Open and Honest

One area in my life that I’ve been pushing myself to improve is my total lack of social skills. I am an introvert almost to the extreme, and often find myself content with no other company than my few closest friends. Building new relationships is excessively difficult for me.

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I think one of the reasons I find it so hard is that I kind of hate myself. I see myself as a whiney and annoying person with nothing intelligent to add to a conversation and a waste of space in the room. I labor under the assumption that pretty much everyone else secretly agrees with my self assessment, but are too kind to tell me they’d rather I left. So I leave without being asked. I slip away to be by myself where I’ll read or write or knit or whatever.

Most of this self abasement was encouraged in my upbringing by the way the household was run, and during the darkest periods of my struggle with Depression have led me to some very ugly thoughts. Today, the people closest to me often tell me that I hate myself more than anyone else in the room. I question the complete validity of this statement, but I see what they mean anyway. It would seriously be hard for anyone to dislike me more than I do.

Building relationships with the mental handicaps of Anxiety and Depression, along with my severe introversion, is a steep upward climb, but I recently had a breakthrough that I hope will become a new pattern.

My husband and I have changed churches. Again. These past two years have been the most up, down and unsettled period of my life. Though Timothy keeps telling me that now it’s safe to settle for at least the next three years, I haven’t seen enough in writing to convince me to unpack my emotional suitcase. So when kind and friendly faces in our new church body opened their arms to welcome me, I wanted to walk into them, but also wondered what was going to happen to their presence in my life come September. How much do I open up to these people? How much do I fight against my fears of rejection, only to meet with loss on the other end? Because one thing I’ve noticed in the last few churches we’ve gone to, is that once you’re no longer a member, the people who seemed to care don’t care anymore. It’s like you’ve switched from the goth click to the cheerleaders and you’re dead to all that’s past. All the trying, all the fighting against myself to get close to strangers becomes another example of people not actually caring about me, another example of my not being worth anyone’s time.

But what I’m now realizing is that I’m half the problem, maybe even more than half. My fear of rejection keeps my relationships shallow. Why should anyone miss me when I leave the room? They don’t know me, because I fear being known.

And here I am, standing in front of a woman who wants to get to know me, and I’m stuck. Yes, I’d love to go for coffee with you. It would be good for me in so many ways, and you’re being so loving and kind, but how do I tell you that, despite my being an adult, I don’t often drive places on my own? How do I tell you that I have such crippling anxiety disorder, that I’m afraid to schedule coffee with you on a day when I can’t rely on my husband to be around to prevent me coming home to an empty house?

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My new solution. I just do. I just say it, and hope that, if you really want to get to know me, you’ll help me think of another way. So instead of just telling her the easy bit about not having access to a car, I hear myself admit to her, “I have anxiety disorder, and driving is one of my triggers. I don’t really drive more than 20 minutes by myself right now.” And she says, “I’ll pick you up.” And she says, “I can drive you to the church where your husband is.”

Another falsehood I was taught as a child was that I was never supposed to talk about my mental health issues. It’s a secret that I’m ill, meant for just me and my doctors. So the worse my condition got, the more my relationships withered, the less I wanted to try. People don’t understand, I thought. I’m in the way. They must hate me. I’m such a nuisance. I wish I wasn’t me.

The thing I’m learning, a lesson I can take with me even if we do switch to another church in six months, is that a lot people are willing to help and want to understand, but they can’t do either if I’m not willing to be honest.

Honesty. It makes sense, really. Isn’t honesty a foundational pillar of any lasting relationship?

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Being Brave and Letting Go

Brave art is beautiful art.

My husband reminded me of this after I bemoaned the increasing number personal elements that seem to be creeping their way into the short story I’m handing in for my Fiction Writing class. About an hour ago, I finished my third draft and had so much of my own self and struggles leaking through my fingers into the keyboard that I literally started to cry.

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No, I screamed at me in my head. No, you can’t do this. You know why? Because what if they hate it? What if they say, “people don’t really do that” or “this scenario is so unrealistic”  or “why is she so upset about something so minor?” You know you’ll just run from the room sobbing. You could barely control your emotions BEFORE pregnancy. Now? Now you cry when Han Solo says, “I know.”

I know.

It’s like when that quiet girl from the back of the classroom stumbles in late to Intro to Creative Writing with a tearstained copy of her latest poem:

It’s Over

Weep, weep, weep
Weep on my unrelenting river of tears
Stream that red, red, red
from the bloody bleeding heart he left behind.
We’re done.
I’m undone.
My bosom is heavy with an empty chasm for a heart
Tears, tears, tears
I’m such a miserable fool.

