“Single-Serving Friends”

“Sometimes you run into someone, regardless of age or sex, whom you know absolutely to be an independently operating part of the Whole that goes on all the time inside yourself, and the eye-motes go click and you hear the tribal tones of voice resonate, and there it is – you recognize them.”  — Anne Lamott

“So when we meet as strangers, when even friends look like strangers, it is good to remember that we need each other greatly you and I, more than much of the time we dare to imagine, more than more of the time we dare to admit.  Island calls to island across the silence, and once, in trust, the real words come, a bridge is built and love is done –not sentimental, emotional love, but love that is pontifex, bridge-builder. Love that speak the holy and healing word which is: God be with you, stranger who are no stranger. I wish you well. The islands become an archipelago, a continent, become a kingdom whose name is the Kingdom of God.”  — Buechner

For my own sanity and well-being, I try not to base too much of my life philosophy on Fight Club.  However, the idea of single-serving friends is something that I appreciate.

Probably the biggest difference between the Sunny of Mother Superior Era and Sunny Version 2.0 is that now I like people.  Love ‘em, even.  As a writer, people are good sources of quirks that aren’t from my own head.  As a slightly better-adjusted human being, people are just fascinating for their own sake.  I love meeting new people, which is something I learned about myself during the model scouting period.  I’ve always liked opening people up, finding what makes them tick, finding what passions drive them.  Sometime the people that are in our lives every day get comfortingly boring, and we forget to ask new questions, discover new things.  With new people, it’s much easier and natural to ask about who they are.  And it’s great how new people can completely surprise you by being exactly what you need at exactly that moment.  I think the shock value of a complete stranger getting you can do wonders. Sometimes you run into someone who is so much you that it’s wonderful (or awful).  Sometimes you run into someone who teaches you something you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

Here are a few of my favorite single-serving friends:

  • Garage Sale Kindred.  During a family garage sale, my brother and I had an encounter with one of those people who I know God throws in my path just to get my attention.  We were almost ready to close down the garage sale for the day when this blue car slid to a stop just too far of our driveway.  Slamming the unenthused car into reverse, this old lady pulled into our driveway and got out to inspect my brother’s drums.  Immediately, we both got the sense that she didn’t think she was old – you could just tell that about her.  Her hair was white and she wore wide-rimmed glasses, but she carried herself like she was my age.  She wore this beautiful sari that fluttered in the wind like a flag.  The woman – I don’t even think we got her name – had attitude, spunk.  It would be no stretch to say that she was interested in whatever she came across that she didn’t know about, I think.  It was like she knew a secret that only she and life shared.  Christian and I both agreed after she left that she was awesome.  All the time we talked to her about her Sunday school kids, her yellow house down on the corner, my brother’s drums, and our own lives, she talked to us like we were her equals.  That really was a great unspoken compliment.
  • Smiley Asian Guy.  Do you ever notice that simple, seemingly coincidental run-ins can change your outlook on a day? One morning at college, I was stressing over the problematic people in my life.  I was walking down the sidewalk when I crossed paths with a little man who was obviously a visitor to campus. As I walked by him, he greeted me with a serene grin and asked, “Are you enjoying this morning?” It was just funny somehow, and it surprised me because it wasn’t the monotonous, “Hi, how are you?” I perked up immediately.
  • Meijer Lady. During grocery shopping on a busy day, I found myself stuck in a funnel where this silly girl with her boyfriend was clogging the aisle as she tried for 3 minutes to decide which kind of ketchup she wanted. A lady in a scooter and I were the next up for crossing paths if the girl moved, and we made eye contact and exchanged smirks. Finally the exasperated boyfriend shoved his cart to the side enough for the scooter lady to get by. As she went by me she said with an eye roll, “Your word for the day is, OBTUSE.” I started laughing but tried to cover it as the boyfriend also rolled his eyes. Great.

