Monday, July 25, 2016

Writing Prompt Monday: No Matter How Hard I Try

The writing prompt: You are a teenager trying to rebel, but no matter what you do, your parents aren't getting upset.

I took a deep breath before turning the knob and pushing through the front door. There was going to be hell to pay, no doubt about it. But I really didn’t care. In fact, I welcomed it. I was as excited for the backlash as a starving man for a cheeseburger.
It’s not so much that I was looking forward to getting yelled at or punished, I was just eager for some sort of reaction. My whole childhood had been spent trying to get their attention by doing good things, positive things, and my efforts had always been met with disappointment or criticism. Nothing I did was ever right. No matter how hard I tried, I wasn’t trying hard enough. No matter how good I was, I wasn’t good enough. So screw it. I knew it was immature and totally predictable from a psychology standpoint, but I didn’t care. If they were going to treat me like a rotten kid, I might as well just be a rotten kid. Maybe then they’d wake up from their dream world and see that I’m actually a really good person.
Mother was in the kitchen, literally pulling a tray of chocolate chip cookies out of the oven. Put her in a poofy dress and a pair of heels, and she’d be a regular June Cleaver. Mrs. Mary Housewife, that was my mother. She was so perfect, it was borderline insane. People weren’t really supposed to be like her. Never a hair out of place or a smudge of lipstick on her teeth. Always gorgeous. Always smiling. Always pushing me to do and be better. God, I resented her.
“Hey, Susan!” Mother’s name sounded foreign in my mouth.
Mother set the cookies down on the cooling rack and turned to look at me, Barbie smile glued to her face. “Hello, dear. How was your sleepover?”
She didn’t even glance twice at my hair. What was going on?
“It was good. Leslie and I had a great time doing each other’s hair.” Maybe baiting her was immature, but how could she ignore the fact that my once long, strawberry blonde hair was now short and Smurf blue?
“I see. Well, perhaps Leslie can come over here next time. Maybe she can help you study for your biology final.” She put another tray of cookies into the oven busied herself removing the finished cookies from the pan. “Would you like a cookie, honey? They’re still hot and gooey.”
“I’m not hungry,” I mumbled as I left the kitchen and went to my room.
The next day at school, Leslie and I stood at our shared locker. Kids shouted and shoved each other around us and locker doors slammed shut in the symphony of high school.
“Hey, Regina, nice hair!” Greg was the hottest guy at school, and though his locker was just three down from ours, he’d never said a word to me.
“Thanks.” I felt heat rising to up my neck to my cheeks, and I brought my hand up to my head. I really did love it, even if it was totally different. Leslie smiled like a dope and busied herself pretending to look for something in the locker.
“Why the sudden change?” Greg slammed his locker and sauntered toward ours. He reached out his hand and stopped just short of touching my hair. Electric currents ran from his fingertips to my head. When he pulled his hand away, disappointment gnawed at my heart.
Be cool, Geena, be cool! I cautioned myself. But how the hell was I supposed to be cool when Greg Owens was talking to me?
“I just got tired of my usual look, thought it was time for a change.” I pulled books out of my locker and hugged them to my chest. “I also thought it’d tick my parents off, but it didn’t.”
“You’re kidding, right? Regina Cabot, honor student, yearbook editor, and student council president actually wanted to piss off her parents? How’d that work out for you.”
Shame swirled in my belly like an angry serpent. He listed my accomplishments as a matter of fact, but to hear them out loud like that made me realize how much energy I had always put into pleasing my parents instead of living my own life and finding my own path.
“I thought they’d flip their lid, but neither one of them mentioned it all weekend. Not one single word. Even when I left blue stains on the shower floor.” Oh, God! Did I really just talk about taking a shower in front of the most gorgeous guy in the world?
“Why were you trying to upset them?”  He leaned on the locker next to mine and bent in toward me a little, as if he had been my best friend for years instead of a hot guy who completely ignored me. Is there a word for feeling flattered and uncomfortable at the same time? Unflattable maybe?
“It’s dumb,” I hesitated, but he waited patiently. “Nothing I ever do is good enough for them, and I’m just sick of it. It’s like they see me as some major screw-up, and if that’s what they think, then I might as well show them what that looks like. I mean, I’ll get in trouble either way, so what do I have to lose?” The words rushed out like a flood before I could moderate or weigh them.
