Writing from a Place of Privilege

I’ve talked about this writer before. But he keeps creeping into my head.

We’ll call him Zack.

He starts off his portion of the conference telling us that he was in our position just five years ago — unpublished, attending a conference as a nobody, waiting for his big break.

I remember my heart leaping. I remember thinking, “Finally! A real person! A writer from the real world!”

Zack deviated from this stance quickly though. He went on talking about what he did when “got serious” about writing. He decided that he’d give himself a year to work on his novel. He quit his full-time job. He sold his vacation home. He sold his boat. He contacted the people he knew from his days of interviewing Madonna and Mick Jagger.

I remember wanting to stand up and laugh. I remember wanting to leave the room.

But I couldn’t stop listening to this guy who was standing in front of a room of presumably talented, committed, amateur writers telling them that in order to “be serious” about their writing they had to find hundreds of thousands of dollars of assets to sell so they could live off the profits in light of abandoning their full-time jobs.

What planet did Zack live on? Seriously. Do you know anyone with two houses and a boat? Do you know anyone who worked in close connection with multi-millionaire celebrities? I didn’t think so.

Of the three conferences I’ve attended over the last few years, Zack’s out of touch advice is one of the few things that has stuck with me. And not in a good way.

In my darkest moments as a writer, I think about his arrogant smirk, his unruly hair, and his smug name-dropping. I wonder if he’s right — if someone doesn’t have six figure resources at their disposal or an “in” with already-famous celebrities, you’ll never make it.

In my best moments as a writer, I picture encountering him at a future conference or event, wearing an outfit from TJ Maxx and accidentally-on-purpose spilling my drink on his designer clothes and monogrammed leather bag. I don’t notice, though, because I’m on my way to be the next keynote speaker.

Anyway.

A few years later, I had a similar experience with a writer who was clearly so wrapped up in her privilege that she didn’t even realize she was insulting me right to my face.

A friend of a friend gave me the name of a woman she went to school with who ran her own local writing business. I eagerly reached out to her with an open mind and excited heart, hoping that at the very least I’d make some new writer friends.

The woman herself proved to be too busy to answer me directly, so instead she referred me to another woman writer she frequently worked with, and the two of us set up a Zoom call (this was at the height of COVID).

I went into the Zoom call feeling confident and optimistic. It’s always thrilling and potentially promising to meet and possibly work with someone who just might vibe with your own writing. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that we simply weren’t on the same page.

The writer (we’ll call her Alyssa) seemed relatively disinterested to be meeting with me. I felt as if I were a sick teenager talking to a doctor at a health clinic who was only there because it was a community obligation. Alyssa reminded me of the popular mean girls in high school — thick makeup, too much product in her hair, and cliche “Live, Laugh, Love” decor in the giant room behind her webcam. She didn’t connect with any of my ideas or my writing style, and while I understand that I won’t always be everyone’s cup of tea, she was passive aggressively insulting about any project I mentioned. To top it all off, Alyssa essentially accused me of having my priorities wrong when I told her that I’d spent money on conferences and a non-credit writing course in an effort to get my work out there and meet other writers. Though she hadn’t expressed any enthusiasm regarding my projects, she continually mentioned her own website and services, which made me feel like she simply wanted my money and didn’t care about anything else.

I was let down after the Zoom call, but still followed Alyssa and her small business on social media, hoping that maybe I could find someone else in her circle of writers that I could connect with.

Again, I was wrong. I could have dismissed the lack of like-minded vibes as a simple difference in priorities and writing subjects, but then one day I stumbled on a blog Alyssa wrote that infuriated me.

The short version — Alyssa suggested that searching for beta readers, accountability partners, editors, agents, cover artists, or anyone else in the creative industry — via websites like Fiverr, Upwork, or craigslist was “dumpster diving.”

Yup.

Those of you on a budget because you’re a student. Those of you with young mouths to feed. Those of you who lost your job because of COVID. Those of you who pay excessively for medications. Those of you down on your luck. Those of you saving for a house or a wedding.

If you use any of these services, Alyssa said that you were “dumpster diving” and didn’t think you were serious enough to be a writer or committed enough to ever have any sort of success.

I restrained myself from immediately clicking the “unlike” button, and instead spent a few minutes checking out Alyssa’s profile. Tall, thin, blonde. Perfectly straight teeth, fit husband. Beautiful, toe-headed children, wearing designer Easter dresses, posed on a manicured, chemically treated front lawn. Towering stone house with double entry doors. Mercedes in the driveway.

What the hell do these people know about dumpster diving?

6.24.22

When I was in sixth grade, my middle school held a mock election. I was eleven years old and what I knew about politics could fit on the surface of the well-worn eraser of my mechanical pencil.

But my parents were voting for Bill Clinton so I did too. I didn’t understand that the point of the mock election was a half-assed attempt for our school to show us how voting worked. For me, waiting in line to check the box next to Bill Clinton’s name just meant ten less minutes sitting in a class.

Later that afternoon, the results were announced. I don’t remember who a bunch of middle schoolers elected fake president that day, but I do remember the conversation I had with a friend as we waited for our buses to pick us up that afternoon.

“Who did you vote for?” “Ashley” asked as we stood under one of the giant oak trees on the school’s property.

“Bill Clinton,” I replied easily.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” she told me disparagingly.

“Why?”

“He believes in abortion.”

“What’s that?”

Something like excitement flashed in her hazel eyes as she opened her mouth to explain. “It’s when a woman has a baby and she decides she doesn’t want it so the doctor rips out its spine and its brain.”

I don’t remember my immediate response, but I do remember being horrified, borderline sick to my stomach. Why would a woman decide she didn’t want a baby? Why would a doctor, someone who was educated and revered, kill an innocent child in such a heinous way? Was this even legal?

