of which only serves to feed her doubts about being able to write the damn novel in the first place.

When I finished the first read I simply put the book down and was ready to move on. I had three more books ready for my attention. But the cover stayed open. I had bent it around the book as I read and now it just didn’t want to close. My mind couldn’t close it off either. I was just so unsatisfied and I knew I was missing something. So I dove back in. This time with my colored pens. It’s what we English teachers do, color coordinate things. One color for all the authors mentioned and their advice; one for Geoffrey the pompous “boyfriend”; one for anything tea related; one for family; one for poetry; and one for her doubts. There were less than five pages unmarked and that was because they were end of chapter pages with next to nothing on them.

Finishing the subsequent reads I was mesmerized. How the hell did she fit all that into one hundred pages. Not only that but the weaving and intricacies of meshing those stories together to YES end up with a novella that could very well turn into many novels. I don’t want to read the one about Geoffery. First I just had to call him Jeff all the way through because he pissed me off so. Second, she deserved so much better in the way of a relationship. Really, 28 motel rooms? In two years? Bite me! As for the tea and poetry my tastes are not refined enough. I love tea and know what I like and don’t and imagine having no trouble experimenting with more flavors but that would be a learning process I wouldn’t mind. The poetry was just like the tea. Some of it was right up my alley and some was way beyond where my passport credentials could take me. A sestina? I can’t back down from that and I wasn’t even the one challenged with it but I can see it being on the to do list for summer. And the family stories were delightful and terrifying but real as they come.

But the part I really want to share with you (in case you aren’t compelled to read this novella multiple times for yourself) is some of the interplay of author advice and writer doubt. See if you can find anything useful in the author advice or yourself in the writer doubts.

Writer Doubt: A novelist would remember these things.

Author Advice: “Being a writer is like having an insatiable parasite inside you.” Thomas Wolfe

Writer Doubt: Her laptop was plugged in, though, and the Word file was still open on the desktop—a single page of a novel she had never started, with the words “The End” typed smack in its center. As she sank to the floor, she managed a laugh. “The End”. They‘d think it was a suicide note, wouldn’t they?

Author Advice: “Pull your chair to the edge of the precipice and I will tell you a story.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

Writer Doubt: Laura did not like heights, or precipices, or conflicts. This felt ridiculously problematic.

Author Advice: Writing stories is an exercise in freedom and quarreling. Mario Vargas Llosa

Writer Doubt: Writing like Pynchon was an option. (Not trusting her own voice)

Author Advice: The main character must be booted through the doorway, into “the great unknown “ or the novel would get boring. James Scott Bell

Writer Doubt: It had probably been a mistake to start her relationship with Geoffrey via a sestina. Yeah that was the problem in that relationship; a sestina!

Author Advice: Stories have the power to make things present; make it possible for a person to look at things never looked at. Tim O’Brien

Writer Doubt: If she was going to write a novel, she felt defeated before she began, because someone might be coming along to pick it apart, looking for symbols.

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There are many more for you to discover as you read this magnificent novella that will exercise your brain as if it were a series of interlinking novels. Don’t let it sneak up on you like it did me. You have been warned, there is a lot of material packed like loose tea leaves for a long journey; physical sustenance and good for the soul.

The Vision In The Road

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She came floating out of nowhere, forming on the mist of the nightly fog, grasping on to the filaments of the moon’s light that delicately weaved its sinewy self into her –creating her.  What she was I had yet to determine.  Friend or foe?  Would she speak back if I found the courage to speak to her?  What tales would she share and would I understand?  I slowly froze rooted to the spot in the woods just shy of the dirt road that would lead me straight to where she floated; above the scorching summer asphalt but below where the mountain breeze fell to cool the land.  Do I emerge and show myself to her or will she dissipate if I do?