Suck or not, who has the heart to tell her to trash it when you can barely hear her read it over her piteous wails. I mean, look at her bloodshot eyes! Do you really think she slept last night? *The moon shakes it’s head, for it has born witness to her lonely howling.*

Granted, my story isn’t so overt, and thank God I’ve not been told I must read it aloud, but I’m in there. I’m screaming through the characters mouths. I’m laying curled up beside the abandoned child, grasping and clutching at that empty pocket of warmth left behind in the blankets. And it’s scary to be so seen in such an unseen way. No one in my class knows me. No one will see me there in those words. Nothing will hold back their “this sucks” or “what the *&%$ is this #$%@?” That’s good in a way. I mean, the truth needs to be told to me, or I’ll never improve as a writer. But even as healthy as the truth is, it can also be terrifying and humiliating.

Maybe that’s why I hated this story so much when I started, because I always knew it would turn into something more.

Come Friday I’ll have to let it go; I’ll have to watch it fall from my fingers into the hands of 15 strangers who will be reading between the lines of my life armed with a red pen.

This is terror. This is bravery. This, I guess, is art.

To Turtle, or Not to Turtle?

I’m not accustomed to this level of praise from anyone but my husband. My professor is holding out my short story to the rest of the class, my √++ a loud red against the white paper. It’s screaming, “loved it” almost literally, because that’s what he’s written next to my grade.

“Look at the format. This is what you need to do. The heading there, in MLA. And it’s six pages, so now what? She just has to hand in four more and BOOM! she’s done with her portfolio.”

I can’t make eye contact with anyone, barely even my friends. I don’t know if I’m smiling or just red and blotchy. If I am smiling, there’s a good chance it looks arrogant and cockeyed because I can’t tell if I’m pleased or I want to vomit because I’m embarrassed. I thrive on positive encouragement. In fact, I can take nearly any criticism if it comes with a dose of hopeful praise or a sincere, “I love you.” I just get it so rarely that when it comes, I don’t know how to handle it. Usually when he’s reading my stuff aloud, even if nobody knows it’s mine, I turtle. This is when I pull the neckline of my shirt up over my face so the tip of my nose is covered, and stare vacantly across the room at some lonely piece of dust. And for a moment…we are one. Sometimes I throw shade and do this when somebody else’s stuff is being read, just in case anyone’s watching and has caught on to my tell.

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me turtling

I read my story to the group, that’s how it goes for the stuff in workshop. It’s the first piece of prose I’ve handed in for Creative Writing. I wrote it early in the semester, but it took me weeks to convince myself to hand it in for critique. I’ve LITERALLY been having nightmares about this moment since I passed it out. The windowless basement classroom becomes the ninth circle of hell, my professor is Virgil, telling everyone my sins of shitty writing while my classmates chew on what’s left of my hopes and dreams, like Satan on the head of Judas Iscariot. The only reason I didn’t have to come into class with a large consoling cup of peppermint tea (a necessity for my Sci-fi/Fantasy Class) is because I sneaked a peek into his stack of papers and already knew he’d given me an A. *crosses herself and looks gratefully toward heaven*

Just him alone, I can swallow the negative critique. He’s published about 6 collections of poetry and, obviously, knows his stuff. If he says it sucks, I cry a lot, pick up the pieces, learn and grow. But for some reason the critique of my peers just scares the crap out of me. I mean, there’s so many of them, and just one me. And I’m thirty years old for crying out loud! Most of them are barely legal. How freakin’ sick would it be for me to burst into tears in front of them. (“Don’t mind me. I just paid all this money to find out I suck. Thanks for making my Mother right. Again…”)

I finish reading (badly) and he starts up again. More or less, he had nothing negative to say. Just a few suggestions and pointing out of silly mistakes. He praised my use of figurative language, dialogue, alliteration, and verbs. He said my story made him laugh every time he read it. He even praised things that I thought I did poorly. I was worried that my story wasn’t deep or thought provoking at all. I was worried that my characters weren’t dynamic. He mentioned these things, but not in a way that made it sound like it mattered, that somehow my story was still “really good.” He said my piece was excellently staged, “like it could be a scene from a movie. Great use of senses so you feel like it’s real. Like you’re really there.” That’s something about my writing I’m constantly worried about, that my setting isn’t visual enough to draw in the reader.

I’m shuffling and glowing and want him to stop and want him to never, ever stop. I mean, I adored him from the first day. But now? Gosh. He’s on his way to being one of my all time favorites. Honestly, I can’t tell you how much his praise was needed. I’ve had so many down points since the summer. I’ve been fighting and struggling to find my purpose, my gift, what it is I’m supposed to leave behind me. I’ve been told by so many people for so many years that I am this and that. I locked them out, but they are the forever recording in my brain that tells me, You are not enough. You are not enough.

But maybe I am. I’m not Tolkien. I’m not Sylvia Path or Donna Tart or David Mitchell. But I’m me. And maybe I am enough of me to be enough.

