Quote from a Current Read

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“This is related to the phenomenon of the Professional Smile, a national pandemic in the service industry; and noplace in my experience have I been on the receiving end of as many Professional Smiles as I am on the Nadir: maitre d’s, Chief Stewards, Hotel Managers’ minions, Cruise Director – their P.S’s all come on like switches at my approach. But also back on land at banks, restaurants, airline ticket counters, on and on. You know this smile – the strenuous contraction of circumoral fascia w/ incomplete zygomatic involvement – the smile that doesn’t quite reach the smiler’s eyes and that signifies nothing more than a calculated attempt to advance the smiler’s own interests by pretending to like the smilee. Why do employers and supervisors force professional service people to broadcast the Professional Smile? Am I the only consumer in whom high doses of such a smile produce despair?”

~ David Foster Wallace, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” Footnote 40

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If you can’t get the Professional Smile into your eyes, smile with your eyes closed.

I don’t read David Foster Wallace very often, but when I do, I reread this bit about the Professional Smile, because, as a waitress, I find this perspective on being smiled at fascinating. I do a lot of smiling at work. It is, frankly, an important part of the atmosphere. And it’s weird to think that smiling at some people causes them to feel despair.

I think of this footnote while I’m waiting tables. And, thinking of this footnote, I try to smile a real smile. Not the Professional Smile – the one that clicks on and off like a light switch, the one that never reaches the eyes – but a smile that’s really-and-truly connected to joy.

That kind of smile is unrelated to circumstance. It doesn’t depend on the way people behave, or what they say, or how they say it, and it doesn’t depend on how much they tip at the end of their meal. That smile comes from the joy-down-in-my-heart – the active choice to be of good cheer.

That smile is the one in Nat King Cole’s old song (“Smile,” in case you were wondering): the one that “lights up your face with gladness.” It’s the happy thought that launches you into the sky. It’s the Patronus Charm that lets you walk among Dementors: chin-up, fearless.

A Professional Smile pretends to like the smilee. A real smile doesn’t pretend. A real smile actually likes the smilee. A real smile finds something, anything, the tiniest little thing (even if it’s simply the fact that the smilee will have to leave at some point) to like.

Real smiles have power. Real smiles are like the dawn of the fifth day at Helm’s Deep, when the sun breaks over the hilltop, and Gandalf and Shadowfax and the Riders of Rohan rush into the valley and send the Uruk-hai packing.

Don’t smile a Professional Smile.

Use your power.

Make it real.

Writing Advice (For Me, Not You)

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Things will distract you.

Write anyway.

But to make it easier on yourself, try and avoid these distractions, if you possibly can.

This week, apparently, I need to avoid watching anything – and I mean anything – that has a remote possibility of starring, co-starring, or cameo-ing any actor with a certain kind of irresistible face. Some television serves as inspiration. Other television just makes me lie face-down on the sofa, giggling helplessly into a pillow.

*hides remote*

*focuses on next chapter of rough draft*

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FOCUS

 

That is all.

 

Mistakes You Make While Trying to Read Yourself to Sleep

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You’re in bed, reading, and . . . 

you’re only going to read a few more pages because you really have to go to sleep. You have work in the morning. Or classes. Or  children. Or exercise. Or something. You shouldn’t be up past 2 AM because you need to be rested and ready-to-go tomorrow. But you’re reading, and suddenly things start happening. Like, Huge Book Things start happening – in the book – and your desire to go to sleep is consumed by wide-eyed wonder. Suddenly, there’s so much awesome going on all at once that you can’t stop turning pages.

In the morning, you are bleary and sad and confused and coffee doesn’t help. But it was worth it.

You’re in bed, reading, and . . . 

you’ll stop as soon as you get to a chapter break. It doesn’t matter how cliffhangery, or creative, or cruel the end of the chapter is – it’s a stopping place and you can pick up where you left off the next day.

But then there are no chapter breaks. And the book is put together so magnificently you didn’t even notice and now you’ll just have to read the whole thing tonight.