It had been a long day full of adventure and yes the moon was full and my nine year old imagination was free and boundless, but I know what I was seeing and no one will ever be able to convince me otherwise.  I had only come down the mountain to fetch more supplies.  Bruce and I had split at the creek and he was well on his way to his house for whatever he was scrounging up for our upcoming forays.  Here I was rooted in fear.  How would I explain not having my supplies?  Better yet how would I explain Her?

Burning On. . .The Proposal

In teaching, there is a belief that if you make it through the first three years you are likely to make it ten.  If you make it ten, you might make twenty.  If you make twenty, you might as well stay all the way.  Quite the defeatist attitude and one I never bought into.  Why bother starting if that is your premise.  In reality, most teachers burn out somewhere between years 12-17.  And if teachers are not diligent in their calling they will leave the profession before they reach retirement age. For those teachers that stay in too long and reach burn out, it is a well known fact that they are difficult to remove from the classroom.  They become ineffective in numerous ways:  effective instruction, student engagement, communication with stakeholders, parents, guardians, are often technotards in a digital warp age, and unlikely to try new and improved methods or stay connected to their professional organizations for current methods and pedagogy. 

I know these truths all too well.  I am in my 22nd year.  I have faced burn out and for a while feared it had me.  Turned out to just be a health issue wearing me down.  How do I know?  I know this because I dragged myself to work four weeks after a total knee replacement (four weeks earlier than most people are allowed back to work) and every time I stepped in my classroom those kids rejuvenated me into delivering the goods again.  From morning bell to afternoon bell I was running with the ball, making first down after first down, gaining yardage every where I could.  Sometimes it took a sneak play to get over on them and sometimes the play was a standard run-of-the-mill drop back and pass the lesson to them.  Once in a while I fumbled but once in a while I made a touchdown.  And that makes all the difference.  The constant personal evaluation of what am I doing, why am I doing it, and is it working for these kids?  Better known as WithItNess.  Not every teacher has it.  But every teacher needs it and more importantly every kid deserves it.

Standard operating practice in my classroom from year one was writing a lot.  As a high school English teacher I needed to see what they wrote to know what they learned.  Being a National Writing Project Fellow this is what I know best:  writing is reading, reading is writing, both are learning.  Participating in The National Writing Project the year after my internship and before my first year of teaching was a unique situation.  It set up my teaching career to deal with this burn out phenomena.  But more on that later.  Writing was an important way for me to get to know them and connect to them individually so we journalled and I commented back to them; reading every word they wrote and making sure they knew I had.  I wrote back to them in the margins, in between sentences, above the brainstorming, on the back, anywhere I could or needed to in order to respond to their writing and to them.  I never used a red pen either!  I didn’t bleed all over the paper regarding their mistakes.  I simply read their thoughts and responded.  Then there was the phase of state mandated writing instruction requiring a piece of writing be produced each week by each student.  Try assessing over 150 essays every week.  Hard work!  And that is beyond teaching literature, reading, grammar, etc.  To top it off start with a class load of students behind their grade level in reading. 

Even though I continued to look for those fresh ways to connect the content with the students and their world or use the technology and their media to my advantage, I struggled with the paper load it produced.  And then there was the total knee replacement fail.  Three revision surgeries and rehabs made sure I didn’t make it back to my previous position.

After the knee revisions forced my role as English teacher out of that classroom and into another one, I found myself recreating my remaining teaching career.  I am now a credit retrieval teacher.  This computerized program allows students that failed courses to regain their credit by mastering the content via a computer course.  My job is to facilitate and monitor their progress.  Chosen because I was good with computers, very detail oriented, knew how to and often used data to drive my decisions in the classroom, but most importantly I had the knack of reaching those students that other teachers often turned tail and ran from in sheer panic. 

Now after three years of this transition and having successfully regimented the credit retrieval program to run in a more ethical and efficiently systematic way than previous to my arrival, I find a need to do more for our school and its ambition to be the best.  More important than my need is the need to do something for my principal who has had the vision that every educator should have; kids deserve the best learning experience we can give them. 