Do I think I’ve arrived? No way. I mean, this is INTRO to Creative Writing. Maybe next semester I’ll have a Prof who hates my stuff. Writing is a thing that you’re always learning how to do better, and I’m still so new at it. I know my novels need a ton more tweaking before I should try my hand at querying again. But at least now I have some concrete assurance that I don’t completely suck at this. And sometimes, that little something can be everything.

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So I read, “The Shining”…

I scare a little too easily to take much of a shine to the horror genre, but in the past months I’ve been experiencing a severe emotional shakeup that reaches back to the roots of my childhood. All the raw and repressed pain and anger I’m dredging up has been attacking me in my sleep, filling my dreams with rejection and abandonment.

You may think it strange that I chose a time such as this spend my leisure reading on things that go bump in the night, but I did it on purpose. I wanted to be frightened by something that I knew wasn’t real for a change. I wanted to be able to wake up from a nightmare, brush the perspiration for my brow and say, “well, good thing spiders can’t mate with pirañas. Even the mutant ones,” then roll over and return to slumber bliss.

It worked, with a slight misfire.

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I started reading Stephen King’s The Shining on Saturday. I was feeling crappy, so it seemed a good day to spend reading and hiding from people in general. By bedtime, I was a long ways through. It was dark out. My bedside light was on. My husband was reading beside me while stealing glances at the MLS game on the television.

I’d love to tell you exactly what was happening in my mind during this particular chapter, the tension and discomfort I was experiencing vicariously through the poor five year old hero, but it contains spoilers (for those of you who’ve read it, I’ll say “shrubbery” with the high pitched sharp intonation of a knight who says “NI!” and say no more). I squirmed a little on the bed. I was developing that uncomfortable feeling I used to have as a child, like something could come up behind me if I didn’t sleep with my back to the wall. My back pressed firmly to the mattress, I continued to read.

Five pages later, I slowly lowered the book and said, “Hey babe?”

My husband looked at me. “Yeah?” he said.

“This book is scary.”

This didn’t seem to surprise him as much as it had me. Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting it to be this intense. “Yeah?” he said again.

Assuming his apparent disinterest was only due to a lack of communication on my part, I expounded on the current situation with the words, “And I’m scared.”

He cracked a smile. “I’m sorry,” he said, with a sort of amused sympathy.

“What if…” I laid the open book on my chest and looked around the room. “What if we had to sleep with the lights on?” My eyes landed on the closet and I swallowed. “Could we do that?”

I looked back at him. He was just smiling at me. “If you like,” he said. He followed my gaze back to the closet. “Do you want me to open the door?”

“NO!” I checked myself, put my back safely against the mattress again and said, “No. Because I won’t be able to see the bit behind the wall there and…I’ll wonder. No. Better to leave it closed.” I looked back at the book. “And the light on.”

I kept reading, hoping that I would finally hit a spot where things leveled out so that I could repose with a little less fret. I gave up eventually, and spent the majority of the night willing my eyes to stay open in the event of…things. When I did finally sleep for a few hours early in the morning, I had two dreams related to the book. They were significantly less horrifying than any of their predecessors in the last few months. So basically, my plan worked. *gives herself pat on the back*

It was an excellent book by the way and I’m super glad I read it. If you’re not into horror as a genre, but you’re into writing fiction, I recommend getting a copy from your local library and just reading the (not very scary) part one. It was a perfect example of a flawless opening. The background information about the family, including flashbacks, were seamlessly worked in with the current action of the plot, so you never felt slogged down by an “information dump” like you find in the beginning of so many novels. Writing peeps should check that out if nothing else.

So It Begins…

After months and months of nerve induced procrastination, I have officially sent out my first query letters for Us.

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I sent them out last week. My husband wrapped his arms around me, we counted down, and clicked the send button together. Sharon was a major help to me that day, sending me constructive criticism on my pitch which I truly think made it infinitely better. This whole situation is simultaneously exciting and terrifying. I keep reading things that say, “It’s never your first novel that gets published.” Maybe that will be true, but I’ve started putting myself out there and that, for me, is a huge step forward.

Though I did a thorough copy edit of my manuscript before I started querying, I am still printing out drafts and combing over them looking for errors. It’s a little disconcerting that I keep finding errors, but at this point I just correct them and move on. As I wait for rejections responses to come in, I’m digging into my next novel, because if it isn’t this one that gets published, it may be the next one. Thusly and thereforths, I need to keep working.

This road may be long and hard, but I love writing too much to just walk away without trying. And now that I’ve started, there is no way that I’m going to give up without a fight.

Best Laid Schemes…

I’ve been meticulously methodical about sending my novels out for representation to the point where, last month, I called myself out for being utterly ridiculous. And, as J.R.R. Tolkien said,

“It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.”

