Her Beautiful Monster

All posts tagged Her Beautiful Monster

On the difference between critics and beta readers.

Published September 12, 2019 by mandileighbean

I know I announced last week that my blog would be updated every Wednesday, but in light of what yesterday was – the eighteenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001 – it seemed in really poor taste to try and peddle my poetry and blog post when minds and hearts should really be focused on the anniversary of the day that changed everything. I’m humbled and completely knocked off my axis when I think about the enormity of that day, from the tragedy to the heroics to its function as a clear and distinct demarcation between a world that was and a world that is.

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So this week, I update on Thursday.

And this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about critics. I was fortunate to see “IT Chapter 2” the night it premiered with Dad and I LOVED the film (and this marks the second time a trip to the movies to see a film based on a work by Stephen King has brought Dad and I closer). It was brutal in its violence and in its tragedy, but it was also beautiful and refreshing in the way it honored the essence of King’s original story. That novel has always held a special place in my heart. Forgive me if I’ve shared this experience before, but I can vividly remember where I was when I read the last page of the novel: I was in my parents’ old van on my way to my twin sister’s softball game at our high school. It was uncomfortably crisp outside, so Mom and my little brother and me were all waiting in the van until my twin sister got up to bat. I was stretched out along the backseat and I was sobbing. I was crying hard enough to cause my mom to turn around and try and comfort me in her unique, no-nonsense way. She said to me, “Mandi, you know those aren’t real people.”

And I laughed, but what I really wanted to do was launch into an impassioned, breathless declaration about the heartbreaking genius of it. I wanted to tell her that it was all real and true in the sense that to be brave, loving, and selfless adults, people need to stay the faithful, simple, and vulnerable children they started out as. And that life is all about connecting deeply with others and staying true to those connections no matter the peril. And I wanted to tell her I was so moved because I belonged to no such club, not even one for Losers. I felt no cosmic kinship with anyone and were I to face a demonic, child-eating clown in a damp and filthy sewer, I’d have no one to call. I realize now that last bit is not entirely true – and never was – but it felt true at fifteen.

So when I read reviews by people who had seen the film and criticized it for not being scary or for being too long, it annoyed me because I wanted to assume they just “didn’t get it,” like I could degrade them into people less intelligent and less empathetic and less open-minded than me. I felt the same way after I saw “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” I was almost offended that people in the theater weren’t as enthralled as I was, that they weren’t blown away by the gorgeous cinematography and the originality in creating a modern fairy tale.

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I had to stop myself. I had to remind myself that art is for everyone, first and foremost, and that everyone is entitled to their opinion. And my enjoyment of a film (or album or novel or whatever) should not be diminished or lessened by someone else’s displeasure. I was turning into the very thing I hated: a critic. Sometimes it seems to me that critics purposely dislike what is popular just to preserve an elitist status and perpetuate the notion that critics knows something the rest of us don’t. And maybe that elitism works both ways, in the sense that those that rally against critics (myself included) do so in defense of the “general” viewer (or listener or reader or whatever). Separating the “casual” imbiber of art from the learned intellectual critic serves both sides because with sides, someone can always be right and someone can always be wrong.

But that’s not the purpose of art or entertainment, is it?

Do what you like with critics, but that doesn’t mean a writer shouldn’t get opinions about her work. Writers should have a couple of trusted, honest beta readers (like critics in a milder, more individualized form) that can help them hone their craft. I have two, but am looking for a third. I am looking for a passionate reader to read my works-in-progress and share their opinion on the work.

Anyone interested? Comment here.

Until next time, friends ❤

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On a September to remember (fingers crossed).

Published September 4, 2019 by mandileighbean

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I know I j u s t updated this blog less than a week ago, but I want to get into the habit of updating weekly. On Wednesdays. Because Wednesdays are for writing. Get it?

And I love starting fresh in September. I became a teacher- in part- because the schedule was so appealing to me. I love feeling like I can start again in the ninth month of the year. That makes me feel like anything is possible.

This September, I’ll be 31 years old. I’m S U P E R excited to say goodbye to 30 (I’ve had a horrible year), but I still have some misgivings about embarking on another trip around the sun. When I bring this up, everyone emphasizes how young I actually am to assuage my fears over getting older. But just how long has “your 30s are your new 20s” been a thing? I’ve been quick to conclude it is a fairly recent development, but now I realize that may only be because I wanted it to be fresh when I turned 30. With one year of my third decade about to be under my belt, I have to ask myself if there is any truth to the clever, little saying, or if it is just a way to help those of us without money or power or fame to feel better about our inescapable mortality.

I’d like to think there’s truth to it, not only because I’m now in my 30s but because as we live, we gain new experiences, which can make us wiser as long as we’re open to that possibility. I get upset because I’m nearly 31 and I’m not married (and not in a relationship, or even close to being in one) and I don’t have kids and I haven’t made it as a writer. And because I understand “Sex and the City” now. Or at least I think I do. It’s hard to tell when Candace Bushnell, the author of the essays that inspired the show, now regrets choosing her Carrie Bradshaw lifestyle over having kids (you can read the article here). And if the gorgeous elegance of Carrie Bradshaw proves to be empty and superficial, what am I doing? In my darkest, loneliest moments, I convince myself that it is too late, that I’ve been living a lie by clinging to an empty promise of grandeur sold to me by the mass media.

But that’s kind of bullshit too, isn’t it? I mean, I’m only 30. I have half a century to live. Have I really missed any shots at anything? Thus why I’m declaring this a SEPTEMBER TO REMEMBER! I will not fear turning 31, but I will embrace it by accomplishing a few goals:

  • lose five pounds
  • submit a polished entry to the Owl Canyon Press Hackathon
  • finish revising Moody Blue
  • hold a contest on this blog at the end of the month

What are your goals for September? Are you getting any writing done? What are your thoughts about aging? Comment below and let’s have a conversation.

 

On going back and forth.

Published August 7, 2019 by mandileighbean

I feel like this summer has mostly been a disappointment. This is mostly my own fault for being lazy and creating grandiose expectations to which no mortal, or season, could live up to. Then again, I reason I shouldn’t be so hard on myself because “summertime sadness” is more than just a popular song. It’s a real thing and I’ve decided the best way to combat it is to be productive and to always keep moving forward.

