I’m currently taking part in NYC Midnight’s 2015 Flash Fiction Challenge. During each round, you are given a genre, a location, and an item on which to write. For the first round, I was given action adventure/waterfall/clip-on tie. This was my story.
Sibling rivalry takes on a new meaning as a brother and sister are locked in combat at the summit of a waterfall. To make matters worse, they both have different ideas about what they are fighting over.
The spray of the waterfall left a slick sheen on Riki’s face. When she reached up to wipe away the moisture, she found her arm was just as soaked. The wood remains of the bridge creaked uneasily beneath her boots, creating a series of angular, shoddy platforms between the rocks. She bent her knees to find better purchase and shot forward, throwing another punch.
Taylor jerked out of the way. “Whoa!” he yelled. “Riki, you almost hit me that time. You wouldn’t want me to drop the statue, would you?”
Taylor smiled cruelly as he held the small fertility goddess out over the rushing water just below them. It was only a mere three yards to the sheer drop of the Crying Death Waterfall, where the round stone woman with her ruby bellybutton would plummet 500 feet.
Riki wasn’t looking at the statue, though, or even the perilous fall. Her eyes were fixed on Taylor – her brother, her twin brother – and the horrible clip-on tie affixed to his tan shirt. It flapped in the air around them, and he would occasionally raise his other hand to flatten it.
She came at him again with a short, tight kick to his midsection. He dropped his free forearm to block it, and when he did, she swung around with her elbow, connecting with his face. His nose started bleeding as he shoved her back. “Dammit, what the hell is wrong with you?”
What was wrong with her? She should have been focusing on the task at hand, but all she could focus on was that damn tie, cheap-looking and awful and just like…
Some of his long, dark hair had come loose from the ponytail he had tied it into. She was glad for her bobbed cut, especially when he came roaring at her, his hands grabbing and swinging at her face. She braced herself against a rock and got a hold of his wrists. He loomed over her as they fought for dominance.
“Stop it,” he growled. His glaring brown eyes, thick eyebrows, and tanned face this close made her feel like she was looking at a mirror. “Just give up and get back to–”
Riki sidestepped him so suddenly that his weight and momentum sent him right into the boulder. His feet slipped, and just as he was about to fall into the powerful stream, she grabbed the tie. It pulled taut, the fabric keeping him suspended. The flimsy metal fastener started to give, and she grabbed his collar with her free hand. He tried to pull himself forward to safety, but she kept her arm rigid.
“Where is it?” Riki yelled as she tore through the storage container.
“Where’s what?” Taylor asked. He had his jeans on and hadn’t changed yet for the wedding, even though it was in three hours.
“My something blue.”
Riki was starting to sweat under her suit coat, and she took it off along with the dress shirt. Elizabeth would never forgive her if she came to their wedding looking like she had been doing yard work. In only her undershirt, she dug past records, art, bottles of scotch, and framed photos. “There was a box with ties and socks and stuff. Dad’s old clip-on blue tie with the swirl was in there. Do you know where it is?”
Taylor was silent, and when she turned around, his shoulders were shaking. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he finally laughed.
Riki felt her heart fall into her stomach. “You didn’t.”
“Riki, there’s an entire collection of Asian silk ties and handkerchiefs. How the hell was I supposed to know that you wanted some piece of shit clip-on tie?”
She was starting to shake. How was she supposed to tell him about when she had just started to feel different and confused and panicked about who she was, their dad had let her wear the tie? “So, when you want to be you,” he had said, “you can go in the bathroom and put it on. And if you get scared, you can just take it off. Easy peasy.” She had worn it to prom with her first girlfriend. She had worn it when she had proposed to Elizabeth, a month before he passed away. She had forgotten about it in the mix of wills and grief. It was supposed to be here waiting for her!
“Why didn’t he just give you the thing, if it was so important?”
“Because it was ours!” she screamed, sending a stack of old books across the dirty floor.
“I can’t believe you threw away Dad’s tie,” she whispered.
There was a beat where all they could hear was the water. “Is that what this is about?” he finally asked, his jaw tight. Then, he laughed, uneasily. “There’s no way you’re serious. There is no way you would let anything happen to me over a stupid clip-on tie.”
The look on his face twisted as she let the material slide from her fingers. For a single second, she saw him fully in the air, falling away from her, and then he disappeared.
“Cut! What was that? Riki, you cost us the damn shot.”
Coming back to reality felt like being startled out of a dream. Someone was yelling at her. They were filming on location and had been rolling. Her brother’s safety harness hoisted him back up, out of the river. His eyes were white with panic, his mouth open slightly and taking in ragged breaths.
It had all been so real – the finality of the decision she made – and now the only thing that tied her to that moment was the falling water, the feel of it still on her face. She had ruined the take because her character was supposed to grab her brother’s hand at that last moment, pull him to safety. That was the resolution. The memory of Taylor’s last look gut-punched her.
Either way, it would never be as easy as that.