So, yeah, I enjoy discovering fresh people.  But what about people who are in my life daily and who have been in my life forever?  Obviously we can always seek to know people better, and we shouldn’t forget to continually try.  This leads to another favorite quote:

“We spend our lives guessing at what’s going on inside everybody else, and when we happen to get lucky and guess right, we think we ‘understand.’ Such nonsense. Even a monkey at a computer will type a word every now and then.” – Orson Scott Card

But the thing about people you know well – in many ways, it’s harder to be surprised by them.  You know each other’s histories.  You know their favorite foods and movies.  You know what makes them angry.  You know so much about them already that you can get lazy about pushing for more.  However, even old, old, old friends can surprise you and be exactly what you need at exactly that moment.  I’ve found that the trick is to fake myself out, to be just as interested while conversing with a friend as I would be with a new, single-serving friend.  You see things more freshly that way, and sometimes your eye-motes go click.  Sometimes you re-meet someone you’ve known for years and they’re a blessing you never saw coming.

 A few times old friends/family/acquaintances have really mattered to me:

  • Shaaaaaaane!  The summer between high school and college, I was a mess, to say the least.  One of my cousin Randy’s friends, Shane, happened to be up for the Fourth of July at my aunt and uncle’s cottage on the lake.  Everyone pretty much acted like normal, asking me the usual questions about my upcoming departure for college, but I remember sitting on the beach with Shane and him asking me similar questions.  For whatever reason (I’ve convinced myself it had nothing to do with the fact that I was at last 18), Shane treated me like he really cared, like this next step in my life mattered.  I’m not sure we’d ever really talked before, but for some reason this was completely refreshing to me and meant a lot, maybe simply because he was a new person and I needed so very badly to be reminded that I needed new.
  • Rachel K.  A great thing about people who know you well is that sometimes they know exactly which of their own experiences you can learn from vicariously, even if you never saw it coming.  When I was having problems with a particular mutual friend, Rachel was a surprising source of comfort as she explained a similar situation with another mutual friend (yes, I’m being vague).  It was one of the first times we connected about things more serious than books and movies, and her response to her situation made me realize I had a better way to handle my whole thing.  Her advice really helped, and I’d never seen it coming. 
  • Second-Favorite Hunter.  I think I’ve told this story before.  Chris H. is really probably my favorite hunter (don’t tell!) because I like a person who will jab at me playfully and know I won’t be offended.  Chris for years would say, “What is that smell?” whenever I would enter a room.  Anyway, during one fateful Haymarsh Sporting Clays Pig Roast, I broke my hand.  Everyone asked what I’d done and looked sorry for me and all that.  My family of course knew I was a klutz and so helped me get a plateful of pig and other assorted potluck food.  BUT, much to my surprise, Chris was the one who brought me a piece of the dessert his wife had made.  I didn’t ask for it, he didn’t ask first, he just brought it over.  It was oddly kind and memorable, and it reaffirmed my love for my weird little hunter family of adopted-uncle-types.

Now here’s the flipside.  What happens when I am that person who has the opportunity to matter in someone else’s life? How can I contribute to the people in my life – whether strangers, single-serving friends, people I’ve known forever, whatever?

For starters, I really do try to smile more (stop laughing, people who know me! I do!).  I learned from that man above that this simple thing can matter to people.  And I can be more cordial and kind in general to random people whenever our paths cross.

Strangers actually are easiest for me to be charitable towards.  It’s the people I know well, the people who I’ve spent perhaps too much time with, the people whose flaws/strengths I know inside and out that I have a hard time with.  (Apologies all ‘round.) But obviously these are the people I’ve invested in, the people who are most part of ME, and I should work to be…better.  I should have the decency to dig deeper and not assume I know everything about them.  I should be more forgiving of faults.  I should seek to help them open up and grow. I should be encouraging.  I should…I should…I should.

Sometimes I even do.  I really do try to give more than I take.  I try to be whatever a person needs from me.  It’s that 1 Corinthians, “I have become all things to all people” idea.  The problem is that I somehow usually end up draining myself – yes, I realize how self-righteous that sounds.  Often I will invest so much in trying to help someone that I lose myself and feel like that person is sucking me dry.  So, yeah, a happy medium would be good.  But, honestly, I always know God is trying to teach me something as I try to help whoever He’s put in front of me.  Patience. Compassion. Abandonment of self.  Etc. Etc. Even in mattering to other people, we end up getting a lesson ourselves, I think.

