Ever wonder which train you’re on?

This has been coming up like a portent in my life in one way or another for a few days now: the message behind the oh-so-true aphorism, Man proposes, God disposes. Or, the best-laid plans of mice and men. . .Or the quote I just saw on Twitter: Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters won’t have a title until much later (Bob Goff).

How many times in my fifty-three years of life have I proven this?!

So I wonder why someone’s so bent on sending me the message now.

If you’ve followed this blog, you’d know that I had fifteen years of relatively uninterrupted bliss in a condo at the top of the building with the best friend I’ve ever had, a loud, bold, curious, in-your-face high-maintenance SCARY-smart Siamese cat named Tonka.

Then two years ago all hell broke loose–and a lot of good stuff, too. I defied the odds (and the draconian lender requirements) and bought the house of my dreams–the perfect little bungalow with the big back yard, a half acre backing up to the wooded town swamp right in town. A conservatory/dining room with windows all around jutting out into a back yard right out of a Disney cartoon: deer and bunnies and constant birdsong. LOTS of mature trees, a shaded patio, a lovely bedroom loft, a hammock and a tree swing would come, and I’m still working hard on the creative financing needed to score a white gazebo. Even as I convert the back lawn into an English cottage garden.

My Writing Retreat, right at home.

20180531_180231_HDR

So why have I scarcely moved in? I’ve only just now given up painting the ugly mustard dining room so-I-could-even-use-it myself and hired someone? Every single room (except my loft) the same dull color: I love coffee with two creams but not on the walls.

Tonka was already old; she enjoyed several months having her own back yard, then passed away. A profound depression ensued. And the Goff quote above applies to the sad chapters of life, too: depression has a way of fooling you into not realizing you’re not in it WHILE you’re still in it. Just. . .nothing happens.

I occupied my new house; I didn’t LIVE in it. With nothing painted, nothing decorated my way, and half my possessions still in my parents’ basement, I felt like I was staying in someone else’s house. My sister and a roommate live here, too; the rent was sorely needed to finance central AC and gutter guards and the evicting of seven red squirrels from where they lived in my basement ceiling.

For months I juggled finances and the cat situation: my second cat Peaches was terrified of my sister’s cat, who had to stay cooped up her bedroom all day till she could come out, supervised; both suffered till my sister’s cat, also old, passed away a few months after Tonka. But not till after a bizarre episode when my sister broke up a cat fight and her cat inflicted infected wounds on her hand that turned so bad she was three nights in the hospital and six weeks on a pik line antibiotic!

Then there was a heartbreaking episode with the new Siamese George: we loved him but he was an energy that could scarcely be contained, our possessions in constant danger, and the stress was too much for Peaches, and we had to let him go.

20180519_110551_HDR

I tried to warm up my numb, cold emptiness and assuage the constant ache of a genuinely broken heart with the activity of keeping up a new house. I almost lost my writing altogether. A lot happened but I was on automatic.

FB_IMG_1525913568148

Last summer brought a flurry of joyous family weddings and a new baby in the family, my great-nephew, who is SO clever and engaging and cheerful and funny. Then, one year after Tonka died, the life that was finally being saved and buoyed up with joy sank to the lowest point yet: my brother had stage 4 cancer. Having metastatized from the colon to liver, there was talk of chemo, but he never regained strength, and I knew in the back of my mind what not everyone accepted. He passed away on Christmas.

This time I thought I was going to embrace depression for what it was, but in truth I was in denial mode from day one: I began hiding out at the coffee shop, before and after work, my head down as my writing flowed. Still doing it. But gradually I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself every day, feeling the most gut-wrenchingly angry I’ve ever felt and nothing to be angry at, and spring finally happened.

I’m not done with winter yet

Spring in my yard is, in spite of my half-hearted efforts, pretty spectacular. Tulips and daffodils everywhere, and now, the most fragrant peonies will soon open.
And spring brought the most joyous wedding yet, my (very) young niece. My great-nephew grows and is the miracle that pulled my family through the suckiest winter ever–especially my parents, burying a child.

The dining room is new and waiting to be filled again with the table where I can write comfortably at last–and save a fortune on coffee shop bills. My painter’s taking on the kitchen next. Maybe the ball will keep rolling–I don’t know, life is STILL in flux. But I hope I continue to embrace my new home and allow myself to actually enjoy it, to make plans again, to find peace.

Chapter: not yet named.

 

Am I Ready for a Writer’s Conference?

The answer is yes. I don’t even know you, but that’s the answer. Still, if you’re curious about this infrequent phenomenon or need convincing, read on.

I’m fresh off back-to-back writing workshops/conferences, and I’m geeked and inspired and feeling pretty much like an expert, so I’ll share what I’ve learned for anyone wondering if a writer’s conference is for them.