“Ashley” and our other friends abandoned the conversation shortly thereafter. They played in the fallen leaves that littered the ground, talked about the upcoming band concert, and crooned to the Backstreet Boys and *NSync on their portable CD players.

courtesy Google Images

As I sat on the bus on the way home, I couldn’t get “Ashley’s” description of abortion out of my mind. I kept picturing evil doctors from horror movies brutally murdering babies. I felt stupid because I hadn’t known what the word meant. I felt guilty and dirty for pretending to vote for someone who believed it was okay to do such a thing. Then I began to wonder if my parents knew about this abortion thing. If they didn’t, should I tell them? And if they did know, did that mean that they were horrible people?

My eleven-year-old brain, which I didn’t yet know was afflicted with anxiety, practically paralyzed me in the following days. My mind kept conjuring up gory images and my already low self-esteem plummeted even lower as I battled with myself over my ignorance towards this new word I had learned. Abortion. Why hadn’t anyone ever told me?

Eventually, this anxiety and self-loathing was replaced by some other middle-school, tween drama, and the horrifying conversation I’d had with “Ashley” that day faded into the recesses of my brain.

It never even occurred to me to question the authenticity of her explanation until years later.

As I grew older, I eventually came to understand what the correct definition of an abortion was. And when I realized that I had spent years believing the foolish and completely inaccurate description “Ashley” had given me, I began to ask some questions of my own.

Who had given her that information? Why did she spew it so confidently, so excitedly, especially when she blushed talking about periods and pads and admitted she wasn’t sure where babies even came from?

I realize now of course that “Ashley’s” supposed knowledge of abortion at the tender age of twelve in the mid-nineties was based on fear and misinformation. Whether she gathered it from her parents, friends, church, or protesting strangers, she was so grossly incorrect that she caused me to question whether I was a good person. Her accusations and pure fictional horror made me question whether my parents were good people.  In some ways it made me question my entire existence, and not in a good way.

Even though I have been unwaveringly pro-choice since at least high school, I never stopped asking questions about the subject – not just abortion itself but everything that goes along with it. Why do women get abortions? Why don’t all women have access to birth control? Why are some people staunch anti-choice? Why do people believe and spread misinformation? What else does Planned Parenthood do? Do taxes fund abortions? (NO!) Why do people feel as though they have the right to make decisions about women’s bodies?

Thanks to my own curious mind and the time I spent volunteering with Planned Parenthood, I know the answers to most of these questions. I acknowledge that some people truly believe that abortion is morally wrong. I acknowledge it and understand that it is their right to decide against it – when the choice is theirs. But no one – no one – should ever be allowed to tell a woman what to do or not do with her body. Ever.

It has been several weeks since the overturning of Roe V. Wade. My rage has diminished a bit but my frustration and worry has not. We cannot afford to be shy when talking about human rights. We cannot afford to tolerate the fear and misguided information that is so readily available at every turn.

Other than donating to Planned Parenthood and voting, I wasn’t sure exactly how to help fight this latest injustice. But I recently listened to a podcast where an OB/GYN provided some really great resources for anyone looking to gather more information about this subject in these trying times.

I feel obligated to share these resources, regardless of however small my online audience may be. Hopefully there is someone out there who learns something, someone who makes up their own mind, someone who gets the help they need.

I need an abortion

Home – National Abortion Federation (prochoice.org)

THREE FOR FREEDOM – three for freedom (Fun Fact: if abortion is illegal in your state, this organization can have abortion pills shipped to you).

Safe Abortion Options Information Worldwide – safe2choose

AidAccess  (options counseling)

WRRAP: Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project

Center for Reproductive Rights

Home (prrowess.org) (this is literally a floating health clinic that caters to individuals living primarily in Texas, Louisiana, and other states located on the Gulf Coast).

Most of these organizations are new to me and I was extremely encouraged to hear that there are so many people out there fighting for reproductive freedom. I really, truly hope that someone out there benefits from this information.

Confession

I have a confession to make. And it worries me a little.

I think I’m burned out.

Not just from the pandemic. Not just from my 8-5. Not just from the months it took to move.

I think I’m burned out from writing.

What I’m feeling is different from writer’s block though. I still have ideas, but I simply don’t have the drive, discipline, or motivation to focus on it right now. And I have no excuses.

When I got word that I won the Children of Steel Short Fiction Contest back in December, part of me felt like that was IT! That was the moment I’d officially “made it.” I’d won a contest, I’d made money with my writing. This was the first step towards becoming at least a part-time freelance, semi-professional writer.

But to be honest it’s been crickets since then — in my head and in the lack of acceptance emails I’ve received from other publications.

To be fair, I haven’t been submitting as frequently as I once was. It’s not because I worry or fear rejection, but rather I’m just plain exhausted by the whole process. Reading the guidelines. Meeting deadlines. Formatting. Emailing. Uploading. Waiting. Logging my submissions and the results.

I’m embarrassed to even admit this, but I’m even finding myself feeling . . . annoyed with writing. I don’t want to read newsletters or blogs. I find that the updates, information, and resources in my inbox from various publications are repeat information to me. I’ve browsed these lists, submitted to these journals, joined these Facebook groups. I feel like I haven’t seen anything new or fresh in quite some time. And I am really, really tired of every. single. event. being. virtual. I get that it’s out of necessity, but I have no desire to stare at a screen for more hours a day than I already do.

Part of me wonders if winning the Children of Steel contest was my peak. What if that’s as good as it gets for me? What if I never get a publisher for Light of the Fire or Rum Buddies? What if I simply don’t excel as a short story or essay writer? What if that thousand-dollar prize is all I ever earn?

Those feelings pushed me to try focusing on something else — querying. I have two novels completed and I’ve sent about a dozen agents my query letter and synopsis for The Month of May. I‘ve had two or three positive, encouraging rejections, but now I’m at the point where I realize I need to change something and/or up part of my game, but how exactly do I determine what that is? I’ve had two other writers look at my query and synopsis for May as a favor — writers I “met” through Facebook groups. Their suggestions were helpful, but different of course. How do I know whose advice to take?
I also have a short list of writers, editors, and agents who will critique queries and synopses for a fee, and while I’m willing to spend some money towards that, I find myself asking the same questions — how do I know which one will give me the best feedback? Who do I trust? Which one do I choose? Obviously I could pay all three of them to critique my submission package, but they’ll inevitably all say something different and I’ll find myself in an even bigger conundrum.