I wish someone would tell my subconscious. I keep having dreams that are mostly ominous.

For example, the night before last, I had a dream (that I can only piece together in vague shades as it rapidly faded in the ways that dreams do) where I was being chased throughout my childhood home and into its backyard by a tyrannical T-Rex who roared and roared out orders. My family and friends were warning me not to run, feared I would make things worse, but eventually everyone started running with me. And apparently, dreaming of dinosaurs indicates that it’s time for the dreamer to put things behind her and she symbolizes she is stuck in a situation holding her back. Well, that makes perfect sense to me; this is the first summer in six that I haven’t been rushing to my cell phone, hoping and praying for a text message, that I haven’t invented reasons to reach out, only to end up disappointed and ashamed. It’s hard to move on from someone who embodied all your future happiness (or so you thought) but it’s good when that someone is only narcissistic and manipulative.

But then my dream shifted and I was in the room I was sleeping in and unable to turn the lights on. They would flicker dimly and turn off no matter how many times I flicked the switch. To dream of lights that do not work as they should could represent a lack of insight, and could also mean the dreamer is unable to feel that safety is under her control. I don’t feel I’m in any kind of danger, but I most certainly understand the lack of insight; I never know what the hell I’m doing. And studying in Ireland is something I want to do and am afraid to do. It’s much easier to stay exactly where I am, after all.

But then my dream shifted again; I was driving over low bridges over water in Florida while I was panicking because I was late for work in New Jersey. This apparently symbolizes that an important decision must be made because the dreamer is at a critical junction in her life and might have to defend herself against others in her decision to grab an opportunity. Well, holy shit; Ireland it is.

But when I went to the high school where I teach to help with a fundraiser for the Executive Board of the Student Government Association, which I co-advise, I brought up the idea of taking a sabbatical to study in Ireland to my principal, whom I love and admire. And he told me no. He said I was too valuable, which is nice to hear, but he wouldn’t even entertain the conversation. I don’t think he’d actually deny me and I’m flattered by his sentiment, but I want to go. I want to study in Limerick for a year.

Later that night, I had a dream I witnessed a horrible, horrifying car accident, which is a very bad omen. But today, I received an email from Professor Joseph O’Connor from the University of Limerick. He sent me information about the Creative Writing program. I’d have to apply, offer up 3,000 words of original work to be judged. That’s terrifying; what if they say no? What if I’m not good enough? I’m sure I’d be accepted for continuing studying literature, but to be told no is still daunting.

I’m printing out a lame picture from the internet that looks like this:what-if-i-fall-oh-but-my-darling-what-if-44300870

Guess it’s time for me to soar. I’m going to request a phone appointment with the woman from the University of Limerick in charge of international students.

On writing reunions and summer reading.

Published July 18, 2019 by mandileighbean

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The beginning of July has been wonderful. I love the intense, dry heat as it is an excuse to be lazy and spend hours floating in a pool with a book in hand. I’ve had a slowly but surely diminishing pile poolside, and I’ve been nearly perfectly happy. It’s been difficult for me to carve out some time for reading during the school year that’s not dictated by my professional obligations. I’m hoping the I’m instilling reading habits in myself over the next two months or so will spill over into the Fall.

Nora Ephron wrote:

There’s something called the rapture of the deep, and it refers to what happens when a sea-diver spends too much time at the bottom of the ocean and can’t tell which way is up. When he surfaces, he’s liable to have a condition called the bends, where the body can’t adapt to the oxygen levels in the atmosphere. All this happens to me when I surface from a great book.

It’s been a long time since I’ve joyfully suffered from a literary case of the bends, far too long. I need to rediscover my love of reading and read in the totally immersive way I used to. Like in college. I always try to tell my students that they’ll never have the kind of time they have in college ever again to encourage them to use it wisely and selfishly. I read and read and read. I always had my nose in a book, whether it was for class or for pleasure. And I didn’t care if people thought me lazy. I didn’t feel a pressure to be doing something more constructive. Hell, if I’m being honest, I didn’t feel a pressure to do anything. While it’s true I had less responsibilities and was physically located in an atmosphere very much conducive to my bookworm lifestyle, there was something else at play that’s harder to articulate, a kind of freedom I worry I might never find again.

Anyway, while I was in college, I was reading A LOT of Stephen King. I had gone to see him read once or twice, had forced all my roommates to watch adaptations of his novel, and was head over heels, exclusively reading King. My love affair turned intense during my freshman year. I was living on the sixth floor of an older building on campus with four other young women. Our dorm room was huge; it was two large rooms (one for our beds and one for our desks) and there was a private bathroom through the room with our desks. It was also across from the laundry room and was where all the other Honors students stayed. There were parties and fun, but for the most part, the people I saw on a daily basis had their heads on straight.

I came home after class one day, super excited to continue reading Lisey’s Story by Stephen King. It was engaging and enthralling, and I was hooked. All I wanted to do was lay in bed and read, and I had been looking forward to doing so all day. But when I entered the dorm, I couldn’t find my book. It wasn’t where I had left it, which was where I always left it: on my pillow. When I turned to circle dramatically in despair and disbelief, I found my book in the clutches of my roommate Charlotte. Charlotte was a talented, gorgeous, intelligent, and wonderful young woman, one of the best roommates I had at college. I loved her. But I was pissed she had my book (but not as pissed as I was when she ate my cookie and left a note saying “Sorry, but I needed it,” but I guess that’s a story for another time). When I told her I was in the middle of reading it, she asked to finish the page she was on. I consented, and she placed a bookmark in the book. Charlotte assumed we’d be able to read the same book at the same time. I had my doubts.

But what a wonderful experience. I was ahead of her, so she and I could talk about what we were reading while I did my best not to spoil anything. She used a bookmark and I dog-eared my pages (I’m a monster, I know). When Charlotte had a bad day, I set up a “bool” hunt for her just like the ones that appeared in the book. It was a radical, inclusive way to read to literally share a book with someone, and I cherished every second of it.

Reading, though a solitary activity for the most part, can be an impactful and communal activity (hello, book clubs!) and I feel the same way about writing. Last week, I was able to catch up with elegant, fashionable writers I met a few years ago in St. Augustine, Florida at the Algonkian Writer’s Conference. We talked about our triumphs and tragedies pertaining to writing, and discussed why we keep going despite the disappointments and rejections. It was a much needed afternoon and I cherished every second of it.

