Memoir

All posts in the Memoir category

On weathering uncertain times.

Published March 26, 2020 by mandileighbean

We’ve been quarantined for about two weeks. Just under 14 days. I think I handled the first week with aplomb, with grace, and with a resilient kind of optimism. I cut my hair, I ordered a wireless printer and other tools for my “home office;” To quote a very good friend, I was t h r i v i n g.

This week? Not so much.

I went to confession and it was bizarre. They had a portion in the far corner of the parking lot sectioned off by little orange cones. Father sat in one of those uncomfortable plastic chairs that always seem to be painted a shade that hasn’t been popular since the 1970s. I pulled up, rolled down my window, and shouted my sins across the distance, loud enough so he could hear me over the wind. Even Father said he was unsure about how this could possibly continue. And he told me mass was cancelled indefinitely, but he would live stream mass.

Driving home, I passed the bank and the line of cars for the drive-thru wrapped around the building.

The park by me has yellow police tape around the entrances so no one can get in.

All of that was disconcerting, but I think this overwhelming sense of being disconnected and kind of lost started when I watched “Blinded by the Light,” which is NO WAY a comment on the film. I loved it! I cried from my heart being so full that all the excess love and hope and faith and goodness had to spill out through my eyes. I know I’m late to the party, but if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s all about this Pakistani boy growing up in Lutton, England (which is about 200 miles from Manchester, just for perspective). He becomes OBSESSED with the Boss, which in turns helps him follow his dream of becoming a writer.

The kind could have been me. Hell, the kid was me. It made me wonder, where did that passion, that desire go? Is it too lost to be recovered, rediscovered? The kid sat up in his room and wrote poem after poem. He wanted to become an English major. He wanted to work as a writer and even got the job at the local paper.

That was ALL me! What happened?! I mean, I’d write e v e r y s i n g l e d a y. I’d constantly be scribbling something. My notebooks were filled with scenes I just had to get onto paper and covered in inspiring lyrics. I used to be focused, driven. WHAT HAPPENED???!!!?!

Then again, the REAL question is: can I get it back?

I tried to stay on this inspired kick, tried to desperately to start an irrepressible fire burning in my belly. I watched “Western Stars,” the Bruce Springsteen concert film. I loved it. He’s just so fucking smart and passionate. My favorite quote:

Are we moving forward? Mostly, we’re just moving.

Damn, Bruce. Just @ me.

I did work on Moody Blue; I recently discovered there’s a whole chapter that needs to be re-written, so at least that’s something to focus on. I have really been busy trying to stay on top of remote learning as the longer we’re out of the building means the more instruction my students need. I will say that being more creative about explaining key concepts and skills is definitely helping me become more passionate about reading and writing.

But I haven’t seen anyone in real life in over a week (my parents being the exception). On sunny days, I walk the boardwalk and offer strangers a friendly nod, but that’s it. I feel so isolated, and I know that’s the point and it’s important to stop the spread of the coronavirus, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Not to be a total downer – I ordered some blue light glasses from Amazon, and I L O V E them. I’ve been spending SO MUCH time staring at screens, as we all have I’m sure, that my eyes were really starting to bug me. These glasses, while stylish, have also been a godsend.

I’m sharing an article about relieving eyestrain, just so we can take care of ourselves.

On Chuck Palahniuk, with love.

Published March 4, 2020 by mandileighbean

This blog post is going to serve as nothing more than a thinly veiled love letter to Chuck Palahniuk.

This week, I devoured his book on writing titled Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different. Simply put, this book was amazing. You know I’m always looking for signs from the universe, and I firmly believe that the cosmos put this book into my hands at the right time for the right reasons. One of my favorite passages reads:

Was it Kierkegaard? Was it Heidegger? Some egghead pointed out how people decide the nature of their world at a very young age. And they craft a way of behaving that will lead to success. You’re praised for being a strong little kid so you invest in your strength. Or you become the smart girl. Or the funny boy. Or the pretty girl. And this works until you’re about thirty years old.

(64).

Damn, Chuck. Just @ me next time. I think a lot of the uncertainty in my writing life comes from uncertainty in life in general. Last year was tumultuous; I lost friends I thought I’d have forever and essentially had to find my new identity. It was never a good idea to allow myself to be defined by other people, but I did it and here I am, reconstructing myself one piece at a time. I’ve finally come to accept that people will enter and exit my life at various times for all different reasons, and every entrance and exit does not necessarily have anything to do with me. “Through our lives, our relationships are based on proximity. We attend the same school. We work at the same company or live in the same neighborhood. And when those circumstances change, our friendships dissolve” (146).  Those changes and dissolutions do not have to be earth-shattering. They do not have to be moments after which everything is different. But when they are, I think it’s more than important to stop and take note. Losing my friends and thereby upending the woman I thought I was led me to the dream of Ireland.

I want Ireland to be a part of my rebuilding, maybe even the foundation upon which I can build my writing life, and though that journey has been delayed, the desire is there and it is as strong as it ever was. Palahniuk writes, “Perhaps this is why people dream of traveling a lot at retirement. Seeing the world and recognizing one’s own insignificance makes it okay to come home and to die” (117). That’s depressing as hell, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. To be comfortable with myself, and that includes being comfortable with my mortality, I think I have to be uncomfortable first. I’m happy to admit I’ve been uncomfortable as hell for nearly four years. So something’s gotta give soon, and I think this book by Chuck Palahniuk has prepared me for the moment I’ve been waiting for: the moment after which everything is different.

So much more than some bestselling author pontificating about craft, Palahniuk’s book is entertaining as hell. He includes entertaining anecdotes from his writing life that validate a writer’s many insecurities and intuitions, balancing humiliations with small victories. For example, Palahniuk recalls when he was a participant in Tom Spanbauer’s writing workshop and Tom gave him a book to read after his “…work had been rejected by some magazine or ten magazines or yet another agent had written to say he only represented ‘likeable’ fiction” (57). Tom chose the book and told Palahniuk it would help his work “enormously” (57). Palahniuk writes:

The following week I read and reread it. An easy job because it hardly topped a hundred pages, but a tough read because the characters were hard-pressed and put-upon cornpone hound-dog types just scraping by in the burnt-over backwoods hills of wherever. They lived on a farm, eating the same grits for breakfast every morning. They did nothing exceptional, and nothing happened to them. Each time I finished it I felt angry about wasting more time for so little return. I hated the author for wasting my time. But mostly I hated myself for being too backward to appreciate this work of art documenting the lives of folks interchangeable with the folks I’d been raised next door to

(58).