This week, I’ve been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. This was a Christmas morning surprise of a book – I was browsing Audible with my monthly credit in hand, and it popped up in the new releases. A book on creativity by the Ted-talking, globetrotting, smooth-talking (not in the sleazy sense, but in the read-me-my-library sense) authoress with the mostest? Yes, please!
In the midst of her discussions on being kind to your creative spirit, I hit a chapter called “Day Jobs.” My throat tightened just a bit. I was a little nervous, because I was afraid that this was going to completely take the wind out of my sails. Was the world’s foremost authority on eating, praying and loving going to take over what I had started?
Okay, I’m being a little dramatic. I was actually really excited about hearing what she had to say.
I did not expect that she would so perfectly summarize what I’ve been trying to convey with How to Have a Day Job from day 1.
To yell at your creativity, saying, “You must earn money for me!” is sort of like yelling at a cat; it has no idea what you’re talking about, and all you’re doing is scaring it away. Because you’re making really loud noises, and your face looks weird when you do that.
She also talked about how she kept up her day jobs through three book publications before she quit to write full time. Three books. And admitted that if the third book hadn’t been such a success she would still be working day jobs so she didn’t have to put that pressure on herself, her craft and her finances.
So if you’re wondering why I keep talking about this, about all of this, about balancing your life and your paycheck, about managing your sanity while you clock in and out, this is it. It isn’t fair or nice to say to your vocation, “Hey, pick up the slack, buddy.” Who would stick around for that kind of abuse? Feed yourself, pay your bills, and give your muse the time it deserves to flourish comfortably.
When I was in college, I was vehemently anti-bra.
Not living at home meant I could treat my body the way I wanted. In addition to a steady diet of cheese fries with honey mustard at least four times per week, this meant no restraining bosom barricade. No underwire, no elastic, no duct tape and padding. Nope. The ta-tas were free to take on the world unencumbered. This was so true that it’s become a running joke with many of my college friends:
Me: Have I really changed so much?
Them: Well, you definitely wear underwear more than you used to.
Me: What kind of monster have I become?
Bras were strictly on an as-needed basis, which was pretty much work only. If I was heading out of my apartment on official business (such as when I was being paid for it), I had to apologize to the Captain and Tennille and don the garment of doom.
Fast forward to present. Time and gravity have taught me there is something to be said for having a bit of extra help in the chest area. I’ve also started working from home for my day job, however, and being in pajamas = viva la nipple. Thanks to my college years, I’ve learned that putting a bra on is all I need to trigger my mind into understanding, “Okay, now we’re facing the world. Serious business. Go.” It’s like a super hero cape. A cuppy cape, if you will.
Realizing what daily rituals will flip your switch can be really helpful for knowing how to get yourself to do things other than staying comfortable and unchallenged. Studies have shown that you can create a habit by maintaining a cause and effect. For instance, putting your walking shoes on immediately after stepping away from your work desk can trigger your mind to go outside and get some air. For me, strapping in Harold and Kumar triggers that I am setting out to do work and get stuff done.
What kind of daily rituals work for you? Try a little change and see how it can affect you.
Put your bra on. I dare you.
I’ve been walking through the hills of the rural Pennsylvania for several hours. I am not so much covered in mud as I am carrying it in my clothes, on my skin, in my hair, and tucked away in places it should not be. There are suds sticking all over me, so I can’t wipe my face. My knee is telling me that this is not a good idea, and it joins forces with my calf, shins, glutes. This could all be over quickly if I just cross my arms above my head at the wrists and wait for the golf cart to take me out.
In a few minutes, I’m running up a tarp that’s at an incline. I grab a rope and refuse to let go, but the rest of my body won’t do anything else. There are people I don’t know screaming my name, telling me not to stop. They are grabbing me, pulling me. I stare at one of their bloody knees and I can’t believe that I am trusting so much in these strangers. I’ve never felt so much a part of something. I had thought that around the second mile or so, they would move on, but this group of women said, “We’re going to finish this together” and we do.
A charlie horse starts screaming throughout my leg. “I can’t even walk,” I say. And it’s okay. I’ve come so far. But then I’m standing, waiting for the ride back to the starting point, I feel this insidious sneer from the dark figure, my weakness manifested. It says, “I knew you’d quit. I knew it. Even at the very end, you’re quitting.” So I wave them on, and keep walking. Not just walking. I climb up a rope ladder. I stop and growl halfway, because the devils in the gravity are trying to pull me down. I keep putting one foot and one hand through at a time and then…
I am kissed by running water. Someone helps swing my leg over, and I accept their assistance without apology, without whimper. I’m sitting, staring over the rolling hills to the farms and rainclouds beyond. I let go and plummet down a water slide into deep, cool water. I’m washed clean. When my head comes up, I am whooping, over and over.
I wanted to do Mudderella because it looked like a fun way to test what my body could do. It turned out to be the most difficult thing I’ve ever put myself through. It also made me put my trust and faith in people in a way that I never had before. I never felt shamed, or put down, or given up on. I couldn’t believe the spirit I saw out there on Saturday. It was beautiful and amazing. I challenge everyone to do it.
Force yourself out of your comfort zone. I dare you.
You are so fabulous. It is mindblowing.