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Joanna Elm

Joanna Elm, accomplished author and one of the attendees, chronicled the excursion on her wonderful, absolutely wonderful blog which you can read here.

So, I’ve been reading and I’ve been writing. I’ve sent a finished manuscript to five literary agents and five small presses. I’ve also begun working on entering a few contests.

And I’ve reached out to the University of Limerick and am still gathering all the necessary information to live and study there for a year.

Hope all is well with you, readers. ❤

On adventures, especially the small ones.

Published July 3, 2019 by mandileighbean

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I didn’t write a single entry for the month of June. I had drafts, but I never published a single entry. June was a rough, tough month for me; the end of the school year is always a hectic time, and there were financial and personal woes that kept me distracted, but the adventure – albeit a small one – I was psyching myself up for at the end of the month was a real blessing and a real game changer. Essentially, I’m saying that I’m glad I held off so I could post a love letter to The University of Limerick/Frank McCourt Creative Writing Summer School. It’s been about a year since I left a writing conference brimming with such admiration and inspiration and affection, and I’m excited to tell you all about it.

I attended the conference with a colleague who was my former English teacher and is now a very good friend. We headed into New York City during the later hours of Thursday morning. We checked into our hotel and spruced ourselves up before heading to an exclusive, invitation only reception at the Irish Consulate. I can’t remember feeling as privileged and elegant as I did that night. On the seventeenth floor of an intimidating building on Park Avenue, we were treated to passed hors d’oeuvres and wine and the wonderful joviality that seems to be exclusive to the Irish. Ellen and Malachy McCourt were present, relations of the Irish writer Frank McCourt, in whose honor the Summer School was started. Frank McCourt and his book Angela’s Ashes hold very special places in my heart because his book was the very first, and perhaps the only book, I remember my entire family reading. I’m talking my grandparents, my parents, my siblings, my aunts, and my uncles, and maybe even some cousins. Discussing that book with my extended family is one of my most cherished literary and familial memories, so to be in that elegant room with windows overlooking Park Avenue and rubbing elbows with the Irish literary scene was surreal.

The school really kicked off on Friday afternoon, where all attending gathered at the Glucksman Ireland House for registration and orientation. We were split up into three seminar groups (A, B, and C) and each group took each Core Workshop. My colleague and I had the good fortune of being in the same group, group C. But before we split up, we all remained in the main lecture room for an introduction that outlined the aims of the weekend, and for a lecture by Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald that included writing exercises and covered self-motivation, plot, structure, and story.

sarah-moore-fitzgerald-407653063 Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald was an incredibly warm, energetic and passionate woman. She was an absolute joy to learn from. She told us all that “There really is no expertise … everyone comes to the blank page” and that blank page is a “real leveler.” The inclusive atmosphere she created was crucial to establishing the camaraderie that gradually built over the weekend between the attendees and the faculty. Her knowledge and encouragement will stay with me for a long time. Her author profile is here, on her publisher’s website.

After Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s lecture, my group and I traveled down a short, creaky staircase for our first Core Workshop: All We Shall Know: Short Stories to Novels, led by Professor Donal Ryan.

donalryan Professor Donal Ryan was just … cool. He put us all at ease with his humor but simultaneously managed to keep us all on our toes with his wit and insight into the creative process. He was honest and open and completely generous. He really drove home the point that the best kind of stories are character driven and beautiful in their simplicity, meaning just tell the story you want to tell. He played songs that captured this idea and pointed out how they did it in just a couple of verses and a chorus. He said, “Infinity is there for us as writers” because anyone can write about absolutely anything, and that can be overwhelming. So the key is to keep it simple: read and write to hone your craft, and to be almost mathematical about plot, pacing, and structure to sort of rein yourself in and not succumb to “the oppression of infinity.” Professor Donal Ryan’s author profile can be found here, on his publisher’s website. And this is a link to a wonderful article about Donal Ryan, which really captures the spirit of his approach to writing.

I was on cloud nine leaving the building after the first day, and things were only made better by having a delicious dinner at “Eataly.” The writer’s life is definitely the life for me, and I am forever indebted to my colleague for bringing this experience to my attention. I feel like a different person, and I feel like a better writer.

Saturday was a full day: we started earlier and ended later. We began again as a large group with Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald discussing plot, the importance of conflict in the plot, and she shared intimate details of her process as a writer of books for young adults. Again, she was passionate and vibrant and full of knowledge. I filled pages and pages of my notebook with notes; amazing.

After the main lecture, my group shuffled over to the second Core Workshop in the seminar room just inside the front door of the house. The workshop was titled Poetry in the House of Prose, and it was led by Dr. Martin Dyar.

M-Dyar-by-Fran-Marshall-1-960x675 Learning from Dr. Martin Dyar was an incredible experience, so much so that I find it difficult to put into words the transformative magic that occurred within the room as he spoke. Before the workshop, we were to read “The Swimmer” by John Cheever and a collection of poems curated by Dr. Dyar. He explored the connection between narrative writing and poetry with examples, and spoke so eloquently about the importance of both and how using them in tandem makes the beauty of the written word and of abstract thought more accessible to the reader. Like Professor Dolan Ryan, he talked about compression and how with writing, and especially with poetry, less is often more. I annotated all over the poem we focused on and was inspired not only as a writer, but as a teacher. His workshop was so important on so many different levels, and it’s always wonderful to talk with brilliant people, and he is absolutely brilliant. Dr. Martin Dyar’s profile and brief biography are featured on the Poetry Foundation’s website.

We broke for a quick lunch. I had ice cream. What an amazing, incredible day! And I was only halfway through it.