There are obvious things I need to work on.  I’m not good with criers.  Hypothetically, I will pat a crying person’s head if I don’t know what else to do.  And I’m not good with not poking when I see something is wrong – I want to fix everything and often don’t have the patience to go at someone else’s pace.  I’m not good at letting down my defensive shield if it means I might get hurt, if it means I might have to be so honest that I could lose that friend.  And, again hypothetically, when a person requires more vulnerability from me than I’m prepared for, I’m not good at letting go of all my little mechanisms for controlling the situation, and instead I will segue with something like, “Say, did you hear about that killing spree?” …Hypothetically.

So, yeah.  People sometimes surprise you and can change you.  And you can sometimes surprise people.  I think the key thing – whether with strangers or best friends – is to treat each meeting as an opportunity to know someone better. You just never know who might turn out to really, really matter.

The Knapp House

The Setting

When I moved back from Detroit, three friends and I rented a house on the dodgy end of Knapp Street in northeast Grand Rapids.  We had an alleyway instead of a driveway, a basement that flooded, neighbor dogs that yipped at all hours, and neighbor children that did likewise.  It was heaven.  Since we were in a house instead of apartments or dorms, it felt like a home.  It was a decent house for the rent, too – high ceilings, a big kitchen with a breakfast bar area (emphasis on the “bar,” considering it was next to what I called “the happy cupboard”), woodwork everywhere, and a very lovely porch that was the site of many Porch Nights with friends.

The Players

Halloween…in case clarification is needed.

Myself – Manic, recovering mess.  We’ve covered.

Miranda – Bless her.  Miranda filled the father role in our house.  M was handyman, chore creator, yard mower, responsible bill payer, etc.  (We never decided who the mother figure was, and Rachel pointed out, “We’re a single parent household.”) Sharing the upstairs loft with Miranda for a while, I quickly was reminded that there are significant differences between the two of us.  We have a lot of common interests and that sort of thing, but our basic approaches to life, I think, are drastically different.  The major difference seems to lie in the left brain vs. right brain issue.  M is stronger than me in so many ways.  She’s incredibly focused.  She has self-control and an internal monitor.  She’s also possibly the most composed person I’ve ever met, and of course I hate her for it.

Rachel – I think I admire Rachel most because she is such a tumble of quirks.  Studies Klingon.  Conspiracy theorist.  Matchmaker…er…supreme.  She once spent an entire day using PhotoShop to make wedding pictures of herself with Joaquin Phoenix.  I always appreciate people who are “smart but don’t always show it” (ahem, John VanderWeide), and Rachel is very free about being a goofball and yet wielding a philosophy degree at the same time.  One night we had a discussion about predestination; the next day, while watching Hitchcock’s The Birds she came up with a theory that the birds were really angry environmentalists who were upset by the fur coats, second-hand smoke, etc.  Delightful.

Racie – I had never been friends with Racie before, and it was a struggle at first to get to know her because I hardly ever saw her during the first few weeks.  But then came the Winter Olympics 2006.  Now, honestly, I couldn’t care less about Winter Olympics aside from jumping on the momentary bandwagon of patriotism, but Racie liked them.  So, figuring this would be good bonding time, we watched figure skating, snowboarding (I actually do like that one), ice dancing, bobsledding, etc.  I found that it was pretty easy to get to know Racie even when talking about something as unimportant as the scoring system for ice dancing – which, if you can avoid it, do.  As it turned out, my personality is probably closest to Racie’s, so that was an interesting discovery, even if I was closer to M and Rachel initially. I also remember being incredibly grateful that she was willing to go get me Gatorade when I had the flu, so maybe Racie filled the mother role in our house.

amAmber – When Rachel moved out and we needed a fourth roommate, something pretty cool happened.  In one of those beautiful God moments, we realized that Amber, a friend of Racie’s, would fit perfectly because we all liked her and coincidentally she needed desperately to find a new place to live.  She’d even asked her mom’s church ladies to pray that she find a new living arrangement, and the next day we invited her to live with us without knowing this.   Amber was a great filler of the fourth roommate spot.  Since she was in grad school, it was fun to have someone around who had homework again.  She was sensible, calm, and also crazy and fun.  She had the worst music I’d ever heard from an iPod.  She could quote Friends like no one I’ve ever met.  She said “uber” before almost every adjective.  Amber and I also had this running joke about my unhealthy enjoyment of fire, but that was okay because she liked Paul Walker movies.

