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On 3,000 words.

Published November 20, 2019 by mandileighbean

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Leave it to me to finally complete a “Writer Wednesday” post on an actual Wednesday  the week before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest times of the year! This is likely only happening because I’m not hosting (but I am cooking … a little) and because what I want to share with you lovely, lovely readers is something I already wrote.

I’m B E Y O N D excited about studying abroad at the University of Limerick in Ireland, starting in September of 2020. In my last post, I shared some reservations about my next steps, but I’d be a big, fat liar if I didn’t admit that the first step was nerve wracking. I had to apply – no big deal, I’ve done that before – but I also had to submit 3,000 words of original writing as it’s a creative writing program. I haven’t published anything since 2010 despite my best efforts, and I worried my writing wouldn’t be good enough. I was terrified I’d face another rejection.

But my 3,000 words worked; I got in! And so, I’d like to share them with you. Please read them and please let me know what you think! How’s the characterization? Does Duke actually sound like a guy, or does Duke sound like me trying to sound like a guy? Is it too melodramatic? Please, please, please let me know!

Suffice it to say that Duke was a troubled man. Without getting into everything right away, without immediately investigating all of the tragic elements that composed his character, let it be known that simply put, Duke had a shit ton of emotional baggage. Quiet rage constantly bubbled just beneath his surface and whenever it boiled over, the damage was swift and devastating. Duke was cognizant of all that, and so he did his very best to stay calm. He practiced yoga in the early morning hours, before coffee and cigarettes. He quoted Buddha’s teachings when he needed to remind himself to be peaceful. Duke would do anything and everything to maintain an even keel, and that is why he found himself on the beach in February.
It was too cold to be on the beach, but Duke didn’t care. The sky was gray and miserable. The clouds were so thick in their misery that the sun had no real chance of poking through. Still, Duke sat in the frozen sand, his ass becoming numb. His heels were firmly sunk in with his toes pointing upward and slightly outward in opposite directions. His knees were bent, and his long arms curled around his knees with his chest resting against them. He was compact, trying to take up as little space as possible to keep warm. Duke wasn’t an idiot, though he certainly couldn’t be called a scholar, so he dressed appropriately for the weather. His wool beanie cap and long, corduroy jacket with the fleece lining did the best they could, but the wind whipping onto the shore from the bay was fierce and freezing. It unapologetically stung at the exposed bits of Duke’s skin and his jeans suddenly felt thin and worn.
But truth be told, he didn’t even mind the wind coming off the water in rowdy gusts. He breathed it all in deeply and with squinted eyes, Duke surveyed the flat landscape before him. He was reminded of that one poem from high school, the one with the famous line about water being everywhere but there not being a single drop to quench thirst. Duke was not a scholar, not by any stretch of even the kindest imagination, but he knew that poem was talking about saltwater; the stuff Duke’s chalice of salvation would be filled with. He had journeyed to the bay in the middle of February, trampled across frozen sand, just to be near his beloved mineral. Duke was cold, and knew he wouldn’t last out there much longer. But Duke also knew that he needed the sea; it calmed him.
The dark hair that escaped his beanie whipped around his face (he always kept his hair longer than what was considered fashionable) but Duke did his best to keep his eyes that were like drops of milk chocolate open, and his gaze steady. He watched the rolling waves with slightly parted lips, hoping to taste the salt in the air on his tongue. He firmly believed in the beneficial uses of sea salt and he knew that it calmed him when nothing else could. Aurora, his best friend, had once explained the romanticism of his beliefs, of the irony of it all, but that seemed like forever ago. It was lost on him then, and it was lost on him now; nothing changed. There was something futile and defeating in that train of thought, so Duke steered clear of it. He took a deep breath, breathed in all the salty air he could to completely fill his lungs, and closed his eyes.
He wanted so desperately to clear his mind.
He wanted so desperately to be at peace.
A single tear rolled down Duke’s cheek, reddened and raw from the incessant, frigid wind. He knew this wasn’t working and popped his eyes open. His muscles had tightened from the cold and the frigid weather seemed to stiffen his joints. Plus, he had been all curled up on the sand for the past half-hour, so it took him longer than he liked to get up and get moving. He needed to be Zen, to be calm, and if the sea proved disappointing, if sea salt let him down, Duke only knew of only one other place he could go.

