a pep talk for me

I’ve been feeling a little down the past week or so, and while I think there are several reasons for this, probably the biggest one is that my much-anticipated first summer of freedom (since college, that is, and with “freedom” defined as not having to report to work) has come to a close. I spent basically the whole summer going from one trip to the next, with people I enjoy being around and with something to constantly look forward to. I didn’t have to go grocery shopping or mow my lawn or take out the trash–all tasks that I don’t mind (sometimes even enjoy) when I’m home but that it feels exciting and slightly transgressive to be able to ditch for weeks at a time. Now that I’m back home but not yet back into the rhythm of the school year, I feel let down, broke from all the money I spent on my travels (I’m not, but it feels that way), and a little lonely. This last part has surprised me–normally, I’m all about my independence and totally capable of entertaining myself, but the past couple of weeks, I’ve felt like I’m suddenly not an introvert anymore.

I’m sharing all this not to whine but because I think this particular brand of mild seasonal depression may be more common among adults than we realize. It might not be an end-of-summer thing for everyone; I think it happens after Christmas for many people. But it’s something we should talk about so we know that we’re not alone. If you’ve ever felt this way, I’d be happy to listen to your story in the comments. (Or, if we know each other, let’s chat off the blog!)

Because it’s started off so poorly, I’ve been dreading the remainder of August, so I’m going to spend the remainder of this post listing reasons I have to be optimistic–if not manically excited like I was at the beginning of the summer–about what’s to come. I realize this is a totally self-indulgent use of my blog, but maybe it’ll inspire you to make a list of your own.

  1. School starts in 21 days, and classroom teaching (NOT meetings or assessment or filling out forms, though I understand why those are important) is the part of my job that I really love. I’m looking forward to meeting the freshmen in my composition classes and seeing some former students again in my literature class. I’m also teaching my first-ever independent study, on dystopian literature, with a really great, motivated student. And I’m excited to restart the creative writing group that meets at my house. I can’t wait to make food for this little community and share stories with them.
  2. I have a new boyfriend! He’s the sweetest, and that’s all I’m going to say about him here because, frankly, it’s none of your business, blogosphere. 🙂 (Yes, I tend to overshare, but I do have boundaries.) I’m excited about the adventures we have planned, such as Hippie Fest in Angola, Indiana, next month (I already know what I’m going to wear)–as well as the less adventurous but no less precious times we will be able to take walks, share meals, and keep getting to know each other. (I like what I know so far.)
  3. Fall in West Michigan is beautiful, but I didn’t maximize my enjoyment of it last year because I was still getting used to my new job and home (actually, I was still renting and home shopping last fall) and generally getting on my feet. This fall, I intend to hike, pick apples, go to festivals, and be outdoors as much as possible. As my siblings and I ironically-but-secretly-unironically like to say, it’s almost time for hayrides, hoedowns, and all things pumpkin spice.

Next year, I’ll probably spend my summer a little more quietly (then again, who knows?). But although I’m feeling the crash right now, I don’t regret my summer of carpe diem. (I know that’s grammatically incorrect in Latin.) And, especially now that I’ve written this post, I’m looking forward to what comes next.

exploring my characters’ pasts

This is going to be an arcane and self-indulgent post that probably only one or two people who read my blog will actually care about. There, you’ve been warned. I may share this in my writing group, though, since some of them might care about it. I have decided to use this post to explore an idea I had the other day regarding my fictional work in progress, “Sam’s Town”–the zombie apocalypse story I have mentioned a number of times on my blog. Originally, Sam was going to be this lonely soul who never got a girlfriend and died at the end of the story. Now, not only does Sam survive, but there’s also Ramona, this “brilliant and startling” (his words) woman who is into him, which he doesn’t understand because he thinks he’s an affable sidekick at best. And now, after this thing I’m about to share, it seems that he may have a history of seemingly out-of-his-league women falling in love with him. It sounds wildly improbable, and it also sounds like a cliche. But as I’m finding that people who read about Sam usually come to love him, it makes sense to me that he would also be lovable (and not just to his parents and friends) within the world of the story.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Here’s what happened: In one of the Facebook writing groups I’m in, an administrator shared a picture of a pretty young woman with stylish hair and clothes, sitting in front of wallpaper with a tortuous yellow pattern on it (this so distracted me with thoughts of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s haunting short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper” that for a while I couldn’t think of anything original to write), and lobbed some character development questions at us. This is what I finally wrote in response:

You guys are all so good at politically complex fantasy, dystopian, and historical stories. I’m going with plain old contemporary realism.

This is Charlotte (a nod to the author of “The Yellow Wallpaper” 😁). She is the most popular girl in school, but not a mean queen bee—everyone likes her, even teachers. She is smart, poised, and articulate, and she knows what she wants out of life. Well, that last part isn’t true. She has no idea what she wants—only what others expect of her.