What a Writer’s Conference isn’t

I stopped going to professional conferences while a grad student in the last century–literary presentations by academics at places like the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Newberry Library. New Historicism textual studies were just taking off and I always came home, my messenger bag stuffed with xeroxes of Shakespeare’s quartos or the title page of some Marlowe play whose illustration I’d colored in out of mild boredom.

I never mingled well afterwards, either, preoccupied as I was with whether there was a run in my unaccustomed-pantyhose or if I’d spill the *&%# punch. Everyone was there to impress everyone else and I could barely walk in high heels. I’ve been to weddings with less ambient tension. I confess, it was about the third time I started ducking out of the presentations in order to check out the awesome museums nearby that I realized I probably didn’t have a future in this particular field.

What you can expect

Well, a writer’s conference is nothing like academia. I’m less shy; others are more at ease to begin with. You could get away with jeans if you look nice; business cazh if you’re pitching an agent. We the attendees speak up more at the talks; we’re there to meet other writers, too, and the organizers know it. Getting to know each other is actively fostered. There is still that charge of excitement running through: many writers are going to pitch sessions throughout the day, those speed-dating table hops where you have ten minutes to try to sell your novel and hook an agent. You see those folks who are pitching off in corners through the day, nervous, silently practicing their 250-words-or-less.

And appropriately, many of the talks address how to craft the perfect pitch or the perfect query letter, for those of us unpublished and looking for agents to guide us through the exacting and competitive world of publishing. Most of the speakers are Real Live Agents, too, the faces on the other end of the monster-scary query letter, but you’ll also find authors speaking and signing their books. Still other sessions may discuss a particular genre or some other aspect of writing and publishing in the 21st century. Your fellow attendees will represent virtually every age group and level of experience, from newbie NaNos to published authors.

Book nerds are in heaven.

Born too early

I am so freaking envious of young writers in the internet age! Time was I wrote long-hand in notebooks in a vacuum; today you have an entire internet community to teach you the craft, to discuss popular books with, to bounce ideas off of. Every tiny aspect of writing a novel is discussed in some forum somewhere: how to name characters and “build worlds” consistently, when you need to do a little research, or when your protagonists won’t vacate your dreams at night. You can learn online how to navigate the worlds of self-publishing or traditional publishing and where and whom to query.

You can write and transmit your story digitally to beta readers you also find online (infinitely better than running your story past friends and relations) without ever getting the entire thing printed out only to find a typo on p.26 and that the pagination went sideways on p.49. Ditto for querying the agents: in cyber-world you can always fix the mistake, and “free” is so much easier than marching a heavy package with your double-spaced, single-sided manuscript down to the post office and paying postage over and over again through the nose.

And when you need a real live comrade in the trenches, the internet can hook you up with local NaNo write-ins or writer’s groups or the occasional writer’s conference. I’ve spent very little money on this whole endeavor of becoming a novel writer again: bought a laptop, a couple of flash drives, and my own domain for this blog. The writer’s conference will become, for you, the exception.

Money well-spent

The conferences aren’t free, and often neither are the pitch sessions, but there’s a whole lot at a writer’s conference that makes it worth the expense. You might spend $100-200 on a local (state) conference, and even more on a national one–plus the expense of travel and accommodations–but no reason you can’t stick with local.

Finding other writers near you and especially practically doubling your number of Twitter followers overnight when you promote each other after the conference is already money well-spent. And following these folks will keep you in the loop on future writer-related events in your part of the world.

Meeting agents, either in the sessions or while pitching them, is probably the most valuable take-away of the writer’s conference. You can read online twenty or thirty times how to interact with an agent and get your query noticed, but it doesn’t really sink in until the genuine article tells it to your face. You get a better appreciation for what their job entails–and what your own job as a writer is.

On the one hand, you’re writing for an extremely competitive market, and your job is to show how your work is fresh and worth-the-agent’s-while to try to sell, and to do it in a few short words, maybe only 250 of them. But on the other hand, your work is valuable: it is, after all, what publishers need, and they are looking for it. And it’s not a lottery; it is possible to do your research online and know what’s selling, what publishers want, and what agents are looking for. (Search tweets for agents’ #MSWL – “manuscript wish list”.)

What does it mean to pitch an agent face-to-face?

Larger conferences might include a couple of free pitch sessions with the different visiting agents, but at the Michigan Writing Workshop it was $29 for 10 minutes with an agent; at Rochester Writers Conference it was $50 for 15 minutes.

Your actual pitch only takes about two minutes! The rest of the time is valuable one-on-one time with professional feedback, whether or not you’re asked to query later. But do research the agent you request (this has to be done ahead of time, at registration)–not all agents represent the genre or audience you’re selling to.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO SIGN UP FOR A PITCH SESSION! Unless your manuscript has been through a couple rounds with betas and several revisions, and probably also a professional free-lance editor (another necessary and worthwhile cost), you’re not going to be ready when that agent says, “E-mail me the entire thing! I’m interested!”