Duke’s heavy boots caused the wooden floorboards of the deserted outdoor patio to creak loudly in the wintry silence. The Anchor Inn was open all year round, but did its best business in the summer when thirsty tourists were a dime a dozen. As the season progressed, the neon lights downtown became familiar and lost their appeal so that even the least adventurous made their way to the Anchor Inn in search of authentic local flavor. However, during the middle of the day (a day in the middle of the offseason), the local dive was empty except for town drunks needing a certain level of alcohol in the bloodstream to function normally, and those battling or embracing the kind of existential crisis that always seems to blindside the blissfully unaware on a random weekday afternoon. And it was in this very establishment, this very environment, where Duke could find his one other source of solace – as long as she was working.
The lighting was terrible and dim, as it usually is in such dive bars, and it took Duke’s eyes a moment to adjust and see the surroundings clearly. No one looked over when he walked in; despite being clean for three years, Duke was still considered a regular. So no one noticed Duke stroll over to the main bar and take his usual seat on a rickety, uncomfortable stool made of wood. The whole place was that way; rickety and uncomfortable and made of wood. The bar shrank and expanded with the seasons so that now it seemed small and cramped and cold, despite it being empty of clientele and in spite of the fireplaces roaring in opposite corners at the far end of the building. Duke was unaware of the less than appealing aspect of the place, felt comfortable enough for a prolonged stay, because he found what he was looking for. With a small smile, Duke enviously watched Aurora lose herself in some paperback novel. She had folded the cover back and was chewing her bottom lip as she read. She was leaning on her forearms that were resting on the bar top, and her one leg was just a few inches in front of the other and slightly bent at the knee so that her whole posture could be described as bent. Duke wondered not only how Aurora could possibly be at ease in that position but how long she could endure such a position. Duke observed his friend for just a minute more, still smiling in a muted way, tracing his mouth and chin by moving his thumb and pointer finger along his thin mustache in opposite directions, down along the laugh lines that formed parentheses around his mouth, and reuniting his fingers below his pointed chin in the short hair of his trimmed beard. Musing complete, he let his hands come together and folded them on top of the bar. “Hey Aurora,” he greeted in his low, sturdy growl.
Startled, she looked up quickly but once she realized who spoke, she relaxed. Aurora, whom everyone else affectionately called Rory, straightened her posture after closing the book and slipping it onto a shelf beneath the bar. Smiling wide, she said, “Well hey there, Duke. What are you doin’ classin’ this place up?”
“It’s my day off – thought I’d stop by and see you.”
Aurora was pouring Duke a tumbler full of ginger ale, already knowing to hold the whiskey. She was eyeing him cautiously but her playful smile hung around her lips. “Oh yeah? You need money or something?” She shot Duke a wink and slid the glass over to him.
Duke was relaxing. “Can’t your best friend say ‘hi’ for no other reason than to be friendly?”
“Best friend,” Aurora repeated in mock skepticism. She was leaning her weight on the bar top with her palms splayed wide. “Laying it on kind of thick, aren’t you? Must be after a small fortune from me; use and abuse, that’s you all over.”
“Fuck off,” Duke said with a soft laugh. He brought the glass to his lips and sipped.
Aurora’s smiled faltered nearly imperceptibly and she leaned closer to Duke. “You okay though? Seriously?”
Duke shrugged and dropped his gaze. “Yeah, I’m okay. Just –” he was about to use the word “needed,” but didn’t like how it would likely ring in Aurora’s ears later, so he decided against it – “just wanted to see you.”
Aurora paused to think for a moment, but her expression remained the same. She squeezed Duke’s hand that was free of the glass and said, “I’ll be right back with some pretzels for you.” She moved somewhere to the right, off into some room Duke couldn’t see and in her absence, Duke released a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding in. He shook his head from side to side once, telling himself “no” in response to a question no one asked.
To announce her return, Aurora chucked the bag of pretzels at Duke. “Day off, huh? Must be nice.”
“First one in a long time; you know I never take time off.”
“Maybe you should,” Aurora advised.
“Are you working all day?”
“Kid cancelled tutoring, so I picked up another shift here.” Aurora busied herself with wiping glasses she’d already wiped clean. “Why? Did you want to do something?”
“No, but,” Duke paused to breathe, “do you care if I hang out here today?”
“Of course not,” Aurora laughed, “even though I can’t figure out why. Nothing’s going on here, man. I’ve cleaned these same glasses six times and,” she turned to look at the handful of customers scattered along the bar and raised her voice, “no one’s tipped me yet!” The patrons all knew Aurora, all liked Aurora – everyone liked Aurora – and so they only smiled, raised their glasses to her, and promptly returned to ignoring her. She rolled her eyes to Duke in exaggerated disdain for her beloved locals.
Duke wasn’t as comfortable as Aurora was around people in the town so small it was actually claustrophobic. He knew exactly what people thought of him. Duke did his best to avoid undue attention, whispers so loud they were intended to be overheard, and knowing, disapproving glances. So he lowered his voice and changed the conversation, asking, “What were you reading?”
Aurora snorted dismissively. “Some book I found in my basement. There’s lots of gun play and forced characterization and no real depth, but it’s entertaining as hell.” She shrugged. “You can borrow it when I’m done if you want.”
“Thanks anyway. I don’t really read.”
Aurora nodded. “Yeah, I remember doing your English homework for four years.”
“Don’t get mad at me because you were a nerd desperate for attention from a really cool, really hot guy.”