All of these conflicting feelings are exhausting to navigate — and what’s worse, they make me weary of my precious novel, The Month of May. Sometimes I think that May was the first novel that I wrote for myself and that maybe it should never see the light of day. But then I think about how I poured my heart and soul into it and how I rebuilt it from scratch after the great USB crash of 2020. My blood, sweat, and tears is literally in that manuscript and I so desperately want to share it with the world.

Then again maybe May is distracting me from my other finished manuscript, Ocracoke’s Daughter. Ocracoke is on a different level than May. It’s better, sure, but the two are not (and shouldn’t be) in competition with one another. I have a rough query and synopsis written for Ocracoke too, but again, I’m struggling to know how to tell when they’re ready to send out.

And is it a bad idea to query two projects at once?

Whenever I’m overwhelmed by these confusing feelings towards my writing, I find myself wishing I had flesh and blood writer friends. People I could meet up with at the library, at a Starbucks, at a nearby park. People with publishing experience and not just moms and retired teachers who write as a hobby.

I don’t mean to sound condescending towards those writers, but I’ve flitted in and out of groups like that since I was sixteen and I’m ready for something more — I need something more. But every time I think I’ve found a comrade, whether in person or online, it never goes anywhere. I recently signed up for an online writing group and agreed to pay a nominal fee per month to be included in “exclusive” member-only updates and perks. But so far it seems like it’s just an extra newsletter I get every week.

I feel like I’m the new girl in school who is forced to eat lunch by herself every day. I feel like I did back in high school when I didn’t score quite high enough on the AP-English placement test but was bored in basic English class. I feel like Goldilocks searching for that right fit.

I know that most writers go through times like these, and the world is shit right now and I have a lot going on in my personal life, and I’m sure these are all contributing factors. I think I’m most worried that I’ll lose myself as a writer again. I certainly don’t want another ten years to pass me by and realize I’ve not grown at all as a writer. Because all of these complicated feelings aside, writing is still my passion. My heart.

Studio shot of a fish in bowl

At Long Last — an Office!

One of the things I’ve been most looking forward to about our new house is the fact that we’ll have two extra bedrooms — and one of those rooms will be my office.

I’ve been writing off and on since I was eleven, so I’ve scribbled down and tapped out passages and paragraphs in my fair share of random places. First in the margins of my notebooks in school, on the bulky, Windows 95 PC in my parents’ basement, at the dining room table in our old house, or sometimes even on napkins pulled from the center of a restaurant table or my glove box. Most of the progress I’ve made over the last five years took place by staring at the laptop in the dining room or our old bedroom, so I know an office isn’t an absolutely necessity for success, but I’m hoping that having a designated workspace leads to even more opportunities and more publishing credits!

Over the last few weeks, I’ve sorted through the maze of boxes to make the space as usable as possible “for now.” It still contains an old dresser we’re eventually donating, my new (fancy) chair isn’t built yet, and it really needs a coat of paint, but I’m getting there!

My bookcases are assembled and stocked (though I’m almost positive there’s another box of books floating around somewhere . . .), the printer is hooked up, my desk lamp is filled with actual seashells from past vacations to the Outer Banks, and my grandparents’ photo looks on encouragingly from the corner of my desk. I even have a happy little storage box that my husband presented me with as an “office warming” gift when we moved in.

Getting back in the habit of writing has been a bit tough after taking nearly two whole months off to deal with the selling/buying/moving process. And I’m sure it’ll be fragmented for a while as J & I tackle more home improvement projects and perfect our daily routine.

But I feel really comfortable here. Last night when I finished “phase one” of the room setup, I sat in the busted old chair and looked around with a smile on my face for about fifteen minutes, thinking about the fact that I finally had a space to call my own — where I could concentrate, create, and hopefully keep racking up those writing achievements and milestones.

Life in Boxes

We donated half a dozen bags of clothes, made mountains of trash. Talked well into the night about paint colors and furniture, fences and fixtures. Filled cardboard boxes and Rubbermaid bins with pots and pans, Halloween decor, books, and DVDs. Cried over leaving the place where Comet lived and died, where we finally became homeowners.

We held our breath during inspections and appraisals, ranted about the intense scrutiny of obtaining a loan. Dreamed about all we could do with the proceeds from the sale of our first home and visited Ikea nearly every weekend for a month.

From December 14th through December 16th, J and I left our first home for the last time and moved into a new house twelve miles from where we grew up.

It is a bigger house, with a huge yard. It is a quiet neighborhood on a dead-end street. There is a stunning view of the back yard and towering trees from the floor-to-ceiling windows in the expansive living room.

The bathroom and kitchen need to be totally remodeled, and in the spring we’ll put up a fence for our dogs. There are some days where it feels like there is endless work to be done and we long for the consistency and familiarity of our old house.

But this is what we’ve wanted for some time now, what we’ve searched for and strived for over the better part of a year.

The first few days here were both incredibly long and startling short at the same time. The movers we hired handled things at a startingly quick pace, and our old house was emptied and barren in no time. I expected the tears to come for days before they finally did, just a few minutes before locking the back door for the last time.

Our old house, with its narrow, awkward halls and spaces, with its tiny backyard and uncomfortably close neighbors had lots of charm too. Our bedroom was massive — we didn’t truly realize how massive until we wedged our king-sized bed into our new bedroom — as was the guest room. We had beautiful, original woodwork and pretty French doors. There was a decorative fireplace, an expansive attic, and a new dishwasher. Oh, a dishwasher.

The bathroom in the new house was probably last remodeled in the eighties. Though dated, it was functional, but J had to replace the shower head after only three days because the old one essentially only sprayed water at the back wall. The tiny, apartment-sized dishwasher does not work, and the microwave only works intermittently. We’ve discovered rogue wires and questionable outlets, light switches that don’t seem to flick on any bulb, and a cream-colored, beaded dress hanging silently in the hall closet. It’s been a learning curve having to take the dogs out on their leashes each time to do their business, but we keep promising them that a fence will be constructed as soon as spring arrives.