You’re in bed, reading, but . . . 

it’s a short story, so no big deal. You can read the whole thing in one go and afterwards, you shall have peace.

Afterwards, you lie awake, staring at the ceiling, so overwhelmed by rage or misery or both – sleep is impossible. You get up to write something to “fix” it: essentially, a story of your own that says, “I’m sorry, Author; you were obviously trying to accomplish something here, but it’s time to step aside and let someone else handle this. Someone who’s not a – ”

*chokes down a string of words that will need to be edited out later*

You think of your story as fanfiction, except the kind that comes from hot, bubbling fury instead of squealing, “I loved it!” joy.

It makes you feel better, but now it’s time to get up.

You’re in bed, reading, and . . . 

you’re almost done with the second book in a trilogy and you’re so close to the end you can’t stop now – it’s so good and you can’t wait to see how the author is going to resolve everything because seriously, everything is on fire and it’s going to take something really cool and miraculous to make it all come out okay by the end of –

You finish a chapter and realize there aren’t any more chapters. You flip pages, dumbfounded – growing desperate – looking for some kind of surprise continuation hidden in the back of the book, but there isn’t any – the book is over. No resolution, everything is still on fire, and oh, well, too bad. You’ll just have to read the next book.

You wonder if there are any local bookstores open at 3 AM.

There aren’t.

You’re in bed, reading, but . . . 

it’s not a story, it’s non-fiction! You’re expanding your horizons! Gaining knowledge! Experiencing new perspectives and learning about new points of view!

You hate it.

More awake than you were after your morning coffee, you stay up to write an essay detailing why Certain People are so Wrong-Headed they force you to Explain Things.

In short sentences. In simple, clear terms. You’re so calm. So Obviously Right.

“Will you just – could you just – just -” 

*angry scribbles*

*writing so fast you can’t keep up with what you’re trying to say*

*sentences devolve into angry stick-figure illustrations of your ideas*

It all Makes Sense.

So. Much. Sense.

You’re in bed, reading, and . . .

there’s food, in the book. Breakfast, or a picnic, or a feast – some excuse for the author to lavishly describe meals. You close the book and turn off the light, but now all you can think about is how empty your stomach is. You tell your stomach to stop growling. It already had supper. You’re really very tired. You’ll eat again tomorrow.

Five minutes later, you drag your exhausted self downstairs to whip up a simple three-course dinner.

You’re in bed, reading, and . . . 

it’s delightful. Every bit. You feel like you’ve made a life-long friend, like someone finally gets you, like you found that thing you were looking for, or remembered something you didn’t know you’d forgotten.

You get up to write something like it – to write something one-tenth as good. It’s all you can ever hope to be as a writer.

You call your family, even though it’s after midnight, to tell them to read what you just read. They’re upset because it’s after midnight and they thought it was an emergency.

You don’t care. You start reading aloud to them, over the phone, while they yell at you.

It’s just as good the second time.

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The Going-to-End-Up-Slain-by-The-Evil Overlord-Club

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The high school parking lot was mostly empty as Ann, free from detention, walked across it, out to Mrs. Martin’s garden, where a rickety old picnic table sat on the grass. She plunked her backpack on the bench, pulled out her book, and settled down to wait for her grandfather, but she only enjoyed one new paragraph before Marcus sat down beside her and began to spread a slew of notebook paper out on the table’s weather-beaten surface.

“I’ve been working on these the whole time,” he said, shuffling things around as if the scribbled notes, maps, and diagrams would make more sense that way. “Everything about Josh that might be relevant. Our next step is research, right? Someone will have to distract him, while someone else goes through his stuff and interviews Mr. and Mrs. Larson. I’m also thinking we’ll have to run some experiments. The problem is figuring out how to set them up so they don’t actually endanger—”

Both of Grace’s hands slapped down atop his papers as she leaned over the table, glaring. “Leave her alone, Marcus.”

“But—”

Grace shoved the papers away from Ann. “No means no, Idiot.”

“Yes,” Ann said, also glaring.