“Maybe I can help. If you go out with me, you’re sure to piss them off.” A crooked smile raised one corner of his lips and his green eyes danced with mischief. It was true. Going out with Greg would definitely drive them up the wall. Greg with the attitude. Greg with the leather jacket and motorcycle. Greg with the 80’s rocker hair that was so retro but absolutely perfect on him.
“Yeah,” I tried to sound casual, “I think that might help.” The bell rang but neither of us moved.
“We’re going to be late, Geen.” Leslie slammed our locker.
“I’ll catch up,” I said without looking at her. She sighed and sprinted down the hall, leaving me and Greg almost alone in the nearly deserted hallway.
“So, I’ll pick you up at seven?” His hand came back up, and this time he ran his fingers through my short hair. I tried not to shiver when his finger brushed against my ear.
“Yeah. Seven is great.” The bell rang. For the first time in my life, I was late for class, and I didn’t care.
At ten after seven, Greg rumbled his motorcycle up my driveway. I had spent the last thirty minutes watching for him from my bedroom window. I hadn’t told Mother or Daddy that I was going out. I wasn’t allowed to date because they thought boys would distract me from my studies. If I had said I was going out with Greg, I’m sure I would have been met with the expected lecture about rules and responsibility, but the expected lecture was not what I was after. No, I wanted full-on World War III.
My reflection smiled at me. I looked fabulous! Since I knew I’d be riding on the back of Greg’s motorcycle, I decided against a skirt and went with a pair of black skinny jeans and a fitted hot pink tank top. The pink shirt contrasted sharply with my Smurf hair and the whole outfit made me feel powerful. My parents would hate it.
I ran down the hallway and past the living room where my parents sat reading the paper. No joke, my parents still subscribed to and actually read the town newspaper like it was 1965 or something.
“I’ll be back later!” I shouted as I neared the front door.
“Just a minute, young lady.” Daddy’s voice was stern. “Come in here.”
I rolled my eyes and went to the living room, ready for a fight.
“Where are you going?” Mother didn’t even bother to look up from her paper.
“Out.”  I looked Daddy in the eyes and searched for some reaction, but there was nothing.
“With whom,” he asked.
“Greg. He’s outside waiting for me, can I please go now?”
He pressed his lips into a thin, white line and I braced myself for the incoming nuclear attack. Outside, Greg revved his engine and honked his horn. Oh, that was sure to get my parents. Anytime we watched a movie with a guy picking up a girl by just honking the horn, I was always lectured about how they would never allow such a disrespectful punk to take me out.
“It’s a school night, you know,” said Daddy.
“I know.” I put a hand on my hip and sighed deeply
“Okay then. Have fun.”
“You’re going to let me go?” As excited as I was about the idea of riding off into the sunset on the back of Greg’s bike, I never expected to actually get to go. I thought for sure this would freak them out enough to lock me in my room until I was twenty.
Mother turned the page of the newspaper and remained quiet.
“You look lovely. Have fun.” Daddy picked up his newspaper and continued reading.
“Okay. Good night, then. I don’t know when I’ll be back.” It was a last ditch effort to rile them up.
“Then you better take your key with you.” Mother laid the newspaper in her lap and smiled at me in a way I hadn’t seen in about a million years. “Your dad’s right. You look lovely, dear. Now, don’t keep your young biker friend waiting.”
Without another word, I turned and left the house. Tears burned my eyes and I blinked them back. What was I upset about anyway? Wasn’t this exactly what I had always wanted? Mousey Regina Cabot was going out, on a school night, with the most gorgeous guy in school. And my parents didn’t even give me a curfew. It was more than amazing. It was a miracle. And it was scary as hell. Did they not love me anymore? Had I done something to disappoint them so much that they decided the best thing they could do was write me off? I hated them for trying to ruin my night like this.
“Wow! You look amazing, Regina!” Greg held a helmet out to me. I considered turning it down, but I wasn’t stupid. I slipped it over my head and climbed on to the back of his bike. The vibrations rumbled up my belly and into my head.
Greg backed down the driveway and as we roared past my house, I took a final look to see if my parents were peeking from a window or the front door. They weren’t.
I held onto Greg’s waist more tightly than I needed to and rested my head against his back. I don’t know why my parents suddenly stopped caring about what I did or how I did it, but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. I was in charge of my own life. I could make my own decisions. And maybe, if I didn’t have to worry about getting yelled at for a bunch of stupid crap, I would have more energy to do the things I really enjoyed.