After lunch, my group had our final Core Workshop with Dr. Kerry Neville, titled Writing Memoir and Longer Fiction.

kerryneville Dr. Kerry Neville was beautiful and honest and brave and vulnerable, and just an artist in full. She had us write a story about ourselves to introduce ourselves and really demonstrated the magic in a good story and what it can do to create an understanding and a sense of community between people, specifically between an author and her readers. She really emphasized the point that no matter what you write, it’s your job to get it right, to give the story the dignity it deserves. Dr. Kerry Neville also had us bring in important photographs and write a sentence or two about why there were so important to us. I had a picture of my maternal grandparents celebrating St. Patrick’s Day some years ago, and I wrote about the connection between them and Frank McCourt and sharing literary aspirations with my grandfather. I was honored and blessed to have the moment to give credit to Grandpa, who left us far too soon and was always so supportive. I like to think that he would be proud and we would have been incredibly close as I got older. And I owe Dr. Kerry Neville for sharing her knowledge and passion, and for allowing me a platform to do the same. She is a wonderful woman. Dr. Kerry Neville’s website is here.

We ended the day at the Swift Hibernian Lounge, where we were treated to an intimate concert with Pierce Turner.

Pierce-on-puck-fair-counter WOW. What a performance. What an experience. Pierce Turner’s lyrics were poignantly beautiful and incredibly intelligent. As I sat beside an Irish filmmaker, across from a woman who had studied at the University of Limerick for a year, and next to my colleague, I was perfectly in love with my life. It was amazing and wonderful, and I – again! – am struggling to find the right combinations of words to do the magic of the evening any sort of justice. It was actually as close to perfect as I think an evening can get. Pierce Turner’s official website is here. And this is my favorite song that he played that evening.

Sunday was our last day, and it was bittersweet. New York City always exhausts me and while I was excited to unwind at home, I knew I had been a part of something truly great and I would miss it dearly. I miss it right now.

Our last day started with an awesome lecture by Professor Eoin Devereux, called Waltzing Back: The Cranberries’ “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?”

eoindevereux The lecture was awesome. Professor Eoin Devereux was passionate and knowledgeable, but managed to make everything so accessible. Professor Joseph O’Connor kept calling him a Renaissance Man, and it’s true; he was a treat to listen to and my only regret is that his lecture wasn’t longer. Professor Eoin Devereux’s impressive faculty page is here.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of The Cranberries in my life. When I was a miserable teenager hell bent upon making my mother’s life more miserable than it needed to be, when her and I were at our worst, we could somehow manage to sit together and still share a love of music, particularly that of The Cranberries. My mother introduced me to Dolores O’Riordan’s haunting voice and stunning lyrics, and she played for me her favorite songs.  There’d been several signs from the universe indicating I was right where I was supposed to be, and Professor Eoin Devereux’s informative and entertaining lecture was definitely one of them.

The conference ended at McSorley’s Old Alehouse with a simple brunch. Each of the faculty members read a little something they had prepared and after some merriment muted by the knowledge it was the end, we parted ways. McSorley’s was the perfect establishment for the send off; rich in history and with stories of its own. One of my closest friends in college (whom I named one of my characters after in my novel) worked there for a long time, and her family still owns and operates it. I reached out to her and we reconnected briefly and everything just felt right.

It’d be a horrible, terrible mistake if I didn’t acknowledge Professor Joseph O’Connor, the man who led the way and endeavored to put the whole conference together.

profoconnor His humor and warmth and knowledge set the tone for the whole weekend. He was incredibly gracious and kind, and remarkably talented, and inspiring. Professor Joseph O’Connor’s author website is here.

He spoke about the possibility of studying at the University of Limerick, and encouraged us to reach out to him if we were interested. So I did.

I guess what this whole post has been leading up to is the revelation I came to: I want to study for a year in Ireland. I want to live and write there for a year. And I’ve begun planning to do so.

I’ll keep you updated, as always.

On the ups and downs that inevitably come with change.

Published April 24, 2019 by mandileighbean

Hello, readers! I am super elated to be writing to you from the Sunshine State when I am taking in copious amounts of Vitamin D and time with family, both of which are essential to maintaining good health.

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I know I am not telling you anything that you don’t already know, that you haven’t already experienced firsthand, but the universe in an incredibly fickle place, my friends. Like the late great Frank Sinatra once crooned, “You’re riding high in April / Shot down in May…” because that’s life. I was feeling optimistic about my life and the direction it is heading in until I tried to be honest with someone I loved and the person was dismissive and manipulative, and then I attended a beautiful wedding where I had so much fun I am still sore (and maybe even still drunk), but there was an empty chair beside me. I am on vacation but flinch when I pass a mirror. This all may seem melodramatic and stylized, but E.L. Doctorow once said, “I am led to the proposition that there is no fiction or nonfiction as we commonly understand the distinction; there is only narrative.”

So what’s a girl to do?

Life changes moment to moment; nothing lasts forever and the trick is reminding myself that I believe that’s a good thing. There needs to be some kind of karmic, cosmic balance. You take the good, you take the bad, and then you have the facts of life … right? As corny and clichéd as these quotes may seem, I really think it’s an essential part of survival. People grow and change, so why shouldn’t circumstances? Why do we have this desire to nest and be stuck and comfortable and complacent? Isn’t the discomfort with the progress?

I’m thinking about change (and by extension, the lack thereof, I suppose) not only because of events in my personal life, but because of happenings in my professional life as well. This blog post is supposed to be all about change, like I’m supposed to discuss how my writing has evolved. I had a really wonderful conversation with my creative writing students a couple of weeks ago. It ended with a student-teacher they are convinced is a pimp and a werewolf with some stunning and compelling evidence (he was in a three-piece suit with a pink shirt underneath, with impossibly voluminous hair, and his hands were covered in silver rings which, according to my students, kept him from changing into his true self, a werewolf), but we also talked about scrutinizing our past selves. One of my edgier and more alternative students shared photos on her old social media accounts, where she constantly wore beanies she now dislikes and drew cat whiskers on her face with eyeliner. She was absolutely mortified by the fact that she had gone out in public like that, that people had seen her. I confessed some of my more embarrassing juvenile blunders (as in dressing and looking like the lead singer of My Chemical Romance for an entire year, on purpose) but luckily for me, there was no social media. I think there was MySpace, but everyone was new to pasting ourselves all over the internet so none of us really had anything to be proud of, and now, we all have something to be ashamed of.

But the conversation got me thinking of how we change as time marches on and how more often than not, we’re embarrassed by our past selves. Is it because we’re older and wiser? Or are we just adapting to the social norms and continuing to conform? Don’t you think there’s a certain kind of fleeting bravery in teenagehood, where we truly don’t give a shit and are thereby truly free? Either way, I believe it’s a universal experience to look back at something you were super passionate about and cringe. It happens to the best of us.