So I have written a proposal that will probably shock my principal who more than likely thought I was down on my last knee.  He will think I have lost my mind or have suffered a concussion.  Spring break is coming and then the mass of state testing followed by graduation and another summer break.  Since my principal is a fermenter when comes to ideas I need to give him time to think on this one.  My only qualm now is should I gift wrap it or is that over the top?

Stay tuned for more. . .

From Dream to Novel

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For a man that says he doesn’t dream, he sure remembers a doosy of one. I am currently writing a novel, The Lights of Rosendale, that is completely inspired by a dream my boyfriend had one night.

Typically a dream lasts from a few seconds to twenty minutes and most of us have three to seven dreams a night. The succession of images, feelings, emotions, sensations, and ideas sometimes take on a life of their own if we are able to remember them when we wake up; doing so during a REM cycle you are more likely to remember the dream.

The random assortment of images, emotions, etc. are often said to be linked to our memories, recent experiences, or current thought patterns. When I dream I enjoy the search upon waking for what image was from what part of my previous day. The concoction of how my daily itinerary ends jumbled up in a dream is fun to unravel. A flash of this, a flip of that, and voila you have a new episode of what your life could have been. According to Freud, bad dreams let the brain learn to gain control over emotions from distressing situations. These dreams worry me. The ones that you have and days or weeks later the exact dream is unfolding in real life; unfolding right up to the critical moment where in your dream something evil happened. Every person is there, the setting is the same, the dialogue exact, but the drama never arrives. In real life nothing like evil happens. Unsettling. Jung supposed that dreams compensated for one-sided attitudes we were inclined to in waking consciousness. Thank goodness at some point our minds are opened up for us to see options. Others believe dreams enable us to work out things we are unable to say or feel when awake; make connections safely to things that cause us distress or regulate our moods.

His dream was a blend of the past and future; events that happened and are clearly explainable merging with events that happened with no explanation acceptable co-mingling with things only the imagination could consider. How it all ties together on paper will be fun to create.

This dream was so vivid for him and his re-telling of it to me so masterful that I now have clarity of where the story begins, where it is going, and how most of it gets there. Frantic conversations flit about in my head regarding what should be or should not be included. Staying true to his vision is all that concerns me. I don’t have the same qualms about writing his book as I do about writing my book; one I have been cerebrating for over twenty years. So far twelve chapters are outlined with multiple settings, characterizations, parallelisms, conflicts, but alas, no resolutions. He has some more dreaming to do I think. At best we have more brainstorming to do.

While the main setting includes his childhood stomping ground and a place I have never visited, I am having no trouble constructing opening chapters from his telling of tidbits about how he spent his time. I am often caught daydreaming on the mountain or in the mines of this setting as I brainstorm ideas while I am supposed to be working. This blog was written at work. One thing leads to another and I am off following a tangent up a dirt road climbing the mountain where limestone was quarried, summer forays were planned and executed, baseball was king, and NASA delivered the leap immortal. Perhaps it helps that there were historical benchmarks associated with the timeline in the setting. Fantastic events that happen few and far between in a life time. And then there were the lights of Rosendale.

On The Road to

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After going through much of my life privately pissed off yet publicly functioning as normal, I entered therapy to save myself from myself. Something in the way I was dealing with a childhood trauma was no longer a viable option and it was time to let someone who knew better help. Over time the individual sessions gave way to group workshops and one workshop was on ‘forgiveness’. I liked the idea because in my whole life there was only this one incident that I felt unable to offer forgiveness. The book used also incorporated writing so that was right up my alley. As I worked through the book, Forgiveness is A Choice by Robert Enright, Ph. D., I came across a writing assignment with the following directions:

As one step in confronting your anger, please take the time to review what you have written in your journal from the entries in Chapters 4 & 5. Write a one- to two-page letter to the person, one that you do not send. Try to express to the person the learning that you have gained so far. Let the person know why you are angry, how angry you are, and the struggles you’ve endured because of the unfairness.