“You called me your best friend when you walked in here, dick,” Aurora laughed as she swatted Duke’s arm. She moved down the bar to check on her other customers, still looking for tips. Duke watched her go and felt himself fill with appreciation. She never asked for anything and saved the lectures but was always willing to kick his ass if he ever needed it. She loved him, was unfortunately in love with him, and Duke loved her but was not in love with her. He wondered how long such a relationship could last. It had been over ten years. Duke worried he might be pushing his luck.
Aurora sauntered back to Duke. “It’s dead here, and George is in the back. I’m going out for a smoke. Wanna come?”
Duke nodded. He slid off the stool and followed Aurora out the rear exit. She pushed the heavy door open with her hip, slipping her coat on as she moved outside. “Fuck, it’s cold,” she complained through gritted teeth.
“The wind’s picked up some since I came in,” Duke said.
“Shit,” was all Aurora replied. She didn’t have gloves so to save her fingers, she pulled her sleeves past her fingers and used her hands as claws to hold and open the pack of cigarettes she retrieved from the back pocket of her jeans. To continue to avoid using her fingers, Aurora bit down on a cigarette and pulled it from the pack using her teeth. Duke watched with real amusement and Aurora winked. “Give me a light, fucker.”
Duke stepped forward and flicked the lighter. Aurora puffed and pulled until a thin tendril of smoke circled to the sky. “You could have said ‘please,’” Duke admonished.
Aurora removed the cigarette from between her lips. “Yeah, and I could have said ‘thank you,’ but you know that’s not how this friendship works.”
“Yeah, right,” Duke laughed.
Aurora took a few steps closer to Duke and pursed her lips to exhale the smoke away from Duke. She looked up into his face very seriously. “So now that we’re alone and you’re more comfortable and more likely to tell me things, tell me what’s going on with you.”
Duke looked back at Aurora just as seriously. “What makes you think something’s up with me? Why can’t I just spend time with my best friend?”
“I’m touched, Duke, but you know that I know that you’re full of shit. So talk to me, okay?”
He lowered his face closer to Aurora’s. They were just inches apart. “Leave it alone, Aurora, please. I’ll come to you when I’m ready. I always do, so don’t push the issue.”
Duke was confident Aurora would oblige him, and she changed the topic of conversation. She tried to play it off like she didn’t just do whatever he asked and pretended to be suddenly distracted. She acted like she hadn’t even heard what Duke said, but Duke knew better than to believe her sudden change in interest when she asked, “What’s that around your neck?” Aurora reached out and touched the vial that hung closely around Duke’s neck.
Duke looked down. “What do you mean?”
“What’s in there?” Aurora asked as she gingerly handled the vial with one of her sleeve-covered claws. “It’s beautiful, really awesome, so I feel like it’s too pretty to be cocaine or something like that. What’s it filled with?”
Duke rolled his eyes. “It’s sea salt.”
Aurora was so surprised she didn’t know what to do, so she laughed. “Why sea salt?”
“It calms me,” Duke said. “Maybe all your hippie bullshit swayed me. I was inspired by that lamp you bought me when I came home from the hospital.” He laughed softly through his nose. “Just trying to keep the inner peace.”
Aurora nodded, taking a drag of her cigarette. Smoke curled above her head as she answered. “Matt and Eric told me you’ve started to really get into yoga lately.”
Duke momentarily clenched his jaw. “Yeah, so?”
Aurora smiled, shaking her head. “Don’t let them give you shit for it. If you’re happy, I’m happy.” She quickly kissed his cheek.
“You know, I guess it started way before that, though.” Duke was becoming nostalgic, so his tone wasn’t exactly filled with humor and his shoulders shifted awkwardly, like the conversation had become uncomfortable and he wanted nothing more than to get away from Aurora. “Do you remember when I went to the beach with Uncle Rick when I was in elementary school? And I was out for a couple of weeks?”
Aurora nodded. “You guys had a bad car accident or something.”
“Well,” Duke began hesitantly, “Uncle Rick and I loved looking for fulgurites. Rick liked it more than I did, but I was happy to tag along, so- “
“Wait,” Aurora interrupted, smirking. “What’s a fulcrum thing?”
“Fulgurite,” Duke corrected. “It’s petrified lightning.” Aurora’s face was still blank. “It’s what happens when lightning strikes sand. Uncle Rick said it was like a permanent record of the path of lightning on earth, and the fulgurites are hollow, glass-lined tubes with sand stuck to the outside. We went to the beach for that specific reason all the time, but this time, we misjudged when the storm was going to hit and we were on the sand when the lightning struck.” He looked away from Aurora. “There was no car accident. I was struck by lightning.”
Laughter erupted from Aurora. “No way,” she argued. “There is  no way you got fucking struck by lightning.” She shook her head and took a drag of her cigarette. “We would have known about it.”
“I made Uncle Rick promise to keep it quiet. I was embarrassed and so was he, and we were afraid my deadbeat dad would hear about it and try to get custody or money or both. I went for all these tests on my brain after and I was afraid you’d think I was crazy or weird.”
Aurora was sad. “I would never think anything like that about you.”
“You might have when you were seven.”
Aurora tossed her cigarette and stepped closer to Duke. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, it was like twenty years ago.”
“No lasting side effects?”
Duke shrugged. “They were monitoring my moods and sleep pattern for a while, but then they stopped. All I have to prove it even happened are some really light but crazy scars on my back that sort of loop to my chest.”
“How come I’ve never seen them?”
“They’re really light, like I said. You have to get pretty close to see them.” He cleared his throat and didn’t particularly care for the way Aurora was looking at him, like she’d never really ever seen him before. He wondered if she was changing her mind about him. Duke decided he didn’t want to know, so he decided to change the topic of conversation. “What are you doing Friday night?” Duke asked.
Aurora blinked twice and refocused.