So when Palahniuk brings the book back, he’s hesitant to admit he hated it because he’s afraid that makes him dumb, too stupid to appreciate a book praised by anyone and everyone who knows anything about literature. Palahniuk lies “to fit in with the smart people” (59), which is a pressure I completely understand and have barely survived. I usually do the same thing Palahniuk did. “If all else fails among the literati, always claim the language is beautiful” (59). Throughout the course of the evening, however, Palahniuk finally cracks and admits he hated the book and that he’s probably stupid. But Tom smiles and reveals his true intentions. “This book is awful…. I wanted you to see how terrible a book could be and still get published” (59-60). I give Palahniuk credit for not naming the book and shaming anyone (“If you don’t have anything nice to say…” and all that) and for being honest. He’s acknowledging that being published and successful can have very little to do with talent. And I think it’s important to note that Palahniuk found his writing tribe, a suggestion stressed by all different kinds of authors time and time again. Writing is a lonely job, so it is crucial to find people who share your writing philosophy and tastes and work ethic. It’s crucial to have a community, and I think Palahniuk is starting one with the publication of this book. In a cosmic coincidence, I am in desperate need of a tribe, so let this book be my calling card/open invitation.

I wrote a somewhat scathing review of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction because it wasn’t accessible. It was condescending. It didn’t inspire me. Palahniuk echoes these sentiments and goes on to explain, “I’ve found that most writers fall into one of two camps. The first rise from academia and write gorgeous stuff with very little plot momentum or drive. The second camp of writers emerge from journalism and use simple, clear language to tell stories rich in action and tension” (192). I think, organically, I come from the first camp. I was an English major, am now an English teacher, and will earn either my Master’s or MFA in the near future. But I’m drawn to the second camp. A perfect paragraph or scintillating sentence is great, but I’m afraid that’s not what sells. Readers want stories rich in action and tension that are also accessible because they use simple, clear language. That’s why Her Beautiful Monster was a joy to write and earned positive reviews, I think – because I enjoyed writing it. I think I need to get back to basics and not overthink my creative process.

Palahniuk does not spend valuable space romanticizing the writing life or going on and on about some abstract, academic approach. He gives real, practical advice. For example, he writes, “Once you’re published and trying to scratch out a living you’ll find these regional bookseller associations are a great ally” (1). First paragraph of the first page, and I’m learning something new. I was so disappointed when my first novel didn’t go flying off the shelves, but in hindsight, I realize I was doing nothing to help. To be fair, I didn’t know where to start. Thanks to Palahniuk, now I do.

He does discuss the act of writing itself and gives great tips and tricks without singing his own praises. For example, he suggests that “Instead of writing about a character, write from within the character” (47). He recommends avoiding common units of measurement and instead, using units of measurement unique to a character, like “a man too tall to kiss” or “a man her dad’s size when he’s kneeling in church” (47). This idea may not seem revolutionary, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. This is a wonderful and unique way to give a story texture and to really develop my writer’s voice.

Palahniuk attributes some of his most followed advice to other writers, and it lends him a great deal of authenticity. That was my favorite aspect of the book, how real Palahniuk is. It reminds me of a sentiment expressed by Stephen King, that all writers come to drink from the same pool, so it’s only natural that all writers beg and borrow and steal from one another. Hence why I salivated over this book from one of my most favorite writers.

Palahniuk writes, “If you’re dedicated to becoming an author, nothing I can say here will stop you. But if you’re not, nothing I can say will make you one” (xv). Palahniuk shares advice he received from Bob Maull, founder of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. Maull told him, “If you want to make a career out of this you’ll need to bring out a new book every year. Never go longer than sixteen months without something new because after sixteen months people quit coming in that door and asking me if you have another book yet.” Fuck. Shit. Balls. My book came out nine years ago. Is it too late for me? Do I not have enough time to write because I’m a full-time teacher? Palahniuk doesn’t think so. He describes, in detail, how one writing approach solves the struggle for time. For all the dark human truths he exposes or touches upon, he is not a fatalist. He writes, “But if you hold a full-time job, have a family, and have to juggle every other duty in life, this scene-by-scene experimentation will keep you sane” (135).

So where do I go from here? I become a fucking writer. I carve out time for writing. I truly and fully believe I am one. I get to work.

Published January 22, 2020 by mandileighbean

writer's block

Happy Writers’ Wednesday!

Personal side note: I need to get a handle on my weight. Last weekend, I went to my local ShopRite to buy some groceries. Really all I needed was capers (I was making chicken piccata), but I couldn’t help myself and also purchased French fries, ketchup, chocolate donuts, Oreos, and Spicy Nacho Doritos. I had ice cream in my basket, but put it back (like it would have made any difference). And to be fair, I thought I was going to be snowed in and wanted to devour my snacks while being all warm and cozy with nowhere to go. When I got to the checkout lane, I recognized the cashier. She was more friendly than she was awkward, but she was definitely awkward. As she’s ringing me up, we’re chatting, and she mentions how she wants to go to this certain restaurant for her upcoming birthday, and how she wants to order a bottle of wine but her mom won’t drink it and won’t let her – whatever, it’s small talk. I do okay with small talk.

But she asks, “Want me to drink for you?” I smile and say “of course,” or something like that. We talk about drinking in the shower (an escalation, to be sure, and so awkward but whatever, I’m trying to be nice) and she asks me again. “Want me to drink for you?” She asks me that same question at least two more times before I leave the store. It definitely gave me pause, so I’m replaying the encounter in my head as I’m walking out to my car, occasionally looking down at the bagged groceries dangling from my hands.

I bought pickles, too. And that’s when it hits me: she must have thought I was pregnant! Because aren’t pickles universally craved by pregnant woman? Coupled with the cookies and donuts and fries, what other conclusion could she have come to? I was mortified! Ashamed! Embarrassed!

To be clear: I’m so NOT pregnant and I’ve never ever needed someone to drink for me. Ever.

Since I’ve completely stopped eating (joke!), I’ve had plenty time to revise my second completed manuscript, MOODY BLUE. If I don’t get a publisher this summer, I’m abandoning the manuscript and moving on. This is my third – or fourth? – revision. I’m stuck on chapter three … so I’m asking YOU, faithful, dear reader, to provide me with some FEEDBACK. Please, please, please read the following excerpt and tell me what you think. Would you keep reading? Is it boring? Do you want to know more?

As always, I am forever indebted.

Three days after bumping into Adam at her favorite wedding venue, Melanie’s Jeep was parked outside his house. They had been flirtatiously texting in the time between, and Melanie marveled at the way Adam always left her wanting more. The messages never seemed like enough, and Melanie was never satisfied. She’d re-read the messages in bed, smiling like a fool but also battling a nagging suspicion that Adam didn’t really like her. It seemed an impossibility to Melanie that someone so handsome, someone so smart, and someone so perfect could be interested in someone as dopey and messy and needy as her. She must have tried to talk herself out of meeting Adam a million times, pacing in her living room with the television on for company, enumerating to herself all the ways she’d likely be humiliated because Adam was so beyond her reach, so out of her league. But here she was, outside his house, and she was viciously chewing on her bottom lip and drumming the pads of her fingers against the steering wheel. All of her nails had already been bitten down to the quick, so her lip became a sacrificial victim to her mounting anxiety.

Melanie was trying to convince herself to go and knock on the front door, reminding herself that Adam was sweet, and that his texts had been clever and engaging. The truth of the matter was that on more than one occasion, Melanie had thrown her head back in laughter at something Adam had sent. Her days had begun to revolve around Adam’s messages; her mood was determined by whether or not Adam reached out. Luckily for Melanie and those she interacted with on a daily basis, the contact had been consistent.