She is hiding the fact that she really hates herself most of the time. She hates that she always has to perform. She hates her body, and she is bulimic. This is an open secret among her group of friends—most of them are bulimic too—but she’s hiding the fact that she doesn’t want to do that to herself anymore. (So are all of her friends, actually.)

She is also hiding the fact that she likes the boy who sits in front of her in English. He is quiet and terribly awkward, and his goal in life seems to be to disappear. But Charlotte sees him. She hasn’t told her friends because they wouldn’t understand. They call him Ghost Boy. (And no, he’s not an actual ghost—contemporary realism, you guys. His real name is Peter, by the way.) And she can’t tell him because he would think she was just making fun of him. So she just keeps playing her role. THE END (for now)

Almost immediately after I wrote that–actually, maybe while I was still writing it–it occurred to me that this Peter fellow sounds an awful lot like my character Sam (now in his early 30s) as he describes his teenage self. The disappointing interpretation of this is that I only know how to write one male character, over and over, with slight variations. The more cheerful interpretation is that this is Sam and I need to incorporate this into his backstory. I had already come up with a vaguely outlined character named Becky Olson, whom Sam had liked in high school and who might show up again (not as a zombie) in my vaguely planned sequel, but this so-called Charlotte is quite a bit different from Becky, who was supposed to be sweet and quiet and sort of a background type like Sam.

It would be interesting and perhaps vindicating for my Sam fans if the adult Charlotte (also not a zombie) confessed her teenage feelings for Sam, but would it be realistic? Even if she did like Sam back then, would she remember all these years later? Is it a bit corny and idealistic for all these attractive, put-together women to be falling in love with shlubby, semi-reclusive Sam? I think the answers to those questions are probably no, no, and yes, and yet–I can’t help imagining a flashback scene in which Charlotte goes (with her parents, or some friends, or a date) to Clemenza’s, the restaurant where Sam works, and they strike up this awkward, “oh, you’re in my English class” conversation (even though each knows perfectly well who the other is), and even though Sam is just a busboy, he gets her some cannoli in a takeout box, and he rambles on to her about all the ingredients and how good the cannoli is at Clemenza’s and how he’s been practicing at home and he can almost make it like the chefs here do. And she still remembers all these years later.

I’m almost equally torn between gushing and gagging at what I just wrote. If you’ve read this far, let me know what you think.

writing for joy

My grandfather, John Vernon Stockslager (we called him Pappy), passed away last week. My uncle preached his funeral sermon on Monday, and he mentioned something I had almost forgotten about: Almost 20 years ago, when Pappy first got a computer, he created a series of comic strips about two birds named Tweets and Blu. Technically speaking, they’re simple and even a bit rough–he used the Draw program in Windows to create them–but they’re funny and big-hearted and short, just like Pappy. Also at the funeral, one of my cousins read aloud a poem that Pappy had written not long ago. (We had also read one of his poems at my grandmother’s funeral nine years ago.) At some point during the service, I was struck by the sudden realization that although it had always seemed normal to me that my grandfather, a retired electrician and farmer, drew cartoons and wrote poems for fun, it’s actually not that common for adults to do these things. Kids do these things, and then when they grow up and decide they’re not good enough to get paid to do them, they get embarrassed and stop. Pappy never stopped.

I see this same impulse to write for the pure joy of it in Pappy’s children and grandchildren, particularly in my own immediate family. The examples range from the short-lived family newspaper my sister headed up when we were kids–The Fine Five–to my brother’s songwriting to my dad’s extensive reviews he posts on Goodreads for every book he reads. I see it in my own blogging and fiction writing. None of us are getting paid to do these things. Maybe we could, if we worked harder at marketing ourselves or knew the right people. But while I can’t speak for anyone else in my family, I can say that I’m content with writing for a small audience of family, friends, and Facebook connections–and for the delight it brings me. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m content with this, like when I see colleagues’ blogs and YouTube channels going viral or when I watch other people in my Facebook writers’ group (which I feel like a poser even belonging to) finding great success in self-publication through a combination of persistent marketing and real writing skill. I admire those people, and what I’m about to say is not, by any means, meant to fault them. But for me, I think it’s a useful discipline to be able to see the value in sharing my writing with the people who matter most to me, even if it reaches no further than that. That’s what Pappy did. I remember there was some talk of looking for a wider distribution channel for Tweets and Blu, but his family was always his favorite audience, whether for his comic strips, his poems, or his music, which I haven’t even mentioned in this post. (And he did get to play and sing in front of a wide range of audiences throughout his life.)