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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 music, the muse.

Published October 24, 2019 by mandileighbean

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Welcome to another edition of “Typist Thursday”! I need a better title, I know, but for some reason, I’m having a hell of a time updating on Wednesdays. To be honest, I’m having a hell of a time staying on schedule for nearly everything in my life, whether it be working, writing, reading, or exercising. I’m not sure if it’s a bout of depression I have to work through, just being tired, or something else. Maybe it’s just this time of the year? Whatever the reason, one surefire method to help me out of any funk is listening to music.

I listen to music when I do anything and everything: drive, cook, sleep, exercise, and even read. I N E E D music – it is my outlet, my muse, my salvation. I only wish I were musically inclined. I can’t sing a note, I can’t play a note, and I have no real ear for it. But oh, how I love it. I know I’m not the only one who loves music, and I know I’m not the only one who uses it for inspiration.

I H A V E T O listen to music when I write. I just have to. When I was writing Her Beautiful Monster, my first novel, I used specific song lyrics for inspiration which were then featured at the start of every chapter (that list is featured below). And as I move onto other projects, I keep the same system – certain lyrics really inspire a scene or a character or even a type of mood. Here’s what I’m currently listening to as I work on a new manuscript:

  • “Iceman” by Bruce Springsteen

    “my baby was a lover and the world just blew her away//once they tried to steal my heart, beat it right outta my head//but baby they didn’t know that i was born dead.”

    The new manuscript I’m working on (or at least one of them) is greatly inspired by my love for the one, the only, the true hero of the great Garden State, Bruce Springsteen. I’ve been listening to The Boss for almost as long as I’ve been writing, and his voice has been irrevocably and inextricably linked with my own. To pay him homage, I’ve made my protagonist an aging rockstar endeavoring to return his career to its former glory by embarking on a tour comprised of intimate shows in small venues of the beaten path, a sort of grass roots movement to reconnect with his people.

  • “Get Hurt” by Gaslight Anthem

    “and I came to get hurt//might as well do your worst to me, hey hey//have you come here to get hurt?//have you come to take away from me, from me, from me?//might as well do your worst to me.”

    While trying to reconnect with his fans, he gets more than he bargained for when he meets a starry-eyed young woman who asks for his autograph. She’s the only one to do so at the venue, so they talk more than they should about more than they should. And that gets the protagonist into some trouble as he’s married and significantly older.

  • “High Dive” by Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness

    “you dance with your headphones on//and i could watch you all night long//dancing to someone else’s song.”

    The age difference between the aging rock star and his young fan becomes too much for the relationship, and the young fan decides to try a romantic relationship with a young man closer to her own age. This drives the protagonist insane with jealousy. And, just to make things even more interesting, the young man is hiding a dangerous secret that could endanger the lives of everyone involved in the sordid love affair.

  • “The Thing About Things” by Amanda Palmer

    “the thing about things is that they can start meaning things//nobody actually said//and if he couldn’t make something mean something for me//i had to make up what it meant.”