Until today, the very day they were meant to see each other again.

Adam had been unusually uncommunicative that morning. His responses were all clipped and finite. Melanie had to do real work to keep the conversation alive. Even then, the quality of the conversation was so poor that Melanie wondered why she was even trying. And now, Melanie wondered why she was parked outside his house, placing and removing her hand from the keys dangling in the ignition.

Melanie sat up straighter to start the engine, but then she saw Adam’s front door open. Melanie was surprised to see that it was a woman and not Adam who ventured out onto the front porch, the same woman who waved when Melanie had dropped Adam off before. This time, the woman had traded in the scrubs for an unremarkable pair of jeans and a plain tee shirt, but the purple highlights were unmistakable. Melanie realized the woman was yelling at her. With nervous, fumbling fingers, Melanie opened the car door. “Sorry?” Melanie called. “What were you saying?”

The woman smiled bright and beautiful. “You’re Melanie, right? Adam’s friend?”

Melanie gulped. “Yeah, that’s me.” She gulped again. “Hi.”

“Hi,” the woman laughed. “I’m Melissa, Adam’s sister. Turn the car off and come in for a minute.”

Before Melanie could respond, Melissa was already on her way back inside the house. Melanie figured she didn’t really have an option. Exhaling in a great rush of breath, she climbed out of the Jeep. She entered the house and found herself on the outermost edge of a living room. The walls were just one shade of beige lighter than the plush carpet that flattened beneath her black boots. Against the wall to her left was a large couch, also beige, and seated upon it was a gorgeous, muscular man. He had dark hair and his dark eyes had been focused on the television mounted above the gas fireplace in the adjacent wall. Now, he turned towards Melanie and got to his feet, revealing that he was tall, dark and handsome. When the man moved closer and extended his hand, Melanie had to fight like hell to keep from blushing.

Adam sat on the love seat opposite the couch beside his sister. He hadn’t made eye contact with Melanie, but she could feel his eyes burning into her skin as she shook the hand of Tall, Dark and Handsome. “Hey there, Melanie,” he said. “My name’s Bobby and I’m Melissa’s boyfriend.”

“Oh,” Melanie said. She ended the handshake and shoved her hands into the pockets of her coat. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“He’s a cop,” Adam blurted.

The silence that followed was painful.

“If I pull you over, you don’t have to cry to get out of the ticket now,” Bobby said, winking. “You can just go, ‘Hey. Remember me?’” He proceeded to laugh harder than was necessary, but it broke the tension. He invited Melanie to sit beside him but before she did so, Melanie walked over to shake Melissa’s hand. Melissa didn’t stand but she smiled warmly. Melanie seated herself beside Bobby.

“Thanks for coming in. I know it wasn’t planned, but I wanted to meet you,” Melissa said. “You’re the woman who drove him home from the bus stop, right?”

“Well, from the coffee shop, yeah,” Melanie answered. She caught Adam’s eye, but he looked away just as quickly. Melanie noted how he sat on the very edge of the cushion with his arms wrapped around himself. He looked miserable.

“Thanks for getting Adam home safe. Sometimes-”

“He’s a free spirit, so he doesn’t always check in,” Bobby interrupted. Melissa’s smile became strained and it was all Melanie could do to keep from bolting for the door. She ran her finger along the silver hoop pierced through her nostril. She was trying to think of something to say. The silence was suffocating, unbearable. Melanie shifted in her seat and cleared her throat, just to have something to do. Bobby jumped to his feet beside her. “Can I get you something to drink? Soda? Water?”

“I’ll have some water, please.” Melanie smiled politely. If her mouth was full, she wouldn’t have to speak. She could guiltlessly ignore the building pressure of uncomfortable silence and shove the conversation responsibilities at someone else.

“Adam tells me you work for your aunt’s catering company?”

Melanie nodded at Melissa. “Yes, and I’m a barista.” She pressed her hands together hard. “But what I really want to be is a writer.”

Melissa blinked with a blank smile. Bobby had yet to return and when Melanie looked to Adam, he was staring at his feet. Her offered no sign of support or direction. She wet her lips and said, “Adam and I met properly last weekend when I was catering an event, and I got to see some of his handiwork with the landscaping there.” There was no reaction. “The venue was beautiful because of Adam’s great work.”

Adam whipped his head towards Melanie. She wasn’t sure what that meant, if she was doing well or if he wanted her to shut up. Luckily, Bobby returned with a tall glass of cold water. Melanie took it eagerly, rushing through her “thank you.”

“Adam’s only recently started landscaping,” Bobby said. He sat back down next to Melanie. “I’m glad to hear he’s taken to it so quickly.”

“He used to be an English teacher,” Melissa said.

Melanie nodded. “Yeah, I think he mentioned that. And I just read an article all about how teachers are leaving the classroom in droves. Underpaid, overworked, -”

“That’s not why Adam left,” Melissa said, interrupting. Adam flinched and lowered his gaze again.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Melanie said. “I didn’t mean to imply or insinuate anything. I’m just trying to make conversation.” She gulped down water.

“Of course,” Bobby said kindly. “I just think Melissa and I are sad Adam left teaching.” He shot his girlfriend a pointed look. “He was great with the kids and he loves to read and write.”

“Bobby,” Melissa and Adam groaned in eerie unison. Melanie didn’t understand what the big deal was and clung to the conversational lifeline Bobby had flung out to her.

“Actually, Adam and I talked a little bit about that, too. We’re going to a writer’s workshop today.”

“And we don’t want to be late,” Adam said, getting to his feet. Melanie set the glass down on the coffee table and stood, following Adam’s lead. “I’ll be home late.” He grabbed Melanie’s hand and pulled her to the door.

“Call and let us know where you are,” Melissa said.

“And have fun,” Bobby said with an easy smile. Thank God for Bobby, Melanie though as she returned the smile.

“It was a pleasure meeting you.”

“You too,” Bobby said. Melissa stayed silent. “We’ll have to do this again soon.”

Before Melanie could say anything else, Adam had pulled her onto the front porch. “You can relax now,” Adam said. He was pulling his pack of cigarettes from his back pocket.

“Oh shit, was it that obvious?”

Adam nodded, walking towards Melanie’s Jeep. “Let’s not rehash that painful encounter here. Melissa’s probably at the door listening.”

“Seriously?” Melanie asked in a whisper. She was following Adam.

“She’s ….” Adam’s voice trailed off and he sighed. “She doesn’t like anyone that I do.”

“Aw, that’s cute,” Melanie said. “No one’s good enough for her baby brother.”

“More like I’m not good enough for anyone.”

Melanie halted. “Adam, that can’t be -”

He stopped outside the front passenger door to light his cigarette and take a drag. “Bobby seemed to like you, though.”

“He was nice.”

“He’s a piece of shit, is what he is.”

Melanie gasped. “What? He seemed -”

“Yeah, I know. He’s got Melissa all convinced he’s the Second Coming, too. But trust me – he’s manipulative and conniving and self-serving. I knew him before Melissa did in a different context and he’s awful.” Adam climbed inside the Jeep and shut his door.