Greg pulled into a parking spot and helped me off the bike. I took off my helmet and handed it to him so I could try and fluff up my plastered down hair.
“Don’t worry about it. You look great.” He tilted my chin up and kissed me lightly on the lips. My first kiss.
My heart raced so hard I thought for sure it would break my ribcage.
“You hungry?”
“Yeah.” My reply came out a breathless whisper.
“This place has the best burgers. Let’s eat and figure out what to do with the rest of the night.” Greg pulled me to his side and wrapped his arm around my waist as though it was the most natural thing in the world.
I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to skip the burger, get back on his bike and leave everything behind. I wanted to see the world with him. I wanted to kiss under the stars. I wanted to be wild and reckless. But that’s not what I was going to do.
“I have a Lit. test tomorrow, and I really need to review. Could you take me home after this?” We were settled into a booth in the cafe.
“You serious? I thought you wanted to freak your parents out.”
“I do. Or I did. I don’t know anymore. But yeah, I’m serious. I want to make sure I do well on my test for me, not for them. So, even though it makes me sound like a hopeless nerd, I do want to go home after we eat.”
He smiled and took my hand from across the table. “If that’s what you want, that’s what we’ll do. But maybe we can eat slowly?”
“My parents always complain that I’m a terribly slow eater,” I replied.
“I figured this was too good to be true, anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you serious,” he asked. “Regina, you have to know you’re like the most beautiful girl in school. I’ve been wanting to find a way to talk to you since I moved here, but I figured you wouldn’t give me the time of day. I didn’t even think you knew my name.”
“Wait, what?” I bit my lower lip and stared at him, trying to find a crack in his lie. Only, he didn’t seem to be lying. He was sweet and nervous and sincere. “You didn’t think I’d go out with you? Why in the world not?”
“Because you’re So smart and busy and, well, sort of perfect. And look at me. You have to admit, I’m not the preppy kind of guy I figured you’d go for. But when you changed your hair, I realized that maybe there’s a side to you that I didn’t know before.”
“This is so weird.” I took a long drink of water and tried to think of the best way to say what I was thinking.
“What is? Me?”
“No. This whole situation. I’ve been crushing on you like a fan-girl for months now! But you never so much as looked at me and I figured you were just way out of my league.” I blushed. “I can’t believe I just told you that.”
“Scoot over.” He came around the table and slid into the booth next to me.
“This is a weirdly poetic situation, isn’t it? We could have been coming here, together, for months if either one of us had just gotten past our fear and said something to the other.” His arm was heavy and comforting around my shoulder. Heat radiated off his neck.
“It’s weird alright. But good.”
“So, even though your parents aren’t mad about you seeing me, you want to go out again?”
I looked into his green eyes and my heart soared. “Yes. Definitely.” This time, I lifted my face to his and kissed him. My second kiss.
Our food came and we ate slowly, nibbling and laughing our way through the night, until we both agreed it was time to go.
“You’re gonna rock your Lit test tomorrow,” Greg said, helping me off the bike. “Let me know how it goes.”
“Thank you for understanding.” I hugged him tightly.
“Nothing to understand. You have to do what you have to do. I’d be a jerk not to support you.” He hugged me tighter and I felt safe and warm encircled in his arms. I didn’t want him to let go. But eventually, I had to.
“I had fun. Thank you for dinner.”
“See you in the morning!” He swung his leg over the seat and the engine rumbled to life. “I’m not leaving until I see you’re safely in the house. I’m a gentleman like that.”
In the house, I leaned against the door and listened to him ride away until I couldn’t hear him anymore. The television was on in the living room. My mother was lying with her head in my father’s lap as they watched some crime drama.
“Did you have fun?” Mother asked.
“Yeah. A lot.” My lips still tingled from our parting kiss.
“You’re home earlier than I thought.”
“I have a test in the morning I need to study for.”
“Well, goodnight, dear.”
I never figured out what made my parents let go of the reins so suddenly, but I’m glad they did. I aced that Lit test, by the way, along with all the rest of my finals. And the best part is, I did it for myself, not to try and please them. Greg and I have been going strong for nearly a year now, and sometimes he still looks at me like he can’t believe I picked him. I know exactly how he feels.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Mental Constipation

