The Next New Year

Today I am hosting the neighborhood book club meeting and have been working since 7 a.m. trying to get the house ready. I’m not planning anything fancy (some of my neighbors have done fabulous book-themed soirees), but there is still the setting up of chairs, getting the wine and drinks prepped, ice in the ice bucket, glasses out on the counter, vacuuming of the living room, and many other things that weren’t on my to-do list but reared their ugly heads once I started to look around the part of the house we’ll be using.

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I’m secretly pleased with myself that it’s taking so long, because that means I’ve let a number of things go in the “fanatically clean and organized” department since I’ve started writing. My mother would be shocked at my lackadaisical attitude toward clean counters and floors and the accumulation of dust, but I’m reveling in how good it feels. It’s a sign that I should let go of even more because I still feel like I’m giving short shrift to my writing time. I think this small revelation will go into my blessing jar.

I haven’t written on the blog for a long time, for many reasons. Writing the first draft of the novel (finished) was central on my radar. I lost my father in November, which wasn’t that traumatic but is worthy of a blog post or essay in the near future. Then the holidays, of course, which is no excuse at all. All to say that writing regularly in this space is one of my goals for 2014. While writing was supposed to be only a one-year sabbatical, it has turned into a permanent situation for me, thanks to the support and understanding of my composer husband. It would be foolish for me to let this gift lie fallow.

Onward.

The Gravity of Resistance

The wheels came off my writing last week. Simple as that.

I’d been making good progress on my manuscript. I’d been working every day, letting the story flow through me, not looking back. And – miracle of miracles – I’d avoided falling into the trap of reviewing what I wrote (and thus, wanting to revise). I was successful in pushing myself forward, just putting down on paper whatever came to mind.

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But then I stopped.

There’d been no emergencies, no hiccups in the daily routine, no emotional upheavals.

I just stopped.

At that moment, I recognized it for what it was: Resistance.

But while I looked Resistance in the face and acknowledged it, I did little to stop it. I basically let Resistance barge its way in, like a relative who arrives to spend one night and ends up taking ownership of the house.

How many times have I read about Resistance in Steven Pressfield’s wonderful book, The War of Art?

How much do I need to study it before conquering the bastard?

Here’s the secret: the bastard will never, ever, go away. One can only defeat Resistance on a day-by-day basis.

As is sometimes the case with Mr. Pressfield’s teachings, I somehow needed to hear that come out of his mouth rather than read it in print.

Mr. P. was the guest on last Sunday’s “Super Soul Sunday” program on OWN, Oprah Winfrey’s TV network. She and Mr. P. sat in the shade of a pepper tree on her farm in Maui, where they talked about several concepts from The War of Art.

I would have appreciated the interview more if Oprah hadn’t interrupted Mr. P. so often (a trait that niggles my annoyance button), but we still got a few of his powerful, practical nuggets of wisdom for breaking through Resistance.

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Resistance is the gravity that presses down on us, keeping us from reaching our higher, more noble self. Think of Resistance as a wall that has been constructed to block your way each time you try to rise up out of yourself to achieve a new level of creativity.

Resistance is strengthened by the molecules of Ego. Remove Ego from the equation and that wall called Resistance becomes much more porous and easy to slip through.

The interview is worth watching in its entirety; you’ll find it here.

I wish that Steven Pressfield had his own television show. There is too much “inspiration-driven” content out there that dissolves into the ether the moment a program ends. Mr. P. is a natural teacher and is a breath of fresh air, with practical, no-nonsense, “get your ass in the chair and do it” advice. It’s the wisdom that most of us need to help us get out of our own way and make a difference in this brief lifetime.

My novel is waiting.  Time for me to tell my Ego to take a hike and say hello to my higher, Nobler Self.

Today, I will beat Resistance. Today, I will be a Professional.

Today, I will write.

Snapshots: The Sharpshooter

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Gardner stepped down from the wagon and stood in a pool of blood. The stench of shit and decay hung heavy in the early morning mist.

“I don’t know that I can do this, Mr. Gardner,” said O’Sullivan, frozen in his seat.