Melanie scrambled to the driver’s side and climbed in. “How did you meet Bobby?”

“Look, I don’t want to talk about Bobby. Or my sister. I don’t want to talk to what you were just subjected to in there. Let’s just go.”

“Oh. O-okay,” Melanie said. None of this was going like she imagined it would. She knew she had to salvage the day but she didn’t know how. They drove in silence to the local library to attend the writers’ workshop Melanie had mentioned to Adam. The workshop was held in one of the smaller conference rooms on the second floor. Melanie and Adam remained standing on the opposite side of the heavy, wooden entrance door because the sign displayed there had given Adam pause. Melanie hadn’t told Adam the entire title of the writers’ workshop was “a therapeutic writers’ workshop for survivors of traumatic experiences.” She also did not tell him that the workshop was led by Ben Fields, the man who had at one time been the love of her life. Adam hadn’t wanted to start out with tension and lies, but Melanie didn’t mind the duplicity. Sometimes, it was easier and safer to not tell the truth.

Adam hadn’t said much after reading the sign, but he hadn’t moved either. Melanie thought it was a good thing, that Adam had obviously survived traumatic experiences and was in desperate need of a therapeutic outlet. But to be fair, Melanie was not confident in the benefits of the writing workshop as she only started attending the workshop because she’d been fucking Fields at the time.

Melanie didn’t want to dwell on Ben and what happened or what might have been. She turned to Adam. His face was a blank canvas; he could have been thinking anything, making a million and one decisions without Melanie even being aware, and that worried her because Melanie did not want this first outing with Adam to go more awry than it already had. Something at the house with his sister must have set him off, made him moody and distant, which was really unfortunate timing for a first date. Melanie feared that if this all ended so quickly and with such disappointment, she’d find herself without anything to do other than drink wine, watch a beloved movie she’d already seen a thousand and one times, eat food terrible for her figure, and fall asleep on the couch with the majority of the lights on. It was a lame and pathetic existence and she didn’t want to live it anymore. Meeting Adam had been the start of something special, Melanie was sure of it. She said, “Let’s go in, huh? It’ll be fine.” Adam was still immovable, so she added, “If it sucks, we’ll bail. I promise.”

Adam finally looked at her. “Promise?”

Melanie stuck out her pinky. “Promise.”

Adam wrapped his pinky around Melanie’s and together they walked through the door.

Every single head turned towards the pair. The group never had more than a handful of participants, so the arrival of Melanie and Adam brought the gathering to record-breaking capacity. The surprised stares turned into friendly smiles, with the exception of Fields. Fields looked more confused than anything else. Fields cleared his throat. “Melanie?” he called.

Melanie grabbed Adam’s hand almost painfully. Her face paled, but she tried to look confident as she led Adam over to the older man standing behind a table at the front of the room. “Hi Ben,” she called and even though it sounded friendly enough, Melanie was sure that both men knew she was full of shit.

“Uh, hi,” Ben sputtered. He dropped his voice and asked outright, “What are you doing here?”

“Well, this is my friend Adam and he wants to be a writer.” Adam extended his hand on cue, like he and Melanie had planned this all out, and though Fields hesitated just long enough to make things uncomfortable, he did shake Adam’s hand. “He’s my friend you almost met at the café, remember? Well, we thought we could both use some writing inspiration and the price of this workshop is right.” She laughed alone, and then added, “Besides, you told me you’d love to meet him. Remember?”

“Right,” Fields said. After a moment, he added, “Why don’t you and Adam have a seat and we’ll get started.”

Melanie nodded and turned Adam around. She spotted an empty table in the back, as far away from Fields as possible. Adam asked in a whisper, “That was your ex?”

Melanie nodded.

“You didn’t tell me it was his workshop,” Adam hissed. “Are you sure we should be here?”
“It’s fine, totally fine.”

“Well, he didn’t seem very friendly.”

“Yeah, well, it’s complicated,” Melanie said as she threw herself down into one of the two chairs arranged behind the low table. “But he didn’t smash a wine bottle over my head or burn my apartment down, so there’s that.”

Adam turned to Melanie with a strange look on his face. He obviously wanted to say something, but Fields spoke first. “Alright,” Fields said, getting the attention of the room. “Let’s get started, shall we?  I see a few new faces tonight, so welcome, welcome.” He looked pointedly at Melanie and Adam. “Tonight, we will begin with an impromptu poetry prompt. I’m asking you to write at least fifteen lines of verse about whatever it is you’re feeling right now, right in this moment, in this very room.” He offered a smile to everyone, most of whom returned the smile genuinely, even eagerly. Part of what had been so attractive about Fields for Melanie, and other young coeds even though Melanie had never asked for confirmation on that point as she wasn’t a true masochist, was his ability to captivate an audience. Fields could command a room like no one Melanie had ever known, and he looked comfortable in any conversation. He was a quiet, powerful leader. Melanie released a shaky breath and tried to regain focus. Fields asked if there were any questions. There were none, so pens and pencils began to scratch against paper and both Melanie and Adam lost themselves amongst the soft silence.

Thirty minutes later, Fields extended an open invitation for the attendees to share their poems. It was all crickets and tumbleweeds; no one was feeling brave or feeling enough like a genius to raise his or her hand and stand. Melanie kept her eyes locked on the table in front of her lest Fields mistake eye contact for volunteering and exact revenge for Adam’s presence.

Adam stood and raised his hand.

Melanie gasped. Fields looked shocked. He took a moment to regain his composure and said as smoothly as he could, “Ah, yes, the newcomer; Adam, right?”

Adam nodded.

“The floor is yours,” Fields said, and then seated himself.

Adam cleared his throat, and read his poem aloud:

Love spread out in crimson rivers
I didn’t know how to say it

Exposed spaces split open and made vulnerable
I didn’t know how to close them

Splatters and tattered skin

I never knew how to begin

Expanding, filling and then deflating

I never knew how quickly it would end

Beating, beating, beating

Inside and out until it stops

Bleeding, breathing, leaving

It was over

I didn’t know how to stop it

I didn’t know how to save you

I didn’t know

I didn’t know

Adam sat when he finished, and there was a short stutter of applause. Eyes met and looked away, throats were cleared, but no one spoke. No one knew how to react. For her part, Melanie appreciated the bravery and she took Adam’s hand in hers beneath the table and gave it a gentle squeeze. Adam returned the soft pressure but did not release Melanie’s hand. They held hands, hidden beneath the table, for the rest of the workshop.

Another thirty minutes later, after discussion filled with constructive criticism, Fields said, “So we’ll meet two Tuesdays from now in this same place at the same time; any objections?”  Fields’ plan of action was met with consent so with nothing else to discuss, he began to pile and consequently file his papers away in a shiny briefcase.

Melanie leaned over and in a husky whisper, she asked, “Do you feel like going home?” Adam just shook his head. Melanie took a chance and suggested, “Well, there’s a cozy kind of dive bar, believe it or not, less than a mile from here. Hell, we could leave the car and walk.”