But the Ikea furniture has finally been assembled and our new bedroom is beginning to feel cozy and familiar; both of us have been sleeping soundly. The dogs love playing in the extra space in the huge living room and gazing out the windows. We’ve had squirrels and deer stop by to visit, as well as a neighbor who gave us a Christmas card and a pretty seasonal decoration.

It’s nice to have an open, double-wide driveway where we don’t have to maneuver a crowded alley in order to park, and there’s so much closet space I’m not sure what to do with it all. The windows let in plenty of natural light, and the refinished hardwood floors shine beneath our feet and paws. Laundry is a cinch thanks to our huge, high-capacity, high-efficiency washer and dryer, and I cannot wait to finally have my own office where I can read and write and store my massive collection of books.

Christmas arrived more abruptly than normal, considering we moved only ten days before the big event. Somehow we managed to buy gifts at the last minute, mostly thanks to the Hallmark store at the shopping center down the street. I even snagged a potted pine tree on clearance and decorated it with a few red and green bulbs. We’ve decided to plant it in our yard after the holiday, where hopefully it’ll grow for years to come.

My writing has, of course, suffered since this whole process began in October. With so much to do and so little focus, I decided to give myself a break so I could fully concentrate on the migration, packing, and logistics. I do have some big news though — I was the winner of the 2021 Children of Steel writing contest, awarded for the short story I wrote about growing up in a steel town. It won’t be published until sometime in January, but this was a huge deal because it was my very first time getting paid for my writing and the amount was nothing to sneeze at. In fact, I think it may just be enough to get J and I to Holland to see our friends that moved there in 2019. At the beginning of 2021, I set a goal to land my first paid writing job, and even though it didn’t happen until there were only three weeks left in the year, I am incredibly proud and thankful.

The writing bug is starting to creep back now that we’re officially in our new home, and although there’s still boxes to unpack, walls to be painted, and neighbors to become acquainted with, I’m trying to get back in the habit of sitting down at the keyboard for at least a little bit of each day.

So many projects floating around in my brain — home improvement, novels, queries, and short stories alike.

When People Don’t Like Christmas

Halloween has been over for a little under three weeks, and like clockwork, half the population is already decorating trees, shopping for gifts, and singing carols. It’s almost as if Thanksgiving isn’t even a holiday anymore, but rather a mile marker leading up to the alleged “most wonderful day of the year.”

I’m not going to criticize people who love Christmas, especially when these last few years have been incredibly rough for most everyone, and I don’t think it’s right to slam people for whatever brings them joy.

That being said, I’ve realized that whenever I try to explain to someone that I’m not a huge fan of Christmas — or any holiday for that matter — they look at me as if I’m admitting to being a serial killer.

I’ve written about my lukewarm feelings towards Christmas plenty of times in the past, and while I do always manage to conjure up some holiday spirit for a few days, I simply can’t get on board with the weeks upon weeks of Jingle Bells, festive lights, and organizing gifts for everyone from the mail carrier and the dog groomer to your great aunt once removed who lives 1500 miles away and you see once every seven years.

I’ve spent a lot of time dissecting my complicated feelings towards (most all) holidays over the last few years, and while I initially thought that there had to be something deeply wrong with me to not get all wide-eyed over fireworks, huge family meals, and giftwrap, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m certainly not alone in this arena.

Many people struggle with complex emotions when it comes to holiday — whether it’s a birthday, Memorial Day barbecue, or celebrating a parent on Mother’s or Father’s Day. While it’s “normal” (or more socially acceptable) to look forward to these occasions with excitement and love, many people voice their own trepidations about holidays if you really take the time to break down the ins and outs of such occasions.

This topic has been on my mind earlier and perhaps more often than usual, because as I type this, something pretty huge is pending in my life. I don’t want to “jinx” anything right now by giving too many details, but I can definitely tell you that holidays will most certainly be on the back burner in more ways than one this year.

I’ve jotted down some reasons and observations to help those “Buddy the Elf” people understand why us “Grinch” people might not be super enthusiastic about the Christmas season:

  • Holidays are Stressful!
    No matter how well you plan, budget, or self-care, adding all the gift shopping, present-wrapping, extra spending, extra cooking/cleaning, eating, social gathering, and decorating is enough take over your life. For someone with any kind of anxiety who struggles to stay grounded on a random Thursday in March, throwing holiday madness into the mix can be downright intolerable. Sometimes avoiding the whole song and dance is easier and more enjoyable for a person with mental (or even physical) health issues.
  • Some People Struggle with Finances
    Again, regardless of how well you budget or plan, holidays can be a huge financial strain. Even if you’re not buying everyone on your list brand new iPads, small gifts add up fast. And even the always-popular suggestion of “homemade gifts” like cookies and ornaments can cost plenty of cash — you need supplies to concoct those DIY trinkets.
    On a personal level, while I’ve had a steady job over the last several years and don’t have trouble paying my bills or buying food, balancing a budget every December is rather tough for me. Both my mom and husband have birthdays in December, and both of my cars inspections are due. Talk about a juggling act!
    Even if you think a person has a nice home, car, and clothes, that doesn’t mean they didn’t just stumble onto some other financial burden that makes gift-giving and charitable donations seem impossible. If someone declines to participate in a secret Santa exchange or a company fundraiser, try to respect their privacy and not make the assumption that they’re selfish or anti-social.
  • Religion
    No matter which holiday you celebrate or which reason you choose to celebrate that particular event/miracle/person, most holidays have religious roots. In a world where religious differences have been the basis of endless violence, wars, and death, it’s understandable why someone might shy away from any association with religion. Even in 2021 people in the United States of America are still criticized for their beliefs or lack thereof on a regular basis. Some people may be embarrassed or even afraid to publicly celebrate their beliefs, and others may be struggling to figure out what exactly they believe or what, if anything, they should celebrate. Whether you’re an Orthodox Jew, devout Christian, optimistic agnostic, or downright atheist, please respect other peoples’ freedoms when it comes to celebrating whatever holiday they choose — or not.
  • Painful Memories
    It’s a terrifying idea to fathom, but sometimes awful things happen on or around holidays. A friend of mine had a house fire a few weeks before Christmas several years ago, and my father-in-law had a fatal heart attack on the night of December 25th, 2008. Needless to say, it took my husband and mother-in-law YEARS before they felt like they could celebrate Christmas again at all.
    If I’ve experienced painful memories like these, I’m sure plenty of other people have had similar misfortunes, and unless you’ve been through something similar yourself, it’s hard to understand how someone could feel so awful when everyone else seems so happy.
  • Family Issues
    Not everyone’s family is picture perfect. Not everyone’s relationship with their parents, siblings, or cousins is stress-free and uncomplicated. While the holiday season is typically viewed as a time to put aside past differences, this isn’t always an option. Sometimes family members can be toxic or downright abusive and cruel, and no one should have to tolerate that regardless of the date on the calendar. If someone chooses to skip a holiday meal or get together because a toxic person will be present, respect their boundaries without judgment.
  • Jobs
    Like it or not, there are many companies out there who require their employees to work 24/7 — including through holidays. My husband works at a hospital, and while his newest position gives him the freedom of being off on federal holidays, in the past he’s had to work an occasional Christmas, New Years, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, etc. My sister also works 3rd shift for a company that never shuts down regardless of the time or day, and she’s missed out on plenty of special occasions. And don’t forget the people doing the thankless work that is the apparent economical backbone of the holiday season — retail employees, bakers, cooks, hotel and banquet staff, etc. Most of these people are working long hours for little money, leaving next to no time for them to enjoy the holidays or see their families.
    I personally remember working at Hallmark in the early 2000s after high school and spending 10 and 12 hour days on my feet, moving at a million miles an hour while customers degraded me and my coworkers for running out of an ornament or certain color tissue paper. I remember sitting in the stock room at the end of the night, desperately trying to help my manager balance the registers while the clock ticked closer and closer to midnight — then having to come in early the next morning to do it all again.
    If you’ve ever worked retail or customer service during a holiday season, it’s easy to see how quickly someone can become bitter about this time of year.
  • Mental or Physical Health Disorders
    I touched on this briefly in reason number one — and if you’ve been fortunate enough to never experience how an anxiety attack, injury, or chronic health issue can upend any plans, especially big ones like holidays — count your blessings. Many times dealing with any kind of ailment, whether it be physical or mental, can drain all of your energy and make the thought of getting dressed, making a side dish, and arriving with prettily-wrapped gifts overwhelming daunting. If someone ducks out of an event early or sends their regrets at all due to an illness, again please respect their privacy and just send good healing wishes.

As I look back over this comprehensive list, it strikes me as interesting that the hardest part about not being gaga over the holidays is other peoples’ reactions to such an outlook. People seem to take it personally if someone declines an invitation or chooses not to bake 40 dozen cookies for strangers. Over the years I’ve found that most of those people who claim to love the holidays because it celebrates hope and goodwill immediately chastise those who don’t necessarily see this alleged “season of giving” in action.

So is it any wonder that people like me grow weary or even suspicious of the “in your face” celebrations?

Don’t get me wrong. I have absolutely beautiful memories of the holidays from my childhood and teen years — sled riding in an old-fashioned toboggan with my cousins, curling up around the fireplace in my grandparents’ basement, venturing into the country to cut down a fresh Christmas tree, thirty people gathering for dinner. And every year I enjoy decorating, exchanging a few gifts with close relatives, and watching Christmas Vacation, Elf, The Grinch, and Home Alone. For a week or two. Before and after that I’m ready to move on and enjoy normal life.

And what’s wrong with that?

Time for Some Book Recommendations!

It’s been awhile since I’ve shared any book recs with the blogosphere, and considering I’m a writer it’s probably a good idea to do that every so often.

At the height of the pandemic, when everything was still closed, I desperately missed popping into the few libraries near my house and browsing the shelves, listening to the creaky floors squeak beneath my feet, and selecting a stack of books to take home and devour. When facilities started to reopen a few months ago, I almost wept with relief and excitement. Even with COVID restrictions and policies, it was thrilling to be able to wander among the shelves again. I don’t consider myself someone who takes libraries for granted (in fact, they’re some of my favorite places to be), but the saying about not realizing what you have until it’s gone is definitely true in this case. I’ll never take advantage of Pittsburgh’s historic, expansive library system ever again.

While I was waiting for libraries to reopen, I stumbled upon an amazing website that allowed me to purchase books from independent bookstores instead of using the “evil empire” and its oh so convenient free 2 day shipping.

Look, I’m not perfect, and I love Amazon as much as the next person, but I’ve been really trying to be more conscious of how often I buy from them and the products I select. After discovering this website I’m about to share with you, I don’t think I’ll ever purchase another book on Amazon ever again.

Bookshop.org is a fantastic website that allows readers to shop online and support indie bookstores. I’ve purchased probably a dozen books from them so far and have never had trouble finding or receiving anything. Their prices are competitive and their site is easy to use. They also send out newsletters with book recommendations so that your “to read” list will truly just keep growing and growing. I highly recommend them to anyone who loves reading or who loves to give books as gifts.