    I’m not entirely sure how this particular set of lyrics inspired me, but OHMAN they resonate with me. I had a failed relationship that I’m still sore from, and I have mementos stashed in the back of a tiny drawer in my writing desk (a deck of playing cards, a hotel room key, a pair of socks) that remind me of when I was happiest, of the possibility of love and romance. I imagine the young fan would hang on to mementos of her fling with the aging rockstar in a similar fashion, which is why despite her new relationship, she can’t quite let go, and that adds to the conflict and the complexity of the narrative.

  • “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be” by The Black Keys

    “she’s got the kind of love i need//the kind that’s never good on me//it doesn’t mean a thing to me//it doesn’t mean a thing to me//and it’s about time you see//things ain’t like they used to be.”

    This song reinforces the same ideas as the previous song, but does so from my protagonist’s point of view. I want his relationship with his fan to be somewhat toxic, and even though those involved recognize the relationship as such, they cannot leave the other alone. Personally, I believe we all fall victim to a relationship like that at one point or another- we know the person’s bad for us, but we can’t stay away and even though we’re not necessarily good for the other person either, that person can’t let go.

  • “Unsteady” by X Ambassadors

    “if you love me, don’t let go//if you love me, don’t let go//hold//hold on//hold onto me//’cause i’m a little unsteady//a little unsteady.”

    SPOILER ALERT: There is a death of a major character at the resolution of the story. To get into a somber, pleading mood, I’ll listen to this song. There’s an optimism to the lyrics that is tinged by a desperation that comes from the melody, and that contradiction is powerful. After all, power lies in contradictions for all characters and storylines.

  • “Atlantic City (Cover)” by Ed Sheeran

    “everything dies, baby, that’s a fact//but maybe everything that dies someday comes back.”

    Another epic by Springsteen that expands upon the idea of love never really dying, just ebbing and flowing because of outsider influences and/or extenuating circumstances.

  • “Kansas City” by The New Basement Tapes

    “and i love you, dear//but just how long//can i keep singing the same old song?”

    Those caught up in the love affair that drives the plot of this story are going to try and fit themselves back into familiar roles, even though that’s no longer possible because of the discoveries made and the decisions made because of those discoveries.

  • “Monster” by Mumford and Sons

    “so fuck your dreams//and don’t you pick at our seams//i’ll turn into a monster for you//if you pay me enough.”

    The aging rockstar’s wife discovers the affair and the decisions she makes based on that information seal the fate of all those involved.

And as promised:
Her Beautiful Monster playlist:

So what do you listen to when you want to be creative? Or when you want to feel brilliant, beautiful, and brave? Share your playlists in the comments!

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On stars and herons.

Published October 16, 2019 by mandileighbean

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I saw a shooting star and a beautiful, proud, elegant egret egret when I was walking the boardwalk this morning. Naturally, I wanted to know what those two sightings meant – you know me, always looking for signs. The first website I found was a blog with questionable credentials, but it said: “Shooting Stars symbolize Good Luck, A change or big event is coming towards your life, it can also be a symbol of endings. … They can also be a symbol of reaching one’s ultimate destiny” (source). I immediately thought of all the personal and professional upheaval from last year, and for the plans I’ve been making recently (the trip to Ireland, starting a new manuscript, and getting mentally and physically healthier). I wanted this to be true and somehow verifiable, so I hunted the internet for a more reliable source.

According to HowStuffWorks.org, “Shooting stars, also known as fallen stars, send streaks of light across the night sky before burning out into a point of inky blackness. Superstition has it that simply spotting one of these stars as it falls can bring good luck, though the rationale behind this custom changes based on who’s telling the story. Some cultures claim that fallen stars represent souls that have been released from purgatory, allowing them to finally begin the ascent to heaven and peace. In Britain and other areas, a shooting star represents the soul of a new baby falling to Earth, ready to begin a new life [source: Murrell]. Either way, the shooting star is said to possess a bit of magic, which means positive vibes and good luck for anyone who happens to gaze upon one.” This makes me happy because I could definitely use some good luck. I’m trying to get my work published, I’m trying to study in Ireland, and if I’m being really honest, I’m trying to fall in love. Hoping the falling star is really a precursor to good luck and prosperity, I kept reading. “Some shooting star superstitions can affect your life without any action on your part, but the type of luck you end up with could depend on something as random as where the star is positioned in the sky. If you spot a fallen star on your right, it means good luck, while one on your left indicates misfortune will follow. If you’re quick, you may be able to shift position as the star travels in an attempt to change your luck [source: Dillon]. Shooting stars also bring luck on the road. Spot one while on a trip, and your voyage is guaranteed to be a success [source: Goldsmith].” Luckily, the shooting star I saw this morning was in front of me, although it did fall to the left. But optimism is the new cynicism, eh? Let’s make being happy cool again. I’ll start by ignoring half of this explanation.