I was shocked with what came of the assignment. And I still return to it as it and I both morph over time.

R,

I am learning the extent to which your actions have harmed me and stilted the development of my life path. The anger of the initial trauma is not something I was ever able to feel since I was immediately thrown into a sense of shock at what was happening and have only later figured out the full extent of what happened. That may be why I am to this moment so afraid—to the point of physically responding—so afraid of my anger. It makes me nauseous to the point of wanting to vomit right now when I think about what went on when I was only six. My breathing is stilted and I get hot and clammy all at the same time. My knuckles turn white from the intense stronghold I have on whatever I can grasp at the time.  I look around wondering where the next attack will come from, sure that I won’t see it in time. It is now in my 50th year of life that I am able to express the devastation that your actions have on me and my life.

Beginning with your strategy of sneakiness in whisking me away from the sisters and making me feel ‘chosen’ above them or over them is a manipulation beyond the years of a twelve year old. That in and of itself has made me wonder for years if someone else had the same impact on your life by doing the same to you. How could anyone at the age of twelve be so deceptive without having learned it from someone? Though I struggle with whether or not the answer to that question would make a difference in my dealing with this situation and moving on I am not interested right now in impacting anyone else’s life but my own. At this point in my life your traumas are not my issue.

I can remember all the moments of the trauma and how in the moments I would close my mind off to what was happening and go somewhere else. I knew it would be over soon because all the time was stolen time. Unfortunately, I can remember it all.

I can remember the moment I knew it was something that was not right and that what you were doing was evil; frozen in fear and knowing I was unable to do anything about it or even what to do. Just as I could not remove your hand from covering my mouth from uttering a sound, my brain could not utter the words later to tell anyone what was happening. If you deemed it a secret by covering my mouth, who was I the younger child to question my elder? I remember the discovery by others and knowing that trouble was coming because of it and I had no way to stop it but somehow it was my fault since I was the one on the doctor table. I remember the feeling, the sight, the smell, and the frightening experience of having my bladder punctured with a tube to release the urine I refused to release because of the pain. I remember the older nurse’s disgust as urine sprayed all over the room and the younger nurse’s compassion and tear filled eyes. I locked eyes with her until it was over.

I remember once again my mother outside the room unaware of the pain. She is still “outside the room unaware” today regardless of our very recent frank conversation. I remember her dismissive commentary and contradictory responses uttered in her inability to accept what I was saying to her. In that memory comes a new resentment that is born from an anger that can never fully evolve. She is too old; time is too short; no purpose would be served in going down that road.  At this point in my life her denials are not my issue.

The most important aspect I have learned in my journey is the impact that ‘dismissiveness” has on my life. In the moments, I dismissed what was happening. In the reveal, my mother and father dismissed what happened with a simple “ask and ye shall receive” forgiveness notion. The reason I am having trouble with forgiveness now.  In the aftermath that is the rest of my life it has been one dismissal after another. Starting with that event because I had to box it up and pack it away since no one else told me what to do with it; it just sat in a dark corner of my brain. Every time it tried to surface I dismissed it by pushing the lid back down on the box. Nothing I have done has been my own, has been good enough, or has warranted any attention by anyone. All my accomplishments in my professional life are not even on the horizon as an accomplishment by anyone else in my family. I am simply a ‘teacher’. What I do now that is my own is not understood and dismissed for some reason.

Keeping the lid on the box is something I did for forty-three years before finally being unable to keep the lid on any longer. In hopes of saving the next generation from the sins of the last it had to be shared.  Afterwards, listening to a family doctor choosing to see someone to help the healing truly begin.