“I, on the other hand,” Grace said, sitting across from them, “am willing to listen to you.” She tugged a piece of paper away from his pile and inspected it, eyebrows raised. “Is that supposed to be a car or a donkey?”

“It’s—gimme that.”

She held it out of his reach. “You think Josh is an Evil Overlord?”

“A Chosen One,” Marcus said, while Ann skootched over, nose back in her book.

She resisted the temptation to say, “The Chosen One.”

“A what?”

“A Chosen One. You know—the orphan kid with special powers who grows up on a farm and has to save the world from an Evil Overlord.”

The Evil Overlord,” Ann said crankily, nose still in her book. “You’re making it sound like there’s a host of Overlords and Chosen Ones running wild through the world. That’s not how it works.”

Grace tossed the drawing aside and swatted through the rest of Marcus’s paper. “Josh doesn’t have special powers.”

Marcus pointed to a particular page. “Ann says they might have to be triggered, somehow. I’m trying to work out an experiment.”

Grace frowned. “Are you bad at drawing, or are you really going to run him over with a tractor?”

Ann groaned, face-down in her book. “That’s a terrible idea, Marcus. Anything that does The Evil Overlord’s job for him is—”

“Didn’t Todd almost back over Josh with a tractor, years ago? You don’t think Todd’s an Evil Overlord, do you?”

Ann could hear Marcus looking at her, and sighed, lifting her head. “It’s extremely unlikely that The Evil Overlord is someone from Waterdale. On rare occasions, The Evil Overlord is secretly a relative, but it’s far more common for him to be an outside force—some kind of rising tyrant seeking world domination.”

“What’s this guy got against Josh?” Grace said, obviously skeptical. “Josh’s the nicest kid in town.”

“The Evil Overlord doesn’t care how nice The Chosen One is. It doesn’t matter; it’s not anything personal. It’s that The Chosen One is the one person who can, for whatever reason, stop The Evil Overlord from . . Evil Overlording.”

Grace rolled her eyes. “What’s Josh going to do? And how’s he going to do it if Marcus runs him over?”

“I’m not going to run him over,” Marcus growled, bent over the pages with a pencil, scribbling. “I’ll think of something else.”

Grace propped her chin in her hand, watching Marcus write. “Have you two ever fought?”

Marcus frowned. “He’s not super-strong, if that’s what you’re asking. Although it’s been a while since we—”

“Not physically fighting—like, arguing. I mean, have you ever observed him when he’s upset?”

Emotionally?” Marcus said. He gave a little sideways glance in Ann’s direction. “Well, to be honest, these past couple weeks haven’t been great. But they haven’t turned him into a superhero.”

“Hmmm . . .” Grace shifted to look at Ann, eyes narrowed. “How are you doing?”

“Me?” Ann shrugged. “I’m fine. It’s fine.”

“Hey—whatever. But breaking up’s rough. You two were adorable together.”

“I want to stay out of it.”

Marcus rapped the table with his pencil. “But how are we supposed to do this without you? You’re the one that knows everything.”

“Once the First Love dies, everyone muddles through somehow. All I’m asking you to do is muddle through before that. And I don’t know everything. It’s all guesswork until The Evil Overlord or his minions show up.”

“When will that be?”

I don’t know.” Ann stood, swiping her book up as her grandfather’s truck turned into the parking lot. “You two can have your club, but I’m not a member, okay?”

Marcus scrambled to his feet. “What if you consulted? Once in a great while? With Grace instead of me, since I’m doomed.”

“You’re doomed?” Grace said, intrigued. “Why are you doomed?”

Ann hefted her backpack and marched away.

“Is that no or yes?

Ann spun, walking backwards toward the running truck. “Once in a great while?”

“Practically never!”

Okay.”

“So, yes?”

“Yes!”

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Note: no actual farms have been or will be harmed in the making of this story.