I’m not trying to make the worn-out, false argument that getting paid for doing something makes you love it less. But I do think there’s something to be said for writing–or drawing, or singing and playing–for nothing but joy. I’m thankful that Pappy taught me that.

Where do zombies come from?; or, I suck at worldbuilding.

In a Facebook creative writing group that I belong to, some of us are participating in a worldbuilding challenge. While the other participants are posting these wonderful comments about their historically and culturally rich worlds, I’m struggling to come up with something more profound than, “My characters like to eat Italian food.”

As you may know, I am writing a zombie apocalypse story that I envision as a source text for a movie. (You can read part of it here.) Though I would not go so far as to say that the zombie aspect of the story is little more than a set piece–it is thematically important for several reasons–I imagine that people who complain about The Walking Dead not having enough zombies and being a glorified soap opera would really have a lot to complain about in my storyMy story is about mental health, friendship, American small towns, Italian food…and zombies, roughly in that order of importance. So when people ask me questions like “How did the zombie apocalypse start?” and “Where are your characters getting water?,” my response is usually, “Hmm, I haven’t really thought about it.” (My characters have had coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and lots of Coke, but water completely slipped my mind. You can see where my priorities lie.)

In my defense, part of the reason I haven’t thought much about the origin of the zombie apocalypse is that my characters don’t know how it started, they won’t find out during the course of this story, and they don’t really care. This is partly because they’re too focused on their own problems (survival, relationships, where they’re going to get Coke) to ponder such existential questions, but it’s also partly because they (at least my two main characters) are big fans of zombie movies and TV. Let me back up for a minute: In most zombie stories, the assumption is that zombie lore doesn’t exist, so the characters are kind of scratching their heads, like “Huh, I wonder what’s happening?” So I decided to do something different. My characters may be useless when it comes to wielding weapons, but they’ve seen all of George Romero’s movies and every episode of The Walking Dead (I haven’t referred to the comics, but I assume they’ve read those too), so they at least have a vocabulary for what’s happening, and they know important things like the fact that you have to shoot or stab a zombie in the head in order to kill it. (I mean, kill it again.)

So, to return to my main point: The characters in those iconic stories usually don’t know why the zombie apocalypse is happening (or how to stop it), so my characters have become resigned to the same uncertainty. In Romero’s films, people speculate about why the dead are walking the earth, but they never figure it out. (The tagline of Dawn of the Dead provides the closest approach to an explanation: “There’s no more room in hell.”) In The Walking Dead, some of the characters visit the Centers for Disease Control and learn a theory from the one remaining employee (who could be crazy for all we know), but the only really useful knowledge they take from that encounter is that “we’re all infected”–i.e. everyone who dies turns, so try not to die.

This is my justification for why I haven’t given much thought to the logic of zombies in my story, but part of me suspects that the real reason is that I’m just not very good at worldbuilding. The commonplace is that writers are usually good at either creating elaborate worlds or creating relatable characters. Yet most of the people in my Facebook group seem to be experts at both. This gives me hope: Maybe I can learn, through challenges like this, to create elaborate worlds for my relatable characters to inhabit.

blog rebranding update and story excerpt

This summer–probably in July–I will finally be making the official, no-turning-back shift to the Hufflepuff Leadership blog. (Consider these past few months a soft opening.) In order to do that, I need your opinion. The colleague who will be helping me with the design is asking what I want the site to look like. Well, I know I want it to incorporate black and yellow and a badger; beyond that, I’m not sure. So here’s my question: Are there any blogs whose layout you admire? The topic is beside the point; I’m asking about things like fonts, use of white space, text organization, etc. Please let me know your favorites by commenting below.

And now, I’m going to take advantage of this time when my blog still doesn’t have a clearly-advertised focus and use today’s post to add to my work in progress, a road trip buddy sad comedy set in the zombie apocalypse. Every once in a while, I like to share a bit of this story with you (see an earlier excerpt here). Not into zombies? That’s okay; there aren’t any in this part of the story. Are you into Italian restaurants and/or mother and son reunions? Good, then you should keep reading.

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The restaurant looked (small and dim) and smelled (like a friendly ghost of garlic bread) just as Sam remembered it, except that the chairs and tables had been pushed back against the booths, leaving space for air mattresses and sleeping bags. Sam’s mother leaned over one of the chairs, bandaging a young man’s forearm. She was facing away from the door. Unlike her husband and son, Anna Larson was willowy. Her hair, which she wore in a braid like her immigrant great-grandmother must have worn hers, was nearly white, but the flannel shirt and faded jeans she wore gave her a youthful look that was surely unintentional. “Hey, Mrs. Larson,” said the man in the chair, gesturing toward the door with his free hand.

Anna turned around and saw her son, who was wiping his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Sam.” She strode toward him and hugged him. “We didn’t think we’d ever see you again,” she said, her voice muffled because her mouth was pressed against his ear.