alAl – When Amber moved out and Racie got married and therefore moved out, Miranda and I tried to live on our own for a while.  But after one winter of paying the heating bill, we wanted another roommate.  Thus entered Al, who is M’s younger brother.  Since Al worked about two miles from our house and often stayed at our place after episodes of Lost, it just made sense for him to move in.  Al was… Think basically a stereotypical 22-year-old boy but one who likes to read a lot too.  Belching.  Toenail clipping.  Leaving the seat up.  BUT, he also cooked, cleaned up after himself, and fixed things.  He was entertaining, funny and witty, and as my friends often pointed out was not bad to look at (though this is creepy when you think of someone as “Other Brother”).  Al introduced us to the joys of Rob & Big and numerous other boyish things that we tomboys greatly appreciated.  After he moved out to live with friends, I pouted for about a week because I no longer had anyone to watch bloody movies with.

Memorable Points –

  • Once, we had to push Rachel’s car out of the muddy driveway only to discover as she screeched down the street that she’d had her parking brake on the entire time.
  • One night, hopped up on watermelon, Miranda and I were playing in the backyard in the dark when I looked over and saw a black, small animal scampering across the alley to our house.
    When it paused in the yard, I called, “Here, kitty, kitty.”
    It turned its head, revealing a white stripe down its back.
    I yelled, “Oh, that’s not a kitty!” and we ran quickly into the house at is started coming our way.
  • We created our own version of the game “Apples to Apples” that turned out to be “Inside-Joke/Dirty Apples to Apples.”
  • Our house became the gathering site of our college pals.  We had several “parties” where we sat around drinking and playing board games – oh, the wild parties of English majors.  (I could have done without pickle juice being spit on our floor, but oh well.) At one party, there was a bit of confusion as Buddy was leaving and I asked if he wanted a Blow Pop.  The question alone wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t made a hand motion in front of my mouth to “clarify” what I meant. Any reference to Blow Pops became a running joke.
  • When Rachel needed help moving, we loaded up a few vehicles for the drive to Ann Arbor.  While trying to squeeze Rachel’s mattress into the back of Amber’s Blazer, we had to fold it, and the best instructions for how to do this were “Taco it!”  It made sense, but the box springs simply would not fit in the Blazer.  This meant we had to tie it down to the top of the vehicle, and Rachel somehow managed to completely tangle herself in the rope.  As the rest of us fell over laughing, Rachel danced around in the rope, only making it worse.
    Amber, trying to get Rachel out of the tangled rope, asked, “How do you exist without killing yourself?”
  • Dan, Racie’s fiancé, would often stay with us for a week at a time.  Really, I only remember him during this time as that guy who stayed on our couch.  And he had good music taste (which really always means someone has your music taste, doesn’t it?)  But whenever he stayed with us, for some reason M and I would pretty much stay upstairs in our room the entire time.  Maybe we were just trying to give Dan and Racie time to themselves, but we certainly could have made more of an effort.  Especially since, it turns out, Dan is one of my favorite spouses to enter the group.  Why? Because pictures like this happen:

    Again, to clarify, at Halloween.
  • Al more than once came into my room after shaving his head and would spin around with his head down, asking, “Is it even?”
  • For a Super Bowl Party, Al strategically arranged 3 TVs in the living/dining room so we could watch the game from every angle.

Lessons Learned –  To paraphrase Arrested Development, a much beloved TV show in our house, “Sunny was getting life lessons all over the place.”