Or you may, like me, have been practicing writing a query because (BONUS advice) it’s a good way to focus your novel’s core points and locate the fluff, and you want to practice your practice query on a pro before you send it out in a written query, and that’s all right, too.

You don’t even have to have a finished (started?) novel

So you show up for the conference with no agent appointments–even better, you won’t have to be a bundle of nerves till the pitch is over! You can sit back and relax and socialize when you can. You may have heard you should bring author business cards to a conference, but that’s an expense you certainly don’t have to pay if you’re not ready. The word is, those cards are more for trading with other authors than they are for the agents anyway–but as long as you jot down Twitter handles, that’s all you really need to keep in touch.

Make sure you know if there will be coffee or not–because if there isn’t, well, you’re a writer and the caffeine withdrawal headaches will ruin your day. One of my conferences included no sustenance at all; the other provided a light breakfast AND lunch. So you can’t assume.

Of course, you’ll also want to suss out parking, how long to get to the conference, and all the usual. Have a pen and a notebook (when do you not?) and soak up the wisdom from agents and colleagues. Usually there are multiple sessions/topics going on so you have to choose the one you most want (you don’t have to sign up or reserve or anything), but wandering in an out isn’t at all frowned-upon, especially since some folks have a pitch scheduled.

Lastly, you may want a watch. At lunchtime I discovered I had a dead phone, the hotel lobby was huge and no clock, and I had a pitch in a couple hours!! I awkwardly had to keep asking various folks until it was very nearly time, when I sat near enough the agent I could tell when she was ready for me. That was a bit of added stress I didn’t need before my very first agent encounter. (My novel wasn’t done, it isn’t cut down nearly enough, but I was asked to query her.)

Google “writing conference” and your state or region, or ask around. There may be a shot of enthusiasm waiting for you one day soon.

All-righty, maybe I’m not the expert yet! Have you been to a conference or two, or more? Please share your advice or your juicy conference story in a comment!

Writing to Exorcise Profound Grief, Part 3

I don’t often write poetry these days, and really this poem was more to be written than to be read–though I have some hard-fought wisdom to share about Exorcising Profound Grief Through Writing:

It doesn’t work.

But writing passes the time, and time, perhaps, helps a little tiny bit. What are those 7 stages again? I’m hitting quite a few of them. Anger: I don’t live in a world without my big brother by choice, and though the hubris of it isn’t logical, the fact does make me angry. And depressed. And even afraid.

And yet, somewhere WA-A-AY deep inside of me is a small part of my psyche that’s at peace, and even grateful. I must be grateful that in all history and in all the world, my brother was given to me, and I walked the earth with him for a time. Maybe soon I’ll be able to write about that.


I turned my back on the sun.
My long shadow drags itself over rocks and freshly-mounded dirt,
and hickory hulls,
Refuses to look up.
My long, dark shadow has more substance than I do.
It finds the cracks in the earth and dives down fast to Lethe.
Silent splash, achingly cold.

I turned my back on the earth.
I walk wooden, work hard, I look sad and cry angry.
No day, no night, nowhwere to hide. So I write.
Got to get away quick and stay gone.
(If I don’t remember, he’s not a memory.)
Always behind my eyes, something behind my eyes,
Maddening. The tight lump high in my throat. Maddening.

Aching somewhere far away.
Maddening.

If I don’t remember you, you’re not a memory.
Never a stupid, hollow mistake, what an obscene and ugly word: memory.
I lose. I lose forever and ever.

I turned my back on the world because you weren’t in it.
You went somewhere, didn’t you?
I stare at a mound of dirt and ache, something behind my eyes.
Because you went somewhere swiftly
And I stayed in no place at all.
Where the quiet comes from,
The cracks to the void at the center of the earth.
The void that was you at the center of me.

–Gabriella L. Garlock, March 2018

Where in your head are your dreams kept?

I sleep weird, so I glommed right onto this article about what parts of the brain are involved in dreaming. It’s really quite cool, go have a look, I’ll wait!

I think it’s interesting that the language region also takes a nap during dreaming, since dreams are filled with moods, sensations and imagery that defy description even after I’m awake–to my eternal consternation. It would be brilliant if we could communicate with some kind of short-hand vocabulary for all the colors and textures of those most-palpable moods and atmospheres in dreams. This is something I’ve always felt was sorely missing from human experience.

Ok, so this is what’s wrong with me in particular

I always wondered what misfiring mechanism enabled me to dream while awake–literally. In the morning, more often than not, my conscious brain wakes up but the dream I was in continues unabated, undisturbed, playing out of its own volition.

Though the moment is ripe for lucid dreaming–stepping in and gently steering–that still isn’t really what it is.