I kept reading (I’m a nerd; it’s what I do) and found some tidbits that could make for really interesting short stories. For example, “Counting the stars may be a good way to pass the time on a clear night, but superstitious folks should skip counting in favor of other pastimes. Counting the stars has always been considered a surefire way to bring on bad luck, and some legends state that if you attempt to count the stars in the sky, you’ll die when you reach 100 [source: Dillon]. Some believe that this superstition stems from ancient people who worshipped the sun, moon and stars, while others argue it’s a more recent custom [source: Roud]. Of course, with at least 200 billion stars in the galaxy, it’s likely that you’d die of natural causes well before you could get very far into your count, lending this superstition an air of credibility [source: NASA].” I don’t think I’ll take that risk; I’m bad at math anyway, and I like just looking up at the brilliantly lit heavens and thinking about how weird and wonderful it is just to be alive at all. But imagine if that actually happened, like if there was a stretch of shoreline where countless people had died because they’d stretched out on a blanket and tried to relax, tried to count stars. Imagine other people heard about the phenomenon but didn’t believe, only chalked it up to urban legend, so people started trying and testing it out and BAM! People keep dying. That might be a good start of something….

Another section had to do with “Love in the Stars,” and it said: “It’s well established that attempting to count the stars can be unlucky or even fatal, but one superstition holds that it’s OK to count under very specific circumstances. According to folklore, only an unmarried person looking for love can keep a tally. Even in this case, the unmarried person can count a maximum of seven stars on seven consecutive nights. If you do this, the first person of your preferred sex that you shake hands with on the eighth day is the one you’ll marry. For those struggling to find the one, it seems like a harmless way to not only locate love, but also a chance to finally count the stars without fear of inviting bad luck into your life [source: Radford and Radford]” (source).

To add to the good omen of seeing a shooting star, I was P U M P E D to find out that egrets (more commonly known as white herons, apparently) are also signs of good things to come. According to a YouTube video (which I know is not the most reliable of sources), “This great bird, talked of throughout ancient history and many cultures, is also commonly known as the Great White Heron. … A double headed Heron in Egypt is symbolic of prosperity. As a Chinese symbol the Heron represents strength, purity, patience and long life.” I found this information to be reassuring. Even though I am not Egyptian or Chinese, I have been working at becoming stronger and relying less and less on validation from others. I have been working at becoming purer and removing people and activities from my life that make me or keep me toxic. I’ve always been patient even though it mostly drives me insane. It took me two years to find a full-time teaching job after graduating from college. It took me two years to publish my novel after completing the manuscript. It took me two years to close on my home. It seems like two years is my typical wait time for things, but I’m not keen on wasting any more time in finding love. Though the heron also symbolizes a long life, I don’t want to wait forever to be loved. I think being hyper-focused on fostering a romantic relationship has hurt my writing in the sense that I am constantly distracted and prioritize being with potential partners over writing alone in my room.

So the key, as always, is balance. How do I balance being a productive writer with being fully connected to other human beings? There is some isolation required in being a writer, and I’ve read countless interviews with authors of varying degrees of success and fame who acknowledge that the writing life is a lonely one (though just how lonely depends on extenuating circumstances, I guess). But as the year 2020 nears, I’m going to work on loving and trusting myself, and going just a little bit fucking Gatsby.

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On routines.

Published October 11, 2019 by mandileighbean

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So I’ll be completely honest – despite all the declarations I made in my last post, I am still having a hard time with prioritizing writer … which explains why this week, I’m not updating until Friday (which I have no cutesy, alliterative title for). But every day is a new day, no?

And I have been *thinking* about writing. I have a couple of ideas for a couple of new projects kicking around and with the help of a particularly awesome beta reader, I’m sure I can make them all realities. And I do some of my best thinking while walking in the mornings. Every morning, I wake up between four o’clock and four-thirty and I immediately make my bed. I’ve read time and time again that developing both a morning and evening routine helps with anxiety, and that incorporating the making of your bed is essential. I wrestle with the sheets and tug the comforter until it’s even, and then I head downstairs and change into workout clothes. I make sure my wireless headphones are charged, turn on Amazon Music and Map My Run, and take off for just over two and a half miles. I walk the boardwalk just a couple of blocks from my home. My pace suffers when I brave the shadowy, far ends of the boardwalk, but my brain never slows. I feel enchanted by the moon glittering on the water when it’s full and hanging low in the sky. Sometimes, an egret will be poised with magnificent dignity in the water but more often than not, I’m praying to avoid the skunks which seem to overrun my sleepy, seaside town at particular times throughout the year. When I get back home, I shower and eat breakfast before doing my hair and makeup. I grab my lunch from the fridge and fill my thermos with coffee, and then I’m out the door and on my way to work.