This happens when I look back on my first novel, Her Beautiful Monster. That does not mean I am not proud of that novel, because I most certainly am. I think it’s entertaining as hell and there are some turns of phrase in there that are beautiful and fresh and remind me that I have talent. However, at the same time, there are passages that embarrass me. I was so naïve to the whole business of writing, and as far as my personal life goes, I had yet to experience any of that character-building stuff known as heartbreak. I was too young to know better, and sometimes, I catch myself believing that ignorance really is bliss. The more I read, and the more I get to know other wonderful writers, I can feel defeated, like it’s never ever going to happen to me. On my worst days, I tell myself my first novel was a fluke, that the publisher was young and desperate like me, and it was good for the moment but that my writing career has no real longevity. I don’t have any real talent and people were just being nice.

My writing since that first novel has evolved, and that makes me happy and proud. I’m not looking just to entertain, although I hope that will always be my main objective. I have some important things to say, some wisdom to impart, and I’m more cognizant of my process and choices. That last bit is a double-edged sword, though, because I can get in my own way. Instead of letting my hands fall to the keyboard, or instead of just putting pen to paper, I overthink it and make my storytelling more complicated than it has to be because of some critique someone offered years ago.

“Moody Blue,” my second completed manuscript, might never be published. And that would be my own damn fault. I sent it out too early and without any real revisions. The first draft was a god-awful mess. This summer, I might change the title and send it back out, see what happens. Or should I just focus on this new story that I’m working on? It’s so hard to tell and on any given day, I can convince myself that either option is best.

I am so fucking annoying to myself.

But let me end on the positive: my writing has evolved to become more unique to me. My plots are better developed and my characters are more authentic.

Will it be enough to get published? I wonder…

On validation and the kind of truth that hurts.

Published April 11, 2019 by mandileighbean

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Hello, readers. How are you?

About a week ago, I received an email from Tom Strelich (his website is here), author of Dog Logic (which can be purchased here) and one of the judges of the Summer 2018 Owl Canyon Press Hackathon writing contest. I didn’t win the contest (terrible for my ego) and as it took place over the summer, I had naturally forgotten all about it. The email was a surprise, but when I read it, it transformed into the best kind of surprise that leaves you breathless and dancing in your underwear through your empty house in absolute triumph. The email was filled with positive feedback and a remarkably kind offer to review my novel on Amazon and Goodreads, Her Beautiful Monster. He wrote:

You have a really good voice, and those are rare (I read amost 500 short stories for the Hackathon and trust me, good voices are rare!).  From the first few pages I knew I was in good hands. The characters were great and you pulled off one of the most difficult balancing acts for a writer, to make them recognizable and sympathetic yet unique.  You’re a really good writer and I strongly encourage you to keep writing — you owe it to your talent and the reading public (the fraction that doesn’t go for pulpy genre stuff anyway).

You also might consider growing your story into a larger work (e.g., chapbook whatever those are, novella whatever those are, a binge-worthy boxed set, or just a novel).  I ended up doing that with the short story I wrote for the original proto-hackathon —it became the first 3 chapters of Dog Logic, the novel I spun out of it which went on to win several awards and is usually in the Amazon top 10 or so in its category (well, maybe top 20 on some days), so miracles do happen. Or, just cook up a whole new novel from your mother wit, you’ve got the chops for it.

This award-winning author did not have to email me. The fact that he did restores my faith in humanity, which means more than my faith in my writing talent, but it restored that too! His criticism was completely valid. His notes said: “…really good voice but the story isn’t as strong as the voice, but worth an email.” I remember worrying I was rushing the story to fulfill the contest’s deadline, and I remember pouncing on the first idea that came to mind, so the story definitely was not as strong as it could have been, as it should have been as an entry for a contest.

But I thought I’d use this sign from the universe to love myself as a writer more than I have been lately, and to share the story with you.


“In the Pines”

No coverage, not even one bar, the battery was dead anyway. It was still daytime, but there was an overcast and the sky had a perfectly even dullness, so there was no way to tell what time of day it was, much less which direction was north or south or anything else for that matter. A two-lane blacktop road snaked up into the distance and disappeared into some trees, or a forest if you wanted to get technical about it. It also snaked down toward some lumpy hills and disappeared there as well. What sounded like a two-stroke chainsaw could be heard in the distance, but it was impossible to tell whether it was up in the forest or down in the lumpy hills. This had been happening more often lately. Two different ways to go, with a dead battery and no bars, and nobody left to blame.

Madeline turned back to survey the 1985 Cadillac El Dorado. There was nobody to blame, that was true, but if she had to blame anybody, it would be definitely be Steve. He was perched on the hood of the El Dorado, smoking a cigarette. His flannel shirt blew open in the breeze to reveal a dark green V-neck shirt. His jeans were fashionably stressed and if Madeline had been in a better mood, she supposed Steve could have been considered handsome. But they had been traveling together too long for Steve to be anything but a douche bag. He’d led them here, to the middle of nowhere in West Virginia from the comfort of their cozy shore town in New Jersey, with minimal forethought. It was infuriating.

Here Steve was, pulling over not to ask for directions like he should, but to smoke a cigarette. He never smoked inside the car as a rule because he was worried it might depreciate the value. How that could possibly matter now when the two of them were on their way to deliver it to a buyer was beyond Madeline. Steve’s ad on Craigslist had been abundantly clear; all sales were final and as the money was already in Steve’s bank account, all they had to do was drop off the car and then fly home.

But that was the problem with Steve. He was always focused on the wrong things, the most random details. He had this wild and romanticized idea that this trip would be something Jack Kerouac would be proud of, that he’d learn all the secrets about the universe and his identity. Steve had had a rough go of it lately. He was in between jobs with no prospects of a real career. He’d come out of college with $100,000 worth of debt and a B.A. in English. Steve refused to be a teacher, so where did that leave him? He didn’t know, and the older he became, the more he convinced himself there was nothing special about him. Over beers at the local watering hole that they had been going to since their senior year of high school with fake IDs, Steve confided in Madeline that he was positive this level of mediocrity he was experiencing was as good as it was ever going to get. The defeated way he had turned from her and drank to keep from talking had nearly broken Madeline’s heart. She knew it was mostly self-serving, melodramatic bullshit, but she didn’t want her oldest friend to feel so sad.