Ask any writer what their least favorite, most dreaded phrase is, and it's a fair bet most would say "writer's block." Anyone who has ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard knows how awful it is when you know that you need to write but you can't find the right words to use.

We are wordsmiths. Say that word aloud. Wordsmith. Feel it form in your mouth and think about what it means. We are in the business of using words to create worlds. Words are our tools. We wield them like weapons, we wrap ourselves in them like a grandmother's quilt. Probably, most of us prefer writing to speaking nearly 100% of the time. I've known plenty of writers who prefer to handle business via email but few who prefer to actually pick up the phone and have a conversation. Words, reading them and writing them, are as necessary to me as drinking water. Words have given me escape in times of turmoil and stress. They have given me comfort in times of fear. They have given me an outlet when I felt trapped inside my own head, and perspective when I felt like everything was spinning out of control.

Unfortunately, being a wordsmith isn't glamorous or sexy. It's hard work. The words don't always cooperate. Sometimes they run away and hide. Or they stand there, defiantly just out of my reach. Or they run all over each other and I can't seem to put them in any kind of order. Sometimes, instead of a writer or wordsmith, I feel more like a word wrangler. I imagine myself, dusty and hot, standing on the edge of the Rio Grande, trying to wrangle defiant words safely across the river so they can take shelter and grow fat on the other side.

I'm not sure that non-writers understand that writer's block happens at all stages of the writing process. If you ask someone to visualize it, I think the most common image of writer's block is that of the frustrated writer, staring at a completely blank screen or a fresh page in a typewriter, unsure of where to begin, unsure of what's about to happen. But it can happen twenty-five thousand words into a novel. It can happen when you've outlined, it can happen when you think you know the ending. Hell, it's happening to me right now, and I'm just rewriting the thing. I know all the major plot points, I know how it'll end, I'm almost halfway through the re-write and I know what needs to be done, I just don't know how to make it happen.

It's not so much writer's block as it is mental constipation. I know that stuff is in there, working and churning, it's just not ready to come out yet, even though I'm bloated and trying to force it. It's awful and somewhat terrifying. I worry I might explode. I worry that I'll never find relief. I worry that if I push through, what comes out will not be at all satisfying. That it will, in fact, just be a half digested pile of crap.

So I look for something else to write. Something that will maybe loosen up the works. I do writing prompts or I work on a different project. Or I come here and make metaphors about cowboys and shit because being a writer at least gives me the ability to make ridiculous metaphors to entertain myself.