 

*This has been Part Six of Ann versus The Evil Overlord

Quote from a Current Read

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“Why do you think I live in an old 1870s farmhouse now? Or drive a 1956 Chevy or play guitar and write songs and stories about small-town life? It’s all part of getting back there. Finding my way back to that place in my head when everything was good, everything was right. And if it’s true that we can’t ever really go back, we find a way to bring the past into our future.”

~ Rory Feek, This Life I Live

I think I recognize that feeling.

Tricking Your Brain into Producing While Procrastinating

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Step One

Realize that your compulsion to put things off isn’t going to magically go away.

Step Two

Put off doing anything about your procrastinating ways until tomorrow, when you’ll be able to tackle the problem with a clear head.

Step Three

Several weeks later, try to come to grips with the fact that your procrastinating ways, much like your health and your time and your money and the cleanliness of your bathroom, will have to be managed, but that this same tendency will continually interfere with your attempts to do something about it.

Step Four

Take a moment to admire this strange will inside you, which is so dedicated to not doing some things it does all kinds of other things instead.

Step Five

Understand that a dedication to not doing some things can, worst case scenario, lead to an untimely death.

Step Six

Allow that to frighten you, a little.

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No, it’s fine. Everything is exactly where I want it.

Step Seven

Understand that in order to put off some things, you have to busy yourself with other things. Your brain is willing to do something, as long as that something isn’t that one particular thing you can’t possibly do right now because reasons. For example, you can’t possibly do any writing, because you have to call the dentist and make cookies and wash dishes and fold all your laundry and research other words to use instead of “just.”

Step Eight

Understand that the compulsion to put things off just (dang it – see, this research is important) wants to put things off – it’s not quite as concerned with what it’s putting off. So with a little mental switcheroosing, suddenly you’re not putting off writing, you’re putting off making cookies. And calling the dentist. And folding your laundry.

Step Nine

Your brain will be suspicious of this trickery, but your procrastinating ways are so quick to kick in, you end up writing while also feeling that light, airy, “Not today!” high that comes from deciding to not get something done.

Step Ten

Repeat as needed, with all kinds of different things, for the rest of your life.

*sigh*

“Tell Me More, Tell Me More”

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Grace. That was the name of the girl who sat between Ann’s desk and Marcus’s desk in Mr. Allen’s chemistry class. The name of the girl now sliding a folded slip of paper Ann’s way. But the note wasn’t from Grace.

Is it later? ~ Marcus

You’re signing your notes? Who else would be sending me notes? Also? Stop it. You’ll get me in trouble. It’s not later.

But it is later.

Not later enough.

Come on. What are we supposed to do about Josh?

Who’s we?

Me then. What’s me supposed to do about Josh?

I don’t know. Figure it out without me.

Josh isn’t special. Shouldn’t he be special?

Ann quashed a couple fond memories. There are lots of ways to be special. 

Doesn’t he need to be special in a way that’s useful?

That would make the most sense, yes. But it doesn’t have to be obvious.

Yeah? So what then?

As the Chosen One, Josh could have access to some kind of power, but he might not have access yet. Or he’s never realized how to use it. Or it’s not that simple. It could be about who he is. Something to do with will or honor or strength.

Josh?

Or it’s about who his parents were: his blood. Or it’s about who the Evil Overlord is.

Like his father or something? Is the Evil Overlord his father?

I don’t know. Maybe.

THAT’S POSSIBLE?

I said MAYBE: sheesh. How much does he know about his parents?

The usual stuff you know about people you never knew. Stories, pictures. A few things they might have passed along if they’d lived.

Heirlooms? Like a sword? A book full of mysterious symbols? An old gun? Magic bullets?

No, like a coat. And a watch. And a quilt his mom made.

What good is that?

Hey.

Sorry. Look, this isn’t really my business. If you want it to be your business, you should talk to Josh. Ask him about his family’s past – possible secrets. Find out if he’s ever noticed anything strange. If he’s ever been able to do anything unexpected when under stress or something. Find out where he really got that scar.

How am I supposed to bring this up? He’ll think I’m crazy. 

Welcome. To the club.