Now without further ado, my list —

  1. The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly: I first read this book several years ago when I stumbled upon it in the library. And OMG this is probably one of THE BEST historical fiction novels I’ve ever read. It is an absolutely epic story that takes place in the late 1800s and follows Fiona Finnegan over the years as she makes her way from a humble warehouse worker to one of the most successful women in the world. Fiona is a stubborn, quick-witted, determined young woman far ahead of her time. Her story includes romance, heartbreak, violence, mystery, and triumph. This book truly has everything — and the best part is that it’s only the first in a three-part series. Though The Tea Rose is my favorite, The Winter Rose & The Wild Rose are fantastic pieces of historical fiction as well.
  2. The Particulars of Peter by Kelly Conaboy: I can probably count on one hand the number of nonfiction books I’ve read that I enjoyed, and this is one of them. The writer takes us with her on her journey of unexpectedly adopting a rescue mutt and spends the next several hundred pages explaining in hilarious, poignant detail about how he proceeds to take over her life. 75% of the book is lighthearted, and even the parts that make you “awww” have happy endings. Don’t worry, dog lovers, Peter and his hoo-man are still alive and well at the end of this refreshingly entertaining book.
  3. (TRIGGER WARNING) This Close to Okay by Leesa Cross-Smith: This is a beautifully lyrical novel that is deep, touching, and complicated. Though it starts off with with a stranger on the brink of suicide, the story that follows is artfully told and explores human nature on a level I’ve never really seen before. Though the ending wasn’t wrapped up with a pretty bow like I prefer, I still really enjoyed this novel.
  4. Her Last Flight by Beatriz Williams: Oh, Ms. Williams has to be one of my new favorite authors. I discovered her a few summers ago when Summer Wives came out and I’ve devoured each of her novels since. Her historical fiction is stunningly surreal and incredibly sexy. This particular book tells the story of a female aviatrix loosely inspired by Amelia Earhart. Like all of Beatriz Williams’ novels, romance, betrayal, mystery, and intrigue await!
  5. Stay by Allie Larkin: Yes, back to dogs. This time on the fictional side. Main character Savannah is a hot mess. After watching the love of her life marry her best friend, she gets drunk and goes on an online shopping binge — where she purchases a dog. What follows is a funny, endearing adventure of self discovery and unconditional love, in more ways than one.

Well there you are. Five more books I personally recommend to keep you entertained as we venture into yet another autumn and winter.

Happy reading!

The Light

All images courtesy of Lavender Leigh Photography

Many moons ago, I mentioned in one of my previous blogs that someday I’d tell you about mine and J’s wedding day.
Since the primary focus of this blog is mental health, it took me awhile to figure out how to fit a wedding into that theme. But in a random conversation today with a coworker, I realized that back in 2013, when much of my life was in turmoil (my job(s), where we’d live, our finances, my self care), our wedding was one of the only things that I remained excited about. Now, looking back eight years later, September 28, 2013 stands out as a bright light in an otherwise very chaotic time.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not a very fancy girl. I didn’t want a ballgown with a corset, I didn’t want sky-high heels, and I wasn’t going to force my bridesmaids to spend $400 on accessories or wear a god awful dress. J pretty much felt the same, so we decided that our wedding day would truly be about celebrating the two of us with 300 of our closest friends and family, and we set to work creating a day that we’d love.

Despite trends, despite naysayers, and despite “proper etiquette,” we spent nearly two years building the wedding we wanted. Our ceremony took place in an old theater, I wore sparkly sandals under my dress, J & the groomsmen had boutonnieres featuring Nintendo characters, and our reception was at a fire hall. While I wasn’t initially a fan of “theme” weddings, we did add some Penguin hockey touches, considering our friends set us up on a blind date back in 2008 because we both loved Pittsburgh’s NHL team.

Even though the months and weeks leading up to the wedding had been a roller coaster ride of emotions, I somehow managed to sleep beautifully the night before. Getting my hair and makeup done went smoothly, as did arriving at the theater to get dressed with my bridesmaids and mom. The photographers showed up on time, my dress fit perfectly, and I wasn’t even nervous while I was waiting to walk down the aisle.
Then, right before my dad and I made our entrance, a fire alarm went off in the lobby. I burst out laughing as an employee raced to silence it, and by some miracle our guests didn’t hear a thing over the music. The quick ceremony went off without a hitch, and we drove to a nearby park to have our photos taken.

There, one of my bridesmaids was really upset that she’d left her bouquet back at the theater. She was nearly in tears, apologizing for “ruining” my pictures. I shrugged it off and we carried on without flowers. No big deal at all.
We had a lot of fun with our photographers, posing formally and funnily, and I have a ton of images to remind me of that day.
Afterwards we headed to the reception hall where we entered to thunderous cheers and applause, and immediately shared our first dance. As Peter Gabriel’s Book of Love flowed from the speakers, tears of happiness leaked from my eyes. I simply could not believe that we were finally married!

The rest of the evening sped by –J’s best man gave a tear-jerker of a speech, I danced with my dad, J & I (lightly) smashed cake in each other’s faces, my sister & maid of honor caught my bouquet. We participated in the dreaded “bridal dance,” an (apparently controversial) tradition very near and dear to my Slavish roots. My dad swung my mom around the dance floor to Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl, & nearly everyone was bumping and grinding to Macklemore. Our guests signed our custom Penguins jersey/guest book and munched on cookies from the famous Pittsburgh cookie table tradition. I remember that there were multiple points during the night where I was so overwhelmed at the amount of people who had traveled from out of state that I burst into tears just seeing their faces. I was so touched that family and friends had traveled so far just for J & I that I couldn’t contain my emotions.

Far too soon, the last song of the night was playing. Our last remaining guests joined us one final time on the dance floor as we cherished the final few minutes of our wedding day.

Afterwards, J & I piled into his Chevy Equinox with our gifts and cards and headed to a nearby Hampton Inn. We were exhausted and sweaty and our feet were killing us, but we were so completely happy. Our wedding was truly one of the best days of both of our lives, and I am so thankful we have such happy memories of that day.

Eight years later, if I had to give any advice to an anxious bride (or groom!) I would say this — stay true to yourselves. Your wedding day is truly the only day that is 100% about the two of you, so take advantage of it! If you like an off the wall idea, use it! If you loathe a particular tradition, scrap it!
If you can’t afford something, get creative with alternatives.
Don’t ask for too many other peoples’ opinions — you’ll get confused and overwhelmed.
Don’t worry about stuff you can’t control. I promise it is NOT the end of the world if your bridesmaids’ shoes don’t match or if someone wears camo pants to the reception.
Go with the flow. Things are going to go “wrong.” But take a breath. Re-center. Go with it. Enjoy yourself!
Pause multiple times throughout the day. It really does go soooooo fast. Take a moment as often as you can to imprint memories in your mind.
Bring (non-messy) snacks! It’s usually several hours between breakfast and dinner.
Make it a priority to eat dinner at your own reception!
Wear comfortable shoes (or bring a back up pair).
HAVE FUN!!