Melanie’s suggestion was met with a silence that was devastating. She had been sure, so sure, Adam was waiting for her to take the lead again, to make a decision. He was still holding her hand and he hadn’t started packing up. Melanie had assumed those were universal signs of wanting more. Crestfallen, she moved to slip her hand from Adam’s and begin packing up, but Adam strengthened his grip. She turned towards him and found Adam wearing a strange expression, some sad mixture of longing and resignation. Whatever it was, he did not seem excited, but he said, “That sounds great.”

Melanie nodded, and Adam released her hand. They both began gathering their bags and books and pens and in a matter of quiet moments, the pair had moved from the smaller conference room on the second floor of the local library to the sidewalks and pavement below. The silence was pregnant with tension. Melanie eased into conversation for some relief.

“You know,” she began, falling into step beside him, “it’s been a really intense day.”

He nodded.

Melanie sucked her teeth, an honestly unattractive quality but a habit she couldn’t seem to break ever since she was freed from her braces a little over a year ago. She watched Adam walk beside her. His eyes were dark, but they were thinner and colder than they had been before, stonier than before. The eyes made his handsome face sad so that whatever joy he could express had to come from his precious, perfect mouth. Without thinking, engaging in another peculiar habit, Melanie ran the pointer finger of her right hand along the silver hoop pierced through her right nostril. She did so whenever she was trying to figure out how best to proceed in social situations. This social situation was proving difficult because Adam was impossible to read, and that simultaneously enthralled and exhausted her, which was not altogether an unpleasant mixture of emotions. “That poem was good, real good. But it seemed sad, too.”

Adam stayed quiet.

“Unless you don’t want to talk about it, which is totally cool, totally fine.” Melanie said, hoping her tone was comforting.

Adam said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Oh,” Melanie offered lamely.

“What did you write about?” Adam asked.

Melanie hadn’t been ready for the question, and she nearly tripped. Adam caught her and helped her stand straight. They were inches away from each other, and Melanie was thinking of the best way to continue. “I didn’t write anything good. I mean, I didn’t write anything of substance. It rhymed and it was corny,” she admitted.

“There’s nothing wrong with just being happy and corny,” Adam said.

“I’m happy now,” Melanie grinned and fell against him as they walked the last couple of yards to the bar, crossing a busy intersection. The bar was mostly wooden, lamely and predictably modeled after a pirate ship, which Melanie attributed to its less than impressive proximity to the Jersey Shore (another ten miles or so to the east). The pool tables, dim lighting and abundance of locals attributed to the atmosphere. Melanie led the way towards a high-top table in the back, located down a ramp and next to a pair of what was sure to be wildly popular Skee-Ball machines. On the other side of the table was a flat-screened television airing sports highlights, and then more high-top tables, each surrounded by four worn and decidedly less than comfortable stools that were poorly made and rocked side to side on even the most level of floors. Melanie claimed a stool by draping her light jacket over the seat, and then ventured to the bar to purchase a pitcher of light beer.

Not too long ago, Melanie had ventured to this bar with Fields. She remembered walking up to the main bar, maneuvering around three billiard tables and another row of high-top tables, which she did expertly, placing a gentle, lingering hand on the backs of the good-looking gentlemen. Melanie was polite and always said “excuse me” while flashing a dazzling smile and she was usually rewarded with more than a few free drinks before last call, even with Fields sitting and waiting. She’d look back to him and smile, and she suddenly felt gross. She paid for the pitcher without her normal charm and ease, and hurried back to the table, but Adam wasn’t there. Melanie poured herself a glass and waited for Adam to return. When he did, he held two shots of jaeger in his hands. “Shots?” she asked. “Seriously?”

“I’m going to need one to be charming, and you’ll need one to think I’m charming too.” Melanie thought he looked nauseous as he spoke. “Listen, I’m what they call ‘socially awkward,’ even though I wasn’t always that way,” Adam said. He raised a glass and patiently waited for Melanie to do the same. Melanie raised her glass, gently knocked it against its twin in Adam’s hand, and then drained it. “You were right when you said the poem was intense. The poem was incredibly personal and I just think-” Adam sat beside her and he had been speaking to her without looking at her. When his speech abruptly broke off, Melanie assumed he was lost in thought. She touched his forearm gently, and then Adam turned to her. “Sorry.”

Melanie shook her head. “I’m glad you shared your poem,” Melanie said. “I firmly believe we always say exactly what we mean.  Anyone who says differently is only using doubletalk.”

Adam asked, “So you don’t believe in taking anything back?”

Melanie said, “Nope, never.”

Adam ran his thumb along the edge of his cheap, plastic cup that Melanie had filled with beer and handed to him. “That’s interesting. You’re the first woman I’ve met to deal in absolutes.”

Melanie shrugged. “Well, I’ve been told it is an extremely negative thing, so you’re … uh, interest is appreciated; thanks.” She took a deep breath. “Does Melissa not deal in absolutes?” She paused. “Is that why things are so fucked up at home with your sister?” Adam drank his beer, and Melanie knew better than to try another question. “We don’t have to talk about it.” She again gripped his forearm leaning on the table. “But I hope you know that you can talk to me.”

Adam drained his beer and set about pouring another cup, so Melanie had to release his arm. He hesitated before bringing the cup to his lips, and he must have thought better of it, because he placed it back on the table. “I’m afraid to tell you some things.”

“Why?”

“Because I really like being around you. I like the way you look at me. I don’t want that to change.”

“And you think the truth about you and your sister will make me change the way I look at you?” Melanie asked, confused.

“Well, there’s more to it than that,” Adam said. He studied Melanie for a moment. “But let’s not do this now, not here. Let’s have a good time, okay? Let’s play pool.” Adam abruptly got to his feet and turned to Melanie with expectant, pleading eyes. Melanie thought about protesting further, about forcing Adam to have this incredibly difficult conversation with her while sitting on rickety stools under the low lights of a dive bar. It seemed like a lot to ask, so Melanie shut up and followed Adam to the pool tables.

Later, when the date ended, Melanie and Adam’s drunken giggling shattered the silence of the deserted library parking lot. It was just beginning to subside as Melanie stood beside the driver’s door. She was digging in her purse for her keys when hot breath caressed the back of her neck. She became very still, even stopped breathing. “I’m not supposed to feel this way,” Adam breathed. Melanie turned to face Adam, but before she could offer any response, Adam planted his mouth firmly against hers. His hands gripped her waist, kept her close. “I’m sorry.”

Melanie gently placed her palms on Adam’s chest, her purse sliding from her wrist to dangle from her elbow. She kept her mouth close to his, speaking against it. “I don’t know why you’re sorry. You don’t have to be.”

Adam kissed Melanie again, pulling her hips hard against his. He parted her lips with his tongue and sucked on her bottom lip. “I don’t want to be alone,” he gasped, snatching breaths between every kiss. “I don’t want to be crazy.”

Melanie dropped her purse and slid her arms around Adam’s neck. “You’re not alone,” she said and slid her legs between Adam’s legs and held him tight, pulled him close. They kissed and grabbed and laughed, and Melanie completely forgot the other thing Adam said. It only occurred to her later, after she dropped him off. Adam had said, “I don’t want to be crazy.” Melanie didn’t know what Adam meant by that, but it seemed like an odd thing to say.