=] We have a club now?

Ann scribbled an angry face. I didn’t mean it like that. There’s no club. You’re on your own.

Okay. ; ]

Marcus, I’m serious. If you find anything out, I don’t want to hear about it. 

He drew her a thumb’s up.

She ripped up the paper and let it fall to the floor beneath her desk.

The next note’s handwriting was different. Grace’s.

What’s this club? 

Ann shook her head when the girl glanced at her. Grace slid another note, this one to Marcus.

Ann bent over her notebook, ignoring them. A bit of paper pricked her arm.

Can I tell her about the club? 

Ann wrote with dark, slashing print. The Going-to-End-Up-Slain-by-the-Evil-Overlord Club?

I think we’re more like a task force than a club. Ann’s Anti-Evil-Overlord Task Force. 

There’s no we. I told you. 

Is he harassing you? I’ll stop passing his notes. 

Ann sent Grace a grateful smile, then turned her attention back to Mr. Allen’s lecture.

But Mr. Allen wasn’t lecturing. Not anymore. He was glaring at her, at Grace, at Marcus. The other students were all looking at them.

Ann blushed.

All three received detention.

Another angle on The Chosen One’s Farm. Someone lurking, probably. In the fields. Come autumn. 

 

*This has been Part Five of Ann versus The Evil Overlord

*Note: no actual farms have been or will be harmed in the making of this story. (My mother has expressed concern. It’s her farm.)

Math! Fun! Fun Math!

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I have homework to do. Mostly, trying to remember what all these numbers mean, and transcribing them onto my character sheet, and checking to see if they’re up to date, which they probably aren’t. Which means getting the right numbers from the Husband, as long as he actually has them.

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I’m sure that all made sense at the time.

In school, they’re quick to tell you about all the things math is good for, but they don’t mention that math is necessary for fun. At least, Dungeons & Dragons fun.

Dragons. Maybe I can talk them into doing the math for me.

Probably not.

Writing Advice (For Me, Not You)

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Realism is overrated.

I’d had conversations that go like this:

Person making recommendations: “You should watch/listen to/read This Thing I Love.”

Me: “Yeah? I’ve heard it’s good, but I’ve also heard it’s sad and violent and all the people you like best end up dying in horrific, unexpected ways.”

Person: “Well, yes, but that’s real. It’s just like Real Life.” 

Me: “I . . . think I have enough Real Life in my real life already, thanks.”

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It’s not ominous in any way to find seven vultures hanging out on the Family Farm.

I don’t know if this is true elsewhere, but in my experience, “realism” and the phrase “like real life” are generally used to mean, “sad and painful,” “covered in dirt and blood,” “agonizing,” and “SURPRISE BIRTHDAY PARTY!!!!! Hahahaha – jk. You’re dead now.”

I hate that. I hate the idea that reality has to be awful. That death and violence and grief is more real than life and and love and laughter.

The older I get – and the more I watch things/read things – the more I’ve come to value stories characterized by joy. By fun. By hope.

When I was elevenish, I set out to write a long book about a girl and her best friend and a horse. It was an epic-fantasy-journey-type story and I determined very early on that the best friend was going to die. It would be very emotional and tragic and real.

I “tsk, tsk” at 11-year-old me. If I had ever finished that story, I wouldn’t have wanted to read it: too depressing. I was writing to make myself cry. As if I didn’t (and don’t) already spend enough time feeling sad.

I don’t write like that anymore. Now, I write to make me smile. Laugh. Hope.

“You are going to live,” Writer-Me says. “You’re going to live, and you’re going to save the people you care about, and you’re going to grow old, and change the world for the better. I’m not sure how, but that’s another story. Well, it’s not another story; it’s this story, actually, but – um, later. That’s later in the story. Yeah.”

This kind of writing isn’t for everyone. Stories that don’t leave you smiling and hoping and joyful aren’t bad. But they’re not for me. At least, they’re very rarely for me.

But that’s me. Not you. Happy writing. Or, not-happy writing, if that’s your thing.