“Aye, you can.” Gardner removed the grey raincoat he’d purchased just before leaving Glasgow and placed it in the wagon. He gestured toward a tree a few yards away, directing O’Sullivan to tie the horses to a low-slung branch.

There were still hundreds of casualties strewn about, not all of them dead. Bodies stirred and soft moans floated across the meadow, begging to Christ for a bullet to the head.

Gardner had privately noted this particular spot on the battlefield the day before, when the artillery and cannon fire had driven him to seek refuge back along the perimeter of Gettysburg. Here, two ledges of granite met to form a sharply angled corner. Someone had piled small rocks in the gap between them, creating a wall tall enough to allow a sharpshooter to take aim at the rebel soldiers on the ridge below.

O’Sullivan unloaded the box camera and equipment from the wagon as Gardner stepped gingerly around the bodies, sometimes squatting, cocking his head to gauge angles and perspective.

“Come here, Timothy,” Gardner finally said. He guided his assistant around to stand in front of him and placed a hand on the back of O’Sullivan’s neck. Leaning in to the young man’s ear, he said, “Tell me which one.”

O’Sullivan turned his head away from the clusters of dead men. He stared through the fog, back toward the encampment.

Gardner squeezed O’Sullivan’s neck. “C’mon, lad, bear up. We’re blessed with a break from the rain, but it’ll surely be starting up again, soon enough.”

The assistant turned back and swallowed. “Him. That one there.” O’Sullivan pointed. “He has some blood, but not too much. His eyes are open. And he hasn’t been dead long. He’s not stiff yet.”

“Aye. Good man.” Gardner slapped him on the back.

Gardner strode over to the body, waving for O’Sullivan to follow. Taking the dead soldier’s feet and shoulders, the two men rose together and shuffled toward the stone wall. Off in the distance, they heard the soft pop of a single rifle and indistinct shouting.

O’Sullivan’s face was pale and his arms trembled as they lay the soldier on his back, the heels of his boots scraping against the bottom of the wall. Stepping away, he watched as Gardner arranged the soldier’s arms to give the effect of having fallen backward from a shooting position. Gardner lifted the head and turned the face toward the camera. He pried the mouth open but placed his thumbs over the eyelids, pressing them shut.

“A haunting image is needed but we musn’t take it too far,” he said.

Gardner returned to the group of casualties, picking up a cap, a tin cup, and a leather ammunition bag. “Looks like the officers have already gathered up the guns, Timothy,” he said, scattering his chosen items at the base of the wall, “Please get the rifle from the prop box.”

He took his time placing the gun, leaning it against the wall at an angle pointing heavenward. He walked back and slid the glass plate into the opening at the rear of the camera. Making a slight adjustment to the wooden tripod, he removed the lens cap.

“Fourteen seconds, I should think,” he said to himself, studying the sweeping hand on his pocket watch.

O’Sullivan noted the absence of a uniform on the dead man. “I wonder. Is he Union or Confederate?”

Gardner said nothing until the exposure was complete. “He is what the viewers want him to be,” he finally replied as he replaced the lens cap and pocketed his watch. “Mr. Brady’s orders are for images with broad impact, in order to attract the most viewers to his gallery. And that is what he shall have.”

The back of the wagon groaned as the assistant stepped into the portable darkroom to develop the plate. Gardner walked back toward the rocks and squatted next to the soldier. He slid his hand inside the coat and found a small, half-carved wooden horse, which he first took to be a child’s toy but soon realized was a chess piece, a knight. There was also a sealed letter, addressed to a Miss Clarice Turnbow of Hopewell, Pennsylvania. He returned the items back to where he’d found them.

Gardner checked to make sure that O’Sullivan was still in the darkroom, then walked to one end of the rocky ledge. Leaning over with his palms against the stone, he vomited up the meager breakfast he’d eaten at daybreak. He spit into the dirt. “Good God, Marie,” he whispered in anguish to his faraway wife. Wiping his mouth against the back of his hand, he straightened and made his way back to the wagon.

The mist was lifting and thunder rolled over the ridge by the time O’Sullivan finally climbed into the wagon. Reaching for the reins, he handed Gardner a horseshoe. “Toby threw a shoe on the way down the hill,” he said.