I’ve tried to get to work early enough where I can write, but as of late, I’ve been having trouble meeting that go. I’ve been lazy and slow-moving in the mornings. It’s a goal to incorporate writing into my morning routine since reading is a crucial part of my evening routine.

What about you, dear readers? Are you night owls or early worms? Let me know! Do you have any tips for a solid morning or evening routine? Feel free to share in the comments!

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On remembering your why.

Published October 2, 2019 by mandileighbean

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Anyone who’s been reading this blog for any length of time will know that I am
A L W A Y S open to signs from the universe. I mean, who doesn’t want validation and reassurance that she is on the right path and making the best decisions, no matter how mystical that validation may be?

I was worried about starting the school year. I knew my professional life would be challenging, but I also knew my personal life was in upheaval. I wondered if I would be lonely, if the feeling of being an outcast would follow me into the school year. Luckily (or as a sign from the universe – you decide), my colleague took it upon herself to start an initiative in the building where groups of teachers engage in fun activities together to improve school climate and to improve building morale. It’s been a success so far and I know that I feel more connected and more supported. I asked for a safety net and the universe delivered from the unlikeliest of places. If you knew this colleague a year ago, and I told you she would be the one to bring the building more together, you would have laughed in my face. It makes me so happy and proud to see her growing and neglecting the negativity so she can focus on what she wants. Thus, it seemed fitting when my group intention was “Remember Your Why.”

I’ve been struggling to “Remember My Why” for writing. I miss the writer I used to be, scribbling every second I could steal, and tirelessly inventing and transcribing scenes. But lately, my writing life has been nonexistent. I’m tired after work, but that’s no excuse. I know I need to make time for what I am most passionate about, for what I love. At home, I sit at my desk, but the words won’t come. I’m just focused on feeling tired and uninspired, which is especially frustrating since not too long ago, I was in Manhattan surrounded by brilliant Irish writers and feeling rejuvenated. I’m desperate to get back to that place, to get back to who I was in so many different facets, and I believe remembering my why is an essential part of that journey.

Earlier today, I grabbed my notebook from that conference I mentioned, and I flipped through the pages. I remembered that Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald had kicked off the weekend with an absolutely wonderful lecture about writing in general and the writer’s life. Part of that dealt with writer’s block, and Professor Fitzgerald emphasized that the demon of self-doubt MUST be banished! She freely admitted that process is cyclical because the demon always returns, but to remember that self-doubt is mundane and that doubts are the least interesting things about anyone because e v e r y o n e has doubts. She encouraged all of us to remind ourselves of our reasons, to be reflective, and to figure out our W H Y. So I’ve been asking myself, what’s my why? Why have I written in the past? Why do I want to keep writing?

And if the self-motivation is lacking, Professor Fitzgerald also encouraged us to find inspiration by constantly reading anything and everything – canonical literature, all sorts of poetry, all sorts of stories. Doing so is a beginning to connecting with the creative self, which is a long, contextualized, complicated, and complex process. It’s important to
S W I T C H  O F F, which I KNOW I need to start doing more of. She told us what none of us really want to hear, that there is NO SUCH THING AS MULTI-TASKING. To that end, I’m planning on starting a pretty serious garden, and I’ve researched more ways to practically embrace a more Bohemian lifestyle in this demanding, technological, modern age.

I’ve been bitter about some recent success of some writer friends of mine, and that’s so messed up. I need to remember Professor Fitzgerald’s words, that writing is collaborative and NOT competitive. It’s important that all writers share with and support one another. There’s room for everyone because I am the O N L Y person who has seen the world the way I see it. I need to tell my stories, whatever they may be, and bask in the “beauty of exuberant imperfection”!

She told us that perfect happiness is when what you’re doing and what you’re thinking about are the same thing.

Professor Fitzgerald knew what she was talking about on SO many levels. She was participating in a research project about why writers write, and she shared that ultimately, there are seven reasons why writers write:

  1. ESSENTIALITY (it’s a need, part of their identity)
  2. WORK (they’re disciplined, committed to a routine)
  3. MAGIC (writing is a kind of enchantment, gives life to dreams)
  4. LIGHT (writing brings comfort, joy, love, safety and sanity)
  5. DARKNESS (writing can safely explore madness, pain, trouble, and struggle)
  6. COMMUNICATION (writing makes sense of the world)
  7. PLAY (writing allows writers to experiment and takes risks)

As I sit here, writing this blog post, I realize I need to discover my why, my reason for writing. Then, and only then, can I really grow and feel better. I need to remember why writing is a large part of my identity.