Just think, there is at least one thing that you really rock at
And it may be hard to see
And even harder to appreciate
But you are one fine piece of human being,
You stardust jockey.
I know that there are people who are out there right now, telling you that
You aren’t good enough,
You aren’t thin enough,
You won’t amount to anything ever,
And I know that the strongest voice is probably the one in your own head
So I’m giving you earbuds
That are made of moon magic and love energy
And they are going to rock a constant stream of anthems
For you from now until forever
Because you are worth every second of every day
And nobody – least of all someone who doesn’t know you –
Has the right to make you feel like that’s not how it is.
It’s been a while since I talked about writing, but I wanted to get back to my “roots” a little with this post. It’s a topic I feel like I wish I had really understood better when I was getting started writing, because it involves something that gets thrown around a lot: drafts.
If you did any essays in high school or college, you know basically what a rough draft is. It is the first down and dirty start to finish. It’s where, after you’ve mapped everything out, you write the story itself. You may feel in the middle that it’s really not going so hot, but you keep slogging through it anyway. Usually, the end kind of sucks because you’re like, “I’m so sick of this, and I just want it to be over.” Your story loses its virginity on the rough draft, and sometime it’s okay but more often than not it’s a hot mess.
So next, we have the first draft. This, for me, is when I go through the rough draft and figure out where things aren’t making sense, where dialogue is coming up short, and which parts really need to go. I like to get this draft done pretty much on the heels of getting the rough draft complete, because even though I know I was tired of writing the thing, I still have that clear picture of how I want this to go, and I’m going over the sketch in ink. Also, this is where I catch a lot of those crazy commas that seem to pop up everywhere.
Also, the first draft is what I give to people to look at. And you need to give your work to people to look at. I used to think I didn’t have to. I used to believe that I would catch everything. But I didn’t. And you won’t. And I love you and I support you but you have to find at least one person who you can trust with your (he)art. Be straight with them. Tell them you are scared. Tell them you don’t want to get hurt. If it’s a group, go to a few sessions beforehand and get a feel for how they roll. Some groups are big into the “we just want to get everyone writing,” Feel Good Inc. motivational song and dance. Others are gritty and believe that to get a diamond, you need to beat the crap out of some coal. Hint: your story is the barbecue bait, baby.
After you’ve gotten people to look at it, you can start to hammer out your second draft. “What?!” you shriek. “Another draft?! What the flatbread sandwich?! This should be the last!” See, the second draft is where you’ve dotted all the i’s, crossed all the p’s, cut the q’s. You know what suggestions to take and which ones to politely decline. Then…you stop.
Stop. Put it away. Take it off your desktop. Stick it in a drawer. Go outside. Have a beer. Hug a friend. Don’t touch that story again for at least a few days, a week, even a month if you have other things you can work on. You’ll know it’s been long enough after you do this a few times.
Then, BOOM. Final draft time. Go through it again. Is the story solid? Are there any characters that could get the ax without affecting things? Does your dialogue make you feel squirmy? Is this something you would yell at your friends to read, or would you announce its publication in a sort of mumbly way? Fold, stamp, send.
How many versions does your story go through? Is there a system that works for you? Tell me about it!
Some days, it’s hard to have perspective about your day job. Suddenly, something happens and you’re all 1) crying, 2) stressed out beyond all sanity, or 3) gassy. Hell, sometimes it’s all three. And you get those Lifetime movie moments where you think, “I could just get in my car and drive. Drive away from all this.”
That’s why it’s good, when there’s a pause between the bombshells going off, to think what experiences you would lose if not for your job. And as much as I’m sure you’re going, “I could live without those experiences, let me tell you,” I think that is wrong.
Here are five of mine.
- Resumes: yeah, I know, I got the stickiest one out of the way first. But this has actually come up surprisingly often. Because of my business writing experience, I have a resume for my writing career. It helps me to focus and see where I want to flesh out my abilities.
- Appreciation for customer service: I’ve heard it said that everyone should have to work retail or food service at least once. I’d like to add to that that everyone should have to take inbound calls in a call center for a day, minimum. You have no idea what the other end of that feels like until you’ve been in that seat, sweating and being screamed at and then having to come right back with a big smile and a “Thank you for calling Such and Such, how can I help you?”
- Being an adult: I was grappling with how to word this one, and I’m not trying to sound condescending. If you can make it through life without ever having to deal with the crowded fish tank that is the corporate life, you are fortunate. But when you are exposed to drama, cliques, gossip and catty crap for 40 hours a week, you really do walk away with a lesson or two about how to fight clean, be the bigger person, and deal with having no control over the people around you.
- Balance: Life. Work. Commute. Car problems. Illness. Finances. There’s no HOLD button for any of those things. By having this constant movement of live, work, eat, sleep, rest, rise, I’ve learned where, when and how to insert the things that are really important to me.
- Microsoft Excel: Man, spreadsheets are so useful for real life stuff. I wish I was being sarcastic. Being organized makes things so much easier.
What have you learned from your day job? Any hard lessons? Convenient truths? Helpful computer programs?