Gardner felt the heft of the iron in his palm. “’Tis a fine job you did this morning, Timothy.” He took one last look at the sharpshooter lying there as O’Sullivan steered the horses and wagon around to head back up the rise. “This afternoon, if the rain holds off, you shall take charge of choosing the next setting.”

“We’ll need to stop by the camp blacksmith on our way back, before lunch,” O’Sullivan said, clicking his tongue at the horses to get them moving.

Gardner straightened his back and closed his hand around the curve of the horseshoe. “A landscape setting, I should think. A few men, a building or two, and a cannon. Mr. Brady will definitely require a cannon.”

*******

This story was written as a flash fiction exercise (less than 1,000 words) suggested by Chuck Wendig at Terrible Minds. Four random items were chosen from a list and were to be integrated into an original story. I chose a chess piece, a child’s toy, an unopened letter, and an iron horse shoe. If you’re interested, you can read what other writers came up with by clicking on the links in the comments of Chuck’s original post.

© Copyright 2013 – Michele Nelson

The Ocean At The End of the Lane: The Novel of a Lifetime

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I have just finished reading Neil Gaiman’s new novel The Ocean At The End Of The Lane for the second time.

It’s difficult to put into words exactly what this story is about, mostly because there are so many dimensions to it. It’s rather like entering a funhouse full of mirrors: You stare at the twisty, curvy, stretched-out reflections of yourself, trying to summon the courage to admit that some of it really is you.

After reading the novel the first time, I awoke the following morning full of long-forgotten childhood memories: Of the weeping willow on my grandfather’s farm that I was convinced could talk to me. Of the painting of a man that my great-uncle meticulously created on the slanted, wooden doors of the storm cellar (replete with pencil mustache and checked shirt). Of the old-fashioned hot air register that allowed me to peer down into the living room from my bedroom, where I watched my parents argue over missed dinners and overly attentive secretaries.

These memories are so vivid they startle me.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane teaches us that sometimes, just the act of remembering will open us up a little bit more to what the Universe has in store.

I am 52 years old and recently began a serious devotion to fiction writing.

I think I waited so long to write because I felt trapped in between the harshness of life and escape into fantasy. Writing stories about people and feelings was too difficult for me, too painful. And the perfectionist in me couldn’t allow for fantasy or escape. I pushed against my heart, keeping my guard up against creativity for fear it would make me vulnerable. Rather than harness the fear, I let it rule me.

But things have changed in the last couple of years, and I owe so much to two men: Ray Bradbury and Neil Gaiman.

Ray Bradbury’s stories were mine to devour, and in wanting more, I was led to his remarkable conversations with Sam Weller. I was flabbergasted by Ray’s utter joy for life, the universe, and the people who populate it. He resonated a rare truth in what he wrote and the way he lived, and it has inspired me to look at a purpose bigger than all of us.

Neil Gaiman is cut from the same humanistic cloth. He is his own man and his own writer, to be sure. But he radiates a similar sense of joy, humor, and a drive to share it with anyone who cares to read, listen, and explore along with him.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is destined to become a timeless classic because Mr. Gaiman has done the impossible: he’s created a portal that every reader will step through and use to reflect upon his or her own life’s story. It is a novel that readers will dive into multiple times throughout their lives, knowing they will come away with yet another, deeper meaning to their time on earth.

Two nights from now, Neil Gaiman will be in Phoenix for an appearance and book signing. I will go, sit quietly, and take in what the man has to say, has to share. And I’ll enjoy absorbing some of the energy that is generated whenever he and his fans get together.

Because so many people will be waiting in line afterward for the book signing, I probably won’t say anything to Mr. Gaiman other than to thank him for his inspiration. I will hand him my already-signed copy of Ocean (my purchase from Porter Square Books). I think I will make a Post-It note with the correct spelling of my name and ask him to personalize it.

OfficeI am 52 years old and I write every day. I finally feel like a freer human being, embracing the darkness and light and joy that have been bestowed upon me by the Universe.

I’m brave in ways that can’t be described, but have their roots in Ray and Neil. Their photos hang over my desk, urging me forward.

Every day, I make good art.