And then, I need to get started on writing.

ca. 1900 --- Woman Reclining at Desk Next to Typewriter --- Image by © CORBIS

On passive and active voice, and a problem I didn’t know I had.

Published September 25, 2019 by mandileighbean

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Finally! A timely blog post for Writer Wednesdays! I know this isn’t impressive since I skipped posting last week, but last week was my 31st birthday, and I think that’s a good reason to alter a schedule.

I was successful in my search for beta readers, and I am pleased to announce I’ve already received useful feedback! What’s interesting is that both a beta reader AND a potential publisher mentioned I use the passive voice too much. At first, I was shocked. How did that happen? When did that start happening? Is it because I’ve been reading a lot of European fiction? What’s going on? So I decided to do some research.

According to a potential publisher (who rejected my manuscript because it was written in “7.6%” passive voice), American audiences have been more inclined to purchase books in active as opposed to passive voice. The publisher in question didn’t attach an article or a summary about where exactly the numbers came from, nor did the publisher explain its computations for arriving at the figure 7.6%. But that’s my pride whimpering because one of my beta readers mentioned that the passive voice I used at the beginning of a short story made it confusing. The good news is that the publisher said it would consider the manuscript if I rewrote it in more of an active voice. Deciding my next move, and facilitating my next stage of evolution as a writer, led me to investigate the debate (not that there necessarily is one … but I digress) between passive and active voice.

In active voice, the sentence of the subject performs the action. According to Purdue OWL’s Writing lab, “Using active voice for the majority of your sentences makes your meaning clear for readers, and keeps the sentences from becoming too complicated or wordy” (read more here). In such sentences, “The action is performed upon the sentence subject, meaning this sentence is passive (indirect)”. So sentences written in passive voice are less clear and less concise than those written in active voice because they need more words to express the action. Purdue OWL elaborates on this problem with passive voice:

Sometimes the use of passive voice can create awkward sentences…. Also, overuse of passive voice throughout an essay can cause your prose to seem flat and uninteresting.

And I feel like that is a major problem with my prose! I was re-reading (and revising and editing) my new project, and I was thoroughly unimpressed by my opening. It was coldand impersonal to a fault. Oh no! I have lost my writer’s voice!

Then again, choosing passive voice is sometimes an option. “While active voice helps to create clear and direct sentences, sometimes writers find using an indirect expression is rhetorically effective in a given situation, so they choose passive voice.” But this should only happen in certain writing situations. “The passive voice makes sense when the agent is relatively unimportant compared to the action itself and what is acted upon.” Passive voice is okay when emphasizing action, but after doing my bit of research, it seems like it’s more trouble than its worth to use passive voice.

1. Avoid starting a sentence in active voice and then shifting to passive.

Unnecessary shift in voice:
Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but it was still ordered frequently.
Revised:
Many customers in the restaurant found the coffee too bitter to drink, but they still ordered it frequently.
Unnecessary shift in voice:
He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but he was still laughed at by the other students.
Revised:
He tried to act cool when he slipped in the puddle, but the other students still laughed at him.

2. Avoid dangling modifiers caused by the use of passive voice. A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence.

Dangling modifier with passive voice:
To save time, the paper was written on a computer. (Who was saving time? The paper?)
Revised:
To save time, Kristin wrote the paper on a computer.
Dangling modifier with passive voice:
Seeking to lay off workers without taking the blame, consultants were hired to break the bad news. (Who was seeking to lay off workers? The consultants?)
Revised:
Seeking to lay off workers without taking the blame, the CEO hired consultants to break the bad news.

3. Don’t trust the grammar-checking programs in word-processing software. Many grammar checkers flag all passive constructions, but you may want to keep some that are flagged. Trust your judgment, or ask another human being for their opinion about which sentence sounds best.

So the question now becomes: how do I fix my problem with passive voice? I realize that using it makes my sentences longer, makes my voice cold and impersonal, and makes my meaning unclear. I think this problem with passive voice started with my second manuscript because I wanted to talk about things that happened before the story technically started, so I wanted to use some kind of past past tense. I got into a bad habit of using passive voice to play with tense, but now it’s time to break the habit.

What writing rules/concepts do you still struggle with? Comment below and let me know, and I can feature a mini-clinic on this blog!

 

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