And there are similarities with hypnopompic hallucinations, in that all three sleep conditions fail to continue at the same time. Sleep is generally defined and characterized by 1) being unconscious, 2) succumbing to muscular paralysis, and 3) the intermittent presence of dreams. Sleepwalkers, obviously, lose the second, while those suffering from terrifying hypnopompic hallucinations begin to wake up while still feeling residual paralysis and dreaming other sensation such as a presence–here’s where alien abduction stories get started.

Not an alien abduction story

But my experiences aren’t frightening. I’m fully conscious and able to move, though lying still helps the dream reach its natural resolution.

Given the information from this article I can only deduce that, while my prefrontal cortex is able to assert itself as normal upon awakening, there is still some unusually strong brain system perpetuating the dream state–not the amygdala? There’s little fear happening. The limbic system? If it is, then my cortex is allowing itself to be commandeered by the lesser system, for the experience is genuinely like sleeping dreams: sophisticated, though without language at the moment they’re occurring; atmospheric, a largely passive self, “dreamlike”.

I was already accustomed to something quite similar

I now wonder if my temporal lobe seizures aren’t responsible for conditioning me to experience and maintain the dream even with a conscious mind at play. I’ve called my TLE hallucinations or fugues “being in two places at the same time”–it’s utterly miserable only when my conscious mind, the one engaged with reality, tries to or has to fight the waking dream. Perhaps getting used to my particular seizure disorder is why I don’t panic and destroy the dream mechanism as soon as I awake.

Or maybe I really am experiencing a TLE seizure that begins just before I wake up? If I am, I just have to point out: my seizures are just like dreaming!

But I just don’t know. Disclaimer time: I’m not a medical expert and nothing I write is to be in any way construed as technical enough for self-diagnosis. But this is my experience.

The ancients would have labeled me a mystical saint or a shaman–if I were clever or lucky enough not to be labeled a lunatic or a witch–and would have believed I had a hotline to the divine. Scientists today would point out that the temporal lobe is the seat of religious sensation, and hallucinations there are just that: not divine trances, just a neurological mistake.

I believe somewhere in-between. We all have temporal lobes and the capacity to imagine and even feel a higher abstraction, a divinity. To what evolutionary end? That’s for each of us to decide.

 

Seriously, what have you decided? Have you ever given much thought to how your brain chemistry creates your philosophy of existence? Or do you just have some really cool and bizarre dream experiences to share? I’d love to hear either!

Can you read cursive? Think again! –Resource

(Illustration) Shakespeare wrote in early modern English. Readers of medieval manuscripts have the secondary task of learning what can amount to a different language.

For those of us who are wholly obsessed with the history of writing, with the smell of paper and how to cut a fine quill pen, and for whom an illuminated medieval manuscript is the culmination of human achievement, here’s an article showing great online resources for paleography: reading the handwriting of generations past.

As a medievalist, I studied this stuff in grad school. But my interest began long before that. I’ve even made the arcane ideographic Messenger Script calligraphy central to the story of my novel, so I stumbled on this nice reference while doing some research.

It’s sad to think–if the teaching of cursive has indeed gone the way of sheepskin vellum–that the literacy of future generations will only be as flexible as the number of fonts in their version of Windows.

Monkeys Swinging Through Trees and Your Ability to Parse this Sentence

Fun Language Factoid

Some of my favorite ideas about the brain and language are posited in Robert Ornstein’s book The Evolution of Consciousness: the Origins of the Way We Think. His fascinating theories about the evolution of the human brain are back-engineered from its amazing structural advantages today (e.g., we walk upright in part because it’s air conditioning for the fast-growing human brain. Oh, and humans have bigger butts than most mammals in order for them to walk upright.)

Check it out

The brain region primates developed to coordinate the complex sequences of movements needed to swing through trees is the very part later co-opted for language. The hominid brain expanded rapidly for other skills long before language developed, but when language did become necessary, it was possible because that part of the primate brain was ready and waiting to adapt to the similar task.

Reading this very sentence requires an ability to use rhythm and to suspend understanding until the completion of a task. Our ability to anticipate then assimilate input is what allows us to construct complex grammar.

I wonder if it works on a smaller scale. Is my lifelong love of languages enhanced because I spent most of first and second grade recess on the monkey bars?

One Discovery Can Change All of History

This is a really nice example of how a single discovery or breakthrough can change all of history. Of course, the iconoclasts who love the existing history books have to be flexible and allow it to happen! Cracking the Rosetta Stone: BIG, big deal.  Dead Sea Scrolls: not as earth-shattering as you might think. Go figure.

We’ve had the Voynich manuscript in our hot little hands for centuries, yet because no one had cracked the code, we haven’t known exactly what it was we had. Now because of computers, that may all finally change. As was noted in Star Trek: the Next Generation, “As far as we know, it might just be a recipe for biscuits” (The Chase).

But it will be fun to finally find out.