The shocking aspect that I have learned is how much I dismiss myself in my daily decisions and actions. While I know the value of the hard work my life has been to get to the point I have reached, and the accomplishments I have made on a day to day basis, I dismiss myself and my needs, thoughts, etc. to this day on a daily basis. I know and acknowledge how hard I have worked to get through school, get my degree, get a career, positions in professional organizations, and in my career path. I know how massive a decision it was to give up on a marriage that was doomed to violence and escape with a four month old knowing what price that would mean for my son. I know how wonderful my nuclear family of my son is and how raising him has blessed my life; being a little league mom and supporting him in becoming the best young man he can without male influence to depend on; what a great work ethic he has; and what a wonderful partner he is on most days to his wife.

I am saddened and newly angered by the notion of me dismissing myself.

So along with working on reacting appropriately in the moment to snide or critical commentary from others, I need to learn to stand up for myself with myself and be proactive in living my life and ceasing to just exist. Watch out world, here I come!

Writer Voyeurism

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Voyeurism is a problem for some people; for others not so much.  True voyeurs may want to move on now.  Nerd voyeurs keep reading.

Get a group of writers, lovers of language, and one brave author chatting on Twitter and suddenly you have a new reality tv show.  WriteTv aired today with author Ksenia Anske opening her sacred writing time to all her Beta Readers and writing friends interested in watching her work her craft. All in all there were 217 views over the four-five hour writing session.  People popped in and out; wrote their own texts while hanging out with Ksenia writing her novel; tossed Bless Yous; asked about the ambient music; and listened to Ksenia sing along –no talk aloud her thinking/writing process as it formed. 

All in all it seemed just like anyone’s writing session.  It had all the accoutrements a writer depends on for the comfort it takes to open one’s self so completely in order to fill the page.  There was a visibly comfortable sweatshirt/sweater sans elbow patches, hell sans elbow fabric.  No doubt from countless sessions of this author’s elbows firmly planted on the edges of sanity, or a desk, holding a head full of ideas in two hands trying to wring out cohesive thoughts.  I know that is what happens to the patches on the flannel shirts I wear as I toggle the edge of sanity scouring for that elusive word.  You know the one on the tip of your tongue synapse that won’t fire across to your fingertip synapse so you can put it down in the midst of that sentence glaring at you with the big hole in it? Grrrr with me people!  There was that mug of liquid jolt juice, for Ksenia-coffee, for me never coffee.  No one wants to see me on coffee.  So apple cinnamon water for me or sweet tea.  And there was ambient music.  Something to massage one side of the brain while the other cerebrates and the third, yes I said third, while the third writes.  There used to be a theory about right-brain/left-brain; one side as the creative side and the other as the analytical/mathematical side.  It has changed over the years to a triune format to signify the more complex interplay between our various intelligences.  No wonder we drive ourselves silly?  So much malleable mayhem up there. 

The best part about watching another writer write were the numerous ‘best practices’, as we teachers call them, that were confirmed.  Check, check, check; I’m doing it right.  First, there is the one I learned as a National Writing Project Fellow.  Writing conferences work.  In any format they work.  Everybody present in one learns and grows as a writer.  Today’s was unique because for the most part there was one writer writing and an audience of cyber passive observers.  We didn’t do anything more than watch and listen but she knew we were there watching and listening.  IF she wanted interaction she could have it but this wasn’t a ‘conference’ set up.  It was just writing.  And writing she did.  Beyond the initial distraction and discomfort of doing something new for the first time, I don’t think we got in her way.  I hope not. 

Other confirmations included writers’ quirks.  Well at least Ksenia and I share them lol not sure about the rest of you.  There was the head turning to the right as if just over there was the rest of the thought, rest of the sentence, figment of the character spurring you on, or vision of the setting or conflict unfolding as you watched to get all the details.  There was the hair issue.  The loose strands that need to go back behind the ear or back in the ponytail or back around the fingers to be twisted into releasing the next idea.  Don’t have hair?  I got nothing for ya except you shouldn’t have twisted so tightly!  There was the brow action; creasing, raising, furrowing, scrunching, all of it happening and then those fingertips massaging the creases up and out into the hairline.  And last but not least was the lip action.  The pursing, pouting, pressing, and for me pulling and biting.  All in an effort to get out what brews inside of us be it story or poem or song. 