If you're a reader, how do you envision writer's block? If you're a writer, how do you combat it?

Monday, July 18, 2016

Writing Prompt Monday: Home For Christmas

I'm going to try something new. Every Monday, I'm going to post a writing prompt and the resulting short story. This week's prompt came from Reedsy Prompts. The story is actually a mash-up of two prompts because fiction is slippery and even when you think you know what you're going to write about, the story has other plans.

The Prompts:
1. You find a stack of Missing Persons news clippings under your parents’ bed. All with your photo.
2. You decided to read a book about hypnosis. After reading the book, you realize your spouse/parents have been using hypnosis on you for years.

Home for Christmas

I waited for the garage door to clang shut before peeking through the living room curtains to watch my parents pull out of the driveway. It hadn’t been easy to convince them to let me stay home alone, even though I was twelve and was, like, the most boring kid I knew. They were just so protective of me.

The heater kicked on and a gust of wind rattled the windows. The blizzard hadn’t hit yet, but it was supposed to blow in by six o’clock. The clock in the living room read three thirty-seven. They said they’d be home by five, but the way my dad drove, I could easily cut half an hour off of that time. I had to hurry to make sure I covered all my tracks.

Christmas was a week away, and I was on a quest to find my gift. I don’t know what possessed me to lie to my parents so I could go snooping around, but now that they left me alone for the first time, I sure as heck didn’t want to spoil the opportunity. Who knew when I might get this chance again? Santa Claus is Coming to Town was playing on the home audio system my dad bought for himself last Christmas. A small pang of guilt hit my heart like an icicle, but I shrugged it off and made my way to the den.

The den seemed like a stupid place to hide a gift since I was in there all the time, but then again, my parents often said that the best place to hide something was in plain sight, so who knows. Maybe something would be hidden in there after all. The book I had just finished reading, The Barking Dentist: How to Hypnotize Anyone, was still on my favorite reading chair. My parents tried to make me return the book without reading it because they said it was nothing more than pseudo science.

“Woo,” my mother had said. “Pure, ridiculous woo. Just like auras and palm reading. You’re too smart to waste your time with such nonsense.” But I held my ground and they eventually gave up, though every time they saw me reading it, they made snarky comments.

I searched the top of the bookshelves, inside the family desk that was used mostly for paying bills and writing thank you cards, and in the antiques hutch. Nothing. No sign of a gift anywhere. Okay, so much for the “in plain sight” theory. Next stop: my parents’ room.

The song on the streamed radio station changed to I’ll Be Home for Christmas. I don’t know why, but that song always made me sad. I blinked back my tears and pushed my parent’s bedroom door open. The room was huge, and there had to be about a zillion places to hide presents. If I had been smart, I would have come here first instead of wasting time in the den. The clock on the night stand warned me that it was ten to four. I had to pick up the pace. My best bet would probably be to work from the back of the room to the front.

Their bathroom had a ginormous walk-in closet that they both shared. Seriously, that closet was bigger than my bedroom. Not only did that seem like a great place to hide a new laptop or karaoke machine, but it was in the very back of the room. If they came home while I was in there, I might not hear them in time to get out. Then they wouldn’t trust me to stay home alone again until I was thirty.

The built-in drawers reminded me of a dozen pale mouths refusing to open up and share their secrets. They were easy enough to open, though, and in the end they had no secrets to reveal. The shelves were as dull as the drawers. After ten minutes, I had to admit that the closet contained absolutely nothing of interest to me. My parents were so boring!

Back in the main part of the bedroom, I felt myself pulled toward the four poster bed. Like everything else in the house, the bed was huge. From nowhere, a memory of when I was about six hit me. My mother had strung rope between the posts and then hung sheets from the rope, which made a cozy fort out of the bed. I used to pretend I was in the Captain's cabin on a pirate ship. Every now and then Mom would knock on the wood footboard and ask if the Capt’n was ready for a snack. I’d shout “Aye!” and she’d pass crackers and juice to me. She was so different, so fun, then. Now all she did was volunteer to every committee under the sun. And she totally flipped her lid if I even took a single step out of the kitchen with a snack. Food in bed was like the biggest sin I could commit as far as she was concerned.