The next day, Madeline woke Steve with his favorite breakfast sandwich from the local convenience store. As she plopped down on his bed and tempted him with sausage and egg and cheese on a perfectly toasted bagel, Madeline told Steve this trip might be exactly what he needed to mix things up and get some perspective. She offered to tag along, citing that she could use the different locales for her photography.

But really, the main reason Madeline had agreed to accompanying Steve was because she was sure he’d end up dead without her. He had basically confirmed her fear when, at the last gas station they had stopped at to fill up on fuel, he had thrown out the directions he had printed off of MapQuest. It was a genuine accident – he had only wanted to clean up a bit and dispose of food wrappers, straw wrappers, candy wrappers and the like – but it seemed like a fatal one now that they had no GPS. There was no service on their phones and Steve did not own a standalone GPS, which irritated Madeline to no end considering all the traveling he claimed to do.

They hadn’t spoken since the revelation of the discarded directions, and Madeline would be damned before she would be the one to break the silence. She stood a few feet in front of the car, staring off into the distance, sizing up their options. She had seen the movie “Deliverance,” had even watched “Wrong Turn” through her fingers, and knew they were in trouble. Aside from inbred mutants, Madeline disliked the distant sound of chainsaws coupled with isolation. Though it was warm, she shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. Which would it be, the forest or the hills? As Madeline gazed into the distance, she considered grabbing her camera from the backseat and snapping a few shots. A landscape like that would make a badass album cover or, at the very least, a nice picture from some real housewife’s living room. A crow squawked in the distance and Madeline shivered again. Crows were harbingers of death, and Madeline thought that was a bad sign.

The engine roared to life behind her, and Madeline knew that was her nonverbal cue to climb back in the car as a dutiful but silent copilot. She wouldn’t argue with Steve about the destination, deciding to let him choose and deal with the consequences, deciding to be content with observation and silent judgment. Reaching to turn on the radio, Steve also seemed fine with not talking, with just driving. He twisted the radio knob to move the dial until he found something that wasn’t buried beneath irritating static.

Nirvana’s rendition of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” played through the speakers, and Steve turned it up. He had always loved Nirvana, partially evidenced by his penchant for flannel which had not ended in the 90s. A little too young to genuinely appreciate the artistry and bravery of the band, Madeline was still familiar with the song and its many variations. It had been a crucial element in her favorite murder mystery series on television; it had been the murderer’s favorite song and the clue that gave him away in the end. The reporter unknowingly hot on the trail of the murdered had ended up in his apartment, drinking wine and about to get cozy, when the murderer told her to wait just one second while he set the mood. The murderer went to a room in the rear of his apartment and started playing the song on his record player. It was the same song that had been found playing at all of the murder scenes and suddenly the reporter realized she was in real danger. Long story short, she killed him by plunging a pair of kitchen scissors in the murderer’s eyes.

That association, and the delightfully disturbing lyrics that were vague enough to be terrifying because they left so much to the imagination, aided Madeline in coming to the conclusion that the forest was not the way to go. She turned to tell Steve, but the music was loud, and he was singing along at the top of his lungs. My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me/ Tell me where did you sleep last night/ In the pines, in the pines/ Where the sun don’t ever shine/ I would shiver the whole night through. Steve must have felt Madeline’s eyes upon him because he turned and flashed a gorgeous smile, the kind of smile that could all together kill the tension between them. It was the kind of smile Steve used whenever he needed to end an argument and ensure his victory. When Madeline refused to smile, he lowered the radio and asked her what was wrong.

Madeline said that she thought it’d be best to veer towards the hills instead of the forest up ahead. She told him the sunshine wouldn’t be able to shine through the thick boughs of all the pine trees, and she knew that wasn’t the vibe he was going for.

Steve wasn’t buying Madeline’s offered rationale. For one thing, the day was overcast so Madeline was full of shit on at least one count. Steve pointed this out to Madeline, and furthermore, Steve wanted to know why Melanie was really so against taking the road that led into the forest.

Madeline simply stated it was a feeling she had and that more and more articles were writing about the science behind intuition so if Steve had no strong feelings about it one way or the other, then he should just listen to her. Madeline leaned back comfortably in her seat but shot furtive glances at the radio.

Steve knew Madeline very well, an advantage of being in someone’s life since grade school and asked her if the song was freaking her out. He had come close to the truth, too close for comfort, and her cheeks burned red. She insisted that had nothing to do with it, but then quickly wondered what difference it would make if it had. After all, Steve believed in signs and omens; he had chosen this particular buyer out in the middle of fucking nowhere because the letters in his name added up to nineteen if you could fucking believe it. What a weirdo.

Steve agreed that he did believe in signs and omens but argued that Madeline was misinterpreting this particular sign. What if the song came on the radio because they were supposed to be in the pines? Had she ever considered that?

Madeleine said that was easy for Steve to argue because he wouldn’t be the girl shivering in the pines. Steve only shrugged, offered no real response, so she fell silent and was happy imagining it was Steve’s head caught in the driving wheel that was mentioned in the lyrics. She wasn’t sure what a driving wheel was, and the context clues from the song led her to deduce only that it had something to do with a train.

The song ended and was replaced by some soft rock songs. Melanie was staring out the window, gazing at the landscape flying by. Steve was working his way through their most recent candy purchase. They drove on like that for a while, each silently stewing, as they traveled into the forest, into the pines.

At some point Madeline fell asleep, ironically wondering what it was about traveling by automobile that made passengers so sleepy, and she only woke up once she realized the car was no longer moving. She sat up straighter, momentarily concerned by the pain in her shoulders and back. She regretted not clearing off the backseat and stretching out to really get comfortable. Madeline was going to turn and yell at Steve for stopping and for keeping all of his shit on the backseat. Apparently, the nap hadn’t eased her crankiness.

But when she turned to look for Steve, the driver, to see what was going on, he was no longer inside the car. That explained why they were stopped. Steve was standing outside the car, his door still open, so that all Madeline could see was his waist and legs. She asked him what was going on. She wanted to know why they had stopped.