Hope you enjoyed hearing about our wedding day, and hope the pictures made you smile. If you or someone you know is planning a wedding, tell them to check out my other earlier posts with more wedding advice —

Five Details of Your Wedding Day You Don’t Need to Stress Over

6 More Things Not to Worry About on Your Wedding Day



Let’s Talk About Guilt

When I started EMDR therapy several years ago, I was shocked to find out just how much guilt I’ve carried around with me for years over things that were completely out of my control. For the most part, I didn’t even realize that those guilty feelings were part of why I had so many anxious thoughts or negative beliefs.

As I worked through those beliefs with my therapist, I slowly began to understand how I associated certain memories with guilt and finally learned how to stop beating myself up for not only things that weren’t my fault, but for my emotional reaction to events and circumstances. One of the other benefits of confronting those beliefs was that I discovered how to finally pursue aspects of life that were priorities to me and not other people.

It took a lot of practice, and standing up for myself, my time, and my mental and physical health certainly raised a few eyebrows for people who were used to treating me like a doormat. But for the most part I’ve been able to adapt to a life where I prioritize my self above anything or anyone else — and since our society has conditioned us to believe that putting yourself first is selfish, I’ve also learned that doing so allows me to be a better wife, daughter, sister, friend, and employee.

So where do those negative beliefs come from? Past experiences and how we grow up definitely plays into it, but it’s only been over the last few years that society as a whole has begun to recognize how harshly we judge those who put themselves first and don’t always cater to others or even to their jobs or side hustles.

This first became evident in the early days of COVID-19. So many social media outlets were touting memes and videos of how to be productive, stay in shape, and tackle projects during quarantine that those people who may have been using the time for a long-needed rest were accused of being unmotivated, undedicated, or even lazy.

It wasn’t until quarantine bled from weeks to months to years that we started to realize how much we truly need to take care of our mental health and our own priorities before worrying about other peoples’ opinions or all the projects on our “to do” lists.

COVID has certainly made peoples thoughts and opinions on such things complicated — there are those who believe we should just get back to living life with no precautions, those who who feel like we should go back on lockdown, and everything in between. I wrestle with finding a happy medium between these two views almost every time I do something outside of work or home. And yes, guilt, on multiple levels, plays into those decisions too.

Though guilt does not burden me as heavily as it once did, I still find it interesting how much it is an accepted or even normal part of our daily lives.

For example, last weekend my husband and I were working in the backyard. We had a few small landscaping projects we wanted to tackle before autumn in our ongoing efforts to ready our house for sale . . . at some point in the future.
After we’d spread some mulch around our air conditioner and filled in the narrow trench left by the workers who’d installed our new solar panels and underground lines, my husband went into the garage to grab a bag of grass seed. I took the opportunity to go grab a sip of water from my bottle on the porch.
But before I could get there, I rolled my ankle on the uneven ground where grass meets sidewalk and I tumbled in an ungraceful heap to the ground. My ankle and foot began throbbing before I even rolled over to assess the damage, and I managed to scrape my knee on the concrete in the process.
Once my husband emerged from the garage to help me up, I limped into the house to clean myself up and apply some ice to my ankle. Even after concluding that I hadn’t broken anything, I still didn’t feel up to helping J finish the outdoor projects. Instead I sat on the couch with a frozen bag of peas on my foot, wallowing in guilt that my husband was out there in the heat finishing the work we should have been doing together.

Even though I was able to put some weight on my ankle and foot, it swelled up rather badly the next two days. I bought an ice pack, elevated my leg at work, and did my best to stay off of it as much as possible. This meant making quick dinners, not taking any walks, and not going to the pool.

At first I didn’t feel guilty about this. My doctor had said to rest my ankle, so rest I did. And for awhile it worked out that I was essentially chair-bound because mandatory overtime at work came into play, and I spent lots of extra hours at a desk that week.

The following weekend I planned on getting more done around the house. Before 11am on Saturday I’d done the dishes, started laundry, vacuumed, worked on a magazine pitch, and prepped the back porch for painting the following day.
But by noon my allergies were raging. My nose wouldn’t stop running, my chest was tight, I had a headache, and felt foggy-headed. I took some pills and laid down for a nap, hoping that an hour’s rest would rectify the situation. I had so much to do!
Unfortunately when I woke up I didn’t feel any better. I literally could not go more than five minutes without blowing my nose, and it didn’t take long for it to get all red and irritated. Suddenly I was forced to slow down and confine myself to the couch and my bed again — and immediately the guilt started rolling in.

I’d wanted to go to a community day even that my cousin and realtor was holding. I wanted to support her business and contribute to the local animal shelter fundraiser they were having. I needed to go to the library to return a book that was due. I wanted to head back to the pool. I wanted to paint the back porch and finish laundry and polish that magazine pitch.

Instead it was back to wallowing. In between blowing my nose and rubbing my red, itchy eyes, I wondered if I had somehow I had contracted COVID again. I thought about how I was letting my husband down by delaying our house projects for another weekend in a row. And even though my last post was about how it’s okay for writers to not write everyday, I started beating myself up for not finishing my magazine pitch. Like an anxiety attack spiraling out of control, so did my guilt.
I felt guilty for not taking my heartworm-positive dog to the park recently, about wanting to sell our starter home. I felt guilty for not helping my sister enough with her upcoming art show, for not taking advantage of the beautiful day.

Although these guilty feelings do not carry the same weight as traumas do, it made me realize just how prevalent guilt still is in our daily lives.

By Sunday I was feeling better — not 100%, but better. I pushed myself to finish laundry and write a bit, and even did an hour of overtime for work. But for the most part I laid low and took it easy. Another weekend would eventually arrive, and with it, hopefully the time and opportunity to make up for the last crappy two.

And as I sat on the couch, folding socks and sipping ginger ale, watching reruns of America’s Next Top Model on Hulu, I reminded myself again that exactly what I was doing at that moment was perfectly okay.

On Bad Advice

“I want to be a writer,” I’d say — to my friends, my family, guidance counselors, coworkers. Between the ages of eleven and twenty or so, this is what I’d tell people when they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, what my favorite classes were in high school, and what I wanted to go to college for.