  • Having had my own apartment in Detroit, I had to learn once again to deal with other people on a regular basis, even when I didn’t feel like it.  It’s no secret that I am very into “me time” and it was good for me to have to spend time with other people, step outside myself, and stop being so self-involved.  I tend to want everything to be my way, and this just doesn’t fly when three other people have plans too.
    Late one night, while a group of guests cavorted downstairs, I lay on my bed moaning as Miranda read on her side of the room, and I finally realized my stupidity and muttered, “I’m crabby.”
    Miranda laughed, “You think?”
  • This is what I appreciate most about living with others:  You learn how to get along even when you don’t want to, because these people know where you sleep.  It’s a favorite saying of mine that you should never let an argument last longer than the milk in your fridge (even when that milk has fermented beyond all recognition as belonging to the dairy family…hypothetically). Patience with others is not a virtue I keep in my back pocket, but I had to learn how to breathe rather than…ferment.  I think, by living together, we all learned to settle our differences in healthy ways.
    Also, this experience helped me learn how to deal with people I didn’t live with too.  Since my roommates and I had the same friend circle, some individuals I didn’t particularly care for were still around from time to time.  Pretending such individuals don’t exist doesn’t exactly work.  But the truth is, you aren’t going to like everyone, no matter how hard you try.  Some personalities are just different and will not jive.  Try as you might, you are simply not going to see eye to eye with some people.  The dance here is finding how to coexist without letting the lack of affection turn into dislike that turns into something darker.
    Then this hit me:  Saying you don’t like someone is pointless, really.  Where has not liking someone ever gotten you except somewhere bad?  So, to stop this before it gets bad, how do you resolve the tension of not particularly liking someone? I am convinced that even Christians (or maybe especially Christians, in my experience) are not always going to like each other.  What to do? Shake hands and part company? Or just be bland acquaintances with surface, casual relationships? Maybe.  (I can’t pretend to be the perfect adviser on the topic of interpersonal relationships.) BUT, we can’t let relationships get to the point of distaste, because, like I said, where does that get us? That chest-tightening dislike thing doesn’t work with that whole Christian love thing.  And it leads to ulcers.  “Fester, fester, fester.  Rot, rot, rot” may be my favorite Meg Ryan movie quote of all time.  No good comes of bottling anger.  But we shouldn’t blow it out, either.  It becomes easy to release tension by venting with others about the person you don’t like.  THIS IS NOT LOVE!  Even if the person you don’t like never hears about it, constantly bitching amongst ourselves is not going to help resolve tension.  It makes it worse.  It will still eat at you.  This resolves nothing.
    So where do you go? I guess the only thing you can do when there is no connection between people is to just let it go.  Ignore the dislike.  Forgive it.  Start over, or at least with a clean slate in your own mind.  Try.  At least be neutral in your opinion of this person.  Then, you might be surprised to find that there is something there after all, underneath the ignored and forgotten dislike.  You might never be best buds, but at least there will be some level of love there if you try.
  • Living with people, you get better at seeing what others need.  Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also brings understanding.  You become more sympathetic.  When one of my roommates might be hurting or struggling, I knew them well enough to know the kind of advice or encouragement they needed.
    It took me a bit of time to figure out how to help in some situations.  I tend to have a laugh-it-off approach to pretty much everything – the Somerville motto is “If we’re going to laugh about it later, we might as well laugh about it now.”  But this doesn’t work when people of other temperaments are crying or angry or hurting.  So, of course, to really help someone you have to know them.  Doing what would help you does not always help others.  So you have to find what works for them.  Living right with someone, you’d better know them well enough to help, or else what are you doing?

Quotes –

  • “I would date the cookie monster; we have similar interests.” – Rachel
  • “I want a sailboat when I grow up.  Not that I know how to sail, but that’s what the servants are for.” – Rachel
  • “23 and single is not the time to have stuffed animals on the bed.” – Racie
  • “True or False. Rolz Gold Pretzels give other pretzels penis envy.” – Racie
  • “Taste like something!” – Miranda, yelling at her taco
  • “Hide it under a bushel. No. Let it shine. That is my advice to you.” – Miranda
  • “If you sing arguments from now on, I will let you win them.” – Miranda
  • “No, you’re more pathetic because you’re self-aware!” – Miranda to Me
  • “You know, you pretend to be the normal one in the house, and then things like this happen.” – Me to Miranda
  • “I don’t want to marry a mongoose!” – Me
  • “Men are gross.  This movie is making me want one less and less.” – Me, of Rocky

Personal Quirks I Stole –

  • Thinking before speaking – Miranda
  • Not thinking before speaking – Rachel
  • Tapping my nose while thinking – Racie
  • Saying “-ity-doo” after every verb – Al
  • Because of Miranda I don’t immediately disregard folk music
  • Because of Rachel I read Steven King
  • Because of Racie I know how figure skating is scored
  • Because of Amber I appreciate that Paul Walker cannot act his way out of a paper bag
  • Because of Al, I developed an appreciation for Rob Dyrdek
A few of our “Apples to Apples” cards. All true stories.