“That’s what Dad said,” Sam said on a shaky exhale, pulling back to get a good look at his mother’s face. “And you’re…?”

“I’m fine,” she replied. “I’m getting to be a nurse again. It’s been–well, since you were born.” She turned around. “I think this is one of your old friends? He shot himself in the arm during target practice. We’re all learning here.”

The young man stood up. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, a few years older than Sam. He had the arms of someone who spent a lot of time in the gym and the abs of someone who spent a lot of time around garlic bread. “I just grazed the top of my arm. Could have been a lot worse, as klutzy as I am.”

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Well, there, I introduced my new character, which was my goal. If you’re interested in learning more, let me know!

motif or obsession

This past weekend, I attended the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, and during a session on monologue-writing, which ended up being more generally about principles of characterization, we were asked to write short descriptions of the people represented by faces that the presenter showed on the screen.  Then we had to pick our favorite, sketch a picture of them, and write a monologue using beginning, middle, and ending lines given to us by the presenter.

I drew this guy:

https://www.instagram.com/p/BeLsm5LjMpw/?taken-by=tessrs

I said he has one Hispanic parent and one white parent, he is approaching 30, and he is passively annoyed that everyone considers him a harmless teddy bear.  His name is Manny, but as I was writing his monologue, in which he gets defensive about the fact that he illustrates comic books for a living and hardly ever leaves his apartment, I realized that he was basically a biracial version, with a somewhat different childhood trauma, of the character I’m always writing about–usually named Sam.

When I started writing about this character, I was in high school, and so was he.  He was called Sparky Melloy back then, but his real name was Samuel.  Then, as now, he was blond-haired, chubby, quiet, self-effacing, and sometimes funny.  Back then, he was obsessed with Dr. Pepper and often wore baseball caps backward.  Now, he prefers Coke (his tastes have matured) and only occasionally wears a baseball cap, forward.

There was a period a few years ago during which I departed a bit from this general profile.  The guy I wrote about during this time shared many of Sparky/Sam’s features, but he was a musician with dark curly hair–he was Jewish, sometimes–who was both older (because I was older too) and angrier than his previous manifestations.  Sometimes he had a fraternal twin brother.  This guy was different enough from Sparky Melloy that I gave him a different name, Adrian.  But the basic character was still there.

At some point, I got rid of the fraternal twin brother, who was a jerk anyway, but I gave Sam (for that is now his permanent name) a best friend, a curly-haired, easily annoyed musician named Adrian.  But this Adrian is a skinny redhead, and I totally jettisoned the Jewish part, mainly because I have no idea how to write from a Jewish perspective.

Here’s what I know about Sam: He writes and illustrates comic books for a living and is quite successful.  He’s single and thinks he probably always will be, mainly because he doesn’t think any woman will ever be attracted to a “fat mental patient” like him.  (He spent one night in a psych ward, 10 years ago, after he attempted suicide and Adrian saved his life.)  He grew up with a severely depressed mother, a father who couldn’t talk about emotions, and no siblings.  Sam himself is on medication for depression, but he’s not a depressing person to be around.  He’s creative, kind, sometimes surprisingly witty, and usually a calming influence on people around him.  Life is hard for him, but he doesn’t want to die anymore.  And, in the story I’m writing right now, he’s surviving the zombie apocalypse.

Generally, when we see a character, theme, or symbol recurring again and again in an author’s writing, we call it a motif.  I think Sam may be an obsession.  I don’t know if he represents me, the person I want to be, or the person I don’t want to be–maybe all of the above.  I kind of have a crush on him.  I know, it’s weird.  But those of you who are writers–or who at least make up stories in your head–do you know what I mean?  Please share.

calling all creative writers

Well, folks, it was a good weekend for football.  The weather was unseasonably crisp (more like October), which made it perfect for the college game I attended Saturday night.  Yesterday was a good football day too.  I’m wearing black and gold today, and it’s not because of Hufflepuff Quidditch, if you know what I mean.

That has nothing to do with my topic today, but a good Monday football conversation never goes amiss.

Here’s my quick post: I need your help.  If you 1) have done any kind of creative writing (even if you have no intention of publishing) and 2) have conducted any research for the benefit of your writing, I want to hear your research stories.  Have you ransacked the personal archives of the obscure historical figure you’re basing a novel on?  Have you slept on the ground with no sleeping bag to know how the characters in your quest fantasy must feel?  Have you asked your mom for some unusual names of townships north of Pittsburgh?  (I did that last week.)  Have you Googled a lot of stuff?  All of that counts as research.  I’m developing a course on creative writing research, and I want to find out how other people do it.  So pause and expand your definition of research, and then comment below to share your stories.  Thank you in advance!