I got down on my knees and peeked under the bed. Two long, shallow storage containers rested like little coffins in the dark. I pulled them both out. My heart raced. This was it. One of the two containers had something for me. The green clasps on the first opened easily. I pulled the lid off and cast it to the side. Shorts, tank tops, bathing suits. Nothing but summer clothes. I straightened out the clothes, so it looked like I hadn’t been rifling through them, and slid the little coffin back into the mausoleum.

After the continued disappointments of the afternoon, I didn’t hold out much hope for the second box, but I had to check. My heart thundered in my ears as I removed the lid. More summer clothes. Darn. I carefully moved the clothes around, and my hand brushed against something papery. A manila folder. My throat went Sahara dry and I licked my lips. My hands trembled as I pulled the folder out of its hiding spot. This was no present. It was also none of my business. I should just put it back. I looked from mysterious file to the clock. If my dad drove as fast as he usually did, they’d be home within ten or fifteen minutes. I really should put everything back the way it was and settle myself into a book before the garage opened. But I couldn’t will myself to tuck the folder back into its resting place.

I opened the file and gasped when I saw my own face staring up at me from a newspaper clipping. I dropped the folder and dozens of articles and fliers, all with my face, fell to the floor. I picked up the nearest one and stared, stunned thoughtless. It took a moment for my brain to decipher the words on the paper, but when it finally did, something in my mind clicked and I understood.

Name: Marcie Snow
Age: 9
Sex: Female
Last Seen: December 20, 2013

Oh my God. It was me. It was a younger me, with a different name, but it was me. There was no denying it. “Marcie Snow,” I whispered to my younger self. “Not Emily Whitmore.” Tears burned trails down my cheeks as I gathered the articles and fliers. I shoved them all back into the folder and carried them to the den.  I picked up my hypnosis book and hugged it and the folder, to my chest. No wonder they had pitched such a fit about me reading that book. They were afraid I’d find out the truth, but they couldn’t forbid me to read it because they never forbade me to read anything, even Stephen King. But why wouldn’t they just hypnotize my desire to learn hypnosis out of me? They were clearly skilled. They had me convinced I was theirs. They implanted all sorts of false memories, like the pirate ship bed. I didn't have an answer, but I did know I only had moments to decide what to do. Should I put everything back and try to act normal? Just carry on with my life like nothing was wrong? Should I confront them? Something else entirely? I wished for some sort of sign. And then I got one.

Sometimes, with streamed radio stations, different versions of the same song played within a few songs of each other. My dad hated it when that happened, but I liked being able to compare the styles. After Santa Baby ended, I’ll Be Home for Christmas came on again. Without thinking twice, I put on my snow boots, coat, and scarf. I took one of the missing person fliers and set it on the desk and walked out the front door. I didn’t bother to lock it. I gripped the folder in my gloved hands and walked as quickly as I could toward the next street. I had to get off of this street before they drove by.  It was dark, and the roads were all mostly deserted. It shouldn’t take me long to get to the library. From there, I could get help.
The wind almost tore the folder from my hands, but I managed to hold on to it.

“I’m coming home, Mom and Dad!” I hoped the wind would find their ears. “I’ll be home for Christmas!”

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

When I'm Feeling Stuck

This is my all time favorite quote about writing:

"You have a right to write it.Throw it out, rip it up, swallow it down.Build up a capacity to bear up--don't let fear ruin your writing life."
-Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

Perhaps I should turn it into a meme or something pretty, but I'm actually trying to write right now. I'm feeling stuck, so I looked up to this quote, which I printed in red and taped to my Wall of Notes and Inspiration.