Please comment with your thoughts and constructive criticism!

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On battling back against disappointment.

Published January 8, 2020 by mandileighbean

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Please forgive my prolonged absence. As soon as I left work on December 20th, I headed to Florida to spend the holidays with my family. But now I’m back, baby! And I’m fully embracing the second coming of the Roaring 20s!

Well, sort of.

In case the title of this blog post wasn’t enough of an indication, things aren’t going as well as I had hoped. I should be used to this. I mean, when does life ever really go as planned? It still sucks to be disappointed, though. Next to loneliness, I think disappointment is my least favorite emotion.

I’m disappointed because it looks like I’m going to have to postpone my Ireland plans for a year. My FAFSA was denied because I defaulted on a loan I mistakenly thought was a grant. I’m an idiot, I know. And my credit’s not quite good enough for a loan (personal, student, or otherwise). I’m terribly ashamed to admit this because I feel like a failure and I worry people will think I’m a loser. And then I REALLY start to spiral and convince myself I am a loser and that I was never good enough to be a writer anyway and now the universe is just confirming it.

But that’s not true. And that’s flawed thinking. It’s unhelpful, negative thinking. None of that is conducive to battling back against disappointment.

It’s crucial to be both positive and reasonable when dealing with disappointment. I applied to the University of Limerick on a whim, with no solid plans for what I’d do if I was accepted. I already shared my concerns about living abroad for a year in an earlier post, but the more I consider those concerns, the more I realize how foolish I was in thinking I could prepare to live in another country for a year in less than a year. Finances aside, my house is nowhere near ready to be rented out (at least not at the price I’d be asking). My heat needs to be fixed and my appliances need updating. I need to clean out my basement to maximize space.

And what about my car? My cat? It’s overwhelming to fully think studying abroad through, but that’s what must be done to do it right. I’d rather do something right than just do something spontaneously. I also firmly believe everything happens for a reason, so let me slow down and take a breath and plan.

Deferring my place has its disadvantages. I worry I say “I’ll go next year,” but then never go. I wonder if I can survive another year of the same old, same old. What if my writing suffers because I’m stuck in a rut, only tired and uninspired, making only obvious and safe choices? I know this is mostly psychological and partially the result of being rejected by A N O T H E R agent and losing A N O T H E R writing contest.

But I have to remember to stay positive. Maybe this year, I can really focus on building a writing resume and a productive writing routine.

And I’d still be me in Ireland. A change of scenery doesn’t guarantee anything. I need to be happy and comfortable before I go somewhere as far as Ireland or I’m just running away. Or worse, only delaying dealing with my insecurities as a writer (and honestly, as a woman).

And it’s critical to stay positive. I have to consider the possibility that deferring my place is a blessing in disguise.

Because everything happens for a reason.

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On the end of a decade (dramatic though it may sound).

Published December 4, 2019 by mandileighbean

Not only is it the last month of the year, but everyone seems to be harping on the fact that it is the last month of the decade. I don’t remember people being this pumped when 2009 was drawing to a close, but truth be told, I don’t remember much about that time in general. I know I was in college, I know I was student teaching, and I know I had a lot of plans. Looking back, I realize I had a pretty fantastic decade.

  • I graduated college magna cum laude.
  • I lost nearly sixty pounds … and then gained it back. But then I started losing again, so let’s call this one a draw, shall we?
  • I bought a convertible, my dream car! And when the water pump somewhere in Pennsylvania and left me stranded on the shoulder of a steaming highway, I bought a Jeep! And when the Jeep was too expensive, I bought a brand new car, the first one I’ve ever owned.
  • I met Andrew McCarthy and Gary Sinise. And I yelled to James Franco that I liked his collection of short stories, and he mouthed “thank you.” I don’t think he was allowed to talk to anyone outside the theater after the performance of “Of Mice and Men.”
  • I published a novel (the first of many, let’s hope)!
  • I traveled to places I’d never been before, specifically Colorado and France.
  • I attended seven weddings and eight funerals.
  • Three of my loved ones deployed and returned home safely, but two made the ultimate sacrifice.
  • The New York Giants won a Super Bowl with Eli Manning as quarterback.
  • I worked my ass off and earned my dream job.
  • I finished the manuscript for a second novel and started the manuscript for a third.
  • I attended three absolutely wonderful writer’s conferences.
  • I bought a home.
  • I fell hopelessly, irrevocably, and dangerously in love.
  • I had my heart absolutely decimated. But hey; that builds character (Jane Austen wrote something like that, I think).

I’ve seen a lot of lists like this while scrolling through social media and “decade challenges” and similar sentiments. Recently, I was on LitHub and read an article titled “26 Books From the Last Decade that More People Should Read” (which can be found here and is definitely worth more than just a scroll-through) and it got me thinking: what would my reading list from the last ten years look like? I went over to my Goodreads page (and you should visit it too so we can be friends!) and scrolled through to revisit some of the titles that came along for my journey into the woman that sits in her kitchen, typing furiously on a cheap laptop that needs to be wiped down.

So here’s my list of ten books (with accompanying reviews I previously posted on Goodreads (except for my comments on The Spinning Heart)) that I read in the last ten years that molded me into the woman, writer, friend, lover, daughter, sister, aunt, teacher, human being I am today:

  1. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguroneverletmego
    “I absolutely adored The Remains of the Day. Thus, I had very high hopes for Never Let Me Go, and I was not disappointed. The story was completely original and the novel’s structure served it well. I appreciated the real human elements of the characters and it was those elements that made the story as engaging as it was. I am a huge fan of human drama, and this book offered me all of that in a new and interesting way. Pondering what to do with one’s short and limited time on earth is not a new concept. However the way the author investigates what that means to the particular set of people with extreme circumstances is breathtaking.”

  2. American Pastoral by Philip Roth
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    “I loved this novel I am going to begin by imploring anyone reading this review to take my comments with a grain of salt, as I now realize I have a rather bizarre emotional connection to this novel. I believe I read this novel at the exact time I was supposed to; its plot, which focuses on the varying tragedies of the ‘everyman,’ relates to one and all. The prose was engaging and layered, so that every phrase contained a superficial significance and a deeper message that reveals itself in time. I loved this novel and highly recommend it.”
  3. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
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    “Romance is usually never my genre of choice. It’s my literary snobbery, but I’ve always assumed romances left nothing for the serious reader to sink her teeth into. I’d just always assumed romance novels were nothing more than pages torn from some woman’s diary, some woman desperately trying to recreate a forgotten relationship from her past and doing her utmost to make sure she gets it right this time. All of those assumptions and assertions are insulting and unfair, I know. This novel, ME BEFORE YOU by Jojo Moyes, helped me to see the error of my ways.

    The characterization is outstanding. No aspect is obviously conveyed or conveniently created for the reader; there’s some work involved, but man oh man, is it worth it. These characters are developed and authentic so there is a genuine emotional investment in how this particular story unfolds. It’s not just the romantic relationship that has longevity with the readers, but all the friendships and familial entanglements. The characters were lovingly crafted and it helps the reader to stomach an unbearable plot.