Steve lowered himself so he and Madeline could make eye contact. He looked annoyed, but only mildly so. He encouraged Madeline to climb from the car and to see for herself. He then stood and resumed staring, dead set on offering Madeline nothing. She resigned herself to taking his advice and climbed from the car. More than curiosity, Madeline was eager to stretch out and ease the throbbing pain.

There was a train stopped on the tracks before them, but there was no closed gate with flashing red lights and there were no dinging bells. There was no aluminum sign painted bright yellow. There were no warning signs at all, which was incredibly weird. There were also no signs as to why the train was stopped. Madeline asked Steve what was going on, and he was a little crestfallen to admit that he didn’t know. Steve asked her if she saw anything weird.

From her current vantage point, Madeline thought everything looked perfectly normal. So Madeline took a couple of steps forward and then let loose a blood-curdling scream, knocking herself on her own ass. She scrambled backwards until she hit the front bumper of the car, screaming for Steve.

Steve rushed over, asking her what was wrong and if she was okay. Madeline didn’t have words, couldn’t find them at the moment, so she raised a trembling finger and only pointed at the driving wheel located directly in front of them. Inside was a severed human head. Its eyes were wide with shock and horror, most likely both, and its mouth was open to reveal toothless gums. Its hair was shaggy and its beard was curled just beneath its chin. It was grotesque and horrible and Madeline wanted to turn her face away and bury it in Steve’s firm chest, but he was moving closer to the train. He wanted a better look. Madeline told him he was a lunatic, and she tried to tell him this was just like the song, almost exactly like the song, but he wasn’t listening to her rambling.

Steve kept telling her to calm down and he walked closer to the train’s driving wheel with the surprise inside. At first, he thought some kind of improbable and horrific accident had occurred. It was, after all, a railroad crossing with no warning signs of any kind. Essentially, that made the place a death trap. But Steve and Madeline were okay, and Steve kept telling Madeline that. He looked closer and he realized that the victim wasn’t decapitated by the train because there was no way the head would be so in-tact, so pristine. Aside from the bulging eyes, the head looked like it could be reattached no problem and the guy could go back to dancing in no time.

The laceration that had separated the head from the body was neat and even, like it had been made by someone with steady feet and solid ground, operating with deliberateness, the way a lumberjack might begin to cut down a tree. Steve considered telling Madeline all of this to calm her down, but he was too confused and concerned by the scene, and there was no way telling her the specifics of the grotesque scene before them would have worked to comfort her anyway. He called over his shoulder to tell Madeline to get back in the car, but he kept his eyes on the severed head. He was desperate to know how the head came to be where it was, and he wanted to know if someone put it there, and most importantly he wanted to know why this was happening. He had no one to discuss things with, because all Madeline could do was gibber and cry and hold her disbelieving head in her hands.

Suddenly, the sound of a working chainsaw was louder than everything else. It came from the other side of the train, from just a few feet away, and it was enough to send Steve running to Madeline’s side. She was screaming hysterically again, had not moved from the front of the car, and he didn’t bother to shush her. Moving with urgency, he helped her to her feet and told Madeline the plan was to get the hell out of there, to get back to where there was cell phone service and he could call the police. Madeline nodded, unless she was shaking so bad it only looked like she was. Steve was being as gentle as he could, but he wanted to move fast.

Clutching each other as they rose, turning to walk to the passenger side, they were stopped dead in their tracks by the presence of a patrol car. The lights were flashing but there was no sound, and it was parked perpendicular to the road so that the scene was blocked from view and so that Madeline and Steve could not make any kind of exit. The chainsaw had cut off and the only sound seemed to be the sounds of their own breathing. Madeline asked who it was in a trembling voice, but Steve only shrugged. He whispered to Madeline to stay quiet; he was too busy wondering when they patrol car had pulled up, and why the officer hadn’t said anything.

Then the driver’s door of the patrol car clicked open. Madeline gasped and clung tighter to Steve. An imposing-looking man in a khaki uniform with a tell-tale gold star winking in the sunlight climbed from the car. He was wearing reflective aviators, the kind that cops in horror movies set in rural towns always seemed to wear. His mouth was a straight line and with his eyes hidden behind mirrors, it was impossible to tell what the lawman was thinking. Steve didn’t like the uncertainty of it all; Madeline could tell by the way he held onto her. She couldn’t blame him as she didn’t like the way the lawman was behaving. It didn’t make sense.

Instead of running over to see if the kids who had just discovered the severed head were okay, the officer stayed standing on the far side of his car, allowing it to separate him from the terrified couple before him. He greeted them with a thin smile, said howdy, and then asked them what the trouble was. Hadn’t he heard them scream?

Madeline might have laughed if she wasn’t so scared. Steve spoke from beside her, saying they were lost and happened upon the railroad tracks. He gulped before he added that there seemed to be a severed head in one of the driving wheels.

The officer nodded and stepped back from his patrol car, firmly shutting the door. He walked over to them and while doing so, he told them he knew about the situation, that someone had called it in only ten minutes ago. Then why would he have asked what the trouble was? Madeline twisted her head from one side to the other, searching for a nearby residence. There was nothing, just pine trees as far as the eye could see with only the serpentine road running through them. Who could have possibly called it in? Madeline didn’t want to believe the uniformed officer was lying, but what choice did she have? She pulled Steve closer, stopped just shy of climbing inside his shirt.

Steve didn’t say anything, only listened. He knew something was off, but the officer took the silence as a cue to keep talking. The officer told them this was the second severed head reported in just as many months. He explained that as long as he had been on the force, there’d been whispers and rumors about the Butcher Brothers.

The Butcher Brothers were a pair of brothers in matching overalls that didn’t go for shirts or shoes but expected superior service. The one thing they hated more than anything else in the entire world was being wronged, cheated, scammed. Anyone trying to put one over on them was an enemy to be annihilated. The Butcher Brothers deemed any kind of trickery as an insult to their intelligence, which honestly didn’t amount to much but still seemed to count for something to the Butcher Brothers.

The word on the street, or the unpaved roads that served as thoroughfares to and from the dying nearby town, was that the most recent victim (present company excluded) was supposed to bring the Butcher Brothers a car, some kind of rarity, a real collector’s item. The officer explained the car was a lemon, and that the whole deal was nothing more than a sham. The officer had been the one to find the head just a mile or so from where they now stood, and the body was just a few yards farther than that.