Ksenia Asanke, author of Siren Suicides, thank you so much for letting us in today.  It was a blast to connect and observe, watch and learn, listen and write with you!  That hug is for you!

The Magic Sock

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Recently I became the inheritee of some yarn.  The yarn and beginnings of numerous creations belonged to a Hope Hospice patient that had succumbed to whatever predatory pestilent pissant betrayed the last years of her life.  I never met the lovely lady—and I am sure she was lovely from her inherited knittings –but as I unpacked the yarn and creations in their various stages of completion I could only think how the stages of life pass us by.

One particular unfinished project caught my eye for multiple reasons.  As I looked at the skein of yarn all I could think of was how I would never buy such a color.  It was a variegated color of mid-tone pastel pink, purple, pistachio, coral, and blue all running into one another like a melted sherbert disaster.  But as I moved the skein there was one finished sock and God forbid an unfinished one.  Not only unfinished but on three double pointed needles with the fourth needle missing in the mayhem I was unpacking.

Now I am a fair knitter.  I have knitted scarves, mittens with and without fingers, vests, and even sweaters that yes I have then worn in public or– Lord help them– given to others expecting them to wear them in public, but I have never knitted socks on double pointed needles.  I avoided them like wool.  But these socks were different.  They were pretty.  I liked them.  I wanted them.  I would have even bought them had I seen them in a store.  My head pivoted like I was at a tennis match back and forth; skein to socks, socks to skein. How odd it seemed to me that I didn’t like the skein but when I saw the socks the yarn was beautiful.  How many times in our life do we not realize the value of something in its self because we can’t imagine it in its togetherness in another form or its combination with another something?  That was a truly sad moment.

I don’t know if it was the fact that this was Hope Hospice yarn, or the spirit of the knitter was entwined therein, but that sock had to be completed.  How exactly without knowing her pattern or ever having tackled such a feat was beyond me, I just know in that moment I was compelled to finish the sock.

So I shot a picture of it and sent it to my mom the knitting guru in my life and asked, “Don’t I need a fourth needle?” to which she of course replied, “How did you get that far without one?”  Now I am fifty so that makes my mother ancient and you know as well as I do that this conversation was over right there and then with one text exchange. My phone rang immediately with her asking the exact same question with an added ‘hell’ to the mix.  I shared the story and she verified that I needed a fourth and walked me through the completion process (very simple indeed, thank goodness) and off I went to find a fourth needle.  As I grabbed the skein to move it off my lap I felt something hard inside and there it was the fourth needle safely tucked right where it should be.

Now for the magic.  As I am knitting the finish of this sock, it seems to only need the part from the heel to the toes, fifteen minutes work tops, but every time I check the length it just needs a few more rounds, and a few more, and a few more.  Kinda like it doesn’t want me to finish?  Kinda like it wants to hang on a little longer.  Kinda like it likes my company and my hands holding on to it.  Could this be the knitter’s spirit holding on, hanging around a little longer, guiding me to make sure I get this right?  I don’t mind in the least; glad for the guidance.

It brings tears to my eyes to think about her and I never even met her.  Odd how someone can touch your life without touching you.   And if she has this much power in my life right now without having ever been in my life, no wonder others that have been in my life have such destructive impact.  How is that so backward and why do we allow it?

So the question I grapple with today as I stopped to write this is do I finish the sock or hang on to her?  I find that she calms me, makes me smile, makes me wonder all about her and life in general (obviously spurred on in the response here), makes me stop and take stock a little more often than usual.  Finishing the sock and wearing them would only trample that right?  Beat it down?  Or worse finishing them only to tuck them away in some drawer unused and forgotten?  But unfinished?  Is that right either?  Seems almost sacrilegious.  With my face scouring at this dilemma a thought eases my creases and I decide.  The sock must be finished.  It is the only way to honor her.  But the sock must be passed on so her spirit can be shared to touch someone else.