    What I mean by that seemingly harsh phrase is that Moyes is not in the business of granting wishes; she’s being real. This novel is not what you think it is in the best of ways. I was very pleasantly surprised and intend on picking up the sequel soon. Definitely recommended.”

  4. Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto
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    “I purchased this book for three reasons: 1) I love ‘True Detective (particularly the first season which is absolutely flawless),’ which Pizzolatto created and wrote; 2) While binge watching the first season of ‘True Detective’ for the thousandth time, I finally watched an interview with Pizzolatto where he discussed his writing process and talked about illuminating the characters through nuances, and I thought that was just brilliant; 3) I spent a lot of time in a bookstore and would feel like a total asshole if I didn’t buy something.

    This crime novel is entertaining. I kept having to turn the pages to see what was going to happen next. The pacing was maddeningly appropriate, but this novel is so much more than a hard boiled crime story. Similar to ‘True Detective,’ Pizzolatto uses a fluid narration to not only blend the present and past to keep readers on their toes, but to develop characters in that subtle, illuminating way. Sure, the troubled hero and grizzled damsel who still needs saving are somewhat stock characters, but Pizzolatto’s talent and attention to detail creates living, breathing identities for those characters. They can’t just be compartmentalized or written off; they’re complex and layered, and engineer a real attachment. I wasn’t reading just to find out what happened to satisfy curiosity; I wanted – needed – to know if they made it, to know how they made out in the end.

    Highly recommended if you enjoy crime thrillers and/or good writing.”

  5. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King
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    “Stephen King at his best … Some stories were downright delightful and ultimately satisfying, but most were disturbing and unsettling and masterful. There were rare moments when the voice seemed stale and archaic, but King’s power comes from his knowledge of human nature. He gets it, man; and whatever that is, it’s terrifying and funny and entertaining and beautiful. Some stories in this collection are undoubtedly better than others, but King is a master storyteller, so each and every yarn is undoubtedly worth the read.

    I’ve been a longtime fan of Mr. King, and have suffered through some of his recent work (which feels awful and unkind to admit), but this collection felt like a return to what made me fall in love with his prose in the first place.”

  6. I’d Die For You and Other Lost Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald
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    “Fitzgerald is a brilliant writer; I did not need to read this collection of short stories to learn that fact. The greatest thing about this collection, then, is that it shows Fitzgerald as an artist and a man. He truly believed in artistic integrity, and was brutally honest with himself about many things, including his talent and his drinking and his relationship with Zelda. The stories in the collection are evidence of Fitzgerald growing and evolving with the times, with his own life, and with his own interests. This is a must read for any and every Fitzgerald fan.”

  7. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
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    “As I start taking my aspirations to be a successful published author more seriously, I find myself attending conferences that assign required readings. Some are pretentious, some are obvious, but few are as practical, helpful, honest, and entertaining as BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott.

    I felt validated and challenged and, most importantly, inspired to really write and give it all I have all the time. Lamott’s advice and insight are not meant to placate or manipulate aspiring writers into following her footsteps or buying more of her books or anything so capitalistic or self-serving. She talks about the reality of being a successful published author and how the realization of that dream still leaves something to be desired because it is human nature to never be satisfied. That truth, crushing though it may at first appear to be, makes the whole endeavor more manageable.

    I am forever indebted to this book, to this absolutely wonderful author. I also plan on reading more and more of her work.”

  8. The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall
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    “I can’t remember the last time I read a book in two days.

    The honesty of the author’s account of her life with Ted Bundy is remarkable. Kendall freely admits her own shortcomings which may have attracted Ted to her in the first place. She does not deny any facet of her relationship with Ted and while some readers have found her to be irritating in her inconsistencies, I felt it made her human and actually gave her credibility.

    Unfortunately, now having read the source material for the wildly popular Netflix film starring Zac Efron, I dislike the film as they weren’t true to the material.”

    *A new expanded and updated version of this book will be released in January 2020.*

  9. Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10 by Marcus Luttrell
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    “This book was profoundly moving. I will not entertain anyone’s opinion about war or the military unless they’ve read this book.”
  10. The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
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    “This is one of the most gorgeous novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of devouring. Achingly beautiful and haunting, there was not a single wasted sentence. Remarkable. Powerful.”

On the beginning of an adventure (possibly).

Published November 14, 2019 by mandileighbean

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I’m the worst. Not only did I miss another Wednesday deadline, but I didn’t do any of the things I said I would in my last blog post. If I want to be fair, I was on vacation in Florida with my older sister and her family, so I prioritized my time with my nephews and niece. Instead of running and blogging, I played games and helped with homework and watched movies on the couch with the greatest little humans on the planet. Another consolation is that I didn’t do too bad with my diet and to be honest, I’m getting back on track this week. The only reason why I didn’t run this morning was that I slept
H O R R I B L Y last night and it was FUCKING FREEZING this morning. Tomorrow is another day, and if I can stay within my calorie limit and exercise 90% of the time for 21 days, voila! New, healthier habits!

And I had reason to celebrate while I was on vacation. The Friday I left (November 1st), I received an email from Professor Joseph O’Connor letting me know he was informally recommending I be placed in the Creative Writing Master’s Program at the University of Limerick! He told me he reviewed my application, which means he read my original writing and thought it was good enough for me to continue working on the manuscript. The author of one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read saw potential in my writing … holy shit.  The official offer came the Friday I was heading home (November 8th) with a scholarship offer! This time next year, I could be in Limerick, Ireland, working on my writing and living a different life. There are just a few things I need to figure out:

  1. Finances: student loans? Grants? Scholarships? Home equity loan? Pension loans? I need to figure out how to finance this trip, since I’ll be taking a sabbatical from work and will be without a paycheck for an entire year.
  2. Sabbatical: speaking of, before I get too excited and before I start making all sorts of plans, I need to make sure my leave of absence is approved. I have to make a formal request and write a letter to the superintendent.
  3. House: if I get the money and the permission from work, what will happen to my home? The mortgage will still need to be paid. Do I rent it out? Will that affect my insurance? What if I can’t find anyone interested? Do I sell it?

So there’s still some figuring to do, but I feel like I’m on my way. In the meantime, I should get some writing done. And I want to make a note of how absolutely wonderful and supportive everyone has been, especially my coworkers.

Stay tuned, friends.

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On all kinds of muscles.

Published October 31, 2019 by mandileighbean

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“i keep fixing every habit//that i break.”

I made a promise to myself at the start of the summer of 2019 to stay physically and mentally fit. I developed schedules and regiments to read more and eat better and move more and write better. As I update this blog, I unfortunately have to admit that most of those plans fell through or were modified to basically continue my current, unhealthy lifestyle. I lack willpower; that’s obvious. I give up too easily. It was gross and misty this morning, so I didn’t go for my morning walk. I rolled over and went back to sleep, defeated. I gorged myself on pasta at dinner, making a million and one rationalizations for such piggish behavior. I’m tired and I’m always battling my depression and it’s rainy and work was hard: all those complaints become justifications for my bad behaviors, but I don’t want to live like that anymore. I have the desire, but sadly, that’s not enough. I
N E E D willpower.