And after the muddled confusion and disappointment cleared from their face, they would give me a small smile and reply, “Oh. So you’re probably going to be an Englisher teacher? Or maybe a reporter?”

“No,” I insisted. “A writer.”

At eighteen, I was absolutely terrified over the prospect of graduating high school and facing the intimidating monster that was college. To make matters worse, no one seemed to be able to tell me what to do with my desire to pursue writing. Somehow, even though I’d wanted to be a writer since sixth grade, even though I excelled at English, Literature, and Writing classes, even though people told me, adamantly, admiringly, you should be a writer, no one could tell me how to make this happen.

And the summer that I graduated was such a time of emotional trauma that I didn’t have the drive or confidence to find out for myself.

Fast forward nearly twenty (GASP) years, and part of me wishes that I could tell that eighteen-year-old girl to pursue creative writing. Grant writing. Professional writing. Literature. Communication. I wish I would have told her that the choice of a major didn’t mean she’d be destined for one particular path, but rather that investigating any of these subjects would have opened the doors to several paths — editing, copy writing, technical writing, business writing, journalism. And that yes, even these more “logical” paths might have even helped her craft novels.

You see, up until the last several years, I thought that if you weren’t making money with your writing, or if you didn’t do it eight hours a day, that you weren’t a writer.

When I decided to get back into writing back in 2015/2016, I still called myself an “aspiring” writer instead of just a writer. And it took some time before I felt confident enough to acknowledge that I was truly a writer, despite the fact that it wasn’t my profession and I hadn’t made a single dime spinning these tales.

While this is probably the single most important realization I’ve had over the years, and I’ve inevitably stumbled upon heaps and heaps of advice about writing, the next most important thing I’ve learned is to find what works for you.

If you’re a new writer, or getting back into writing after a hiatus (like me), one of the first things you’ll realize when you start perusing writer websites, newsletters, and Facebook groups is that everyone is full of advice. From Stephen King to Internet trolls whose only purpose is to bash others for having different opinions or priorities, everyone seems to think they know what’s best for everyone else.

And though I’m about to dish out my own amateur, naïve advice, I’d like to think that mine has some merit, if only for the fact that I believe in finding out what works for you.

Naturally, and to the horror of diehard academics, pompous literary geniuses, old-fashioned professors, and ubiquitous Internet demons who lurk on message boards, what works for some people does not work for others.

This is true when it comes to exercise, learning a new skill, dating, paying bills, traveling, raising kids. A routine or method that someone else swears by may not work for their neighbor or best friend or sister. So why would it work for writing?

There are writers who insist that in order to be a “real” writer, one must write every day. Ideally, that would be great, especially if you’re already getting paid for your craft and your livelihood depends on your production.
But what about the young man working two jobs in attempt to pay off his school loans? What about the new mom struggling to put 200 words a day together while catering to a newborn? What about the middle-aged hopeful taking care of their dad with Alzheimer’s? What about the twenty-something coping with PTSD?
Even if you aren’t a writer whose life is currently effected by extreme circumstances, no one’s life or schedule is cookie-cutter perfect.
Even when my mental health is pretty well in check, I still have days that do not allow me to write — when I go to the pool right after work and want to spend a few precious hours with my husband before bed. When family is in from out of town and they want to have dinner. When a friend is having a crisis and they just need to spend a few hours with me venting and eating ice cream. When I bring my dog home from a day-long procedure at the vet and I cuddle up around her in bed, holding her as she trembles through the pain of heartworm treatment.
As far as I’m concerned, attending to other parts of my life does not make me any less of a writer or a “bad” writer by any means.

I am far more disciplined that I was several years ago. I’ve learned to recognize when I need a break from writing, when an emergency or special event takes precedence, and when I’m just being lazy and really need to buckle down and sit at the keyboard.
I still have things to learn and goals I want to pursue. I’m still working on landing that first paid writing job and hopefully an agent or full manuscript request. I’d love to take a class on effective blogging, marketing, and social media presence. I can’t wait until in person conferences are permissible again.
But at the same time I am damn proud of each and every one of my published works. Sometimes I can’t believe that I’ve managed to write two entire novels in as many years.
Yes, I get frustrated, and yes I wish I hadn’t wasted all those years putting my writing on the back burner. But I no longer beat myself up for having a life outside of writing — and I definitely don’t put too much stock in not adhering to advice that simply doesn’t work for me.

Any time I peruse Facebook or Twitter, I see plenty of people, young, old, and middle aged, begging others for help with their writing. Most of them have full-time jobs outside of the craft or personal obligations like kids or aging parents that make it difficult to stick to a routine or to “WRITE EVERYDAY.” Because of this, they feel like failures — and there is no shortage of people who comment insisting that if these people don’t do things exactly the way that they do them that they are destined to fail.

Well, I vehemently disagree. As I mentioned earlier, just because yoga works to keep your best friend in shape doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. Just because some people I went to high school with had kids at twenty-one and twenty-four doesn’t mean I should have. Just because my husband and I own a house doesn’t mean that someone living in an apartment is wrong, or irresponsible or poor.

If writing every day works for you — great. If you can’t start your day without writing 2000 words at the ass crack of dawn — great. If instead you string together 10,000 words every Sunday and don’t write any other day of the week — great. If you stay awake til 1am every Friday evening crafting the perfect opening chapter — great. If you hole yourself up inside the library or local coffee shop, ignoring your cell phone and hunching over a laptop for hours on end — great.

If you, like me, write by the advice of one of my favorite groups, 10 Minute Novelists, and write as much as you can whenever you get a chance — great.

Everyone is fundamentally different — in how they think, how they feel, how they write, how they work. To assume that someone’s lack of success is because they aren’t doing things exactly how you do it is, at the very least, pure ignorance.

As someone who spent an entire decade thinking I couldn’t be a writer because I didn’t pursue a specific major, hold a certain job, or have endless hours of writing time everyday, I would never, ever want anyone else to feel like I did — that I wasn’t worthy of this craft.

Because I am. And so are you.