I suppose I should have some sort of closing point to all this, but really I just have to say that this whole time period at The Knapp House was a blessing.  It gave me time to chill out and enjoy where I was.  Who can ask for more than a roof over one’s head, friends to laugh with and learn from, and enough ice cream in the freezer to feed a small army?

What Do You Do With An English Major?

My college roommate Gloria used to sing the above title to the tune of “What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor?”  It was not encouraging.  Especially considering the point of college is that you prepare for the rest of your life, and here I’d gotten one of the least pragmatic college degrees known to man.  I mean, seriously, WHY DID I GET A DEGREE FOR MY HOBBY?!

By the time college was over, I’d become someone who never sought out practicality, or maybe I’d just convinced myself of this because having an English degree is so very not practical.  I may never do anything with my degree vocationally (hatred of “the red pen life,” remember), but what I chose to study was what I wanted to know more about, so I’m satisfied.  I became more eclectic, if nothing else.  I opened up to new ideas.  I discovered through trial and error what systems/methods did and did not work for me creatively (ahem, Creative Writing class).  If this is all the fulfillment I ever get out of my college degree, I am fine with that.

But what DO you do with an English major? On the practical side, I guess that, working as a medical transcriptionist, I use my English skills probably more than I realized.  Doctors are smart people, but they make up words and they make up grammar.  They also pronounce “mary-jew-annah” and have slip-ups like “asthma exasterbation.”  So, I guess general skills of communication can come in handy in any job. However, my English degree is mostly useful for non-practical reasons.

Use #1 – Being a Book Snob

Let’s face it – I was probably a book snob long before college because I think my taste is superior to most people’s.  However, now I have a diploma.  I love Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Kierkegaard, Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, Roald Dahl, Edgar Allan Poe, Annie Dillard, Edith Wharton, Madeline L’Engle, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Orson Scott Card, Jeffrey Archer, Billy Collins, etc.  I hate Moby Dick, Walt Whitman, and most Christian fiction.

Let me defend that last one. The reason my own Kota series is not blatantly Christian is because I don’t want it to be lumped in as just another Christian book series – which is awful to say, but.  Much of Christian fiction out there just doesn’t feel…connected to reality.  It’s watered down so the general Christian audience won’t be offended or won’t have to think, in my opinion.  The most effective “Christian” stories use dark, bad, sinful elements to show the need for God’s grace (hello, Senior Seminar paper on Flannery O’Connor).  Evil, hate, and filth are real, and unfortunately many Christian artists seem to ignore this as they present a fake, flaky, sappy story of salvation.  And the bad guys are always from the Middle East.  As a genre, Christian fiction just makes me roll my eyes and wish for better.  There are exceptions, but whenever I hear the “Christian fiction” label, I am immediately turned off, and I’m sure I’m not alone.  As Christian storytellers, I think we have to show the real world, in all its ugly wonderful dimensions, in order for our stories to resonate with readers who know that life is more complex than is often portrayed in Christian fiction.

 Use #2 – Being a Better Reader

All the literature I read in college undoubtedly affected my story-processing powers.  I feel like I have an insider’s perspective whenever I invest in a story, and I love that.  To me, Story is like nourishment – I don’t know if that is because I have a major need for escapism or what.  My education gave me the ability to understand stories on a deeper level.  I now see themes, styles of writing, historical contexts, and “intertextuality” in books that I’ve read a dozen times without ever noticing these things before.  Quotes, terms, etc. pop into my head when I need them.  Mostly, I’ve gained what Prof Landrum was talking about when he said, “Some people read, and some people read books.  I’m going to teach you to read books.” And, I’ve held to what I realized freshman year in Intro to Lit – “I love seeing how people create.”

 Use #3 – Being a Better Writer

I’ve written 4 novels, so that is almost a practical application of my education…right?  Seriously, I love that I am a writer – there are some things common to all writers.  To steal from Jeff Foxworthy, it might sound like this:

  • If you like the idea of sharing yourself but don’t want to be in the spotlight, you might be a writer.
  • If you spend more time in a fantasy world than you do in the real world, you might be a writer.
  • If you shriek with joy when an idea comes to you and run for the nearest notepad, you might be a writer.