What is willpower? The American Psychology Association defines willpower as: “…the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” That is precisely what I struggle with, so I did some more internet research and luckily, I stumbled upon an awesome article titled “The Science of Willpower: How to Train Your Productivity Muscle” by Oksana Tunikova. In that, she writes, “Simply put, willpower is our ability to delay gratification. It is our self-control that helps us resist distracting impulses and persevere.”

Without getting too science-y, I wanted to understand how scientists know what they know about willpower. The concept has been studied numerous times, but those in the know seem to agree that there are three key studies that tell us everything we should know when it comes to willpower:

  1. Stanford Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel: “Children were asked to choose between getting a sweet reward right away or having a double-portion after waiting for around 15 minutes. Kids who managed to delay gratification were believed to have stronger willpower (an obvious conclusion). The study, however, did not stop there. The young participants of the Marshmallow Test were actually subject to long-term evaluation. Over the course of years, it turned out that those who were able to delay gratification as kids had better life outcomes as adults. Life success was measured in terms of education, performance at work, health, and other metrics” (source).
    But what does this mean? To put the findings of the study in practical terms, to apply them to my own life, I realize that willpower is essential in meeting absolutely all of the goals I’ve set out for myself. If I’m able to make a schedule and stick with it, then I will be able to do anything technically.
  2. “Roy Baumeister is another important figure on the willpower-science scene. In collaboration with other scientists, Dr. Baumeister discovered that our will, just like a muscle, can be fatigued if we spend too much time on activities that require self-control. According to Baumeister, the strength of our willpower depends on the level of energy available in our brain at a given moment. To support his point of view, Baumeister ran an experiment that involved hard-to-resist foods. Participants had to withstand the temptation of eating chocolate and complete a series of mental tasks afterward. Those who managed to resist food temptation appeared to be more fatigued and performed worse in mental tasks” (source).
    But what does this mean? This helps me relax about relaxing. I really have to accept the fact that “all or nothing at all” is not a concept that can apply to my life. When I fall, or when I fail, it cannot be enough to defeat me. I have to remember that it is natural and normal to fall short and in bouncing back is how I will strengthen my own willpower. It seems contradictory, and maybe even ironic, but still, it makes sense because we cannot know darkness without light and we cannot know success without failure. So instead of rolling over and being defeated, I need to begin again.
  3. “Back in 2010, a study conducted by Stanford University researcher Veronika Job and her colleagues suggested that our own beliefs about willpower might play a key role. A series of experiments proved that when we believe that our willpower is limited, it becomes limited. Meanwhile, those who believe that willpower is not fixed and cannot be depleted, demonstrate greater self-control and are not likely to lose will under depleted circumstances” (source).
    But what does this mean? When I was going to therapy regularly, my therapist stressed the importance of loving myself (and so did my priest). I’m beginning to understand that loving myself includes believing in myself. I need to be nice to myself and tell myself that I am lovely, that I am strong, that I am capable of great things, that I will be published again, that I will lose the weight, and that I will be loved,.

So throughout my research, it became obvious to me that willpower is important, if not crucial, in determining success in any endeavor. Based on the three studies discussed above, it is apparent to me that willpower is as important as I believe it to be, and that it can be developed. To develop willpower, it is best to think of it as a muscle. “To strengthen a muscle, you have to exercise” and “When you overwork, muscles get tired and will need time to recover” (source). So, again, having one cheat meal a week is okay, but it is key to not let that cheat meal turn into a cheat day, which turns into a cheat week because I am not disciplined enough. But when I feel tired, I can rest, because indulging in being lazy twice a month is actually an effective way to give my willpower and self-control time to recover and “…restore its energy levels” (source).

But what does this look like in practice, in real life?

  • Exercise daily. “The trick, however, is to start small and build up” (source). Walking every day is fine to start with and I plan on continuing to do so even while I’m on vacation next week in Florida. But I’ve been walking for two months and my weight loss has slowed and while I fear it might be mostly because I’ve been slacking in counting calories, I might also need a physical boost. I remember reading somewhere that a person should change up her exercise routine after a few weeks. Upon returning from Florida, I am going to start running but I’ll walk if I need to.
  • Feed your brain the right food. “Willpower and decision-making are closely related. .. Studies suggest that poor diet makes you inclined to make more emotional choices than if you were well fed. To this end, the same advice to start small goes a long way” (source). This was another validation for me; I’ve been investigating The Mediterranean Diet for some time now and it’s time I got started. I have an entire cookbook and even more recipes printed from the internet. I could just start with breakfast, or a dinner once a week, because the article advises to “Keep changes small so that your brain doesn’t realize a change has been made. In no time, you can build up your willpower skills” (source).
  • Develop your own reward system. “If you break your big goal into a few smaller goals and assign a valuable reward for each small goal achieved, your willpower will be activated” (source). My original weight loss plan did have goals for incremental weight loss. For example, if I lost five pounds, I would treat myself to a movie. And if I lost twenty pounds, I’d get a hair cut. It’s time to find my original list and hang it up on my fridge so losing all the weight I’ve gained will seem more possible and I’ll have something to look forward to along the way.
  • Train your willpower, but don’t overdo it. Hence why cheat meals and lazy days are so important, and that helps me breath easier.
  • Work on your stress levels. “According to studies on the connection between stress and willpower, goal-oriented behavior suffers when our fight-or-flight signaling is on” (source). My stress has always been difficult for me to manage. Before I developed better coping skills and healthier habits, I used to suffer from severe, complex migraines. They seemed like small strokes; I wouldn’t be able to talk or remember things, and one side of my body would be numb. The vision in my right eye would resemble a television screen with static. There’d also be blinding, horrible pain. Exercising helped, but I want to implement a yoga regiment and spend much more time reading and writing. I also need to continue turning my home into a cozy sanctuary, even if it is little by little due to financial constraints. I should put fresh flowers in different rooms. I also need to start seriously planning my garden.
  • Set realistic goals. “Set goals that are big enough to be motivating but still doable. Alternatively, break your goals down into sub-tasks and work on one smaller goal at a time” (source).

When I get down on myself, I need to remind myself of the following things:

  • Willpower gets stronger with regular use. You can train your willpower with small things like making your bed every morning or choosing a fruit over a cookie at least twice a week. Start small and scale it up as your self-control skills grow.
  • Willpower is a muscle you can train. “Hear this: You are not forever bound to your bad habits. Of course, some poor habits might be hard to break, but as long as you keep your goal in mind and work on strengthening your willpower, nothing is impossible. You can become a better version of yourself; the power to make this happen is always within you” (source). I WILL READ THIS EVERY SINGLE DAY.

It is also helpful to remember that: “21 days is the minimum time needed to build a new habit” (source). That’s three weeks; that’s not so bad! I will give myself time. I will love myself. I will be patient with myself.

Next week, I’ll share my three-week plan for kick starting my plan to become a strong, more motivated woman. Will you join me? Do you want to become more motivated? Have you ever thought about how to be the best version of yourself?thesecrettostayingmotivated

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