Madeline could barely listen, let alone look. All she saw was dark green fabric, and all she smelled was Steve’s cologne and cigarettes. She heard what the officer said, but she didn’t want to process any of it or understand any of it. Madeline only wanted to climb back inside the El Dorado with Steve at the wheel and drive home. She had been short with him, but she would take it all back, especially if he could get them home.

The officer was looking at them curiously, the way a housecat watches a fly she’s been mercilessly toying with instead of outright killing it. He took a few steps closer, and Madeline could hear his bootheels thud against the pavement with a soft but satisfying crunch. He rested his hands on his hips and took in a deep breath like he was settling in and getting comfortable. He asked where the flatfoots were from anyway.

Steve laughed without any humor and gulped. He said they were taking a road trip and were trying to do it the old-fashioned way with maps and atlases, but they got lost and all turned around. Steve asked if the officer would be kind enough to point them back to town and they’d be out of his way. The officer turned from the couple to survey the El Dorado. He asked what year the El Dorado was. Steve was shocked by the question. He couldn’t understand what the year of the car had to do with anything. He lied and said he didn’t know.

The officer didn’t say anything. He stepped even closer and had taken a particular interest in Madeline. He asked if the little lady was alright. Madeline didn’t answer, so Steve spoke up and told the officer seeing the severed head in the driving wheel of the train had understandably shaken her up. Steve continued and said Madeline’s distressing demeanor was all the more reason for them to get the hell out of dodge. He tried another laugh and this one sounded more authentic. Steve asked again for directions back to town.

The officer looked Madeline up and down and then he nodded slowly. He told them that if they went back the way they came, and made the first left onto a gravel road, it would take them all the way back to town. He tipped the hat on his head and walked back to his car so he could move it. Steve gingerly walked Madeline to the passenger side of the El Dorado, whispering a mile a minute that they were going to be okay and that they were going to make it through this as long as they stuck together and stayed calm. Once they were in the El Dorado, and the police cruiser was off to the side, Steve accelerated backwards and made a K-turn.

Madeline was crying softly and Steve promised her it was almost over. Hunched over the wheel, Steve was searching frantically for the turn off. Madeline asked why this was happening to them. Steve had no answers. All he could do was reach over and take Madeline’s hand in his. He brought it to his mouth and roughly kissed the back of it, promising against it was all right and that it would be all right.

In about ten minutes, Steve saw gravel and breathed a sigh of relief. He turned left, going deeper into the pines. The sound of the tires rolling across the tiny stones was music to his ears. To comfort Madeline, he released her hand and squeezed her thigh softly while smiling bright. Steve told Madeline they were on their way, and they’d be home before she knew it. He told her he’d get her whatever she wanted, whatever she needed. Steve told Madeline he’d spend the rest of his life making it up to her if he had to. Madeline turned to him with something like hope etched on her face.

But Steve slammed on the brakes as a wild-looking man came ambling out of the pines. He stopped in the center of the gravel road, forcing Steve to stop right where he was. The man, clad in ripped and filthy overalls but lacking a shirt and shoes, turned to face the car. A crooked, insane smile was plastered across his face and when he turned, he also raised a chainsaw high above his head.

Madeline and Steve screamed until their breath ran out. Madeline was hitting and slapping Steve, demanding that he get them the fuck out of there. Steve told her he was going as fast as he could, and as he turned to reverse, the second Butcher Brother slammed his fists on the trunk of the car. Steve hit his brakes once more and Madeline was beside herself. She was pulling at her own hair, imploring that he keep driving and if he killed the fucking psychopath behind them, then so be it.

The Butcher Brother behind the car scrambled to Madeline’s side of the car. He wrenched the door open before Madeline even knew what was happening. He reached for her hair and meant to pull her from the car. Steve held onto Madeline with one hand and accelerated forward, pushing the pedal down as far as it would go. The Butcher Brother in front of them dove out of the way and the one assaulting Madeline fell by the wayside as they sped forward.

Steve didn’t slow up one bit, not even so Madeline could shut her door. He sped until gravel met pavement. He sent the tiny rocks spewing into the air and the tires squealed as he made a hard left onto the highway. Cars beeped and drivers cursed him, but Steve kept driving for another ten miles or so, until they left the small town the Butcher Brothers called home.

The pair pulled into a gas station and parked beside a pump. Steve turned to Madeline and stupidly asked her if she was alright. Her forehead was bloodied, and her face was a mess of smeared mascara and snot. She looked so pitiful that Steve felt his breath catch in his throat. He thought he might cry. He took her into his arms and he apologized, and he kissed the top of her head. All Madeline said was that she wanted to go home.

The pair walked into the store attached to the gas station and asked to use the phone. The confused cashier handed over his own phone and asked if everything was okay. Madeline started crying again. Steve wrapped an arm around her and told the cashier he was calling the police because they had been attacked. The cashier paled and said he’d be back in a moment with the manager. Steve nodded and told the voice on the other end that he needed a patrol car immediately. He couldn’t say where he was, but he could tell the operator where they’d come from and what happened.

Madeline stepped away from Steve and towards the glass windows that made up the entrance of the store. There was a crowd gathering outside, gawking at the El Dorado with the dent in the trunk and the front doors open and the out of state plates. The police would come but Madeline didn’t think the crowd would disperse. If anything, she feared the crowd would grow and swell and then Steve and Madeline might never be able to leave.

But the police were able to make the crowd scatter. They promised to file an incident report and took their contact information to keep the pair updated on any future developments. Steve and Madeline were free to go. Steve purchased a carton of cigarettes and an atlas. Madeline purchased some candy and before they left, she took Steve’s picture beside the El Dorado. It was a handsome portrait, better than an album cover or average landscape.

They made their way through the crowd, and back to the El Dorado. And as they approached it, a crow flew directly over their heads and landed on the hood and then looked at them. They stood some distance away and watched the crow watching them. Another crow flew directly overhead and landed beside it. The first crow squawked and then both flew away. They watched the crows disappear, looked at each other, and then got in the El Dorado. Only one way to go this time, with five bars and full battery.

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