I absolutely fell in platonic love with Donald Miller while reading Blue Like Jazz because he talked about a time when he was reading a novel and got so jealous that the person had written a novel that he threw the book across the room.  (Personally, I keep Poetic Meter & Poetic Form handy as my “throwing book” because it’s easy to channel all my hatred into.)  So, at the very least, I like being a writer because it means I’m not alone in my neurosis.

When I sent my first book to be self-published, I was a nervous wreck because I realized – very, very slowly – that people would read it.  This seems an incredibly stupid epiphany, I know.  It’s just that the Kota story had been a part of my life for so long that I’d forgotten people didn’t know about this basic ingredient of my life.  Few people at the time knew that I wrote fiction at all.  I was initially a wreck because I was letting go of my baby after sheltering it secretly for over a decade.  I was exposing myself.

Then the book came out.  “Firstborn offspring of my feeble mind.” Honestly, I never should have attempted publishing a novel and graduating from college simultaneously…or, I wish I’d focused less on graduating.  Also, because I didn’t really know what I was doing yet, I left out a LOT of what had always been a part of this story that I’d been working on since I was nine.  I don’t know why I didn’t flesh it out more – maybe I was afraid of length.  Looking back, it’s shocking The Kota: Book 1 was accepted so well.  But I’m also perfectly willing to admit that a 21-year-old girl finishing college does not know everything about writing yet.  It could have been better, but at the time I didn’t know how.  NOW, over a decade later and three other novels later, NOW is oddly the time when I’m capable of doing my first novel the right way, and that’s why I’ve rewritten The Kota: Book 1 so that it will be released as an eBook later this spring.  This time, I’m completely happy with it.

Holy crap, I look young.
Holy crap, I look young.

In any case, while writing Books 2-4, the “fame” of being an author set in.  At first, I wanted to run and hide whenever someone found out I had a novel published.  I don’t like being the center of attention.  Ever.  My father was quite proud of me – and I’m grateful – but I felt myself shrink back whenever he introduced me to people and just happened to throw in that I’d written a book.  The staff at ACS (my high school) was incredibly proud of me, as if I was some kind of shining beacon of accomplishment for the school…  Irony.  Everywhere, whenever anyone got that “wow” look on their face, I felt like a deer in the headlights – no, probably a smaller animal, like a raccoon.

Only gradually did I learn to handle the attention.  The thing that really started me liking it was when I realized I could talk about the experience of Story.  (Is my nerd showing?)  More than once my friends and I have been talking about an author’s motivations, inspirations, etc. and I’ve chipped in (with a notable chip on my shoulder) by saying, “Well, when I am writing a novel…” I LOVE exploring different people’s creative processes, and I like having my own experiences to share and compare.  I like helping people stir their own creative juices and inspiring their creativity.  I once spoke to a group of students at Lakeview High School, and it was great – and more than a little weird – to be able to stare out at the young faces staring back at me as I spoke about how I had created my story.

(Sidenote: However, there was a moment when I thought of Kathy Bates in Misery because one girl came up to me and said, “I am your number one fan!” I also was asked, “Do you know Terry Brookes?” I nearly laughed, “I know of him.”)

All around, I’m still never sure how to react when people are amazed that I’ve written four novels.  I worked on these stories for over a decade before anyone knew about them, so I don’t think it is anything incredible that someone “so young” has written a full-length novel or two.  Is it really a big deal?  At a friend’s house, I once laughingly picked my book off his shelf and heard him launch into an explanation of my author status to one of his friends.  My friend’s friend’s boyfriend said of his boyfriend, “Oh, he is so envious.  He wants to write a book.” The boyfriend said, “No, I’m not envious.  I just think more people should do it.”  That is exactly what I think.

Ironically, I also frequently forget that I’ve even written books. One new coworker once told me, “I entered your name on Google, and did you know there is an author with your name?” I admit I said, “Really?” before remembering, “Oh, yeah. That is me.”  I really do flat out forget because writing is just something I’ve always done, and having my books published is just another part of that.  Which might seem ridiculous, I know.  My dear friend Justin told me, “Are you kidding? I would drop that all the time!”