IMG_5062So, I decided to take March off from writing new things and focus on querying for Us. I knew it would be hard and that I’d be scared and maybe even polish off one or two containers of antacids before April rolled around, but this thing won’t happen on its own.

I started out well. Then one day I unwittingly began to mull over some old cut material from a first draft of my fantasy trilogy. They were scenes I liked and plot points I enjoyed, so I hoped that one day I could resurrect them in something else. I chewed on bites and pieces of them over the next two days until something lit a fuse and my brain exploded.

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It was madness. It was fever. In the space of a week I had over 90,000 words in a document, over 50,000 of that are brand new. And that word count doesn’t even take into consideration the 10k+ that I scribbled into my paper journals. One day I wrote for almost 10 hours straight. When I rose from my desk, I wandered the rooms hardly present, my head was clouded with voices and scenes from another world. I lost tons of sleep, had difficulty entering into conversations that did not involve me talking through the rough patches of my story outline, and ignored my husband when he called me to meals.

Thankfully, it’s dying down now, as I’ve rough drafted all the scenes in my head and thought through the outline enough to know how the story is shaping itself. I’ve got three new characters I adore, one of which is probably my most morally complicated character to date.

So my departure date for the long trip that is the publishing process is pushed back again because I love what I do too much. I sometimes have this morbid sensation that I’m going to die with over 20 completed novels sitting in files on my laptop.

…that being said, I think I’ll work on query letters after I finish writing this blogpost. 😉

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text © Rachel Svendsen 2016

“It’s Braver to Have Climbed…”

Flushed from my successful six-hour road trip to Williamsburg, I decided to tackle the next fear on my list, driving alone. I used to be able to drive by myself for an hour, so that’s all I’m really shooting for. I figure an hour is enough to get me to my parents house or to visit the friends I left behind after our recent move.

I’ve been working on it in stages. I began with driving myself to the library, which is about 20 minutes away. I lengthened that by ten minutes when I started taking the long way home. It was two days since we got home from VA, and I was on my way home from the library. I’m not usually spontaneous, but as I passed the turn off for route 80 I thought of the scenic overlook three minutes down the highway. I imagined myself pulling in, taking a picture of the valley and texting it to my husband with the words:

Guess where I am! 😉 ❤

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I pulled off onto the highway. Pride flushed in my cheeks as I easily merged into traffic. I turned up ABBA and looked for my turn off. It came quickly. I slowed and began the circular assent to the parking lot. It wasn’t until I pulled in that I began to regret my decision. I felt alone and exposed, like standing naked in a den of convicts. I quickly snapped a photo of the view and ran back to my car. I locked the doors (presumably to keep out the invisible convicts), dialed my husband, then hung up after several rings because my GPS wouldn’t tell me which way home was if I was calling someone at the same time. My GPS connected. My vision blurred, and my heart melted and dripped into my stomach, making it churn.

Home was 22 minutes away. 22 minutes of highway driving. The kind I most despise. 22 minutes after I had already been alone in the car for over 30.

I exploded.

My husband called me back at about this moment. I told him I was stranded. That I was a fool. That I needed him to come get me and to stay on the phone with me the whole time until he got there. I cried and shook. Adrenaline surged through me, making me feel simultaneously chilled and hot.

The first panic attack passed as soon as Timothy was on the way. I decided to start driving, knowing that he would only be about 5 minutes behind me and I could always pull over if I needed to. He made me describe the scenery I passed, mostly wet barren trees and massive tractor trailers thundering around me at 70 miles per hour, leaving my little white Honda shuddering in their wake. When I pulled off at the next exit, my GPS decided it would be better not to turn around and get back on the highway, but to go home via strange back roads.

I exploded again.

“Pull into the shoprite,” Tim said. “I’m right behind you. Just wait for me.”

So I did. He pulled in and I threw myself into his arms, pressing my jittering adrenaline fueled hands against his chest. I let him kiss the top of my head and shush me for a minute, then I stuttered, “Do you need anything from shoprite?”

Tim laughed. We went in and picked up potatoes and apples. I was still trembling when we got out of the store and my heart was full of tears. I squeezed his hand.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“For what?” he asked.

“For failing.”

Without pausing for thought, he replied, “A man who climbs a mountain and needs to be rescued, is braver than the one who never even tried to climb.”

I stopped and pressed his lips to mine, kissing him hard and long in the middle of the parking lot, not caring who saw or whose way we were in.

He’s so kind and patient and wise.

Living with anxiety and depression can utterly demoralizing at times. But I’m so thankful that God gave me this man as my copilot. Even on days like this one, when I have to fly solo,  it’s nice to know he’s in the control tower with gentle words of wisdom to help me navigate home.

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© Rachel Svendsen 2015