 Use #4 – Being an Experienced, Knowledgeable Source of Advice

So, all this leads here.  The most useful thing I can do with my college degree and my experience with writing is that I can “pay it forward” with whatever little pearls of wisdom I can muster (or maybe the analogy is closer if I say my advice is like chunks of sand some coughing oyster has spit up).

  • Use your experience.  This is said all the time, but it really is true.  It also sounds ridiculous coming from someone who writes science fiction about time-travel, zombie viruses, mutations, space-travel, etc., but bear with me – it does make sense.
    It’s a given that The Kota Series idea came from Christian, Kaly, Luke, and my childhood playtime, but there’s so much more to it.  Mainly, I think the wisest advice I ever heard was what my Aunt Sharon’s friend told her:  “Never waste a bad experience, write about it.”  All of my psychosis was valuable fodder for my alter-ego character of Bullseye/Kynacoba – her growth was also largely my growth as I went along, and I took it out on her.  Unless you’re blind, the Dominion is a clear representation of my time in high school and how that place haunted me just as the Dominion haunted Bullseye/Kynacoba.  Also, Kynacoba healed by learning to change on Ebon; I healed by learning to change at Cornerstone with Elise as my personal Cliqani.  Kynacoba found she liked life on Phantasya; I found I liked life after college.  She found what she wanted out of the rest of her life on Zenith; I figured out what I wanted in that post-post college phase.
    It is scary to use your own personal flaws in your characters – much easier to use your strengths – but you know you better than you are ever going to know anyone else, so why not use that insider knowledge? If nothing else, it is super cathartic – the parts of the story that involve Kynacoba hold more meaning for me that I can probably explain.  Anyway, characters automatically become more real when you use reality in shaping them.
  • Dig.  You can start with the simplest story in the world – say, four kids saving the world – and turn it into something truly deep and far-reaching by digging for elements to add.  I’ve already explained using your personal life to strengthen your story.  On top of this, use history.  Use literature.  Dig.  The same old themes, plots, and types of characters pop up time and again, and what parts of these truths fit with your story? I’m not saying you should copy history or others’ stories, but what is there that you can draw from to enrich your own story? Basically, find sources of inspiration.  (I can’t tell you how many of my notes were made during college courses.  Sometimes the professor would say something and my brain would suddenly make a useful connection with my own story.  Doodling is not always unproductive.)
  • Talk about your story.  It’s amazing what things you think are included but really aren’t there at all.  When you talk about your story with long-suffering friends, some things stand out as important – things you might never have put much thought into because they are so subconsciously basic in your mind.  I used to fear other people’s suggestions and perspectives on my story because I didn’t want to change my story for anything, but now I’ve calmed down and loosened my grip enough to see that outside input is a good thing.  My friend Miranda sat with me for hours– saint that she is – and discussed the themes, character development, and basic plot structures of the third Kota book before she’d ever read it.  I cannot stress enough the value of hashing out your ideas with someone who is completely fresh to the story you are working on.
  • Let go of the reins.  (Who is it that talks about listening to your broccoli?) Let your story steer you.  Let characters behave and talk for themselves. It sounds ridiculous considering they don’t really exist, but letting a character develop through their particular motivations and quirks can lead you to places you never expected.  Try to keep control of your unruly offspring, but sometimes you have to lift your hands from the keyboard and take a timeout to re-find where your story is taking you.  What accidentally comes out of you might prove better than anything you plan.  Sometimes you have to let go of your plan and go with the accident because it’s just better.
  • Read your “final” draft aloud to someone.  Quentin Tarantino talked about this in his Golden Globes acceptance speech this past year.  You may have to get out the duct tape and strap them to a chair, but find a listener.  The main benefit of reading aloud is that your own ear is sharpened.  It is amazing how some parts sound good on paper and some don’t.  Actually, a lot don’t, but you won’t figure this out unless audibly going over these parts.  Some lines of dialogue sound terrible when really spoken, and you can always find a way to shorten and sharpen with a listening ear in the room.  Much better to fix your final draft before it really becomes final.

So, there ya have it.  What do I do with my English major?  I use it for my hobby.  But I do know what I’m talking about, if you’re able to corner me and make me babble coherently.

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